Low Carb and Ketogenic Diets for Vegetarians
Low Carb and Ketogenic Diets for Vegetarians
Vegetarian diets generally consist of many high carb foods such as grains, legumes and starchy vegetables. For anyone who is trying to watch their carb intake or wants to follow a ketogenic way of eating, you will find that many of these foods are not suitable for maintaining a ketogenic way of eating. Low carb and ketogenic diets for vegetarians can help ensure you are eating a balanced diet and receiving the nutrients required for optimal health and well being. The risk from following a ketogenic vegetarian way of eating is that your diet may be deficient in essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals. For this way of eating to be sustainable and for it to be healthy for you, this is an area that needs to be considered. Anyone following a vegetarian or vegan diet, may possibly already have deficiencies with essential fats, vitamins, and minerals. This can be even more problematic if you are following a vegetarian ketogenic diet, if you aren’t careful with your food choices.
How can I go strict keto if I follow a vegetarian diet?
Keto can be incorporated into most vegetarian lifestyles. If you are a pescatarian, who eats seafood, dairy and eggs, then you really aren’t necessarily at risk for nutrient deficiencies. Any vegans or vegetarians who avoid dairy, eggs, and seafood, will need to ensure that their diet includes adequate sources of the vital proteins and minerals that are essential for our bodies to function.
In particular there can be issues with your intake of proteins, iron, Omega-3 Fatty acids and Vitamin B12, as our bodies can’t make them and they need to be sourced from particular foods. When it comes to protein, there are actually nine essential amino acids and animal proteins that provide all the essential amino acids that we need, which unfortunately cannot all be provided by consuming plant products.
What can I eat to replace Grains and Legumes?
Vegans and vegetarians tend to rely on grains, legumes, and seeds to get all of the essential amino acids that their bodies need. The problem with the ketogenic diet is that many of these foods are high in carbs and are excluded from a keto diet. Source the essential vitamins, minerals and essential amino acids required through other food sources, so it won’t be problematic. You risk putting your health at risk if you aren’t sourcing these nutrients through particular foods in your diet.
While you are better to get these nutrients from eating real food, in some cases, supplements might be required to ensure you aren’t deficient. This can be an issue with strict vegans, for example, who will not be able to source Vitamin B12 from their diet, as B12 can only be sourced from animal food sources.
Foods that are higher in carbs
To be in ketosis, you need to limit your net carb intake to about 20- 25 grams per day, although some individuals can consume up to 100 gms of carbs per day and still remain in ketosis. This is going to be problematic if you are eating foods such as legumes and pulses such as chickpeas, lentils, quinoa etc. These foods are all too high in carbs to be able and will knock you out of ketosis. You will also have to be careful with your dairy intake, particularly low fat products, as they actually contain more lactose (sugars) than the full fat versions. You will also have to be careful of your fruit intake as well, because fruit in general is high in carbs, aside from berries such as blueberries, strawberries, raspberries etc.
You are going to have to avoid consuming high carb processed foods, such as bread, rice, pasta, cakes and pastries. There are low carb alternatives that can easily take the place of many of these foods but they may not be as readily available, and may require a bit more preparation on your part, ie, making cakes and breads with almond meal/almond flour, and nuts and seeds. Once you go down this path, you are going to be amazed at the fabulous array of food that you can create using low carb flour substitutes.
Avoid starchy vegetables such as potato, pumpkin, sweet potato, carrots, peas, beetroot and make sure you are eating plenty of low carb vegetable sources such as avocado, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, zucchini, eggplants, beans, salad greens, spinach, kale, cucumber, peppers/capsicums and mushrooms.
Cauliflower is going to become your best friend and you will find that it emulates high carb foods brilliantly. Recipes such as Cauliflower Rice, Cauliflower Mash, Cauliflower Fried Rice, Cauliflower Cous Cous are going to feature in your life and they taste fantastic, and you certainly aren’t compromising on food or flavor.
Cramping and Electrolytes
By following a strict keto diet, you may also find that you occasionally need to supplement magnesium and potassium, or ensure that you are meeting your daily requirements, particularly if you are getting lots of cramps. When in ketosis, your body processes electrolytes in a totally different way to when your body uses carbohydrates for fuel. Often when your first switch from a standard carbohydrate diet to a ketogenic one, electrolyte loss and dehydration can happen. The main electrolytes we lose when starting on the keto diet are sodium, magnesium, potassium and calcium,so it’s really important that these are replaced, according to your individual needs.
You might have heard of keto flu? Part of the reason keto flu occurs is because your body is depleted of electrolytes. For every 1g of glycogen stored in the muscles and liver, 3-4g of water is stored with it. As you deprive your body of carbohydrates, you use up the glycogen stores and the water and electrolytes along with it, resulting in electrolyte loss.
Personally, I find that I still get cramping occasionally, and I’ve been keto for 5 years now. When this happens, while I do try to ensure that I am getting adequate supplies of these minerals though my diet, I will take a magnesium, potassium and calcium supplement if I need to. There is nothing worse than waking up in the middle of the night with an excruciationg leg cramp. I sourced mine from Iherb, and find that it does help when I get cramps.
Another deficiency that can also be part of the electrolyte issue, is the fact that you also need to ensure you are eating adequate amounts of salt than you would be consuming if your body was burning carbs for energy. If you are doing a lot of excercise, sweat a lot, or have a vigorous job, you might find that this is even more of an issue. By eliminating processed foods from the diet and restricting our total carbohydrate intake, we also may also be lowering our salt (sodium) intake. This is because a lot of low quality processed foods that we tend to eat on a non keto or non low carb diet, such as pizza, bread, potato chips and crackers are high in sodium.
A Quick guide to Nutrient Dense and Healthy Foods to Include in Your Vegetarian Diet
Just in case you are a lazy reader and don’t want to continue reading this article, I have compiled a list of nutrient dense and healthy foods that I would definitely include in a vegetarian diet if they fit in with your way of eating. This list highlights some fantastic low carb nutrient dense food choices for vegetarians. Please note that the list is not a comprehensive guide to the only foods to include on a vegetarian diet, but rather is a quick go to list of what I perceive as being superior food choices that are higher in essential nutrients and vitamins for anyone following a low carb or ketogenic vegetarian diet. Read on further in this article for more specific food recommendations, if you are trying to source a particular nutrient or vitamin.
Nutrient Dense Food to Include
Nuts & seeds– almonds, walnuts, macadamias, chia seeds flax seeds/linseed, hemp seeds pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds, plus all other low carb nuts and seeds
Vegetables– artichokes, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, mushrooms, spinach, zucchini, eggplant, mushrooms plus all other low carb vegetables
Dairy and Eggs -plain Greek yogurt, cheese, feta, cottage cheese, mozzarella, Swiss cheese, hard and soft cheeses, labneh, eggs, ricotta cheese and haloumi, plus all other low carb dairy products, full fat and unsweetened.
Fruits– small amounts of berries such as blueberries, raspberries, strawberries as well as coconut, avocado and olives.
Cacao/cocoa-100% dark chocolate unsweetened, cocoa, cacao and cacao nibs, all unsweetened.
Healthy Fats– avocado, nuts such as almonds, walnuts and macadamias, butter, ghee, olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil and macadamia oil.
Top 5 Protein Sources
Greek Yogurt and Cottage Cheese
Nuts and nut butters
Vegetables such as spinach, kale, zucchini, avocado, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts
Top 5 Iron Sources
Unsweetened dark chocolate- 100% cocoa
Top 5 vegetables
Top 5 Calcium Sources
How to avoid nutrient deficiencies on a vegetarian keto diet
When a nutrient or vitamin is called ‘essential’, it means that your body cannot create that particular nutrient on it’s own and is reliant on a food source (or supplement) to obtain it. Essential also means that it is vital for the body to function. Vegetarians often rely on grains and legumes to meet their daily needs of a number of micronutrients. When these foods are restricted as well as meat and seafood, vegetarians should make sure they consume adequate quantities of omega-3 fatty acids, iron, calcium, vitamin B12, vitamin D, zinc, potassium and magnesium. Make sure you source your nutrients from a variety of sources ie., for protein, mix it up and make sure you vary your food sources.
If you have concerns about inadequacies in your diet, try tracking your macros and see if you are deficient. See professional advice if you have any concerns. Eat plenty of low carb vegetables, make sure you are consuming plenty of healthy fats, and omega- 3 fatty acids. Pay particular attention and ensure that you are getting adequate amounts of iron, protein and particularly viatmain B12, if you aren’t eating dairy, seafood and eggs.
Ensure you are getting enough Protein in your diet and include all 9 essential amino acids
Ensure you are consuming enough protein and are sourcing all 9 essential amino acids in your diet. Generally, on a ketogenic diet, you should be consuming between 50-100 gms protein per day. Make sure you are sourcing your protein from a variety of foods. You will have to make sure you include plant sources as well as dairy, eggs, nuts and seeds if you can, for this to be ideal.
My favorite sources of protein are eggs because they are so easily accessible and simple to cook and contain about 5-7 gms protein per egg and only 1 gm of carb. Hemp seeds are also right up there as a truly amazing source of protein and they actually contain as much protein as you would source from meat. 1 tablespoon of hemp seeds has about 8 gms of protein and only 1 gram of carbs. Hemp seeds are also a great source of magnesium, potassium and omega-3 fatty acids.
Add hemp seeds to smoothies, to your low carb muesli, granola or just sprinkle some on top of some Greek yogurt with some berries for a fabulous breakfast, dessert or snack. If you are vegetarian or vegan, I would recommend that hemp seeds should feature largely in your diet. If you want to know more about hemp seeds, check out this article https://ketohh.com/hemp-seeds-benefits-and-how-to-use-them/ for more details on why you should be including them in your diet.
Greek yogurt, plain and unsweetened is also a great source of protein, calcium, potassium and magnesium. Because of probiotics, it is also good for gut health. 100 gms/3.5 oz contains about 10 gms protein and around 2-3 gms of carbs. If you are keen to make the most amazing simple to make home made Greek Yogurt, make sure you check out this recipe for … and it includes how to make your own labneh as well. Make sure you include cottage cheese as well if it fits in with your way of eating as it is has about 14 grams of protein and 4 grams of carbs per 100 gms/ 3.5 oz.
Ensure you eat plenty of Healthy fats
Use healthy oils and fats such as olive oil, macadamia oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, ghee and butter, and make include walnuts, macadamias, linseed and chia seeds in your cooking, for salad dressings and for frying and baking. These healthy fats taste delicious, improve the texture of food and are great on a ketogenic diet as they help keep you full for longer. Try to avoid vegetable and seed oils (highly processed polyunsaturated fatty acids( PUFA’s) such as sunflower, canola, safflower and grapeseed oils because they are very highly processed. Check out this article https://ketohh.com/omega-3-and-omega-6-fatty-acids/ for further reading on Omega -3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, and why you should be avoiding seeds vegetable and seed oils.
To summarize quickly why you should try to avoid seeds and vegetable oils, some of these fatty acids have had their natural state altered. Chemically speaking, polyunsaturated fats (polyunsaturated fatty acids-PUFA’s) have more than one double bond in their carbon chain and are effectively missing their hydrogen atom. They have multiple incomplete double bonds which means they are chemically unstable and can be prone to oxidation.
Exposure to air, heat, light and moisture can incite an oxidization process, and upon consumption of these foods, can cause the release of free radicals into our systems potentially creating absolute havoc. This is where the real damage from certain PUFA’s can take place. They can cause harm to our bodies and organs, with many studies suggesting links to inflammation, immune dysfunction, asthmas, arthritis, depression and even cancer. This is why the healthy oils that are recommended are olive oil, macadamia oil, coconut oil and avocado oil.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are considered essential, meaning you need to get them from your diet. Omega-3’s are known for improving heart risk factors, eg by increasing good choleseterol levels (HDL’s), improving blood pressure and increasing trigliceride levels. They can help fight inflammation and auto immune disease and can also assist with sleeping habits, as well as being benficial for mental health and disorders and can fight depression and anxiety. Omega-3’s are also benficial for eye health and brain health, particularly for brain development in the young and for maintaining brain health as you age.
It is recommended that vegetarians/vegans consume twice the recommended daily intake (RDI) for plant-based omega-3 fatty acids (known as alpha-linolenic acid or ALA.) This works out to 2.2 mg of ALA daily versus 1.1 mg for those on a more conventional diet. The best source of these long-chain omega-3 PUFAs is fatty fish which can be problematic for vegans and some vegetarians. However, some plants contain short-chain omega-3 PUFAs, a portion of which can be converted into long-chain PUFAs.
Make sure you add eggs that are omega 3 rich if possible. Also try to source your dairy products from grass fed cows, so that short chain omega-3’s are converted to long chain omega-3’s for you. Eggs, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts and flaxseed/linseed are great vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids, and green algae is the only vegetarian form of long chain omega-3 fatty acids.
Iron is essential for blood and organs, and its main purpose is to carry oxygen in the hemoglobin of red blood cells throughout the body so cells can produce energy. Remember that you can boost the absorption of plant sourced iron by including foods that are rich in vitamin C, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, capsicums/ peppers, leafy greens. Vegans and vegetarians are at risk for iron defieiciency because the best sources of iron are meat and seafood, and iron from plants is not absorbed as well. Some of the best options for iron rich foods include cooked spinach and kale, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, olives and dark chocolate (in moderation of course.)
Calcium is essential for strong bones and teeth, blood clotting etc. Great sources of calcium include dairy products such as cheese, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, feta and labneh, sesame seeds, cooked spinach and cooked kale. Calcium is also sourced form many other foods such as nuts, seeds, and vegetables, but in much smaller amounts.
Vitamin B12 is essential for keeping your brain, nervous system, skin, and other organs healthy and is found in all animal products. It may be difficult (or impossible) to meet your B12 needs on a vegetarian diet without supplementation. I highly recommend you discuss your intake of B12 with a practitioner, as a lack of B12 can have devastating impact on health, in particular for pregnant women, babies and children. If you are vegan or strict vegetarian, this is particularly important because you cannot source vitamin B12 from food sources. Your best vitamin B12 food sources include eggs and cheeses such as cottage cheese, mozzarella, Swiss, Parmesan, feta and labneh, as well as Greek yogurt.
Vitamin D is both a hormone and a vitamin and is required for calcium absorption and bone health. Deficiency has been linked to cancer, depression, and many other health conditions. With the exception of fatty fish, vitamin D only occurs naturally in foods in tiny amounts. The best way to get Vitamin D is to get a few minutes of sun exposure several times a week. You can also take a vitamin D supplement to ensure you meet the minimum daily requirement, particularly if you don’t include fatty fish in your diet.
Zinc plays important roles in immune function, converting food into energy, and wound healing. Unfortunately, most low carb vegetarian foods don’t provide a lot of zinc. The RDI for zinc is 8 mg for adult women and 11 mg for adult men. The best keto vegetarian zinc sources milk, eggs, sesame seeds, unsweetened chocolate, pumpkin seeds, Greek yogurt, kale, asparagus, mushrooms, spinach, cooked, linseed/flaxseed.
Potassium is important to maintain several bodily functions potassium is the third most abundant mineral in the body and it helps the body regulate fluid, send nerve signals and regulate muscle contractions. Good sources of potassium include avocado, spinach, cooked mushrooms, broccoli, hemp seeds, artichokes and almonds. Potassium needs sometimes increase on a keto diet, especially at the beginning. Most people need 3,500-4,700 mg per day to feel and perform their best.
Magnesium is a mineral vital for so many bodily functions, and many people don’t get enough in their diet, including vegetarians. Try to aim for a about 400 mg per day in order to meet the recommended intake. The best keto vegetarian sources of magnesium hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, dark chocolate, almonds spinach, pine nuts, avocado, artichoke.
There is a bit of controversy around soy products, which can restrict a lot of foods that vegetarians traditionally eat, particulary all of the processed protein sources you can buy in the supermarket. While I don’t personally consume soy products, I don’t follow a vegetarian vegan diet so don’t need to. There are suggestions that phytoestrogens may possibly stimulate the growth of some cancers, depending on the amount consumed. You really should do your own research here and determine if you wish to consume soy products or not. For more information on soy, you may want to do further reading, such as this Healthline article https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/soy-good-or-bad#downsides.
The Low Carb Option
If you find that you really struggle with a ketogenic diet with variety of food and getting adequate nutrients, you could also follow a “low carb diet.” Just restrict the number of carbs that you consume rather than follow a ketogenic plan. Following a low carb diet and eating anywhere from 50-150 gms of carbs per day can still be extremely beneficial for your body and your health. Some individuals can even maintain a ketogenic state, with carb intake at these levels.
A lower carb vegetarian diet could mean eliminating sugars, starchy foods, and processed foods, but perhaps allow you to add one or two serves of quinoa in a day. You may want to add a couple of serves of starchy vegetables or higher carb fruits occasionally, but still eliminate rice, bread and pasta. Even by making these changes to your diet, you still have potential for improving your health.
The ECO Atkins Diet
Another diet plan that might suit you if you don’t want to do the ketogenic diet but still want to follow a low carb diet is the “Eco-Atkins” diet. Eco-Atkins is a low-carb diet that is entirely plant based. It also includes grains and you can eat higher amount of carbs. The Vegetarian and Vegan Atkins Plan advocates that 31% of your total calories should come from protein. Primarily plant protein in the form of nuts, beans, soy burgers and beverages, tofu, gluten, cereals, and vegetable products such as veggie bacon, burgers, breakfast links, and deli slices. For vegetarians, tofu, eggs, and cheese are the main source of protein and supply all essential amino acids.
They recommend that 43% of your total calories should come from fat, and this means “good fats.” Include those found in avocados, nuts, soy products, and olive oil. 26% of your total calories should come from carbs, including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. They allow limited amount of oats and barley and an emphasis on viscous vegetables like okra and eggplant, as well as other low-starch vegetables.
Common starchy items like bread, rice, potatoes, and baked goods are avoided. For both vegans and vegetarians, the Eco Diet also recommends a daily multivitamin and fish oil supplement. Vegans can substitute flax oil for fish oil.
Track What You Are Eating
It is possible to follow a ketogenic or low carb vegetarian diet, but you just need to ensure that your diet is providing you with the vitamins and nutrients that you body requires function. It may be worthwhile tracking you macronutrients (amounts of fats, protein and carbohydrates) to make sure your diet is adequate. If ever you have any issues or suspect that your diet is lacking and your healthy is being impacted, make sure you seek professional advice.
Great Nutrient Rich Vegetarian Keto Recipes
Hopefully you will find some of the following recipes will help you with your vegetarian low carb journey. The recipes featured below utilize many of the nutrient dense foods that are recommended in this article to assist you in ensuring that you are get the essential nutrients needed to be healthy.
Ketohh Low Carb Muesli
Healthy Low Carb Granola
Low Carb Rocky Road
Almond Seed Crackers
Hemp seed and red pepper pesto
Hemp Seed and Spinach Pesto
Chai Chia pudding
Raspberry Yogurt Chia Pudding
Low Carb Healthy Banana Bread
Blueberry Chia Protein Smoothie
Raspberry Protein Smoothie
How To Make Your Own Greek Yoghurt (and Labneh)
Make up your own trail mix with nuts, sunflower seeds, pepita seeds, coconut chips.
This list of recipes certainly isn’t comprehensive. You can also do a search for vegan and vegetarian recipes, or be more specific with ingredients, ie search for hemp seed. I hope this article helps you make healthier choices to include in your vegetarian diet so you can sustain yourself on a low carb or ketogenic vegetarian diet.