Those new to keto often balk at the suggestion that you should be getting 75% of your calories from fat. Because obesity and high cholesterol are real and present dangers in modern human health, “fat” has become a dirty word when it comes to dieting and health, but is that notorious reputation justified? Of course not, because the distinction between healthy fats and unhealthy processed fat is as clear as a greasy fried chicken wrapper. You may well know the traditional food pyramid, but what makes up the keto pyramid? We have the details below.
Let’s start with a brush-up of the basics that make up the traditional food pyramid.
In the original food pyramid put out by the USDA in 1992, carbs were the biggest group and formed the base of the pyramid with a suggested 6 to 11 servings per day (~40% of daily intake).
On the next level, vegetables and fruits were divided almost equally, with between 2 and 4 servings of fruit each day (~15%) and 3 to 5 servings of vegetables (~20%).
Then came the dairy and protein categories, 2 to 3 servings of each (or ~10% each).
At the very tippy top were the fats, oils, and sweets category (as if all were the same). The fats category had no suggestions for daily intake (there’s a mere 5% left to work with), and instead gave the instruction: “use sparingly.”
The keto diet asks you to flip that pyramid completely upside down, but is that safe? Let’s start with a quick rundown of how keto works.
Because the typical American diet tends to fill us up with refined sugar, corn syrup, trans fats, and empty carbs, obesity is a frightening epidemic across the United States. Even more concerning is that often those who are dangerously overweight are also malnourished. So many people are eating foods and gaining calories without actually getting the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients needed to survive and thrive.
The ketogenic diet is a high-fat, moderate-protein, low-carb diet that was first designed medicinally to treat children with epilepsy. Scientists quickly discovered that a side effect of switching the body’s metabolic engine from running on sugar (glucose) to running on fat (ketone bodies) was that the body also started burning up the fat already stored on the body.
Abdominal fat is one of the most dangerous deposits because it crowds our vital organs in the form of visceral fat. Fat that deep inside the body is the hardest to lose, but a keto diet can reach in there, drag it out, and burn it up for productive daily energy.
The time has come: what does the keto food pyramid look like?
The keto diet calls for a macronutrient ratio of 75% healthy fats, 20% protein, and 5% carbohydrates. That’s almost the opposite of the food pyramid many of us followed growing up, but it isn’t unhealthy if you do it right. In fact, keeping a ketogenic diet can help you prevent the development of type 2 diabetes and certain cardiovascular risks associated with high cholesterol like heart attack and stroke.
You can probably picture it now: fats are the biggest section on the bottom of the keto pyramid, with protein in the middle and carbs on top.
Where does that leave fruits and vegetables? Well, a keto diet calls on you to start thinking about food at the molecular level, so yes, you still eat fruits and veggies, but you have to ask yourself: how many carbs do they have? And how much protein? Will eating something sweet like blueberries bring you enough fiber or micronutrient content to be worth the calories?
We’ve remade the ketogenic food pyramid for you so you can eat without having to do any guesswork.
This is the big category, and the name of the game here is to find the healthiest fats around. Once you train your metabolism for fat burning, it’ll start with burning up what you eat, and then quickly and ravenously start burning body fat. This is one of the most valued aspects of a low-carbohydrate diet: you can lose real body fat (not water weight) quickly and safely.
Here’s your food list for full-fat dairy products and other healthy fats.
The trick when choosing keto diet food is how to eat enough healthy fats without having to resort to swigging straight from your olive oil bottle—no one wants you to do that! While you can drink coconut oil and its concentrated form MCT oil with your morning keto coffee or a rich smoothie recipe, many fellow keto dieters have been hard at work concocting tasty fat bombs for you to eat on-the-go or as a midday snack. We’ve also curated many recipes you can choose from.
While we’re on the subject, not all oils are created equal, whether you’re talking about cooking oils or keto oils. You’ll want to avoid wholly and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and other unhealthy fats like:
The difference when it comes to vegetable oils is that they’re heat-processed and often refined, which strips away any beneficial nutrients. Unless you need a very specific taste or smoke point when it comes to cooking, stick with cold-pressed natural oils like avocado and olive oil: they’ve got way fewer free radical risks and won’t put your cardiovascular health in jeopardy.
The second of your new macro food groups is protein. The general amount of protein recommended on keto is capped at around 20% calorie consumption. If you’re an athlete on keto you may want to up that percentage or dip into high-protein diets like Atkins or Paleo during heavy training periods. Alternatively, you could also supplement with amino acids to make sure you’ve got enough protein on keto to build new muscle, repair tears, and prevent catabolic wasting.
Your protein contribution can fit anywhere in your meal plans: for breakfast (eggs and bacon), lunch (chicken salad), and dinner (grilled salmon). Choosing responsibly sourced, grass-fed animal meats can help fuel your workouts and keep you lean. That list includes:
While by and large animal products are good to eat (unless of course you’re keto and vegan, then it’s all plant sources of protein), some should be avoided due to how they’re processed. For example, mixed-meat products to avoid include:
Breading on meats brings carbs, and sauces and flavorings are often full of starches and sugars. Buy your meat clean, and flavor it to your own tastes at home.
We’ve got a lot of ground to cover for the smallest category on the keto pyramid. Foods without fats and that aren’t protein almost invariably fall under carbs, and then the question becomes: are they low carb or high carb? The answer to this question lets you know which you should eat, but we’ve got a few quick lists to simplify it.
Are we saying don’t eat foods like cauliflower? Of course not. In fact cauliflower makes a wonderful substitute for mashed potatoes, rice, and pizza crusts on keto. We are simply pointing out that some veggies are starchier than others, and if you’re laser-focused on your net carbs, you may want your vegetables to be as low in carb content as possible.
You can’t go wrong with fruits, but you can get more sugar than you bargained for, so just keep in mind which are lowest in sugar and highest in antioxidant nutrients. The sweeter the fruit is naturally, the more sugar it likely contains, and while natural sugars are wildly healthier than artificial or refined sugars, at the end of the day sugar is sugar, and your body may try to leave behind ketosis and get back to glucose if you consume too much.
Not only do we not consume enough seeds in the modern world, but chia seeds make an invaluable contribution to satiety because they expand with liquid and help fill you up. Likewise, nuts are fantastic high-fat foods that can help curb your hunger as a snack between meals.
There’s your rundown of the basic blocks of a keto food pyramid. No longer are you shopping for deceptively low-fat food choices and hoping for weight loss by using substitutes. Instead you’re getting your calories from clean, whole foods and are learning more about what you eat every day by questioning which of your options are low-carb foods and which are not.
The takeaway: the keto diet is good for your health, energy levels, and mental performance (ketone bodies are brain energy!), and the education you gain by examining what you eat and where it comes from is good for the world overall in regards to sustainability, taking your money out of toxic companies, and contributing to humane farming practices as well. It’s a win-win-win situation.