We are all familiar with the USDA Food Pyramid. It was an easy-to-understand visual display that promised that if you ate mainly from the food choices at the bottom of the pyramid, you’d achieve a healthy, balanced diet. Unfortunately, since that advice came out, obesity and diabetes rates have skyrocketed, indicating that it wasn’t the cure-all we’d hoped it would be.
I liked the clarity of the pyramid graphic, so I thought, “Why not use it to simplify low carb and keto snacking?” Let’s take a look at where your favorite snacks line up on the low carb and keto snack pyramid.
Low Carb and Keto Snack Pyramid – At-A-Glance
- Shelf 1 (bottom): Can be Consumed Regularly: beef sticks, meat, chicken, turkey, shrimp, smoked salmon, sardines, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, olives, pickles, veggies & dip/guacamole/cream cheese, coffee/tea with cream or other fats
- Shelf 2: Can be Consumed Occasionally: raw nuts and seeds, bacon, beef jerky, cottage cheese, yogurt, dark chocolate (85-100% cacao)
- Shelf 3: Consume Less Often: dark chocolate (70-84% cacao), nut butters, low-carb fruits (berries and melons), popcorn, lunchmeats
- Shelf 4: Eat Rarely: higher-carb fruits (oranges, apples, pineapples, kiwi fruit, pears, grapes) and no-sugar-added snacks (hummus, oatmeal, dates, honey, granola, keto snack bars, kefir, and kombucha)
Download the Snack Pyramid
Low Carb Snack Pyramid
Snack Pyramid Ground Rules
Let me start by saying it is best to fill up at mealtime and avoid snacking altogether. Following that eat-stop-eat pattern gives your body rest from the energy-demanding process of digesting food. It also helps control that primal urge to keep eating once you start, which can turn a small snack into a big calorie intake.
With that said, we all experience changes in the flow of our day that make it right to have a snack. When you are following a keto or low-carb diet, you need to know the best choices, so let’s start filling up the bottom shelf of our snack pyramid.
The foods at the bottom of the pyramid are low in carbs and high in fat, making them acceptable for a keto diet.
Note: I use the terms keto and low carb separately on purpose. While there is no established cut-off point, it is generally accepted that for a 2,000 calorie/day diet to be considered low carb, your daily carbohydrate intake would be below 125 total grams. To be considered in the keto range, it would drop to less than 50 grams per day.
Also, how much of each snack you can have is up to your metabolism and goals. This pyramid is simply sharing the best choices.
Low Carb and Keto Snack Pyramid (Eat From the Bottom Up) [Video]
In this video, you’ll learn…
- Which snacks you can consume regularly, occasionally, less often, and rarely.
- Helpful recipes to help you enjoy low carb snacks.
- How I determined where each food landed in the pyramid.
Shelf 1: Can be Consumed Regularly
Alright, on the bottom shelf, I have beef sticks or meat leftover from a meal. These items are high in protein and fat but not in carbohydrates. That is, as long as the beef stick you buy does not contain added sugar and flavorings. Read the label, there are good choices out there, like Paleovalley, but you’d be surprised how many commercial beef sticks have additives that you don’t want.
Leftover chicken or turkey also made the list, as did shrimp and smoked salmon. I listed them separately from beef because they are not as high in fat. That is not bad, but they may not be as hunger-satiating due to the low-fat content. Also, be aware of high-sugar sauces like cocktail sauce.
Adding the wrong sauce can quickly turn a keto-friendly snack into an insulin-spiking problem. Sardines also earned a spot on the pyramid because they work for some people but are not everyone’s favorite snack, including me.
Cheese is a good source of protein and fat, making it a satisfying keto snack for those who tolerate dairy. Certain hard cheeses like Parmesan can be turned into homemade “crackers” by simply putting them in the oven to crisp up. You can also find commercial brands of cheese crisps (i.e. Whisps), but as with any packaged food, read the label to avoid unwanted ingredients and watch your portion size.
Make Homemade Parmesan Crisps
1. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Place small piles of shredded Parmesan Cheese on the parchment paper.
3. Bake at 400°F (200°C) for 2-3 minutes.
Hard-boiled eggs are sometimes overlooked as a snack, but they very much deserve their spot here on the big bottom shelf due to their keto-friendly macronutrient ratio and convenience. You can hard-boil a batch of eggs at the beginning of the week and have them ready to go at a moment’s notice. You can eat them with nothing more than a sprinkle of salt and pepper or turn them into deviled eggs by adding full-fat mayonnaise and mustard. Those condiments maintain the favorable macros of hard-boiled eggs and add a lot of satisfying flavors.
Make Homemade Deviled Eggs
4 large Hard-boiled Eggs
2 Tbsp Mayonnaise
1 Tbsp Yellow Mustard
1 teaspoon Spicy Mustard
1 pinch Paprika
1. Cut the hard-boiled eggs in half lengthwise. Put the yolks into a medium bowl and set the egg white halves aside. Smash the yolks with a fork.
2. Add the mayo and both mustards to the bowl. Mix well.
3. Spoon the mixture into the egg halves and top with paprika.
Olives made the bottom shelf. They are fruit, so they contain some grams of carbs but also provide healthy fats and a distinct flavor, which can be appealing as a snack. Dill pickles are also included here because of their unique salty flavor and crunch. They are low in fat and protein, so alone, they may not do much to satisfy hunger. But they can be eaten along with other keto snack choices to add some flavor.
Non-starchy vegetables with full-fat dip, guacamole, or cream cheese work as snacks. Non-starchy dipping vegetables include celery, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, and bell peppers. Carrots walk the line between starchy and non-starchy, so limit them if you’re low carb and avoid them if you are keto.
When I say full-fat, I mean not low-fat. Many dairy products, like dip, mayo, cheese, and yogurt, have low-fat versions. So, you will want to be aware of that when you make your selection. Having that fat in your snack will add calories, but it will also satisfy hunger, making it easier to make it to your next meal without feeling like you need something more.
As for beverages, coffee or tea with heavy cream can work as a snack, taking the place of syrupy lattes. Some on a keto diet also like stirring in MCT oil or other fats, so that can work as well.
While we are talking about snacks you can drink, bone broth makes the list. I am not talking about the beef stock that you grab from your grocery store. I am talking about broth that results when bones are slowly cooked for many hours. This pulls out the collagen, which is very healthy for your joints, skin, hair, and nails.
Drinks that did not make the pyramid include protein shakes and smoothies, not because they are inherently unhealthy, but because there are too many variations. For example, there are thousands of commercial protein shakes on the market.
Some of them are nice and clean, and others are filled with a laundry list of ingredients, including sugar. As for smoothies, you can make a healthy homemade smoothie that is packed with ingredients like spinach, avocado, nut butter, and seeds. Those are all good things, but that homemade drink will be high in calories, acting more like a meal than a snack.
Note: The pyramid snacks contain calories and macronutrients, so if you are practicing intermittent fasting, you would want to wait until your eating window opens to consume them. What breaks a fast is beyond what we’ll cover in this blog post, but you can visit my blog post on foods that break a fast if you are interested.
OK. Those are the best snack choices, filling the bottom shelf. If you are following a keto diet, focus your options on that bottom tier. You can choose from the higher shelves if you allow more carbs into your diet. So, let’s move to shelf 2.
Shelf 2: Can be Consumed Occasionally
Snacks on this tier contain more grams of carbohydrates than those at the bottom or have a controversial health value, so they should be looked at as occasional treats.
One of my favorite snacks is raw nuts and seeds. They have a wonderful mix of healthy fats, protein, and carbs for hunger satisfaction. But you’ll do best if you measure out one serving before you start eating. Otherwise, they are easy to overeat. You can lightly toast them if you wish, but don’t buy them roasted because they are most likely roasted in unhealthy vegetable or seed oil.
Many raw nuts can work depending on your carb tolerance, including Brazil nuts, Macadamia nuts, and almonds. The tricky one is peanuts, which are actually not nuts, but legumes, so they are high in carbs and do not fit on our pyramid.
Seeds have nutrient profiles that are similar to nuts. Because of their small size, they aren’t overly snack-worthy by themselves but can be worked into simple recipes. For instance, raw sunflower seeds can be stirred into yogurt, and chia seeds can be mixed with almond milk to make chia pudding.
Bacon made the second tier. It is low in carbs but has a controversial reputation because of saturated fat and nitrates.
I will tell you that I eat bacon and often have cooked bacon strips in my refrigerator to use as a snack or in a recipe. I also eat a lot of antioxidant-rich vegetables that prevent nitrates from converting to nitrosamines, which are the compounds linked to cancer risk.
Beef jerky is included here as well. I put it on shelf two, not shelf one, because the quality varies. If you are eating it out of a package, read the label to avoid added sugar or other unwanted ingredients.
A couple of dairy products that make the second shelf are cottage cheese and yogurt. Here again, you want full-fat varieties, so look for unsweetened brands made with 4-5% milkfat and leave the sweetened, low-fat varieties at the grocery store.
Shelf 3: Consume Less Often
The snacks on the third shelf are higher in carbs than those in lower tiers, or they are more processed. So the higher we climb on the pyramid, the less often the snacks should be consumed. This may be a couple of times a week or less, depending on your carb tolerance.
You will notice that dark chocolate reappears on shelf three. The dark chocolate included here can be 70 to 84 percent cacao, with no sugar listed as one of the top three ingredients. That low-sugar requirement can be challenging to find, so read the label. Too much added sugar, and this snack will stimulate your appetite.
This shelf also finds nut butters, like almond butter, and similar nut spreads. You’ll notice that the higher we go up the pyramid, the more label reading is required. It is easy to sneak sugar into these snacks. Typically, the fewer ingredients in the product, the better off you are. In fact, you can find one-ingredient spreads that only contains the ground nuts.
I put some of the lowest net carb fruits on shelf three. If you follow my blog, you know that I recommend counting total carbs rather than net carbs. However, when it comes to fruit as a snack, it is good to consider the fiber content because that is what locks in the natural sugar, slowing its absorption. Mixing fruit with fat and protein will further slow absorption. For instance, mixing fruit into cottage cheese or yogurt.
With those things in mind, snack-friendly fruits with the lowest net carb count include berries and melons, specifically blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew. Peaches also have a relatively low net carb count. Blueberries are a bit higher in net carbs, so if you have a hard time losing weight, limit your intake or choose one of the other berries that I mentioned.
I put popcorn on the third shelf. However, remember that snacks on this tier should be limited to a couple of times a week or less and may not work at all for keto dieters.
In other words, if popcorn is nearby, you may be able to have a handful, but don’t sit down with a big bowl every night. To give you a reference, one cup of plain popcorn has about 6 grams of carbs and 1 gram of fiber per cup. If you don’t trust that you can stop at one cup, don’t pop it in the first place. Adding butter and salt adds fat and flavor but also makes it more addictive, so snackers beware.
I will include processed lunchmeats here on shelf three. These are not healthy foods, so you don’t want to buy them as a regular snack, but if you are out and about and find yourself with no other options, these can be consumed occasionally.
Shelf 4: Eat Rarely
Finally, some snacks out there have nutritional value but are not low carb. Depending on your carb tolerance, you may be able to enjoy small portions of these foods from time to time. These shelf-four snacks include higher-carb fruits, such as oranges, apples, pineapples, and grapes. Here, I also included snacks that have some health value but no added sugar, namely hummus, dates, honey, granola, keto snack bars, and fermented drinks, like kefir or kombucha.