Lose weight on keto—eat cheese and bacon all day!
It’s an enticing headline, I admit. People enjoy feeling like they’re making a positive health change, and the appeal of eating tasty foods without regard for food quality removes the barrier to entry. Unfortunately, it’s also true: you don’t need to eat nutritious foods to enter ketosis. Even processed junk is ketogenic if it significantly limits carbs. And since keto promotes weight loss (assuming one isn’t overeating), people get tricked into eating a “dirty” or “lazy” keto diet.
Let me spill the beans for you: there’s a reason it’s called dirty keto. It promotes terrible health outcomes over the long term. If you consume heated vegetable oils regularly, it could be decades before it manifests in heart disease.
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. But if you’re like me, you’re eating a keto diet to stay in good health long into your wiser years.
Dirty keto won’t get you there. Prioritizing food quality and nutrient density will. That means eating whole foods that are naturally high in vitamins and minerals, and avoiding processed garbage, which is typically lacking in essential nutrients. 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.
A ketogenic diet (keto diet) is a low-carb eating plan that promotes a fat-burning metabolic state called ketosis. In other words, the definition of keto that I like is “any diet sufficiently low in carbohydrates, so as 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.
Our long-departed ancestors relied on fat for energy periodically. Burning stored fat provided much-needed reserve energy in the times of hit-or-miss hunting and gathering. But the modern diet doesn’t usually allow for much fat-burning. It’s too high in carbohydrates—especially the processed kind.
All those carbs (often from refined sugar), combined with overeating, of course, 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. Instead of defaulting to carbs for energy, keto reprograms your body to run on fat.
This is called fat-adapting or keto-adapting, and it’s the primary point of the keto diet. It’s what sets up the benefits of better energy, enhanced focus, less hunger, and thus the potential for sustainable fat loss.
Those are some of the benefits of ketosis, but I still haven’t said anything about food quality.
The Wisdom of Whole Foods
Millions of years ago—heck, even 50 years ago—hominids consumed diets laden with nutritious, real food. Meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds were for dinner each and every evening.
These whole foods contain the necessary nutrients for humans to thrive. They contain protein, fat, fiber, vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, and many other compounds that benefit our health.
Eating whole foods isn’t like taking a multivitamin or protein powder, though. That’s because nutrients are better absorbed together than in isolation. This concept is called food synergy.
By focusing on quality food-based nutrition, you also:
- Lessen the risk of over-supplementing any nutrient, which can be toxic.
- 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 is to 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). *Note that I also suggest minimizing nuts when the main goal is fat loss, as their calories can add up quickly.
These foods will comprise the bulk of your calories, 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
When choosing foods on keto, you should think about macronutrients first. How much protein, fat, and carbohydrates does this food have?
I like to say that macros are like money. You need to invest them wisely to yield the best results.
On a keto diet, I recommend investing in protein first, then carbs second (but prioritizing low-carb vegetables for micronutrients) and then fat last, as needed to reach your energy goals. I have a mantra I use 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 start with consuming 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[*][*]. I believe it can even improve your results, as the goal is usually not just weight loss, but 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, keeping net carbs (net carbs = total carbs – fiber – sugar alcohols/2) to 30 grams per day is sufficient for keto-adaptation.
Fat is a lever. After hitting your protein target, the vast majority of your remaining calories will come from fat.
Your fat intake will depend on your goals. If you want to lose body fat, 50 grams per day is a great starting point. You want to burn the fat from your body, not from your plate, after all—and that means achieving a caloric deficit. If you’re looking to add muscle, though, be sure to bump up your protein to 1.2g / lb of LBM and then up your fat intake accordingly.
Salt is the secret. Sodium isn’t a macronutrient, but it is vitally important and deserves more awareness, especially on a keto diet. It is essential for life, and required for your body (along with potassium) to transport and use energy (ATP) efficiently in our cells.
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 lose body fat and build muscle as well. To learn more, read my article on redefining keto diet macros.
Micronutrients on Keto
The second consideration for meal planning is micronutrient density. What vitamins and minerals does this food have?
I say second consideration, but micronutrients are just as important (if not more) than macronutrients. Deficiencies in micronutrients can lead to low energy, cravings, impaired cognitive function, increased chronic disease risk, and even death. 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? Simple. Bring along one of nature’s best sources of vitamin C: citrus fruits.
More relevant to keto folks, let’s talk about electrolyte imbalances. Getting enough electrolytes like sodium, potassium, and magnesium can help:
- Prevent the symptoms of keto flu
- Maintain fluid balance for blood pressure, blood flow, and skin moisture
- Optimize athletic performance
- Keep energy levels up
- Support cognitive health
- And much more
Low sodium is the big one. Sodium deficiency is common on keto because:
- You excrete more sodium through urine on keto.
- A clean keto diet is low in processed foods, which can contribute >70% of sodium intake for people in the United States.
- 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.
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 get that much. Even the lazy keto movement plays by that rule. So at least it’s not sanctioning sugar.
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 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, it probably contains chemicals you don’t want. You don’t want sugar, MSG, food dyes, anti-caking agents, and 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 clean keto takes slightly more time and effort than lazy keto. But if you care about your long-term health, it’s time very well spent.