15 Foods You Can’t Eat on Keto (and What to Choose Instead)

This content originally appeared on Everyday Health. Republished with permission.

By Jessica Migala

Medically Reviewed by Reyna Franco, MS, RDN of American College of Lifestyle Medicine

If you’re thinking about embarking on a ketogenic diet, you probably already know you’ll be avoiding processed grains and sugar like pizza and muffins. But many other foods you’ll nix on this extremely low-carb, high-fat diet aren’t necessarily unhealthy. Indeed, many “no” foods are packed with health-promoting vitamins, minerals, and fiber but also have too many carbs for the restrictive keto diet.

Many people following keto aim for 20 to 50 grams (g) of net carbohydrates per day. (Net carbs, though not an official nutrition term, can be calculated by taking the total carbohydrates minus fiber and sugar alcohols, per Atkins.) The idea is to switch your body into ketosis, a state where it burns fat for fuel rather than carbohydrates (its preferred and easy-to-access source of energy). Following the plan may drastically limit many fruits, whole grains, and some vegetables.

That said, keto isn’t right for everyone. “For some people, the keto diet can be potentially harmful,” says Alyssa Burnison, RD, the director of program and nutrition for Profile Plan, a weight loss company in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. That includes people with type 2 diabetes who are on insulin and those who have type 1 diabetes and must take insulin, she says. If you have any chronic health condition that you’re hoping to treat with a keto diet, talk to your doctor first or work with a registered dietitian, who can best advise if this is a safe diet for you.

If you do decide to try the diet, here are 15 foods that you should try to avoid on keto, and what to choose instead.

1 — Skip Croutons and Sprinkle Hemp Hearts on Your Salad

Croutons are a way to make a pile of lettuce more interesting, but the reality is that on a keto diet, every crumb counts. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), just 2 tablespoons (tbsp) contain almost 3 g of net carbs, which will severely limit the other veggies and add-ons you can include.

Instead, add crunch with hemp hearts, says Bonnie Nasar, RDN, a nutritionist based in Freehold, New Jersey. Not only are these seeds more nutrient-dense than croutons, but you can pile on more for fewer carbs: 2 tbsp of hemp hearts has less than 1 net carb, according to the USDA. Bonus: Hemp hearts are a rich source of unsaturated fat that can help you meet your fat goals for the day in a healthy way.

2 — Bypass Starchy Peas and Opt for Broccoli as Your Veggie Side

Peas are a starchy vegetable you’ll want to avoid on keto. They have a higher amount of carbs than green nonstarchy veggies, such as broccoli or zucchini, and they have 12 g net carbs per cup, per the USDA.

Try to stick to nonstarchy veggies. According to the USDA, broccoli contains 3.7 g of net carbs, zucchini has 2.6 g of net carbs, and raw spinach has 0.4 g of net carbs per cup. While you’re cutting carbs, it’s important to use your carb allotment to eat high-fiber foods to help keep constipation, an unpleasant side effect of keto, at bay, says Nasar. Nonstarchy veggies are the best way to do this, as they offer the most fiber for the lowest amount of net carbs.

3 — Low-Calorie Snacks May Still Be High-Carb — Choose Sunflower Seeds Instead

On keto, you’ll eat far more fresh foods than you do on the standard American diet. Your days of focusing on fat-free — and carb-rich — snacks, like pretzels or 100-calorie packs of crackers, are over unless you’re noshing on keto-friendly packaged fare. That said, many people on a keto diet eat foods high in saturated fat and sodium, which aren’t the healthiest choices, so when you do keto, you’ll want to choose snacks wisely.

“People are used to eating what’s easy and right in front of them, but there are just-as-easy snacks readily available,” says Nasar. Those include sunflower seeds, toasted pumpkin seeds, and nuts.

4 — Potato Chips Aren’t Keto-Friendly, so Try This DIY Seaweed Snack

Potato chips are another food to avoid on keto. A 1-ounce (oz) serving (about 22 chips) has about 14 g of net carbs, per the USDA.

Here’s a worthy keto- and heart-friendly snack substitute to scratch that salty itch, says Nasar: Finely chop up nuts and seeds in a food processor, and add white vinegar and salt. Roll the mixture up in pieces of nori seaweed (like a cigar) and cook in the oven for 5 to 10 minutes until crispy.

5 — Bananas Are High Carb, but Berries Can Work on Keto

According to the USDA, one banana has more than 20 g of net carbs, which means you may blow your entire allowance on a single one. “We advise people on a lower-carb diet to avoid bananas, particularly in the beginning and when they’re aiming to lose weight,” says Burnison. If you increase your carb goals once you’ve lost weight and are in maintenance mode, you may opt to eat bananas occasionally while on a keto diet.

If you want to eat fruit while on keto, berries are a good lower-carb choice. You still have to keep portions low, as fruits are naturally higher in carbs. Raspberries are packed with fiber, making them a good go-to. They contain 1.7 g of net carbs per ¼ cup, according to the USDA.

6 — Honey-Baked Ham Is Glazed in Sugar, but Deli Meat Can Be Compliant

While some processed meats are keto-friendly, they may not be the most heart-healthy choice (like bacon). Other processed meats may not be compliant at all with the diet. You’ll want to check the ingredients list first. One that you should avoid on the keto diet is glazed ham. It’s a processed meat that is also often cooked with a sugar coating. One serving (about 3.5 oz) contains 7.3 g of net carbs, according to the USDA.

If you’re looking for ham, go for a traditional sliced deli ham, which has 0 g of carbs per slice, per the USDA. Still, you’ll want to read the ingredients list to make sure it’s not made with added sugar.

7 — Margarine Isn’t Keto-Friendly, so Opt for EVOO

Old-fashioned stick margarines were rich in trans fats, which increase the risk of heart disease, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Today, margarine spreads are made from oils like soybean, palm, or palm kernel, which are not recommended on a keto diet.

Nasar suggests using extra-virgin olive oil because research backs up olive oil’s heart-healthy properties. Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids that temper inflammation and promote blood flow, noted one review.

8 — Piña Coladas Are Sugar Bombs — Sip on a Vodka Soda Instead

If you’re on the diet because you want to lose weight, Stephen Herrmann, PhD, the director of the University of Kansas Weight Management Program in Kansas City, advises skipping alcohol entirely. “The body chooses to metabolize alcohol first; that, along with a loss of water and micronutrients, increases the risk of dehydration,” he says. If you choose to drink, the worst choice you can make is a blended, frozen drink, which is usually packed with sugar — and thus carbohydrates. As an example, one very small piña colada has 32 g of net carbs, per the USDA. For some people, that represents one and a half days of their carb allotment.

When you’re on keto, you can drink small amounts of alcohol occasionally and in moderation. For the lowest number of carbs, choose a shot of hard liquor and pair it with unsweetened soda water. A vodka soda has zero carbs per drink, notes the USDA.

9 — Beer Is Packed With Carbs, but Light Beer in Moderation May Be Okay

Even light beers generally pack 6 g of carbohydrates per 12 oz can, as the USDA notes. In the context of keto, a beer means you’ll have to borrow carbohydrates from elsewhere — and if it’s a matter of vegetables versus a beer, the tough — but necessary — choice is the veggies.

10 — Sweet Potatoes Aren’t Okay on Keto, but Cauliflower Is

If you’ve tried Whole30 or a paleo diet, you may have eaten a lot of sweet potatoes. Although they’re packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber, sweet potatoes are a starchy veggie, and you should think twice about them now that you’re on keto, says Dr. Herrmann. A medium sweet spud has about 20 g of carbs, according to the USDA.

Cauliflower is a fine substitute for sweet potatoes, and it’s frequently used as a replacement for other starchy foods. (Mash them with olive oil and garlic, and voilà, a tasty side!) One cup of cauliflower florets contains only 3.2 g of net carbs, per the USDA.

11 — Cow’s Milk Is a Major Source of Carbs; Reach for Almond Milk Instead

Whole milk is richer in fat than reduced-fat or skim, but that doesn’t make it keto compliant. One cup of whole milk has 11.3 g of net carbs, notes the USDA. If you’re making a smoothie, this can derail your goals.

If you really need a liquid base for a smoothie or want to sip on something, go for almond milk. With about 1 net carb g per cup, as the USDA notes, this nondairy alternative can work in your keto diet. Soy milk is another great option, like this one from Silk, with 2 net carb g and 7 g of protein per cup. Just be sure to read the ingredients and choose an unsweetened variety.

12 — Trail Mix Is a No-No; Raw or Salted Nuts Are a Go

Check out what’s in your trail mix. Are there raisins and other dried fruit? Pretzel pieces? Chocolate candies? If so, that mix is off-limits for your keto diet. A standard 1-oz serving (a small amount, by the way) has more than 12 g of carbs, notes the USDA.

You can’t beat plain or roasted, salted nuts as a snack. Nuts have carbs, but they’re a great source of fiber, which brings down their net carb count. An ounce of almonds supplies 2.6 g of net carbs, according to the USDA.

13 — Carrots, Though Healthy, Are Starchier Than, Say, Bell Peppers

They may be packed with vision-friendly vitamin A, as the National Institutes of Health points out, but one medium carrot has 4.1 g of net carbs, per the USDA. If you eat more than a single carrot in one sitting, that small number of carbs can easily tip you over the edge of your keto limit.

You’re better off getting your A from nonstarchy sources like red bell peppers. These can be just as sweet as carrots but contain fewer carbohydrates. An entire small pepper has just 2.9 g of net carbs, the USDA says.

14 — Soda Isn’t Allowed on Keto, but Unsweetened Sparkling Water Is a Great Choice

For many people, the keto diet involves a drastic shift in eating — and drinking — habits. If you are a soda drinker, in particular, you’ll want to avoid that while you’re on the keto diet, or potentially switch to a diet version, says Herrmann. It may be tough to do at first, but soda is saturated with sugar, and soaking up less of the sweet stuff will benefit your health, whether or not you’re on keto, he says. (Cola has 36.8 g of sugar per 12-oz can, as the USDA notes.)

Soda was associated with greater odds of death from heart disease in one study. Ultimately, you’re marching toward a healthier pattern of eating, and a registered dietitian who’s knowledgeable about the keto diet can help you figure out how to cut back on or replace these beverages in your diet.

Because it’s carb-free, diet soda is technically an okay option. But sparkling water is an even better choice when you want that fizz since it doesn’t contain the artificial sweeteners present in diet drinks. Though technically sugar-free, these sweeteners may stimulate appetite and increase the risk of weight gain, per Harvard Health Publishing. Choose naturally flavored but unsweetened sparkling waters, like those from the brands LaCroix or Waterloo. Both have zero carbs.

15 — Butternut Squash Is Too Starchy, Yet Spaghetti Squash Is Keto-Friendly

Butternut squash is another nutrient-packed veggie that simply offers too many carbs for a keto diet. One cup of cubed squash has more than 15.3 g of net carbs, according to the USDA. Spaghetti squash can fit into your diet as long as you use small amounts. For instance, as the USDA notes, a ½ cup of cooked spaghetti squash as “noodles” amounts to 3.9 g of net carbs (sans sauce).

Everyday Health follows strict sourcing guidelines to ensure the accuracy of its content, outlined in our editorial policy. We use only trustworthy sources, including peer-reviewed studies, board-certified medical experts, patients with lived experience, and information from top institutions.


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