Keto Diet for Beginners: A Complete Guide to the Ketogenic Diet
- What is the Keto Diet?
- The History of the Keto Diet
- Top 5 Keto Health Benefits: Just the Facts
- How to Reach Ketosis by Next Week
- Do’s and Don’ts for Ketogenic Diet Beginners
- What to Eat On a Keto Diet
- What Foods to Avoid on a Keto Diet
- Sample Keto Diet Meal Plans With Recipes
- Final Thoughts and What’s Next
There are tens of thousands of articles about the ketogenic diet on the web, and yet there’s still confusion when it comes to the details.
If you’re looking for a complete, easily-understood intro to keto for beginners, you’ve come to the right place.
We’ll start with what keto is and how it works, and take a brief look at the fascinating history of the diet.
Then we’ll dive straight into the incredible, scientifically-proven health benefits that are possible when you’re in ketosis.
Keep reading to massively upgrade your knowledge of all things keto, and learn how to reach ketosis ASAP while avoiding common beginner mistakes.
The ketogenic diet, or keto for short, is a very-low-carb, high-fat diet.
Compared to other diets, keto is unique because it forces your body to rely on fat for fuel. (Not every low-carb diet is ketogenic, either.)
As a result, your liver produces ketones, which are responsible for most of the fantastic health benefits of keto.
Typically, the keto diet uses the following macronutrient ratios:
- 20-30% of calories from protein
- 70-80% of calories from healthy fats (such as omega-3 fatty acids, avocados, olive oil, coconut oil, and grass-fed butter)
- 5% or less of calories from carbohydrates (for most people, that’s at most 30 to 50 grams of net carbs per day)
Medical keto diets, such as the ones doctors prescribe for children with epilepsy, are more severe. They usually include approximately 90% fat, 10% protein, and as close to zero carbs as possible[*].
But unless you are using keto for preventing seizures, there’s no need to be that extreme.
When you eat plenty of healthy fats and hardly any carbohydrates, your body becomes much more efficient at burning stored fat. (That’s why keto is incredibly effective for weight loss.)
The standard keto macros shown above will boost your fat-burning through the roof, and you’ll produce plenty of ketones.
And as you continue your keto journey, you’ll have plenty of room to experiment and figure out what works for your body and goals.
What are Ketones?
The ketogenic diet puts you into a state of ketosis, which means your body makes ketones for energy.
Ketones, also called ketone bodies, are high-energy molecules your liver produces when you restrict carb intake.
This production of ketones is what sets the ketogenic diet apart from all other diets.
According to science, ketones are an ancient “backup” energy system for mammals that goes back hundreds of millions of years[*].
Scientists think that evolution harnessed ketones as a reliable way for our bodies to produce energy when carbs aren’t available.
In other words, ketones were useful during times of starvation, extended fasts, or in winter when plants don’t grow abundantly.
There are three primary ketones:
- Beta-hydroxybutyrate (usually abbreviated BHB)
But don’t worry–you don’t have to memorize the different types of ketones!
In a state of ketosis, ketones take the place of carbs for most purposes[*][*]. Your body also relies on gluconeogenesis, the conversion of glycerol, lactate, and amino acids into glucose, to keep your blood sugar levels from getting dangerously low.
Most importantly, our brains and other organs can use ketones for energy more easily than carbs[*][*].
That’s why most people experience increased mental clarity, improved mood, and reduced hunger on keto.
These molecules also have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, which means they can help reverse and repair the cellular damage often caused by overeating sugar, for example[*][*].
While most people rarely go into ketosis because they eat too many carbs, anyone can harness ketones for better health by adopting a ketogenic diet.
And when your carb intake is sufficiently low, you can stay in ketosis as long as you want, even all the time.
Before we learn more about the health benefits of ketosis, let’s take a step back in time to learn more about the background of the keto diet.
The ketogenic diet goes back over 100 years, when doctors began using it to treat epilepsy in children. The first description of keto in scientific literature occurs in 1911[*].
Researchers had stumbled upon the remarkable idea that cutting carbs could dramatically reduce seizures.
Keto is still in use for epilepsy today, and can reduce seizures by as much as 85%[*].
In the meantime, while plenty of dietary fads came and went (remember margarine, low-fat diets, skim milk, and egg whites?), the peer-reviewed evidence for keto continued to grow, slowly and quietly at first.
Then, around the year 2017, both the popular press and scientific journals sat up and took notice of the ketogenic diet–the proven benefits could no longer be ignored or brushed aside as coincidence[*][*].
It’s been trending upward ever since, but keto is no fad diet.
Keto is the only popular diet backed by thousands of peer-reviewed papers that is effective for weight loss as well as potentially useful for treating a wide variety of diseases and disorders.
Recently, credible scientific journals have published papers investigating the benefits of ketosis and ketones for health problems like:
- ADHD [*]
- Alzheimer’s dementia [*]
- Anxiety [*]
- Autism [*]
- Autoimmune disorders [*]
- High blood pressure [*]
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) [*]
- Type 2 diabetes [*]
Not only that, researchers have also discovered that you can get some of the benefits of ketosis by merely taking keto supplements like BHB and MCT oil, even if you don’t fully adopt a keto diet[*][*].
- #1: Weight Loss With Minimal Hunger
- #2: Improved Mental Clarity, Focus, and Mood
- #3: Healthier Blood Sugar Levels
- #4: Reduced Inflammation
- #5: Lower Risk of Chronic Diseases
#1: Weight Loss With Minimal Hunger
Numerous studies prove that on the ketogenic diet, most people can lose weight without counting calories.
Yes, you read that correctly.
Not only that, hunger–usually the biggest challenge faced on restrictive diets–is rarely an issue.
For example, a 2008 randomized controlled trial published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that obese men following the keto diet lost more weight than people following a moderate-carbohydrate diet, and they ate ad libitum.
In other words, the keto dieters in the study lost more weight while eating as much as they pleased[*].
Other scientific papers have found similar results[*][*].
Because keto enhances insulin sensitivity and boosts fat oxidation, you can rely on your stored body fat for fuel, often without intentionally limiting your food intake.
Additionally, the lack of carbs translates to lower appetite, fewer cravings and no “sugar crashes,” so it’s easy to stay on track[*].
You get to stay full all the time, and still burn unwanted fat.
Along with ramping up fat oxidation and improving your metabolic health, keto also helps eliminate visceral abdominal fat or “belly fat” more effectively compared to other diets[*][*].
Excess belly fat is linked with a higher risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses, so that’s excellent news if you want to look after your long-term health (and who doesn’t?!)[*][*].
Bottom line: keto is astoundingly safe and effective for weight loss, even in children and adolescents[*].
#2: Enhanced Mental Clarity, Focus, and Mood
What happens when you eliminate sugar from your diet and replace it with healthy, anti-inflammatory ketones?
Answer: less brain fog, improved cognitive performance, and a more balanced mood.
Unlike glucose (a simple sugar), ketones are the perfect brain fuel source.
They’re easily absorbed and create far fewer toxic byproducts than carbs, which means that in a state of ketosis, your brain won’t lack for clean energy[*][*].
Say goodbye to mental fatigue and hello to sustained mental energy levels.
During aging, insulin resistance in the brain and related issues can lead to decreases in cognition. Some studies suggest that this is associated with eating unhealthy processed foods high in refined carbs[*].
As a result, the brain becomes increasingly inefficient at using carbs for energy. However, brains don’t appear to lose the ability to use ketones for energy.
And that’s probably why studies of aging brains show that ketones can enhance mental function in senior citizens[*][*].
But no matter what your age is, evidence strongly suggests that ketones are incredibly brain-healthy[*].
There’s an excellent chance that going keto can help prevent cognitive decline and promote recycling of aging brain cells in younger people, too[*].
Finally, going keto helps balance your neurotransmitters, leading to better mood and other psychological benefits[*][*][*][*].
As a result, it’s currently being studied for conditions like depression, anxiety, ADHD, and autism[*][*][*][*].
While many people are initially drawn to keto for easier weight loss, the boost in brainpower and other health benefits are remarkable, and a great reason to stay keto long-term.
#3: Healthier Blood Sugar Levels
If you eat the Standard American Diet (SAD for short), you likely experience spikes in blood glucose, followed by dips or “crashes” several times per day after meals[*].
Over time, this leads to problems with your metabolism. Eating too many carbs can cause high blood sugar, insulin resistance, and toxic effects in cells and organs[*].
High blood sugar and related problems are also the primary culprits when it comes to unwanted fat gain, junk food cravings, and lethargy[*][*][*].
But evidence indicates that going keto helps lower blood glucose, increase insulin sensitivity, and reverse the toxic effects of hyperglycemia (excessively high blood sugar)[*][*].
For example, in a 2016 trial published in Nutrition & Diabetes, obese participants with type 2 diabetes were randomized to one of two groups: low-calorie keto diet or low-calorie diet[*].
The keto diet group in the study not only lost more weight–they also experienced statistically significant improvements in insulin sensitivity.
Other studies have shown similar effects, as well as reducing or eliminating participants’ dependence on diabetes medications[*]
Translation: the ketogenic diet is not only fantastic for fat loss, but is also a top pick for reversing the harmful metabolic effects of high-carb diets.
And that’s great news when it comes to reducing inflammation in your body, as well as lowering your risk of chronic diseases, which we’ll discuss more in the next two sections!
#4: Reduced Inflammation
Inflammation is your body’s natural response to certain types of cellular stress. It involves swelling, changes in gene expression, and the loss of tissue function.
Conditions like infection, injury, and high blood sugar all lead to inflammation. If you’ve ever had a fever, or a joint that swelled up after a sports injury, then you’ve experienced inflammation.
Inflammation isn’t always a bad thing, because it gives your body a chance to heal the affected tissues.
However, as opposed to acute (short-term) inflammation, chronic (long-term) inflammation is harmful to your health.
Chronic inflammation is associated with conditions like allergies, autoimmune disorders, chronic pain, and even headaches[*][*][*].
Going keto helps reduce inflammation in two ways:
- Eating less sugar reduces your body’s inflammatory response[*][*]
- Producing ketones (or taking exogenous ketones) activates natural anti-inflammatory and antioxidant pathways in your body[*][*]
When you pair these facts, it’s no surprise that the keto diet is anti-inflammatory, unlike high-carb diets.
As a result, studies have shown keto may decrease pain, provide energy to heal compromised cells, and even help you clear up your skin[*][*][*].
Even if your chronic inflammation isn’t caused by high blood sugar or a high-carb diet, there’s reason to believe keto may have beneficial anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce it.
That’s why early studies of keto in inflammatory autoimmune conditions, allergies, and conditions like migraine headaches are showing very promising results[*][*][*].
And as you’ll learn in the next section, addressing chronic inflammation is also absolutely essential if you want to reduce your risk of chronic diseases.
#5: Lower Risk of Chronic Diseases
Even though the keto diet has been around for over 100 years, there isn’t much evidence (yet) of how it directly impacts serious chronic diseases.
That’s because the scientific community can be slow-moving and conservative, and randomized controlled studies often cost tens of millions of dollars.
However, there’s rock-solid evidence that keto lowers the risk factors of many different chronic diseases.
A risk factor is simply a marker that predicts your risk of particular diseases.
For example, high fasting blood glucose predicts an increase in cardiovascular disease risk of up to 300%[*]. If you have high blood sugar and lower it to normal levels, you’ve just decreased your risk of cardiovascular disease dramatically.
And as it turns out, keto lowers fasting blood glucose[*][*]. But that’s not the only way going keto can reduce your risk of chronic disease.
Here are other science-backed ways keto may lower your risk of serious diseases:
- Keto may reduce blood pressure, which is shown to reduce your risk of stroke, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease[*].
- Ketosis is neuroprotective. It helps reduce the effects of concussions and may reduce the risk of degenerative neurological diseases like Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis[*].
- Similar to fasting, ketosis promotes autophagy and mitophagy, which can reduce your risk of cancer[*].
- The ketogenic diet helps eliminate visceral fat (belly fat), meaning it very likely lowers your risk of heart disease and premature death[*][*].
- The ketogenic diet improves insulin sensitivity, which is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and other dementias[*][*][*][*].
So far we’ve defined the ketogenic diet, peeked at its history, and learned how it can help you lose weight safely, boost brainpower, lower your blood sugar and inflammation levels, and reduce your risk of chronic disease.
Keep reading to learn how to get into ketosis ASAP!
It’s not hard to get into ketosis quickly.
In fact, you can do it in less than a week. However, if this is your first time, it’s a good idea to take a few days to prepare first to ensure you do it the right way.
If you want to go keto as soon as possible, here’s what you need to do first:
- Choose your macronutrient ratio
- Get your hands on some ketone test strips
- Consider purchasing exogenous ketones and MCT oil to make your transition faster and easier
Now, here’s a very simple fact about keto that can also be a huge source of frustration.
At the end of the day, you’re either in ketosis, or you’re not.
The standard keto macros are a starting point, but they don’t come with a guarantee of ketosis. You have to use trial and error and make sure you eat foods that work for your body to achieve ketosis.
Most people can get there by eating at most 30-50 grams of net carbs per day, but the only way to know for sure is by testing your ketone levels.
Unfortunately, it’s fairly common for people to “go keto” for a few months, then test, only to discover they were never in ketosis at all!
If you want to prevent this problem, make sure you stock up on test strips from the start. That way, you can test and tweak your macros and food selection to stay in ketosis 24/7.
Last but not least, ketogenic supplements serve two key roles[*][*]:
- Speeding up ketosis
- Making the switch to keto easier by addressing side effects like keto flu
In other words, ketogenic supplements are optional, but you should certainly consider them for better results and an easier transition.
That’s the big-picture view of getting into ketosis quickly and painlessly.
Keep reading for more helpful tips you need to know as a keto beginner!
Do: Test Your Ketone Levels
Once again, you can start the keto diet without testing ketones…but why would you?
Don’t make the common beginner mistake of skipping ketone testing, only to find months later you aren’t getting results because you aren’t in ketosis.
For less than the cost of a ride share service, you can know for sure.
Keto test strips are useful for other reasons, too. You can test your ketone levels after taking ketogenic supplements, know for sure which foods kick you out of ketosis, or figure how long it takes you to get back into ketosis if you stray from the diet.
Pro-tip: if you want to nerd out and truly optimize your keto results, testing your blood ketone levels is a great idea. This testing method allows you to calculate your Glucose-Ketone Index (GKI), for example.
Test strips are fine if you’re just starting out, though.
If you literally can’t order test strips for some reason, check out 5 Signs You’re Fat Adapted and look for the Top 10 Ketosis Symptoms.
Don’t: Buy the “Dirty Keto” Hype
The keto diet is simple, but it’s not always easy, especially at first.
Shopping for groceries, meal prep, and cleanup can all be hard work.
As a result, some people opt for a shortcut called “dirty keto.”
Essentially this means you eat whatever you want, as long as you stay in ketosis. Think cheap hot dogs, sugar-free candy, processed low-carb foods, and fast food.
Does this really sound like a good idea?
Think about it. Just because you’re in ketosis doesn’t mean you can magically thrive on sketchy junk food.
If you’re traveling away from home, it’s probably better to eat this way temporarily than to cheat and go off keto entirely.
On the other hand, you could always take advantage of those situations to try intermittent fasting.
Bottom line: to be healthy long-term, your keto menu should consist primarily of low-carb organic whole foods, ethical pastured and grass-fed or wild-caught protein sources, healthy fats, and minimal to zero mass-produced and processed foods.
To learn more about why dirty keto is a bad idea, check out What is Dirty Keto and Is It Good For You?
Do: Drink Lots of Water
When you first start keto, you will most likely drop some water weight.
Carbs in your diet contribute to glycogen storage in your muscles and liver. And for each gram of stored glycogen, your body holds up to three or four grams of water[*][*].
When you cut carbs, your body depletes its glycogen stores, which results in a “flushing” effect of water from tissues.
And sometimes, the water weight you lose also shuttles electrolytes from your tissues.
Electrolytes are minerals that are vital for your cells and organs to function.
Electrolyte imbalances can be a big problem–they can cause fainting and heart arrhythmias, among other things.
You can avoid this potential issue by drinking plenty of water and taking an electrolyte supplement early in your keto journey.
The good news is that once you’re fat-adapted, dehydration is unlikely to be an issue.
When you burn fat for fuel, your body makes about 1.1 grams of water for every gram of fat you burn[*]. This “metabolic water” hydrates cells from the inside out, which is why a lot of people who stay in ketosis all the time rarely deal with thirst.
Bottom line: to be on the safe side, drink extra water and take electrolytes as you start out on keto. .
Don’t: Count Calories (Usually)–Count Net Carbs Instead
If you’ve tried other diets in the past, you may be used to counting calories religiously.
One of the most remarkable benefits of keto, however, is that it typically doesn’t require calorie-counting, even for losing unwanted body fat.
Counting calories doesn’t work well for long-term weight loss all by itself, and studies have proven that most people can lose weight while eating as much as they want on the keto diet[*][*][*][*].
The reason you can easily lose weight on keto is because it cranks your fat oxidation sky-high. It also reduces your appetite, meaning you don’t have to go hungry all the time to get incredible results.
The key to using fat for fuel is to carefully track your net carbs and make sure you’re in ketosis 24/7.
Focusing on calorie-counting early on overcomplicates things, and if you undereat, you’re more likely to struggle with carb cravings, too.
Occasionally, calorie-counting is beneficial on keto, but only if you hit a weight loss plateau.
To learn more about calories and the ketogenic diet, check out Do Calories Matter on Keto?
And for another way to break through plateaus without obsessing over calories, read Fasting for Weight Loss: How Intermittent Fasting Takes The Mind Games Out of Dieting.
Do: Make It a Habit
Lots of people believe it takes about 21 days to form a new habit.
While this idea isn’t exactly backed by rigorous research, new habits sure don’t form overnight (at least not healthy ones!).
Like any lifestyle change, going keto requires knowledge, a bit of willpower, and follow-through.
It’s hardly shocking: to realize the long-term benefits of the keto diet, you need to stick with it long-term.
Here are some tips to make the keto diet a habit:
- Plan your grocery shopping ahead of time
- Set aside plenty of time for meal prep
- Use a macro tracking app (or keep a food diary if you’re old-school) for the first few weeks
- Remember your goals and the many benefits of keto to stay motivated
- Measure your results for even more motivation
- Have a plan for how to deal with cravings, temptations, and social events
If you’re going through a rough patch, remember that things will get easier the longer you stay consistent.
Most importantly, if you get sidetracked, don’t give up! Take some MCT oil and BHB and track your ketone levels, and you’ll be back in ketosis in no time.
Don’t: Make These Common Beginner Mistakes
We’ve already discussed a few beginner mistakes, like not testing ketone levels, or obsessing over calories.
Here are some other newbie mistakes to avoid:
- Weighing in every day
- Excessive protein intake
- Eating too many net carbs
- Not eating enough healthy fats
Stepping on the scale each day doesn’t give you an accurate picture of your results, and can even kill your motivation. Instead, weigh in once or twice per week at most.
For an in-depth guide to measuring your progress, take a look at How to Track Ketogenic Diet Results.
Eating too much protein isn’t the end of the world, but it’s expensive and unnecessary. Keto is a moderate-protein diet, not a high-protein diet.
Excessive carb intake will ruin your keto results, obviously.
Last but not least, don’t be afraid of eating plenty of fat! Typical keto macros include over 70% of calories from healthy fats.
And if the idea of eating a lot of fat spooks you, remember that dietary fat doesn’t make you fat.
These mistakes may seem obvious, but if so, you’d be surprised how often keto beginners misunderstand how to track progress or ensure they eat the right macros.
Don’t be that person!
Do: Prepare for Keto Flu and Minor Side Effects
Keto flu and other minor side effects are not uncommon for keto beginners.
As we’ve already discussed, you can avoid most of these issues by using ketogenic supplements, drinking plenty of water, and taking electrolytes.
However, there’s a chance you may still experience symptoms like brain fog, irritability, or digestive issues.
Fortunately, these problems are temporary. People sometimes notice them in the first couple of weeks after starting keto, and they generally fade away in a matter of days.
That’s why it would be a mistake to let a few minor side effects discourage you early on!
Hang in there, be kind to yourself, and the keto flu symptoms will be gone in no time.
For more insight, check out The Keto Flu: Why It Happens and How to Get Rid of It.
If you experience symptoms that last longer than a week or two, schedule an appointment with a doctor.
Keto flu usually doesn’t last very long, so if you have long-lasting symptoms, you might be dealing with an unrelated health issue that requires medical attention.
Aside from the fact that you eat very few carbs, the keto diet is incredibly flexible.
That means you get to experiment with different foods to see what works best for your body and goals.
However, decisions around food selection can also be overwhelming.
Here are the basic ingredients you’ll need:
- Whole food sources of protein
- Low-carb vegetables
- Keto-friendly fruits
- Healthy fats
- Low-carb fiber sources
And of course, it’s best for your body and the environment to eat ethical, organic, and local foods whenever possible.
To make your grocery shopping easy and stress-free, you can print out copies of The Full Ketogenic Diet Food List and The Ultimate Low-Carbohydrate Food List!
High-quality supplements like MCT oil, exogenous ketones, grass-fed ketogenic whey protein, krill oil, and grass-fed collagen protein are a fantastic way to round out your diet and enhance your results, too.
Occasional cravings for sweets? No problem–use healthy, keto-friendly sweeteners to make delicious ketogenic desserts.
Finally, if you’re an athlete, don’t miss Nutrition for Athletes 101.
The most important foods to avoid on the keto diet are foods high in net carbs.
All you need to do is look at the label, figure out if you can stay within your macros, and make your decision on the spot. (But remember: net carbs and total carbs are not the same thing.)
Generally speaking, that means foods like starchy vegetables, grains, legumes, and most processed foods are out.
Some fruits are off-limits, while others are not.
Here’s a full list of Ketogenic Diet Foods to Avoid: 108 Foods That’ll Slow Your Fat Loss.
Over time, your decisions will become more automatic, but it’s always a good idea to double-check the label to be 100% certain.
And when it comes to optimizing your health, carbs aren’t the only thing to avoid. Watch out for unhealthy food additives, too.
Finally, some dairy products are keto-friendly, while others aren’t. If you have severe dairy allergies, check out The Ultimate Guide to Dairy-Free Keto.
If you want to take all the guesswork out of going keto, meal plans are an excellent option.
Because you aren’t faced with dozens of decisions every day, meal plans with recipes can also make your new diet less overwhelming.
Use this Keto Meal Plan For Beginners as a quick start guide to going keto immediately with zero headaches.
Or if your main goal is weight loss, but you aren’t sure where to begin, The 7-Day Keto Eating Plan for Weight Loss won’t let you down.
If you’ve been on the keto diet for a while but your results have stalled, The Easiest 7-Day Keto Meal Plan Under 1,900 Daily Calories is perfect for breaking through your plateau.
Read more about how to break keto plateaus here.
Being a keto beginner can be confusing at first, but it’s also thrilling.
Everyone’s keto journey is different, but you really can’t go wrong as long as you follow the proven tips laid out here.
And if you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t rush things!
Keep coming back to the how-to sections of this article, gather your supplies and resources, and take meaningful steps at your own pace.
Has this guide inspired you to go keto for the first time? Did it leave you with any unanswered questions? Let us know in the comments!
The post Keto Diet for Beginners: A Complete Guide to the Ketogenic Diet appeared first on Perfect Keto.