Does a Healthy Keto Meal Plan Even Exist?
We break down nutrients that are tough to get on keto and tell you why the diet may be dangerous, plus offer healthier keto-friendly ideas for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Pictured Recipe: Walnut-Rosemary Crusted Salmon
After years of being told to limit our fat intake-specifically animal-based saturated fat-the ketogenic diet has given weight watchers an opportunity to go hog wild (literally) and load up on all the indulgent, rich foods including bacon, cheese, butter and heavy cream. That is, as long as there isn't a carb in sight. But can eating that much animal fat actually be healthy? And is there even such thing as a healthy keto meal plan?
The Potential Dangers of Keto
Pictured Recipe: Low-Carb Cloud Bread
While we've already covered the current research on the keto diet and its potential therapeutic benefits, the benefits likely don't outweigh the risks for the general population just looking to shed a few pounds.
For one, it's very common for keto dieters to describe feeling under the weather as their brain gets accustomed to running on fats and their electrolyte levels tank. This so-called "keto flu" is associated with brain fog, headaches, nausea and fatigue and usually lasts for a few weeks (often long enough to encourage dieters to call it quits).
Second, without those fiber-rich carbs, we're looking at constant constipation and that's never fun times.
Third, the risk of disordered eating behaviors is common and REAL. All diets can become disordered when they interfere with the joy of eating, and your daily activities of life, but a diet that is as extreme and restrictive as keto can be particularly problematic for some.
Finally, cutting out major food groups means you run the risk of just not getting enough of all of the nutrients you need.
Nutrients Hard to Get When You Eat Keto
Pictured Recipe: Buffalo-Chicken Celery Sticks
Electrolytes (Sodium, Potassium and Magnesium): When we restrict carbohydrates, our insulin levels drop and the kidneys begin to excrete higher amounts of sodium. Since sodium and other electrolytes work symbiotically, this sudden shift tends to disrupt our other electrolyte levels too, causing those unpleasant "keto flu" symptoms. If this sounds like you, consider taking an electrolyte supplement, and choose your foods super wisely.
Up your tomatoes, broccoli, avocado, salmon and pistachios for potassium; add more seeds, almonds and leafy greens for magnesium; and season your food generously for a little extra sodium.
B Vitamins: Cereals and flour are typically fortified with B vitamins, and these sources ordinarily provide the vast majority of the B vitamins in many North Americans' diets. So if you cut those out, you run the risk of coming in low on these important nutrients involved in energy metabolism. Low-carb sources of B vitamins include leafy greens, seeds, seafood and chicken, so make sure you're getting enough of these.
Calcium and Vitamin D: Along with sodium, potassium and magnesium, calcium is another electrolyte that can be flushed out at the onset of keto, while its bone-building buddy, vitamin D, is a common concern for most people across the board (keto or not). Make sure you're including some dairy, broccoli, kale, egg yolks and fish (with the bones) to get your low-carb fix.
Vitamin C: A lot of the vitamin C in our diet comes from fresh berries and other fruits, so when we're cutting these out, we need to make a little extra effort to get enough. This is where it becomes extra important to sneak more veggies into your day, including broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and other cruciferous vegetables.
Is a Healthy Keto Diet Possible?
Pictured Recipe: Low-Carb Beef Stew
With these concerns in mind, if you really want to do keto-and hopefully have a non-weight-loss reason why (read more about the potential therapeutic benefits of keto for certain health conditions)-is it possible to do keto in a healthier way?
While it can be challenging (and potentially pretty monotonous), there is room for success. Here's a look at some dietitian-approved do's and don'ts for doing keto.
Do: Choose more plant- or fish-based fats over animal fats.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with eating a little of the saturated fat that's found in abundance in butter, cheese, cream and meat. But we also know that research has found that consuming more unsaturated fats instead of saturated fats can have cardioprotective benefits, especially in individuals at greater risk of heart disease. I recommend adding more nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil and fish to your diet to up the heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, omega-3s and vitamins E and K in your day.
Don't: Forget about your veggies.
Just because this diet gives you the green light to eat cheese and meat, that doesn't mean your salad should be a charcuterie plate with a pea-shoot garnish on top. As mentioned, one of the common complaints on the keto diet is constipation, likely because cutting back on grains, starches and fruit makes it a bit more of a challenge to get your 25-38 grams of fiber per day. Aim to fill half your plate with low-carb, high-fiber veggies like broccoli, asparagus, kale, spinach and artichokes.
Do: Up your water intake.
Skimping on water can play a role in the constipation that keto dieters face. Go easy on that "bullet coffee" and keep yourself hydrated by keeping a full water bottle close by at all times. Since keto dieters also tend to be at risk of electrolyte deficiencies, it's not a bad idea to add an electrolyte supplement that includes sodium, potassium and magnesium to your water as well.
Don't: Overdo it on red and processed meats.
Though the keto diet at its core is just a unique distribution of macronutrients, thanks to Instagram and Pinterest it has become code for "go eat a bacon cheeseburger sans bun three times a day." But recent research has linked high consumption of red and processed meats with increased risk of heart disease and some cancers. An occasional lettuce-bun fast-food burger is no big deal, but try not to make these meats the focus of your diet.
Do: Use your carb allowance wisely.
If you're following a standard keto protocol, you're maybe only allowed as little as 5 percent of your calories from carbs-there's really no room to make choices that don't benefit your body! We recommend spending your allowance on nutrient-dense and fiber-rich sources of carbs like raspberries, blueberries, veggies, almonds and probiotic-rich dairy foods.
So What Does This Look Like IRL?
Pictured Recipe: Flank Steak with Chimichurri, Asparagus & Cauliflower Rice
The keto diet is hot, hot, hot right now. And because it's not very sustainable and can put you at risk of nutrient deficiencies, we don't recommend following the keto diet just for weight loss (instead, if you're looking to shed pounds, try this low-carb meal plan to lose weight fast). One of the appeals is that there is no counting calories on keto, just carbs. That said, following either option on this plan with 3 snacks per day would put you at around 2,350 calories for the day, 170 grams of fat, 135 grams of protein and about 80 grams of carbs (45 grams of net carbs). The carbs are higher than most keto plans recommend and are coming mostly from the tomatoes, with some carbs found in the avocado, nuts and even cauliflower. But if you want to get important nutrients and fiber (read more about why fiber is so good for you), these plant-based superfoods are important to keep in your diet. Read more below for inspiration for what to eat throughout the day if you want to go keto, the healthier way.
Here's our sample high-fat, low-carb keto-style meal plan.
Pictured Recipe: Sheet-Pan Eggs with Spinach & Ham (3 grams carbs)
Veggie Frittata: Prepare with 3 whole eggs, 1 cup spinach, ½ cup sliced mushrooms and 1 oz. Cheddar cheese.
Side: Serve with ¼ avocado (sliced) and ½ tomato (sliced) drizzled with 2 tsp. olive oil and 1 tsp. hemp hearts.
Coffee with 1-2 Tbsp. cream
Keto Smoothie: Combine ½ avocado, 1 cup unsweetened coconut or almond milk, 2 cups spinach, ½ cup raspberries and ½ scoop plain protein powder; blend until smooth.
Coffee with 1-2 Tbsp. cream
Pictured Recipe: Tuna Salad Spread
Turkey Kale Cobb Salad: Toss together 2 cups kale, ¼ avocado, 1 cup chopped tomato, 3 Tbsp. crumbled bacon, 1 sliced hard-boiled egg, 1 oz. blue cheese, 3 oz. dark turkey meat and 1 Tbsp. olive oil.
Avocado Tuna Salad: Combine 1/2 can tuna with ½ avocado (mashed), 2 Tbsp. diced red onion, 2 tsp. lemon juice and 1 Tbsp. olive oil; pack into 3 lettuce-leaf cups.
Pictured Recipe: Grilled Salmon with Mustard & Herbs
Mustard-Grilled Salmon: Brush 4 oz. salmon with 1 Tbsp. olive oil, 1 tsp. grainy mustard and 1/4 tsp. lemon zest; grill over medium-high heat.
Fried Rice: Heat 1 Tbsp. coconut oil; stir-fry 1 cup riced cauliflower, 1-2 tsp. soy or tamari sauce, 1 tsp. sesame oil, ¼ cup diced carrot and 1 diced scallion. Stir in 1 scrambled egg.
Side: Toss 1/2 cup asparagus and ½ zucchini (sliced) with 1 Tbsp. olive oil and ¼ tsp. lemon zest; grill and serve topped with 3 Tbsp. sliced almonds.
Zucchini Bolognese: Heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil; sauté 2 zucchini (spiralized) with 1 cup crushed tomatoes and 4 oz. cooked ground beef. Top with 2 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese.
Antipasto Salad: Toss 2 cups spinach, 2 Tbsp. chopped sun-dried tomatoes (packed in oil), 2 Tbsp. chopped marinated artichoke hearts (packed in oil) and 1 oz. bocconcini cheese with 1 Tbsp. olive oil and 1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar.
Parmesan Zucchini Chips: Top1 cup thin zucchini rounds with 1 oz. grated Parmesan cheese; bake at 400°F until crispy.
Celery + Almond Butter: Spread4 celery stalks with 2 Tbsp almond butter and sprinkle with ¼ tsp. ground flaxseed.
Salmon-Cucumber Roll-Ups: Thinly slice1 cucumber lengthwise; spread the slices with ½ oz. cream cheese, top with 1-2 oz. smoked salmon and roll up.
Avocado Deviled Eggs: Halve2 hard-boiled eggs. Scoop out the yolks and mash with ½ avocado and a pinch each of cumin, chili powder, garlic powder, salt and pepper; spoon back into the whites.
Avocado Chocolate Pudding: Puree ½ avocado with 2 Tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder until smooth.
Stuffed Mushrooms: Stuff8 button mushrooms (stems removed) with 1 oz. goat cheese and 1 oz. cooked ground pork. Top with 1 Tbsp. Parmesan cheese; bake at 400°F until golden.