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Now and then I’ll read comments on keto discussion forums that gloat about being able to eat anything if they’re just sure to stay below 50 grams of carbs a day. I’ll be direct here and say this is the wrong way to do keto. Unfortunately, many people get overzealous about macro counts and lose sight of the bigger picture. Reaching ketosis is never the end goal. You want health, energy, vitality. How you get there matters.
It’s true that the ketogenic diet uses a macronutrient framework that looks roughly like this:
- Carbohydrates below 50 grams per day (around 5-10% of total caloric intake)
- Protein sufficient to meet physiological needs and goals (generally 15-25% caloric intake)
- The rest from healthy fats
Within that framework, there is generous room to fulfill your body’s nutrient requirements and include ample vegetable—and even some fruit—intake.
My hope is that this guide will leave you feeling you have an incredibly vast array of appetizing, nutritious options. The truth is you CAN create an effective keto diet from an expansive range of whole, nutrient-dense foods.
Because we want to increase our healthy fat intake on a ketogenic plan, I’m starting with fats.
First and foremost, avoid industrial seed oils. Steer clear of anything hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated. Choosing the right fats to keep your fatty acids in balance is important, but it’s not something to get overly stressed about.
Use fats appropriately at temperatures and in storage conditions that maintain their stability and nutrient value.
Here are some healthy fat options:
Saturated and monounsaturated fats: Great for higher temp cooking and for making fat bombs.
- Cheese (see dairy)
- Coconut Oil
- Sustainably Sourced Red Palm Oil
- Avocado oil
Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs): Best for low temp sauteeing and cold use.
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Extra virgin avocado oil
- Bacon fat—actually a mix of saturated and monounsaturated, but surprisingly high in monounsaturated fat; great for sautéed vegetables
- Duck fat—also a mix of saturated and monounsaturated, but surprisingly high in monounsaturated fat)
- Macadamia nut oil—very low in PUFAs
Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs): Know the difference. Some should be completely off the menu, like over-processed vegetable oils (corn and canola), but others can have a regular place at the ketogenic table.
Most seed-based oils are high in polyunsaturated fats. Unfortunately, seed oils are typically extracted in ways that can destroy the nutrients. Be sure to look for cold-pressed versions, and don’t heat these oils.
- Hemp oil
- Flax oil
- Chia oil
Vegetables and Fruits
Many people falsely assume they have to forgo the benefits of vegetables and especially fruit with a keto diet. The best source of vegetables are above-ground varieties, which are nutrient-dense yet low in carbohydrates. Dark leafy greens and cruciferous veggies are excellent options.
Take time to learn how many carbs are in each kind of produce. I recommend carefully limiting root vegetables and tubers, as well as most fruits, during keto phases. These don’t deliver the best bang for your buck in terms of getting the most nutrient-dense food for the fewest carbs. If you’re an endurance athlete or you participate in a physically demanding sport or other activity, you can incorporate more starchy vegetables around the window of your workout to refuel as truly needed.
Here are some lower carb vegetable and fruit options:
- Leafy greens: spinach, arugula, Swiss chard, various lettuces like romaine and iceberg, purslane, dandelion greens, watercress, mustard plant, beet greens, and endive
- Cruciferous veggies: broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, collard greens
- Green beans
- Bok choy
- Mushrooms (all varieties)
- Summer squash
- Fiddlehead ferns
- Berries (in moderation)
Protein offers a high satiety factor and is needed to build and maintain lean mass. Enjoy a variety of meat, fowl, seafood, and eggs. Organs are some of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, so be sure to include them in your diet! Limit cured meats to those that don’t contain sugar or nitrates.
Here are some great meat/protein options:
- Small, oily fish (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herring)
- Other wild-caught fish and other seafood (some farmed are okay, too)
- Bivalves (oysters, mussels, clams, scallops)
- Fowl: chicken, turkey, duck, goose, Cornish hen
- Grass-fed beef
- Pasture-raised eggs (chicken and duck)
- Organ meats: liver, heart, kidney, sweetbreads
- Bacon (look for brands without sugar added)
- Pasture-raised pork
For the best nutrition, look for full-fat, pastured dairy. (I don’t eat low-fat or fat-free dairy whether or not I’m doing keto.) Dairy has natural sugars, even if there are no added sweeteners, so be mindful about your intake. Here are some of the best options for those who choose to include dairy within a ketogenic eating plan.
- Raw hard cheeses (best bet: rich in K2, low in carbs, high in nutrients)
- Raw soft cheeses
- Full-fat plain Greek yogurt
- Full-fat milk and cream
- Fermented drinks like kefir (plain and full fat, but still watch carb content on these!)
Herbs and Spices
Herbs and spices can add new levels of flavor to vegetables, meats, and sauces. Use them generously. Here are some of my staples, but any herbs and spices are on the menu.
- Sea salt or Himalayan pink salt
- Black pepper
- Chili powder
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds make for great snacking options in moderation. They offer healthy fats and essential minerals, but they also contain varying amounts of carbohydrates.
The best low-carb/high-fat nut options are:
- Macadamia nuts
- Brazil nuts
Some of the higher-carb nut options (to be more mindful of consuming) are:
Sauces and Condiments
Your best bet is to make your own sauces and condiments, or purchase them from a Primal source that does not use sugar in the ingredients. (PRIMAL KITCHEN® mayos, dressings and oils fit the bill perfectly.) This is the best way to avoid hidden sugars and sweeteners, yet still get the creaminess you crave! Here are some sauces and condiments that can complement a ketogenic plan (again, keep in mind the carb content of each):
Sometimes we want a little added sweetness. When choosing a sweetener, avoid anything that will spike insulin or knock you out of ketosis. Some artificial sweeteners may not affect insulin but can compromise gut biome health. Stevia and monk fruit are two natural sweeteners that have no or low glycemic impact.
Of course, there is no need for sweeteners on keto, so if you feel like you can do without them, by all means!
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