The ketogenic (keto) diet has surged in popularity over the past years, and for good reason. Whether you want to jumpstart your weight-loss journey or simply improve your mental focus, this approach can get you there.
If you’re a beginner, starting the keto diet can be overwhelming. Which foods are OK and which should you avoid? Can you fast, too? And, what in the world are macros?
Today, we’re answering these questions and more. Join us as we share our beginner’s keto guide, complete with everything you need to know to get your diet off the ground.
Ready to learn more? Let’s jump in!
What is a Keto Diet?
Before we delve into specifics, let’s cover what a keto diet entails.
With this diet, you’ll consume high levels of fat, moderate levels of protein, and low levels of carbohydrates.
Why this balance?
Your body uses carbohydrates to create glucose, which is the primary energy source for most of the cells in your body, including those in your brain and central nervous system. Every time you eat a carb, it breaks down into glucose. Your body stores this glucose in one of two ways: as glycogen in your liver and muscle tissue or as excess fat in your adipose cells.
When you’re exercising or have gone a few hours without eating, your body needs an extra shot of energy. It will break down its glycogen stores to give you that quick burst. When you run out of glycogen and don’t replenish those stores, your body will turn to stored protein and fat for energy.
The only issue? Your brain can’t use these cells. This is where ketones come in!
The Role of Ketones
Ketones are small fuel molecules that act as an alternate energy source for your body, leveraged when your glucose levels are in short supply. These cells can power your entire body, including one of your hungriest organs: your brain.
When your body begins producing ketones, you enter into a metabolic state called ketosis. How can you get there?
As both carbs and protein can convert into blood sugar, your ketone count is highest when you consume very little carbs and only moderate proteins, focusing on fat consumption instead. When you switch your fuel supply to run on fat, you burn it 24-7! This makes it easy to access those pesky fat stores you’ve been trying to tackle for years.
In addition to weight loss, you’ll also notice an uptick in concentration when ketones help fuel your brain. Hunger also subsides and your energy levels steady themselves, helping to keep you alert.
Transitioning into the Keto Diet
As expected, getting started on keto won’t happen overnight. After all, it’s a major dietary change and requires a strategic, step-by-step approach as you prepare your body for its new normal.
Start by cutting back on your carbohydrate intake. With a keto diet plan, you’ll need to limit your intake to 50 grams per day of net carbs (digestible carbs). You’ll want to get down to eating 20 grams or less. Insulin is used in the production of certain hormones. Because of this, women should reduce their carb intake very slowly over a 2-3 month period to avoid hormone issues.
At first, you might find it easiest to count the carbs in every food you consume. While this is one approach, it can be a time-consuming and laborious one. That’s why it’s helpful to find a list of keto-friendly foods and recipes. Following these, you can stay keto without the stress and headache of calculating every meal.
Let’s take a look at a few!
- Natural fats (olive oil, butter, coconut oil)
- Fish and seafood, especially salmon and shrimp
- Grass-fed meat and poultry
- Eggs (including yolks)
- Low-carb vegetables that grow above the ground (lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, peppers, asparagus)
- Raspberries and blackberries
- Water, coffee, tea, cream
Foods to Avoid
Avoid any foods that are full of sugar and starches. These include:
- Most fruits, except berries
- Beer, soda, juice
As you’ll notice, these foods are also high in carbohydrates, so limit your intake as much as possible.
How to Get Your Body into Ketosis
Now that you know what’s on the nice and naughty list of keto foods, are you ready to enter into ketosis? There are a few ways to do so, and you can perform many steps in tandem with each other.
Increase Your Physical Activity
When you exercise, you help deplete the glycogen stores in your body. When this happens, your body will create ketones to use as fuel, burning your fat stores.
If you’re interested in the keto diet for weight loss, pairing your eating habits with an increase in physical activity is an ideal way to improve your long-term health.
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Reduce Your Carb Intake
When you reduce your intake of carbohydrates, your body can’t create glucose to use as energy. As such, it has to use fat as its main fuel source, not sugar.
As noted, eating 20 grams of net carbs per day is an ideal way to encourage your body into ketosis.
Increase Your Healthy Fat Intake
Heavy cream in your coffee? Avocado toast (on keto bread of course!) with eggs? Eating on the keto diet is delicious!
As you lower the number of carbs you eat, you’ll replace them with healthy fats, such as coconut oil, avocados, olive oil, and flaxseed oil.
Keep in mind the total caloric count of these fats to make sure you’re on track with your weight-loss goals.
Combining Intermittent Fasting with the Keto Diet
Another effective way to reach a state of ketosis? Combine your keto diet with intermittent fasting.
This is an eating pattern that cycles calorie restriction (fasting) with normal food consumption during a set timeframe. There are many variations to intermittent fasting, but one of the most common is the 16/8 method.
With this, you’ll restrict your food intake to around eight hours per day, going the remaining 16 hours without food.
You can set that eight-hour timeframe depending on your lifestyle. For instance, you might choose to eat from 12:00 noon to 8:00 p.m. and fast from 8:00 p.m. to 12:00 noon the next day.
Why does this work so well with the keto diet?
When you fast, your insulin levels and glycogen stores decrease. As such, your body shifts its fuel source from carbs to fats to maintain its energy balance. This is the exact outcome that the keto diet aims to achieve.
In addition, intermittent fasting also triggers thermogenesis or heat production in your cells. This boosts your metabolism and can lead to greater weight loss, helping you access stubborn fat stores. The method also helps you preserve muscle mass while you lose weight, and improves your overall energy levels.
Calculating and Tracking Macros
If you’ve heard anyone talk about a keto diet, the term “macros” likely popped up.
“Macros” is short for macronutrients. These are the energy-giving food components that give our bodies energy. They include carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
Too many carbs and too little fats can prevent you from entering ketosis, rendering your efforts ineffective. That’s why it’s helpful to count your macros. This includes measuring how many grams of carbs, fats, and proteins you’re consuming every day.
How to Calculate Macros
While your exact macro levels may vary from your neighbor’s, a standard keto diet centers on 10% carbs, 20% protein, and 70% fat. Caloric breakdowns are as follows:
- Carbs: Four calories per gram
- Protein: Four calories per gram
- Fat: Nine calories per gram
With these metrics in mind, how many grams of carbs, protein, and fat should you aim for each day? Let’s use a 1,600-calorie-a-day keto diet as an example.
The basic formula is:
Calories per day x percent of calories / number of calories per gram = number of daily grams.
Let’s break these down into the three categories of macros:
- Carbs: 1,600 x .10 / 4 = 40 grams per day
- Protein: 1,600 x .20 / 4 = 80 grams
- Fat: 1,600 x .70 / 9 = 125 grams
Of course, your exact macro needs will vary depending on your daily caloric intake. Speak to your doctor before beginning a keto diet to determine the levels you’ll require. In some cases, you may need more or fewer grams than these exact calculations show.
For instance, you might eat enough fat at every meal feel full after only 90 grams. As you get more comfortable in the keto diet, you’ll find that you can eyeball your macros by the way your plate looks. A standard keto plate features:
- A palm-sized portion of meat
- Two fistfuls of vegetables
- Enough fat to satiate
Start by incorporating one or two thumb-sized portions of healthy fat with each meal (such as a handful of walnuts) and build up from there.
How to Test for Ketosis
You’ve eaten right and exercised, following the keto plan. But, how can you tell if your body is really a state of ketosis? You’ll do so by measuring the three most common ketone bodies present during ketosis: acetone, acetoacetate, and BHB.
There are a few ways to analyze these levels. Let’s take a look.
The most accurate way to test for ketosis is to measure your blood ketone levels using a specialized meter.
You can buy test kits online, which include a monitor and a small pin you’ll use to prick your finger. These work by calculating the amount of beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB) present in your blood.
Some nutritional experts define ketosis as a blood ketone level that ranges between 0.5 and 3.0 mmol/L.
While can choose to test your blood levels every day, most will limit testing to once a week or every other week.
You can also use a breath analyzer to measure your blood ketone levels.
This test will measure your acetone levels. When you’re in a state of nutritional ketosis, more acetone will leave your body.
Breath acetone concentration (BrAce) can range from 1 ppm in healthy, non‐dieting subjects to 1,250 ppm in diabetic ketoacidosis. Adults following ketogenic diets will often have elevated BrAce rates of around 40 ppm.
While acetone breath analyzers can be a helpful gauge, they’re often not as accurate as a direct blood test.
You can also measure the presence of ketones in your urine by using special indicator strips on a daily basis.
One of the most cost-effective ways to measure your ketones, these are easy to use, though again, not as accurate as a blood test. Your result will display as follows:
- Small: Fewer than 20 mg/dL
- Moderate: 30 to 40 mg/dL
- Large: More than 80 mg/dL
Avoiding or Reducing the Carb Flu
If you jump too quickly into a keto diet, you could experience a negative reaction, known as the carb flu. This happens as your body adapts to a fast withdrawal of the carbs its depended on for so long.
As it learns to switch from burning glucose to burning fat, your body may feel dizzy and nauseous. In addition, you could experience headaches, cramps, and irritability.
To avoid the carb flu, start the keto diet slowly. Rather than cutting your carb intake to a strict 20 grams at once, begin by adopting a low-carb diet, then cut back over time.
In addition, it’s important to stay hydrated during this process, as dehydration can exacerbate symptoms of the carb flu. Add a pinch of mineral salt to your water to add electrolytes. You can also consume small amounts of table salt or bone broth to keep your magnesium, sodium and potassium levels where they should be.
You should also keep an eye on your caloric intake. Though you’re cutting back on carbs, you should maintain your levels of healthy fats. Keep those up and eat up!
Avoiding Mistakes on the Keto Diet Though the keto diet can be simple and straightforward once you get the hang of it, there are a few mistakes to avoid.
Some of the most common roadblocks that people run into include:
- Not eating the right kinds of fat
- Failing to stay hydrated
- Eliminating carbs altogether
Let’s address these issues, one by one.
While fats will comprise around 65% of your keto diet, not all are created equal. Even if they don’t contain carbohydrates, many fats you find at fast-food chains, restaurants, and the processed foods section at the grocery store aren’t great for your health.
For the best results, stick to healthy fats including:
- Saturated fats
- Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs)
- Some polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs)
Let’s review these in detail.
We’ve been hard-wired to think that saturated fats are terrible for our health. However, new research debunks that myth, revealing that they can actually be good for you. In fact, saturated fats are linked with the following health benefits:
- Improved HDL to LDL cholesterol ratio
- Stronger immune system function
- Improved hormone regulation
- Higher bone density
Some of the best and healthiest saturated fats to consume on the keto diet include:
- Coconut oil
- Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs)
- Palm oil
- Fatty cuts of red meat
MUFAs are healthy fats that can help decrease your risk of heart disease, improve your insulin sensitivity and lower your blood pressure.
Reach for these options at the supermarket:
- Olive oil
- Avocado oil
- Nitrate-free bacon
- Fatty fish
- Chia seeds
- Macadamia nuts
While PUFAs can be healthy, you’ll need to exercise more caution when consuming them. Some, like Omega-3 fatty acids, are brain-boosting mainstays that should be a staple in your diet.
Be wary about heating or oxidizing PUFAs, however. When you do, you can create harmful compounds including free radicals, which are linked with inflammation.
As such, steer clear of PUFAs when you’re cooking, and always consume them cold. If there’s any question about freshness, steer clear. These choices are solid picks:
- Sunflower seeds
- Avocados and avocado oil
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Salmon, tuna, mackerel
Fats to Avoid
While the above list of healthy fats can keep your keto diet on track, there are some fats that threaten to derail it. These include:
- Processed trans fats
- Vegetable oils
While naturally-occurring trans fats are permissible, processed ones can lead to metabolic diseases including type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. In addition, vegetable oil contains high levels of omega-6 fatty acids that can cause inflammation if unbalanced with equal levels of omega-3s.
Unhealthy fat sources include:
- Corn oil
- Grapeseed oil
- Canola oil
- Peanut oil
- Sunflower oil
- Vegetable shortening
By avoiding these fats and sticking to the good fats listed above, you can continue to stick to your keto diet.
Your body will lose fluids and electrolytes as you cut back on carbs. Carry around a reusable water bottle and keep track of how many times you fill it up every day.
Sipping bone broth for sodium, adding potassium through leafy greens, and munching on chia and pumpkin seeds for magnesium can also keep you hydrated.
Remember, keto requires that you cut back on carbohydrates. You don’t need to eliminate them altogether. If you do, you run the risk of becoming malnourished, as carbs are a macronutrient in food.
Focus on “good” carbs like those found in cruciferous vegetables, greens, and nut flours to stay on track.
Starting the Keto Diet Together
The keto diet can be your key to a healthier, more vibrant future.
Are you tired of spinning your wheels trying every weight-loss trick in the book? Do you want to improve your mental focus, reduce your risk for type 2 diabetes, and improve your heart health along the way?
If so, starting the keto diet is a major step in the right direction. The best part? You don’t have to go it alone.