Keto Diet Meal Plan: What It Is & How to Start

Keto a Miracle Solution

Want to learn more about the keto diet meal plan?

Written by Chrissy Arsenault, MBA, RDN, LD

What Is the Keto Diet?

A ketogenic (keto) diet is a popular high fat, moderate protein, and low carb diet. People look to the keto diet as a solution for weight loss. In clinical settings, the keto diet serves as a treatment for children with epilepsy.

A modern keto diet generally consists of the following macronutrient breakdown:

  • 70-80% of your calories from fats
  • 10-20% of your calories from protein
  • 5-10% of your calories from net carbs

*You can calculate net carbs by taking total carbs and subtracting any fiber content. This is because fiber does not affect your blood sugar in the same way that sugar does.

What This Means

For a 2,000-calorie diet, this translates to about 166 grams fat, 50 grams net carbs, and 75 grams protein. However, there is no standard keto diet, so it’s up to you to determine what macronutrient breakdown feels right for you.

Many relate the keto diet to other popular diets like the Atkins diet or paleo diet, but they are different. The Atkins diet limits fat and carbs while focusing on protein intake, and the paleo diet only restricts processed carbs.

According to the more popular versions of the keto diet, you need to stay under 20 to 30 grams of net carbs per day. This depends on your weight, age, height, and activity level.

The keto diet comes in many varieties. Some versions of the diet include more protein intake. Other versions allow carb cycling in between keto days. Most of the discussion in this article will focus on the typical keto diet breakdown (70-80%/10-20%/5-10%). This variety has the most research and my personal experiences with patients.

How Does the Keto Diet Meal Plan Work?

To understand the keto diet, let’s dive a little deeper into metabolism!

When you eat a diet that has moderate to high amounts of carbs, your body turns carbs into blood sugar. This makes your blood sugar rise. Then, our body uses blood sugars as energy.

However, when your body doesn’t have enough carbs to burn off, it converts fats from food into ketones in your body. This process takes several days. The keto diet essentially starves your body of carbohydrates and forces it to use ketones instead. [1]

What Is Ketosis?

The process above leaves your body in a metabolic state called ketosis, which is the basis of the ketogenic diet. Although everyone experiences some level of ketosis when they’re sleeping or otherwise skipping meals, the transition to true physiological ketosis takes about a week depending on how your body responds, your metabolic rate, and other factors. [2]

In ketosis, your liver also turns fat into ketones to supply energy to the brain.

To truly see if your body is in ketosis, you’ll need to measure your level of ketones. But, the amount of carbs, protein, and fat that result in ketosis varies depending on the individual. You can measure your body’s level of ketones through a simple finger stick or a device that measures beta-hydroxybutyrate. Urine or breath tests can also measure ketones but aren’t always reliable. Make sure you check with your doctor and read all reviews before you purchase and use a ketone-measuring device.

Why Is Protein Allowed?

Meanwhile, this diet keeps the amount of protein low enough to keep your body in ketosis. Gluconeogenesis is a process that prevents a ketosis state. Too much alanine and glutamine convert these amino acids into blood sugars. And, too much gluconeogenesis prevents a constant ketosis state. However, the keto diet meal plan provides enough protein to preserve your lean body mass and muscle.

How Many Carbs Should I Eat?

The best approach to carbs depends on your lifestyle!

The most strict keto diets limit carbs to as low as 20 grams. You’ll go into ketosis and lose weight quickly, but you may experience worse side effects.

On the other hand, the most flexible keto diet meal plans are as high as 100 grams of carbs. People with active lifestyles, such as runners, opt for the latter and can cycle their carbs before and after exercise.

If you choose a keto meal plan with more carbs, make sure you check your ketone levels to ensure you’re in true ketosis!

Illustration of a girl with 2 fruits replacing her eyes and many fruits on her plate
High-Carb/Low-Fat diet

Foods to Eat on the Keto Diet Meal Plan 

Foods that are rich in fats, moderate in protein, and very low in carbs are all fair game. Unfortunately, many of the foods that go into a typical diet tend to be high in carbs, so it’s important to try to stick to this list as much as possible for keto!

Below are foods to incorporate into your keto diet meal plan and recipes:

Oils & Fats

  • Oils and Fats: Extra virgin olive oil, palm oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil are all great choices for cooking with. Grass-fed butter is also popular, but note that it can be higher in cholesterol and unhealthy fats if used excessively.
  • Nuts and Seeds: Walnuts, almonds, pecans, pine nuts, brazil nuts, macadamia nuts, pistachios, hazelnuts, cashews, chia seeds, flaxseed, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds are filling snacks to eat between meals on a keto diet.

Meats, Fish & Dairy

  • Heart-Healthy Fish and Seafood: Tuna, salmon, trout, mackerel, cod, catfish, eel, mahi-mahi, halibut, sardines, flounder, snapper, shrimp, crab, lobster, oysters, scallops, clams, mussels, squid, and octopus are all permitted. Fish and seafood are high in omega-3s, which are healthy fats that our bodies can’t make on their own.
  • Dairy Products: Fabulous options for keto include heavy cream, full-fat coconut milk (check the sugar content before you buy), butter, whole-fat yogurt (make sure that it doesn’t have added sugar, fruits, or other additives), Greek yogurt, kefir, sour cream, cottage cheese, mayonnaise, cream cheese, heavy whipped cream, cheddar cheese, Romano cheese, Asiago cheese, American cheese, mozzarella cheese, blue cheese, Brie cheese, Parmesan cheese, Swiss cheese, and feta cheese. The fattier, the better, when it comes to keto.
  • Meat-Based Proteins and Eggs: Eggs, chicken (not the breaded variety!), steak, ham, turkey, lamb, goat, sausage, bacon, duck, pork chops, and organ meats are all allowed. Also, you can vary up your choices by having grilling, baking, or stir-frying your meats and adding some herbs and spices to them!

Some Fruits & Veggies

  • Non-Starchy Veggies: Mushrooms, kale, collards, brussels sprouts, celery, cucumber, spinach, lettuce, mustard greens, collard greens, peppers, onions, zucchini, arugula, curly endive, escarole, radicchio, watercress, Bok Choy, Napa cabbage, beets, romaine lettuce, cabbage, summer squash, green beans, broccoli, black olives, Kalamata olives, green olives, and red olives are great options for keto diet meal plan and recipes. In general, non-starchy keto veggies are low in carbs.
  • Fruits: Avocados and guacamole (yes, an avocado is a fruit and not a vegetable because it’s so nutritious!) are a staple of the keto diet meal plan. In smaller quantities, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, cranberries, and blackberries can be consumed. Also, keep in mind that if you’re counting net carbs, you can have slightly higher-carb foods, since the fiber is subtracted from the total carb count.

Condiments, Sweeteners & Drinks

  • Condiments: Keto includes a variety of condiments! Herbs (parsley, thyme, basil, oregano, rosemary, cilantro, cumin, nutmeg, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, chili powder), spices, salt, pepper, lime juice, and lemon juice are possible options.
  • Sweeteners: Allulose, erythritol, and stevia are natural sweeteners that are popular to use in keto recipes. They can add sweetness to foods included in meal plans. This is especially helpful since the diet is so low in sugar and carbs.
  • Coffee and Tea: As long as you don’t add any milk and stick with the sweeteners I’ve mentioned above, coffee and tea are okay to drink. Some avid keto dieters add full-fat coconut milk, coconut oil, or MCT oil to help increase ketone levels while still getting their daily caffeine fix. Herbal teas are also fair game!

Foods to Avoid on the Keto Diet Meal Plan

The first thing to understand is that your body processes all sugars about the same. Whether it is white sugar, honey, agave nectar, molasses, corn syrup, etc, it is all the same. These are empty calories that do nothing to help our bodies grow, and in fact can be harmful in higher quantities.

The reason why sugars like Honey, Agave, and “raw sugar” get the halo effect, is the idea that it has certain chemicals or nutrients in them that are beneficial to humans. While this may be true when it comes to pure honey, the nutrients included are negligible. They are found in such small amounts that the consumption of these sugars is not known to have many beneficial effects, let alone any that surpasses the negative effects of the sugars.

Is all sugar created equal?

Illustration of honey, white sugar, brown sugar and a date. All belonging to the same family.
All sugar is sugar

Your body processes all sugars about the same. Whether it is white sugar, honey, agave nectar, molasses, corn syrup, etc, it is all the same. These are empty calories that do nothing to help our bodies grow, and in fact can be harmful in higher quantities.

The reason why sugars like Honey, Agave, and “raw sugar” get the halo effect, is the idea that it has certain chemicals or nutrients in them that are beneficial to humans.

While this may be true when it comes to pure honey, the nutrients included are negligible. They are found in such small amounts that the consumption of these sugars are not know to have any beneficial effects, let alone any that surpasses the negative effects of the sugars.

In general, you should avoid or limit any foods that are high in carbs and added sugars.

When in doubt, you can always try eating food and then test with ketone strips to see if your body is still in ketosis. Sometimes, it’s a trial-and-error process, and everyone’s body responds differently to different foods!

Below are some foods to cut back on, if you’re considering following a strict keto diet:

Starchy Foods

  • Grains: White or wheat bread, oats, oatmeal, barley, rye or rye bread, corn, quinoa, sorghum, bulgur, amaranth, sprouted grains, buckwheat, pasta, crackers, baguettes, hamburger and hot dog buns, and pizza crust are all off-limits.  With the high carb content from these foods, it’s impossible to stick with the keto diet meal plan and keep these foods in your diet. Your keto diet recipes will be close to being grain-free.
  • Starchy Vegetables: Beans, peas, potatoes, yams, yucca, parsnips, sweet potatoes, kidney beans, chickpeas, black beans, lentils, lima beans, pinto beans, white beans, fava beans, and black-eyed peas are all high in carbs and need to be reduced on a keto diet. However, they are higher in fiber, which can reduce the effects of carbs on your blood sugar!

Milk & Low-Fat Dairy

  • Milk and Low-Fat Dairy: You can eat most dairy products, but milk is off-limits. It’s too high in carb content without providing as much fat as other sources do. You should also limit low-fat dairy products like skim milk, low-fat cream cheese, fat-free and low-fat yogurts, and fat-free butter and margarine substitutes.

High-Carb Condiments & Sweeteners

  • High Carb Condiments: Teriyaki sauce, barbeque sauce, honey mustard, Dijon mustard, and ketchup are high in carbs and generally need to be avoided on the keto diet. Instead, you can try seasoning your foods with herbs and spices.
  • Sweeteners and Sugars: Honey, agave syrup, agave nectar, maple syrup, brown sugar, white sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, and cane sugar all contain a lot of carbs. Although some of these would be desirable for your health for anyone not on a keto diet, these choices are simply off-limits for keto. High-intensity artificial sweeteners may disrupt ketosis, so I don’t recommend them for the keto meal plan either.

Sugary Drinks

  • Sodas and Juices: Stay away from sugar-sweetened sodas, fruit juice, vegetable juice, coffee beverages with sweeteners and milk. All of these options are heavy in carbs. You should avoid any sodas sweetened with artificial sweeteners, too.
  • High-Carb Alcohol: Alcohol contains a lot of hidden carbs! Beers, wines, cocktails, mixers that go into mixed drinks, and liquors are all fairly high in carbs. Additionally, your body turns to any alcohol to metabolize it first, so drinking any alcohol may kick your body out of ketosis.

Pros and Cons of the Keto Diet Meal Plan

Potential Health Benefits of the Keto Diet Meal Plan

Many people follow the keto diet for its health benefits. Let’s break them down a little further to understand what the science shows!

Weight Loss

Improve Cholesterol, Blood Sugar & Digestion

  • With proper modifications, you can raise your good cholesterol and lower your bad cholesterol. By eating more unsaturated fats in your diet from foods like avocados, flaxseed, and fatty fish, you can raise your high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which is known as the good cholesterol. You can also lower your low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which is known as bad cholesterol. It’s a win-win situation!

Potential Side Effects from the Keto Diet

With any diet, some elements are not so great.

There are a couple of side effects, both short-term and long-term, to be aware of if you’re considering the keto diet meal plan.

Major Side Effects

  • Keto flu is real! Anyone who’s been on keto for a long time knows some of the side effects associated with keto. The keto flu is aptly named due to symptoms that are similar to the real flu. These symptoms include headache, fatigue, general malaise, constipation, lightheadedness, and nausea. This is a result of your body getting rid of sodium and fluids in your body since carbs are so limited. You can try to counter these nasty side effects by adding a little bit more salt to meals. Also, try to hydrate properly throughout the day!
  • The keto diet can contribute to possible nutrient deficiencies if followed long-term. For example, fruits and whole grains are filled with vitamins and minerals – these are two food groups that are omitted from the keto diet. Although nutrients from food sources are best, you may want to look at proper supplementation to compensate for any nutrient deficiencies if you are following keto.

Minor Side Effects

  • After following the diet for a while, you may also experience minor undesirable symptoms like stinky ketone breath. This is common, so don’t worry! You can try to minimize this by chewing some sugar-free gum, using mouthwash, and drinking more water.
  • Your urine may also smell fruity. This is normal but weird. This happens due to different compounds that are created during ketosis leaving the body.

The side effects make the diet even harder to follow, aside from just the foods to eat and avoid.

Work with your doctor and Registered Dietitian to ensure that you have a keto meal plan that will work for you. This can help mitigate undesirable side effects. You can also ensure that you are meeting your daily nutritional needs. Overall, research is still very limited because most studies completed to date have been on smaller populations. Most studies also do not include a true control group and are only for short periods.

Keto Diet Meal Plan: A Registered Dietitian’s Honest Review

In the clinical setting, Registered Dietitians like me use the keto diet as medical nutrition therapy. It’s an effective treatment for severe epilepsy in children. This treatment dates back as early as the 1920s!

I’ve prescribed the keto diet meal plan and keto recipes for this group. It takes a lot of education for children and their families. Kids often hate how much fat they have to eat in a day. I’ve had kiddos on keto diets that had over 90% of their calories from fat. They couldn’t even eat most vegetables on this diet. Now, that’s an extreme keto diet to follow!

So, what about people that want to follow the keto diet meal plan but aren’t epileptic? I’ll share my perspective.

As a Registered Dietitian, I believe that all foods fit. When it comes to the keto diet, the requirements are highly restrictive. You may be able to follow a keto diet meal plan and keto recipes for a couple of weeks or months before you get tired of the strict routine. I know if I don’t get enough carbs, I get hangry and keto recipes aren’t my favorites for that reason. I also love whole grains, wine, and fruits, which aren’t allowed on the keto diet meal plan.

“But wait! I’ve seen many people lose weight on the keto diet!”

Yes, I have, too! I’ve seen some quick, effective results for clients that insist on following the keto diet. However, these clients don’t sustain the results and adherence over time. They feel terrible after a first few weeks, revert to unhealthy eating habits, gain back any lost weight, and then blame and shame takes over as they consider their diet a failure.

This is a vicious cycle.

Let’s first talk about the results.

First, much of the weight loss that results from keto is due to cutting out other unhealthy foods. You may lose weight by cutting out sugary beverages, donuts, pizza, and cookies. This is the same reason why people lose weight on low-carb diets like the Atkins diet or Weight Watchers.

Second, some of the weight loss is just water. Your body easily loses water weight from severe calorie and carb reduction over a short period. When your body doesn’t have carbs, it gets rid of sodium (salt) and water content, so you’ll be a couple of pounds lighter even without reducing calories.

Third, following any kind of diet makes you more conscious of your food choices overall. Whether you are following a strict keto diet meal plan or choosing foods from the list of allowed and not allowed foods, you’re paying more attention to the foods that you eat. Studies show that people who journal what they eat and count their portions are more likely to lose weight, so this isn’t too surprising. [9]

Who Shouldn’t Follow the Keto Diet Meal Plan

Since the keto diet meal plan is so high in fat, I also don’t recommend it for people with high cholesterol or heart disease. In the United States, about 29 million people have high cholesterol. Heart disease is also the leading cause of death for people. So, that’s a large population that can’t even consider trying this diet!

What Health Experts Say

Health experts ranked the keto diet second-worst diet on the 2021 US News & World Report. This was out of a total of 39 diets. [10] Meanwhile, the same experts rated the Mediterranean diet as the best diet for the fourth year in a row.

They rated the keto diet meal plan based on the following selection criteria:

  • Short-term weight loss: 3.8 out to 5
  • Long-term weight loss: 2.1 out of 5
  • Easy to follow: 1.4 out of 5
  • Healthy: 1.7 out of 5

Overall, if you’re interested in losing weight, making simple, sustainable changes is the best bet. It takes time to lose weight safely and keep it off. There are always new, fancy diets that promise a lot but won’t get you what you want.

Rather than turning to extreme weight loss tactics like a calorie-restricted, strict keto diet, you may want to look at easier things to implement. For example, try to eat two more vegetables daily. Or, try to incorporate healthy fats with avocados and avocado oil.

Achieving balance so that you can have long-term weight loss is key. When in doubt, talk to your physician or Registered Dietitian about a diet or meal plan that might be suitable for your lifestyle!

How to Get Started on the Keto Diet Meal Plan

Convinced that the keto diet meal plan is right for you?

To get safely started on the keto diet, here are my recommended steps:

Work with Your Health Providers

  • Consult your Registered Dietitian and physician before you start this diet. This will help ensure that a thorough health assessment including evaluation of any comorbidities is taken into consideration to make sure the diet is safe for you.
  • Get your labs checked regularly. Work with your doctor to get bloodwork done, especially if you are taking any medications or have health conditions that may be impacted by following a keto diet meal plan. You’ll want to check your blood cholesterol and any other biometrics that are important for your health.

Track What You Eat

  • Learn how to read the nutrition label on packaged foods and check them regularly. This is where the number of carbs, protein, fat, and fiber can be found so that you can closely evaluate your food choices and whether they are suited for keto.
  • Track your macronutrients and ketones! A true keto diet does require a little bit of math. You’ll want to calculate how many grams and calories you’re getting from protein, fats, and carbs, as well as use a device to measure your ketone bodies.

Plan Ahead

  • Plan your meals and snacks, if possible. Since the diet is so specific in its nutrient requirements, you may want to figure out what you’ll need to eat in a specific week. Also, if you’re on-the-go or at work, your options when dining out can be limited, so you’ll want to bring some keto diet foods and snacks with you. Food manufacturers and meal delivery services have also caught onto the keto meal plan trend and have started to offer snacks and frozen meals that won’t knock you out of ketosis.
  • If keto-specific options aren’t available at restaurants or the grocery store, check out gluten-free options. Although the gluten-free diet is intended to support people with Celiac Disease, keto dieters can use these foods to their advantage since these foods can be lower in carbs. Make sure to still look at the total carbs and fiber listed on the nutrition label or menu since many gluten-free items can still be high in carbs.

Ultimately, the decision is up to you on whether or not you want to follow the keto diet. However, your doctor and Registered Dietitian can help you monitor your progress, health, and labs so that you can get the results you’re looking for while maintaining your health.

Keto Diet Meal Plan Sample Recipes

If you’re already following the keto diet meal plan or planning to start, check out my other blog post for some inspiration.

These keto diet recipes are based on simple, family-friendly ideas that I’ve shared as part of treatment for epilepsy in children.

The Bottom Line

In conclusion, the keto diet is high in fat, low in carbs, and moderate in protein. By depriving the body of carbs, your body relies on ketone bodies and goes into a metabolic state called ketosis.

Foods that are allowed on the keto diet are very low in carbs. Groups include leafy greens, nuts, seeds, oils and fats, high-fat dairy products, meats, fish, seafood, certain condiments, and natural sweeteners. Foods that are not allowed on the keto diet meal plan are starchy vegetables, high-carb condiments, sweeteners and sugars, milk and low-fat dairy, sodas, and juices, and high-carb alcohol.

People often follow the keto diet for its health benefits. Studies show that it can be beneficial for those who want to lose weight quickly and those living with diabetes and digestive issues. On the flip side, the keto diet may not be suited for people who don’t want to experience undesirable symptoms, ketoacidosis, nutrient deficiencies, keto breath, and fruity urine smell.

My Perspective on the Keto Diet Meal Plan

From my perspective as a Registered Dietitian, I’m not entirely convinced that the keto diet is the magic bullet. The keto diet meal plan is very restrictive, which makes weight loss harder to sustain over the long-term. Also, there aren’t enough studies done on broader populations and over longer periods to substantiate the diet. I’ve primarily used this diet as a medical treatment for children with epilepsy, where I know it’ll be effective. I’ve reviewed some of the potential health benefits and side effects of following a keto diet pattern.

Regardless, I know people will still be interested in following this diet! If you’re interested in getting started, I highly recommend working with your doctor and Registered Dietitian. They’ll help develop a plan that will work for you. They’ll also help you make appropriate modifications to ensure your diet meets your unique health needs. Additionally, I’ve developed some healthy, keto-friendly recipes for you to consider adding to your repertoire.

What questions do you still have about the keto diet meal plan? Comment below and let me know! I’d love to hear from you!

Author Bio

Chrissy Arsenault, MBA, RDN, LD, is a registered dietitian nutritionist and licensed dietitian. She is the founder and CEO of a nutrition communications firm, Pink Pamplemousse LLC. She also coaches clients on various health conditions including heart disease, obesity, digestive issues, and diabetes.

Follow Chrissy on Instagram (@thepinkpamplemousse) or visit her website.

References

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[2] Gupta L, Khandelwal D, Kalra S, Gupta P, Dutta D, Aggarwal S. Ketogenic diet in endocrine disorders: Current perspectives. J Postgrad Med. 2017 Oct;63(4):242.

[3] Paoli A. Ketogenic diet for obesity: friend or foe? Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2014 Feb 19;11(2):2092-107.

[4] Paoli A, Bosco G, Camporesi EM, Mangar D. Ketosis, ketogenic diet and food intake control: a complex relationship. Front Psychol. 2015;2;6:27.

[5] Seid H, Rosenbaum M. Low Carbohydrate and Low-Fat Diets: What We Don’t Know and Why we Should Know It. Nutrients. 2019 Nov 12;11(11):2749.

[6] Boden G, Sargrad K, Homko C, Mozzoli M, Stein TP. Effect of a low-carbohydrate diet on appetite, blood glucose levels, and insulin resistance in obese patients with type 2 diabetes. Ann Intern Med. 2005 Mar 15;142(6):403-11.

[7] Austin GL, Dalton CB, Hu Y, Morris CB, Hankins J, Weinland SR, Westman EC, Yancy WS Jr, Drossman DA. A very low-carbohydrate diet improves symptoms and quality of life in diarrhea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2009 Jun;7(6):706-708.e1.  

[8] Ullah W, Hamid M, Mohammad Ammar Abdullah H, Ur Rashid M, Inayat F. Another “D” in MUDPILES? A review of diet-associated nondiabetic ketoacidosis. J Investig Med High Impact Case Rep. 2018;6:2324709618796261.

[9] Roberts SS. Shedding pounds for life. Keeping a food diary can help keep you honest about your eating habits. Diabetes Forecast. 2003 Apr;56(4):79-80.

[10] Best Diets 2021. U.S. News & World Report website. https://health.usnews.com/best-diet/mediterranean-diet. Accessed February 12, 2021.

[11] Fuehrlein BS, Rutenberg MS, Silver JN et al. Differential metabolic effects of saturated versus polyunsaturated fats in ketogenic diets. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2004;89(4):1641-1645.

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