What to Eat and Avoid on a Ketogenic Diet – Diet Doctor
- August 18, 2020
Are you not sure what to eat on aketo diet? Here you’ll find a quick food list and visual guide, showing you what to eat and avoid on keto. Let’s start with a basic overview:
Full keto diet food list
Here are the foods that you can eat on a ketogenic diet:
- Meat – Unprocessed meats are low carb and keto-friendly, and organic and grass-fed meat might be even healthier.1 But remember that keto is a higher-fat diet, not high in protein, so you don’t need huge amounts of meat. Excess protein (over 2.0 g per kg of reference body weight; see this chart to determine your own protein targets) can be converted to glucose, which could make it harder for some people to get into ketosis, especially when starting out and with high levels of insulin resistance.2
Read more about protein and its effect on blood sugar.
Note that processed meats, like sausages, cold cuts and meatballs often contain added carbs. When in doubt look at the ingredients, aim for under 5% carbs. Top recipes
- Fish and seafood – These are all good, especially fatty fish like salmon. If you have concerns about mercury or other toxins, consider eating more of the smaller fish like sardines, mackerel and herring. If you can find wild-caught fish, that’s probably the best. Avoid breading, as it contains carbs.3Top recipes
- Eggs – Eat them any way you want, e.g. boiled, fried in butter, scrambled or as omelets. Top keto egg recipes
- Natural fat, high-fat sauces – Most of the calories on a keto diet should come from fat. You’ll likely get much of it from natural sources like meat, fish, eggs, and other sources. But also use fat in cooking, like butter or coconut oil, and feel free to add plenty of olive oil to salads and vegetables. You can also eat delicious high-fat sauces, including Bearnaise sauce, garlic butter, and others (recipes).
Full guide to keto fats & sauces
Top 10 ways to eat more fat
Remember, fat helps you feel full and adds flavor to food. Don’t use more than you want or need, but don’t fear fat.6 On keto, fat is your friend. Why saturated fats are fine to eat
- Vegetables growing above ground. Fresh or frozen – either is fine. Choose vegetables growing above ground (here’s why), especially leafy and green items. Favorites include cauliflower, cabbage, avocado, broccoli and zucchini.7
Vegetables are a tasty way to eat good fat on keto. Fry them in butter and pour plenty of olive oil on your salad. Some even think of vegetables as a fat-delivery system. They also add more variety, flavor and color to your keto meals.
Many people end up eating more vegetables than before when starting keto, as veggies replace the pasta, rice, potatoes, and other starches. It’s even possible to eat a vegetarian or vegan keto diet. Full guide to keto low-carb vegetables
- High-fat dairy – Butter is good, high-fat cheese is fine, and heavy cream is great for cooking.8
Avoid drinking milk as the milk sugar quickly adds up (one glass = 15 grams of carbs), but you can use it sparingly in your coffee. What does “sparingly” mean? That depends on how many cups per day you drink! We recommend one cup with just a “splash,” about a tablespoon max. But even better is to do away with the milk completely.
Definitely avoid caffè latte (18 grams of carbs). Also avoid low-fat yogurts, especially as they often contain lots of added sugars.
- Nuts – Can be had in moderation, but be careful when using nuts as snacks, as it’s very easy to eat far more than you need to feel satisfied. Also be aware that cashews are relatively high carb, choose macadamia or pecan nuts instead or check out our full keto nuts guide
- Berries – A moderate amount is OK on keto, perhaps with real whipping cream, a popular keto dessert. Full fruits and berries guide
Buying organic or pastured eggs might be the healthiest option, although we do not have scientific studies to prove better health.4How many eggs can you eat, considering cholesterol? Our advice is no more than 36 eggs, per day.5 But feel free to eat fewer if you prefer.
Finally, be aware that regularly snacking on cheese when you’re not hungry is a common mistake that can slow weight loss.
How much is too much? That depends on your weight loss progress and the rest of your carb intake. As a general rule, try to limit nut intake to less than 1/2 cup per day (around 50 grams).
Here is a list of what you can drink on a ketogenic diet:
- Water – The #1 option. Have it flat, with ice, or sparkling. Sip it hot like a tea, or add natural flavouring like sliced cucumbers, lemons, or limes. If you experience headaches or symptoms of “keto flu“, add a few shakes of salt to your water.10
- Coffee – No sugar. A small amount of milk or cream is fine. For extra energy from fat, stir in butter and coconut oil for “Bulletproof coffee.” Note, if weight loss stalls, cut back on the cream or fat in your coffee.11
- Tea – Whether black, green, Orange Pekoe, mint, or herbal — feel free to drink most teas. Don’t add sugar.12
- Bone broth – Hydrating, satisfying, full of nutrients and electrolytes — and simple to make! — homemade bone broth can be a great beverage to sip on the keto diet. Stir in a pat of butter for some extra energy.13
Here’s what you should not eat on a keto diet – foods full of sugar and starch. As you can see, these foods are much higher in carbs.
Drink water, coffee, tea or the occasional glass of wine. More
Disclaimer: This guide is for adults with health issues, including obesity, that could benefit from a keto diet. While the diet has proven benefits, it’s still controversial. There may be a need to adapt pre-existing medications. Discuss any changes in medication and relevant lifestyle changes with your doctor. Full disclaimer
So what does keto food look like when it’s cooked and ready to eat? Feel free to check out our keto recipes for hundreds of examples. Below you’ll find a few popular options.
You decide when the time is right. Your weight loss could slow down a bit.14
- Alcohol: Dry wine (regular red or dry white wine), champagne, whisky, brandy, vodka and cocktails without sugar. Full keto alcohol guide
- Dark chocolate: A square of dark chocolate, with cocoa above 70% , can often hit the spot. Try some 85% gourmet chocolate shaved over whipped cream and berries. See our guide to keto treats and snacks.
High-carb foods to avoid
Sugar: This is the big no-no. Cut out all soft drinks, fruit juice, sport drinks and “vitamin water” (these are all basically sugar water). Avoid sweets, candy, cakes, cookies, chocolate bars, donuts, frozen treats and breakfast cereals.
Read labels for hidden sugars, especially in sauces, condiments, drinks, dressings and packaged goods. Honey, maple syrup, and agave are also sugars. Ideally try to avoid or limit artificial sweeteners as well.15Full keto sweeteners guide
- Beer: Liquid bread. Full of rapidly absorbed carbs. But there are a few lower-carb beers
- Fruit: Very sweet, lots of sugar. Eat once in a while perhaps. Treat fruit as a natural form of candy. Learn more
- Margarine: It’s industrially produced imitated butter with a very high content of omega-6 fat. It has no obvious health benefits, and many people feel that it tastes worse than butter.17 Although the evidence is weak, there is a suggestion that it might be linked to asthma, allergies and other inflammatory diseases, possibly because of the high omega-6 content.18
The ketogenic diet has recently become very popular, and many food companies want to cash in by putting a “ketogenic” or “low carb” label on a new product. Be very cautious of special “keto” or “low-carb” products, such as pastas, chocolate bars, energy bars, protein powders, snack foods, cakes, cookies and other “low carb” or “ketogenic” treats. Read all labels carefully for natural low carb ingredients. The fewer ingredients the better.
These packaged products generally do not work well for weight loss and for correcting metabolic issues. They may have hidden carbs not declared on the label, or they may keep you attached to cravings and even addictions to the high-carb foods they attempt to replace.
Analyze the labels. Often you will see that a product is full of additives, sugar alcohols and other sweeteners. They are often in essence an ultra-processed junk food with a “keto” label.” And the labels may even lie. For example, a few years ago a large pasta company was fined $8 million for lying about the carb content of their products.
- Don’t replace high-carb junk with heavily processed keto products. If you want a treat, make a low-carb version of a dessert or treat yourself, using our dessert or treat guide. You will likely have more life-long success on the keto diet if you adapt your palate so that you no longer want, need, or crave these sorts of foods.19
- Beware of labels that say “net carbs”. That might sometimes be a form of creative marketing to hide the true carb content.
See this guide about deceptive keto products.
Eat real food
Focus on eating good quality, minimally processed real food. Ideally the food you buy shouldn’t even have a list of ingredients (or it should be very short).20
This leaflet with basic keto advice can be printed for easy reference, or given to curious friends.
How low carb is keto?
Keto is a low-carb diet, not “no carb”. So how much of carbs can you eat in a day?
The answer is that it depends. But as a rough guide stay under 20 grams per day for maximum effect. If you want to eat more carbs, you should probably aim for at least staying under 100 grams of carbs per day in order to still see some of the benefits from low-carb eating, such as weight loss.21
Below are three examples of how a low-carb meal can look, depending on how many carbs you eat per day. Learn about how many carbs can be appropriate for you
How much fat do you need to eat?
The body has two main sources of energy: carbs and fats. Take away most of the carbs and the body switches to burning fat for energy. This can come from your body’s fat stores or the fat in your food (e.g. butter or olive oil).
Because of this, a proper keto low-carb diet always means you get a lot more energy from fat. But because much of this fat may come from your body’s fat stores, this does not always mean eating more fat in the long term.22
However, this is why some people call keto diets “LCHF” (low carb, high fat).
Top 10 ways to eat more fat
How much fat should you eat? As much as you need to feel satisfied. Whatever else the body burns, it will take from your fat stores, as you lose weight. Eat more fat than you need to feel great, and it will slow down your fat loss. Eat too little fat, and you might feel tired and hungry.
Eat when you are hungry. Stop when you are satisfied. Then repeat. It can be that simple.23
Keto diet foods — top three mistakes at the grocery store
Keto diet food list – what to buy
A ketogenic diet for beginners
Visual keto guides
Questions and answers
There are many common questions about keto foods, and we’ll do our best to answer them all. Feel free to check out our full keto FAQ, or choose one of the questions below.
Can I eat a vegetarian keto diet?
Yes. Especially if you eat eggs and dairy (lacto-ovo vegetarianism) it’s definitely doable. Vegan keto is very hard to do, but you can certainly eat a lower-carb vegan diet. Learn more and find inspiration here
Can I eat a dairy-free keto diet?
Sure. It’s not necessary to eat dairy to successfully eat keto (though dairy may help add taste and variety). A dairy-free keto diet can be very effective. Learn more and find recipes
Can I drink alcohol on a keto diet?
Yes. But make sure it’s an alcoholic drink that is low in carbs, like dry wine. Check out our full guide to keto alcoholic drinks
More keto recipes
This is controversial, and scientific findings are still preliminary [very weak evidence].
For a full guide to the health effects of red meat, check out our full guide.
Grass-fed meat tends to be higher in omega-3 fat, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and vitamins, per gram, which theoretically could be a good thing. These animals may also be raised in a more ethical way.
However, it’s unknown if improved nutritional contents of meat results in better health. From an evolutionary perspective eating grass-fed rather than grain-fed meats should more closely match the environment of our ancestors, which could potentially have some positive health effects. To date, we do not have any trials to support this claim. Putting it into perspective, the omega 6:3 ratio in conventional beef is still better than chicken, and the the total omega 3 content is still far below fish.
The available evidence only show that grass-fed meats can have a slightly different nutritional profile, which can also change the biochemical profile of the cell structures of humans eating it:
Regarding unprocessed red meat in general, its health effects are controversial. But it’s clear that it’s nutritious and satiating, and that humans have been eating it for millennia. We see no good health reasons to avoid it: Guide to red meat – is it healthy? ↩
There’s a lack of clear scientific evidence about what level of protein intake is most beneficial on a keto diet. Quite likely it depends on your goals.
As a general guideline, stay around 1.2-1.7 grams of protein per day, per kg of reference body weight – about 100 grams of protein per day if you weigh 70 kilos (154 pounds). See our guide on how much protein we should eat for more details.
Younger, fit people who exercise a lot may be able to tolerate quite a lot of protein and still stay in ketosis.
Too much protein inhibiting ketosis is a somewhat common anecdotal report from our members and others with diabetes. However, there appears to be a disconnect between anecdotal concerns and published research regarding its frequency.
Studies suggest that farmed fish may often have higher levels of pollutants and that they can be lower in essential omega-3 fats:
The scientific support for this is not strong [very weak evidence].
From an evolutionary perspective eating pastured eggs might more closely match the environment of our ancestors, which could potentially have some positive health effects.
According to some studies (like the one below), organic or pastured eggs have higher nutritional contents. But studies do not consistently show a large difference, and no human outcome trials exist.
Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 2010: Vitamins A, E and fatty acid composition of the eggs of caged hens and pastured hens [moderate evidence for different and possibly improved nutritional profiles]
Yes, this exact number is a bit of a joke. But the reality is that for your health, it does not appear to matter much how many eggs you eat. So there’s no good reason to have an upper limit at all. Eat all the eggs you want.
Do you worry about eating saturated fats or cholesterol? There’s no good reason to do so. While still a bit controversial, repeated modern systematic reviews find no benefit from avoiding saturated fats, or replacing them with unsaturated fats:
- Open Heart 2016: Evidence from randomised controlled trials does not support current dietary fat guidelines: a systematic review and meta-analysis [strong evidence]
- Nutrition Journal 2017: The effect of replacing saturated fat with mostly n-6 polyunsaturated fat on coronary heart disease: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials [strong evidence]
Here’s a study investigating if eating eggs for breakfast every day has any negative effects on cholesterol levels. They found none, but the egg-eating group reported greater satiety:
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2015: The effect of a high-egg diet on cardiovascular risk factors in people with type 2 diabetes: the Diabetes and Egg (DIABEGG) study-a 3-mo randomized controlled trial [moderate evidence] ↩
There’s no good reason to fear natural saturated fats, including from dairy:
In fact, if anything, people eating higher-fat dairy products tend to on average have lower body weight and possibly fewer metabolic issues:
The numbers are grams of digestible carbs per 100 grams, i.e. net carbs ↩
However, there’s also some support from this study that found only minor increases in these side effects, while advising participants to drink salt-containing bouillon:
Read labels on some herbal or specialty teas to make sure it does not contain added sugars or sweeteners. Be careful of herbal teas with licorice flavouring, as these have been known to raise blood pressure, lower potassium, or cause erratic heart beats in some people. ↩
Many local butchers and health food stores are now making bone broth for purchase. In a pinch, you may want to sip commercial beef stock or chicken stock, choosing organic brands with the most natural, and shortest, list of ingredients. However, be aware that many of these commercial brands – even when called “organic” – may be far from the real thing, containing little more than regular salt and flavoring. ↩
There’s a lack of stronger scientific support for this, and it’s mainly based on logical arguments, basic science, and the experience of individuals [very weak evidence]. Here are the main arguments:
- Alcohol is generally considered empty calories – adding pure energy
- Alcohol is usually metabolized first by the liver, slowing down fat burning somewhat
- Excess consumption of alcohol might lead to fatty liver, resulting in insulin resistance and thus increased levels of the fat-storing hormone insulin
- Some alcoholic drinks, like beer or sweet drinks, have a double negative effect on body weight due to the sugar and other rapidly absorbed carbohydrates.
- Alcohol can impair judgement and reduce impulse control, increasing the likelihood of eating unplanned and non-keto foods, that can slow weight loss.
This study supports a few of the points above:
Even zero-calorie sweeteners may have some negative effects, including maintaining a preference for sweet tastes, and increased reward, potentially increasing the risk of overeating and even food addiction. This is mainly based on clinical experience [weak evidence].
There is also one RCT study showing weight loss from avoiding artificial sweeteners:
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2015: Effects on weight loss in adults of replacing diet beverages with water during a hypoenergetic diet: a randomized, 24-wk clinical trial [moderate evidence] ↩
Wholegrain products are also full of carbohydrates, and thus not part of a keto diet.
Do you need whole grains for health? Probably not. The most recent Cochrane review of high-quality nutrition science found no evidence for that theory:
Lack of health benefits:
Many people feel that margarine tastes worse, example:
Fairly robust (HR>2) correlation between margarine intake and eczema or allergies:
Strong (HR 2.3 – 4.8) correlation between margarine intake and asthma:
Unprocessed and minimally processed (i.e. cooking) food is what our ancestors have been eating for millions of years, and what the human animal is evolutionarily adapted to. By introducing a lot of processing, e.g. refining carbohydrates in a way that increases the speed of absorption and reduces the amount of nutrients and fiber, we change the food into something our bodies may not be adapted to, i.e. we introduce an unknown risk of side effects.
The idea that lower carb is more effective is mainly based on the consistent experience of experienced practitioners, and stories from people trying different levels of carb restriction [weak evidence].
There is not yet any RCT that has actually tested two low-carb diets of varying strictness head-to-head. But RCTs of strict low-carb diets appear to often show better results, compared to RCTs of more moderate or liberal low-carb diets.
An analysis of low-carb studies showed that even when people on low-carb diets were allowed to eat as much fat as needed to feel satisfied, this did not result in a large increase in fat consumption.
A number of studies demonstrate that people can lose weight on low carb without being instructed to count calories, like this one:
This may be caused by a reduction of hunger:
It may also be caused by burning more calories on low carb: