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So you've decided you want to try out the high-fat, low-carb diet, better-known as the fat-burning ketogenic diet. Whether it's to lose weight, have more energy, or fuel workouts differently, going keto is a popular choice right now. But figuring out a keto meal plan on your own is no easy feat, especially since eating a diet super high in fats doesn't come naturally to many people who are accustomed to the traditionally carb-heavy American diet. (It's especially hard if you're vegan and want to try keto.) But this should help: Keto experts explain how to set yourself up for success, plus provide ideas for exactly what keto foods to eat when you're first getting started. (While you're at it, check out these low-carb keto drinks that will keep you in ketosis.)
Have a Keto Meal Plan
When it comes to starting the keto diet (or any diet for that matter), there's one thing all experts agree on. You *must* have a plan. "Never try to wing a keto diet," says Julie Stefanski, R.D.N., C.S.S.D., L.D.N., a dietitian based in York, PA, who specializes in the ketogenic diet. "Set a start date and get prepared by reorganizing your pantry, planning out meal and snack options, and purchasing appropriate foods and dietary supplements," she says. "The biggest reason people have a hard time sticking with keto is that people don't have enough interesting foods to turn to, and high-carb favorites win out over good intention. If you didn't buy foods at the grocery store that fit the guidelines, there won't be an easy option in the fridge when you really need it." (A great place to start is this list of high-fat keto foods anyone can add to their diet.)
What's more, it's especially important to make sure your diet is well-planned when you're eating keto-style, because the foods you can choose from are limited. In addition to checking in with a dietitian if you're able, Stefanski recommends that you "talk to your doctor and make sure she or he is aware that you'll be starting a diet that completely changes how your body metabolizes energy." You might also want to check your most recent bloodwork levels for things such as cholesterol, vitamin D, and other indicators of health because these can change while on keto. That's because for some people, a prolonged keto diet can result in certain nutritional deficiencies or even high cholesterol. But most experts will tell you that the ketogenic diet is not a permanent lifestyle change (as could be the case for something like the 80/20 approach to eating or a Mediterranean eating style).
When and How Much to Eat
One thing many people love about keto diet meal plans is that tracking your food is optional. "One of the biggest benefits of the ketogenic diet is that there's no need to meticulously track your calories like you may in other diets," notes Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of DrAxe.com, best-selling author of Eat Dirt, and cofounder of Ancient Nutrition. "Because you're filling up on fat and protein, you're more likely to feel satisfied and energized all day long, which causes you to naturally eat less." This isn't to say that food tracking on keto is discouraged. "Some people may find calorie counting a useful tool to be more mindful and aware of what they're eating, but it's not necessary on the ketogenic diet," says Dr. Axe, but there's no need to get too stressed about hitting a certain caloric goal, especially if you're not trying to lose weight. (Related: The #1 Reason to Stop Counting Calories)
One area where food tracking can be especially helpful, though, is ensuring that you're hitting the right ratios of macronutrients—protein, carbs, and fat. "The most researched version of the ketogenic diet derives 70 percent of calories from healthy fats, 20 percent from protein, and only 10 percent from carbs," explains Charles Passler, D.C., nutritionist, and founder of Pure Change. "In the ideal world, each keto meal and snack should have that same (70/20/10) ratio of macronutrients, but studies have shown that you'll still achieve great results even if each meal varies slightly from that ratio, just as long as you don't exceed 50 grams per day of carbs, or eat those carbs in one sitting," says Passler. In order to achieve these ratios without a preset meal plan from a dietitian or doctor, some food tracking is probably going to be necessary. But once you get the hang of things, you may not need it anymore.
How often you eat is also up to your personal preference. "For most people, I recommend three to four meals per day with a few healthy keto snacks in between," says Dr. Axe. "This ensures that you're getting a good mix of protein and fat all day long to keep you feeling energized and satisfied." That being said, he encourages people to listen to their bodies and tune in to when they're truly hungry. "If you find that you feel better eating five to six smaller meals spread throughout the day, do what works best for you."
Lastly, if you're active, you might need to make some adjustments to take that into account. "For the first one to two weeks, temporarily reducing your exercise load can be helpful as your body adjusts to being in ketosis," he says. "Additionally, for those who have an intense workout schedule, carb cycling may be a good option." Carb cycling essentially means you'll increase your carb intake on the days you're doing exercise, ideally just two to three days per week. "While low-carb days may be around 20 to 30 grams of net carbs daily, high-carb days can range all the way up to 100 grams, although it can vary based on your size and activity level," says Dr. Axe.
Keto Foods Meal Plan
While it will probably take a little bit of trial and error to figure out your go-to meals while doing keto, here's a sample keto meal plan to get you started.
Option 1: Spinach, mushroom, and feta omelet with keto coffee (coffee with adding fat such as MCT oil, butter, or bone broth protein). "This breakfast is a good source of protein and healthy fats that will keep you feeling full to curb midmorning cravings," says Dr. Axe.
Option 2: Whole milk, unsweetened yogurt mixed with full-fat sour cream, a few raspberries, chia seeds, and walnuts. "This type of combo requires careful carb- and portion-counting since all yogurts naturally have lactose, which is a carb," says Stefanski. "Pairing it with a carb-free protein like two eggs can help balance out the macros."
Option 1: Oven-baked salmon with broccoli. "This lunch features salmon, which is high in heart-healthy fats, as well as broccoli, which is low in carbs but high in fiber," says Dr. Axe.
Option 2: Stefanski suggests a salad with nitrate-free bacon, avocado, cheese, spicy pumpkin seeds, and a few grape tomatoes along with a low-carb, high-fat salad dressing like ranch or blue cheese.
Option 3: "Make your own keto 'lunchable' with cubes of grilled chicken, a slice of nitrate-free ham, cheese cubes, pickle slices, a hard-boiled egg, a few raw grape tomatoes, raw veggies like cauliflower or broccoli, a few almonds or walnuts, guacamole, and ranch dressing," says Stefanski. (Looking for something meat-free? Here are 29 vegetarian keto recipes for plant-based eaters.)
Option 1: Caesar salad with romaine lettuce, chicken breast, bacon, and Parmesan. "Rich in protein and super filling, this is the perfect meal to round out your day," says Dr. Axe. "Pair it with an olive oil dressing and plenty of cheese to up the fat content."
Option 2: Grass-fed ground beef sautéed with onions and low-carb tomato sauce. "This can be served with zucchini or shirataki low-carb noodles," says Stefanski. "In order to get the fat content up in the meal, the zucchini can be sautéed in olive oil or additional garlic-infused oil can be added directly to the sauce."
Option 3: Grilled chicken served with eggplant, yellow squash, and zucchini along with a few tomatoes, sautéed with garlic in olive oil. Adding additional fats in the form of a sauce incorporating heavy cream or coconut cream is a smart choice for balancing macros.
Option 1: BLT roll-ups with turkey and avocado. "Create a roll using bacon, lettuce, tomato, turkey, and avocado for the perfect mix of fat and protein," says Dr. Axe. (You could also try this kale avocado BLT salad that satisfies your craving for bacon in a healthier way.)
Option 2: Spread some cream cheese between two cucumber slices. "Cucumber is a great low-carb veggie that works well combined with high-fat cream cheese for a satisfying, keto-friendly snack," says Dr. Axe.
Option 3: Spicy guacamole with raw zucchini slices. The foods you choose between meals should still be keto-friendly and may even mimic an upcoming dinner, just in a smaller portion size, says Stefanski. "Since carbs are minimal, it's important to spend your carbs on high-nutrient foods like vegetables."