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10 Key Things You Need to Know About the Vegetarian Keto Diet

Just because you don’t eat meat doesn't mean you can’t try this high-protein plan. Here’s how to turn the keto diet vegetarian.

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Going ketotarian

The diet of the moment is the ketogenic plan—people turn to it to lose weight, to manage chronic illness, or to find a healthier lifestyle. This high-protein plan focuses on meat, however. The goal is to eliminate carbs, jack up the protein, and force the body to burn fat for fuel (instead of its preferred source: carbohydrates). This phenomenon is called ketosis—but the meat focus prevents vegetarians from experimenting with the plan. Now there’s a vegetarian keto diet—dubbed ketotarian—that draws on nonmeat sources of protein. Here’s what you need to know about the vegetarian keto diet. Read the 13 things people get wrong about the keto diet.

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What is the keto diet?

With no carbs for fuel, the body produces ketones by breaking down fats in the liver. This helps burn excess fat and jump-start your metabolism, and it can lead to weight loss and increased energy. There is also an emphasis on whole foods with the keto diet, which means that many types of processed foods are off-limits.

“The original keto diet is extremely high in fatty meats, which is not good for our cardiovascular system,” says Melissa Bailey, RD, creator of the Nourished Fork. “The vegetarian version eliminates these meats and allows for more plant-based options, such as avocado and nuts and seeds. In general, the population is going towards a more plant-based, whole-foods diet, which is why the ketotarian diet is emerging.”

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How does a vegetarian keto diet work?

First, even nonvegetarian keto eaters shouldn’t focus too much on meat: “The misconception that keto diets require huge amounts of meat or meat products may scare off vegetarians, those concerned about the environment, or people that want to eat healthier,” says Bobbie Henry-Barron, a dietitian at the Adult Epilepsy Diet Center at Johns Hopkins University. “A vegetarian version of the ketogenic diet may be appealing for its weight loss and other health benefits.” Check out 12 things that happen to your body on the keto diet.

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Who should consider the keto diet—regular or vegetarian?

According to dietitians, there are several types of people who should consider the keto diet. While many people look to the diet for weight loss, the keto plan has other potential health benefits. Those with epilepsy may see improvement on the diet; people with diabetes may also see drastic changes in their health. However, notes Diane Vizthum, a dietitian at the Adult Epilepsy Diet Center at Johns Hopkins, people with chronic health issues should be under the care of a doctor when starting these programs because of the need to monitor their medications. And, she added, anyone who is undertaking a new diet regimen should make his or her physician aware of it. Find out the 10 things doctors want you to know about the keto diet.

“If you are considering starting any kind of ketogenic diet, you should discuss it first with your doctor. The diet may be harmful if you have existing kidney, liver, or heart disease. If you have diabetes or high blood pressure and are on medications, you should be in close contact with your physician to monitor changes and adjust medications as needed,” Vizthum says.

Mascha Davis, MPH, RDN, a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says, “Following a vegetarian diet is not dangerous and can have many health benefits. A balanced vegetarian diet provides all essential nutrients and is lower in saturated fat.” Learn the 10 ways the keto diet can backfire.

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What can you eat as a ketotarian?

The vegetarian keto diet menu will include leafy greens and aboveground vegetables such as broccoli, asparagus, and green beans, as well as high-fat dairy, nuts, seeds, avocados, berries, sweeteners, oils, and fats. According to Vizthum, ketotarians should ensure that they fit plenty of nuts, seeds (including flax and chia), tofu, seitan, tempeh, eggs, cheese, cream, vegetables, avocados, olives, olive oil, canola oil, and butter into their diets for optimal results. You can make “treats” to help cravings, like chocolate avocado ice cream, from compliant ingredients.

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What should you avoid?

The list is very similar to the regular keto diet (except you’re avoiding meat): Be sure to steer clear of grains, sugar, fruit (except for occasional berries), and tubers, like yams and sweet potatoes, while following the vegetarian keto diet. Here’s what you need to know about the keto diet before you start.

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How can you maintain ketosis?

Just like the regular version of the keto diet, the vegetarian keto diet relies on your food choices to put your body into ketosis. “If you are going to try this diet, I recommend healthy fats such as nuts and seeds as well as avocados. These are rich in unsaturated fats. Try to limit cheese and other saturated fats, as they are not good for our cardiovascular system,” Bailey explains.

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What are the benefits of the vegetarian keto diet?

While the jury is out on the diet’s long-term benefits, dietitians told Reader’s Digest that one of the most beneficial things about the vegetarian keto diet is that it incorporates fresh foods and eliminates many processed foods. “I encourage people to eat a whole-foods-based diet,” Vizthum says. “The parameters of a ketogenic diet are simply grams of macronutrients—protein, fat, carbs. The vegetarian ketogenic diet tries to also focus on the quality of foods eaten, increasing the micronutrient content of the diet.” Read more about 10 surprising health benefits of the keto diet.

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How challenging is the vegetarian keto diet?

Those who are doing the vegetarian keto diet will have to pay extra attention to what they are putting in their mouths, says Davis. “It can be harder to manage your diet because you might have to spend more time calculating your carbohydrate intake and spend a lot of time planning meals and considering the foods you are eating. Many plant foods contain carbs, so it could be challenging to stay balanced, satisfied, and achieve ketosis,” she says.

Another challenge, Vizthum adds, is not falling into the trap of eating foods that may be compliant but aren’t actually healthy. “As with any diet, the label itself does not make it healthy. The labels of ‘vegan,’ ‘vegetarian,’ ‘keto,’ ‘gluten-free,’ and many others include a range of food choices that fit the standards of the diet but aren’t necessarily healthy,” she warns. This is especially true of processed foods that may carry these labels.

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What are the risks?

As your body adjusts to the plan, you might experience headaches, mental fogginess, dizziness, and irritation in the first few weeks. There’s a phenomenon known as keto flu—brought on by your body switching over its fuel source; the symptoms can include fatigue, nausea, and cramping.

In the long term, dietitians warn that you could experience deficiencies in nutrients. “When eating a very low-carbohydrate diet, it is possible to become nutrient deficient because many of the food groups from which vegetarians get their nutrients (whole grains, legumes, root vegetables) are eliminated,” Davis notes. “So by eating vegetarian and keto, you could be at risk for nutrient deficiencies.” Learn about 11 hidden dangers of the keto diet.

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Will you lose weight?

“You will likely lose weight on this diet, and if that’s your only goal, then great,” says Bailey. “However, this diet is extremely hard to achieve and maintain. It eliminates a lot of really beneficial foods, such as whole grains and starchy vegetables. Based on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet, one would need to consume 165 grams of fat, 25 grams of carbs, and 100 grams of protein. This is unrealistic and also very unhealthy for our bodies,” she says.

Davis echoed those sentiments. “The ketogenic diet is highly restrictive and shouldn’t be maintained over a long period of time. Incorporating whole grains, legumes, all types of vegetables and fruits in your diet is beneficial, and long-term restriction can cause deficiencies,” she says.

Some people, however, go into the diet in hopes of controlling a chronic illness or just to ensure that they are eating more whole foods and fewer processed ones in their everyday lives. “How someone monitors their diet will depend on their desired health outcomes. Although there is usually quite a bit of initial weight loss, losing one to two pounds per week is ideal. Any more, and you’re likely not eating enough and the diet won’t be sustainable,” says Henry-Barron. Check out 14 amazing before-and-after pictures of people who followed the keto diet.