Why “Is It Keto?” Is the Wrong Question

Hey, folks! Today’s post is written by Dr. Lindsay Taylor. Lindsay is my co-author on The Keto Reset Instant Pot Cookbook and The Keto Reset Diet Cookbook. She also heads up our Keto Reset and Primal Endurance Facebook communities, and you might have heard her on the Primal Blueprint and Primal Endurance Podcasts. I’ve asked Lindsay if she would pop over to Mark’s Daily Apple from time to time to give us some insights from the front lines of the world of keto in addition to a few other topics. Enjoy!

Hi, everyone, thanks for having me here! Today I want to sort out one of the more common questions we get over in the Keto Reset Facebook community: “Is ____ keto?”

Fill in the blank with any type of food—beets, carrots, tomatoes, soy milk, cassava flour, you name it. It really doesn’t matter what food you insert into that blank because the answer I’m going to give is always the same:
There is no such thing as keto and non-keto food.

Now let me explain what I mean there….

Remember, ketosis is a metabolic state defined by having measurable levels of beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB) in the blood (or acetone in the breath if that’s how you’re measuring). A ketogenic diet is any way of eating that allows you to be in ketosis. And guess what? There are no foods that automatically kick you out of ketosis—i.e., that are guaranteed to bring your level of measurable ketones to zero upon ingestion. Even pure white sugar won’t knock you out of ketosis if you eat a small enough amount, hence the saying, “Any food is keto if you slice it thinly enough.”

Of course I understand that when someone asks, “Is ____ keto?” they’re really asking, “If I eat a reasonably sized serving of this food, will I be knocked out of ketosis?” And my answer is: I don’t know.

Embracing the Keto Context

I’m not trying to be difficult here, but the answer depends entirely on the context. Among the many variables that factor in are the given individual’s carbohydrate tolerance and insulin sensitivity, how active they are and whether they have recently exercised, and how much of that particular food they intend to eat and their individual response to that food (which itself probably depends on genetics and a whole host of other variables).

In order to be able to classify foods as keto and non-keto, a given food would have to reliably affect most people the same way (i.e., no difference between individuals), and it would have to affect the same person the same way in different contexts (i.e., no difference between situations). That simply isn’t how it works.

Let me give you an example. I recently went to a birthday party at a friend’s house… a friend who just happens to make the best chocolate cake in the world. I don’t even really like cake, except hers is amazing. I reined in my desire to go face-first into the cake and ate a moderate slice. Though I patted myself on the back for my admirable self-control, I expected be out of ketosis the next morning. Guess what? At 10 a.m. the following day: 3.2 mmol/L on my blood ketone meter (anything above 0.5 mmol/L is considered “in ketosis,” and 3.2 is pretty high, especially for me).

So, does that mean that chocolate cake is a keto food? “Yes” because it didn’t knock me out of ketosis? Or still “no” because it’s chocolate cake and everyone knows chocolate cake isn’t keto no matter what my ketone meter said? But if “no,” how did I get one of the highest blood ketone readings I’ve ever registered without extended fasting? Is this the start of the new hottest diet, choco cake-o keto??

The high ketone reading was probably due to the fact that I had done a long training run the morning before and had been somewhat calorie restricted in the days prior. I would not expect the same outcome if I ate the same amount of chocolate cake on a rest day, or if I ate three times as much cake (like I wanted to) even on a heavy training day. Nor do I expect that anyone training for a marathon can eat chocolate cake after runs and remain in ketosis. I might have to do some follow-up cake testing to find out, though. Purely for science, of course….

I think that we can all agree that chocolate cake is not a food that someone should eat regularly, if at all, particularly if being in ketosis is very important to them (or likewise if they care to adhere to Primal principles). Nevertheless, this helps illustrate why “Does it kick me out of ketosis?” isn’t the right metric to use for deciding whether to include a food in your regular keto repertoire.

Ketosis can be a finnicky state. Trying to micromanage it by fretting about whether certain foods are keto seems like a waste of time, especially since most of the foods that people stress over aren’t things like chocolate cake (a “no duh” food) but are otherwise nutritious items like beets, tomatoes, carrots, leeks, and so on. And, anyway, unless you’re following a ketogenic diet to address a serious medical issue like epilepsy, staying in ketosis 100% of the time isn’t required. Mark has written before on the question of whether constant ketosis is even desirable, let alone necessary to meet our health, fitness, and longevity goals.

Fielding Expert Guidance: e.g. “But so-and-so said I’m not allowed to eat ______ because it’s not keto!”

I know if you’ve spent any time researching a ketogenic diet online, you’ve undoubtedly found list after list of “keto foods” and “non-keto foods”… and many times those lists contradict each other. What gives?

Keto being such a hot dietary strategy right now, there are approximately a bazillion keto coaches, keto Facebook groups, YouTube channels, Instagram pages, and blogs all devoted to telling you how to go keto the “correct” way. One “expert” will say absolutely that dairy is not keto, then the next Instagram model will proudly display a bowl of cream cheese with the hashtag #ketobreakfast. One Facebook group will insist that you eat nothing that grows below the ground, while the next lets you eat any vegetables except nightshades, and this one over here only allows members to eat spinach and cabbage. No wonder keto newbies get so overwhelmed!

It’s important to understand that when someone says that certain foods aren’t keto, they really mean that those foods aren’t allowed (a word I strongly dislike) on their version of a keto diet. However, as I said above, any way of eating that results in a state of ketosis—either through carbohydrate restriction, fasting, or a combination of the two—falls under the keto umbrella. There are many, many versions of the keto diet, and just because some “expert” says that certain foods aren’t keto doesn’t mean you can’t achieve your goals while eating those foods. It simply means that this person has decided that their particular version of keto is best, perhaps because it worked well for them, or perhaps because they based it on ethical beliefs or their good-faith interpretation of the available science or, frankly, sometimes because they don’t understand keto very well. And that’s fine–their audience, their rules. That doesn’t make their rules right for everyone, though.

Asking Better Questions

Lest it seem like I’m maligning anyone who sets any kind of parameters on a keto diet, let me be very clear: there are foods that we would and would not encourage members of our Keto Reset community to consume. However, we encourage our community to decide whether or not to eat something not by asking, Is it keto? but by asking, Do I believe this food is healthy?

Of course, because we are a community rooted in Primal sensibilities, we assert that some foods are more likely to promote optimal health—i.e., those in the Primal Blueprint Food Pyramid. And yes, if you decide to go keto, which restricts carbohydrate intake to less than 50 grams per day for most people, it will be harder to accommodate foods like sweet potatoes and seasonal fruit into your daily repertoire even though they fit the Primal mold. However, this is a matter of math, not an indictment of certain foods as “not keto.”

In the Primal version of keto, food quality and nutrient density reign supreme.

We also recognize that there is a lot of individual variability in terms of what constitutes an optimal diet, keto or otherwise. Whether any particular food belongs in your diet depends on how you feel and perform when you eat it, and whether it does or does not move you closer to achieving your goals. That’s highly personal.

Let’s take the example of beets, because this one comes up a lot. Beets are a highly nutritious food that are considered “approved” by Primal standards. They’re also relatively higher in carbs (8 grams per ½ cup) than other veggies, and they grow below the ground, which can feel like a no-no on a ketogenic diet.

Rather than ask:

  • Are beets keto?
  • Can I eat these beets?
  • Am I allowed to eat these beets? (Let me be clear: you are allowed to eat whatever you want, even on a ketogenic diet. Your body, your choice. That doesn’t mean you should.)

Ask this instead:

  • Do I want to eat these beets?
  • How will I feel physically and mentally if I eat these beets?
  • Do I consider these beets to be a healthy choice? (Note that this is about your values, not somebody else’s.)
  • If these beets were to knock me out of ketosis, would I be ok with that?

For example, your answer to #4 might be, “No. I have only been dedicated to the Keto Reset Diet for a few weeks, and I choose to be conservative in my carb consumption still in order to optimize the adaptation process. This serving of beets has more carbs than I want to add to this meal.” Cool, that’s totally valid—skip the beets. Or it might be, “Yes, I’ve been craving beets, beets are super healthy, and I don’t really care if I’m in ketosis later or not.” Cool, also valid—eat the beets. (For what it’s worth, I have no problem eating beets and staying in ketosis, but YMMV.)

Remember, too, If you really want to know if a certain food affects your level of ketosis, you can get a blood or breath meter and test it systematically. In my opinion, this isn’t necessary for the average ketogenic dieter, but some people prefer a data-driven approach. Robb Wolf also provides an excellent protocol for testing how certain foods affect your blood glucose response in his book Wired to Eat.

Perfection Isn’t the Goal—Health Is.

When it comes to deciding what to eat, we’ll never be able to know exactly what the perfect diet looks like—keto or not. While I certainly applaud people for thinking deeply about the quality of their diets, I also hate to see someone fret because the restaurant served shredded carrots on their salad when they heard that carrots aren’t allowed (there’s that word again) on a ketogenic diet. I have to believe that the stress of worrying about the carrot is more detrimental than the 2.6 grams of carbs in ¼ cup of shredded carrots would ever be.

If you are using the Primal Blueprint as your guiding template, it’s really hard to go wrong. Sure, you might find that your first stab at the keto diet needs tweaking to make it work for you. Maybe you feel better satiated with more fat, or maybe you need more protein. Maybe you prefer to eat breakfast instead of fasting in the morning. Maybe you do better with less saturated and more monounsaturated fat.

You can experiment and adjust these things. You don’t have to be perfect from day one. If you try something and decide you don’t like the outcome, you can move forward with new and better information. This isn’t making a mistake—it’s learning. It’s what we should all be doing to keep moving forward on our personal paths toward optimal health.

That’s it for today. Thanks for reading, everyone. Comment below, or find me in the Keto Reset Facebook group if you have any questions. And as always, #liveawesome!

TAGS:  Hype, Keto

About the Author

Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior writer and community manager for Primal Nutrition, a certified Primal Health Coach, and the co-author of three keto cookbooks.

As a writer for Mark’s Daily Apple and the leader of the thriving Keto Reset and Primal Endurance communities, Lindsay’s job is to help people learn the whats, whys, and hows of leading a health-focused life. Before joining the Primal team, she earned her master’s and Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also worked as a researcher and instructor.

Lindsay lives in Northern California with her husband and two sports-obsessed sons. In her free time, she enjoys ultra running, triathlon, camping, and game nights. Follow along on Instagram @theusefuldish as Lindsay attempts to juggle work, family, and endurance training, all while maintaining a healthy balance and, most of all, having fun in life. For more info, visit lindsaytaylor.co.

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32 thoughts on “Why “Is It Keto?” Is the Wrong Question”

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  1. Doesn’t your blood sugar matter too? If you have high blood sugar from the cake and high ketones is your body really using the ketones?

    1. Great question. My blood sugar was also totally normal the next day (magic cake, I tell ya). You’re correct, though, that the GKI (glucose ketone index) might be the superior health marker since it takes both glucose and ketone levels into account. Just measuring ketones is fine for knowing if you’re in ketosis or not, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

      1. You mentioned that you measured your ketosis. What method do you use? How can you tell if you are in Ketosis?

        1. I use a blood ketone meter, either the Precision Xtra or the Keto Mojo (I have both, they both do the same thing). I don’t measure every day, though. I just check in once in a while or if I’m running an experiment on myself 😉

    2. Since insulin blunts keto production it’s not too likely to have both high insulin and high ketone production. A fit person, especially after exercise, can also shuttle glucose to the muscles using little or no insulin. It’s possible that Mark’s body took that cake and shuttled it straight to his muscles, with very little insulin, or spike to his blood sugar, because his body has very high insulin sensitivity and were eager for the glucose. Once your’e fit and fat adapted, your metabolic response is much different than a sedentary sugar burner. I can gorge on fine bread and pasta at my favorite Italian restaurant and the next day it makes no difference. Now if i did that daily, I’d slowly unravel my metabolic health, but once and while, I have no detrimental effects at all.

    3. I think the point she’s making is that it’s better to believe it doesn’t matter which one is being used. Sugar is still good fuel, it just isn’t the one we want to rely on. If you worry too much about it, the stress hormone monster will derail any progress you might otherwise make. Just keep on the right path and stay focused on the ultimate goal of being healthy.

  2. What a refreshing view of our lifestyle! As I lead my friends and family down this path, I’m often the go-to for advice on what to eat, and I hate it when they ask me “is (this) allowed?” Yours is the approach I’ve always tried to take and it’s nice to hear it from someone else.

  3. Seriously good article. So often the emphasis is on ketosis and not the reasons you may do it – your overall goal. If your goal for going keto is the lean out and retain muscle mass, does it matter how strict you are with maintaining ketosis if you’re still achieving your goals? I would say not. Especially if enjoying a yearly piece of cake or eating a bowl of beets keeps you motivated and happy. I’ve also noticed the same thing with sudden carb intake. Once you’re fat adapted, exercising regularly and have a healthy metabolic response, the occasional influx of carbs, even from bread or pastries, really makes no difference. Our bodies are not that delicate.

    1. Spot on Clay.

      I’m reminded of last week when I ate 2 mini Snickers bars and 4 homemade chocolate cookies at poker night. The only sugar I had had in two month’s. Didn’t even notice it and went right on with my normal eating next day.

  4. Excellent perspective by Dr. Taylor IMO. Sticking to my Paelo AIP, but have definitely added more fat to my diet based on all the Keto info out there and incorporating some of the recipes from Mark and Lindsay would work well for Primal folks I think.

  5. A diet based on thought and reason, and “is this healthy? (for me–better yet!)” has to be the best diet around. That’s one of the many reasons it’s so hard to get lured in by vegans–it’s all rules–no thought. Vegan donuts and lollipops are not healthy and really not any healthier than non-vegan ones. Really great post. I love that you’re asking people to think for themselves!!!!

  6. Wow, excellent summary! I’ve been trying to get this across to fks trying the ‘keto’. I’ve even thought there has been too much emphasis on keto instead of PRIMAL. Keep it primal.,.. of which keto can play a part. Or not. Your choice…

    1. Richard, you said it. It’s exactly this: “Keep it Primal” – and if keto can play a part for your personal goals, pursue that iteration of Primal.

  7. It’s a case of semantics. I suppose.

    While I agree with the idea overall Lindsey.
    To me, it’s best to say yes or no.

    One could argue the “all things in moderation” viewpoint to death using this idea. I spoke recently to a diabetic who wanted to include only “some” of a donut using this logic.
    “Not even if it fits into my macros????”
    NO NO NO!!!!

    I do keto for glucose control as I am Diabetic.
    So to me, it’s best to say it either is or isn’t keto when counseling other Diabetics on food.

    1. But whether or not it’s Keto is still the wrong question here. I think a better question/answer in your scenario is whether or not the food will detrimentally affect blood sugar b/c that’s what you’re really after. You’re just using Keto as a proxy.

  8. I don’t normally care for the guest articles on MDA, but this one was great and really gave me a good perspective for looking at food again. Thanks for the valuable input, Lindsay.

  9. I appreciate this golden article. I started Keto September 21. Mostly its been smooth but going from eating out to preparing 95 percent of my meals at home involves buying groceries planning ahead meals making and dirting a ton of dishes. If i didnt have extra energy the diet has given me plus my four hour plus workouts i wouldnt physically be able to do it! I love eating more veggies and the fat is so yummy and I really dont miss the old yucky food. My palate has adjusted quickly. As I go along I have conversations in my mind sometimes saying no to a little temptation here and there but if doesnt feel right or good to always say no like the pineapple bite i had. I felt like having a serving of fruit salad but after I refreshing bite i didnt need it or want it. The other day took a special trip with my son to go shark tooth diggjng he wanted pizza. I allowed myself to have a gluten free goat chesse veggie pizz with arugula salad i left a 3/4 of a slice of my 4 slice small pizza and I felt good of my choices and enjoyed earing with my son. It was the first meal out for a long time. Yesterday I ate the last 4 raspberries i got for the kids. I made keto donuts the second batch was a fail so the third batch i actually added coconut sugar and date sugar after the gross stevia mess it tasted decent and a 10000 percent better than my usual glazed donut. Key is onwards and upwards our own way. If I judge myself with perfectionism to the KetoGod I am setting myself up for failure abd I cant afford to fail at this lifestyle. Its my last hope for decades of lies deciet and misinformation that has cost me my health despite me being into Health since I was young. The experts were clueless and confused all of us. Keto feels very sound for those wanting to avoid deadly diseases including obesity

  10. Folks, thanks for giving Dr. Lindsay Taylor such a warm welcome this week. I’m thrilled she’ll be hopping on Mark’s Daily Apple now and then. Keep the comments and questions coming. I love this community. – M

  11. AWESOME as always! Thank you again and again for sharing your knowledge and learning!

  12. Excellent article. I personally have to say no to specific food categories in my life for health reasons (sugar and most dairy).
    With that being said, I have been thinking a lot lately along the same lines as what you said in the end of your article. This is a lifelong journey. In previous “diets” I would fall off track for a meal, and it would become a day, a weekend, a week, 6 months off track. This time my mind is completely different. One wrong choice is one wrong choice. No big deal.
    It’s like taking the risk of taking a road hoping to miss a stoplight and you get caught in traffic for 30 seconds longer than you’d have sat in that stoplight. Are you going to let that moment ruin the next 6 months of your life? Of course not, you’re going to curse the traffic under your breath for a moment, then move on with your life. That’s how I’m looking at things this time around. Sure, the shredded carrots might mess up the next 5 minutes of my life, but it’s certainly not going to mess up my life! Just get right back on track!

  13. Great article, and one I will definitely be sharing!!
    Most people expect a fixed ‘regime’ (read DIET), looking towards achieving a fixed goal, so when the boundaries are loose-ish, it gets confusing. After conducting my own personal science experiments I do best with Primal, tossing in an occasional Ketosis stint. For me to stay in Ketosis when everything in the garden is ripe at the same time is just not a reasonable expectation. Probably doable, but not happily.
    Thanks for the article Lindsey!

  14. Excellent article, as always those who have only recently adopted a health and diet conscious lifestyle tend to be over zealous and think that what worked for them is the be all and end all for everyone else!

  15. Remarkable summary by DR. Lindsay Taylor on ketosis which is scaling down with perspective notations. frequently spoken on ketosis i.e adding up more nutrients on a daily diet to level down the intake of the excess carb. Normally people seek information what they are actually relied upon.

  16. I really appreciate your down-to-earth, no-dogma approach. That’s why i keep coming back.

  17. Hi Lindsay.
    Thank you for an excellent article. As you state, understanding things in the proper context is the key. Keep it simple, folks. Food, glorious food! Enjoy.