Eco-Keto Makes a Low-Carb Diet More Environmentally Friendly—but It’s Not for Everyone

Photo: Getty Images / Claudia Totir
Ever since the ketogenic diet exploded into the mainstream last year, it's spawned dozens of variations like keto cycling, targeted keto, dirty keto, and more. But as people are becoming more and more aware of the environmental impact of their favorite foods, another iteration of the eating plan aims to address some shortcomings of the red meat-heavy original: eco-keto.

What’s that? Well, it’s like standard keto in terms of macronutrient breakdown of fat, protein, and carbs, but with a sustainable bent. “The exact definition of eco-keto is ever evolving and can be personalized. In essence, it’s an eco-friendly version of the ketogenic diet—a high fat, moderate protein, very low carb lifestyle, but one that emphasizes plants, limits or eliminates meat [and] animal products, and promotes sustainable choices and shopping locally,” explains Pam Nisevich Bede, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, a registered dietitian and keto expert with Abbott’s ZonePerfect. Unlike the more mainstream interpretation of the ketogenic diet (butter and bacon, anyone?), eco-keto involves zero (or very few) animal-based foods (hence the "eco" part of the name), while still putting a person into ketosis.

Curious to learn ketogenic diet 101? Here's what a registered dietitian thinks of the eating plan: 

The concept is very similar to the "Ketotarian" diet, which was started by Will Cole, DC. "The basic premise includes limiting animal products while still aiming to stay in ketosis. Dr. Cole started this trend, and eco-keto is merely an offshoot,” says Sam Presicci, MCN, RD, LD, CPT, and lead dietitian at Snap Kitchen. However, while Ketotarian followers can eat eggs, ghee, and fresh, sustainably-sourced fish, eco-keto is generally a vegan interpretation of the ketogenic diet.

So, what do you eat on this plan?

Whether you follow a traditional keto diet or an eco-friendly approach, either usually supplies approximately 70 to 75 percent of calories from fat, 20 to 25 percent of calories from protein, and 5 percent of calories from carbohydrates, says Bede.

With those macros in mind, you're supposed to focus on plant-based proteins and fat. Here are some of the foods that likely would be on your plate, says Presicci:

  • Non-starchy vegetables (broccoli, kale, cauliflower, spinach, zucchini, cabbage, etc.)
  • Plant-based fats like avocados, coconut oil, olive oil, and olives
  • Nuts
  • Seeds like flax and chia

What are the benefits of eco-keto?

If done properly, the plan should still put a person into ketosis, even without animal fat and protein. “The proven macros ratio supports ketosis, promotes higher levels of ketones, and promotes improvements in body composition," Bede says. Other potential benefits of keto include increased energy, balanced blood sugar, and reduced inflammation.

Take some of that with a grain of salt, though—given that there's very little research on how keto affects human adults, there's even less to go on for this vegan version. However, if a person is concerned about the long-term effects of the saturated fat intake involved in a ketogenic eating plan, this plant-based version might be more appealing.

Plus, cutting out meat, dairy, and other animal-based foods can have major environmental benefits. Farmed animal products contribute to 58 percent of all agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and 57 percent of agricultural water pollution, according to a study in the journal Science. "A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use, and water use," the study's lead author told The Guardian. (Those benefits are true whether or not you decide to make your plant-based diet a keto affair.)

How do-able is it?

You thought regular keto was restrictive? This version is...even more challenging, Presicci says. “One pitfall is that it’s a lot harder to get in adequate protein without meat or dairy,” she says, especially since many plant-based protein staples like beans and lentils are higher in carbs and thus not keto-friendy. However, that doesn't mean it's impossible to pull off, she says.

It should also be noted that some experts warn that women in particular might have trouble severely restricting carbs as required on a ketogenic eating plan—which potentially could lead to unwanted weight gain, hormonal imbalances, and other health issues. Like the benefits of keto, none of these possible downsides have been extensively studied in humans, but they're still important to be aware of before considering the eating plan for yourself. For any restrictive eating plan (including eco-keto), it's always best to work with a registered dietitian or doctor to ensure that you're still getting the nutrients you need.

The eco-friendly compromise

If you're loving keto but want to make it more environmentally friendly, Bede says there's another option to make it work for you. “You can take steps to make the keto diet more eco-friendly—like limiting meat or supporting your local farmer—without making it a completely vegan version of the diet,” she says. Consider it "eco-friendly keto." “Rather than go vegan, I recommend people eat sustainably-raised animal products," adds Presicci. "Ideally, purchase from local farms or find well-labeled options in store." She recommends keto dieters load up on plant-based foods but enjoy meat and dairy in moderation in the week.

Also, if you are eco-keto, avoid meat substitutes (even if they’re low carb) and just focus on plant-based sources and whole foods. “Not only are [meat substitutes] often highly processed, but they usually have a long list of potentially inflammatory ingredients, including gluten, soy and corn,” Presicci says.

You can also choose one day to go “eco” such as meatless Mondays, says Bede, and opt for meatless keto snacks like shakes, bars, olives, nuts, and more. Keep it flexible and you'll still make a difference.

What's the deal with intermittent fasting, anyways? And here's what an RD has to say about coconut and MCT oils.

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