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Keto Diet Foods: What To Put Into Your Keto Shopping Cart
This article has been written by experts and fact-checked by experts, including licensed nutritionists, dietitians or medical professionals. The information in the article is based on scientific studies and research.
It is designed to be honest, unbiased and objective, and opinions from both sides of an argument are presented wherever there is disagreement.
The scientific references in this article (marked by 1, 2, 3, etc.) are clickable links to peer-reviewed research material on the subject being discussed.
When people discuss the keto diet, many understandably focus on what they can’t eat rather than what they can eat.
After all, if you follow keto guidelines faithfully, you’re giving up everyday staples like bread, potatoes, pasta, fast food and even most types of fruit. That type of low-carb diet is quite an adjustment for anyone to make.
Look past keto’s “naughty” list, though, and you find a wealth of delicious ingredients and prepared foods that would make anyone happy to sit down for a ketogenic diet meal.
A keto shopping list has a lot more than steak, cheese and bacon on it. Most fish and poultry get the green light, you can choose from a garden full of fresh vegetables, and even high-fat gourmet sauces are available to choose from. Add substitutes from the newly-expanded keto-friendly sections in most supermarkets, and you can be eating like a king or queen while watching the pounds fall off.
“Do you have more specifics?” we hear you ask. Of course we do.
General Guidelines for Keto Eating
Let’s start with a quick review of the types of foods you can and can’t eat with a keto meal plan.
By now, it’s no secret to anyone that a keto eating plan is a low-carb, high fat diet. The optimal percentages of macronutrients are around 5% carbs, 20% protein and 75% healthy fats. That’s the equation that puts the body into ketosis, the fat-burning mode it enters when using ketones instead of glucose for fuel. At that point – once the symptoms of the keto flu have passed – weight loss begins in earnest.
Here’s why the keto diet is scary to many people. When you limit the carbohydrates so prevalent in most modern diets to around 5-10% of total calories, you’re basically eliminating all sugars and starches. To put it another way, the average person on keto is allowed a total of about 20 net grams of carbs per day. A typical slice of pizza, or a single can of soda, each contains almost 40 grams. To anyone who eats a “normal” American diet, that can seem scary at first.
What does ketogenic eating eliminate, in big-picture terms? Foods ruled out on keto include bread and bakery products, rice and pasta (even whole grains are out for keto diets), potatoes and legumes (like beans), most fruits, soda and fruit juices, sweets and junk food, and even most packaged food (which usually contains hidden sugar) and beer.
What does that leave? Thankfully lots of veggies, lots of healthy (and fatty) proteins, dairy products like heavy cream and butter, and lots of yummy fats, nuts and seeds are still on the keto shopping list. And stores now carry a huge number of foods made from keto-friendly ingredients, including tortillas, chips, pasta, bread, sauces and dressings. You can make keto versions of many “banned” foods at home, too.
Put simply, it’s relatively easy to limit your carb intake and put together a keto diet that won’t feel like you’re giving up much at all. All it takes is a little planning.
Here’s a more complete look at the key ingredients in a keto diet.
Keto Diet Foods
Meat and Poultry
You may think that keto sites are exaggerating when they display plates filled with every imaginable type of meat. They’re not exaggerating about what you can eat. The real issue is how much you can eat.
Some people view keto as an all-you-can-eat high-protein diet. It’s not. It’s a high-fat diet which calls for moderate amounts of protein. Ketogenic eating isn’t a golden ticket to load your plate down with steak, sausage, bacon and hamburger at your next cookout. Eating too much protein may kick your body out of ketosis and short-circuit your diet.
How much meat and protein are OK? You can enter your weight into online calculators and get an exact answer. But an easier guideline is that no more than one-quarter of your plate should be filled with meat or other proteins.
Let’s get to specifics.
Just about any type of meat or poultry is fair game, although fattier cuts are better. A ribeye steak is better than a lean cut, and fatty dark meat chicken is better than lean, skinless chicken breasts. If you can afford it, organic meat from animals which have been grass-fed and pastured (or birds that have been raised free-range) is the healthiest choice. (1) Don’t forget meats you may not eat regularly like venison or organ meats; they’re great for variety.
The only meat and poultry to completely avoid are those which have been battered or stuffed with extra carbs, although you should check processed meats (like bacon and sausage) to make sure they don’t contain added sugars.
We’ll get to fish and seafood next, but one caution: don’t assume that you should avoid meat since fish is “better for you.” Fresh meat is a good source of important minerals and B vitamins that you need on keto, and will help you maintain muscle mass while you diet. (2)
Fish and Seafood
Fish and seafood are healthy foods, because most varieties are high in omega-3 fatty acids and contain many crucial micronutrients. Even better, most either contain no carbohydrates or have low carb counts. (Mussels and whelk are two to avoid because of higher carb content.) Whenever possible, opt for wild-caught instead of farmed fish.
Fatty fish which should be part of the foundation of a keto diet include salmon, tuna, trout, sardines and mackerel, each of which contains zero carbohydrates. Shrimp and crab have no carbs but other types of shellfish like clams, mussels, scallops and oysters do, so the latter should be eaten in moderation.
As with meat, avoid breaded or stuffed fish which will blow up your daily carb limits.
The cholesterol in egg yolks mistakenly leads some keto dieters to steer clear of eggs. There’s no reason for that. An egg contains less than one gram of carbs, and the yolk is the healthiest part of the egg. As for cholesterol, studies show that eggs don’t raise blood cholesterol levels in any meaningful way and may even help to prevent heart disease. (3)(4)
Vegetables are more important to a keto diet than high-fat dairy products. However, since many people immediately think of cheese when they think of keto, we’re addressing dairy products first.
It’s important to remember that not all cheese is the same when it comes to ketogenic eating. Soft cheeses are usually the lowest in net carbs; good examples are goat cheese, cream cheese and blue cheese, each of which has less than 1 gram of carbohydrate per tablespoon or ounce. Semi-soft cheeses like cheddar, mozzerella and swiss are also good choices for keto in more limited amounts, since they’ll contain a gram or two of carbs per serving.
Some hard cheeses are fine, like parmesan and feta, but it’s best to check carb content first. The cheeses to definitely avoid are low-fat, processed and imitation selections.
Butter? Absolutely. It’s a dairy product, but also one of the best fats to use in keto cooking. Just don’t go overboard, since it’s high in saturated fat. Try almond butter or another nut butter as even better alternatives.
Cottage cheese and Greek yogurt are good choices for a keto diet. That’s partially due to the fact that they have moderate carb content (one gram per ounce), but also because they make you feel full. Sour cream fits into this category as well, in moderation.
If you can’t go without your milk, there are plenty of great options which don’t contain the sugar that full-fat milk does. Coconut milk, almond milk, soy milk and macadamia nut milk are all low in carbs. Of course, heavy cream and half-and-half are staples of keto, but only when used in moderate amounts. There’s too much saturated fat in them to drink them by the glass or even by the measuring cup.
Veggies are your best friend on keto – at least the low-carb ones. Leafy greens should definitely be on your keto food list, as should most vegetables (except for lentils) that grow above ground. (Root vegetables that grow below ground, like sweet potatoes and parsnips, are high in carbs.)
That gives you a huge selection to choose from: zucchini, kale, cauliflower, cucumbers, lettuce, eggplant, spinach, cabbage, avocado and asparagus are terrific lower-carb veggies. Tomatoes, bell peppers, Brussels sprouts, and green beans are somewhat higher in carbs, so they should accent your salads, dinners and snacks rather than dominating them. Even though onions grow underground, they’re OK in moderation since you normally don’t eat huge servings of them.
You don’t have to give up all fruits when you’re eating keto, but you do have to be careful. Blackberries, raspberries and strawberries are all moderate-carb fruits (with about 3 grams per serving), so ½ cup of them can serve quite nicely as a snack, or as a dessert when topped with cream.
Cantaloupe and watermelon are also foods to consider on keto, as long as you can eat just one serving of them without craving more. Another fruit you may want to try is star fruit, with less than 3 grams per ½ cup.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds aren’t just good for your health, they’re great keto snacks or salad toppers because they make you feel full. Most are quite low in carbs, such as flaxseeds, Brazil nuts, pecans, chia seeds, macadamia nuts, walnuts, sesame seeds and almonds. Moderate-carb choices like pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and pistachios are also fine in moderation. Hazelnuts and cashews are even higher in carbs, so save them for a treat.
Oils, Fats, Condiments and Dressings
Keto calls for avoiding vegetable oils as a source of fat, not because of carbs but because of health. You should still lose weight while eating a keto diet that includes corn, canola, safflower or sunflower oil, but they may also cause inflammation or other problems.
That still leaves a huge assortment of healthy oils and fats to add to your low-carb, high-fat diet. They include butter, extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, palm oil, MCT oil, lard and ghee.
Homemade salad dressing using one of those oils as a base (store-bought dressings usually have sugar) is an invaluable ingredient in a keto meal, and mayonnaise, mustard (not honey mustard), guacamole and soy sauce will enliven most dishes. Sadly, ketchup and store-bought barbecue sauce are loaded with sugar; feel free to experiment and make your own. On the other hand, just about any spice you can think of is fine to use.
Beverages and Sweeteners
Water (flat or sparkling) is the best choice to accompany keto meals – and for hydration between them. Coffee and tea without sweetener is fine, and a popular drink on the keto diet is healthy bone broth. Kombucha is OK as an occasional treat, and even diet soda is keto-friendly but not encouraged – because it usually makes you crave more. (5)
Some types of alcohol are allowed on keto, since spirits like whiskey, rum and vodka contain no carbohydrates. Just remember that almost all mixers do contain carbs. Light beer and wine are also allowed on an occasional basis.
What if you need to sweeten your tea or a recipe? A few sweeteners contain no carbs, including Stevia drops, erythritol and monkfruit extract. Some keto gurus also suggest xylitol, but it’s higher in carbs and provokes an increase in blood sugar and insulin levels, so it’s better to stay away.
A Final Treat
If you feel that you’ve given up just about everything you love in order to follow a keto diet, rest easy.
Dark chocolate eaten in moderate amounts is keto-friendly, and provides health benefits, too. (6) The higher the percentage of cocoa (look for 70% or higher), the better. Just be sure not to exceed your net carb limits for the day – and you’ll have a sweet reward for another day of dieting.