How to follow a healthy vegetarian keto diet
Are you a vegetarian interested in experiencing the many benefits of a keto diet? Or perhaps you’re already eating keto but have been thinking about giving up meat for ethical or other reasons. There’s good news – a vegetarian keto lifestyle is definitely doable. However, there are some potential health issues to be aware of.
Are there any health concerns for keto vegetarians?
Although some people avoid eating meat due to environmental or animal welfare concerns, others choose vegetarianism because they believe it is healthier. However, vegetarian diets are typically high in grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables, which aren’t appropriate for individuals with diabetes or metabolic syndrome who want to control their metabolic disease without medications. Additionally, many people find that they are constantly hungry when following a low-fat, high-carb vegetarian way of eating.
Therefore, the idea of a keto vegetarian diet may be appealing to many who want to avoid meat yet get the benefits of ketogenic living.
It’s worth noting that on a vegetarian keto diet, it’s possible to become deficient in some nutrients, including protein and certain essential fats, vitamins, and minerals.1
However, your risk for nutrient deficiencies depends on what type of a vegetarian diet you follow and the types of food you eat. The more restricted your diet, the more likely you are to develop one or more deficiencies.
What are the different types of vegetarians?
These are the different vegetarian categories, in order of strictest to most liberal:
- Vegans avoid dairy, eggs, seafood, poultry, meat, and other animal products, including honey in most cases.
- Lacto vegetarians eat dairy but avoid eggs, seafood, poultry and meat. People in India who are vegetarians mainly follow this way of eating.
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat dairy and eggs but avoid seafood, poultry and meat. This is the most common form of vegetarianism in the US, Europe, and other western countries.
- Pescatarians eat seafood, dairy, and eggs but avoid poultry and red meat. This way of eating is considered semi-vegetarian and doesn’t pose any greater risk for nutrient deficiencies than diets that include meat.2
Which vegetarian diets work best with keto?
Keto can be incorporated into most vegetarian lifestyles. Of course, the more liberal forms of vegetarianism allow a wider range of food choices, which can make mealtimes more enjoyable.
Even keto and veganism is possible, albeit more challenging. As humans, we need to consume complete protein containing all nine essential amino acids (an “essential” nutrient can’t be made by the body and must instead be obtained through diet). Animal protein provides all the essential amino acids in the amounts we need, but plants only contain some of them.
Because different plant foods contain different types of amino acids3, in excluding all animal products, vegans come to rely on a combination of grains, legumes, and seeds to get all of the essential amino acids their bodies need. Many of these foods are too high in carbs to be included on a keto diet, which is usually restricted to 20 grams of net carbs (total carbs minus fiber) per day. For a more detailed description of vegan keto options, see our evidence based guide How to eat low-carb as a vegan.
The “Eco-Atkins” diet is another option for those who want to avoid all animal products.4 Eco-Atkins is entirely plant based and contains fewer carbs than most vegan plans. However, it isn’t considered ketogenic because it includes grains and provides more than 60 grams of net carbs per day.
5-step action plan for eating a vegetarian keto diet
Here is our 5-step action plan for eating a well-formulated vegetarian keto diet. Click on the steps to scroll down and learn more about why we recommend it.
- Restrict carbohydrates
- Include protein
- Eat 1–3 servings of vegetables at least twice a day
- Use healthy oils for cooking and/or salad dressings
- Season your food with different herbs and spices
1. Restrict carbohydrates
In order to get into ketosis and remain there, limit your net carb intake to 20 grams per day. This means you’ll need to avoid many popular vegetarian protein sources, such as quinoa, buckwheat, legumes, and pulses. These foods are simply too high in carbs to be included on a ketogenic lifestyle. Also be sure to steer clear of milk and low fat dairy products, starchy vegetables, and fruits, other than perhaps a few berries.
2. Include a high-quality protein source at every meal
As discussed earlier, only the protein in animal products contains all 9 essential amino acids in the amounts needed to sustain human life. Combining keto-friendly low-carb plant protein like nuts and seeds with dairy and eggs improves the protein quality of a vegetarian diet.
Most people need between 70–100 grams of protein on a keto diet per day, depending on their weight, body composition, activity level, and age. Most people tend to do best when eating 1.2-1.7 grams of protein per kg of body weight.5
Our top 3 vegetarian proteins
- Egg: Contains high-quality, easily digestible protein; provides choline which has been associated with better brain function6; extremely versatile and economical. 14 grams of protein and 1 gram of carb per 2 large eggs
- Greek yogurt: Rich in protein; excellent source of calcium, potassium, and magnesium; provides probiotics that are potentially beneficial for gut health and immunity. 15–20 grams of protein and 5–7 grams of carbs per 6 ounces (170 grams)
- Hemp seeds: High in protein; rich in soluble fiber; great source of magnesium, potassium and omega-3 fatty acids. 9 grams of protein and 1 gram of net carb per ounce (28 grams)
Other great keto vegetarian protein sources
- Cottage cheese: 20 grams of protein and 6 grams of carbs per 6 ounces (170 grams)
- Parmesan and Romano cheese: 9–10 grams of protein and 1 gram carb per ounce (28 grams)
- Hard and semi-hard cheese (cheddar, gouda, provolone, Swiss, etc.): 7–8 grams of protein and 0.5–1.5 grams of carbs per ounce (28 grams)
- Soft cheese (Brie, Camembert, feta, blue cheese, queso blanco, etc.): 4–6 grams of protein and 0–1 of gram carb per ounce (28 grams)
- Peanut or almond butter: 7–8 grams of protein and 4 grams of net carbs per 2 tablespoons (32 grams)
Keep in mind that you’ll get small amounts of protein from vegetables as well. Most vegetables provide about 2 grams of protein per cup.
We recommend getting protein through real food rather than protein powders, bars or shakes.
What about soy?
Soy products, like tofu, can be a good source of plant-based protein. However, concerns have been raised about the health effects of soy isoflavones based on animal and test-tube studies.7 Yet the research on soy in humans is mainly positive regarding safety and disease risk.8
Although soy doesn’t seem to cause problems for people with normal thyroid function, there’s been conflicting evidence in people with subclinical hypothyroidism (also known as mild thyroid failure).9
Soy isoflavones may interfere with thyroid hormone absorption if your iodine intake isn’t sufficient.10 Therefore, it may be worth it to make sure you get enough iodine when regularly consuming soy, especially if you have hypothyroidism. The best low-carb vegetarian sources of iodine include iodized salt, seaweed, and yogurt.
At this time, some concerns remain about soy consumption in people with thyroid problems, as well as the long-term health effects of consuming ultra-processed products like soy protein powders and supplements.11
However, if you want to avoid animal products on a keto or low-carb diet, the benefits of soy seem to outweigh the risks.
Although the potential risk to thyroid function appears very small, those who consume soy on a regular basis may want to consider having their thyroid function monitored periodically and including iodine food sources in their diet.
Soy protein options
- Tofu (extra firm): 19 grams of protein and 2 grams of net carbs per 5 ounces (140 grams)
- Edamame beans: 17 grams of protein and 5 grams of net carbs per 5 ounces (140 grams)
- Tempeh: 20 grams of protein and 4 grams of net carbs per 3.5 ounces (100 grams)
- Natto: 18 grams of protein and 9 grams of net carbs per 3.5 ounces (100 grams)
3. Have 1-3 servings of very-low-carb vegetables at least twice a day
There are plenty of keto-friendly vegetables that taste delicious, provide a nice dose of fiber and help you meet your micronutrient needs.
Our top 5 keto vegetables
- Spinach: rich in iron, potassium, and magnesium, with 1 gram of net carb per serving
- Zucchini: a good source of vitamin B6, vitamin C, and potassium, as well as a fantastic noodle substitute with 3 grams of net carbs per serving
- Avocado: (technically a fruit) excellent source of potassium, magnesium, and fiber, with 2 grams of net carbs per serving
- Brussels sprouts: rich in vitamin C, potassium, and folate, with 5 grams of net carbs per serving
- Cauliflower: great source of vitamin C and fiber, perfect keto-friendly sub for mashed potatoes and rice, with 4 grams of net carbs per serving
For more tips on what low-carb vegetables to eat, check out our low-carb vegetable guide.
4. Use healthy oils for cooking and/or salad dressings
Healthy fats taste delicious, improve food’s texture, and help you stay full and satisfied for hours. In addition, they’re necessary for proper absorbtion of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.
Since fats contribute most of your calories on a keto diet, it’s important to choose the healthiest types. Vegetable and seed oils – such as sunflower, safflower, corn, and canola oil – are highly processed oils. Although the data regarding their health effects are inconclusive, as a general policy we recommend focusing on less processed foods closer to their natural source.
Instead, choose healthy keto fats and condiments, such as butter, ghee, coconut oil, olive oil, and avocado oil for meal preparation and at the table.
5. Season your food with different herbs and spices
Cooking with herbs and spices can help increase variety on a vegetarian diet. What’s more, they’re an additional source of micronutrients and provide very few net carbs. In addition to the more common ones like basil, rosemary and cinnamon, experiment with some you haven’t tried as well. You may find a few new favorites!
How to avoid nutrient deficiencies on a vegetarian keto diet
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.
If you follow our 5-step plan, eating good-quality vegetarian protein sources and plenty of very-low-carb vegetables, you should manage your micronutrient intake well on a keto vegetarian diet. If you want to be extra sure, eating a range of the following nutrient-dense foods on a daily basis will ensure that you provide your body with the range of micronutrients that keto vegetarians are most at risk of being deficient in.
Nuts & seeds
- Chia seeds
- Flax seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- 100% dark chocolate
- Unsweetened cocoa
- Brussels sprouts
- Swiss chard
- Plain greek yogurt
If you follow these steps but don’t feel your best, you may benefit from paying attention to which nutrients you could be deficient in. Click on the button below to see the appendix on specific nutrients that can be an issue for keto vegetarians. But remember that if you feel good and are eating a range of nutrient-dense foods, you probably don’t need to worry about specific micronutrients. Simple does the trick!
Delicious vegetarian keto recipes and meal plans
Here’s a sample 7-day keto vegetarian meal plan with around 20 grams of carbs per day to help you get started. Not a member yet? Try out all our 100+ low-carb meal plans and meal planner tool for free one month.Join free for a month
Here’s a wonderful weekly meal plan filled with delicious keto-friendly lacto-ovo vegetarian dishes. Three hearty meals per day while keeping the carbs under 20 g per day. This week you’re going to eat gnocchi with homemade basil pesto, quesadillas, cheese pie with mushrooms and a lovely goat cheese salad, just to name a few!
Vegetarian keto meals
Staying keto vegetarian long term
It’s clearly possible to be both keto and vegetarian. The biggest issues may be lack of variety and meeting your nutrition needs on a regular basis without eating meat or seafood.
However, choosing foods rich in key nutrients, experimenting with different vegetable and protein combinations, and using a wide range of herbs and spices can help you create a keto vegetarian lifestyle that is healthy, sustainable, and pleasurable.
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For example, legumes and seeds are high in the amino acid lysine but very low in methionine. By contrast, grains are high in methionine but contain almost no lysine. ↩
Archives of Internal Medicine 2009: The effect of a plant-based low-carbohydrate (“Eco-Atkins”) diet on body weight and blood lipid concentrations in hyperlipidemic subjects [randomized trial; moderate evidence] ↩
Isoflavones are a type of phytoestrogen (plant compounds that have a structure similar to estrogen) found in soy and other legumes. ↩
This is true for observational studies spanning many years as well as shorter but much higher-quality clinical trials:
Advances in Nutrition 2018: Associations between phytoestrogens, glucose homeostasis, and risk of diabetes in women: a systematic review and meta-analysis [systematic review of randomized trials; strong evidence]
The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 2011: The effect of soy phytoestrogen supplementation on thyroid status and cardiovascular risk markers in patients with subclinical hypothyroidism: a randomized, double-blind, crossover study [moderate evidence]