As a high-fat, moderate-protein and low-carbohydrate eating plan, the ketogenic diet is a dream for bacon-lovers, heavy cream-adorers and the vegetable-enamored. However, it's not so appealing for spaghetti enthusiasts, bean supporters or the fruit-obsessed, given that all those carbohydrate-rich foods — and more — are off-limits.
If you've decided to hop on the ketogenic bandwagon, meal planning will become a necessary pastime. For your own sanity, set aside time each week to write out a ketogenic meal plan, make a grocery list of ingredients and shop for all sorts of ketogenic necessities.
What Is the Ketogenic Diet?
The ketogenic diet originated as an eating plan to control seizures in people who suffer from epilepsy — meaning, at its heart, keto is a therapeutic diet and not simply a way to drop weight quickly. It's typically prescribed by a physician to children who don't respond well to anti-seizure medications and then carefully implemented and monitored by a registered dietitian.
Given the increase in popularity of the keto diet, though, a good number of recent followers nowadays are likely more concerned with weight loss and other health benefits than its relation to epilepsy. The goal is to coerce your body into using fat for energy rather than its preferred fuel source of glucose, or sugar. This fat-based fuel is known as ketones, which are produced by the liver from the stored fat in your body. When your body is using ketone for fuel, you're said to be "in ketosis."
The keto diet differs from other low-carb eating plans, such as Atkins, because it emphasizes fat consumption, rather than protein.
What to Eat on Keto
There are no ifs, ands or buts about it — the ketogenic diet is restrictive. It outlaws nearly all forms of carbohydrates, from fruit to grains to legumes, and encourages consumption of meat, poultry, full-fat dairy products and vegetables. Foods that are approved for the diet are:
- Meat and poultry: Chicken, beef, pork, bacon and sausage (as long as they're free from sugar), lamb, turkey, duck and eggs
- Seafood: Fish, such as salmon, tuna and cod; crustaceans, such as shrimp, crab and lobster; mollusks, such as mussels, oysters and scallops
- Non-starchy vegetables: Broccoli, zucchini, cauliflower, peppers, tomatoes, asparagus, cucumbers, onions, mushrooms, spinach, green leafy vegetables, green beans, eggplant and peppers
- Full-fat dairy: Soft and hard cheeses, cream cheese, sour cream and heavy cream
- Fats: Olive oil, coconut oil, ghee, mayonnaise, butter and lard
- Nuts and nut butter: Almonds, cashews, pecans and walnuts — essentially all types, though peanuts are technically legumes. Their inclusion in the keto diet is debated and perhaps subject to personal preference.
- Herbs and spices: All dried or fresh herbs and spices
- Berries: Blueberries, blackberries and raspberries in limited amounts
- Artificial sweeteners: Stevia and sucrose in limited amounts
- Beverages: Unsweetened coffee and tea, still or sparkling water, hard liquor, dry wine or sparkling wine in limited amounts
While that might seem like a fairly substantial list of foods you can eat, the list of items you can't enjoy is just about as long. It includes:
- Fruit: All fruit except previously mentioned berries, including bananas, apples, watermelon, grapes, peaches, melons, mangoes, grapefruit and oranges
- Grains and grain products: Whole or refined grains, such as rice, oats, corn, quinoa and barley, and grain products, including bread, pasta, oatmeal, pizza, bagels, popcorn, cereal and anything made with wheat
- Starchy and root vegetables: Sweet potatoes, white potatoes, carrots, parsnips, beets, turnips and yams
- Legumes: All types of beans, including black, kidney, pinto, navy, soy and garbanzo, along with lentils and peas
- Low-fat dairy: Skim or reduced-fat milk, skim or part-skim cheese, low-fat or fat-free cream cheese and yogurt
- Sugar and sweets: Chocolate, candy, cookies, cakes, ice cream, pudding and pastries
- Sugar-sweetened condiments: Ketchup, barbecue sauce and some salad dressings
- Sweetened beverages: Soda, juice, smoothies, sweetened tea and coffee, beer, sweet wine and sweetened cocktails
Sometimes, it can be hard to tell if a product fits into the ketogenic meal plan. Take a look at the list of ingredients. If you see anything that resembles sugar on that list, put it back on the shelf.
Keto Meal Plan Breakfasts
The easiest breakfast on the ketogenic diet — and one that many newbies turn to — is a form of eggs and breakfast meat. You can scramble, poach, hard-boil or fry the eggs, depending on your preference. If you have the skills, you can also whip up an omelet filled with cheese and veggies.
Sometimes, though, plain eggs and meat get a little tiresome. Simply preparing the eggs in a different manner, such as in single-serving muffin cups or as part of a casserole, can pull you out of the food rut. If, however, you need a break from eggs and bacon or sausage, try something a little different, such as:
- Smoked salmon with cream cheese (almost like lox on a bagel!)
- Full-fat cottage cheese sprinkled with berries and chia or flaxseeds
- Alternative-flour pancakes, such as those made with coconut flour, cream, eggs and plain cream cheese
Keto Meal Plan Lunches
Get ready to pack your lunch, because the best way to stick to a keto meal plan is to bring homemade dishes. You can always fill up on a big green salad that's topped with protein and sprinkled with fats like cheese, nuts and dressing, but sometimes that's just not enough to get through the middle of the day. Other options include:
- Chicken or egg salad on top of salad greens with sliced avocado
- "Nachos" made with slices of bell peppers topped with seasoned ground beef, onions, tomatoes, avocado and sour cream
- BLT lettuce wraps filled with bacon, chopped tomatoes and, for a little extra fat and protein, hard-boiled eggs
- Homemade soups that don't have potatoes, rice or noodles in them, such as cream of broccoli or vegetable-beef
Keto Meal Plan Dinners
The tricky part about cooking dinner on the keto diet is pleasing everyone in the household who isn't doing the same. In some cases, foods that fit the keto meal plan don't look that different from "typical" dinners, like when you grill a good piece of meat and pair it with a salad. Other times, you might want to prepare a side of carbohydrates for others, like roasted potatoes or rice. In this case, you can simply let the person requesting the carb do the preparation. Some keto-diet dinners to keep on a list are:
- Chili, minus beans, with a side salad
- Grilled meat, such as chicken, steak or pork chops, with a side of cheesy cauliflower and braised Brussels sprouts
- Slow-cooked pot roast with roasted vegetables
- Shrimp or chicken coconut curry over cauliflower rice
- Bacon-wrapped shrimp and scallops
Eating Out on Keto
Pulling through a drive-through or hitting up happy hour with friends won't be as easy as it once was, but you don't have to swear off restaurants forever when you're following the keto diet. The key to staying successful is to prepare in advance, ask a lot of questions and don't be afraid to make modifications.
For example, when at a regular American eatery, a keto-friendly meal can consist of a hamburger with pickles, onions, tomatoes, lettuce and mustard. If you really want to hold the burger with your hands, ask for a big piece of lettuce and wrap it all up. Skip the ketchup and the bun. Instead of French fries on the side, ask for a side salad. Just be prepared to pay a bit extra.
Other options when eating out on a keto diet include:
- A burrito salad with lettuce, meat (ask if there's any added sugar), fajita vegetables, pico de gallo, cheese, guacamole and sour cream
- Buffalo wings, provided that they're not breaded and have a sauce made only with a vinegar-based hot sauce
- Any sort of grilled or baked meat with extra butter or olive oil, but without sides of fries, rice or noodles. Ask for extra vegetables instead.
Don't be afraid to ask questions of your server, even if it involves asking them to go back and check with the cooks about how items are made. It's perfectly reasonable to want to know if a sauce is thickened with starch, if the meat has breading on it or if the dressing was made with sugar.
Pros and Cons of Keto
Keto was designed for people who suffer from epilepsy; however, that's not to say that it doesn't have research backing up its benefits beyond controlling those symptoms.
- Weight loss: A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies published in 2017 in Obesity Reviews determined the ketogenic diet can be effective in suppressing appetite and helping people feel less hungry.
- Memory preservation: A rodent study published in 2017 in Cell Metabolism found that the ketogenic diet reduced midlife mortality and helped to prevent memory decline in mice.
- Type 2 diabetes management: A 2018 study published in Diabetes Therapy determined that nutritional ketosis improved biomarkers for diabetes and reduced medication usage.
Despite this, some health experts remain unconvinced that a ketogenic meal plan is the way to go. In 2017, primary care physician, Dr. Marcelo Campos, wrote a blog for Harvard Medical School, warning of some drawbacks and risks of keto, including:
- the restrictive nature of the diet, making it hard to follow long-term
- the initial symptoms of carb withdrawal, which could include fatigue, bad breath, nausea, constipation and sleep problems
- the potential danger for people with kidney disease
Additionally, this particular eating plan might not satisfy all your micronutrient needs. Talk to your doctor about supplementing your diet to ensure that you're getting the vitamins and minerals that you need for a healthy life.
- Obesity Reviews: Do Ketogenic Diets Really Suppress Appetite?
- Cell Metabolism: Ketogenic Diet Reduces Midlife Mortality and Improves Memory in Aging Mice
- Harvard Medical School: Harvard Health Letter: Should You Try the Keto Diet?
- Epilepsy Foundation: Ketogenic Diet
- Food and Nutrition: The Ketogenic Diet: A Breakdown of This Popular Eating Plan
- The Keto Summit: Keto Friendly Restaurants: Eating Out and What To Order
- Harvard Health Blog: Ketogenic Diet: Is the Ultimate Low-Carb Diet Good for You?