For many of us, eating out at restaurants or fast food tends to turn into “cheating out.” Prior to starting a ketogenic diet, I remember starting my restaurant meals with the best intentions, then succumbing to the delicious carbs by the end. Not only does it take a toll on the wallet, but on your macros, energy balance and metabolism as well. Personally one of my favorite qualities of ketogenic dieting is that it is by far the easiest diet to maintain while on the road; or if you just happen to eat out all the time. To keep it simple, here are several key tips to follow in order to stick by the keto-creed:

Don’t Count Every Calorie

Even though tracking your macros is responsible, overdoing it can take a toll on some psychologically when it comes to sticking to it long term/creating a healthy lifestyle.  A recent Harvard study published in the New England Journal of Medicine unexpectedly shed light on this topic. In the study, 811 overweight adults were assigned to one of four weight loss plans with varying macronutrient ratios and daily caloric intake.  Although short-term weight loss was assessed among those with caloric restriction, their diet plan was the main assessment. Long-term results were also found within these groups. The results demonstrated that participants had gained most of their weight back by year 2, irrespective of the diet plan (1). Did this definitively conclude, “Diets don’t work?” Not necessarily.

When we take a closer look, subjects were asked to stick to rigorously measured protocols with virtually no room for deviation or errors. It is safe to assume that asking 811 people to adhere to strict calorie counting, macronutrient ratios, and flawless participant logs is a daunting task. This suggests that there may be diminishing returns with adherence in subjects when it comes to strict record keeping.

The take-home message is that understanding the macronutrient ratios, glycemic value, glycemic load and energy balance from our meals is important, but too much precise data and measurements may be unsustainable and potentially stunt adherence to the ketogenic lifestyle.

Avoid Grains, Starches, and Most Fruits

Now that we’ve got rigorous counting out of the way, let’s dive into dietary “do’s” and “don’ts.” When eating out, you will notice that carbohydrates represent an overwhelming majority of what’s offered in the restaurant and fast food world, especially when it comes to side dishes. Remember, the goal here is keeping your carbs within an ideal range depending on your method for getting started. For example, let’s use the ratios: Carbohydrates (5%), Protein (25%), and Fat (70%). Depending on your daily caloric intake, your Carbohydrate goal may be 20-30 grams/day, or even 50-60 grams/day on the high end.

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There are foods you can chop out of the equation right away. For starters, a serving of anything with medium to higher glycemic value like Grains (bread, oatmeal, grits, etc), Starchy-Vegetables (Potatoes, Yams, Yucca, etc), and sweeter Fruits (Bananas, Cherries, any type of berry, beans, etc) should be avoided due to their ability to knock you out of ketosis and disrupt your ketogenic diet. Make friends with the leafy fibrous greens like spinach, kale, lettuce, celery, etc.  When you incorporate delicious fatty meats and fibrous vegetables into the equation, it makes avoiding these foods much easier!

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Although many fruits are rich in vitamins and minerals, most fruits have too much sugar (fructose) for a ketogenic diet and staying in ketosis.  This doesn’t mean fruits are “bad” for you; they are just not the right fit for this strategy. Whether bread and starches are “processed,” “natural,” “organic,” or “gluten-free,” they, unfortunately, are too carbohydrate dense to eat on a ketogenic diet.

Check out our Keto Stop-Light System for a list of carbohydrates to look for when you are dining out!

Fats, Proteins, and Fibers

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Remember, fats are the crux to the ketogenic diet. The higher the fat content (with little to no carbs), the easier it is to become satiated and satisfied with your meal. There are essentially 4 major types of fats, these include saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans fats. One focal point of ketogenic dieting is getting an ample amount of Medium-Chain Triglycerides (MCTs) from your fat sources. If you don’t have access to straight MCT Oil, take note that foods such as Coconut Oil (~15%), Palm Kernel (~7.9%), Cheese (~7.3%), Butter (~6.8%) and Milk (~6.9%) yield higher sources of MCTs (2).

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The fiber from the vegetables and protein will also help satiate you.  Fiber is key on a ketogenic diet and can have significant benefits for gut health.  In addition, foods like avocados seem to fit nicely at the crossroads of high fats (75%), high fiber (83% of carbohydrate content), and protein. Together, the fat, protein, and fiber in your meal will provide ample nutrients and provide a great tasting meal, nonetheless. Remember what I said in section 1, learn your macros in the beginning, but don’t be consumed by them.

Get Creative with your Order and be Patient!

To the extent possible, don’t be afraid to get creative with your order. At first, you will find yourself rummaging frantically through the menu scavenging for ketogenic diet options. If the meal typically comes fried with breading, ask if they can grill or sauté it. If it is a sandwich, sub or burger, ask them to switch the bun for a bed of lettuce. If you are not sure about the sugar content in the sauces, ask for them on the side just to be safe. When in doubt, go extra veggies. The ketogenic diet is still relatively new to the world, so some waiters and servers might find your order a little odd, but don’t worry, you will be the one smiling with the bacon on your plate.

Personal Experience

When I first started the ketogenic diet, I made a list of not only the types of food I could eat but also took note of which foods I liked the most. After much thought, I found that it was a lot easier to tell the waiter/waitress to add butter and bacon than to make sure that the chef didn’t use oils, butters, or anything else as I had to when I was following a “low fat” approach years ago.  One of the biggest concerns people have when starting the ketogenic diet is that pesky “adaptation phase” and the fear that they won’t be able to eat out with their friends and family.  They key is to do plenty of research in the beginning.

You probably won’t remember every detail at first (I sure didn’t), but you will get a working knowledge of what foods you should and shouldn’t eat. After that, only look up the macros in food when you are really not sure whether you can have it or not.  This will result in a seamless ketogenic diet experience, turning the “diet” into a “lifestyle,” which is the ultimate goal of any diet. When in doubt, burgers, steaks, fish, and salads are options which always tend to find themselves on the menu.

Keto Conclusions

  • While eatng out on a ketogenic diet may seem difficult, many will find it is easier than eating "low fat" while dining out.
  • Do not stress about counting every calorie.
  • Avoid grains, starches, and high glycemic fruits.
  • Stick to fatty proteins and remember to include vegetables.
  • Be creative by doing things such as removing your bun.
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