If you Google “ketogenic recipes,” you’ll be met with page after page of meat-based meals. At first glance, it may not seem like vegan and ketogenic diets can coexist. Plant-based dieters thrive off of starchy beans and vegetables, typically lower fat intake, and zero animal products. Additionally, the keto diet is rooted in lower carbohydrate, moderate protein, and higher fat intake, all commonly obtained from animal products.

Although it’s no easy task, adopting a vegan ketogenic diet can simultaneously improve your health and the environment. The issue? Getting enough plant-based protein without getting kicked out of ketosis.

How Much Protein Should You Really Be Getting?

A traditional ketogenic diet calls for anywhere from 15–30% of daily calories coming from protein, depending on your lifestyle. For sedentary individuals, this means around 0.4 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. For those who are active or are trying to build muscle, this means 0.6–0.8 grams per pound per day.[1] Protein is a vital nutrient in the body. It is essential for the structure, regulation, and functioning of important organs, blood, and tissues.[2] Without enough protein, you can suffer from low energy levels, loss of muscle, and lower immunity.[3][4]

Bioavailability of Protein—Breaking It Down (Literally)

Unlike animal products, sources of plant protein have lower amino acid bioavailability (the amount of usable protein) and often lack complete amino acid profiles.[5] With enough variety, plant protein does provide enough usable forms of protein necessary for supporting muscular health. The best way to ensure that you are getting the full spectrum of amino acids is to combine different sources of plant protein in as many meals as possible.

Best Sources of Plant Based Protein

Getting enough protein in a regular diet is difficult enough. Pairing this challenge with completely avoiding animal products while maintaining a low-carb diet can make the mission seem almost impossible. Because plant based sources of protein are typically higher in carbohydrates and net carbohydrates are limited to less than 50 grams per day on a ketogenic diet (or even as little as 20 grams), reaching your daily protein goals while staying in ketosis can require a concerted effort. These are some of the best ketogenic-friendly and vegan protein sources.

Soy

Soy is among the most mentioned plant-based protein when it comes to a vegan diet. Soy is a form of pea protein that is known for its commonality in Asian diets. Its consumption may lower levels of bad LDL cholesterol, reduce blood pressure, and treat menopausal symptoms.[6]

Tofu

Tofu may be one of the most widely recognized sources of soy-based protein. In one 3.5 ounce serving, tofu offers 8 grams of protein, 1 gram of net carbs, and 4 grams of fat; tofu is also considered to contain all nine essential amino acids, making it a great choice to support ketosis. Despite its nutritional density, tofu contains trypsin inhibitors, phytates, and lectins, which are all anti-nutrients. These three compounds block nutrient absorption and negatively affect digestion.[7][8]. Don’t let that scare you away! Studies have shown that tofu can improve memory and help you lose weight![9][10]

Tempeh

More than just a source of protein, tempeh offers maximum health support due to its extensive nutrient profile. Tempeh is a source of plant protein made through the fermentation of soybeans. This fermentation process causes tempeh to be filled with gut-healing probiotics and reduces the amount of anti-nutrients. In one 3-ounce serving, tempeh has 16 grams of protein, 3 grams of net carbs, and 4.5 grams of fat. Adding tempeh to your vegan ketogenic diet can decrease bad LDL cholesterol, aid in building muscle, and help stabilize your blood sugar with its high manganese content.[11][12][13]

Proceed with Caution

Soy products are not all created equal. The effect soy has on your health is determined by whether it is processed (i.e., tofu, soy isolate, and soy milk) or fermented (i.e., tempeh, miso, and soy sauce). Genistein, an isoflavone in soy, has been shown to mimic the characteristics of estrogen in the human body and promote breast tumor formation. This is especially true when it was combined with processed sources of soy and consumed in large amounts.[14] On the other hand, daidzein, a different isoflavone, was found to lower the reappearance of breast cancer by 60%.[15]

The Verdict on Soy

Soy can be a great choice for a low-carb, plant-based protein source. If you choose to rely on soy as a source of protein, it is best to opt for fermented sources rather than processed ones and consume it sparingly. No more than 25 grams of processed soy protein should be consumed on a given day.[16]

Hemp

Half of a cup of shelled hemp seeds offers about 20 grams of protein, 2 grams of net carbs, and 6 grams of fat—depending on the brand. Although it is not a complete protein, it does contain all of the essential amino acids in limited amounts. However, it’s best to ingest hemp in combination with pea or rice protein to improve its amino acid content.

Filling in the Omega-3 Gap

One of the main sources of essential omega-3 fatty acids is fish oil. Vegans aim to stay away from animal-based products and therefore do not get enough of this cardiovascular disease–fighting fat. Adding hemp to your meals is a great way to close the omega-3 gap in your vegan ketogenic diet. Another perk—no fish are harmed in the process.

The Research Speaks For Itself

A study comparing hemp seeds to soy protein showed that hemp is a better source of nutritional amino acid and is easier for the body to digest.[17] It also comes without the negative effects on estrogen levels. Another study published by the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry concluded that, when shelled, hemp digestibility is comparable to that of casein, a protein in dairy used in the fitness industry to improve performance and body composition.[18] Arguably, hemp may be the best source of ketogenic-friendly, vegan protein.

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts are an excellent source of fat, and depending on the nut, they can be fairly low in carbohydrates. But most do not have enough protein to rely on them as you primary protein source. Regardless, they are a great way to add nutrients and boost protein levels in meals. To stay below your carbohydrate threshold and remain in ketosis, reach for Brazilian nuts or walnuts.

Supplemental Plant Based Protein

Adding vegan protein powder to your ketogenic diet is an easy way to boost daily protein intake. Plant-based protein powders come in many forms, including soy, hemp, rice, and pea protein. Hemp takes the spot as the number one option, with rice and pea trailing close behind. All three powders offer antioxidants, weight-loss support, and near-complete amino acid profiles. Soy isolate protein powders should be used sparingly. Aside from its possible negative effects on hormones, it also is subject to genetic modification.

Struggling to Get Enough Protein? Try Going Vegetarian Ketogenic!

If vegan protein sources just aren’t cutting it, there is always the option of switching to a vegetarian ketogenic diet. This would allow for the addition of eggs and dairy based products while still minimizing the consumption of meat, protecting the environment, and remaining in ketosis.

Eggs

Previously labeled as a food to stay away from, eggs are now being recognized for their superfood traits, making them an egg-cellent choice. One egg has 6 grams of protein, 0 grams of carbs, 5 grams of fat, and almost every nutrient needed by the human body. Worried about the treatment of the mother hens? Look for eggs labeled as organic, and pasture-raised to ensure that the chickens were treated humanely.

Dairy Products

Dairy comes in many forms: cheese, yogurt, milk, and butter. Specifically on a ketogenic diet, it’s important to watch for sneaky carbohydrates hidden in the milk sugar, lactose. If you choose to go the dairy route, the most ketogenic-friendly choices include grass-fed butter, heavy whipping cream, unflavored and full-fat yogurts, and full-fat cheese. To confirm that the momma cows were treated with kindness, look for Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) certifications, organic grass-fed Certified Humane labels, and genetically engineered hormone-free wording.

Wrapping Up The Vegan Ketogenic Diet

If you’re passionate about animal rights, but want the benefits a ketogenic diet can offer, combining the two is a great option. To get all the nutrients you need while remaining plant-based, aim to eat a healthy combination of soy, hemp, nuts, seeds, and supplemental plant protein. With the proper diligence, you can meet your protein goals, remain very low-carb, and stay in ketosis!

References

1. Potgieter, S. (2013). Sport nutrition: A review of the latest guidelines for exercise and sport nutrition from the American College of Sport Nutrition, the International Olympic Committee and the International Society for Sports Nutrition. South African journal of clinical nutrition, 26(1), 6-16.

2. What are proteins and what do they do? Genetics Home Reference – NIH. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/howgeneswork/protein

3. Li, P., Yin, Y. L., Li, D., Kim, S. W., & Wu, G. (2007). Amino acids and immune function. British Journal of Nutrition, 98(2), 237-252.

4. Campbell, W. W., Kruskall, L. J., & Evans, W. J. (2002). Lower body versus whole body resistive exercise training and energy requirements of older men and women. Metabolism-Clinical and Experimental, 51(8), 989-997.

5. Boutrif, E., Dr. (n.d.). Recent developments in protein quality evaluation. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/docrep/U5900t/u5900t07.htm

6. Soy. (2016, December 01). Retrieved from https://nccih.nih.gov/health/soy/ataglance.htm

7. Schlemmer, U., Frølich, W., Prieto, R. M., & Grases, F. (2009). Phytate in foods and significance for humans: food sources, intake, processing, bioavailability, protective role and analysis. Molecular nutrition & food research, 53(S2), S330-S375.

8. Vasconcelos, I. M., & Oliveira, J. T. A. (2004). Antinutritional properties of plant lectins. Toxicon, 44(4), 385-403.

9. Soni, M., Rahardjo, T. B. W., Soekardi, R., Sulistyowati, Y., Yesufu-Udechuku, A., Irsan, A., & Hogervorst, E. (2014). Phytoestrogens and cognitive function: a review. Maturitas, 77(3), 209-220.

10. Zhang, Y. B., Chen, W. H., Guo, J. J., Fu, Z. H., Yi, C., Zhang, M., & Na, X. L. (2013). Soy isoflavone supplementation could reduce body weight and improve glucose metabolism in non-Asian postmenopausal women—a meta-analysis. Nutrition, 29(1), 8-14.

11. Taku, K., Umegaki, K., Sato, Y., Taki, Y., Endoh, K., & Watanabe, S. (2007). Soy isoflavones lower serum total and LDL cholesterol in humans: a meta-analysis of 11 randomized controlled trials. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 85(4), 1148-1156.

12. Wu, G. (2016). Dietary protein intake and human health. Food & function, 7(3), 1251-1265.

13. Lee, S. H., Jouihan, H. A., Cooksey, R. C., Jones, D., Kim, H. J., Winge, D. R., & McClain, D. A. (2013). Manganese supplementation protects against diet-induced diabetes in wild type mice by enhancing insulin secretion. Endocrinology, 154(3), 1029-1038.

14. Genistein. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/genistein

15. Ju, Y. H. (2016). To Soy or Not to Soy: Effects of Soybeans on Breast Cancer, Menopause and Heart Disease.

16. Recommended Soy Intakes. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://ussec.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/SOY13_9_Recommended-Soy-Intakes.pdf

17. Wang, X. S., Tang, C. H., Yang, X. Q., & Gao, W. R. (2008). Characterization, amino acid composition and in vitro digestibility of hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) proteins. Food Chemistry, 107(1), 11-18.

18. House, J. D., Neufeld, J., & Leson, G. (2010). Evaluating the quality of protein from hemp seed (Cannabis sativa L.) products through the use of the protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score method. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 58(22), 11801-11807.

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