This continues to be one of my most popular and most frequently revisited posts of all time, since I first published it nearly 10 years ago! (Updated in 2023.)
Are you confused about all the conflicting dietary advice out there?
Are you working on cleaning up your dietary act and want some clear-cut, expert guidance?
I’ve got you! 😊
What follows is my comprehensive guide for what to eat for optimal health, based on what I have found to be the most health-promoting, disease-reversing food guidelines, for just about everyone.
These guidelines have helped 1,000s of people over my 25+ years as a holistic doctor, so it is with great confidence that I make these recommendations! 👍
First, Fats and Oils
On a healthy low carb or Keto diet, your main source of fuel, and the majority of your calories, will come from dietary fats, so choosing the very best quality, healthiest fats can vastly improve your experience with and outcomes from going on a low carb or Ketogenic diet.
Saturated, mono-unsaturated, and Omega-3 poly-unsaturated fats are the healthiest fats, since they are more stable – making for stronger and more flexible cells, which is ideal for optimal system-wide functioning of your body. These fats are also less inflammatory than the Omega-6 poly-unsaturated fats, and thus more health-promoting.
Use these types of fats exclusively in all of your meals to
- boost satiety (that’s your feeling of satisfaction after eating)
- increase your fat-soluble nutrient absorption (ex. Vitamins A, D, E and K)
- improve the strength and flexibility of your cell membranes for optimal functioning
- optimize your Omega 6:3 ratio to minimize inflammation
- help turn your body into a healthy fat-burning machine
- and boost your energy and well-being! 😊
But… you might wonder – if you don’t use Omega-6-rich fats and oils at all, won’t your Omega 6:3 ratio get out of balance the other direction, with too much Omega-3?
Not to worry! You will automatically get adequate amounts of Omega-6s from a variety of foods, so you do not need to (and should not) add any health-damaging Omega-6-rich fats and oils to your diet on purpose!
The Healthiest Fats and Oils (in alphabetical order):
- Avocadoes & avocado oil
- Poultry fat (schmaltz) – chickens, ducks, geese, etc.
- Chocolate, ideally >80% dark
- Coconut oil, coconut butter, coconut milk, coconut cream
- Lard (non-hydrogenated)
- Macadamia nuts, macadamia nut milk, and macadamia nut oil
- Mayonnaise (zero carb, made with macadamia, avocado, olive oil or butter, and pastured eggs; Chosen Foods is a good choice)
- Olives and olive tapenade (no sugar added)
- Olive oil, ideally cold-pressed extra virgin (EVOO)
- Palm oil (non-hydrogenated)
- Tallow (ie. the fat from ruminants: cows, deer, elk, etc.)
When possible, choose animal fats from pastured animals, and ideally also organic, as these will be the healthiest – ie. most nutritious and least inflammatory.
For high heat cooking such as grilling, broiling, frying and sautéing, use avocado or refined coconut oil, or pastured lard, tallow or ghee, since these have higher smoke points (meaning they do not get damaged and become inflammatory as easily as other oils when heated).
Side note: Many refined and/or triple filtered coconut oils have minimal to no coconut flavor and retain nearly all the health benefits of unrefined versions, so these are better for a wider range of cooking applications.
Olive oil and macadamia nut oils have medium-high smoke points; these are best used for low to medium heat cooking.
For more details on what oils to use for what types of cooking at what temperature level, check out my free infographic, Healthy Fats & Oils Cooking Guide.
Fats and Oils to Minimize
You probably already know to avoid hydrogenated and trans-fats (such as margarine and Crisco) like the plague. But you also want to stay as far away as possible from industrially-processed seed (aka “vegetable”) oils:
as these are high in inflammatory Omega-6 fats and contain a variety of unsavory, health-damaging ingredients, including residues of bleaches, deodorizers and chemical solvents that are used in the refining process.
And because of their more fragile fatty acid composition, they go rancid quickly (often before they even leave the processing plants – hence the use of deodorizers), and thus lead to free radical formation in the body, which accelerates inflammation, cell degradation, and aging. Nobody wants that! To learn more, check out my post and podcast episode The Best and Worst Vegetable Oils.
Your Protein Sources
For a healthy low carb/Keto and Paleo diet, fattier cuts of meat are best, especially when first transitioning to low carb/Keto, as they are more nutritious and more satisfying. (Once your body is good at fat burning, then reducing overall fat intake can help shift your body towards burning off more excess body fat, if needed.)
Fun fact: just about every human culture throughout history (that we know of) preferentially cooked/cooks their meats bone-in – it makes them tastier, and more nutritious!
As with your animal fats, whenever possible, choose pastured or wild animal products, as these are the most nutrient-dense and the least inflammatory. Visit www.eatwild.com or www.localharvest.org to find local sources. The proteins below are all good health-enhancing choices:
- Meat: beef, lamb, veal, goat and wild game
- Pork: pork loin, Boston butt, pork chops, ham. Watch out for added sugar in hams.
- Poultry: chicken, turkey, quail, Cornish hen, duck, goose, pheasant
- All seafood: anchovies, calamari, catfish, cod, flounder, halibut, herring, mackerel, mahi-mahi, salmon, sardines, scrod, sole, snapper, trout, tuna, etc.
- Canned tuna and salmon are fine as long as they have no additives besides salt and oil (Wild Planet is a good quality brand)
- Shellfish: clams, crab (NOT imitation), lobster, scallops, shrimp, squid, mussels, and oysters
- Whole eggs from pastured poultry: Nature’s perfect food!
- Bacon and sausage: check labels and make sure they’re very low in carbs (<1g per serving) and don’t contain additives such as soy or wheat
Wondering if you’re getting the right amount of protein? Check out my article How Much Protein Should You Eat?
For a fairly complete list of the best veggies to have on a low carb diet, visit my post Low Carb Vegetables, and check out my Low Carb Fruit & Veg Cheat Sheet, a full color spreadsheet that you can print out and post on your fridge for quick easy reference!
In general, most non-starchy, above-ground-growing vegetables are low in carbs, especially leafy greens and brassicas. When eating veggies, make sure to serve them with healthy fats – as above, and in sauces (ex. hollandaise, béarnaise, lemon-garlic butter) and keto-friendly dressings (ranch, vinaigrette, etc.) When buying ready-made sauces and dressings, make doubly sure they are made with healthy oils and have little to no sugar added (ie. contain <1g carbs per serving).
To optimize health and fat burning, avoid all starchy vegetables completely during the first few months of shifting to low carb, as they are all very high in insulin-stimulating, blood-sugar-raising, fat-storage-inducing carbs. This includes avoiding:
- English/garden peas
- snap peas
- snow peas
- sweet potatoes (aka yams)
- blue/purple potatoes
- white potatoes of all kinds
- Russet potatoes
- new/baby potatoes
- red-skinned potatoes
- root vegetables
- most winter squashes (except spaghetti squash and pumpkin)
Please note that for many people, dairy products are inflammatory, allergenic, and insulinogenic (meaning they cause a strong insulin response), and are problematic for most people (sorry!). So if you are dealing with any health issues, and especially
- immune system problems (including food sensitivities and seasonal allergies)
- hormonal imbalances
- skin issues (rashes, acne, eczema, etc.)
- low energy
- stubborn excess body fat
- difficulty getting into or staying in fat-burning mode
then cutting back on dairy products (except for butter and ghee) can often help, at least until you’ve reached your goal weight (ie. ideal body fat %), restored your insulin sensitivity, and minimized your levels of inflammation.
On the other hand, having some high quality, high fat dairy products can be very helpful, especially during the transition phase to a lower carb/Keto diet, as it is very satisfying and delicious, and fills you up with good quality fats that help you feel full, boost your absorption of essential fat-soluble nutrients such as Vitamins A, D, E and K, and helps you balance your hormones (good quality dietary fats are essential for proper hormone production and balancing). And, dairy products have a mild opioid-receptor-stimulating effect, which can help a lot with the unpleasantness and difficulty of withdrawal from more highly addictive starchy and sweet foods.
If you are having dairy, raw or low-heat-processed dairy products are preferable. And, dairy from goats, sheep, yak, etc. (vs cows), or A2 cow’s milk derived products, tend to be better tolerated by many people. Dairy from pastured animals is also vastly preferable, as it is the most nutritious and least inflammatory form of dairy. And studiously avoid all low fat, reduced fat, skim and nonfat dairy products – they are nutritionally worthless! You need the fats in dairy products in order to absorb the nutrients in them!
The full fat, lower carb dairy products that are the best for health and satiety include:
- Heavy whipping cream
- Full fat sour cream with no fillers (ex. Green Valley Organics)
- Many types of cheeses, esp. cheddar, Swiss, and Brie
- Cream cheese
- Mascarpone cheese
- Double cream / Devonshire cream
- Clotted cream
- Full fat/double cream cottage cheese (look for those with <5g of carbs per serving, such as Good Culture)
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are problematic for many people, as they are generally carby, inflammatory, and immune- and gut-irritating.
However, these problems can be mitigated somewhat by soaking nuts and seeds for at least 18 hours in filtered water, then sprouting them for 1-2 days, then dehydrating them in a low temp oven until crispy, to lower their phytate content and thus make them less gut-irritating and more digestible (and thus more nutritious).
Something that can’t be changed about nuts and seeds, however, is that they are all higher in carbs than animal sources of protein, and they have a lot more inflammatory Omega-6 fats than is ideal (except for flax, chia and hemp seeds, and walnuts and macadamia nuts).
And for many people, it’s really hard to stop eating nuts and seeds once they get started. They’re “foods with no brakes“, aka it’s easy to go nuts eating nuts! 😜
So stick with flax, chia and hemp seeds, and walnuts and macadamia nuts. And if you must have some of the other types of nuts and seeds, get your inflammation markers and Omegas checked. If they’re in the optimal range, great, keep it that way by limiting your daily total consumption of the more inflammatory nuts and seeds to just one of the following:
- a small handful of nuts
- or a small handful of seeds
- or 2 tablespoons of nut or seed butter
- or 1 cup of nut milk
But if your inflammation level or omegas are out of the optimal range, and/or if you are dealing with any health issues, you will likely find that removing all of the problematic nuts and seeds, nut/seed butters and nut/seed milks completely, at least for a while, can be very helpful in speeding up your healing process.
Mac Nuts Are The Exception
Happily, macadamia nuts, mac nut butter, and mac nut milk (fast & easy to make it yourself! see my recipe here) are an exception, since these are all low in carbs and also very low in inflammatory Omega-6s. So enjoy macadamia nut based foods in moderation in place of other nuts and seeds, and avoid feeling deprived! Do watch out for signs of “foods with no brakes”, though, even with mac nuts – if you can’t stop eating them after a handful or two, for instance, then these could be a trigger food for you and should be avoided for a while.
Beverages – all unsweetened
- Clear broth or Bone broth (homemade, or a clean, long-simmered, high quality brand such as Kettle & Fire)
- Decaf or regular coffee or espresso (organic and certified mycotoxin-free is ideal – LifeBoost or Purity are excellent)
- Decaf or regular black, green or white teas
- Herbal tea (watch out for those containing “natural flavors“, which can include some undesirable ingredients)
- Plain filtered water
- ideally with electrolyte drops added
- ideally not from plastic bottles, since the plastic leaches into the water and then gets into your body when you drink the water, with wide-ranging adverse health effects
- I like the Zero water filters, as they remove most impurities and dissolved solids (helps with our very hard NM water) and make the water clean and safe and great tasting
- Speaking of filtration and safe water… let’s talk about Reverse Osmosis water for a minute…
VERY IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT RO WATER:
if you are drinking reverse osmosis (RO) water, you must must must add A LOT of electrolyte drops to every glass of water you drink
- Plain or flavored unsweetened seltzer water or mineral water, ideally in glass bottles – such as Gerolsteiner or San Pellegrino – or in aluminum cans, rather than plastic
- Add a squirt of fresh lemon, lime, grapefruit juice or apple cider vinegar to water or seltzer for variety
- Note however that this does break the fast, if you are intermittent fasting
- Coconut milk or cream (unsweetened, canned, full fat, with no additives – such as Trader Joe’s or Let’s Do Organic)
- Low carb organic wines, occasionally, in small quantities – Dry Farm Wines are the BEST! Check out their new low-alcohol wines, great for those who are sensitive to wine but would still like to enjoy some once in a while without feeling crappy the next day. 😊🍷
All sweeteners, even non-caloric ones such as Erythritol and Xylitol, and natural ones such as Stevia and Monk Fruit (Luo Han Guo), stimulate an insulin response, especially in those with insulin resistance (which we always want to be aiming to fix!). So consuming sweeteners will slow your progress towards optimal health, period.
Avoiding sweeteners altogether, while not easy at first, will help “reset” your taste buds, and will aid you in getting into and staying in fat burning mode, which helps everything in your body work better.
However, as I always say (and to quote Voltaire) – don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Said another way:
In the beginning of transitioning to a healthier, cleaner way of eating, sweeteners may be used in small amounts to help ease the process! Just know that at any point, if you feel like you want to make faster progress, taking these out altogether will improve your results.
Best sweetener choices:
- Monk fruit (aka Lo Han Guo)
- Erythritol (caution: can be gut irritating)
- Maple syrup (in tiny quantities, very occasionally)
- Honey (in tiny quantities, very occasionally)
The staff of life. NOT!
Given the impaired state of metabolic health that most of us are in these days, and the highly inflammatory nature of grains, especially flour products, bread is not a good choice for anyone. It’s really sad, because – I know! – bread is so yummy. It is my Kryptonite, so if you are struggling with giving it up, I feel you.
This one aspect of eating healthy – giving up bread – is a major stumbling block for many, many people, and sometimes it is THE biggest stumbling block, because bread is incredibly tasty, and addictive, and easy, and it is EVERYWHERE. It can be a total deal-breaker for some, especially without some planning ahead and preparing oneself.
But the effort is well worth it, as bread is very inflammatory – even the smallest amount can cause long-lasting damage to your digestive system, aggravate your immune systems, and speed aging. Blech!
So, here are some options to help you in your journey towards better health and life, without bread. (And no, gluten-free breads aren’t any better for you, so don’t go there).
- First, don’t let yourself get hungry, as that’s when you’re most likely to cave to bread’s siren song.
- Second, especially at first, you must plan ahead, and be ready with good healthy options on hand, such as my tasty, easy Macadamia Nut Bread
Other Flour Products
Crackers and cookies and cakes, oh my. Like with bread, these goodies are sooo… well… good! And quick, and easy, and satisfying, and everywhere you turn.
But they are also incredibly inflammatory, insulin stimulating, gut damaging, immune aggravating, and all around not in the least bit good for you.
So if these are the types of treats you tend to reach for… same deal as with bread, don’t let yourself get hungry, and plan ahead and always have healthier options on hand to keep you from caving.
- Note: The following options are not perfect, but while you transition to a cleaner, low carb Paleo WOE, these can be lifesavers in helping you avoid grain-based flour products, which are so much worse for you! Again, choose progress over perfection. 😊
Ah, fruit. So beloved…
And so modified in our modern times to be as sweet as possible, that it is no longer the wonderfully healthy option that it once was. Instead, with all that extra sugar in it now, fruit messes with our blood sugar and our liver function (contributing to fatty liver with its fructose content), stimulates cravings for more sweets, exacerbates mood swings and weight (fat) gain, and all around isn’t our friend when we’re trying to achieve and maintain optimal health. Such a bummer!
So, it is best to avoid fruit altogether, especially when you are first working on lowering insulin and inflammation, and getting into ketosis (fat-burning mode), and while you continue to actively work on improving your health.
After you’re solidly in fat burning mode and happy with your progress towards your health goals, then organic fresh or frozen unsweetened berries can usually be enjoyed occasionally in small amounts (1/2 cup) without detriment, as they are relatively low carb, and very nutrient-rich. Aim to only have them just after dinner to minimize excess consumption, and to mitigate their effect on your blood sugar. And please don’t eat non-organic berries – they are full of nasty chemicals!
- Berries include:
- Goji berries
- Zucchini noodles, Shirataki noodles (such as Well Lean or Miracle), and Palmini (hearts of palm pasta) are all decent noodle substitutes that are very low carb
- Cappello’s products are pretty much all Paleo-friendly and delicious, but keep in mind that they are NOT at all low carb or keto-friendly, and they are also somewhat inflammatory due to being made with almond flour (those pesky Omega 6 fats again…). So use these as very occasional treats, or for those (such as kiddos or other reluctant family members) who you’re hoping to coax towards Paleo by using more “normal” seeming options.
- Though they take a bit more work, homemade Keto “egg noodles” are another great noodle option that is very filling, satisfying, and versatile
Dippers and Crunchy Foods
One of the first things – after carbs – that many people miss with a keto/low-carb way of eating, is crunchy foods. So, here are some great options to satisfy that urge to crunch, and also to fulfill the desire for something to scoop into tasty keto-friendly dips and sauces:
- Jicama sticks
- Celery sticks
- Baby carrots (only a few though – they’re carby!)
- Radish slices
- Turnip slices (esp baby white turnips, omg, so good! try the very mild flavored Japanese varieties as a great starting place)
- Pork rinds (aka chicharrones or pork skins)
- What?? Yes, seriously. These are very low carb and keto-friendly, contain plenty of good protein, are very mild/neutral in flavor (the plain ones, anyway), and have lots of great crunch. They are excellent with dips (and also, ground up in the food processor, work amazingly well in place of bread crumbs) – Epic brand are good quality; Pork Panko is a ready-made pork rind based bread crumb substitute that works great in just about any recipe calling for breadcrumbs (Crispy Crab Cakes, anyone?)
So, now that you’re armed with all this great info and guidance, you’re ready to sally forth into your new, healthier lifestyle.
Looking for more support and guidance?
Book yourself a free Discovery Call with Dr. Emily to discuss your health goals and concerns, and see if you’re likely to be a good fit for each other.