Following a keto diet means getting more of your daily calories from fat, and fewer of them from carbohydrates. You could lose weight by following a keto diet, and there may be other benefits. Improvements in total cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure have been shown.
But should you follow a keto diet? If so, what foods do you need to eat, and which recipes should you use? We’ve got the answers. Find more about healthy eating, plus tons of recipes (healthy and indulgent) on our dedicated page. For more fitness advice, go to our dedicated page.
What is a keto diet?
Normally the body converts carbohydrates to glucose to use as fuel. Following a ketogenic diet where carbs are in very short supply causes the body to produce ketones from stored fat – it’s an alternative fuel. Hence the diet is ketogenic. The bottom line is that after three or four days with little glucose available from your diet, the body starts to use fat as the primary fuel.
Consuming fewer carbohydrates means eating less sugar, rice, pasta and bread, for example, and also cutting out sugary drinks and more (see below). A keto diet usually reduces daily carb consumption to under 50g a day, although it can be as little as 20g a day.
What are the keto diet foods?
When you’re on a keto diet, you can eat meat, including beef, pork, poultry, lamb and game. When you’re choosing meat, remember that processed meats can contain carbs, so check the labels, or avoid them altogether and prepare your own recipes using unprocessed meat.
Fish and other seafood is fine, too, with fatty fish like salmon or mackerel preferable.
Eggs, butter, cheese and cream are also keto diet friendly. (Milk, by the way, contains sugar, so see foods to avoid, below).
You can also eat vegetables, but think leafy and green mostly, and stick to those that grow above ground, so that’s cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and so on. Potatoes are out (see foods to avoid, below).
Other things you can include in your diet? Nuts – but swerve higher carb cashews and pistachios and opt for pecans, brazils and macadamias. Seeds like flax and chia, are okay, too, as are avocados, and oils such as olive and coconut.
Fruit is generally a no-no (see foods to avoid, below), but you can have berries such as strawberries and raspberries in small portions.
Overall, most of your daily calories (see above) should be obtained from fat, which will come from meat or fish, the fat you cook with, and even high-fat sauces.
Which are the foods to avoid on a keto diet?
Some of what you’ll need to avoid will probably suggest itself to you, while other food and drink can catch you out.
Sugar in its many guises is on the banned list – and that includes foods like honey and maple syrup. You can’t add sugar to your tea and coffee, of course, nor can you have soft drinks. However, you’ll also need to avoid fruit juices and sports drinks.
Breakfast cereals are out as well. Sugar is also used in lots of products where you might not expect to see it – think ready meals and sauces. Always check labels. Naturally, you’ll be saying no to sweets, cakes, biscuits, chocolate bars, ice cream…
Watch out for milk in your drinks. A splash to whiten is OK, but skip the lattes and Frappuccinos, Starbucks fans. And while we’re on the subject of drinks, beer is out, too. Generally, plain water, and black and white tea without sugar are best, and you could even have a small glass of wine on a special occasion.
Carbs: say goodbye to bread, rice, pasta, and potatoes. Just for the avoidance of doubt, that includes crisps and chips.
Legumes: perhaps surprisingly, you’ll also need to cut out legumes – including beans, chickpeas, lentils – to follow a keto diet.
Fruit: You’ll also need to step away from fruit aside from berries (see keto diet foods, above).
What alcohol can you drink on a keto diet?
Like with any diet, water is your best friend. It helps keep you sated and is essential for overall health. Then, when it comes to alcohol watch how much you consume – as you should do anyway. It is advised that you drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week.
All alcohol products contain carbs and sugar, but some are worse than others. Follow these simple rules and you can enjoy your night out without ruining your keto diet.
Cocktails are full of sugar. Many are based on fruit juice and have syrups added. Even dryer cocktails like a mojito have gomme syrup in which is basically just liquid sugar.
Clear spirits are the best option for a keto diet when it comes to alcohol. Gin, vodka and white rum are all fairly low in sugar and carbs. Mix them with a sugar free mixer such as diet cola, soda water or low-calorie tonic water. Restrict the amount you drink, but one or two is not going to push you out of ketosis.
Beer and wine might have too much carbohydrate for a keto diet. You might think a dry wine is alright, but you may be surprised by the sugar content. Unfortunately, most wine and beer doesn't carry nutritional information on the label, but check if it does and look for a low sugar option. Google is your next port of call if you can't find the info you need on a label. There are plenty of bloggers who list the best keto wines and beers or look up products on MyFitnessPal to find the carb levels.
Beer tends to have more carbs than wine. When choosing wine remember that the sweeter the wine, the higher the carbs so dessert wines are a no-go. Red wines are usually slightly heavier on the carbs than whites at around 3–4 grams of carbs per small glass. To put it in perspective, Guinness is 14 grams per half pint and Fosters is 11 grams.
Champagne! Don't go mad but sparkling wines are quite low carb. Check the label, but they are around 2 grams of carbs per glass.
How to follow a keto diet
Generally, if you follow a keto diet, what you eat daily should be around 70% to 80% fat, 10% to 20% protein and 5% to 10% carbohydrate.
To attain the required fat consumption of the diet, you’ll probably need to eat some at each meal. Your protein intake, on the other hand, will be moderate. Bear in mind that this isn’t a high fat and high protein regime – like the Atkins diet, for example. Opt for free range poultry, wild-caught fish and organic beef for preference.
You can follow the diet plan if you’re vegetarian as you can consume eggs and dairy products. As a vegan it’s not considered a healthy option because eating legumes and grains is key to obtaining essential nutrients on a plant-based diet.
If you’re going on a keto diet to lose weight, programmes frequently suggest following it until the weight you want to lose is shed. Then, you are advised to return to the diet perhaps some weeks of the month or some days of the week.
A typical week on a keto diet plan
Eat around 70 to 80% fat, 10 to 20% protein and 5 to 10% carbohydrate each day with carbs restricted to under 50g. Here’s a plan for seven days to set you off on a keto diet.
Breakfast Boiled eggs
Lunch Tuna salad with olives and tomatoes
Dinner Chicken stir-fry with peppers, broccoli and courgettes
Breakfast Smoothie with strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, coconut milk, and chia seeds
Lunch Cauliflower soup with grated cheddar and bacon pieces
Dinner Beef steak with green beans and mushrooms
Breakfast Mushroom omelette
Lunch Avocado salad
Dinner Pork chops with garlic butter and broccoli
Breakfast Egg, cheese and spinach muffins
Lunch Caesar salad (chicken breast, bacon and lettuce)
Dinner Beef burger (without bun) and guacamole
Breakfast Scrambled eggs
Lunch Keto pizza
Dinner Grilled salmon with asparagus and hollandaise sauce
Breakfast Keto granola with full-fat yoghurt
Lunch Bacon and goats’ cheese salad
Dinner Chicken breast with cauliflower mash and cabbage
Breakfast Bacon and eggs
Lunch Smoked salmon, mayo and spinach salad
Dinner Beef stew with mushrooms, onions and celery
Stay healthy on a keto diet
A keto diet can be a healthy choice for many people but the ratio of fat, carbs and protein needed can vary from one person to another.
If you are diabetic, discuss the diet with your doctor before starting as it’ll likely involve changes to medication and increased monitoring of your blood sugar.
On medication for high blood pressure? Again consult your doctor before starting a keto diet.
Don’t start on a keto diet if you’re breastfeeding.
Be aware that restricting carbs can make you feel irritable, hungry and tired, among other possibilities. This could be a temporary effect, however.
Remember, also, that your diet should still be balanced so you’re obtaining all the vitamins and minerals you need. Also crucial is sufficient fibre.
Find keto recipes
Cooking from scratch makes sticking to a keto diet easier as you won’t need to scan lists of ingredients of pre-prepared foods to check for hidden carbs. Dishes like bacon and eggs are on the agenda, together with meals such as omelette, scrambled eggs and frittata. You can also base meals around chicken, beef or fish, for example.
Want a home resource? Check out the selection of recipe books at Amazon.