Welcome! If you’re new to the ketogenic diet or just have questions about how keto works, this is the essential beginner’s guide to the keto diet!
The keto diet is best known as a low-carb diet but it’s much more than that. The ketogenic diet is a low-carb, high fat (LCHF) diet that changes the way your body burns energy. Or rather, making your body burn fat instead of all that glucose we produce by eating carbs and other crap that’s no good for us.
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Why Are Carbs So Bad?
The cornerstone of the keto diet is restricting the number of carbs you eat. First, let’s talk about why carbs are so bad for you.
The average American diet is loaded with carbs. Processed foods, sweet treats, bread, and soda are extremely high in carbohydrates. But foods we consider to be healthy like fruit, beans, and whole grains also have carbs.
Yes, that’s right. Even “healthy” foods like whole grains and certain fruit have carbs.
Soda and processed foods are loaded with sugar which gets immediately converted into glucose and insulin. Glucose is an easy source of energy so your body will always choose that first.
That sounds pretty good, right? You eat carbs that get converted to energy for your body. The problem is that your body can only burn so much glucose for energy.
And what happens to the extra glucose your body doesn’t burn? It stores it as fat.
Carbs, and especially those from sugar, are converted into glucose much more quickly than fats or proteins.
This causes a spike in your blood sugar levels which in turn causes the pancreas to produce insulin to return levels to normal. Insulin is the hormone that manages your body’s energy stores. If insulin detects an excess of sugar or fat it will prevent it from entering the bloodstream and instead keeps it stored in your fat cells.
If fat is stored, it cannot be used as energy so it remains trapped in the system as fat.
There’s a really interesting documentary called Fed Up that details how the food industry has gone to extreme lengths to hide just how much sugar is included in processed foods. It really changed the way I think about buying food and my eating habits. You can check it on Amazon Prime Video here.
How the Keto Diet Works
When carbs are removed from your diet, glucose and insulin levels are greatly reduced.
Now that glucose isn’t readily available to be converted to energy, the body will start to look for another energy source. Once blood sugar levels are returned to normal, insulin releases the stored fat and it can head to the liver.
This is where the magic of the keto diet happens.
When fats are broken down in the liver, the result is the production of ketones. Ketones are what gets released into your bloodstream and are consumed for energy. This process is known as ketosis.
In a typical diet, ketosis never occurs because there is plenty of glucose being produced and it will always get used first. It’s only when the glucose is removed from the equation that there is a need for the body to look elsewhere for energy, namely your stored fat.
This is why it’s so hard for many people to lose weight. You’d have to work out a lot and very intensely to burn through all your energy produced from glucose and prompt the insulin to release that fat.
Benefits of Keto
Weight loss isn’t the only benefit of the keto diet. That’s why it’s more than just a diet, it’s a lifestyle change.
Studies have shown there are numerous benefits to be gained from the keto lifestyle.
Increased Brain Focus
The ketogenic diet was actually first used in the early 1900’s to treat children who suffered from epilepsy. Researchers were not able to pinpoint why seizures were reduced for children on the keto diet. But they came to believe it had something to do with the stabilization of neurons.
This led them to look at the effects of the keto diet on degenerative brain diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s. Researchers have noted improved memory and cognition in Alzheimer’s patients and improvements for patients in all stages of dementia.
For most of us, this manifests as increased mental clarity and focus, as well as fewer incidences of migraines and other headaches likely resulting from more stable blood sugar levels impacting brain function.
Treatment for Certain Types of Cancer
Recent studies are showing that the keto diet can effectively be used to treat certain types of cancer.
Cancer cells have many more insulin receptors than normal cells. This means they can consume glucose from the system at a very rapid rate and will continue to grow as long as there is glucose present. Cancer cells also cannot consume ketones for energy. If there is no “food” source, cancer cells will starve.
I am not a medical professional so please discuss this with your doctor first if you think this might be right for you.
Preventing Heart Disease
It seems counterintuitive that a diet high in fat and low in “good” carbs like fruit and whole grains could actually prevent heart disease.
But the stabilization of blood sugar and reducing glucose stabilizes blood pressure and lowers your levels of triglycerides.
The keto diet helps raise your good cholesterol (HDL) and decrease your bad cholesterol (LDL).
All of this, in addition to the added benefit of weight loss, helps reduce your risk of serious heart disease.
One of the side effects of chronic high blood sugar is vision impairment, Many diabetics suffer from loss of vision and cataracts.
Controlling blood sugar levels through the keto diet helps reduce your risk of cataracts and improves the health of your eyes and your vision.
Improved Energy Levels and Better Quality Sleep
Stabilizing blood and insulin levels plays a big part in the way you burn energy more efficiently.
When you eat carbs, blood sugar spikes. When the glucose tank runs dry, you experience a drop in energy and often reach for a snack to recharge. You may recognize this as that mid-afternoon crash you experience after a carb-heavy lunch.
Ketones are a more reliable and stable energy source than glucose, providing you with a more consistent source throughout the day which keeps energy levels up.
Improved sleep quality is likely related to improved brain function resulting from the body’s use of ketones for energy.
Decreased Skin Inflammations
Ketogenic dieting is anti-inflammatory and helps reduce inflammations resulting from skin conditions such as acne, eczema, psoriasis and even arthritis.
The ketones produced as a result of fat breaking down in the liver help suppress key factors in inflammatory conditions. This means less inflammation and clearer skin.
What Can You Eat?
By now you might be thinking that the keto diet must be super restrictive and awful. Carbs are bad, they’re in all the foods you like, so what’s left?
What I like about the keto diet are the creative ways to eat. There are a ton of alternatives for the things you’re not supposed to eat.
The majority of your calories on the keto diet is going to come from fat because you need to replace the calories you used to get from carbs. But focus on consuming healthy fats that come from natural sources. Check out our post on healthy fats for more information about the best types of fat to eat on the keto diet.
Foods to Eat
- Leafy greens – spinach, kale, lettuce
- Vegetables – Cucumber, celery, mushrooms, Brussel sprouts, zucchini, cauliflower, eggplant, green beans, olives, green peppers. If it grows above ground, it’s probably OK.
- Eggs – Any and all ways you can think to cook them
- Meat – Bacon, beef, chicken, pork, sausage (with low sugar content), turkey
- Fish/Seafood – Salmon, tuna, scallops, anchovies, mackerel
- Fats – lard, butter, coconut oil, avocado oil, olive oil. Check out these keto fat bomb recipes that make it easy to get enough fat in your diet.
- Nuts/Seeds – Almonds, peanuts, walnuts, pecans, macadamia, chia seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds
- Dairy (Full Fat) – Butter, cream, cream cheese, feta cheese, blue cheese, greek yogurt, cheddar cheese, mozzarella
- Flour – Almond flour, coconut flour
- Sugar substitutes – Erythritol, stevia, xylitol, monk fruit
- Drinks – Tea, coffee, water, sparkling water
- Fruit – berries, coconut
- Alcohol (in moderation) – red wine, dry white wine, vodka, tequila, whiskey. Just watch those mixers! There are also some terrific keto alcohol recipes for low-carb versions of your favorite cocktails.
What Should You Avoid?
It’s easy to know to avoid refined wheat like bread and cereal because of high carb content. But fruit is another hidden source of carbs.
Fruit is nature’s candy. Most fruits are high in sugar and therefore have a lot of carbs. Fruit also has a lot of other healthy and beneficial properties so this is a hard one for some people to understand. Even though it’s a naturally occurring sugar, your body processes it in the same way as refined sugar. Certain berries and coconut are allowed in moderation. But you’ll want to check the sugar content AND the fiber content before eating any type of fruit.
Also, beer is out on the keto diet because of the wheat and hops. You’ll also want to avoid hard ciders and sweet liqueurs because of the sugar content.
If you’re just starting out with the keto way of life, your instinct might be to go for reduced-fat or fat-free dairy products. Don’t! The fats in dairy are good and you need them to maintain a healthy balance.
Besides, the processes used to remove fat from food is disgusting. And food companies will add sugar to “reduced” fat products in order to make them taste better.
Foods to Avoid
- Starches – Root vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes), rice, pasta
- Sweet stuff – Fruit, refined sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup, ice cream, fruit juices, energy drinks
- Grains – Whole grains, bread, cereal, corn, oats, quinoa, wheat
- Fats – canola oil, margarine, sunflower oil, vegetable oil
- Alcohol – beer, cider, liqueurs
- Legumes – beans
How Do You Know You’re in Ketosis?
Once you’ve started following the keto diet, you might wonder how you can tell if it’s actually working. There are some key indicators you can use to tell if you’re in ketosis or not.
You can purchase a ketone and glucose meter that will allow you to test your blood for glucose and ketone levels. These machines won’t actually tell you if you’re in ketosis or not. But they do allow you to measure your levels of glucose and ketones in your system. A reduction in glucose and an increase in ketones is a good sign that you’re in ketosis.
There are also physical indicators you can watch for.
Signs of Ketosis
- Increased urination – Yup, keto is a natural diuretic so you may find that you’re making more frequent trips to the bathroom. A ketone body called acetoacetate may end up in the urine which also causes more need to urinate. It might be frustrating to wake up at 2 a.m. to pee but know that means the keto diet is working!
- Dry mouth – 3 grams of water are stored for every gram of stored carbs. Since you’re getting rid of a lot of fluids through the process of ketosis, you may find that you experience more frequent dry mouth. It’s important to stay hydrated and find ways to ingest some electrolytes. Try taking supplements that contain calcium, magnesium or potassium to help regulate electrolyte levels.
- Increased energy, more mental clarity – These are some of the benefits of the keto diet so if you’re experiencing them, there’s a good chance you’re in ketosis.
- Reduced hunger – You will find that you don’t feel hungry as often. Part of this is because of an increase in good, stable energy. But I also think part of it is because of the good food you’re eating. It lets you feel fuller faster and for longer periods of time.
- Bad breath – In the beginning, you may experience some bad breath. Another ketone body called acetone is released during ketosis. Unfortunately, this is released via breath and you may notice an odor similar to overripe fruit. This is temporary and will go away!
Are There Side Effects of the Ketogenic Diet?
You should be prepared for some changes in your body after starting the keto diet. After all, you’re completely changing the way your body consumes energy so some changes are to be expected. The good news is that these are short-lived and soon you’ll be feeling all the benefits the keto diet has to offer.
Common Side Effects
- Heart palpitations
- Muscle cramping
Another term you might hear in regard to the keto diet is “keto flu”. Many people experience flu-like symptoms in the beginning. Remember that for every gram of stored fat, 3 grams of water are also stored. Once you’re in ketosis that water is being excreted through increased urination. While this happens, you’re also losing electrolytes via salt being excreted in your urine.
The symptoms you may experience are very similar to the flu, hence the name “keto flu”. Again, these are only temporary and once your body adjusts to its new way of burning fat, these symptoms should disappear. It’s very important to drink a lot of water during this period to avoid dehydration. Also, it’s OK to up your salt intake to help replace lost electrolytes. Supplements or food containing calcium, magnesium, and potassium (in moderation) will also help.
Keto Flu Symptoms
- Mild nausea
- Mental “fuzziness”
Getting Started on the Keto Diet
Macros and counting carbs
An important concept you must understand before starting the keto diet are macros.
Macros are the sources of your calorie content that you’re consuming each day. Mainly the carb, fat and protein percentages in your diet. The standard rule of thumb for the keto diet is:
- 75% fat
- 20% protein
- 5% carbohydrates
BUT, and this is a big BUT, those percentages are only a guideline. You should really use a keto macro calculator to determine your specific percentages. A keto calculator takes things like weight, gender, age, activity level, and body fat percentage to calculate the right amounts of macronutrients specific to you.
Perfect Keto has a great keto calculator and instructions for how to use it. You can find it here.
But using our example percentages above, for 1500 calories per day, this roughly translates to 120 grams of fat, 95 grams of protein and 20 grams of carbs. The 20 grams of carbs are really important. When you’re first starting out on keto, you don’t want to go over 20 grams each day in order reach ketosis faster.
Another important thing to know when counting carbs is that net carbs are what count, not total carbs. You calculate net carbs by subtracting the amount of fiber from the total carb count. Fiber doesn’t impact blood sugar levels so it doesn’t really count as a carb.
As an example, if you’re eating a half cup of fresh raspberries the total carbs are 7 grams. But there are 4 grams of fiber so the net carb count would be 7-4=3.
Consider using a site like My Fitness Pal to track your daily food, water intake, and exercise. You can enter your daily goals, which in this case would be your macro numbers. As you enter the foods you’re eating, you’ll be able to see the impact on your daily macros and whether you’re in range or not.
My Fitness Pal also has a monster database of foods and their associated nutrition information. The more you log your food, the more familiar you’ll become with the content of your food. It makes it a lot easier to plan meals when you have this information.
A word of caution about using databases where users are inputting nutrition information. Be aware that sometimes numbers are rounded down. For example, if a food has 0.4 carbs it may get entered as 0. It may not seem like a big deal but those fractional amounts can add up and have an impact on your total carb intake.
You can always double-check the USDA website too if you’re questioning nutrition information.
Another great feature of My Fitness Pal is the ability to enter the URL of a page with a recipe. It will scrape the ingredients from the page and calculate the nutrition information for you! It won’t always choose the right ingredient from its database but it’s a real time saver if you get recipes from Pinterest or other sites. If it’s a recipe of your own design, you also have the option to manually enter the ingredients and save it.
Meal planning is your friend on the keto diet. In the beginning, it may feel time-consuming to figure out what to eat. As you get more experience, it becomes much easier.
Try to plan for 7 days in advance. Cover all your bases – breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, morning coffee, and beverages. Good planning ensures you won’t find yourself without the necessary low carb ingredients.
Exercising on the Keto Diet
First and foremost, keto is a diet. Its purpose is to turn you into a fat burning machine. The focus is all on the foods you eat so that you get into ketosis and get that fat turned into energy to burn.
That doesn’t mean you can be a couch potato and only rely on cutting carbs to get healthy and lose weight!
Exercise is good for you. Something as simple as walking for 20 minutes a day can speed up the fat burning process and help you realize your weight loss goals more quickly.
There are myths that athletic performance will be negatively impacted when your body is burning fat instead of carbohydrates during workouts. During the beginning stages, this may be true if you’re experiencing keto flu symptoms. Your body will get used to its new reality and will adjust accordingly.
If your workouts are intense, you may have to adjust your diet, such as increasing total calories per day, to compensate for your higher metabolism. It’s important to stick to your macros as closely as possible though or you might get out of ketosis.
If you’re fab and frugal like I am, you need to check out the best free workouts videos on Amazon Prime. There’s a little bit of everything there – yoga, strength training, and cardio. These are totally FREE for Prime members, so if you’re not yet an Amazon Prime member, click here for a free 30-day trial.
Shopping and Food Lists for the Keto Diet
It can be helpful to have a list of foods you can eat on the keto diet handy. Post it on the fridge where you’ll see it often. When you’re meal planning and making a grocery list you can refer to it and make life easier.
For a whole lot more information on food for the keto diet, read our Keto Food Lists post.
- Unsweetened almond milk
- Heavy cream
- Sour cream
- Greek yogurt (plain, full fat)
- Egg whites
- Bell Peppers
- Blue cheese crumbles
- Cream cheese
- Monterey Jack
- String cheese
- Chicken breasts
- Pork Chops
- Skirt steak
- Beef roast
- Hamburger (higher fat content)
- Sausage (no sugar added)
- Sliced pepperoni
- Hard salami
Fats & Oils
- Coconut Oil
- Extra-virgin Olive Oil
- Palm Oil
- MCT Oil
- Sesame seeds
- Sunflower seeds
- Chia seeds
- Flax seeds
- Soy sauce
- Salad dressings (watch for sugar)
- Pork Rinds
- Dark chocolate
- Unsweetened cocoa powder
- Unsweetened coconut
The Keto Diet on a Budget
You might look at the list above and think “Holy crap!” But there are ways to be on the keto diet and stay within your budget. There’s an entire post dedicated to Keto on a Budget too!
Buy in Bulk and Freeze
If you shop at Costco or Sam’s club you can buy a lot of keto-friendly foods in bulk and either freeze or store for later. Check out my post on foods you can freeze for some ideas. You can stock up on meat and produce when they’re on sale and portion them out too.
Do a Weekly Food Prep
After you’ve spent the time planning and grocery shopping, don’t just shove it in the fridge and cabinets when you get home. Take a little time to prep and store your food. You are much more likely to use it if you can see it. And food will last longer! Read the post on weekly food prep for the best ways to prep and store food.
Shop at ALDI
I love ALDI. I am more impressed every time I shop there. ALDI is really upping their game and stocking better quality food and more organic brands while keeping prices low.
Your couponing skills will really come in handy now! Scour the newspapers and online coupon sites for coupons. Make note of which stores will double coupons. Combine a coupon with a sale price whenever possible. You’ll get the best price this way. And take advantage of any rewards programs you belong to. You’ll be able to take advantage of special offers and maybe even cash back!
You Can Succeed on the Keto Diet
Once you understand what the keto diet is and how it works, you’ll know it’s not as complicated as it may seem at first. Pinterest is a great source for ideas and recipes for the keto diet.
The hardest part is taking that first step. Once you’ve been at it for a while, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner!
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