If you’re reading this article, you’re probably wondering if the keto diet can improve your overall health, boost your focus, and potentially help you lose weight.
You’ve seen magazine covers like: I dropped 13 pounds of fat after six weeks on keto! Sure, it caught your attention. But it sounded too good to be true.
Yet unlike fad diets (South Beach Diet, anyone?), the keto diet has mountains of scientific evidence behind it. We’ll review this evidence in today’s guide to the keto diet for beginners.
We’ll also cover how to succeed on keto: What to eat, how to track macros, what to do about keto flu, and more. Ready to learn? Great.
What Is The Keto Diet?
The ketogenic diet (or keto diet) is a high-fat low-carb diet that has you eating about 60 to 70 percent of your calories from fat, 20 to 30 percent from protein, and less than 10 percent from carbohydrates. Keeping fat, protein, and carbs in these ratios tells your body to enter a unique fat-burning state called nutritional ketosis, often simply called “ketosis”.
When you’re in ketosis, your liver burns fat (body fat or dietary fat) to make tiny molecules called ketones. Ketones then fuel your brain with clean, efficient energy.
Normally your body doesn’t burn fat. Normally it burns sugar. (The brain loves burning sugar!). But in ketosis, fat supplies the bulk of your energy needs.
If you remember one thing about ketosis, remember this: Carb restriction is the key. Keeping carbs low keeps blood sugar and insulin levels low—which in turn commands your cells: “Hey guys, time to burn fat and make ketones!”
And as you’ve probably heard, unlocking this fat-burning state has benefits.
Keto Diet Benefits
Training your cells to burn fat instead of sugar—in other words, to enter ketosis—has many health benefits. These benefits include:
- Weight loss. Keto is an effective weight loss diet because it keeps insulin low, which prevents “fat-storage mode." Also, it reduces hunger, which prevents overeating
For example: In one randomized controlled trial, women on keto diets lost more weight than women on higher-carb diets—even though the higher-carb women restricted calories!
- Blood sugar control. High blood sugar (hyperglycemia) is the defining feature of type 2 diabetes and is linked to almost every chronic disease in the book. By keeping carbs low (carbs are just sugar), keto averts this unhealthy state.
- Stable energy. Eating a high-carb diet is like riding the blood sugar rollercoaster: Your energy climbs high... and then it plummets. By training your cells to run on fat, keto gets you off the ride.
- Improved focus and alertness. Compared to glucose, ketones are better brain fuel. In one study published in the journal Psychopharmacology, older adults demonstrated better mental performance while in ketosis.
- Hunger management. The keto diet has been shown to reduce ghrelin, your primary hunger hormone. Less ghrelin, less cravings.
- Skin health. By reducing insulin and inflammation (both drivers of acne), the keto diet may help keep skin clear and healthy.
- Heart health. In obese and diabetic populations, the keto diet has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure—all positive changes for heart health.
- Brain health. Normally the brain runs 100% on glucose. But in ketosis, ketones take over the majority of the burden, leading to less inflammation and oxidative stress. Some evidence, in fact, suggests that ketosis is therapeutic for Alzheimer’s disease.
- Less inflammation. The low-grade immune response known as inflammation is linked to nearly every chronic disease. Well, guess what? Ketones have anti-inflammatory effects.
How To Eat Keto
By now you’re probably wondering: How do I eat a keto diet? Let’s cover that below.
Tracking Your Macros
The cardinal rule of keto is to track macronutrients— net carbs, protein, and fat calories. If you don’t track macros, hidden carbs could sneak in and derail your health goals.
Generally speaking, most people should shoot for 60 to 70 percent fat, 20 to 30 percent protein, and under 10 percent net carbs as a percentage of daily calories. The absolute amounts of each macro, however, will vary person to person based on gender, activity level, body fat, and other factors. Use a macro calculator to get a handle on this.
The next step is to track every food that goes into your mouth. (Here’s a list of the best tracking apps). Don’t worry: After a few days of dedicated tracking, you’ll get an intuitive sense for your keto macros, and you can ease up on the food logging.
What Are Net Carbs?
Not all carbs kick you out of ketosis. Certain forms of carbohydrate, like dietary fiber, don’t increase your blood sugar levels and therefore don’t count towards your keto carb limit.
What does this mean for your keto diet? Instead of tracking total carbs, you should track “net carbs”, or total carbs minus fiber and sugar alcohols. If you keep net carbs under 10% of daily calories, you’ll be well-positioned for keto success.
Keto Diet Food List
The question now looms: What can you eat on keto? Here’s your go-to keto food list:
- Healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, butter, lard, ghee, coconut oil, MCT oil, and red palm oil.
- Proteins like meat, fish, eggs, shellfish, organ meats, collagen protein, and whey protein.
- Keto vegetables like kale, spinach, zucchini, asparagus, broccoli, lettuce, watercress, and cauliflower.
- Nuts like hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, walnuts, and almonds.
- Sweeteners / flavorings like erythritol, stevia, monk fruit, cocoa powder, and vanilla extract.
- Beverages like coffee, black tea, herbal tea, green tea, broth, lemon juice, and almond milk.
- Keto snacks like keto bread, keto granola, low-carb protein bars, and beef jerky.
Just as important, here are foods to avoid on your keto diet:
- Most packaged or refined foods*
- All foods with added sugar
- Most fruits
- Starchy vegetables
- Processed meats
- Industrial seed oils (aka, vegetable oils)
- Artificial sweeteners
*Most packaged foods have added sugars, too many carbs or hidden ingredients and this includes some brands that put keto on the label. How do you find products that are actually keto? That could be the subject of a much longer article, but here are two quick tips:
- Avoid products that have refined sugar as an ingredient.
- Look for the net carb math on the package to the tenth decimal. If the package says 1.0g net carbs instead of 1g—that’s a good sign. On keto, every tenth of a carb matters. The responsible keto companies are highly transparent in this regard.
What To Expect When You Go Keto
You might have no trouble going keto. Your cravings will dissipate and you’ll train your body to enter a fat-burning mode.
But for some people, the first few days or weeks of keto can be challenging because of the keto flu.
Keto flu is a collection of symptoms—headaches, cramps, low energy, diarrhea, constipation, and insomnia—that can affect people in the early stages of low-carb dieting.
The main causes of keto flu include:
- Your brain is unused to burning ketones. It may take a few days to adjust.
- Sugar withdrawal. Sugar is like a drug, and your body may protest in its absence.
- Dehydration. Low-carb diets are diuretic.
- Low electrolytes. The keto flu is often a case of low electrolytes. Specifically, you pee out more sodium on a keto diet, which can lead to sodium deficiency.
Given the above causes, the remedy for keto flu looks something like: Give your body a few days to adjust, sleep, and drink electrolyte water with plenty of sodium.
If you do get the keto flu and you aren’t deficient in electrolytes or dehydrated—it usually only lasts about a week. After that, most people report smooth sailing for the rest of the time, about 4 weeks, that it takes your body to fully fat-adapted.
Keto Meal Plan
By now you’re probably wondering what kinds of meals you’d be eating on a keto diet. To give you an idea, here’s a sample full-day keto diet menu along with some delicious keto recipes:
Keto Breakfast: Keto-friendly coffee cake bars
Keto Lunch: Salmon and kale salad topped with extra virgin olive oil
Keto Snack: Chocolate keto granola bar
Keto Dinner: Ribeye steak with sides of butter-soaked asparagus and broccoli
Keto Dessert: Crunchy keto s’mores
Author: Brian Stanton
Bio: Brian Stanton is the author of Keto Intermittent Fasting, a certified health coach, and a freelance writer who helps health and wellness companies connect with their customers. Learn more about Brian by visiting his website at www.brianjstanton.com.