A “chaffle,” or cheese waffle, topped with mayonnaise, sliced cheese and avocado.

Can a vegetarian eat a keto diet? I tried it for two weeks

Roxanne Cooke
6 min readMay 20, 2020

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I’ve been a lacto-ovo vegetarian (no meat/fish; eggs and dairy are OK) for almost a decade. I always assumed a low-carb, high-fat diet such as the ketogenic diet would be near impossible without meat. Turns out I’m wrong.

The idea behind the ketogenic, or keto, diet is to severely limit your carbohydrate intake, forcing your body to use fat, rather than carbs, for energy. This is called ketosis.

In the keto diet, approximately 5–15 percent of your calories come from carbs, 15–20 percent from protein and the remaining 65–80 percent from fat.

The benefits of the diet are weight loss and, when compared to many other diets, the freedom to enjoy fats and a feeling of fullness. Many people have reported decreased hunger and sugar cravings, lower blood-sugar levels, improved cholesterol numbers and in some cases, even reversal of type 2 diabetes.

The downsides are a lack of variety, particularly on a vegetarian keto diet; an increase in consumption of saturated fats (arguably linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease); lowered tolerance for alcohol; risk of nutrient deficiencies; and the possibility of the “keto flu” that can happen when first starting the diet.

There’s also conflicting research about long-term impacts of this diet, vegetarian or otherwise.

For two weeks I ate vegetarian keto. Here’s what I learned and how it went.

*Note: I am not a medical professional. I did ask a dietitian to review this article for accuracy, though.

What can you eat on a vegetarian keto diet?

Staples for me now include eggs, a variety of cheeses, avocados, nuts, olives, riced cauliflower, broccoli, tofu, low-carb veggie “meats” like the Beyond Burger, low-carb protein bars, high-fat plain Greek yogurt and heavy cream for coffee — plus ingredients for protein shakes: unsweetened vanilla almond milk, low-carb whey protein powder, peanut butter, unsweetened cocoa powder and liquid stevia.

Meals I’ve eaten: low-carb, cheese-based “chaffles” topped with fried eggs and avocado; cauliflower “mac” and cheese; mushroom and gruyere omelet; whole avocado, fried egg and some cheese; a variety of salads; stir-fried tofu with broccoli; Beyond Burger with avocado and cheese wrapped in lettuce; and a mushroom, cheddar and soy chorizo frittata. Snacks are usually cheese, hard-boiled eggs, nuts, keto cheese “crisps” or a protein bar.

Foods I avoided: anything with sugar; all breads and pastas; cereal, whole grains, granola; starchy vegetables and most fruits.

What are ‘net carbs’?

Limiting net carbs to 20–50 grams per day is common on a keto diet. Net carbs are carbohydrates minus fiber — so for example, a medium avocado has 12 grams of carbs, but 9 grams of fiber, so the net carbs would be 3.

On a keto diet, you learn that carbs are everywhere — even in fruits and vegetables, which creates an interesting challenge for a vegetarian.

To keep your net carbs in the correct range but still get your daily veggies, it’s important to focus on vegetables with lots of fiber and low carbs: cucumber, asparagus, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and spinach and other leafy greens. Low-carb fruits aren’t as common, but berries tend to have higher fiber, so you can get away with eating a small handful a day.

My first few days on keto, I came in at 20g net carbs or below and felt great. It was unusual for me to not feel hungry frequently throughout the day as I’m accustomed to. It freed up my schedule. It was OK to eat keto-friendly “snacks” as meals if I wasn’t very hungry. (Think hard-boiled eggs, cheese, nuts, avocado, plain yogurt.)

What about nutrient deficiencies?

You do have to take some precautions on the keto diet, which is low in magnesium, potassium and sodium. Tracking carbs, fiber, nutrients and overall calories is vital, at least when you’re first starting out.

I’ve been faithfully recording my foods in MyFitnessPal, a calorie-tracker app I’ve used on and off over the years. Since I’ve been vegetarian for nearly 10 years, I’m accustomed to being short on certain nutrients and having to supplement and track them.

Every day I made sure to drink lots of water, take all my supplements (iron, B complex, Vitamin D, magnesium) and keep my electrolytes balanced. To do this, I concocted a salty-sweet electrolyte drink each day containing 24 ounces of water, about 1 teaspoon lite salt (which contains potassium) and 1 teaspoon stevia-sweetened drink powder with added potassium, magnesium and other vitamins and minerals.

The saltiness takes a little getting used to, but once you do, it’s actually quite delicious. My sweet tooth has faded.

Can I order takeout on keto?

With planning, getting takeout is definitely possible, but your options will be restricted. My experiences were pre-COVID, but they apply just as easily to takeout and delivery options available during the pandemic.

At a sushi restaurant I found a Korean bibimbap bowl with fried egg, tofu, spinach, zucchini, bean sprouts and seaweed — and white rice. I ate everything except the rice. OK, I had a tiny bit of rice. Couldn’t resist.

At a soup counter, I selected tomato gorgonzola. Tomatoes are higher in carbs than green veggies, but it was a better choice than the other vegetarian options: potato soup or kale tortellini soup.

At an upscale bar, I ordered mushroom skewers as an appetizer and a salad of greens, fennel, cucumber, radish, cottage cheese and roasted artichokes. It was the envy of the table.

What’s the keto flu like?

The “keto flu” is a series of symptoms that can occur as your body adapts to the keto diet. Symptoms include fatigue, mental fogginess, headache, nausea, diarrhea and/or constipation. Not everyone gets it, especially if they’re good about staying hydrated and nourished the first several days on the diet.

Day six is the first day I felt real lethargy and brain fog, followed by some digestive issues. I also had some minor headaches and nausea, but both were easily resolved by hydrating.

All in all, I can’t say I avoided keto flu entirely, but my symptoms didn’t interrupt my daily life too much.

How do you know if you’re in ketosis?

You can use ketone strips, which aren’t known to be very reliable, or a blood test.

Since I had ketone strips on hand to detect the presence of ketones in my urine, I tried these out nearly every day. Near the end of these first five days I started seeing pink on the strip, a sign that ketones were appearing. Progress!

About a week into the diet, I tried an at-home blood test. My ketones registered as 2.1, which is considered “optimal ketosis.” My ketone strips started turning darker purple (a sign of higher ketones) at this point.

Final thoughts

This is my first time trying a restrictive diet, and I have to say I’m impressed at how well I pulled it off. Stocking my fridge and pantry ahead of time and having a close friend on keto made a big difference.

While I did have some keto flu symptoms, they were easily remedied by drinking more water, replenishing my electrolytes and generally monitoring my food/drink intake. It’s a little extra work, but it’s forcing me to pay close attention to my body and what I put into it, so I consider that a good thing.

I have lost a little weight — about 5 pounds. It’s easier to eat the right amount of calories because fat is so satiating and I’m eating more protein than before.

Now that I’ve got the basics of keto down, I’m looking forward to trying some keto recipes: avocado pie, Mexican scrambled eggs, scrambled eggs with halloumi cheese and bread twists made with parmesan. You can even make a keto mug cake in the microwave.

I’m excited to continue my exploration of this diet, though I probably won’t be keto long-term. I’d miss too many yummy foods. Instead, I may choose a low- to moderate-carb diet so I can expand my options but still enjoy some of the benefits I’ve seen here — less hunger pangs and sugar cravings, to start.

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Roxanne Cooke

Roxanne is a storyteller, writer, editor and photographer based in Tacoma, WA.