The best diet for ketosis: Clean keto foods and keto foods to avoid

From the desk of
Luis Villaseñor
ScienceThe best diet for ketosis: Clean keto foods and keto foods to avoid

“Lose weight on keto—eat cheese and bacon all day!”

It’s an enticing headline, I admit. This “positive health change” requires next to zero activation energy. Unfortunately, it’s also true: Even processed junk is ketogenic if it significantly limits carbs. And since ketosis promotes fat loss (assuming one isn’t overeating), people get hooked on a “dirty” or “lazy” keto diet. The perceivable benefits, especially weight loss, come on more quickly than the detriments. Then people think it’s all gravy to keep riding the dirty keto train.

Let me spill the beans for you: Dirty keto promotes terrible health outcomes over the long term. And if you’re like me, a keto diet is a tool to maintain good health long into your wiser years. That means prioritizing food quality and nutrient density—eating whole foods that are naturally high in vitamins and minerals, and avoiding processed garbage. This is what we call a clean keto diet.

In this article, I’ll use both scientific research and my experience coaching clients to make a case for what I believe is the best diet for ketosis. Keep reading to learn why it’s wise to eat whole foods, how to structure your macronutrient intake, which micronutrients to prioritize, and specific foods that’ll keep your diet on solid footing.

Keto 101

A ketogenic diet is a low-carb eating plan that promotes a fat-burning metabolic state called ketosis. Any diet can be considered “keto” so long as it’s low enough in carbohydrates to make your body produce ketones. In ketosis, you rely on fat—dietary fat, body fat, and ketones produced from the breakdown of fatty acids—as your main source of energy.

In the times of hit-or-miss hunting and gathering, our long-departed ancestors periodically relied on ketosis. Burning stored fat provided much-needed reserve energy when resources were scarce. The modern diet, on the other hand, doesn’t leave much room for fat-burning. It’s too high in calories and carbohydrates, both of which processed foods tend to deliver by the boatload.

Overeating carbs — especially refined sugar — can lead to chronically elevated blood sugar and insulin levels, creating ripe conditions for metabolic disease. As a result, we have an epidemic of obesity and diabetes in America.

Reducing carb intake (especially processed carbs) is the best solution I know to this problem. Over time, a keto diet can reprogram your body to run on fat rather than defaulting to carbs for energy. This is called fat adapting, and it’s the primary point of the ketogenic diet. Fat adapting unlocks many benefits of ketosis, including better energy, enhanced focus, less hunger, and the potential for sustainable fat loss.

But as I mentioned, a diet low in carbs doesn’t have to be a whole foods diet. So if I can achieve all of those benefits by eating cheese and bacon all day, why should I care about whole foods?

The Wisdom of Whole Foods

Millions of years ago — heck, even 100 years ago — hominids consumed diets laden with nutritious, real food, like meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. These whole foods contain the necessary nutrients for humans to thrive. They’re rich in protein, fat, fiber, vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, and many other compounds that benefit our health.

But Luis, why can’t I just eat like crap and supplement the rest?

Multivitamins and protein powders aren’t going to do your body justice. Nutrients are better absorbed together than in isolation. This concept is called food synergy, and it’s one big reason you should care about whole foods. Other benefits of focusing on nutrient-dense foods include:

  • Lessen the risk of overconsuming any single nutrient.
  • Increase your exposure to a range of antioxidants, polyphenols, fatty acids, and other beneficial compounds.
  • Reduce your exposure to undesirable compounds (like oxidized fats or preservatives) in processed foods.

Let’s make a case for the best diet for ketosis now.

What to Eat on Keto

The overarching rule of a clean keto diet is simple: Eat nutrient-dense whole foods that are very low in carbs. Here are some nutrient-dense, keto-friendly foods:

  • Meats like grass-fed beef, poultry, lamb, pork, and organ meats
  • Fish like salmon, tuna, sardines, cod, and trout.
  • Healthy fats like olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, butter, ghee, and animal fat.
  • Low-carb vegetables like kale, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce, brussels sprouts, zucchini, squash, seaweed, bok choy, and shiitake mushrooms. A good rule of thumb? Stick to green-ish vegetables that grow above ground.
  • Nuts like almonds, macadamia nuts, cashews, and walnuts. Nut butter is also okay if it’s minimally processed and doesn’t contain added sugar, but it’s best to be careful with nuts if your main goal is fat loss. Their calories can add up quickly.

These foods will comprise the bulk of your calorie intake, but you can also dabble in medium-carb foods like berries, dark chocolate, carrots, and tomatoes. Just be sure to mind your carb limit.

Macronutrients on Keto

I like to say that macros are like money. When choosing foods on keto, you should think about how much protein, fat, and net carbs you’re allocating to your budget. Investing wisely will yield the best results. I use a macronutrient mantra often when coaching clients: Protein is a goal, carbs are a limit, fat is a lever, and salt is the secret.

Protein is a goal. To support body composition, satiety, and hormonal health, you should prioritize protein. Consume a minimum of 0.8 grams of daily protein per pound of lean body mass (LBM). Add more protein, up to 1.2 g per pound of LBM total, on training days — especially if it’s strength training.

Despite what you may have read, protein will NOT derail your keto diet. The evidence suggests that high-protein keto diets are perfectly compatible with weight loss. While most clients seek weight loss on keto, I urge them to focus on body recomposition: Losing body fat and gaining muscle. Trust me, you’ll feel and perform much better with adequate protein in your diet.

Carbs are a limit. If you eat too many carbs, especially those from highly processed foods, it will raise insulin levels and suppress ketogenesis. For most people, limiting net carb intake to 50 grams per day is sufficient to promote fat adapting. Net carbs = total carbs – fiber – (½ * sugar alcohols). If you’re unfamiliar with net carbs, this guide can help.

Fat is a lever. After hitting your protein target, the vast majority of your remaining calories will come from fat. Your fat intake should depend on your unique goals and calorie needs. If you want to lose body fat, 50 grams per day is a great starting point. After all, you want to burn the fat from your body, not from your plate — and that means achieving a caloric deficit. If you’re looking to build muscle, however, you’ll probably need to consume more fat in addition to bumping up your protein intake to 1.2 grams per pound of LBM.

Salt is the secret. Sodium may not be a macronutrient, but it is vitally important and deserves more awareness, especially on low-carb diets. Keto diets don’t just promote fat burning, they also increase sodium excretion. Replacing those sodium losses will help you avoid the “keto flu,” a widespread phenomena that is most commonly resolved by getting enough sodium.

I know this isn’t your typical keto macro advice, but it’s advice I’ve seen work for thousands of clients in my coaching career. Not only do they manage to lose weight, but they achieve body recomposition: losing body fat and building muscle too. To learn more, read my article on redefining keto diet macros.

Micronutrients on Keto

If you’re keen on staying healthy for the long term, micronutrients are just as important as macronutrients. Deficiencies in micronutrients can lead to low energy, cravings, impaired cognitive function, increased chronic disease risk, and more.

A historical example will help illustrate. Centuries ago, scurvy (a disease of vitamin C deficiency) was like the Grim Reaper on long sea voyages. It killed thousands of sailors. The solution is simple: Bring some citrus fruits along for the ride.

Electrolyte imbalances are the more relevant application for people who eat a ketogenic diet. Getting enough electrolytes like sodium, potassium, and magnesium can help:

Low sodium is the big one. Sodium deficiency is common on a whole foods keto diet because:

  1. You excrete more sodium through urine on keto.
  2. It’s low in processed foods, which contribute more than 70% of sodium intake in the US.
  3. Sodium is the primary mineral lost through sweat.

To get enough sodium, make friends with the salt shaker. Handle the other electrolytes by eating electrolyte-rich foods like dark leafy greens, meat, and nuts. According to my experience surveying clients, however, they were still short on electrolytes after tuning up their diet. That’s why we created LMNT. This tasty electrolyte drink mix is an easy way for low-carb and active folks to optimize electrolytes without carbs or sugar.

To learn more about keto electrolyte targets and how to hit them, read Keto electrolytes: Benefits and best sources.

What to Avoid on Keto

Anything high in carbs is a no-go on keto. This means grains, tubers, root vegetables, most fruits, sugar, pasta, bread, cookies, sports drinks, fruit juice, and any other packaged high-carb foods you can think of. Most people understand that much.

My biggest concern with dirty keto is probably the vegetable oils. Sure, soybean oil (the number one source of fat calories in America) is ketogenic, but it’s also inflammatory and obesogenic. Vegetable oils are especially inflammatory when cooked. The fragile omega-6 fats oxidize at high heat, creating compounds that can damage heart, lung, kidney, and other organ tissue.

I also think it’s wise to avoid processed meats when possible. Hot dogs, salami, and smoked sausage won’t kick you out of ketosis, but they do contain molecules like N-nitroso compounds (NOCs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that researchers speculate may drive colon cancer.

A good heuristic: If it’s in a package, there’s probably a better choice out there. You don’t want sugar, food dyes, anti-caking agents, or other additives in your body. Not all packaged foods are bad, of course. Just make sure you read labels and trust the company you’re buying from.

And if most of your nutrition comes from low-carb whole foods, a little processed food here and there won’t kill you. It’s when the processed stuff becomes a lifestyle that they create problems.

Yes, eating a clean keto diet takes slightly more time and effort than lazy keto. But if you care about your long-term health, it’s time very well spent.

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