Ultimate Guide To The Keto Diet For Beginners: How To Start & Rock Keto
Keto: The oldest new diet
The ketogenic (or keto) diet is one of the most popular diet trends out there. From Pinterest to Instagram, from the grocery aisle to the restaurant table – it’s everywhere! Proponents are a mixed bag of celebrities on the quest for the perfect body, athletes motivated to gain a performance edge, and executives trying to biohack their body to be smarter and faster in the workplace.
Interestingly this so-called “fad” diet isn’t a fad at all, it’s been around for nearly a century and was initially used in combination with fasting to treat neurological disorders like epilepsy. While the science and use of the diet have slowly evolved over time, the mechanisms of action have remained the same. To appreciate the benefits of keto and why it might be a good tool to reach your health goals, it’s helpful to first understand what it is and the science of how it works.
What Is The Keto Diet, Anyway?
A ketogenic (or keto) diet is a low carbohydrate pattern of eating that is commonly also high in fat. There are many variations of a keto diet but generally, carbohydrates are restricted to less than 10% of your total caloric intake with fat and protein making up the difference. A typical distribution of the macronutrients (also known as macros) is shown below:
In the absence of carbohydrates, your body shifts from burning primarily sugar (or glucose) for energy to burning fat. In this fat-burning mode, the liver uses dietary and body fat to produce fuel molecules called ketones. This is where the metabolic state of ketosis and the ketogenic diet get their names.
So how does this translate into food? We’ll get the full grocery list later but for now, this list of what to eat and what to avoid does a great job of covering the basics:
What You Need To Know About Ketosis
If you’ve skipped a meal, exercised for more than an hour or reduced your carb intake for a period of time, you’ve likely been in ketosis before. Generally, when you’re short on carbs, you’ll dip into ketosis. Your body, needing fuel, will tap into its stored energy (fat) and use it to create ketone bodies in your liver. Both the fat and the ketone bodies will then be used for your body’s energy needs. While your muscles and other tissues can utilize fat and ketones for energy during times of carb restriction or fasting, your brain must rely primarily on ketones to function.
The result? Fat loss and stable energy. Fat is a more stable form of energy than carbs so you may find energy levels more consistent compared to a diet that has higher amounts of carbs.
The History of Keto
The keto diet was first used in the 1920’s as a treatment for epilepsy. The classic low carb, high-fat diet was able to control seizures, a hallmark of the disease. Fast forward 40 years and the metabolic effects of keto and its ability to promote fat loss while maintaining lean tissue (ie muscle) have made it a mainstay for weight management.
While epilepsy and obesity are by far the most common medical uses of the ketogenic diet, research is now suggesting a number of new uses for the diet including:
- Complementary cancer and dementia care
- Treatment of diabetes and prediabetes
- Reducing inflammation
- Potential treatment of PCOS, Acne and other neurological conditions
- Improvements in cognitive functioning
Keto vs Standard American Diet (SAD)
How does keto compare to the Standard American Diet? The Standard American Diet, also aptly nicknamed the SAD diet, represents the way many Americans eat. The SAD diet is high in sugar, saturated fats, processed packaged foods and low in nutrition.
The breakdown of the SAD diet is as follows:
- 50% carbs, mostly non-nutritious carbs like white flour, sugar, soda, and grain-based desserts.
- 35% fats, saturated and trans fats, from fried foods, fat from grain-fed animal foods like meat, cheese, and butter as well as highly processed vegetable oils
- 15% protein, mainly animal-based protein sources like ground meat, cheeses
The SAD diet is also typically low in fiber and vegetables - two components associated with good health. The keto diet on the other hand, flips the macros (carbs, protein, fats) on their head and when done right, incorporates plenty of vitamin and mineral-rich foods.
- 50-60% fats
- 20-30% protein
- 10% or less carbs
Consider this the skeleton or blueprint of keto. If you have the macros down you can experiment with different types of keto to figure out what works best for you.
The Different Types of Keto
The standard keto diet is the most common type of keto and does not deviate from the formula of low carb, moderate protein and high fat. The diet mainly consists of leafy greens and other low carb vegetables, healthy fats like olive oil, avocados, nut butter and good protein sources like wild salmon, eggs and grass-fed beef.
Sugars and starches like bread, pasta, potatoes, and most fruits are avoided. Sugar substitutes like monk fruit, stevia, allulose, and erythritol are included without a problem.
The standard keto diet is a necessary first step in accessing the health benefits of the keto diet. Consider it the training ground for the other types of keto. The standard keto is also quite simple. It maintains the same type of plan day in and day out. For someone who appreciates consistency and wants to keep things simple, this is a benefit.
Cyclical keto, also referred to as keto cycling, involves alternating low carb keto eating five to six days a week with one to two days of higher carb eating. In this form of keto the body cycles in and out of ketosis, burning fat for energy during the low carb days and carbs on the higher carb days.
Keto cycling is different from following strict keto and then going off periodically because you happened to pass by your favorite pizza place! The higher carb days are planned, sometimes to coincide with exercise (see below section on targeted keto). Ideally, good carbs are included on the higher carb days like fruit, sweet potatoes, and beans. French fries and ice cream aren’t off limits but if you’re looking for premium fuel, you’ll aim for high fiber carbs that come with some vitamins and minerals.
Keto cycling is less restrictive and does incorporate days that are more similar to Mediterranean or paleo style eating, adding foods like yams, beans and fruit to the mix. For someone who would like to have more variety in their week, this approach is a good fit.
Periods of higher carb eating may also restore leptin, your fat-burning hormone that also turns off appetite. Following restrictive diets for long periods of time can reduce leptin. If weight loss has stalled and you’re feeling hungry despite following the consistent keto food plan, the body may be stuck in starvation mode. As a result, it will stall weight loss and hang on to body fat in case food continues to be scarce. Adding one or two higher carb days assures the body that starvation is not imminent and body fat burning can commence.
You may be thinking, Why don’t I just start here rather than following restrictive standard keto? Not so fast, tiger! Cyclical keto is not the best route if you’re just starting out.
Keto cycling is ideal for individuals who have followed the standard ketogenic diet for several weeks and are fat adapted - meaning their body uses fat for fuel regularly. Good signs you’re fat adapted:
- Appetite suppression
- Don’t need to eat as frequently
- High energy
- Losing body fat
If you’ve done keto for a while and are ready to be in more of a maintenance or long term mode - cyclic keto may be a good choice for you. But remember, with keto cycling the goal is to include good carbs. You can’t expect to feel good if you’re fueling your body with junk!
Consider targeted keto like a mini version of keto cycling. Rather than moderate carbohydrate DAYS, targeted keto matches carb rich meals or snacks with periods of higher activity - particularly intense activity. This is because the body’s preferred source of fuel for quick, intense activities is carbohydrate, not fat.
Unfortunately, there is little or no research on targeted keto. However, supporters of this method suggest 25-50g of carbs roughly about 30 minutes before a workout with the goal of providing the muscle’s preferred fuel source for the activity.
Before you pick up that bagel and shmear, let's consider what 25-30g of carbs looks like:
- 1 cup of sweet potato
- 1 medium banana
- 2-3 rice cakes
- 8 oz of yogurt with ¼ cup blueberries
Clean vs Dirty Keto
There is one more stone to turn with types of keto and that is the difference between clean and dirty and no, this does not refer to the type of olives in your martini.
It’s tempting when starting the keto diet to feel like you can eat whatever you want as long as it contains the right macronutrient ratio. But good nutrition doesn’t go out the window once you’ve started keto.
Not all high-fat or low-carb foods are created equal. This is where the difference between “clean keto” and “dirty keto” come in. These are the buzzwords used to describe the huge variation in how one can eat when adhering to the keto diet.
You may have already heard of clean eating which involves focusing on whole, unprocessed foods that are packed with nutrients? Clean keto is the clean eating version of the keto diet. It involves focusing on whole, unprocessed foods that are packed with nutrients, with a focus on micronutrients as well.
Calories on clean keto come from avocados, grass-fed beef, olive oil and coconut oil, nuts and seeds, pasture-raised eggs, wild seafood, etc. Clean keto also involves getting enough fiber and eating plenty of low-carb vegetables such as leafy greens.
Dirty keto, on the other hand, still follows the same keto blueprint of high fat and low carb, but calories come from factory farmed meats and often those that are loaded with preservatives like bacon with nitrate and nitrite, cheese including that which is processed, and it may not include many vegetables. Because of this, a dirty keto diet tends to lack essential vitamins and minerals.
While you can still be in ketosis while eating bacon, steak and eggs for every meal, you may not feel as great. That’s because essential vitamins and minerals boost immune function, support optimal brain and heart health. Fiber fuels gut health and promotes regularity. So unless your goal is foggy thinking, getting sick all the time and not pooping for days, it makes sense to keep it mostly clean.
Ok, so to wrap this up let’s summarize and move on - start with standard keto, keep it mostly clean and experiment with cyclical and targeted after you pass the novice the stage and you’re solidly in ketosis.
The Health Benefits of Keto
There are many documented health benefits to following a keto diet. However, individual differences in physiology will determine how you react to keto and how long it will take you to reach your personal health goals, all factors which play a role in which version might suit you.
The health benefits of a keto diet can primarily be attributed to utilizing fat as an energy source. Fat supplies more calories (aka energy) per gram than carbs, and between dietary fat and stored body fat, there is usually enough to provide stable, consistent fuel for the body to run smoothly for hours on end. This results in improved energy and a number of other possible benefits including:
- Weight loss
- Changes in body composition (less fat, more muscle)
- Better cognitive functioning
- Blood sugar and blood pressure control
- Potential for anti-inflammation activity
- Appetite control
While there is a decent amount of research backing up the benefits of the keto diet, it’s important to remember that everybody is different and that there isn't a one-size-fits-all when it comes to any diet. Any time you change your eating habits, it’s best to be safe rather than sorry, review any risks/benefits and ask your doctor or a dietitian whether it is right for you before you get started.
Who Is Keto For?
A sound nutrition plan should be backed by scientific research and lead to good health outcomes (e.g. weight loss, stable blood sugar, improved endurance etc.). Good news, the keto diet meets this criteria. However, it’s equally important that the keto diet, like any nutrition plan, is safe, appropriate and realistic given your individual health history and food preferences.
The keto diet is great for individuals with:
- Excess body weight or abdominal fat (think beer belly), or those who have hit a weight loss plateau with traditional dieting
- High blood sugar and blood sugar fluctuations
- High blood pressure
- Fatigue (think afternoon slump)
- Brain fog or lack of mental clarity
- A desire to boost physical and mental performance
The keto diet is likely not appropriate for:
- Kids & adolescents (except with particular health conditions like epilepsy)
- Pregnant mommas
- Individuals with chronic pancreatitis, liver failure, disorders of fat or amino acid metabolism or difficulty maintaining weight
Caution should be used for individuals with:
- Kidney disease
- Heart disease
- History of disordered eating
- Fat malabsorption
If you think keto may not be a good idea but aren’t sure, ask yourself a few simple questions before you continue.
How To Start The Keto Diet
Now, let's get to the good stuff! It’s an exciting time when you decide to try out the keto diet, but you don’t want to dive in headfirst without any preparation. Beginning a new diet requires having a plan in place to help make your transition into new habits safe and seamless.
Rather than just rushing to the store to stock up on all the cheese and meat you can get your hands on, you’ll want to put a little thought into how you’ll move forward. It’s important to not only have a clear vision of your health goals, but to make sure you also have the tools to attain them. This can mean anything from stocking up on the right groceries or just approaching the diet with a healthy and clear mindset.
If you’re about to start the keto diet, utilize this checklist to make sure you’re adequately prepared to enter the keto world — you’ll thank yourself later!
- SPEAK WITH YOUR DOCTOR OR A DIETITIAN
Although your best friend may have had tons of luck on the keto diet, everyone’s bodies are different. A doctor can help evaluate your health and ensure that keto is safe for you. Even if the keto diet is right for you, you may have specific nutritional needs, and your doctor can help guide you to make sure those needs are being met and your diet remains balanced.
- DEFINE YOUR GOALS
Whenever you start a new diet, it’s important to have a clear picture of what you’re looking for. Do you want to lose weight, or are you trying to eat less processed foods? Is there a specific health issue you are concerned about, or are you trying to improve your energy levels? Focusing on your goals can not only help guide your choices, but keep you motivated as well.
Everyone has different needs when it comes to the ketogenic diet depending on their gender, age, height, and weight. To successfully participate in the keto diet, you’ll want to count your macros: the exact amount of carbs, fat, and protein you need to reach your goals. Grab a pen and paper and head over to our calculator to get your targets.
Sticking to your diet will prove to be difficult without keeping the right types of food on hand. There is no need to reinvent the wheel here, we’ve put together a grocery list for you to make sure you have everything on hand for success.
To help prepare you for what you’ll eat, spend some time finding keto-friendly recipes. Rather than sacrificing your favorite meals, find ways to tweak them to make them low-carb or high fat. You can scan Instagram or Pinterest for ideas, check out our recipes and consider getting a keto cookbook to get you started. If you don’t feel deprived, you’re much more likely to stick with the keto diet.
When it comes to keto, hydration is mission critical! When starting a low-carb diet your body will lose water and electrolytes as it depletes its carbohydrate stores (glycogen). This is why drastic weight loss usually occurs in the first week of ketosis--you’re losing water weight. You’ll want to plan ahead, and make sure you’re getting in a sufficient amount of water to prevent dehydration during this transition. You can bring in a reusable water bottle to the office, drink more tea, or load up on soda water (unsweetened of course) so you’re set up for hydration success!
As for replenishing your electrolytes, you can do this by lightly salting your foods, drinking bone broth, drinking unsweetened coconut water, or through food sources such as green leafy veggies, avocado, nuts, and seeds. There are also lots of options for keto-friendly electrolyte supplements which can be added to your water.
Alright, so now that you have your target macros, a grocery list and your marching orders for hydration what else do you need to know?
Keto Diet Basics for Beginners
If you’re limiting carbs, actually counting them is an important skill to learn, at least in the beginning.
There are two schools of thought for carb counting:
- Count the total carbs you consume
- Only count the net carbs you consume
Um, net carbs? What? The basic idea behind counting net carbs versus total carbs is that not all carbs are created equally, and therefore, will be used by your body differently. So when calculating net carbs you simply remove fiber and sugar alcohols from the equation because they don’t technically get absorbed by the body.
While everybody is unique, many people find tracking net carbs to be a helpful way to reach their goals.
Let’s back up a minute and get a few things straight. Carbs are the sugar, fiber, and starches found in foods you eat like fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy. That’s why sugar is also listed under the carbohydrates section of a nutrition label—because sugar is a carb!
Carbs are your body’s go-to source for energy. Any time you eat carbs, your body will try to break those carbs down into simple sugars (glucose) for energy.
All carbs fall into two categories—simple and complex—based on how easy they are for your body to digest. Most food and beverage items (whether natural products or man-made) will have both simple and complex carbs in them. This is where the concept of net carbs comes into play.
Net carbs are defined as the carbohydrates that your body actually digests and absorbs. That’s why many people refer to net carbs as digestible carbs. Carbs that are digested easily and quickly by your body are called simple carbs. Why? Because they’re simple for your body to break down quickly into glucose for energy. Simple carbs are found in things like table sugar and regular pasta.
Meanwhile, carbs that are harder for your body to break down and digest for energy are called complex carbohydrates. Complex carbs are commonly found in vegetables, whole grains, nuts and fruits which are usually high in fiber.
Fiber is one of the complex carbs that your body is not able to digest and therefore, its value can be subtracted from total carbs when you’re calculating net carbs. However, fiber isn’t the only complex carb you have to be on the lookout for.
Sugar alcohols are used to add sweetness to many low carb foods. Your body processes sugar alcohols fairly similarly to how it processes fiber, but not all sugar alcohols are created equal either.
To identify sugar alcohols in the foods or drinks, simply check out the nutrition facts panel. Sugar alcohols will be listed under the Total Carbohydrate section. They may be listed organically simply as "sugar alcohols" or they may be called out specifically by name. If you can’t tell what sugar alcohol is used based on the nutrition panel, simply check out the ingredients list. A clue is to look for words ending in -ol, such as sorbitol, maltitol, xylitol, erythritol.
When you’re calculating net carbs, the first thing you need to do is look at the total carbs per serving on the food or beverage item you’re about to consume. Next, look to see if any dietary fiber, sugar alcohols, or allulose are listed under the Total Carbohydrate section on the nutrition facts panel, and if so you can subtract the total value of each. That simple formula should look a little like this:
Total Carbs (g) – Fiber (g) – Erythritol (g) – Allulose (g) = Net Carbs
See a sugar alcohol that's not erythritol or allulose? Divide its value in half and subtract that number from the total carbs. An example of what that formula could look like is below.
Total Carbs – Fiber – (Other Sugar Alcohols ÷ 2) = Net Carbs
To make things easier, many low carb and keto products will list the net carbs on the product label, but it is still a good idea to know how to calculate them yourself if necessary.
Net carbs can be a wonderful tool to utilize when following a low carb or keto lifestyle. By subtracting out the grams of fiber from the total grams of carbohydrates, you are only counting the carbs that are actually being digested and absorbed. This gives you more flexibility to incorporate nutrient rich, high fiber foods that leave you feeling full and support overall health.
The keto diet causes major metabolic changes within the body. The shift from burning carbs to burning fat for energy is the hallmark of ketosis and the reason that many experience weight loss and boosts in energy and cognitive health. But that initial weight loss isn’t only fat – in fact, much of it is water due to changes in fluid balance.
A well-designed ketogenic diet should include plenty of fluids to replace what you lose as your carbohydrate stores are depleted as well as ample electrolytes in the form of foods or supplements.
Fluids should include mostly caffeine-free, unsweetened beverages like water, coconut water, plant-based milks, broths and herbal tea. In general, two liters of fluid per day is a good starting point. Larger or highly active individuals may need more. If urine is dark, drink more – lighter urine is a sign of good hydration.
Key Electrolytes on Keto: Sodium, Potassium and Magnesium
Your electrolyte balance can be maintained by regularly including foods that contain sodium, potassium and magnesium in your diet. You may even come up with some meals and snacks that incorporate foods rich in all three like a spinach (potassium, magnesium) salad with salmon (potassium), pumpkin seeds (magnesium) and topped with a vinaigrette dressing (sodium).
If you’re concerned about your electrolyte balance, a supplement may be useful. Follow the package instructions closely and speak to your health care provider if you have any special medical considerations.
What can I drink on keto?
It’s not just about staying hydrated, right? It's about enjoying your beverages too! There’s no need to feel deprived on keto. There are many good options for libations on keto:
- Low Carb, Non-Alcoholic Keto Diet Drinks
- Can I Drink Coffee On Keto?
- Cold and Bubbly Keto Drinks
- Keto Friendly Alcoholic Drinks
- Keto Drinks No-Nos/Drinks to Avoid on Keto
What about Starbucks you say? Well, that is an important consideration. A fully loaded iced coffee with all the trimmings will throw you out of ketosis faster than you can say carb coma. But, there are actually many keto friendly Starbucks drinks that can help you stay in ketosis without feeling like you’re missing out.
Avoiding the Keto Flu
As if the regular flu weren’t bad enough! There is a keto flu too? Yes, this is not an urban myth, there is in fact a keto flu but it’s not contagious!
The keto flu can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks and occurs when your body is transitioning from using carbs as its primary fuel source to fat. It gets its name from the flu-like symptoms many experience which may include:
- Feeling sluggish
- Achy muscles
- Muscle cramps
- Sugar cravings
- Difficulty concentrating
As your body starts to burn fat for energy, it will also still be using some sugar (carbs) for energy. This in-between phase is where the magic of the keto flu exists. Not only are you experiencing a major metabolic shift but you are likely going through a withdrawal from starchy and sugary foods as well. The Standard American Diet (SAD)-yes that is a real acronym- is based on carbs like breads, pasta and ice cream. Not surprisingly, there is evidence that components of a high-carb diet like gluten and sugar can be addicting.
There is some individual variability in the duration and severity of the keto flu. In fact, some people don’t experience it at all. The good news is that with a little planning there are a number of things you can do to minimize symptoms or even avoid the keto flu altogether.
Before you can get into ketosis, your body will need to burn through its stored carbs. That process of burning through the stored carbs can take anywhere from a few days to over a week. By kicking off your keto diet with a fast, you can speed up this process and get into ketosis faster! A manageable time frame for your fast could be from your evening meal to your lunch the next day, which ends up being around 16 hours for most people.
- STAY HYDRATED AND INCLUDE ELECTROLYTES
Many symptoms associated with the keto flu can be attributed to shifts in fluid and electrolyte balance. Drinking enough fluids and incorporating supplemental or food sources of electrolytes will help you avoid this keto pitfall. A good starting point is two liters of caffeine free, unsweetened fluid. Larger people may need more.
Food sources of electrolytes include salt of all kinds (Himalayan, sea, kosher, etc.), broccoli, leafy greens, unsweetened coconut water, broth, avocados, nuts and seeds. You may still need supplemental electrolytes but thanks to the recent popularity of the keto diet there are a number of convenient, well designed products on the market that can be added to water and sipped throughout the day.
- ADD SOME LOW-INTENSITY EXERCISE
Low-intensity exercise can also help nudge your body into ketosis faster by using up some of that same stored glycogen in the muscles you need to get rid of to enter ketosis.
- INCORPORATE PLENTY OF FIBER
Your digestive tract may slow down after cutting out high-carb, high-fiber foods like beans and whole grains. Keto-friendly, high-fiber choices include most non-starchy vegetables like leafy greens and cauliflower as well as ground flax and chia seeds. Highkey's Hot Cereal is packed with fiber-rich flax and chia seeds and the Instant Cauliflower Mash makes it easy to whip up some cauliflower in minutes.
- EAT GOOD FATS
When on a ketogenic diet, by definition the body is using fat for fuel. Without enough fat to use for energy, you may feel sluggish. A good rule of thumb is to incorporate 1-2 tablespoons of healthy fat with every meal – think avocados, olive oil, MCT oil, nut/seed butter etc. If energy is still an issue you may need more.
- MANAGE STRESS & GET YOUR ZZZ'S
Your nervous system can only be going in one direction at a time – fight or flight (stress response) or rest and digest (relaxation response). The body prefers sugar for energy during times of stress and in the absence of carbs, the liver will literally make sugar in an effort to survive. This can slow down your transition into ketosis and prolong the keto flu.
The body is smart but unfortunately, not smart enough to tell the difference between running out of a burning building or sitting in traffic – the stress response is pretty similar in both of these situations. To keep your body chugging away at using fat for fuel, manage your stress response. Getting adequate sleep, deep breathing, meditation, and exercise are all excellent ways to keep that flight or fight response in check.
The keto flu can be avoided and remedied by implementing simple, consistent lifestyle changes. Set yourself up for success by designating a prep week before starting the keto diet. Jot down your first week’s plan from meals and snacks to sleep and exercise, this way you can structure your day accordingly and have all the supplies you need on hand. Coconut water in hand and fully rested, you’ll cruise into ketosis unscathed.
Knowing the Signs of Ketosis
The ketogenic diet requires significant effort and discipline replacing high-carb foods like bread and pasta with lower-carb foods like leafy greens and avocados. Not surprisingly, you’ll want to know if your efforts are paying off and you’re on the right track to reaching ketosis. The good news is there are a number of ways to tell if your body is in ketosis, but some of these methods are more reliable than others.
When your body is in ketosis, your liver will produce three types of ketones: beta hydroxybutyrate (BHB), acetone and acetoacetate. You can actually measure the levels of these ketones in your body to see if you’re in ketosis by testing your blood, urine and breath. While testing your ketone levels isn’t a requirement for people following the keto diet, lots of people like to do so to make sure they’re on track.
All of these test methods can usually be purchased at your local pharmacy or online so you can track your ketone levels from the comfort of your own home. A test reading of 0.5-3 mmol/L is considered positive for ketosis.
Unless you love gadgets and information, you don’t need to purchase a fancy testing system to find out if you’re in ketosis. There are plenty of other tell-tale signs that your body is burning fat for fuel.
After following the keto diet for several days you’ll likely experience one or more of the following signs of ketosis.
- ABSENCE OF HUNGER AND STABLE ENERGY
Say goodbye to food cravings and that afternoon slump. Reduced hunger and consistent energy are common and welcome side effects of the keto diet. Your body is happily burning fat for energy and because this is a longer lasting and more stable fuel source, it’s not necessary to eat as often to maintain stable energy. Ketones also suppress ghrelin, your hunger hormone.
Many people following the keto diet will experience rapid weight loss within the first week. The initial weight loss is mostly water weight. As you shift into ketosis, your body will naturally get rid of its carbohydrate stores of glycogen. For every gram of glycogen stored in your muscle there are three grams of stored water! This process also kicks off a change in your body's fluid balance. After this first week, you'll move beyond water weight and begin losing pounds of body fat.
- INCREASED MENTAL CLARITY AND FOCUS
Increased brain function and mental clarity are often reported as benefits people experience after following a ketogenic diet. While there is not as much information available on the benefits for healthy individuals, many studies support a keto diet improving the cognitive functions for those with mild cognitive impairment, dementia and other neurological disorders. One explanation for this reported increase in mental sharpness, could be that the brain is able to use ketones for energy fairly efficiently. Another possible factor that may help improve brain function is that the blood sugar levels in the body are stabilized during the keto diet.
Staying Keto on the Go
Years ago, following a keto diet on the go meant bunless burgers and beef jerky. With the popularity of the keto diet, there are many good options for travel, dining out, fast food and even food delivery.
There are a few basic guidelines that can save you some time and ketones.
- Seek out the keto staple foods: non-starchy vegetables (ex. lettuce, tomatoes, peppers etc.), protein (ex. chicken, beef, eggs etc.) and fats (ex. mayo, vinaigrette dressing, cheese etc.).
- Avoid breads, breading (ex. breaded fish, chicken, onion rings etc.), french fries, and sweetened sauces (ex. barbeque, honey mustard etc.).
- Choose zero carb beverages like water, unsweetened iced tea or coffee.
- Pay attention to sauces! Zero or low carb sauces and dressings typically include mayo, classic hot sauce, Italian and vinaigrette-based dressings (with exception to raspberry and other fruit vinaigrettes which have higher sugar content), fresh salsa and ranch dressing.
- Consider the label of ‟sandwich” as optional. There is no rule you have to eat the bread.
- Use your smartphone! Most restaurant menus are online and have interactive calculators.
Looking for more specific choices from establishments like McDonalds and Chipotle? Check them out in our guide here. Or check out our fast casual keto guide here for choices from restaurants like Olive Garden and Red Lobster.
So many great snack options! The biggest problem you’ll find here is how to choose!
- Guacamole snack packs: Avocados are a superstar of the keto diet. Filled with healthy fats, creamy and versatile, they instantly upgrade any snack. Guacamole snacks packs are perfectly portioned and securely packaged, they can be purchased in pouches or cups and pair well with flax crackers, peppers, celery, jicama slices, or just a spoon!
- Nut/seed crackers: There are a number of keto-friendly nut and seed based crackers on the market. Almond flour, coconut flour, flax or a combination can be found in the cracker aisle at most major grocery stores and even big box stores. Rice and potato flour can sometimes be hiding in the ingredient list and could throw you out of ketosis, so be sure to always read the package.
- MCT singles: medium chain triglycerides (MCT) are a type of fat that is easily digested and turned into ketones quickly. MCT oil is often used as a fat supplement on the keto diet, providing a nice boost of energy. It is flavorless, liquid at room temperature and mixes fairly discreetly into beverages like coffee or tea. Single packs of oil or powdered MCT’s are portable and less messy than travelling with a bottle or tub.
- Cheese crunch: No, this snack does not involve dehydrating cheese using a contraption bought from an infomercial! These crunchy rounds are a combo of cheese and egg whites. The egg white base makes them higher in protein than you might expect, coming in at just under 1g of protein per round. If you’ve been missing a crunchy, savory cracker, these might be just the thing for you and because of the protein, they’ll tide you over if travel throws off a meal or two.
- Single serve olive & pickle packs: Olives and pickles are now conveniently available in single serve containers. This includes pouches or small plastic containers (similar to applesauce cups). Since vegetables are notoriously difficult to find on the road these are great option for incorporating some veggie servings and boosting your salt intake. Remember, in ketosis, salt is your friend.
- Nut & seed butter packets: Nut butter packets are a great way to boost fat and some protein while on keto. They are particularly good for travel to limit mess and bulk in your suitcase. If you have a favorite nut or seed, chances are there is a butter made out of it – even pure coconut butter! A good rule of thumb for this category of foods is to limit added sugars (even from natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup). To get a little more nutritional bang for your buck check out the nut butter packets with MCT already mixed in.
- Kale chips: Kale chips have come a long way. They are now available in several variations and seasonings. You can make these pretty easily but they can also be purchased at the grocery store or online. Vegetables tend to be scarce in the airport or on the road, but seasoned kale chips can fill this gap and provide added vitamins and minerals. Kale is an excellent source of vitamins A, K and C, if you are making your own “chips” just toss the kale with olive oil, add some sea salt for electrolytes, bake until crispy, then pack in a portable container (preferably something with structure to avoid breakage) and you have yourself a nutrient rich, portable snack.
- Dark chocolate: I bet you weren’t expecting to see this here, right? The truth is, good dark chocolate can be healthier than your average granola bar and certainly more keto friendly! In general, the darker the chocolate, the lower in carbohydrates it will be. This is because darker chocolate has a higher percentage of the actual cocoa solids and fewer additives like milk, sugar, oils, etc. A 90% dark chocolate bar is 90% cocoa solids; this is a good place to start. Once you spot the percentage, flip the package over and check out the fiber and sugar. Although fiber is a carbohydrate, it is not digested and does not factor into the net carb number you want to keep an eye on to stay in ketosis (net carbs = total carbs – fiber and sugar alcohols). If you can, find a bar with less than 4g of net carbs!
- Sparkling water: Sparkling water can be a great low carb soda replacement, especially if you enjoy bubbly beverages. The flavors to choose from are endless - watermelon, key lime, blood orange and my personal favorite, lemon pomegranate. Plain is also an option if the flavors aren’t appealing. For air travel you’ll want to purchase this close to your travel gate to avoid having to throw it away at security.
- Nuts/seeds: Last but not least! Nuts and seeds are another staple of the keto diet and healthy eating in general. They might be classified as the ultimate portable snack because they are available at most travel stops and at the airport, fit nicely in a pocket or purse, and pack a nutrient punch of healthy fat, fiber and protein. While roasted nuts are most commonly available, dry roasted or raw are the best choices.
Hungry for more? Check out our definitive guide to keto snacks here. The convenience doesn’t stop with snacks! Meal kits and food delivery like Uber Eats and Door Dash have also jumped on the keto train with plenty of high fat, low carb options for your busy lifestyle.
Stocking Your Kitchen and Pantry
Let’s take a tour through our handy dandy grocery list as a guide to your keto friendly kitchen and pantry makeover.
- Meat, fish, poultry
- Vegan proteins: tofu, tempeh and hemp protein
- Dairy products: cheese and butter
- Dairy free alternatives: unsweetened almond or coconut milk
- Nuts, seeds and nut/seed butters
- Low carb vegetables
- Low sugar fruits
- Oils & condiments
- Baking essentials like nut flours, low carb sweeteners, flavor extracts and spices
Getting to Know Fasting
You may have heard the terms intermittent fasting (IF) and the acronym OMAD floating around, and wondered exactly what they entail and if you should give them a try? You might have figured out that both of these trends involve fasting (look at you go!), but let’s look a little deeper to see how each of them fit with individualized health goals.
In short, IF is a restriction of food, usually 12 hours or more each day. There are many different ways to try it, so let’s cover the three most common:
What About OMAD?
OMAD, or “one meal a day”, is exactly what it sounds like. You only eat one meal each day which means you are fasting for 23 hours each day, and have a one hour daily window in which to eat your meal. This approach is typically for those who are experienced with fasting, and it isn’t for everyone. While OMAD may enhance the benefits of fasting like weight loss, it can be tricky to get all the nutrients your body needs in just one meal per day, and it can be difficult to adhere to over time. Some choose to utilize OMAD a couple of times per week to make it easier to implement while also reaping the benefits of fasting.
Benefits of IF
Intermittent fasting can be a great complement to enhance the health benefits that come along with a ketogenic diet. The great thing about IF is that it affects when you eat, but not what you eat, so it really can fit with many different styles of eating, including keto.
IF can be a great tool for boosting the positive effects of a ketogenic diet and you can implement IF in whatever way fits with your lifestyle. Intermittent fasting’s flexible approach makes it simple to get started and incorporate into any healthy way of life. As with any restrictive dietary plan, if you are considering fasting via an intermittent approach or the more restrictive one-meal-a-day route, make sure to work with your health care provider or a dietitian to develop a strategy that best suits your health goals
How Long Should I Do Keto?
A clean keto diet is nutritionally adequate and can be followed for long periods of time until health goals are met. After health goals are met like achieving a healthy body composition, bringing blood pressure and blood sugar into normal range etc. you can comfortably expand your diet to include healthy, complex carbs like sweet potatoes, bananas, beans and quinoa.
But, many people like the way they feel on keto and so, if that sounds like you, focus on including the most nutritious keto foods you can find. Short term, any form of keto will provide some health benefits like weight loss or normalization of blood sugar. But, long term studies show diets high in vegetables, nuts, seeds and other whole, minimally processed plant foods are best for health.
So if you’re in it for the long haul, make sure to keep it clean.
Can I Exercise on Keto?
For the majority of human history our ancestors have had to carry heavy rocks, walk long distances, run from predators, etc. in either a completely fasted state or fueled by whatever was available - fish, green plants, bison, mushrooms, seaweed, etc. They certainly weren’t munching on a granola bar in between finding shelter and avoiding stampedes!
The human body is designed to run on whatever is available to eat and stored energy in the absence of food. So do I think you can sweat out a few burpees while following keto and live to talk about it??? Yes of course you can.
The better question to consider is - What is the best way to exercise on keto?
The Keys to a Good Workout on Keto
- Make sure you’re eating enough total calories. Food is fuel, plain and simple. Make sure you’re eating enough for your age, height, weight and activity level. If you’re not sure, check out our calculator for exactly what you need. Keep in mind, weight gain requires a surplus of calories so you’ll need to eat a bit more, while weight loss requires a deficit so you’ll need to eat a bit less.
- Get your macros in check. For keto, less than 10% of calories should be from carbs, around 60-70% of calories from fat and 20-30% from protein. For frequent exercise or activities that last longer than an hour, you’ll want to trend toward the higher end of the protein target. If you’re not sure, this calculator can help you.
- Stay hydrated and supplement with electrolytes. Every metabolic reaction in the body requires water and exercise only increases the need. Drink plenty of water, ideally half your body weight in ounces and more if you’re sweating. Supplemental electrolytes are particularly useful during a keto diet when you need a bit more sodium and other electrolytes.
- Avoid potentially dangerous activities, initially. While the body is adjusting to the keto diet, concentration, focus, and clear thinking take a hit. It’s a good idea to air on the side of caution and limit or avoid exercise during this period of time where those skills are required, for example jogging with a baby stroller or riding a bike in traffic.
- Add energy boosters as needed. There is some research that certain dietary components may boost exercise performance. Medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) are a particularly good fuel source during keto and may add some pep in your step. But, keep in mind, they can cause GI upset for some (probably not what you want on your next jog through the park). So it’s a good idea to first experiment with MCT’s with a bathroom close by. Caffeine has also been shown to boost stamina and effort when consumed just before exercise. If you’re feeling sluggish and don’t get jittery with caffeine, this may be an option for you.
- Lean towards moderate-intensity activities. Since the body prefers sugar for those short burst, high-intensity activities and sugar is noticeably absent from the keto diet, you’ll want to stick with more moderate intensity exercises like biking, running, swimming etc. However, everyone is different. Experiment with a variety of activities and settle on a routine that works for you. Make sure to work in some resistance activities in addition to cardio.
- Time your protein. The best time to take in protein to support muscle building and recovery is within the first 2 hours after a workout. About 20-40g of protein in this time frame will maximize protein synthesis. Because this may not always be the convenient or preferred time to eat, a low carb protein shake might be the best option here.
What If I Have Diabetes, Can I Still Do Keto?
Besides the well-studied link between keto diets and epilepsy, research on keto for diabetes and obesity management is expanding and is suggested to be both a fast and effective way to manage the disease.
Most of the research on the keto diet and diabetes is within the type II diabetes population. Research shows a number of benefits including:
- Improved average blood sugar over a three-month period of time in type II diabetics.
- Reduction in diabetes medications.
- Weight loss and more specifically fat loss. This is important as many individuals with type II diabetes are obese.
The daily routine of an individual with diabetes also becomes simplified as blood sugar normalizes. The focus becomes healthy food and finding new recipes rather than pills, injections, testing and dosing.
If you have diabetes and are considering the ketogenic diet, make sure to work with your health care provider to develop a plan that will help you safely cruise into ketosis before you give it a try.
For more information on diabetes and keto, check out our full post here.
What If I’m a Vegan, Can I Still Do Keto?
Vegan’s can get it on the benefits of keto too but, as with any vegan diet, careful planning is key. Check out our tips for vegan keto here.
You may also check out Will Cole’s Ketotarian cookbook for extra inspiration and recipes.
How Do I Transition Off Keto?
Transitioning off keto isn’t rocket science! Unless you are following keto for a medical condition like diabetes or epilepsy - then work with your doctor or a registered dietitian on a personalized transition plan. One of the healthiest ways to expand your diet is to incorporate keto cycling, where you include healthy carbs for a period of time and then go back to keto. This can be used as an experimental phase to see how you feel and what the ideal mix of carbs is for you. You may also try keto cycling by pairing carbs with exercise or highly active periods.
How Long does it Take to Lose Weight?
After your first week of following the keto diet, you will likely see a significant drop in weight. On a “normal” diet with a caloric deficit and regular exercise regime, most people can expect to lose one to two lbs a week, while those following a keto diet typically see a drop of anywhere from two to ten pounds.
While this is awesome, you should know that most of this weight will be water weight. Why? Because carbohydrates retain water when they are stored in the body.
That being said, during your first week your keto weight loss will largely be water as your body is depleted of its carbohydrate stores. Once you’ve burned through the glycogen stores your body will have to use your fat stores for energy.
One Month In
Four to five weeks into the diet, you’ll be past feeling the early effects of the diet and hopefully be settling into this new way of eating. If you’re sticking to the diet properly, not cheating too often (ideally not at all), your body will actively be burning fat for energy. The average monthly weight loss on keto is about four to ten pounds (one to two lbs a week is generally considered safe).
90 Days +
After 90 days of the keto diet you will likely see some significant weight loss results. Those with significant weight to lose could drop as much as 30lbs of fat in this time, though of course results vary.
I’m Not Losing Weight, What Am I Doing Wrong?
You feel like you've been following the keto diet to the letter by going very low carb and amping up healthy fats and protein foods. But on weigh-in day, the scale isn’t reflective of your efforts. We feel you! Some things to consider before you throw in the towel:
- You’re eating to many calories #truthbomb. Science wins at this argument, if you eat the same amount of calories that your body burns, you will maintain weight. (i.e. not lose weight). This is especially easy to do if you’re not exercising and over the age of 30. Pay attention to your portion sizes and consider using a tracking app to dial in what you’re eating.
- You’re not eating enough fiber. Fiber largely passes through the body unabsorbed. It’s like a broom, taking some bad stuff with it. You stay regular with fiber and it may actually even burn a few more calories as your body tries to digest it.
- You’re not sleeping enough. In study after study, we are learning how people who don’t get enough sleep are found to have an increased obesity risk. Sleep can keep cravings at bay and keep us alert naturally, rather than constantly craving caffeinated drinks and sugary foods for quick energy. Sleep restriction causes you to eat more calories and increases cravings.
- You’ve lost fat but gained muscle. Yes, this is a thing. If you’re burning fat for energy and working out to build muscle you may have just shifted your body composition. While the scale isn’t budging, you may notice your clothes fitting differently.
If you’re following the keto diet and not losing weight, get back to the basics—watch your portion sizes, eat your veggies, get enough sleep, and check your belt. You may then get the results that you’re after!
Of course! Following keto is all about learning the basics to navigate whatever food environment you may be in.
As you get started, take some time to think through your meals and snacks. You don’t have to plan out a full week of eating but it does help to look at your schedule to realistically determine when you’ll have time to eat between various commitments like work and school.
Consider eateries on and around campus. Most campus dining and restaurant menus are posted online making it fast and easy to do a little research and make some selections in advance. This will come in handy when time to eat is limited.
Grab a buddy or group of friends to join you in your keto adventures. Lifestyle change is easier when it can be undertaken with some accountability partners. This may also be particularly beneficial in the college setting where late night pizza and beer are the norm.
I’m Cooking For a Family, Can I Still Do Keto?
Listen up, parents need to take care of themselves too, right? You can absolutely do keto while cooking for your family. The key here is creating a base meal that is keto friendly with additions for anyone else that may be at the table not following keto. So pick a protein, low carb veg and healthy fat as your base and get some sides going for everyone else.
Need some inspiration?
- Sheet pan fajitas - with tortillas for family
- Crock pot chicken soup - with wild rice for family
- Chili - with beans for family
- Bolognese sauce - zucchini noodles for you, regular pasta for family
- Burgers with all the fixings - buns and baked fries for family
- Salmon and broccoli - cauliflower rice for you, quinoa for the family
Keto meals can be a great way to get everyone to eat more low carb veggies. So even if there is still rice or pasta on the table, maybe your little ones will try something new.