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Keto Friendly Foods: What You Can – And Can’t – Eat On The Keto Diet
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.
Dieting requires a real commitment. You’ll usually have to give up many of the foods you love – whether that means Big Macs and fries, cake and ice cream, or pizza and beer.
That’s not fun for most people, but the ground rules are relatively easy to understand. Instead of the stuff you normally eat for dinner, dieting means white meat chicken and steamed veggies, and fruit for dessert. It may not be ideal, but it doesn’t require a lot of brain power to figure out what you can and can’t eat.
The keto diet doesn’t work that way.
The list of what you can and can’t eat is a long one, and appears to defy common sense. You can eat cream cheese and butter, but not an apple? Bacon and eggs is OK for breakfast, but grape nuts and milk isn’t? Fish for dinner is good, but you can’t have brown rice with it?
What’s going on here? Maybe keto does really help you lose weight fast – but how can you make sense of a diet like that?
There are two steps you have to take in order to figure out keto (or any other low-carb diet like paleo):
- Understand the reasons for the seemingly-bizarre rules that govern the ketogenic diet.
- Put together a list of low-carb, keto-friendly foods you can eat.
We can help with both steps.
Let’s start by explaining the science behind keto guidelines. After that, our guide to keto foods will make a lot more sense.
How Does the Keto Diet Work?
In a nutshell, ketogenic eating forces the body to burn stored fat. And as you probably know, fat burning is a major key to weight loss.
But even with healthy eating and lots of exercise, it can seem impossible to get rid of stubborn body fat. How can keto make it happen so quickly?
The key word to remember: carbohydrates.
Macronutrients in Human Diets
Everything we eat contains some combination of carbs, proteins and fats. They are the three macronutrient groups our bodies need to survive and thrive. Proteins provide essential amino acids. Fats supply crucial fatty acids and vitamins.
And carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of energy.
(To be fair, proteins and fats contribute to energy production as well, but at lesser levels. Carbs are the most important macronutrient for energy.)
The Body and Energy
Most of the energy needed for our body and brain to function comes from glucose, also known as blood sugar. (High blood sugar levels are a medical problem, but blood sugar itself is essential to metabolic function.)
Where does glucose come from? Carbohydrates.
The body burns the carbs we eat and turns them into glucose, for use throughout the body. Any excess glucose is stored for later use, in the form of glycogen.
We eat lots of carbohydrates every day. Between 45 and 65% of the calories in a normal diet come from carbs, so the body ordinarily has no problem getting the energy it needs to function.
But if, for some reason, the body doesn’t get enough carbs, it can’t make glucose. In that case it needs to find some other energy source.
Here’s what happens. The first thing the body does is convert the extra glycogen it has stored – but that will only provide enough energy for a day or two. After that, it needs to find an emergency energy source.
Ketosis and Ketones
The body and brain usually uses glucose as its fuel, but there’s another type of molecule that it can use, too: ketone bodies, better known as ketones.
When the body is out of glucose and glycogen, it has to enter a different metabolic state to produce ketones. It’s called ketosis.
In order to produce ketones, the body burns the fat that it has stored in places like the belly. That means that throughout ketosis, fat burning continues – leading to the weight loss that often seems so difficult to achieve by other means.
The body only stays in ketosis while it doesn’t have enough carbohydrates to make glucose. If carbs become available, the body shifts from ketosis back to its normal metabolic state, and it once again produces glucose for energy.
To get back into ketosis means starting all over again. And it also means enduring another round of the flu-like side effects (known as the keto flu) that accompany the body’s metabolic shift from glucose to ketones as an energy source.
There’s one important note to mention before we move on. Ketones are just as good as glucose as an energy source; in fact, some research implies that the brain functions even better on ketones than on glucose.
The Keto Diet
It’s time to pull together everything we’ve discussed.
The keto diet is designed to deprive the body of carbohydrates and force it into ketosis. By doing that, it forces the body to burn stored fat – causing often-substantial weight loss as a result.
Remember, though, that if the body gets enough carbs to create glucose, the dieter is “kicked out” of ketosis and fat burning stops. By extension, so does weight loss. So a keto diet must ensure that carb intake is so low that the body remains in ketosis. One slip-up, and the weight loss stops.
How low is “so low?” Most keto guidelines allow a maximum of 20-25 grams of net carbs per day. (Net carbs is calculated by subtracting dietary fiber, a non-digestible type of carbohydrate, from total carbs.)
That’s not a lot. The government’s Dietary Guidelines for America recommend that the average adult on a 2,000 calorie diet consume 225-325 grams of carbs per day. In other words, those following a strict keto diet can only consume less than one-tenth of the carbs they otherwise would.
It’s not easy to reduce dietary carbs by 90%. You can only do it by eliminating an enormous number of the foods that we all eat every day. That’s the reason why a list of keto-friendly foods can seem so crazy; there are lots of carbs hidden in most of the foods we eat.
There’s one final twist to understand. When you eliminate all of those carbs, they have to be replaced by another macronutrient. Otherwise, you’d starve. On keto, most of the carbs are replaced by healthy fats – so keto isn’t just a low-carb diet. It’s a low-carb, high-fat diet.
Make sense? Great. Let’s talk about the types of foods you can and can’t eat on keto.
What Makes Foods Keto-Friendly?
Assuming that you’re adhering to the strict keto guidelines that limit net carb consumption to 20-25 grams per day, there are many foods that would automatically be excluded from a keto diet.
For example, a medium-sized soft pretzel contains 80 grams of carbs, more than three times the entire daily keto allotment, and a slice of French bread isn’t far behind, at 72 grams. A chocolate-frosted donut isn’t as bad as that, but at 30 grams it could kick you right out of ketosis. Even a hamburger roll (25 grams) could put you right on the edge all by itself.
On the other end of the scale, many proteins like beef and chicken, and seafood like salmon and trout, contain zero carbs. But unless you want to eat nothing but proteins (you can melt some zero-carb butter on them) and drink nothing but water (zero carbs), your diet is going to pretty difficult to maintain over the month that keto diets usually last.
The trick, then, is to find enough healthy and tasty low-carb foods which don’t total more than 20-25 grams of net carbs.
Thankfully, some food groups are either low-carb or extremely low-carb. Most leafy green vegetables contain fewer than three grams of carbs, as do a number of natural fats and oils. Almost all cheeses contain fewer than three grams, and each egg contains well under a gram of carbs.
You’re probably starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel. If you use proteins and those low-carb foods as the foundation of your keto diet, and mix in some that are slightly higher in carbs, it really is possible to stay under that magic 20-25 carbs per day level.
And if you simply eliminate some other carb-heavy food groups like grains, pasta, bread, soda and fruit juice, and bakery desserts from consideration, it becomes a relatively easy task to keep your carb count out of the danger zone.
Even so, there are a number of “What?! Those have lots of carbs?!” foods and vegetables, like fruit, rice, potatoes and beer, that can sneak into your diet and throw you right out of ketosis before you realize it.
That’s why, when you’re putting together a keto meal plan, you need a comprehensive guide to keto-friendly foods that can help you stay on track.
We happen to have one of those right here.
Guide to Keto-Friendly Foods
To make things easy we’ll be discussing each food group individually, going into specifics on keto-friendly choices, and also listing the ones that should absolutely be crossed off your shopping list. Understanding the best foods to include on your keto eating plan (and, if you’re so inclined, used in your keto recipes), should let you get up to speed, burning fat and losing weight in a jiffy.
When dealing with a difficult subject, it’s usually a good idea to start with good news before bringing up the discouraging stuff.
What you can – and can’t – eat on keto is a difficult subject for many would-be dieters. That’s why we figured that starting with a few “good news” categories would make sense. Protein is the first one we’ll tackle.
Go crazy. Just about type of meat you can think of is keto-friendly, and almost all of it is zero-carb.
One reminder to think about as you shop, though: keto eating isn’t just low-carb, it’s high-fat and healthy. That’s why the best cuts of meat for keto dieters are those with a good amount of fat, preferably from grass-fed animals.
For example, New York strip and ribeye are better cuts than filets and flank steak. 73/27 or 80/20 ground beef is better than 90/10 (the first number represents meat, the second represents fat); it’ll be juicier, too. And pork chops are even better than ham or ribs, because they contain more fat. Fan of game meat? That’s keto-friendly, too.
Same story here. Chicken and turkey are fine on keto, but you’re better off eating dark meat (and the skin) because there’s more fat in it. Don’t forget duck (or goose, for that matter) which is almost all dark meat.
Fish and Seafood
Fatty fish like salmon and tuna are the superstars, because they’re also zero-carb. Mackerel, sardines and anchovies aren’t the most popular varieties of fish, but they fit into the same category. Just about all types of white fish are zero- or low-carb, although they don’t contain very much fat so they’re not quite as preferable as salmon and tuna (yes, the canned stuff is good on keto, too).
Seafood is a little trickier. Scallops and shrimp are great choices when you’re eating keto; clams aren’t bad, but they do contain some carbs (there are four grams in a dozen steamed clams). Mussels are slightly less keto-friendly than clams, and oysters are on the border line, with seven grams in a dozen.
We could have included bacon with the other pork products, but since it’s such a legendary keto food we figured it should get its own paragraph. People think of bacon when they think of keto for good reason; it contains zero carbs and lots of fat. Just remember that it also contains lots of calories, so don’t go hog wild (sorry about that!), and be sure you’re not buying a brand with added sugar, since sugar is pure carbohydrate.
Generally speaking, deli meats are fine on a keto diet, although processed meat isn’t the healthiest food in the supermarket. You just have to be careful, because many producers cure their meats with sugar and add fillers which are almost pure carbohydrate. The same caution applies to sausages and hot dogs; the best approach is to buy an all-beef brand – and naturally, you can’t eat them on buns.
Eggs are a fabulous keto protein, containing only about half-a-gram of carbs apiece. Remember, though, that ketogenic eating focuses on high-quality, healthy foods; if you can afford them, look for organic eggs which contain lots of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s provide an enormous number of health benefits, from fighting heart disease to lowering levels of cholesterol and triglycerides.
Vegans following a keto diet are thankful that there are only about two net grams of carbs in half-a-cup of tofu. If you’re not vegan but still a fan, that’s good news for you too. Just be aware that eating too much tofu may cause hormonal imbalances in some people.
Oils and Fats
We’re still in the “good news” section of our Ted Talk, but be aware that it’s not all rainbows and butterflies when selecting keto fats and oils. There are some dark clouds in there, too.
Butter and Ghee
People rhapsodizing about the keto diet love the fact that butter is keto-friendly, so much so that they usually use “bacon and butter!” as their go-to phrase. It’s true, though; butter is definitely a keto-friendly food containing no carbs and (obviously) lots of healthy fat. The preferred choice is organic butter, which is sourced from grass-fed and pastured cows.
You can eat butter as-is, melt it over protein, and use it in keto recipes. You can cook with it too, but ghee or the keto-friendly oils we’ll be discussing in a minute are better for that, because they don’t burn as easily.
OK, you’re wondering what ghee is. It’s just a type of clarified butter that has had its milk solids removed (milk solids are what contain lactose). It’s better for your health than butter, it has a higher smoke point so it’s better to cook with than butter, many people think it’s tastier than butter (it tastes sort of nutty), and sadly, it’s much more expensive than butter.
We’ll be talking more about butter and ghee when we get to our section on keto beverages. We’ll explain when we get there.
Oils are a good source of keto fat, as long as they aren’t partially-hydrogenated or hydrogenated oils, and don’t contain high amounts of polyunsaturated fats. What does that mean when you’re at the supermarket? It means avoiding corn oil, canola oil sunflower oil, soybean oil and anything labeled simply as “vegetable oil.”
It’s not that these oils contain carbs; they don’t. They’re just unhealthy in general, and as we’ve mentioned several times, keto is based on eating healthy.
No worries; there are lots of terrific keto-friendly choices left. Extra-virgin olive oil (the best overall choice), coconut oil (refined for cooking, unrefined for eating) and avocado oil (heart-healthy and tasty) are less-expensive and versatile options, while macadamia and palm oils are pricier but also very good.
There’s one last oil to mention: MCT oil, which is extracted from coconut oil. It’s often added to keto dressings and smoothies because it helps the body increase ketone production. We’ll discuss it in more detail, along with butter and ghee, in the beverages section.
Lard and Tallow
These are both good for keto too, as is duck fat – if you want to give them a try, look for fats that have been rendered from pasture-raised and grass-fed animals.
Nuts, Nut Butters and Seeds
Before we leave the “good news” section of our list, we can’t forget about nuts and seeds. Most of them are unquestionably keto-friendly.
A large variety of nuts are great keto snacks, as long as you don’t OD on them. Among the types of nuts that contain two grams or less of net carbs per ounce: Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans and walnuts. Almonds and peanuts (three grams each) just missed the cut. On the other hand, wait on high-carb nuts like cashews and pistachios until you’re off keto and not trying to lose weight.
Most commercially-produced peanut butter is not keto-friendly, because it often contains unhealthy oils, or added sugars and grains. However, natural or homemade peanut butter can work on a keto diet, at just under two grams of net carbs per serving.
There are better choices, though, as long as they’re also natural or homemade. Macadamia nut butter, pecan butter, walnut butter and hazelnut butter are all lower in carbs and higher in fat than peanut butter. Almond butter has more of both, but contains more protein and nutrients.
Just stick to a tablespoonful or two, since they’re all high in calories.
Here’s another good keto choice. Flaxseeds are all fiber and no net carbs; chia seeds and pumpkin seeds each contain two net carbs per ounce. Again, a little will go a long way. Sesame seeds are higher in carbs, and should really only be used as a salad or stir-fry ingredient, not a snack.
We’ve now entered the “be very careful” zone.
Some dairy products are fine – and even encouraged – by keto guidelines. Here’s the general rule for dairy: it should be full-fat (fat-free and low-fat dairy products usually replace the fat with sugar), and organic if possible.
The full-fat dairy products most often encouraged on keto, other than butter and ghee, are heavy whipping cream, Greek yogurt, sour cream, spreadable cheeses like cottage cheese, cream cheese and mascarpone, soft cheeses like mozzarella and brie, and hard cheeses like cheddar, feta, swiss and parmesan. Plain yogurt and half-and-half are iffy.
None are zero-carb, of course. Most of the soft and hard cheeses, yogurt and heavy cream are the best choices, each containing between one and three grams of net carbs in a 100 gram (3.5 ounce) serving. The same calorie alert we mentioned earlier applies to these dairy foods as well; even though they’re fairly low in carbs, they’re not what Weight Watchers used to call “unlimited.”
A few full-fat dairy products should be completely left off your keto food list: milk, buttermilk, processed cheese, sweetened yogurt and ice cream. If you’re one of the people who absolutely can’t live without your milk, nut milks like almond milk, coconut milk and macadamia milk are low-carb options that can fill the role nicely. Flaxseed milk and hemp milk work, too.
If milk is important to you because you don’t like black coffee, try a keto-friendly coffee creamer instead. Super Coffee Super Creamer is a very good zero-carb option, which also contains monk fruit sweetener (no carbs) and MCT oil in one tasty package. We’ll have more to say on keto and coffee shortly.
Fruits and Vegetables
We’re still in the “be very careful zone.”
Some veggies are outstanding keto staples. Most of the acceptable ones grow above ground; those that grow below ground are root vegetables, and plants store starch (a form of carbohydrate) in their roots.
Green vegetables, particularly leafy greens, are as close to “unlimited” foods as you’ll find on keto. Lettuce, spinach, arugula and Swiss chard all contain fewer than three net carbs per cup; it would be hard for most people to eat more than that at a sitting. They’re great for your health too, with ample amounts of antioxidants, vitamins A, C and K, and minerals like potassium, iron, magnesium and calcium.
The go-to vegetable (it’s really a fruit) on keto? Avocado, which is high-fat and low-carb, is actually considered one of the best of all keto foods, not just keto veggies. Half a small avocado contains about two net carbs – although it also contains about 200 calories, so don’t go overboard. Guac is great, too.
Lots of other non-starchy vegetables make the cut as well. Low-carb veggies you can use in your salads or recipes include cauliflower and zucchini, cucumber and celery, mushrooms and asparagus, tomatoes and radishes. Others that can be eaten in moderation, which contain between five and ten grams of net carbs, include kale, Brussels sprouts, bell peppers and green beans. Onions are fairly high in carbs, but as long as you don’t plan on adding half-an-onion to a single-serving recipe (or eat one like you’d eat an apple), you can get away with it.
Some vegetables are far from keto-friendly, though. Skip the potatoes (including sweet potatoes), leeks, corn and butternut squash, and almost all legumes like lentils, beans (except for green beans), and peas (except for snap peas).
Fruit is great for dieters – unless they’re on a keto diet. The problem is that all fruit contains lots of sucrose, the fancier name for “fruit sugar.” In general terms, even though it’s great for your health, fruit is persona non grata on keto.
There are a few types of fruit, however, that you can sneak into a keto diet if you’re very careful. Berries like raspberries, blackberries and strawberries each contain 3-4 grams of carbs per half-cup. Top a small dish of them with some heavy whipping cream, and you’ve got yourself a keto treat. What about blueberries? They’re a bigger problem, with nearly twice as many net carbs as strawberries.
Several other fruits can also be occasional treats when you’re on keto. Star fruit is the best of the bunch, with 2½ grams of net carbs per half-cup; cantaloupe and watermelon each contain 5½-6 grams, and a single plum will contribute about seven grams to your daily allotment.
Sadly, that’s about it. A peach contains about 13 net carbs, more than half the daily carb maximum for strict keto dieters – and an apple will add 25 grams of carbs to your diet, enough to kick some people right out ketosis.
Condiments and Sweeteners
You might expect that condiments would be out if you’re eating keto, but surprisingly, you have quite a few options to choose from. Mustard, mayo (but not the “light mayo” designed as “diet food”), and high-fat ranch dressings are standard keto ingredients.
You can also find keto-friendly brands of ketchup, hot sauce, barbecue sauce and steak sauce in the keto sections of most supermarkets (check Whole Foods if your grocery store doesn’t carry them). Always check the labels first, though, to make sure there are no added sugars or fillers. You’ll also see keto salad dressings in many stores, but you’re better off making your own from natural ingredients like olive oil, apple cider or sugar-free balsamic vinegar, herbs and spices – and all natural herbs and spices are great for keto dressings, sauces and recipes.
Keto sweeteners are more challenging to find, since even some of the supposedly zero-carb choices use higher-carb ingredients or even sugar to add bulk to their granulated or powdered products. Look for liquid monk fruit extract, stevia drops or the sugar alcohol erythritol, rather than the solid versions. Definitely avoid natural high-sugar sweeteners like honey and maple syrup, though, since they’re loaded with carbs – and while some artificial sweeteners are low-carb or carb-free, most aren’t good for your health.
This is one of the most-difficult adjustments that new keto dieters have to make. Since sugar and fruit are both off-limits, soda, fruit juices (yes, we know OJ is good for you, but it’s bad for keto), energy drinks, fruit smoothies, frappuccinos and beer are all non-starters. Diet soda may have zero carbs but it conditions the taste buds to want more sweet foods, so experts discourage its consumption on keto.
What can you drink? Well, there’s always water – plain, sparkling, seltzer – and the beverages made from water, coffee and tea.
Flavored waters are out, because they’ll be loaded with sugar; a squeeze of lemon or lime is the best way to deal with the taste monotony. And while tea is fine, you’ve probably guessed that bottled or canned iced tea is a carb nightmare. If you love iced tea, make your own and use one of the keto-friendly sweeteners we’ve mentioned.
That brings us to coffee. About a third of Americans take their coffee black, which is perfect for keto. Otherwise, you’ll have to tread lightly when it comes to milk and sugar replacements. We’ve already discussed acceptable creamers, as well as sweeteners.
But there’s another beverage that’s big in the keto diet world: keto coffee, sometimes called bulletproof or butter coffee. It’s simply black coffee, but with added MCT oil and either grass-fed unsalted butter or ghee. There are three reasons why keto coffee is such a big deal. The butter and oil (which tastes slightly of coconut) add interesting taste and consistency; they each provide healthy fat (which is great for a keto diet); and the MCT oil helps you stay in ketosis.
But bulletproof coffee is also very filling, which leads some people to use it as a substitute for breakfast or other meals – and that’s a bad idea, because it contains an enormous number of calories, and because it doesn’t provide any of the other nutrients that a healthy meal would contribute. Keto coffee is terrific, but keep it to a once-a-day treat.
What about alcohol? We don’t want to encourage bad habits, but most spirits like gin, vodka and whiskey are carb-free, and wine only contains about two grams of net carbs per glass. Beer, as we’ve mentioned, is out, although there are a few low-carb beers like Michelob Ultra on the market.
One other beverage you might not think of: bone broth, which is low in carbs and extremely healthy.
Other Keto-Friendly Foods
Before finishing up your keto shopping list, here are a few other foods you may want to add. All are keto-friendly.
- Pork rinds and jerky
- Seaweed snacks without added ingredients
- Pickles with no added sugar
- Any ingredients you’ll need for keto baking, like almond flour, cocoa powder and vanilla extract
And there’s one more that we’ve saved for dessert: dark chocolate. It should contain at least 70% cocoa (85% or 92% is even better, but those are quite bitter), and it should only be eaten as a treat. It might give you something to look forward to, though, after a day of carefully counting carbs.