Following the ultra low-carb ketogenic diet takes a lot of effort. But as Darren Pauli explains if you’re a vegetarian it’s a lot more work.
“You must be mad.” This was how a science faculty head at one of Australia’s top universities responded when I revealed I’d been following the keto diet for the past year, as a vegetarian. On the surface, she was right. As a strict plant-eater I had made an already very restricted eating regime much more difficult.
You might have heard of keto; the ultra-low carb, high fat and high protein diet that claims to help you burn fat with next to no exercise. It was first developed in the 1920s as an epilepsy treatment and is stillrecommended for certain cases. The diet enjoyed a revival in the late 1990s as a treatment for the condition and was soon recognised in studies as a rapid weight loss tool.
Following the keto diet means you stop eating almost all carbohydrates, with your daily intake is limited to about 30 grams or less (two slices of bread or small pieces of fruit). But most keto followers (we call ourselves ‘ketoers’) generally forgo carb-heavy foods altogether and choose to spread their paltry carb allocation across the day’s meals. Vegetables are critical to making the diet balanced.
So what do we eat instead of carbs? Ketoers aim to reach daily target levels of protein and fats (‘macros’) according to their specific goals. This is why many keto blogs contain gluttonous bacon-wrapped cheese-laden recipes loaded with fat and protein.
It was this impression that prompted the aforementioned professor’s outburst.
What do I eat?
I stick to foods that have only a few carbohydrates. As a vegetarian, I obviously don’t eat any meat, which is a major component of the keto diet for most followers. But all else is similar. Whole foods are my staple, while processed foods are limited.
I eat small quantities of some mock-meat products, a slice of fake bacon with an egg on a cauliflower wrap makes for a great breakfast.
Pasta and rice are out. But low-carb alternatives such as Konjac, zucchini pasta and finely grated cauliflower are in.
Milk is limited, so those who drink a white coffee larger than a macchiato will need to adjust. One option is the iconic bulletproof coffee, an espresso blitzed with butter or coconut oil, which is a surprisingly palatable.
Dairy and eggs are a big part of the diet, particularly for vegetarians. Keeping a stock of peeled boiled eggs in the fridge can help satisfy hunger pangs.
In a nutshell, I wanted to strip fat and gain muscle. But there were additional benefits, I find the diet boosts and maintains my energy levels, which have always been prone to rising and falling between meals. As well, there’s the research that shows the keto diet can help to lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. For those less sporting, the diet offers the promise of weight loss without formal exercise.
The weight loss results can’t be denied; I have spoken to ketoers who have shed lots of weight. I know of one man who lost a staggering 75 kilograms – half his body weight at the time – after a year on the keto diet. As well as sticking to the diet, he also used a crosstrainer each day and took short walks with his dog.
I’ve found keto a fantastic way to lose body fat and build muscle. I’ve never struggled with weight, but keto has helped strip my persistent belly, while going to the gym has contributed with muscle gain.
I’ve probably dropped my body fat from about 25 per cent to around 15 per cent without being a hard-core ketoer. In real terms that’s like going from a bit of a belly to abs starting to show through, and better definition around other muscle groups.
What is ketosis?
Ketosis is the state where ketones are produced in the liver and used as an energy source when glucose levels are insufficient.
How do you get there?
When you lower your carbohydrate intake to less than 50g a day your body will enter the ketosis state within days. The carbohydrate intake tends to become stricter as the diet progresses typically restricting followers to about 20g a day to maintain a ‘deep’ ketonic state.
What brings you out of it?
Cheat days are essential carb parties when ketoers allow themselves to maintain social sanity. They are nights out at an Italian restaurant enjoying pasta, or slices of birthday cake at a party. They have little lasting negative impact to ketoers provided they are both infrequent and short-lived, and can actually be positive for cyclic-keto diets by serving to reboot stagnating weight loss rates.
Ketoers who cheat can cut the time taken for their bodies to return to a ketogenic state to almost 24 hours by not eating anything later than about 6pm and engaging in vigorous exercise the next morning on an empty stomach.
Risks and drawbacks
When you first enter the ketogenic cycle you will likely be hit with the dreaded ‘keto flu’ which as the name suggests feels like a virus. Mine hit couple of days after starting keto when I stumbled into a door as I rose from bed. The flu has re-emerged to a lesser severity whenever I have had more than one cheat day or have binge eaten carbs.
Sometimes I get a metallic taste in my mouth due to the production of ketones, but this will ebb as your body adapts and ketone levels fall.
Senior health practitioners in Australian universities tell me those predisposed to liver disease should consult their doctors if they intend to undertake the keto diet.
The hardest thing
Carnivorous ketoers have it easy in my books. They can eat out at almost any restaurant and can quickly hit their necessary daily protein and fat targets. Not so for vegetarian ketoers. While we can do quite well when we’re preparing food in our home kitchen, we struggle when we head out to eat. Unless we go to a Chinese restaurant, my wife and I are almost guaranteed to break the low carbohydrate requirements if we venture away from a garden salad.
I see this as the hardest thing about a vegetarian keto diet, but it’s not much of a problem if you don’t eat out more than one night a week – as we do. My cheat days also help take the edge off food restrictions. Another drawback in addition to culinary restrictions is a ban on most beer and wine.
Out of the box
Vegetarians are used to out-of-the-box culinary thinking, and keto stretches this thinking, and my budget, to a new level. For instance a common flour substitute is almond meal, which costs around $20 a kilo.
Almond meal is used in the popular ‘Fathead’ keto pizza and a large number of delicious desserts. Grated cauliflower takes this substitution even further. I have used it in my own breakfast wrap recipe.
Hit the gym
While one of the claims of keto is that you’ll lose substantial amounts of weight by simply following keto, I found the best results came when I hit the gym. Weight will plummet for those preferring cardio, while body builders can crack the notoriously difficult task of losing fat while gaining muscle.
Vegetarians will arguably gain muscle or lose weight as well as any keto meat eater, provided they hold to the diet. The keto calculator and the free My Fitness Pal app have been instrumental in helping me determine and stick to my daily nutrient requirements according to my muscle gaining goals.
I strongly recommend heading to Reddit and grabbing the My Fitness Pal app. A reading of Reddit’s Keto frequently asked questions page (known as a sub-Reddit) will provide you with everything you need to know, while the dedicated recipe site will set you up with plenty of delicious culinary options.
Ketogenic diet – a nutritionist’s perspective
Associate Professor in Nutrition at Deakin University Tim Crowe says there’s nothing new about the ketogenic diet.
“You start off on very low carbohydrates and then maybe over time you start re-introducing it,” he says.
“I don’t find lots of positives to it, unless you are a person who can stick to it, and you’re happy about it and you can keep losing weight. But for most people that’s not going to be the case.”
As well, he has issues with what he calls the diet’s “distorted messages”, especially the focus on cutting out all carbs – including many nutritious foods – and not paying enough attention to the proteins or fats you include, some of which may not be healthy food choices.
“If it’s full of plant-based foods, you’ll be doing pretty well compared to what a typical Westerner does. But you can also take the message that I’m going to start my day with bacon and cream and cheese and eggs and mostly animal foods – and that’s a very different dietary pattern.”