Research has shown that the more time you spend in a grocery store, the less rational and more emotional and impulsive your decisions become.
That opens the door to impulse buying, which may tempt you to pick up unhealthy products that can knock you out of ketosis.
So, how long does it take before your thinking brain leaves the building?
According to a brain scan study led by Dr. Paul Mullins of Bangor University, supermarket shoppers begin to make decisions with the emotional part of the brain after approximately 23 minutes. After 40 minutes, the brain is too tired to think rationally, and it effectively shuts down.
Let’s see how we can use this knowledge to our advantage when grocery shopping on a ketogenic diet.
Given that you can’t rearrange the store, there is not a whole lot you can do to cut down the time it takes to find everything on your list.
(Assuming that zipping through the aisles on rollerblades isn’t an option?)
So, the smartest approach is to make the most of the first 23 minutes before your brain starts to tune out.
That means buying the most complicated things first.
So, you’re going to do the grocery shopping backwards. Instead of starting with the fresh produce, which is almost always located at the front of the store, we’ll save that section for last, when our decision-making skills are on the fritz.
It may feel counterintuitive, but this way when your brain is too tired to think clearly, you’ll be surrounded by healthy vegetables and fruits, where it’s hard to make unhealthy impulse purchases. Plus, you prevent these delicate items from getting squished and bruised at the bottom of your cart.
So what are the most complicated or potentially confusing items on a keto diet?
The packaged foods. That’s pretty much anything in a box, can, jar, bottle, tub, or bag.
With these, you’ve got to read the nutrition table and list of ingredients to figure out which products are keto-friendly and which aren’t. And that’s going to take some brain power.
Packaged products are usually found in the middle aisles. (Real, whole foods tend to be around the perimeter.)
So, we’ll start the shopping trip by going through the middle aisles to pick up any packaged foods on our list. If you don’t need to pick up these types of foods during this grocery trip, by all means stick to the outside perimeter of the supermarket and skip ahead to see the next sections.
Rule number 1 when shopping for ketogenic groceries is to always read the label.
There are 2 main steps.
1. First, look at the nutrition table.
2. Then, look at the list of ingredients.
Here’s an example of how to take a closer look at the ingredients
Let’s compare a can of tuna (a minimally processed food) with a “keto” protein bar (a highly processed food).
Can of tuna
Ingredients: Tuna, Water, Vegetable Broth, Salt
Ingredients: Almond Butter (Almonds), Soluble Corn Fiber, Soy Protein Isolate, Almonds, Cocoa Butter, Oligofructose (from Chicory Root), Almond Flour, Chicory Root Fiber, Chocolate, Soy Lecithin, Cocoa, Whey Protein Concentrate, Oat Fiber. Contains 2% or Less of Vegetable Glycerin, Sea Salt, Natural Flavors, Peanut Flour, Semi-Sweet Chocolate (Sugar, Chocolate, Cocoa Butter, Soy Lecithin, Vanilla Extract), Stevia Leaf Extract, Rosemary Extract for Freshness.
Which one would you rather put in your body?
The takeaway: look at the nutrition table and list of ingredients and compare similar products before tossing one into your cart.
Now that you’re armed with the knowledge of how to read labels, let’s set our sights on the supermarket shelves.
Here are some keto-friendly packaged foods:
|KETO-FRIENDLY PACKAGED FOODS||OKAY IN MODERATION||AVOID|
|Low-carb flours (almond, coconut)||Beans||Agave, honey, syrup|
|Apple cider vinegar||Chickpeas||Barbecue sauce|
|Avocado oil, extra virgin||Lentils||Dried fruits|
|Balsamic vinaigrette||Low-carb sweeteners||Ketchup|
|Banana peppers||Low-carb/keto snacks||Most pre-made salad dressings|
|Broth (beef, chicken, vegetable)||Oats||Jam and jelly|
|Canned fish (anchovies, salmon, sardines, tuna)||Peas|
|Dried herbs and spices|
|Nut butters (no added sugars)|
|Olive oil, extra virgin|
|Red wine vinegar|
|White wine vinegar|
Take this list with you to the grocery store! (free PDF)
Note: In this article you'll find links to keto grocery lists in PDF for each section of the supermarket. They are all free to view and download, so take a look at the easy-to-use designs!
Tips when buying packaged foods:
Now that you have finished with the non-perishables, the hardest part is over! Good thing you tackled that section while your brain was still fresh and able to read labels and process information.
Ready to move on?
Steer your cart toward the deli counter or wherever you can find processed meat and cheese.
Actually, it’s usually best to avoid the deli counter on a keto diet.
This may come as a surprise, since meat and cheese are both low in carbs, but there’s another factor to consider: how processed the foods are.
If you’ve done some reading on healthy eating, you may be aware that consuming processed meat has been linked to higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, and some types of cancer. The World Health Organization has classified processed meats as a Group 1 carcinogen (known to cause cancer).
This means that you should limit your intake of processed meats, including bacon, bologna, chorizo, cold cuts, ham, hot dogs, jerky, panceta, pastrami, pepperoni, pre-sliced chicken or turkey, roast beef, salami, salted and cured meat, smoked meat.
The problem with buying cheese at the deli counter is that you usually can’t get a good look at the nutrition facts or list of ingredients before you buy.
Most cheeses are keto-friendly in their pure form, but many packaged versions include additives and preservatives.
So, it’s usually better to buy cheese in a section of the supermarket where you can pick it up, turn it over, and look at the label.
You’ll notice that some products, like American cheese singles, are actually labeled “cheese product.” These highly processed foods are not even allowed to be called cheese!
Avoid cheese that is already packaged in slices or grated, as these products include additives to keep them from sticking together. Buy a block instead and grate or slice it at home (this is usually cheaper too!)
When checking out the list of ingredients, fewer items is usually better. When possible, avoid food dyes (red or yellow colors) or added starches. And of course, honey or fruit flavors are a no-go for keto.
Let’s continue on to the dairy section.
Many dairy products are low in carbohydrates, but you do have to check the label because there are also many products that are not.
|KETO-FRIENDLY DAIRY, DAIRY-FREE, EGGS||AVOID|
|Cheese (most types, check label)||Milk (whole, skim, low-fat)|
|Plain Greek yogurt|
|Plant milks (unsweetened): almond, coconut, hemp, flax, macadamia, pea, soy|
Get the PDF of keto-friendly dairy and dairy-free products
Most of these do include some carbs, so you’ll need to determine your ideal serving size to stay within your macros.
By this point in your grocery shopping journey, your brain is probably pretty fried.
But that’s okay, because from here on out, most of your choices are pretty straight-forward. Not too much thinking is required.
Fresh cuts of meat and poultry are good sources of protein for keto.
Ground beef accounts for more than half of the beef sold in the US. Luckily, ground meat, including ground beef/bison/lamb/turkey/pork/etc. is not considered not processed since preservatives and nitrates have not been added.
However, some products, including those labeled as “patties,” are allowed to contain binders and extenders, and therefore should not be considered for clean keto. To be sure, do quickly check the list of ingredients when buying packaged meat or poultry.
Fresh fish and seafood are very healthy for a keto diet, including:
As always, processed products are more problematic.
Eat in moderation or avoid
The American Institute for Cancer Research puts smoked and cured fish in the same risk category alongside processed meats. Other health organizations and research groups have not made such a strong statement, due to lack of research specifically linking smoked fish to health risks.
Here's a recap of the types of meat, poultry, and seafood to eat and avoid on keto:
|KETO-FRIENDLY MEAT, POULTRY, FISH, SEAFOOD||LIMIT OR AVOID||AVOID|
|Fresh cuts of meat or poultry (all types)||Bacon||Battered or breaded fish|
|Organ meats||Bologna||Fish sticks|
|Ground meat and poultry (check for additives)||Chorizo||Imitation crab|
|Fish (all types)||Cold cuts|
|Seafood (all types)||Ham|
|Pre-sliced chicken or turkey|
|Salted and cured meat|
Get PDF of keto-friendly meat, poultry, fish and seafood (also shows which to eat in moderation or avoid)
Nuts and seeds are whole, nutrient-rich foods full of healthy fats, which is great news for a ketogenic diet.
There are just two main things to keep in mind before you toss these in your cart:
1. Buy just the plain version, without added flavors.
2. Nuts and seeds must be eaten in small portions to stay low-carb. Before you eat them, you’ll want to look up the amount of carbs for each type and plan your serving size accordingly.
Here are several types of nuts and seeds you can fit into a ketogenic diet:
|KETO-FRIENDLY NUTS AND SEEDS|
|*nuts lowest in carbs|
Get this list of low-carb nuts in PDF
You do have to exert some impulse control in the frozen section, but you still want to save the frozen foods for close to last on your ketogenic shopping trip. That way, they won’t start to thaw in your cart before you leave the store.
Buying these frozen whole foods can be a great way to save money when grocery shopping for keto:
However, you want to reduce or stay away from:
Get the PDF of keto frozen foods
Finally, we’re ready for the last section!
Feel free to stock up on all the vegetables you want! The biggest mistake people make with keto is not getting enough vegetables. (Another related problem is not getting enough fiber, so get familiar with which non-starchy vegetables are high in fiber and include them in your weekly rotation.)
Tip: If you don’t manage to eat all your fresh veggies before they go bad, chop them up, put individual servings in plastic ziplock bags, and pop them in the freezer. Now you always have a quick meal already prepped. Just sautée the frozen vegetables and have them over cauliflower rice, or add them to a tomato or cream sauce for zoodles, or crack in some eggs and have a vegetable scramble.
Fresh produce to add to your keto grocery list:
|KETO-FRIENDLY FRESH PRODUCE||OKAY IN MODERATION|
Get the grocery list of keto-friendly fruits, vegetables, and herbs (PDF)
Plant-based protein products are often found in the refrigerated part of the produce section. Keto-friendly options include:
Many vegan burgers are highly processed, so check the label.
Preparation is key so you can zip through the supermarket and make it out again without being tempted to pick up unhealthy options.
Here’s what to do before your keto shopping trip to ensure it goes smoothly:
For a closer look at each type of ingredient covered in this article, check out our full index of keto-friendly foods. From there, click on each food to see nutrition information, carb count, frequently asked questions, and more.