With a new diet out almost weekly that promises to clear a health concern, make our skin glow, or prolong our lives, you can forgive us for ignoring most of them, most of the time. But every now and then, a doctor presents years of research and evidence in a book that you simply can't ignore. That's what happened when functional medicine practitioner Will Cole's book, Ketotarian, came across my desk, a mostly plant-based plan to burn fat, boost your energy, crush your cravings, and calm inflammation. A quick flick through the pages and I was presented with a simple, actionable plan and a handy ingredient checklist on what to eat and what to avoid, followed by 75 easy recipes.
We have all been witness to the insane buzz around the ketogenic diet, and while it has been shown to reduce inflammation and lower the risk of chronic health concerns, the traditional keto diet largely excludes anyone on a plant-centric diet. Cole refers to most vegetarians as "carbitarians" thanks to their high consumption of bread, pasta, beans, and vegan sweets. This is where Cole's ketotarian version comes in.
Read on to learn more about Cole's plant-based keto diet, the main differences between his version and the original keto diet, and why it works, plus what to eat and avoid.
What are the main differences between the original keto diet and the ketotarian version?
A conventional ketogenic diet and the ketotarian diet are similar in the sense that your macronutrient ratio is made up of high fat, moderate protein, and low carbs. However, it's where those macros come from that is different. Traditional ketogenic diets are often extremely heavy in dairy and meats—both of which can be inflammatory and unhealthy in high amounts for long periods of time. The ketotarian diet instead focuses on getting healthy fats and protein from plant-based fats such as avocados, olives, nuts and seeds, coconuts and loads of antioxidant and fiber-rich vegetables.
I developed ketotarian to avoid these unhealthy aspects of the conventional ketogenic diet and offer an option to those who want to be more plant-centric but still reap the benefits of going keto, all while avoiding the common pitfalls that also happen with conventional vegan and vegetarian diets. Many people who decide to go vegan or vegetarian end up either being more carbitarian, loading up on grains, soy, and legumes that are hard on the digestive system. Ketotarian eliminates the problems of both conventional keto and plant-based diets for an easy-to-follow real food keto plan with a plant-based twist.
What are the dangers of focusing on a low-carbohydrate, high-fat approach to dieting in the original keto diet?
Besides overloading on often-inflammatory dairy and excess meat, I see many people following a traditional keto diet greatly limiting their vegetables for fear of going over their carb count. This leaves people missing a variety of much-needed nutrients their body needs. Also, focusing too much on macronutrients regardless of where those macros come from can be a problem since people will end up loading up on processed and pre-packaged keto foods that may not have the best ingredients as long as they fit into their macronutrient ratio for the day.
What are the main health benefits of eating a ketotarian diet instead?
By eliminating these problematic foods in both traditional ketogenic and vegetarian/vegan diets, instead focusing on nutrient-dense, satiating plant foods, you can leverage the benefits of both eating styles. Ketotarian is a clean keto diet. This allows you to amplify the benefits of nutritional ketosis: become a fat burner, lower inflammation levels, enhance brain function, boost your energy, and curb your cravings. Because ketotarian is plant-centric, it will improve your detox pathways, lower your blood sugar, and decrease your risk for diseases.
You say many vegetarians are carbitarians. What do you mean by that, and why is it a trap/unhealthy in the long term?
Essentially, anyone who relies too much on carbs as their main food source could be considered a carbitarian. These carb sources don't have to be obviously unhealthy; they can come from whole gluten-free grains such as quinoa and oats or beans. When you eat this way, not only are you not getting in all the nutrients your body needs by limiting your plant variety, but these real-food carbs can also seriously raise your blood sugar and hurt your digestive system over time.
Change can be hard for many people. What approach do you recommend for those who are finding it hard to launch into the diet first? Are there baby steps?
Definitely. If tracking your macros seems overwhelming, you don't have to do it. Get yourself in the habit of just eating the ketotarian-approved foods and the low-starch veggies in moderation. Ketotarian is about bringing a sense of grace and lightness to wellness, undoing dieting dogma and food shame.
You mention in the book that fat is your friend—how? What types of fats? Are there good and bad versions?
For years we have been taught that eating fat will make us fat and lead to heart disease. That is simply not the case with healthy fats. Looking at it from a biological and evolutionary perspective, as babies, we used fat in the form of breast milk for energy and development. Healthy fats, such as avocados, avocado oil, coconuts, coconut oil, olives, olive oil, nuts, and seeds, are real food sources. Bad fats are any type of industrial seed oils that are highly processed, such as canola, vegetable, or soybean oil, as these are highly inflammatory and oxidize at low temperatures.
Why should we avoid eating dairy? What do you recommend instead?
Conventional dairy is from cows, which are fed low-nutrient grains instead of grass. Years of cross-breeding and genetic mutations have left us with the inflammatory A1-subtype of the milk protein casein (instead of the more primal beta A2 casein, which is better tolerated).
Coconut, almond, and other nut milks are great substitutes for everything from drinking to baking, and vegan nut-based cheeses are amazing.
You do recommend fish in this diet—why? And can you still do the diet if you're a vegetarian who doesn't eat any animal products?
I designed ketotarian to be done 100% vegan keto if you choose, but I also added many keto-vegetarian options, with organic eggs and ghee, as well as keto-pescatarian options (or "vegaquarian," as I call it in the book). Wild-caught fish is a fantastic source of omega-3 fats, which are great nutrients for a healthy brain, heart, and hormones.
Where have traditional plant-based diets gone wrong in the past? What are some common plant-based pitfalls to avoid?
The issue of becoming a carbitarian and not getting enough variety of nutrient-dense vegetables is definitely the main concern. In that same vein, many people on a plant-based diet can turn too often to packaged foods that are heavy in soy byproducts and sugar, which isn't ideal. Also, legumes are a popular protein source on a plant-based diet, but the phytates and lectin proteins in legumes can wreak havoc on digestion. Lectins and phytates are anti-nutrients, binding to the nutrients in your body and making them more unusable. There are healthier ways to have legumes, like soaking or pressure cooking them, which decreases the lectin content, but most vegans and vegetarians are not doing this.
A huge part of the Keto diet is a protein that can be a little trickier for vegans. What are some key plant proteins that you recommend? And how much should we be taking?
My top plant-based protein sources are organic fermented non-GMO soy like tempeh and natto as well as hemp versions like hempeh or hempfu. Also nuts, seeds, nutritional yeast, and spirulina are great vegan protein sources. Vegetarians also have organic eggs as an option in Ketotarian. Your individual protein amount will vary based on your age, weight, gender, and activity level.
The Top 5 Foods We Should AVOID on the Ketotarian Diet
Sugar: This is just not good all around. Not only will it raise your insulin levels, blood sugar, and kick you out of ketosis, it will also raise inflammation in your body.
Dairy: It's highly inflammatory and many people have sensitivities or intolerances to dairy.
Meat: Meat can be inflammatory in excess and many people have problems digesting a lot of meat.
Grains: They are high in carbs, low in nutrients, and inflammatory.
Legumes: While a decent protein source, these are hard on your gut and digestive system.
High-fructose fruits: These also have a big impact on your blood sugar and insulin. Instead, focus on low-fructose fruits like berries and citrus fruits.
The Top 5 Foods We Should Eat MORE OF on the Ketotarian Diet
Avocados/avocado oil: Who doesn't love avocado? A great source of healthy fats.
Nuts and seeds: A great source of healthy fats as well as protein and can be added to many different recipes.
Olives/olive oil: An amazing source of healthy fats and can be added to a variety of recipes.
Dark leafy greens: Low in carbs, these contain B vitamins, which are essential for methylation, your body's biochemical superhighway responsible for everything from a healthy brain and hormones to the optimal function of your detoxification pathways.
Sulfur-rich vegetables: These include brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cabbage. The sulfur groups enhance methylation and other detox pathways.
Grilled Cauliflower Steaks With Romesco Sauce and Toasted Nuts
Preparation: 15 minutes
Grill: 16 Minutes
One 2 3/4-pound head cauliflower (for two “steaks”)
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1/4 teaspoon ras el hanout seasoning
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup raw unsalted almonds, lightly toasted and chopped
1/4 cup roasted red bell peppers, drained
1 teaspoon minced fresh garlic
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
Preheat the grill to medium-high heat (350 F to 400 F).
Hold the cauliflower head stalk side down on a cutting board. Cut the cauliflower into 1 1/2-inch-thick slabs all the way across, yielding two large "steaks" from the middle of the head, and florets from the edges.
Trim and discard the green parts from the steaks and the bottom inch of the stalk. (Reserve the florets for another use.) Pat both sides of the steaks dry.
Whisk 2 tablespoons oil, 1 tablespoon vinegar, the ras el hanout seasoning, and 1/4 teaspoon salt until thoroughly combined. Brush the cauliflower steaks with approximately half of the olive oil mixture.
Grill the steaks, covered, on well-oiled grill grates for 8 minutes, until slightly charred. Turn and brush with the remaining oil mixture. Cover and continue to grill for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the cauliflower is tender but not mushy. Remove from the grill; cover with foil and keep warm.
Meanwhile, add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil, the remaining 1 tablespoon vinegar, 2 tablespoons almonds, bell peppers, garlic, the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, and the black pepper to the container of a small food processor and purée until almost smooth, about 1 minute.
Spoon some romesco sauce onto the serving plate. Place the cauliflower over the sauce and serve immediately, passing the remaining sauce at the table.
Moroccan Vegetable Tagine With Olives and Cinnamon-Ghee Almonds
Preparation: 20 Minutes
Roast: 20 Minutes
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon ghee
2 yellow, orange, or red bell peppers, cut into small dice
1 small red onion, cut into small dice
1 teaspoon minced fresh garlic
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
3/8 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon plus a dash of ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
Dash of cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 small zucchini, cut into small dice
1 1/2 cups packed fresh Swiss chard leaves, thinly sliced
1 cup preservative-free, sugar-free vegetable broth or stock
1/4 cup pitted green olives, halved
1/2 cup raw unsalted almonds, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro or parsley leaves
Heat 2 tablespoons of the ghee in a deep 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add the bell peppers, onion, garlic, ginger, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon, and the cumin and cayenne and sauté until the onion is translucent about 4 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for 1 minute.
Add the zucchini and sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in the chard and sauté until the chard is wilted about 3 minutes. Add the broth and olives and bring to a boil over high heat. Once the mixture comes to a boil, cover the pan and reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer until all of the vegetables are tender and the sauce thickens slightly 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons ghee and let it melt.
Once melted, add the almonds and a dash of cinnamon. You may sprinkle with more nuts and cilantro as desired.
Sheet Pan Veggies With Nut-Free Olive-Basil Pesto
Preparation: 15 Minutes
Roast: 25 Minutes
3 garlic cloves
1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon olive oil
3 cups fresh brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
2 cups cremini mushrooms, halved
3/4 cup thinly sliced red onion wedges
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
3/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup pitted green olives
1 cup packed fresh basil leaves
1 to 2 teaspoons finely ground spirulina
Preheat the oven to 425 F. Place the garlic on a 4-inch sheet of foil; drizzle with 1 teaspoon oil. Wrap the foil up around the garlic and oil to fully enclose it. Roast the garlic for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the cloves are tender and lightly browned. Cool in the foil pouch on a wire rack.
Meanwhile, in a large shallow roasting pan, toss together the brussels sprouts, mushrooms, onion, 2 tablespoons oil, salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Spread in an even layer. Roast alongside the garlic, uncovered, stirring once or twice for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender and golden brown.
Hyde PN, Sapper TN, Crabtree CD, et al. Dietary Carbohydrate Restriction Improves Metabolic Syndrome Independent of Weight Loss. JCI Insight. 2019;4(12). doi:10.1172/jci.insight.128308