For many people, breakfast means carbs like bagels, cereal and waffles. But those on ketogenic or low-carb diets need to limit or downright avoid these foods. That doesn't have to mean going hungry, however: There are plenty of morning-friendly meals that can keep you full and energized until lunch.
The Keto Diet at a Glance
A ketogenic diet is an extremely low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet, with as little as 5 to 10 percent of total daily calories coming from carbs, and as much as 70 to 80 percent from fat, according to the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. The 20 to 50 grams of daily carbohydrates in a keto diet are much lower than the 225 to 325 grams most Americans on a 2,000-calorie diet generally eat, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The keto diet causes the body to switch from burning carbohydrates for fuel to burning fat, a condition known as ketosis. The diet was originally designed to treat childhood epilepsy. But in recent years, it's also made its way into the world of weight loss and dieting.
There are now many popular keto diets available. The Atkins 20 Diet is one of the most well known, but there other versions — some with different phases, or stages of carb levels, and some stricter than others. Some dieters may also be interested in keto-friendly recipes simply because they want to cut back on refined grains and starches. An extremely low-carb diet does come with potential risks, so be sure to consult your doctor before you decide to go keto.
As for breakfast, whether you're following a full ketogenic plan or just looking for low-carb meals, you have plenty of alternatives to high-carb morning mainstays.
Start Your Day With Eggs
Eggs can be a staple keto breakfast item, says Amy Goss, PhD, a registered dietitian and assistant professor of nutrition sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. They can be served boiled, poached, fried or scrambled, or made into an omelet using low-carb vegetables like mushrooms, peppers and onions.
"We try to encourage our low-carb and keto patients to incorporate non-starchy vegetables into each meal, to make sure they're getting the micronutrients they need," says Goss. "Omelets are one of the easiest ways to do that."
If you want to cook ahead of time, try making a low-carb quiche using a basic recipe of eggs, heavy cream, onion, a little butter and cheese, plus seasoning. You can then vary the flavor by adding more vegetables, different cheeses or meat.
The Egg-Free Keto Breakfast
If you can't eat eggs, don't enjoy them or are looking for something different, you have other options. Franziska Spritzler, RD, author of The Low-Carb Dietitian's Guide to Health and Beauty, suggests full-fat Greek yogurt and berries sprinkled with cinnamon. A 200-calorie serving of plain Greek yogurt plus a 1/4 cup of sliced strawberries and 1/4 of a teaspoon of cinnamon has only about 11 grams of net carbs, according to the USDA.
Meat can also be a part of a low-carb breakfast, says Spritzler. Traditional breakfast meats like bacon and ham are allowed on low-carb diets, but, as the Atkins diet points out, these foods are sometimes cured with sugar, which can raise their carbohydrate count. They also contain added nitrates, which dietitians don't recommend. Choose meats for breakfast that are higher in protein and lower in saturated fats. Chicken, turkey sausage and turkey bacon all fit that bill and can be paired with veggies and a low-carb tortilla.
You can also get creative with breakfast items usually made with wheat flour. Muffins can be made with almond and coconut flour, and pancakes and waffles made with a blend of wheat bran, flaxseed meal, soy flour and whey protein. And if you prefer a liquid breakfast that's easy to take on-the-go, there are several ways to cut carbs from your smoothie recipes, such as using almond or coconut milk.
The Keto Breakfast Blues
A healthy morning meal is important, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Breakfast can boost metabolism and reduce the possibility of insulin resistance, a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Experts have also preached for years that breakfast is important for weight loss, and that people who eat first thing in the morning have lower rates of obesity.
But the keto diet can sometimes throw you off your breakfast game. Not everyone on a low-carb diet is hungry first thing in the morning, says Spritzler. If a person is in ketosis, their bodies are burning fat rather than carbs — which some research suggests can suppress appetite, according to a January 2015 meta-analysis in Obesity Reviews.
"If you're not hungry in the morning, you can actually skip breakfast," says Spritzler. (Going too long without food can be dangerous for people with certain medical conditions, however, so check with a health care professional if you're thinking about making a change.) Instead pay attention to your hunger cues — and keep some nuts, seeds or plain yogurt on hand for a mid-morning snack.
But doesn't that go against years of advice about breakfast being the most important meal of the day? It turns out the science on this seemingly ancient wisdom isn't set in stone. In a January 2019 review published in BMJ, researchers found that most studies looking at the effect of breakfast on weight loss or daily calorie intake were inconsistent and of "low quality" — meaning they were at high risk of bias or lacked long-term follow-ups.
"This study suggests that the addition of breakfast might not be a good strategy for weight loss, regardless of established breakfast habit," the study authors wrote. "Caution is needed when recommending breakfast for weight loss in adults, as it could have the opposite effect."
In other words, don't eat just because you think you should, and if you do wait several hours before eating in the morning, make sure you're not overeating to make up for the delay. If you're still unsure about whether and what you should have for breakfast — keto diet or not — talk to a doctor or a registered dietitian.
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Diet Review: Ketogenic Diet for Weight Loss"
- Atkins.com: "Atkins 20: A Low-Carb Ketogenic Diet"
- The University of Alabama at Birmingham Nutrition & Obesity Research Center: "Amy Miskimon Goss, Ph.D."
- LowCarbDietitian.com: "About Me"
- MyFoodData: "Nutrition Comparison of Strawberries, Cinnamon, and Greek Yogurt (Plain)"
- Atkins.com: "List of Low-Carb Foods for Atkins 20, Phase 1"
- Atkins.com: "5 High Protein Low Carb Breakfast Ideas"
- Atkins.com: "Low Carb Breakfast Recipes"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Breakfast and beyond: The case for a healthy morning meal"
- Mayo Clinic: "Carbohydrates: How carbs fit into a healthy diet"
- The BMJ: "Effect of breakfast on weight and energy intake: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials"
- Obesity Reviews: "Do ketogenic diets really suppress appetite? A systematic review and meta-analysis."
- Cleveland Clinic: "If You Skip Breakfast or Eat Late, Will You Gain Weight?"