While low-carb diets have been around since the 19th century, they have soared in popularity since the 1970s, when the Atkins diet was introduced. Lately, it is the ketogenic—or keto—diet that has gained lots of attention.
The keto diet is based on the science of ketosis, the process of your body using fat for fuel in the absence of carbohydrates. This sends your body into a state of ketosis, causing your liver to release ketones, rather than blood sugar, into your bloodstream.
The difference between the modern keto diet and other low-carb diets is the high-fat intake involved in keto—between 70 and 80 percent. Its popularity lies in its potential to expedite weight loss, while potentially decreasing the negative effects of chronic disorders.
It can be confusing to know what to eat on a keto diet. Fear not though—we’ve got the tips you’ll need to help you jump-start your keto diet, including what to eat and what not to eat, so you can look and feel your best.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE KETO DIET
You may be wondering, “Why choose the keto diet?” That’s a great question. The benefits of a keto diet may include:
- Weight loss†
- Lower glucose and cholesterol levels†
- Appetite control†
- Assisting in diabetes control†
The science behind these benefits, particularly weight loss, lies in the way your body processes a kind of fat called triglycerides.
Triglycerides circulate in the blood and are stored in our cells, but when there are fewer carbs to burn, our bodies turn to triglycerides into ketones for fuel. This means you begin to burn fat at a higher rate. You also lower your blood glucose levels, which can get dangerously high on a Standard American Diet (SAD) that’s high in processed foods and sugars.
The irony is that it’s not fat that makes you gain fat (triglycerides), but sugars and starches, which are high-glycemic carbs. The more high-glycemic carbs you consume, the more likely you are to gain weight and have high glucose levels, which can be dangerous for your health.
In fact, the CDC found that over 100 million Americans have diabetes or prediabetes, with rates increasing every year. As diabetes rates rise, efforts to educate people, especially those seen as higher risk, are increasing too.
Part of that education lies in helping Americans understand the dramatic effect that diet has on various health conditions. In addition to the rise in chronic disease, there’s also a rise in the use of pharmaceuticals to treat those diseases. The cost of those drugs is not cheap. A shift in diet can be incredibly beneficial, not only for overall health but in preventing the extensive use of prescribed medications, which have side effects of their own.
With all this in mind, there’s no better time to gain awareness around diet and exercise and learn about what keto foods to eat for optimal health. Let’s dive in.
WHAT TO EAT ON A KETO DIET
Defining “low-carb” varies depending on the type of diet. All low-carb diets fall into the category of those that affect your glycemic index, but some are more dramatic than others. In general, glycemic values are defined as:
- Low: 1 to 55
- Medium: 56 to 69
- High: 70+
Each food you eat falls into one of those categories and the more foods you eat on the high end, the more risk factors you may have for nutrition-related diseases. That doesn’t mean that all high-glycemic foods are bad, but awareness of what falls into these categories can help you keep a healthy balance that serves your body.
In order to be appropriate for a keto diet, most foods need to fall in the lower glycemic range, with very few in the medium range. The lower glycemic index prevents your body’s blood sugar levels from spiking, meaning that food is being digested at a slower, healthy rate.
COMMON KETO-FRIENDLY FOODS
To help you begin, think of foods belonging to the following categories:
- Legumes, nuts, and seeds
Within each category, there are beneficial foods, and foods to avoid on keto. This section will focus on what to eat on the keto diet based on the glycemic index.
When choosing a keto diet, you want to keep fruits that are high in sugars or starches to a minimum. Organic berries and avocados (yes, they’re fruit!) are great on a keto diet, although you’ll want to keep your intake of berries low to avoid eating excess sugars.
Typically, we don’t think of vegetables as high-glycemic foods, but there are some that fall into that category, and some that are low glycemic. Here are some great low-glycemic vegetables:
- Summer squash
- Brussels sprouts
- Bell peppers
- Leafy greens, like arugula, kale, and spinach
- Olives (not overly processed)
The longer vegetables are cooked, the higher their glycemic rating because carbohydrates break down during the cooking process. That’s why vegetables like onions or beets get sweeter when cooked.
Even though keto foods can be high in fat, not all fats are created equal. It helps to read labels to ensure that fats are high-quality, like the following:
- Grass-fed ghee or butter
- Avocado oil
- Extra virgin olive oil
- MCT oil (medium-chain triglycerides)
- Virgin coconut oil
- Bacon fat (no-sugar-added bacon)
- Pasture-raised egg yolk
One of the hallmarks of modern keto dieting is high fat consumption, not necessarily high-protein—so protein does not need to make up most of your diet. Around 20 percent protein is a good benchmark for the keto diet but this may fluctuate depending on your personal goals.
Consider eating cuts of meat with natural fat levels instead of those that have been trimmed or processed to remove the fat. And make sure your meats are from grass-fed animals, including organ meats, eggs, dark meat chicken and beef. High-quality salmon and other fatty fish are great sources of protein too, but be mindful of portion size.
LEGUMES, NUTS AND SEEDS
For the most part, legumes, nuts and seeds are foods to avoid on a keto diet. You may include small amounts of raw nuts, like almonds, cashews, walnuts and their associated flours, but be mindful of your intake. Coconut is a great keto food that can be enjoyed often in its many forms (coconut flour pancakes, anyone?).
One of the most challenging aspects of shifting to a keto diet is avoiding processed condiments. Everything from ketchup to salad dressing is full of filler ingredients and sugars that will not put your body into ketosis.
Thankfully, there are lots of great options to garnish keto foods. Here are some of them:
- Apple cider vinegar (ACV): Great for salad dressings and beyond.
- Coconut aminos: A great replacement for soy sauce, teriyaki sauce or salad dressings. It’s lightly sweet and pairs wonderfully with foods like cauliflower rice that benefit from extra seasoning.
- Spices: Most fresh herbs and spices can be enjoyed often. As with any healthy diet, use salt sparingly.
Want a sample of a keto-friendly meal? Try something like a salad for lunch that includes bitter arugula greens, hard-boiled egg, avocado, olives, free-range grilled chicken or grass-fed steak, and a delicious homemade dressing.
KETO DIET FOODS TO AVOID
Knowing what you can eat on a keto diet is important, but it’s also good to know what to avoid, especially some of the common foods you may not think of.
Many fruits should be avoided, or kept to a minimum, due to their high-carb, high-glycemic-index. Common fruits to avoid include:
Knowing what vegetables to eat on the keto diet can be tricky. Many people assume that because a food is a vegetable, it’s cleared for keto. Yet, even vegetables have drastically different glycemic indexes. Vegetables to avoid are corn, potatoes and many canned vegetables.
In general, root vegetables like carrots and beets have a higher glycemic index, so eat them sparingly.
More than which proteins to avoid, be mindful that you’re not loading up on proteins too much. Avoid meats that contain additives like soy or chemicals and aren’t grass-fed or grass-finished. Grass-finished beef comes from cows that ate a grass-fed diet from birth to slaughter.
Consuming quality fats is the cornerstone of the keto diet. Be sure to avoid soybean, safflower, canola and peanut oil. Avoid margarine too, as it’s made of vegetable oils and chemicals that hinder ketosis.
LEGUMES, DAIRY AND GRAIN
Legumes, dairy (except for grass-fed butter or ghee) and all grains should be avoided on the keto diet.
†The information provided is not an endorsement of any product, and is intended for educational purposes only. NaturesPlus does not provide medical advice and does not offer diagnosis of any conditions. Current research on this topic is not conclusive and further research may be needed in order to prove the benefits described.
The conditions and symptoms described may be indicative of serious health problems, and therefore should be brought to the attention of a qualified healthcare practitioner.