You’ve heard about all the benefits of going keto, but you’re unsure of what’s okay to eat. We’ve been there, which is why we’ve put together this list of keto-friendly foods to help you out. It will help you keep your carb intake under 5 percent so that ketosis can do the work for you.
We’ll cover good choices for all the food types and make sure you know what to avoid. Knowing how keto-friendly foods are will be handy when you meal plan and go shopping, and it will set you up for success.
The basic guidelines:
Fats will be the largest percentage of your diet. Get fat from meat and nuts. Supplement that with saturated and monounsaturated fats from animals, coconut oil, butter, cheese and a few select oils.
Protein should be eaten in moderation. The main sources of protein are meat, fish and eggs. Try to get organic, pasture-raised, grass-fed and/or wild (fish) whenever possible.
Vegetables fill out your plate and provide fiber and many necessary micronutrients. Those that grow above-ground (especially leafy greens) tend to be lower in carbs.
Nuts and seeds provide protein and fat, but they also have varying amounts of carbs so don’t eat too many. They can be used to add some great flavor and texture to many dishes.
Dairy tends to be high in fat and has varying levels of protein and carbs. Hard cheeses are a great way to add flavor without carbs.
Fruit should be eaten sparingly. Many fruits are high in sugar, and it is very easy to eat too much of them. Use them to accent your food, not as the main portion.
Beverages can trip you up. Water truly is your best choice and can be flavored with a wedge of lemon or lime, but the occasional coffee or tea is also fine.
There is so much more to know about each of these things. Let’s go more in-depth, and we’ll give you plenty of examples in each section.
It may seem strange to start a discussion of diet with a lot of fat. However, when we greatly reduce the amount of carbohydrates we eat, the percentage of fat in our diet goes up by necessity. Fat helps make vegetables and meat more flavorful and satisfying. Studies show that protein is the most satisfying macronutrient, but fiber combined with fat comes a close second.
Study after study proves that it is not fat but carbs that drive the markers of heart disease and metabolic syndrome. Fat has been vilified for a long time, but the studies exonerate it. Trans fats (which are created during the hydrogenation, or saturation, of oils) and processed carbs are really to blame. The days of picking lean cuts of meat are over; you can enjoy the flavor of marbling without unfounded concerns about your weight or health.
Keep in mind, though, that being able to enjoy fat is very different from just eating all the fat you want. The amount to eat varies from person to person, but if you start with a good macro calculator that is designed for keto, you can experiment to find the range that is right for your needs. Your body will use fat for energy, but if you eat too much, you won’t make progress on your fat stores.
There is another component to choosing fats: omega-3s and omega-6s. A healthy balance is needed, but the standard American diet favors a ratio that is much too high in omega-6s, which is bad for your health. Grass-fed and pastured animals have much better ratios than conventionally-fed animals, and vegetable oils tend to be very high in omega-6s.
Healthy fat can come from several sources:
- Fatty meat and fish
- Dairy (butter, cheese, ghee)
- Real lard or tallow, goose or duck fat
- Coconut butter or oil
- Flaxseed oil
- Cocoa butter
- Olive oil
- Avocado oil
- MCT oil
Fats to avoid:
- Vegetable oil (corn, soybean, canola, etc.)
- Shortening and fake lard (hydrogenated vegetable oil)
One more big point about fat: overheating fats and oils can cause oxidation, which damages fatty acids. If you’re going to cook over higher heat, use animal fat, ghee or coconut oil; they have higher smoke-points that will protect against excess oxidation.
Protein is important. It provides amino acids for repairing muscles and many cells and should be eaten in moderation. Some will tell you that eating too much protein will cause unchecked gluconeogenesis (the creation of glucose) and knock you out of ketosis, but there is no evidence of that.
Gluconeogenesis is not inherently bad. Some will (and should) happen on a proper keto diet because there are a few bodily tissues that can’t run on ketones and must have glucose. However, there is no proof that your body will make more than it needs and derail ketosis and your weight loss efforts.
Make sure to get good-quality protein. As discussed above, grass-fed and pastured animals provide more nutrition and a better ratio of omega fats. Wild, fatty fish (especially those that are small and fast-growing) are a better choice than farmed fish for similar reasons, but it is important to pay attention to which types are most prone to mercury contamination.
There is no reason to be concerned about red meat, and processed meat is fine as long as it is not high in sugar. Don’t worry too much about nitrates, either; in a balanced diet, there won’t be enough to be problematic. And since fat isn’t a problem, feel free to get marbled steak or ground beef with a higher percentage of fat.
Good sources of protein:
- Meat (beef, pork, lamb, goat, etc.)
- Poultry (chicken, turkey, duck, etc.)
- Game (venison, goose, etc.)
- Fish and shellfish
- Offal or organ meats (liver, heart, gizzard, tongue, kidney, etc.)
- Nuts (keep an eye on the fat content)
This is where it can get tricky. Vegetables can really help fill out a meal, but they (and fruit) are largely carbohydrate with varying amounts of fiber. Some are very high in fiber and can be eaten in large portions, others can be used moderately and some are to be avoided.
Sweet and starchy veggies need to be consumed in moderation. This will include anything that grows underground. Onions, carrots and garlic are part of this group that can be used to season dishes without using too much, but a pile of mashed potatoes is not going to work.
On the other hand, you can pretty much eat as much lettuce, kale, spinach and green beans as you want. Bell pepper, cabbage and mushrooms are also nice and low. When you start to get into flowering veggies (like broccoli and cauliflower) and fruiting veggies (like squash) the carb counts starts to go up, but you can still enjoy them.
Nuts and Seeds
These are mostly fat with some protein and fiber, but they have some starch too. You can eat small portions of these and still stay within your macros. They can provide great flavor and texture on a salad or main dish, be part of a grain-free substitute for baked goods or you can enjoy them on their own.
Nuts are tasty, and salted nuts tend to make us want more. To prevent overeating them, don’t pull out the whole bag; pour yourself a small serving and put them away.
Pecans, brazil nuts and macadamia nuts are the best options, but you could also enjoy hazelnuts, peanuts, walnuts, almonds or pine nuts with more moderation. Pistachios, cashews and chestnuts are very high in carbs and will very quickly use up your daily carb allowance.
As for seeds, pumpkin, chia and flax seeds are good options. Sunflower seeds are a touch higher in carbs and should be eaten with moderation.
Butter, cream and cheese are the main items here. They provide lots of delicious flavor, especially if you combine them for a lovely Alfredo sauce to put on your broccoli! These items are pretty high in fat, but cheese has protein too.
Milk, unfortunately, is fairly high in carbs due to the lactose (milk sugar). A single cup of milk has a full day’s carb count. However, when cheese is made, the lactose is used up by the cultures that create the curds, so any firm cheese (like cheddar or Parmesan) is likely to be free of carbs. Some softer cheeses, like brie and mascarpone are also carb-free. The exception to this is low-fat cheese – they’ll use starches to help it along, so make sure you get full-fat cheese and just watch the portions.
Yogurt tends to be high in carbs, even when it is full-fat and plain. Greek yogurt will be the best option, but even that can be high in carbs, so check the nutrition info.
Some people find that dairy creates stalls in their weight loss. This is an individual thing, so if you think that might be happening to you, try cutting dairy and see if it makes a difference. Just keep in mind that if you aren’t counting, it could just be due to excess fat.
While fruit is delicious and full of fiber, fruit is nature’s candy. This means that all fruit should be eaten in moderation. Small tart berries, like blackberries and raspberries, are the options with the least carbs. Things like melons, cherries, peaches and apples are in the middle; be careful with them. Grapes and bananas are the highest. In fact, one banana can be more than a day’s carb allowance!
Used sparingly, fruit can provide a nice burst of flavor or a key note in a dish. Enjoy them, but be careful.
Your best bet is water. It’s always a good idea to get plenty of it. Tea and coffee (no sugar) are fine too, and you can make them ketoproof or “bulletproof” by adding some fat to them if you want. Another great hot option for cold days is bone broth, though it does have fat and protein to count. Juice, since it’s from fruit and naturally high in sugar, is not keto-friendly.
While there are many non-caloric beverages, a lot of them use sweeteners that trigger an insulin response and should be avoided. Sugar-free sodas and the like can cause sugar cravings too, which is another reason to avoid them. If you do want to have “non-caloric” beverages, try to stick to stevia-sweetened; it doesn’t affect insulin levels.
Things to Avoid on Keto
We’ve given items to avoid in each section above, but there are a couple things that need special attention here: sweeteners and grains. These things are composed mainly of carbohydrates.
Sugar and Other Sweeteners
Sugar itself is straight carb without even any fiber to subtract. That makes it an obvious item to stay away from, and that includes brown and coconut sugar. Honey, maple syrup, agave and other syrups are not keto-friendly either.
As mentioned under beverages, many sweeteners cause an insulin response. Some of them vary by the individual, but dextrose and maltodextrin are generally not considered keto-friendly. Most of the sugar alcohols (like maltitol) do cause a glycemic response and have higher net carbs, and several are known for their laxative effect. Erythritol is an exception, however, as it is quite low in carbs and has no glycemic response.
The best and most-acceptable sweeteners on keto are:
- Monk fruit
- Sucralose (pure, don’t confuse with Splenda)
- Inulin fiber
- Blends of the above
Very dark chocolate (85 or 90 percent cocoa) is often acceptable in small amounts. It can make a nice treat to have a square or two. Watch the portion sizes, as they can be tricky.
Grains are primarily starch, and “whole grains” with their fiber aren’t much better. All grain products, such as these, need to be avoided:
- Cakes and cookies
There are some things – like beer – that you may not realize have carbs. And sometimes food companies shrink serving sizes in the nutrition info to make them look better. Check labels (both ingredients and nutrition info) carefully and don’t get fooled.
Some places carbs hide:
- Low-fat products usually end up with starches and fillers to thicken them or add flavor. This can be a problem in dressings, dairy and more.
- Condiments can have added sugar or starches. Ketchup and barbeque sauce are good examples with added sugar and small serving sizes.
- Seasonings, such as dried garlic and onion, allspice, cinnamon and ginger, can be surprisingly high in carbs. Don’t be afraid of seasonings and spices, but make sure not to overdo it.
- Tomato products can be high in carbs too. Tomatoes themselves are fairly high, but companies often add sugar to tomato products, like tomato sauce and ketchup.
- Medicine is something you might not even consider, but many will use sugar syrups to make them more palatable. Look for sugar-free options if you can remember that when you are unwell.
One Last Bit of Advice
There can be a lot of cravings in the first few weeks on keto. Sugar engages the reward center of the brain and can result in addictive-type behaviors. Instead of having to fight off cravings all the time, remove foods that aren’t keto-friendly from your fridge, pantry and workspace. It is much easier to stick to the plan if carbs aren’t sitting around calling to you. Plan ahead and bring keto-friendly snacks like hard-boiled eggs or nuts if you have a place or time that you usually grab a snack.
Alternative sweeteners can extend the initial craving time, so it is best to restrict or avoid those for the first month or so. Don’t worry – the cravings do diminish. Eating great food will also help; getting vital nutrients that may have been low can help eliminate food cravings.
Stick to it, and it will get easier. You’ll start to feel really great and find that you love the other benefits too. Like us, you may decide that this is the way you want to eat for the rest of your life.