When I put this question into Google, the first article that came up was “The Ketogenic Diet 101: A Detailed Beginner’s Guide” (June 17, 2017). And it is, indeed, one of the best articles on this topic with a lot of references to documented studies. Simply put, a ketogenic diet is any diet that allows your body to achieve and maintain ketosis. So, what is ketosis?
WebMD, in all its cautious simplicity, says:
Ketosis is a normal metabolic process, something your body does to keep working. When it doesn’t have enough carbohydrates from food for your cells to burn for energy, it burns fat instead. As part of this process, it makes ketones. Ketones are substances that are made when the body breaks down fat for energy. When you cut way back on your calories or carbs, your body will switch to ketosis for energy.
First, do not confuse ketosis with ketoacidosis! Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) is a complication of Type 1 diabetes. It’s a life-threatening condition resulting from dangerously high levels of ketones and blood sugar. DKA is rare in people with Type 2 diabetes. Ketosis is perfectly safe!
The ketogenic diet (often termed keto) is a very low-carb, high-fat diet. It involves drastically reducing carbohydrate intake and replacing it with fat. When this happens, your body becomes incredibly efficient at burning fat for energy. It also turns fat into ketones in the liver, which can supply energy for the brain. The ketogenic diet can boost insulin sensitivity and cause fat loss, leading to drastic improvement for Type 2 diabetes and prediabetes.
One of the most popular keto proponents in recent years is health blogger and podcaster Jimmy Moore who, with researcher and practicing internist Dr. Eric C. Westman, authored the best-seller, Keto Clarity: Your Definitive Guide to the Benefits of a Low-Carb, High-Fat Diet (2014). Unlike the original Atkins Diet and Dr. Richard K. Bernstein’s Diabetes Solution, which are low-carb, high-protein diets, a ketogenic diet is characterized by low-carb, high-fat, and moderate-protein. It typically contains 75% fat, 20% protein and only 5% carbs (percentage of total calories). Most people need to limit total carbs per day to 30 grams (or 20 grams net carbs) to stay in ketosis, but some report consuming as much as 50 grams.
The typical keto diet recommendations are to eat lots of meat, eggs, and cheese, along with non-starchy green vegetables, especially dark green leafy, and no grains, legumes, fruit, or starchy vegetables. This means no bread, rice, potatoes, or pasta. And, of course, no sugar, including sugary drinks and juices. And only healthful, minimally processed fats, like avocados, olives/olive oil, coconut oil, butter, ghee, and tallow (no margarine, vegetable/seed oils, or shortening).
But what if you’re a vegetarian or—worse—vegan?
My vegan friend Renee described ketosis like this:
The human body has two metabolisms; it runs on glucose or ketones. For it to run optimally, you need to eat lots of carbs to fuel a glucose metabolism (restricting fat because carbohydrate metabolism deals poorly with fat) or a high-fat diet severely restricting carbs to force the body to switch to its alternate metabolism, ketosis. The human body runs very efficiently on either carbs or fat, but runs poorly consuming both carbs and fat at the same time.
Keto is very effective at dealing with many health problems from severe epilepsy to diabetes. It helps with digestive issues, weight loss, and people with a history of eating disorders like binge eating fueled by carb cravings, as one of the main side effects of ketosis is that your appetite is greatly reduced.
The vegan keto diet is mainly green/cruciferous vegetables, protein, and high-quality fats from avocados, olives, coconuts, nuts, and seeds, as well as low-carb fruits like berries. We don’t eat grains, beans/legumes (apart from soy and peanuts), starchy vegetables, or high-sugar fruits.
Madeline gave some further clarity, starting with definitions:
Vegan: someone who follows a plant-based diet (no animal products). Keto: a low-carb, high-fat, moderate-protein way of eating, which transforms the body from burning glucose to burning fat. This is also called a LCHF way of eating. Many (most) vegans are on a HCLF (high-carb low-fat) way of eating (lentils, beans, root veggies, possibly pasta, breads, etc.).
Most of us are here [in this vegan keto group] because HCLF didn’t work for us! So if you’re new to this whole vegan thing, you might be confused because we don’t eat fruits and potatoes and are eating things like “noatmeal” and “fat bombs” and you could have sworn the vegans you once knew never did that—they probably didn’t! So, of course, you can dive straight in to vegan keto even if you aren’t vegan or keto; but know that combining the two requires lots of research and monitoring and, for most of us, tracking!
For what it’s worth, I’ve tried every version of “vegan” I could find over the last 11 years—raw, gluten-free, junk food, no sugar at all, high-carb low-fat. But now that I’ve found low-carb high-fat, I’ll never go back! It’s helped me lose weight and also healed some chronic health issues I had been dealing with for over a decade (and before I was told I would just have to learn to live with them). So if you’re wondering why you’d give up animal products and carbs, there really is a method to our madness!
For anyone who wants some solid, detailed ideas of what to eat as a ketogenic vegan, I highly recommend Renee’s blog post, “Vegan Keto Food List for Optimal Nutrition.”