- Dark chocolate isn’t banned by the keto diet. But it has to be really dark.
The ketogenic diet isn’t built for those with a sweet tooth.
The low-sugar eating plan restricts carbohydrates to just 20-50 grams a day, pushing the body to rely on burning fat for energy, a metabolic state called ketosis.
Typically, our bodies seek out carbohydrates (sugars, starches, and fiber) for fuel before tapping into fat reserves. So the keto plan is designed to essentially trick your body into thinking it is starving.
The keto diet was originally designed to help manage drug-resistant epileptic seizures, but it has developed something of a cult following. Many followers say the diet allows them fill up on fatty, rich foods while still losing weight, reducing their appetite, and sharpening their minds.
Like many restrictive diets, keto isn’t easy to follow. You can’t eat more than a handful of chickpeas or a single banana without going over your daily recommended carb count on the plan, so it’s easy to understand why the regimen may not be sustainable. In fact, most nutritionists suggest that if you’re looking to stay healthy long-term, less restrictive diets that are rich in unprocessed, plant-based foods and include a moderate amount of carbohydrates are some of the best for a healthy, long life.
We still don’t know much about the long-term health effects of the keto diet. But clinical studies in mice suggest it may have a role to play in cancer treatment, though studies in humans are needed.
For those trying the plan, there are some tasty and healthy snacks that fit neatly into the keto rules. Here are 16 surprising keto-friendly foods.
- Getty Images/Stilton cheese
Stinky blue cheese or rich Camembert – all cheese can have a place in the keto diet. The plan prioritizes creamier, more unprocessed dairy over milks and yogurts with more sugar.
It’s about 80% fat, with no carbs. Clearly a keto food.
- elana’s pantry via Flickr
This is the fattiest stuff that comes out of a cow’s udders – the rich substance that rises to the top of the milk pail and has around 35% fat. Just make sure it’s not sweetened with any added sugar.
Spinach and other leafy greens
Keto dieters have to be careful about eating too much of certain vegetables like carrots, but many greens, such as broccoli, kale, and spinach, can be great keto staples.
Nuts, but not all types
Walnuts are beloved by keto-ers because they contain a kind of omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), one of two essential fatty acids that the body can’t produce on its own. Almonds and Brazil nuts are also good choices for keto followers.
Still, not all nuts are keto-friendly: You’d have to eat less than a cup of cashews or pistachios to stay within the daily carb limit.
Nuts are a good snack for anyone who’s not allergic, since eating them regularly can help keep your heart healthy and lower levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol in the body.
A half cup of fresh tomatoes has 4 grams of carbs, so keto-ers can’t eat too much of the juicy fruit, but it’s fine as a salad topping.
Besides, one of those four grams of carbohydrates is from fiber, and since all fiber essentially passes straight through your body, you don’t have to factor it into your daily carb intake, according to keto rules. That means a half cup of tomatoes has a net carb intake of just 3 grams. That’s well within the 20-50 gram daily limit.
- William Felker/Unsplash
Blackberries and raspberries have some of the lowest carb loads of any fruit, but contain a generous helping of antioxidants, which help keep the cells in your body healthy.
Much of the carb dose in these berries comes from fiber, which, again, is subtracted in keto calculations. So it’s ok to nibble on them in moderation.
There’s also another important keto-friendly berry…
- Macha Cafe
Avocado is a weirdo in the fruit family. By weight, avocados have more than twice the protein of any other fleshy fruit. They also lower your “bad” LDL cholesterol while raising the good stuff, and contain healthy monounsaturated fat along with very low doses of saturated fat.
Zucchini can serve as a staple food for strict keto-ers. It is often used as a creative replacement for forbidden foods like pastas and crusts.
- Wikimedia Commons
From chicken with the skin on to a fatty cut of pork chop, all meat is allowed on keto.
But there is still reason to eat meat in moderation. Proteins in meat are more dangerous for your heart health than those in nuts, and eating more meat can up your risk of death.
Plus, ketogenic diets are not designed to be protein-rich. Protein should only constitute about 15% of a day’s calorie intake for a person to remain in optimal keto mode.
From that meat, you can make bone broth
- Food Loves Writing / Flickr
Bone broth – stock that’s been cooked with meat or fish bones – has developed a devoted following in recent years as a collagen-rich food.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that this savory sipping juice will help your nails or joints; gut experts say that’s nonsense.
“Since we don’t absorb collagen whole, the idea that eating collagen somehow promotes bone growth is just wishful thinking,” William Percy, a pharmacologist and associate professor at the University of South Dakota, told NPR.
However, bone stock can be a decent source of protein-rich amino acids, which are crucial building blocks for your body’s cells. The briney liquid will keep you well hydrated, too.
In cocoa beans, there’s a hefty dose of butter: cocoa butter, that is. So dark chocolate can be a good keto treat if it doesn’t have too much sugar and milk.
Only the really dark, low-sugar variety will do: a few squares of a bar that’s around 80% cocoa (or higher) is a good choice.
- Lusie Lia/Shutterstock
Regular milk isn’t great for keto followers since it contains sugar. But coconut milk – the fatty, creamy base of many curries and sauces – is rich, dairy-free, and keto-approved.
Nutritionists are quick to offer caveats about coconut, though, since it’s terribly high in saturated fat, which isn’t great for your health.
Karin Michel, a professor at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health recently pointed out that coconut oil is worse for your arteries than lard, and her colleague Walter Willett cautions that coconut oil should probably be used sparingly in your diet. The health benefits of unsaturated fats and oils like olive oil are more proven.
- A 230 kg (507 lb.) bluefin tuna outside Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.
- REUTERS/Yuya Shino
Fish offers generous helpings of healthy fat. It’s a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which can reduce the risk of abnormal heartbeat, slow the rate of heart-clogging plaque growth, reduce the amount of fat in your blood, and lower blood pressure a bit.
The American Heart Association recommends adults eat oily fish twice a week or more.
- Olha Afanasieva/Shutterstock
Eggs are also a good source of omega-3s, and the cholesterol in eggs probably won’t have much of an effect on your blood cholesterol, so they’re a safe and filling keto choice.
Whatever diet you’re on (even if it’s no diet at all), drink plenty of water
Urologists say it’s vitally important to stay hydrated on the keto diet, especially if you’re swapping out carbs for more meat.
But drinking lots of water every day is sound advice anyone hoping to maintain a healthy weight in the long run.
One 2016 study of more than 18,000 people in the US found that those who drank more water were consistently more satisfied and ate fewer calories on a daily basis.They also consumed lower amounts of sugar, fat, salt, and cholesterol than more dehydrated participants, no matter what kind of diet they chose.
- Plenty of avocados, eggs, and butter are all allowed on the trendy keto diet. But forget about sugar.
- Alpha on Flickr
- The keto diet is one of the trendiest diets around, but it was originally developed to help children with epilepsy suffer fewer seizures.
- It kicks the body into a natural fat-burning mode, called ketosis, by starving a person’s system of carbs and sugars, which are typically the first fuels we burn.
- Some people say being in ketosis helps them focus and decreases their appetite, while trimming belly fat.
- Anyone who wants to try going keto should consult their physician first.
- More research is needed on the long-term effects of the high-fat diet for the general public.
Dieters from Silicon Valley to the Hollywood hills are convinced the trendy keto diet is nature’s miracle plan for the body and the brain.
The high-fat regimen has become the go-to eating plan for celebrities like Halle Berry and the Kardashians, Silicon Valley tech workers, venture capitalists, and sports stars like LeBron James. Fans of the diet believe it can burn off belly fat, tamp down hunger, and increase energy, all while allowing them to gobble up more fatty and oily foods.
The diet relies on a natural fat-burning state called ketosis. It’s the same process that happens automatically when people starve.
In ketosis, the body switches from its default mode – burning carbs and sugars for fuel first – and begins forcing itself into breaking down fatty acids for functioning. Entering ketosis usually takes at least a few days.
Doctor Priyanka Wali previously told Business Insider that most people use up leftover glycogen stores in about five days, and experts agree it takes at least one to three months to see and feel all the benefits of the restrictive plan.
The keto diet wasn’t originally developed for weight loss. Physicians started prescribing the diet in the 1920s to help with tough-to-control epileptic seizures that weren’t responsive to other drugs. The diet can significantly reduce the instance of seizures in children, and in some cases, stops them completely. It can also help control blood glucose levels in adults with Type 2 diabetes.
Read more: Silicon Valley’s favorite diet can lead to kidney trouble – here’s how to go keto without getting sick
Many keto fans who don’t have epilepsy or diabetes report feeling sharper and more energetic on the diet. Some competitive athletes are also convinced that following a keto plan also helps them perform. Ultra-marathoner Zach Bitter, the world record holder for the longest distance run in 12 hours, says going keto most of the time helps him speed into record-breaking athletic performances.
The US military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) also poured $10 million into developing a ketone ester drink that generates energy from ketones, hoping to one day give its soldiers on the battlefield an extra edge both physically and mentally. The drink is on the market now for performance athletes.
But research on the keto diet for athletes is still mixed: some studies suggest that relying on fat can actually hurt an athlete’s performance. Large-scale studies are needed to know for sure.
Keto by the numbers
One of the trickiest things about the keto diet is all the careful counting it requires.
Dietitian Kristin Kirkpatrick at the Cleveland Clinic suggests people going keto should aim to get 70% to 80% of their calories from fat, with less than 10% from carbohydrates. To that end, most keto dieters try to keep daily carb intake between 20 to 50 grams.
Considering there are roughly six grams of carbohydrates in a single medium-sized carrot or a serving of unsweetened Greek yogurt, keto meal planning requires a hefty dose of forethought. It’s not as simple as swapping a slice of morning toast for a few strips of bacon.
Since going keto can get complicated in a hurry, one Redditor even created a handy keto food pyramid that he encourages people on the keto diet to print out and put on their fridge.
Here’s what’s safe to include on a keto diet
- Africa Studio/Shutterstock
- Meat (pretty much any kind, including poultry and red meat.)
- Leafy greens.
- Eggs, including the cholesterol-rich yolks.
- Oils, especially those containing healthy mono and polyunsaturated fats (like olive oil). This is critical because relying too much on more saturated fats from dairy and meat can cause digestion issues and hurt your heart.
- Avocados, another great source of monounsaturated fats.
- Nuts and seeds.
- Cauliflower is a keto-friendly veggie that is low in carbs and high in dietary fiber. Many keto dieters use it as a substitute for bread, pasta, and crusts.
- Berries, especially blackberries and raspberries.
- Heavy cream.
- Lots of water and other unsweetened drinks to stay hydrated. Tea and coffee are both fine.
- There might even be a place for dark chocolate on the keto diet. Most people suggest sticking to cacao concentrations higher than 70% to 80%. Lower concentrations are too carb-loaded.
What to avoid on the keto diet
- Sugar. (Duh. This is all carbs.)
- Other carbohydrates like bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, and wheat-based flour. (There’s one big caveat to this rule, however, which we’ll dive into below.)
- Anything made with corn, especially high fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners.
- Legumes like chickpeas and beans of all kinds. These nutrient-rich foods are high in belly-filling protein and fiber, but the idea with ketosis is to rely more on fat for fuel. Many keto dieters limit their protein intake to around 10% to 15% of a day’s calories, which means that a single cup of black beans could put you in range of a daily limit. Besides, that cup of black beans will also serve up a hefty dose of carbs.
- Most fruits. A single apple could put you over your carb count for the entire day. Check the nutrition facts before you indulge in fresh fruit.
- Milk. Again, too high carb. A cup of whole milk has 12 grams, while the same amount of whipping cream has less than eight.
While it might seem tough to limit carbohydrate intake this strictly, there’s one important loophole to keep in mind. Because some carbs come from dietary fiber, which the body doesn’t break down and absorb, keto dieters can subtract those from their daily count.
This number is called net carbs, and it’s a better measure of how many carbohydrates you’re ingesting. For example, while a medium carrot has six grams of carbs, about 1.7 of them are dietary fiber, making chewing up a carrot a net carb intake of just over 4g. Likewise, more than 75% of the carbs in spinach are fiber, making it a relatively safe choice for keto-ers. Kirkpatrick suggests dieters limit their net carb intake to 25 grams a day.
Like any restrictive diet, it’s hard to get a balanced plate of all the vitamins and minerals your body needs to stay healthy on a keto plan, so you might also have to supplement with things like extra calcium, potassium, and magnesium. The keto diet is not doctor recommended for pregnant women, people with liver and kidney problems, or anyone prone to gout.
Whatever your goals, it’s essential to talk with a professional dietitian or doctor before embarking on the diet.
- Melia Robinson/Business Insider
For years, Silicon Valley has tried to engineer methods for living better, longer and easier, with mixed results.
Some have even opted out of real food altogether, instead relying on products like Soylent – a bland but nutrient rich liquid.
But for those looking to not just simplify their eating, but also lose weight and curb their appetite, the ketogenic diet (“keto” for those in the know) has become something of a cult-favorite eating plan, even attracting the likes of the Kardashian sisters and LeBron James.
People credit the fat-fueled diet craze with helping them lose weight and stay full, because it turns on the same metabolism mode (called “ketosis”) triggered by starvation. It moves the body into a fat-store-burning state, instead of relying on carbohydrates for energy.
But as I recently discovered, the keto diet is not easy to follow.
It’s true that by sticking to a low-carb, high-fat routine you’re allowed to eat some traditional diet no-no’s like bacon, eggs, butter, and plenty of creamy salad dressing. However, keto dieters are limited in what else they can eat: Not too many carrots, watch the berry intake, and forget about quinoa.
Ketolent (though not the same brand as Soylent) theoretically takes all the work out of the keto diet, with a ready-to-mix shake. When I found out about the product, I thought it was worth a try.
I had no idea what kind of wild ride I was about to endure.
The recipe for Ketolent was developed by 35-year-old Ted Tieken, who’s been on the keto eating plan since 2014. Tieken says the high-fat diet has turned around his chronic pain, left him more energized, and helped him lose 35 pounds.
- Hilary Brueck/Business Insider
“When I first started making the shakes, I loved that I didn’t have to worry about what to eat for lunch and I could focus on everything else going on in my life,” Tieken told Business Insider in an email.
He started selling Ketolent in December 2014, and now says he averages one shake a day, (sometimes two) and recommends other keto fans with a busy schedule do the same.
“I usually either have one for breakfast and skip lunch, or skip breakfast and have one for lunch,” he said. “Too many calories is a real problem in the modern food system, and we’ve engineered our product to give our customers as much satiety as we can so we can give them control over their calories.”
His company, Sated, says the insta-blend isn’t just designed for time-pressed techies; it’s a for anyone who wants to avoid the difficult work of figuring out what to eat on the keto meal plan.
It costs $90 for a 30-serving supply, which means that a single keto shake comes out to $3 per meal.
The shake consists of Sated-branded powder mixed with water, plus a fatty oil blend. It includes olive, flax, and coconut oils and packs a whopping 280 calories per scoop, providing the heft of my 400 calorie breakfast shake.
- Hilary Brueck/Business Insider
People on the keto diet usually get at least 60% of their calories from fat – nearly double the recommended daily dose.
When prepared as a 12 ounce shake, Ketolent packs 35 grams of fat into my breakfast, providing nearly half of my recommended total fat for the day (45%), and 60% of my daily saturated fat.
It’s not even 10 a.m. They weren’t kidding about this eat more fat business.
The keto diet is focused on healthy fats. But when I’m not slurping shakes, it can be a confusing eating plan, because some healthy foods like carrots and beans are banned.
I freaked out on day one of my new experiment when I realized that I’d inadvertently added half and half into my coffee.
A couple teaspoons added to mellow out my morning cup amounts to more than one additional gram of carbohydrates a day, which is a lot when trying to stay under the rigid 20-grams-of-carbs-a-day version of the keto plan.
And I have to completely ban carbohydrate-rich foods that are staples of a cheap, healthy diet – like beans, quinoa and whole grains.
It all makes me glad I don’t have to worry about what keto-approved food to eat for breakfast, before my brain (and caffeine) kicks in. Instead, I just mix up a Ketolent shake.
The three keto shake ingredients: oil mix, powder, and water, all get poured into a big blender bottle. I fill it up to the 12 ounce mark, and give it a good jostle.
- Hilary Brueck/Business Insider
It’s not the worst breakfast shake I’ve ever had. Ketolent tastes like a slightly-less-sweet version of brownie batter, without any weird, whey-like aftertaste. I was impressed.
- Hilary Brueck/Business Insider
My biggest complaint about the Ketolent shake was its clumpiness.
When I asked the company about this, they said they’re still toying with the consistency. Others on Reddit seemed to agree with my critique.
Sated is not the only startup hoping to court the keto crowd. Other companies, like Ample, offer single-serve powders that come in ready-to-blend plastic bottles.
- Ample Foods
The meal plans are taking off with people who think they have better things to do than eat: another popular meal replacement shake, Bear Squeeze, broke a food campaign record on crowdfunding site Indiegogo. The company bills itself as creator of “the world’s healthiest keto meal shake,” and it raised over $65,000 for the new beverage on day one.
My first day on the diet, I couldn’t last until lunch on the shake. Snack time! How about a nice juicy apple and a little cheese, right? Wrong.
- Hilary Brueck/Business Insider
Like carrots, apples are too sugar- and carb-loaded to be a part of this eating plan. A single red apple, with 25 grams of carbs inside, is a major no-no this week.
Guess it’s going to be a lot of black coffee, cheese and fatty nuts (minus the cashews – also too many carbs) to tide me over for the next four days.
Besides breakfast shakes, avocado and chicken lunches, fish, and black coffee will help get me through until dinnertime the rest of this week. At least, I hope so.
Fortunately, salads are still allowed on the keto plan. Normally, I go light on salad dressing, but not tonight.
- Hilary Brueck/Business Insider
I know that leafy greens like kale and arugula are welcome on a keto diet, and meats and nuts are OK, but I wasn’t sure about tomatoes. I quickly Googled and found out they’re alright in moderation.
But it seemed crazy that I had to Google every suspect salad ingredient. That’s another point for the Ketolent shake, which I don’t have to worry about scrutinizing for hidden carbs or sugars every time I take a sip.
One other potential keto slip-up that I didn’t even consider until I started munching on the salad: Canola oil.
Canola oil is too inflammatory and processed to be allowed, keto followers say. But Harvard nutritionists suggest canola oil is a better choice for your heart than saturated fats (which are darlings of the keto diet), because it lowers “bad” LDL cholesterol and heart disease risk when compared to butter and beef fat.
Another day when I had turkey and cucumber pinwheel rolls for lunch I worried that I might have messed up, because they were sandwiched with a processed, bright yellow cheese.
- Hilary Brueck/Business Insider
Keto followers often choose high-fat unprocessed cheeses and meats, because processed foods can pack so many additives. A slice of processed cheese has more than two grams of carbs and 1.4 grams of sugar, so it’s not an ideal choice for ketoers.
Ketolent’s shake, which is built on a base of milk protein isolate (like so many meal replacement shakes) is also a processed food. It includes a sucralose sweetener, the thickener guar gum, plus more than a dozen other ingredients.
Because I have a raging sweet tooth, I often scarfed down a little handful of blackberries for dessert, or chased dinner with some dark chocolate.
- Thomson Reuters
While apples are sugary off-limits treats for strict keto-ers, a handful of blackberries has less than five grams of sugar and fewer than 10 grams of carbs.
It’s a splurge if I’m aiming to stay under 20 total grams of carbs a day, but it’s doable.
I also learned that very dark chocolate (like, 85%) is alright, because it has very little sugar. The good news was I wasn’t craving sweets as often as I normally do. I knew they were off-limits for a few days, and that was fine. Plus, my breakfasts of Ketolent were always chocolatey.
The great thing about the plan is that it made me drink a ton of water. I was a tad thirstier than usual, but I also downed copious amounts of H2O because I was worried about the health of my kidneys.
- r. nial bradshaw/Flickr
The keto diet is designed to be high-fat, but keto dieters can also take in a lot of protein on the plan.
The Ketolent shake has 18 grams per serving, while other staples of the diet, like meats, fish and cheese also pack a protein punch. Because high-protein diets can put extra stress on kidneys, I made an effort to guzzle more water than usual the week I tried to go keto. It wasn’t hard to do; I was craving more water anyway.
Some keto dieters complain of lower back pain, which is another sign that their kidneys might not be doing well. I didn’t want to risk it.
If I learned one thing over the course of this week, it was this simple truth: sugar was hiding everywhere in my diet. I had to keep checking every label to make sure I wasn’t getting too much (when I wasn’t drinking meal shakes).
- Gene Kim
Even my full-fat plain yogurt had 6 grams. Ugh.
While this was a short-term experiment spanning just four days, I lost a few pounds, and also weaned myself off some sweet routines.
By day three, I was beginning to wonder if the bottom of my belly was looking a little paunchy from all that fat.
But clearly that was my imagination, because the scale said I’d lost about three pounds since this experiment began.
Given that this was a short-term test, it’s entirely possible most of that was water weight.
Not all the results were pretty.
- Gene Kim
My number one complaint: I was consistently paranoid about my breath.
Ketosis prompts the liver to turn fat into three different kinds of ketone body molecules. One of these is called acetone, and it is released in urine and through the lungs. The result is keto breath. People say it can be kind of like a sweet nail polish remover smell, but I was just worried that my breath was bad.
Toothpaste maker Colgate suggests keto dieters chew sugar-free gum and add natural breath fresheners like cinnamon and mint into their tea. Instead, I just tried to keep my distance when I spoke to people.
Sometimes I also felt like I had a sore throat.
- Throat Scope
People on the diet often complain of a “keto flu” that can kick in in the first week of this diet, when the body is switching from burning carbs to fat. I felt nauseous and dizzy on more than one occasion, and worried I was getting sick because of my sore throat. It usually went away after about an hour or two.
Final complaint: my skin was an oily wreck on this plan.
By day two, my cheeks were breaking out in a way they haven’t since high school. Apparently, all this extra fat I was eating was taking my skin on a field trip back to puberty.
By the fourth day, I was ready to call it quits. It was time to find out: did I enter ketosis, or not? There were certainly some compelling signs I was in that starvation-like metabolic state where the body starts relying on fat for fuel.
- Hilary Brueck/Business Insider
According to this urine test, I was in a “moderate” state of ketosis.
It’s important to note that the test strip I used only tracks the presence of ketone bodies excreted in urine. Many keto-ers argue this is a useless measurement, because it isn’t as accurate or immediate a measure of ketosis as a blood ketone monitor.
While it’s true that a urine test strip only measures the kinds of ketones that are excreted in the urine, and is not direct evidence of a keto metabolic state, it is nonetheless a rough indicator that in the not-so-distant past, my liver was likely producing ketones.
People who’ve adapted to the keto diet over weeks at a time may no longer excrete very many ketone bodies in their urine, but after just a few days on the diet, it’s a promising sign. Still, it’s not a sure bet.
Most people who are strictly following a keto diet can be pretty confident they’re in ketosis after three to four days. But the exact amount of time depends on a host of factors, including what you eating and how active you are.
I was glad when the keto experiment was over. While the diet clearly has many fervent followers, some experts worry about possible long-term effects.
- Chris Snyder
The keto diet is a proven treatment for tough-to-control epileptic seizures in children, and people with type-2 diabetes who are trying to lose weight and improve their blood sugar can also benefit from the plan.
But that doesn’t mean everyone should go keto. Kinesiologist Edward Weiss worries that people without serious health conditions who are trying the plan might be pumping their bodies full of dangerous acid, and avoiding some of the “healthiest foods we know of,” like fresh veggies and legumes.
“What’s sort of scary is that [the keto diet] is an experiment that the population is doing on itself,” he told Business Insider in May. “No drug company would get away with introducing a drug in the population without thorough research.”
People following a keto plan may need to supplement their diet with more vitamins, and no one who’s pregnant, has chronic kidney disease, or is prone to gouty arthritis should try it.
Even though keto fans argue that it takes weeks to reap the benefits of this diet, like better focus and less fatigue, a four-day trial was enough for me.
I went home, put a slice of cheese on one formerly-forbidden cracker, and poured myself a glass of carbohydrate-laden wine, with no regrets.
I’d never want to do this project long-term, but it was nice to eliminate all the choices and decisions around food for a bit, even if it made me second-guess nearly everything I put in my mouth.
Except, of course, that Ketolent shake.