The keto diet is known for its extremes. “By nature, the keto diet isn’t fully balanced,” says Keri Glassman, RD, a nutritionist in New York City. Just look at the ratios in a usual keto diet food list: People on a keto diet aim to eat upwards of 80 percent of their calories from fat. They’ll also eat very few carbs. So, for the most part, you’ll skip out on fruits, legumes (like beans and lentils), most dairy, starchy vegetables, and whole grains.
And while you don’t need fruit alone or beans alone to be healthy, when taken altogether and eliminating multiple foods, you can wind up with a less-than-nutritious diet.
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Because of keto’s restrictions, often patients on the diet are at risk for deficiencies in essential nutrients, like B vitamins (including B12), vitamin D, calcium, selenium, magnesium, and vitamin C, says Dana Elia, RDN, an integrative and functional medicine dietitian in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
B12 is especially surprising because it’s in animal products, and those on a keto diet are typically consuming meat. But if you were consuming a standard American diet, which is typically filled with processed foods, you may have come to the keto diet already deficient in B12 (along with a slew of other nutrients), according to the Environmental Working Group. (Taking acid-suppressing medication may also impact B12 levels, Elia says.) On keto, this may remain a concern for you. To cover your nutrient bases, talk to a registered dietitian knowledgeable in keto before starting.
Also, know that keto isn’t just about avoiding refined grains, junk food, and sugar — a popular misconception. Everything except for pure fats (like oil) and meat (chicken, fish, beef) has a source of carbs. And while everyone’s carb allotment is different — often the recommendation is to stick to 20 to 50 grams (g) of net carbs (total carbs minus fiber, sugar alcohol, and glycerine) per day to stay in ketosis, or the state where you’re burning fat for fuel — some food that’s conventionally thought of as healthy won’t fit into a keto eating plan.
Here are 10 foods most people on keto will avoid:
Whole-grain quinoa may be protein-rich, but that doesn’t mean it fits with keto. A ½-cup serving contains 17 g of net carbs, which can easily eat up your carb budget.
An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but it really has no place on a keto diet. One medium apple has more than 20 g of net carbs — enough to blow someone’s entire carb allotment for the day. Especially if you’re someone who likes sweet, it’s unfortunate to kick out most fruit, but you can get these nutrients from a veggie-rich diet, says Glassman.
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3. Black Beans
Legumes — like beans and lentils — are pretty much off limits. That’s unfortunate. “Legumes are loaded with fiber and antioxidants,” says Glassman. While they may offer an impressive source of digestion-friendly fiber, black beans pack about 12 g of net carbs in just ½ cup. “You’ll want to make sure to get fiber elsewhere in your diet,” she says.
4. Dark Chocolate
One of the most dietitian-recommended desserts, dark chocolate, is a keto no-no. A 1-ounce (oz) serving has 10 g of net carbs. For people who are sticking to 20 g of net carbs a day, the small chocolate square would use up one-half of those.
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5. Sweet Potatoes
It may be obvious that white potatoes are too starchy to fit on keto, but so, too, are sweet taters, no matter how you prep them. One medium-sized spud supplies 23 g of net carbs. Say goodbye to sweet potato toast.
Even whole milk yogurt can be the tipping point into too many carbs. One 8-oz container has 10 g of carbs. (Sweetened versions will have even more.) If you want a yogurt fix, stick to a small amount of plain, full-fat Greek yogurt. A ½-cup serving of Fage Total 5 percent, for instance, has 3.5 g of carbs.
Avoiding orange juice because it’s too high in sugar? Good call. But that means oranges have to go, too. Just a small fruit alone has 13 g of net carbs.
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8. Acorn Squash
Yep, even when you’re in full-on fall mode, nix squash from your dinner menu. One cup of baked acorn squash cubes may have 9 g of fiber, but it also contains 20 g of net carbs. For most people on a keto diet, that’s just too high.
Roasted chickpeas may be a favorite trendy snack, but they probably won’t fit on keto. A ½-cup serving contains nearly 13 g of net carbs. Hummus is a better choice, with around 3 g of net carbs per 2-tbsp serving. Just stick to dipping in cucumbers and celery — not carrots.
10. Brown Rice
You may have already sworn off white rice, but add brown rice to that list, too. It’s a whole grain, which disqualifies it from a keto eating plan. Add a ½-cup serving to a roasted veggie bowl and you’re looking at 24 g of net carbs.
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5 Ways to Make Your Keto Diet Meal Plan Healthier and More Balanced
“When properly planned, the keto diet can be a healthful diet,” says Elia. Five tips for making it work:
1. Don’t get stuck in a rut. “In any diet, variety is the spice of life,” says Elia. That means varying your foods every day, rather than sticking with the same things every day. That can be tough when on a more restricted diet, but looking at keto cookbooks and blogs can help you branch out.
2. Make carbs count. Keto may be a very low-carbohydrate diet, but that doesn’t mean the cardinal rule is “try to avoid carbs.” It’s about maximizing the carbs you do eat. “In every food choice, ask yourself this question: ‘What is the value of the food I’m about to consume?’” says Elia. Make sure carbs are nutrient-dense. That means nuts, seeds, and avocado — not a small cookie.
3. Focus on quality. In a diet where you’ll be eating a lot of fat and some meat, you want to focus on buying the best-quality food you can afford, says Glassman. For example: Buy wild seafood, organic eggs, and grass-fed butter and steak, she says.
4. Switch up fats. There are no strict recommendations for capping saturated fat intake on a keto diet, so it’s easy to end up hyperfocused on adding coconut oil or butter to everything. Mix it up to get a nice a nice blend of unsaturated and saturated fats, aiming to get less than 10 percent of your total calories from saturated fat, per the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USDA). Drizzle avocado oil (unsaturated fat) to finish off roasted veggies, or add a spoonful of coconut oil (saturated fat) to your smoothie, recommends Glassman. Do the same for meats; eat a small portion of grass-fed rib eye for dinner one night and then organic chicken with extra-virgin olive oil the next.
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5. Measure your food at first. “In the beginning when following any restrictive plan, I encourage people to get up close and personal with their measuring utensils and scale,” says Elia. A scale will help you weigh out an appropriate 3- to 4-oz portion of meat, for instance. (Too-high levels of protein can kick you out of ketosis, so you want to stick to moderation here, notes the healthy-lifestyle website Ruled.me.) Measuring spoons will help you dole out enough fat to so you know you hit your mark for the day. After you’ve got it down, you can stop, but double-check every once and a while to make sure you’re still on track, she says.