Unlike many fad diets that come and go with very limited rates of long-term success, the ketogenic (keto) diet has been practiced for more than nine decades (since the 1920s) and is based upon a solid understanding of physiology and nutrition science.
The keto diet works for such a high percentage of people because it targets several key, underlying causes of weight gain — including hormonal imbalances, especially insulin resistance coupled with high blood sugar levels, and the cycle of restricting and “binging” on empty calories due to hunger that so many dieters struggle with. Yet that’s not a problem with what’s on the keto diet food list.
Rather than relying on counting calories, limiting portion sizes, resorting to extreme exercise or requiring lots of willpower (even in the face of drastically low energy levels), the ketogenic diet takes an entirely different approach to weight loss and health improvements. It works because it changes the very “fuel source” that the body uses to stay energized — namely, from burning glucose (or sugar) to dietary fat, courtesy of keto recipes and the keto diet food list items, including high-fat, low-carb foods.
Keto Diet Questions:
- What Is Ketosis?
- What Are the Stages of Ketosis?
- What Can You Eat On a Keto Diet?
- Benefits of a Ketogenic Diet
- What Is the Keto Flu?
- Keto Diet Plan
- Best Keto Foods
- Keto Foods to Limit
- Foods to Avoid When on a Keto Diet
- Modified Keto Diet
What Is the Keto Diet and Ketosis?
The ketogenic diet was originally designed in the 1920s to help patients with epilepsy control their seizures. (1) It’s a very high-fat, low-carb diet. “Keto” is short for the state of ketosis, a metabolic state that occurs when most of the body’s energy comes from ketone bodies in the blood rather than from glucose obtained from eating foods with carbohydrates. Ketosis is able to occur only when fat provides most of the body’s daily calorie needs, which takes the place of glucose as the preferred source of bodily energy.
Both in terms of how it feels physically and mentally, along with the impact it has on the body, being in ketosis is a very different than a “glycolytic state,” where blood glucose (sugar) serves as the body’s energy source. Many consider burning ketones to be a much “cleaner” way to stay energized compared to running on carbs and sugar day in and day out. Another major benefit of the keto diet is that there’s no need to count calories, feel hungry or attempt to burn loads of calories through hours of intense exercise.
At the core of the ketogenic diet and keto diet food list is severely restricting intake of all or most foods with sugar and starch (carbohydrates). These foods are broken down into sugar (insulin and glucose) in our blood once we eat them, and if these levels become too high, extra calories are much more easily stored as body fat and results in unwanted weight gain. However, when glucose levels are cut off due to low-carb dieting, the body starts to burn fat instead and produces ketones that can be measured in the blood.
What Are the Stages of Ketosis?
Ketosis occurs when the liver breaks down fat into fatty acids and glycerol — a process called beta-oxidation. In particular, three primary types of ketone bodies that are water-soluble molecules are produced: acetoacetate, beta-hydroxybutyrate and acetone.
Rather than drawing energy from glucose, a person in ketosis stays fueled off of these circulating ketones or ketone bodies — essentially, burning fat for fuel. This is the principal goal of the ketogenic diet, which can be achieved by adhering to a very low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet with only moderate amounts of protein.
What Can You Eat On a Ketogenic Diet?
Here are some examples of high fat low carb foods on the keto diet food list you can expect to eat lots of if you’re following the ketogenic diet:
- High amounts of healthy fats (up to 80 percent of your total calories!), such as olive oil, coconut oil, grass-fed butter, palm oil, and some nuts and seeds. Fats are a critical part of every ketogenic recipe because fat is what provides energy and prevents hunger, weakness and fatigue.
- All sorts of non-starchy vegetables. What vegetables can you eat on a ketogenic diet without worrying about increasing your carb intake too much? Some of the most popular choices include broccoli and other cruciferous veggies, all types of leafy greens, asparagus, cucumber, and zucchini.
- In more moderate amounts, foods that are high in protein but low- or no-carb, including grass-fed meat, pasture-raised poultry, cage-free eggs, bone broth, wild-caught fish, organ meats and some full-fat (ideally raw) dairy products.
On the other hand, the types of foods you’ll avoid eating on the keto diet are likely the same ones you are, or previously were, accustomed to getting lots of your daily calories from before starting this way of eating. This includes things like fruit, processed foods or drinks high in sugar, those made with any grains or white/wheat flour, conventional dairy products, desserts, and many other high-carb foods (especially those that are sources of “empty calories”).
6 Benefits of a Ketogenic Diet
Based on many decades of research, some of the main benefits associated with following the ketogenic diet and keto diet food list include:
1. Weight loss
On a keto diet, weight loss can often be substantial and happen quickly (especially for those who start the diet very overweight or obese). The 2013 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that those following a keto diet “achieved better long-term body weight and cardiovascular risk factor management when compared with individuals assigned to a conventional low-fat diet (i.e. a restricted-energy diet with less than 30 percent of energy from fat).” (2)
A 2014 review published in the International Journal of Environmental Research & Public Health states:
One of the most studied strategies in the recent years for weight loss is the ketogenic diet. Many studies have shown that this kind of nutritional approach has a solid physiological and biochemical basis and is able to induce effective weight loss along with improvement in several cardiovascular risk parameters. (3)
High-fat, low-carb diets can help diminish hunger and also boost weight loss through their hormonal effects. As described above, when we eat very little foods that supply us with carbohydrates, we release less insulin. With less insulin around, the body doesn’t store extra energy in the form of fat for later use, and instead is able to reach into existing fat stores for energy.
Diets high in healthy fats and protein also tend to be very filling, which can help reduce overeating of empty calories, sweets and junk foods. (4) For most people eating a healthy low-carb diet, it’s easy to consume an appropriate amount of calories, but not too many, since things like sugary drinks, cookies, bread, cereals, ice cream or other desserts and snack bars are off-limits.
2. Reduce Risk for Type 2 Diabetes
Significant improvements in maintaining healthy blood sugar levels, as the ketogenic diet dramatically reduces the amount of sugar present in the blood. This offers benefits for diabetes prevention or management. In studies, low-carb diets have shown benefits for improving blood pressure, postprandial glycemia and insulin secretion. (5) Diabetics on insulin should contact their medical provider prior to starting a ketogenic diet, however, as insulin dosages may need to be adjusted.
3. Reduce Risk of Heart Disease
The keto diet can reduce the risk of heart disease markers, including high cholesterol and triglycerides. (6) In fact, the keto diet is unlikely to negatively impact your cholesterol levels despite being so high in fat. Moreover, it’s capable of lowering cardiovascular disease risk factors, especially in those who are obese. (7) One study, for example, found that adhering to the ketogenic diet and keto diet food list for 24 weeks resulted in decreased levels of triglycerides, LDL cholesterol and blood glucose in a significant percentage of patients, while at the same time increasing the level of HDL cholesterol. (8)
4. Help Protect Against Cancer
Certain studies suggest that ketogenic diets may “starve” cancer cells. A highly processed, pro-inflammatory, low-nutrient diet can feed cancer cells causing them to proliferate. What’s the connection between a high-sugar diet and cancer? The regular cells found in our bodies are able to use fat for energy, but it’s believed that cancer cells cannot metabolically shift to use fat rather than glucose. (9)
There are several medical studies — such as two conducted by the Department of Radiation Oncology at the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center for the University of Iowa, and the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, for example— that show the ketogenic diet is an effective treatment for cancer and other serious health problems. (10)
Therefore, a diet that eliminates excess refined sugar and other processed carbohydrates may be effective in reducing or fighting cancer. It’s not a coincidence that some of the best cancer-fighting foods are on the keto diet food list.
5. Fight Brain Disease
6. Live Longer
Now, there’s even evidence that a low-carb, high-fat diet helps you live longer, compared to a low-fat diet. In a study by the medical journal The Lancet that studied more than 135,000 adults from 18 countries, high carbohydrate intake was associated with higher risk of total mortality, whereas total fat and individual types of fat were related to lower total mortality. Total fat and types of fat were not associated with cardiovascular disease, myocardial infarction or cardiovascular disease mortality. In fact, saturated fat intake had an inverse association with the risk for suffering from a stroke, meaning the more saturated fat included in someone’s diet, the more protection against having a stroke they seemed to have. (12)
The Keto Diet Food List
If you’re new to the keto diet or just still learning the ropes, your biggest questions probably revolve around figuring out just what high fat low carb foods you can eat on such a low-carb diet. Overall, remember that the bulk of calories on the keto diet are from foods that are high in natural fats along with a moderate amount of foods with protein. Those that are severely restricted are all foods that provide lots of carbs, even kinds that are normally thought of as “healthy,” like whole grains, for example.
Overview of the Keto Diet Plan:
- The exact ratio of recommended macronutrients in your diet (grams of carbs vs. fat vs. protein) will differ depending on your specific goals and current state of health. Your age, gender, level of activity and current body composition can also play a role in determining your carb versus fat intake.
- Historically, ketogenic diets have consisted of limiting carbohydrate intake to just 20–30 net grams per day. “Net carbs” is the amount of carbs remaining once dietary fiber is taken into account. Because fiber is indigestible once eaten, most people don’t count grams of fiber toward their daily carb allotment. In other words, total carbs – grams of fiber = net carbs.
- On a “strict” (standard) keto diet, fats typically provides about 70 percent to 80 percent of total daily calories, protein about 15 percent to 20 percent, and carbohydrates just around 5 percent. However, a more “moderate” approach to the keto diet is also a good option for many people that can allow for an easier transition into very low-carb eating and more flexibility (more on this type of plan below).
- Something that makes the keto diet different from other low-carb diets is that it does not “protein-load.” Protein is not as big a part of the diet as fat is. Reason being: In small amounts, the body can change protein to glucose, which means if you eat too much of it, especially while in the beginning stages of the keto diet, it will slow down your body’s transition into ketosis.
- Protein intake should be between one and 1.5 grams per kilogram of your ideal body weight. To convert pounds to kilograms, divide your ideal weight by 2.2. For example, a woman who weighs 150 pounds (68 kilograms) should get about 68–102 grams of protein daily.
- It’s important to also drink lots of water. Getting enough water helps keep you from feeling fatigued, is important for digestion and aids in hunger suppression. It’s also needed for detoxification. Aim to drink 10–12 eight-ounce glasses a day.
Best Keto Foods — Eat These High Fat Low Carb Foods Whenever:
Most healthy fats contain zero net carbs, especially the kinds listed below, which also have other health advantages. (13) Fats should be included in high amounts with every meal throughout the day.
- Healthy fats include saturated fats, monounsaturated fats and certain types of polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), especially omega-3 fatty acids. It’s best to include all types in your diet, with an emphasis on saturated fats, especially compared to PUFAs.
- MCT oil, cold-pressed coconut, palm fruit, olive oil, flaxseed, macadamia and avocado oil — 0 net carbs per tablespoon
- Butter and ghee — 0 net carbs per tablespoon
- Lard, chicken fat or duck fat — 0 net carbs per tablespoon
Animal proteins (meat, fish, etc.) have very little, if any, carbs. You can consume them in moderate amounts as needed to control hunger.
- Grass-fed beef and other types of fatty red meat, including lamb, goat, veal, venison and other game. Grass-fed meat is preferable because it’s higher in quality omega-3 fats — 0 grams net carbs per 5 ounces
- Organ meats including liver — around 3 grams net carbs per 5 ounces
- Poultry, including turkey, chicken, quail, pheasant, hen, goose, duck — 0 grams net carbs per 5 ounces
- Cage-free eggs and egg yolks — 1 gram net carb each
- Fish, including tuna, trout, anchovies, bass, flounder, mackerel, salmon, sardines, etc. — 0 grams net carbs per 5 ounces
- All leafy greens, including dandelion or beet greens, collards, mustard, turnip, arugula, chicory, endive, escarole, fennel, radicchio, romaine, sorrel, spinach, kale, chard, etc. — range from 0.5–5 net carbs per 1 cup
- Cruciferous veggies like broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower — 3–6 grams net carbs per 1 cup
- Celery, cucumber, zucchini, chives and leeks — 2–4 grams net carbs per 1 cup
- Fresh herbs — close to 0 grams net carbs per 1–2 tablespoons
- Veggies that are slightly higher in carbs (but still low all things considered) include asparagus, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, bell pepper, sugar snap peas, water chestnuts, radishes, jicama, green beans, wax beans, tomatoes — 3–7 grams net carbs per 1 cup raw
- Avocado — 3.7 grams net carbs per half
- Bone broth (homemade or protein powder) — 0 grams net carbs per serving
- Beef or turkey jerky — 0 grams net carbs
- Hard-boiled eggs — 1 gram net carb
- Extra veggies (raw or cooked) with homemade dressing — 0–5 grams net carbs
- 1/2 avocado with sliced lox (salmon) — 3–4 grams net carbs
- Minced meat wrapped in lettuce — 0-1 grams net carbs
- Spices and herbs — 0 grams net carbs
- Hot sauce (no sweetener) — 0 grams net carbs
- Apple cider vinegar — 0–1 grams net carbs
- Unsweetened mustards — 0–1 grams net carbs
- Water — 0 grams net carbs
- Unsweetened coffee (black) and tea; drink in moderation since high amounts can impact blood sugar — 0 grams net carbs
- Bone broth — 0 grams net carbs
Keto Foods to Limit — Eat Only Occasionally:
Dairy products should be limited to only “now and then” due to containing natural sugars. Higher fat, hard cheeses have the least carbs, while low-fat milk and soft cheeses have much more.
- Full-fat cow’s and goat milk (ideally organic and raw) — 11–12 net grams per one cup serving
- Full-fat cheeses — 0.5–1.5 net grams per one ounce or about 1/4 cup
- Sweet peas, artichokes, okra, carrots, beets and parsnips — about 7–14 net grams per 1/2 cup cooked
- Yams and potatoes (white, red, sweet, etc.) — sweet potatoes have the least carbs, about 10 net grams per 1/2 potato; Yams and white potatoes can have much more, about 13–25 net grams per 1/2 potato/yam cooked
Legumes and Beans
- Chickpeas, kidney, lima, black, brown, lentils, hummus, etc. — about 12–13 net grams per 1/2 cup serving cooked
- Soy products, including tofu, edamame, tempeh — these foods can vary in carbohydrates substantially, so read labels carefully; soybeans are fewer in carbs than most other beans, with only about 1–3 net carbs per 1/2 cup serving cooked
Nuts and Seeds
- Almonds, walnuts, cashews, sunflower seeds, pistachios, chestnuts, pumpkin seeds, etc. — 1.5–4 grams net carbs per 1 ounce; cashews are the highest in carbs, around 7 net grams per ounce
- Nut butters and seed butters — 4 net carbs per 2 tablespoons
- Chia seeds and flaxseeds — around 1–2 grams net carbs per 2 tablespoons
- Berries, including blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries — 3–9 grams net carbs per 1/2 cup
- Protein smoothie (stirred into almond milk or water)
- 7–10 olives
- 1 tablespoon nut butter or handful of nuts
- Veggies with melted cheese
- No sugar added ketchup or salsa
- Sour cream
- Mustard, hot sauces, Worcestershire sauce
- Lemon/ lime juice
- Soy sauce
- Salad dressing (ideal to make your own with vinegar, oil and spices)
- Stevia (natural sweetener, zero calorie and no sugar)
Consume the unsweetened drinks below only moderately, having just 1–2 small servings per day. These will typically contain between 1–7 net grams per serving.
- Fresh vegetable and fruit juices — homemade is best to limit sugar; use little fruit to reduce sugar and aim for 8 ounces daily at most
- Unsweetened coconut or almond milk (ideal to make your own)
- Bouillon or light broth (this is helpful with electrolyte maintenance)
- Water with lemon and lime juice
Foods to Avoid When on a Keto Diet — NEVER Eat:
Any Type of Sugar
One teaspoon of sugar has about 4 net grams of carbs, while every tablespoon has about 12 net grams.
- White, brown, cane, raw and confectioner’s sugar.
- Syrups like maple, carob, corn, caramel and fruit
- Honey and agave
- Any food made with ingredients such as fructose, glucose, maltose, dextrose and lactose
Any and All Grains
One slice of bread, or small serving of grains, can have anywhere from 10–30 net grams of carbs! Cereals and cooked grains typically have 15–35 grams per 1/4 cup uncooked, depending on the kind.
- Wheat, oats, all rice (white, brown, jasmine), quinoa, couscous, pilaf, etc.
- Corn and all products containing corn, including popcorn, tortillas, grits, polenta and corn meal
- All types of products made with flour, including bread, bagels, rolls, muffins, pasta, etc.
Nearly All Processed Foods
- Crackers, chips, pretzels, etc.
- All types of candy
- All desserts like cookies, cakes, pies, ice cream
- Pancakes, waffles and other baked breakfast items
- Oatmeal and cereals
- Snack carbs, granola bars, most protein bars or meal replacements, etc.
- Canned soups, boxed foods, any prepackaged meal
- Foods containing artificial ingredients like artificial sweeteners (sucralose, aspartame, etc.), dyes and flavors
Sweetened and Caloric Beverages
- Alcohol (beer, wine, liquor, etc.)
- Sweetened teas or coffee drinks
- Milk and dairy replacements (cow’s milk, soy, almond, coconut, lactaid, cream, half and half, etc.)
- Fruit juices
Modified Keto Diet and Keto Diet Food List
Although a standard ketogenic diet is even more restrictive in terms of carb intake, a “moderate keto diet” is another option that will very likely still be able to provide substantial weight loss results and other improvements in symptoms. Including slightly more carbs can be very useful for maintenance, allow for more flexibility, provide a higher fiber intake, and overall may feel more sustainable long term socially and psychologically.
- In order to transition and remain in ketosis, aiming for about 30–50 net grams is typically the recommended amount of carbs to start with. This is considered a more moderate or flexible approach but can be less overwhelming to begin with.
- Once you’re more accustomed to this way of eating, you can choose to lower carbs even more if you’d like (perhaps only from time to time), down to about 20 grams of net carbs daily. This is considered the standard, “strict” amount that many keto dieters aim to adhere to for best results, but remember that everyone is a bit different.
- Because consuming even up to 30–50 grams of net carbs daily is still dramatically less than what most people eating a “standard Western diet” are used to, many will still experience weight loss eating slightly more carbs.
- You can try reducing carbohydrates to just 15 percent to 25 percent of total calorie intake, while increasing fat and protein to around 40 percent to 60 percent and about 20 percent to 30 percent, respectively, in order to test your own individual response.
Precautions Regarding the Keto Diet Food List
Be aware that it’s not uncommon to experience some negative reactions and side effects when transitioning into this way of eating. Although not everyone, some people will experience the following symptoms, which usually subside within a couple of weeks:
- Fatigue/lack of energy
- Muscle weakness or pains
- Poor sleep
- Constipation, nausea or upset stomach
- Brain fog
What Is the Keto Flu?
Remember, getting into ketosis means significant changes for your body, so you’re bound to notice some symptoms of the so-called “keto flu.”
Keto flu symptoms can include feeling tired, having difficulty sleeping, digestive issues like constipation, weakness during workouts, being moody, losing libido and having bad breath. Fortunately, these side effects don’t affect everyone and often only last for 1–2 weeks. Overall, symptoms go away as your body adjusts to being in ketosis.
To help you overcome these symptoms, here are several steps to try taking:
- Most importantly, to combat nausea, fatigue and constipation due to the low-carb keto diet, adopt alkaline diet principles.
- Add bone broth to your diet, which can help restore electrolytes that are lost during ketosis. When you follow a keto diet, even if you’re drinking a lot of water, you will lose a lot of water weight and also flush essential electrolytes out of our system, including magnesium, potassium or sodium. Adding bone broth is a great way to replenish these naturally, in addition to getting other nutrients and amino acids.
- Foods to eat more of than can also help increase electrolyte intake are nuts, avocados, mushrooms, salmon and other fish, spinach, artichokes, and leafy greens.
- Reduce your exercise load temporary.
- Make sure you’re drinking plenty of water and also consuming enough salt/sodium.
- Consume even more fat if you’re hungry.
- Avoid eating synthetic ingredients in processed foods. Also try to limit “low-carb foods” that are still unhealthy and difficult to digest, even those that many ketogenic diet programs might recommend or include. These include cold cuts, processed meats (especially pork) or cured meats, bacon, and processed cheeses.
Final Thoughts on the Keto Diet Food List, Plan and Tips
- The ketogenic diet is a very low-carb, high-fat diet. Typical ketogenic diets consist of limiting carbohydrate intake to just 20–30 net grams per day and following the ket diet food list.
- Fats should be consumed in high amounts when following a keto diet. Fats will provide 70–80 percent of all calories, proteins just about 10–20 percent, and carbs only 5–10 percent.
- A “moderate keto diet” is an option that can still encourage substantial weight loss and other improvements in symptoms. A moderate keto diet includes more foods with carbs and therefore more fiber too. Carbs are usually increased to about 30–50 net grams per day, which means foods like more high-fiber veggies, some fruit or some starchy veggies can also be included.
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