After seeing countless transformation photos on Instagram, you’ve finally decided to give the keto diet a try. Great! You know you’ll be cutting back on carbs, but what else should you avoid—and more importantly, what exactly should you be eating?
In general, ketogenic diets consist of just 5 percent carbs, 15 percent protein, and a whopping 80 percent fat. This ratio of nutrients forces your body to use stored fat for fuel, encouraging weight loss. Here’s the thing, though: We don’t know the effects of following this kind of diet long-term, and yes, some health pros worry it presents some risks. The best way to stick to the diet and also ward off potential trouble down the road? Be smart about which foods you rely on to hit your daily nutrient quota.
Some low-carb dieters go all out on butter-topped bacon and steak and eat very little produce, but that’s not exactly the smartest move, says Kristen Mancinelli, RD, author of The Ketogenic Diet. (We’ll get more into why that is soon.) “A big misconception is that you should just put meat at the center of your plate and add more fat on top,” she says.
So what should you be reaching for? Here’s a look at the best keto diet foods that can help you thrive, plus the surprising ones you might want to avoid—or at least eat in moderation.
Surprise! A healthy keto diet isn’t all about the meat. Make these good-for-you options staples in your meals.
Avocados are loaded with heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, as well as fiber, which keeps your digestion running smoothly. This fruit can also help replenish electrolytes in the body. For example, a cup of avocado delivers 975 milligrams of potassium, a mineral that regulates fluid balance in the body. That’s extra important when you’re on a very low-carb diet—this type of eating causes your body to excrete water and electrolytes, which can lead to dehydration, dizziness, and fainting.
Just because keto is a high fat diet doesn’t mean you should rely on large portions of fatty meats to hit your daily fat quota. “It’s not about eating an 8-ounce steak,” Mancinelli says. “Instead, have a 3-ounce portion of steak with half an avocado on the side.” That’ll help you meet your fat needs without overdoing it on the protein or potentially harmful saturated fats.
Consider it liquid gold: Most of it is made up of the monounsaturated fats that are good for your heart. Plus, the relatively neutral flavor means that it goes with pretty much everything. Drizzle it on top of your food for an easy way to up the fat content of your meal.
They’re inexpensive, easy to make, and insanely versatile. And of course, they’re loaded with nutrition. The yolks are a top source of the mineral choline, which plays an important role in brain function, memory, metabolism, and mood, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Eggs are also one of the few foods that deliver vitamin D, which can protect your eyes and bones, as well as promote healthy cholesterol levels.
All are high in healthy fats. But you should aim for a variety since different types contain different nutrients. You’ll get close to 10 percent of your daily calcium from an ounce almonds, for instance, and more than a quarter of your daily zinc from the same amount of pumpkin seeds.
Load up on nut and seed butters too. You can dunk raw veggies in almond or cashew butter for a satisfying high-fat snack. Or drizzle tahini sauce over leaner proteins to up their fat content, Mancinelli recommends.
Blackberries, strawberries, and raspberries are lower in carbs than other fruits—but they still pack plenty of beneficial antioxidants and fiber. And once your taste buds adjust to life without added sugar, they’ll practically taste like candy.
Severely limiting your carbs can put you at risk for falling short on essential nutrients like potassium, magnesium, folate, vitamin C, or vitamin K, warns Seattle-based nutritionist and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson Ginger Hultin. Leafy greens, bell peppers, mushrooms, and cruciferous veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts serve up the most nutritional bang for your buck without maxing out your daily carb allotment.
You know that high-carb foods like grains, legumes, starchy vegetables, and sugary fruits are out. But they’re not the only things you ought to steer clear of on a keto diet.
Whether you’re eating keto or not, bacon, sausage, hot dogs, deli meat and the like are still special occasion foods. They often contain preservatives and flavorings (like nitrates and nitrites) that are linked to cancer, Hultin cations.
Delicious and addictive, these snacks are basically the keto equivalent of potato chips. But with little to offer from a nutritional standpoint, they’re a total waste of calories. Plus, there’s a good chance they contain sneaky sources added sugars and starches (like maltodextrin or corn flour) for added flavor, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Most people consider it a protein, but yogurt still contains some carbs in the form of the milk sugar lactose. How much, exactly, depends on the yogurt’s fat content. You’ll get around 16 grams of carbs in a cup of plain low-fat yogurt, compared to 11 grams of carbs in the same amount of whole milk yogurt. Flavored varieties have the most of all, thanks to all that added sugar. Believe it or not, some varieties of low-fat vanilla yogurt pack 31 grams of carbs.
Natural cheeses like Parmesan or fresh mozzarella are perfectly fine to enjoy them in moderation, Mancinelli says. Steer clear of packaged shredded cheeses, though. They often contain hidden carbs in the form of potato starch, cornstarch, or cellulose, according to the USDA.
Sure, they might fit the bill from a numbers perspective. (Cookies with 2 grams of carbs? Sign me up!) But like other snack foods, they’re basically void of nutrients. Plus, there’s a good chance they also contain some stuff you don’t want. “These snacks may be ultra-processed with artificial ingredients, sweeteners, or preservatives,” Nico says. Aside from the fact that artificial ingredients and preservatives are best avoided no matter what diet you’re on, hidden sweeteners could mess with your blood sugar and possibly take you out of ketosis.