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?” Let’s discuss.
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
Your individual carbohydrate tolerance and insulin sensitivity,
How active you are and whether you have recently exercised (and depleted glycogen stores)
How much of that particular food you intend to eat
Your individual response to that food (which probably depends on genetics and a 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, if being in ketosis is very important to them (or 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.”
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!
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.