Everything You Need to Know to Start a Plant-Based Keto Diet

Stuffing your face with heavy cream and bacon is one way to follow a ketogenic diet, but it totally misses the point. At its core, the diet is meant to improve overall health and wellness and fight disease, with weight loss being an added benefit for some. What better way to do that then by eating lots of veggies and healthy plant-based fats?

Yes, you can be both a vegetarian and follow the keto diet. (Image: Happycity21/iStock/GettyImages)

"A plant-based keto diet elevates our health to the next level and is something that most every person can do," says Will Cole, a functional medicine expert and author of the book Ketotarian.

Still, there are issues to think about, such as getting enough fat and protein and avoiding nutritional deficiencies. Sticking to tried-and-true plant-based keto recipes recommended by the experts can help you avoid these pitfalls while staying satisfied.

Benefits of Plant-Based Keto

The nutritional benefits of a plant-based diet are uncontested. Eating both processed and unprocessed red meat is linked to an increase in death from nine different diseases, according to a 2017 study published in British Journal of Medicine.

On the flip side, increased intake of fruits and vegetables is linked with a decrease in chronic disease and body weight, according to a 2015 review of research in the Iranian Journal of Public Health.

Research presented at the 2018 meeting of the American Nutrition Society showed that eating more high-quality plant foods and fewer animal foods reduces the risk of heart disease and diabetes and is associated with less weight gain and a lower risk of death. For a diet meant to improve health and aid weight loss, plant-based keto seems like a no-brainer.

Becoming a "carbatarian" isn't a good approach to going vegan or vegetarian. (Image: Maskot/Maskot/GettyImages)

Potential Plant-Based Problems

Many of the problems vegans and vegetarians face on a keto diet are the same issues they face on a plant-based diet in general. "I often see many vegans and vegetarians actually become more like carbatarians, eating a lot of grains and starches which can wreak havoc on their health long-term," says Dr. Cole.

Functional medicine expert and neurologist David Perlmutter, M.D., agrees: "Vegetarians and vegans really don't have significantly more problems when going keto in comparison to a higher carbohydrate diet. In both situations, specific care needs to be placed on obtaining adequate amounts of nutrients like vitamin B12, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA," he says.

Foods to Restrict

A lot of the confusion around a plant-based keto diet can be cleared up once you know which foods to avoid or restrict. In general, you want to avoid a lot of starchy and sweet foods including:

  • Grains: quinoa, oats, wheat, rice — especially refined wheat and rice
  • Starchy vegetables: potatoes, winter squash, peas and corn
  • Beans and lentils
  • Sugar, honey, agave and maple syrup
  • High-sugar fruits: bananas, grapes, oranges and pineapple
  • All processed grain foods, sweets and desserts

Write this list down, post it in your kitchen and carry it with you when you go out to eat or to the market. "By arming yourself with education, you can shop with confidence and avoid these often unhealthy foods that make up most plant-based diets and know exactly what foods to buy that will keep you healthy and thriving," says Dr. Cole.

Foods to Focus On

It's true, there are a lot of carb-laden plant foods that shouldn't show up on your plate if you intend to remain in ketosis. But there are also plenty of foods that are healthy, satisfying and will help you reach your goals.

"Do not be afraid of vegetables!" says Dr. Cole. "There are so many low-carb and extremely nutrient-dense vegetables that are vital for your health." For example, Dr. Cole says dark, leafy greens contain B vitamins which are essential for methylation — "a biochemical superhighway that happens a billion times a second in your body that governs your hormones, detoxification and inflammation pathways."

Here's an abridged list of non-starchy veggies that are keto-friendly:

  • Radishes
  • Spinach
  • Bell pepper
  • Pumpkin
  • Okra
  • Green beans
  • Eggplant
  • Cabbage
  • Bok choy
  • Broccoli
  • Arugula
  • Artichoke
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Carrots
  • Swiss chard
  • Kale

Many of these vegetables are good sources of protein as well, which can help dieters fulfill their small, yet important, daily protein quota. When it comes to fats, Dr. Cole recommends loading up on healthy plant fats like avocados, olives, coconuts (and their oils), nuts and seeds. Some of the foods you can indulge in include:

  • Coconut cream (sugar-free)
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Pecans
  • Walnuts
  • Hemp seeds
  • Cocoa butter
  • Nut butters
  • Nut cheeses
Zoodles are a low-carb way to get plenty of important nutrients. (Image: Westend61/Westend61/GettyImages)

Plant-Based Keto Recipes You Can't Resist

Finding a bunch of recipes you love and keeping them on hand makes it easy to stick to a plant-based keto diet, because you can rotate through them. You'll never be stuck without a plan, and you'll know that your nutritional bases are being covered if you eat a variety of these recipes throughout the week.

Food blogs offers a wealth of tasty, easy-to-make keto recipes. Bookmark the ones you like and give them a try. Dr. Cole presents readers of Ketotarian with many plant-based recipes to choose from. "Some of my favorites from the book include coconut-chia breakfast pudding, an easy zoodle bowl with olive oil pesto sauce which is great for lunch, and I love the cauliflower tacos with extra guac for dinner," he says.

On registered dietitian Abbey Sharp's website you can find recipes for Vegan Keto Pasta Alfredo, Vegan Keto Walnut Chili and Vegan Low-Carb Shepherd's Pie. Dr. Perlmutter offers up this quick recipe for a flavorful side dish tasty and healthy enough to be a main dish:

Spinach With Scallions and Pumpkin Seeds

Serves 4

  • 1 tablespoon avocado oil
  • 1 pound curly leaf spinach, tough stems removed
  • Salt and cracked black pepper to taste
  • ¼ cup toasted pumpkin seeds
  • ¼ cup chopped scallions, including some green part
  1. Wash the spinach well. Using a salad spinner, spin to dry slightly. You want to have some droplets of water clinging to the leaves.
  2. Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the spinach, season with salt and pepper and, using tongs, toss and turn to just wilt. This shouldn't take more than a minute.
  3. Toss in the pumpkin seeds and scallions and serve immediately.

"The pumpkin seeds and scallions add a little crunch and snap to the wilted spinach. You could also use toasted pine nuts, chopped walnuts or cashews in place of the pumpkin seeds," says Dr. Perlmutter.

Always Plan Ahead

A big part of the reason keto diets — plant-based or not — fail is because of lack of planning. Not knowing what to eat or not having anything prepared when hunger strikes can lead people to eat the wrong foods and not meet their macros.

Take some time each week to plan for the following week. Choose your recipes, shop for the ingredients and prepare meals ahead if you can. If you aren't sure whether you're meeting your nutritional needs, talk to your doctor or a nutritionist for help planning your diet.

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