- How ketogenic diet works
- Is keto diet healthy?
- Will keto diet reduce belly fat?
- Do keto diets bring health risks?
- The main rules of Keto
- Variations of Ketogenic Diet
- Standard Ketogenic Diet (SKD)
- Cyclical Ketogenic Diet (CKD)
- Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD)
- How to Start Keto Diet
- Common Questions and Tips
The ketogenic diet is a low-carb, high-fat diet with numerous health advantages. First invented in 1920 as a remedy for treatment-resistant epilepsy in children, variations of the diet plan have been reported to be effective in preventing and treating a variety of health problems such as cancer (), diabetes (Source), epilepsy (), and dementia (Source).
More popularly, the keto diet is the most recent breakthrough for your low-carb lifestyle. It has become the go-to strategy for fast and effective weight loss.
While low-carb diets have been popular for decades, dietary fat has long been vilified. For decades, fat was thought to lead to higher rates of obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Today, science shows that the benefits of a high-fat, low-carb diet are both real and measurable (Source).
In this guide, we are going to take a deep dive into what is keto diet. We'll cover 5 important topics:
the health benefits, health risks, types of keto diet plans, keto-friendly foods, and tips for how to start a keto diet.
Let's get going!
How the ketogenic diet works
The ketogenic diet works by changing your body's primary fuel source from carbohydrates to fat.
Our bodies love using glucose (sugar) for fuel—it's easy to use and store. But when you're on the keto diet, you dramatically restrict your carbohydrate intake. This leaves your body with not enough glucose to run on.
Ketones are the form of energy the body generates when it breaks down fat for fuel. Ketones are always available for fuel, but the goal of the ketogenic diet is to make ketones your primary source of energy: a state called "ketosis."
Ketosis occurs when the cells in your body run out of their preferred source of energy—glucose. You usually get this easy-to-process sugar from starchy foods.
If your carb consumption is low, your insulin drops, causing your body to release fat stores in large amounts. With no other option, the liver starts to convert that fat into ketones, which can then be used anywhere in the body for energy.
Ketosis is naturally triggered when you go completely off food, like when you’re fasting (or starving). Nutritional ketosis can be achieved and maintained by cutting carbohydrate intake to extreme lows. This means removing high-carb foods from your diet and replacing those calories with fatty foods.
Is the keto diet healthy?
"Healthy" is a relative term. You can totally follow the Keto diet in a healthy way, but every person has different dietary needs. There are many different ways to approach the keto diet, but you first have to consider your personal goals, needs, and risks.
What are the health benefits of the keto diet?
The keto diet has a wide range of reported health benefits--some clinical, some anecdotal. Whatever moved you to start this keto journey, the list of health benefits may be enough to keep you eating keto even after you've achieved your primary goal.
Will the keto diet help me lose weight fast?
The metabolic state of ketosis is thought to help people lose weight in two big ways.
First, it encourages the body to burn fat for energy, leading to weight loss without loss of muscle mass.
Second, ketones appear to suppress the appetite, so individuals on a ketogenic meal plan are less likely to overeat. This is the opposite of a typical diet, where an unfulfilled appetite tempts dieters to binge.
Keto dieters generally notice that they're losing weight within a couple of weeks. The challenge, as with any rapid weight loss, is to keep the weight off long-term.
While you can celebrate keto success by slowly reintroducing carbs into your diet, it is important to remember that you can never go back to eating the way you did before. If you want to keep the weight off, many of these new eating habits need to stick with you for life.
That said, the extremely low carb profile of the keto diet can be hard to stick with long-term. Most people ultimately transition to a more traditional low-carb diet once they have reached their weight loss goals.
Will the keto diet reduce belly fat?
When your body burns fat for energy, it's a lot easier to lose body fat! Other diet plans risk the breakdown of lean body mass, which is rarely a healthy or sustainable form of weight loss.
It's well established that following a keto diet not only helps you lose weight but makes sure that weight loss occurs due to burning fat. The keto diet naturally reduces calorie intake by encouraging low-carb foods. And changes to your metabolic state reduce your appetite.
The result is a reduction in fat stores. If you're storing the fat in your belly, that's where it will come from!
Will the keto diet cure my diabetes?
A low-carb diet has always been a recommendation for people with diabetes. It does seem like diabetics can better control their blood sugar by maintaining ketosis.
While the ketogenic diet can improve blood sugar control, it's important to recognize that low carb intake can cause extremely low blood sugar. If you're diabetic, keep a close eye on your numbers, particularly if you use insulin.
Do keto diets bring health risks?
Ketones are an awesome energy source, and running on them appears to be good for a lot of physical systems. The keto diet has helped people achieve weight loss when nothing else would work. Keto meals can give diabetics more stable blood sugar control. People with epilepsy (seizures) and narcolepsy (sudden attacks of sleep) find that they can reduce their symptoms and sometimes achieve remission by maintaining a state of ketosis. There is even promising research into how the keto diet affects those with dementia and Parkinson's.
As wonderful as all these sounds, the keto diet does have its downsides and risks.
It can take a while to get your body kicked into ketosis. As you make the transition from burning sugars to burning fat, you may experience a constellation of symptoms known as the "keto flu."
Keto flu symptoms include:
- bad breath
- brain fog
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
People usually get relief from the keto flu after a week or two on the keto diet, though milder forms of the symptoms may continue for as long as you restrict your carb consumption.
It can be hard to maintain such a low-carb diet long-term. If you eat carbs or include too much protein in your keto meals, you may have to go through this process again.
Observational studies show that low-carb diets high in animal products are associated with a lot of bad health outcomes, including heart disease and cancer (Source). There is mixed research on whether or not the outcomes are better if the dietary fats come from plant sources.
Keto is a very restrictive diet. There are strict limitations on the fruits and vegetables you can eat, and these are the primary source of micronutrients. Without a proper meal plan and supplements, it's possible to become malnourished. This is true of a lot of popular diet plans (Source). Malnutrition is connected to a long list of serious conditions, including brittle bones.
When you're on a keto diet, doctors recommend supplementing vitamins B, C, and E as well as omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, and electrolytes.
Gut Issues and constipation
A low-carb diet is automatically low in fiber. This can lead to digestional discomfort from entrance to exit. Doctors recommend supplementing with psyllium fiber to combat constipation and its complications.
Due to the high protein intake, the ketogenic diet increases the acidity of your blood and urine. The result is increased calcium in the urine, which can collect into spiky rocks called kidney stones (Source).
Fortunately, the keto diet is already lower in protein than most low-carb diets, but people with chronic kidney disease should consider a diet that is lower in protein.
The Bottom Line
The low-carb keto diet has been clinically proven to promote weight loss. However, high-fat diets are also known to increase the risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol in some people (). If you have gastrointestinal conditions, such as acid reflux, IBS, or gallstones, the high-fat diet may make your symptoms worse.
If you're under physician supervision for any kind of health condition, always check with your doctor before dramatically changing your diet. The keto diet has many tangible health benefits, but the risks are real.
What are the main rules of Keto?
The ketogenic diet is built on tracking macronutrients–usually just called macros. In contrast to micronutrients–essential vitamins and minerals with no caloric value–macronutrients are foods that provide the energy for your body to function.
Macronutrients come in 3 forms:
In a typical diet plan, carbohydrates provide the majority of your total calorie intake, followed by moderate protein intake and low fat. The ketogenic diet flips these recommendations upside down, with fat making up the majority of your total food intake, followed by moderate protein and extremely low carbs.
This low-carb eating plan is broken down into the following three rules:
- Consume 60-80% of your daily calories in the form of dietary fats. Keep your fat intake high by planning your meals around healthy fats such as coconut oil, olive oil, avocados, cream cheese, and grass-fed butter.
- Limit your protein intake to 10-30%. While protein-rich foods will be an essential source of nutrients, they can convert into glucose, so you'll have to be strategic when you include them in your keto recipes.
- Only 5-10% of your daily calories should come from carbs. That's net carbs of no more than 20-50 grams per day for most people. A single apple has 25 grams!
What are net carbs?
Net carbs are the carbohydrates found in food that your body can actually use for energy. This metric is determined by calculating total carbs minus fiber and sugar alcohols.
Dietary fiber is technically a carbohydrate, but because the body can’t turn it into energy, it just passes through the digestive system without converting it into calories. This isn't a bad thing. Dietary fiber is essential for healthy digestion. Similarly, sugar alcohols aren’t used as energy either.
It also means that when you look at the nutritional info of a specific food, you can't always take the carbs at face value. A lot of keto foods appear to be pretty high in carbs before you subtract dietary fiber and sugar alcohols.
Do you count calories on keto diets?
If your goal is weight loss, it is always important to keep your calories in mind.
Carbohydrates and protein each provide 4 calories per gram, and fat provides 9 calories per gram. You can determine how many grams of each macronutrient you are aiming for by working backward from your daily calorie goal.
Once you have done this calculation, as long as you hold to your macros, you don't need to count calories directly.
While tracking macronutrients lets you calculate your calories in an indirect way, many people find that ketosis suppresses their appetite enough that counting calories isn't necessary once they're in the swing of keto meal plans.
Variations of the Ketogenic Diet
While the benefits of the traditional keto diet are well-established, other versions of it are compatible with certain health needs.
There are 3 main types of keto diet:
- The standard ketogenic diet (SKD)
- The cyclical ketogenic diet (CKD)
- The targeted ketogenic diet (TKD).
Other variations include the High Protein Ketogenic Diet (HPKD), dirty keto, and keto with intermittent fasting.
The Standard Ketogenic Diet (SKD)
The SKD has several assumptions that might need to be modified for specialized users. Consider this:
- Your macros are the same every day. Once you calculate your personalized quota of each macronutrient, you stick to that every day.
- Macros are calculated for the whole day, so you can eat at any time of day you want.
- There's no need to count calories. Once you've achieved ketosis, your appetite will likely be reduced enough that counting is no longer necessary.
These rules work for a lot of people, but some individuals need their diets modified depending on how much weight they want to lose, how stable their blood sugar tends to be, or how the timing of their meals affects their athletic performance or cognitive function.
The Cyclical Ketogenic Diet (CKD)
The CKD is a variation of the keto diet plan designed for athletes and other individuals who need to burn through a lot of energy. Though some athletes can do the SKD without issue, some really need to consume carbs on occasion.
CKD addresses this issue by giving you up to two nonconsecutive days per week that you consume 100-150 grams of carbs. This creates a weekly "cycle" around which you can schedule your intense workouts.
The obvious downside to this form of the keto diet is that you break ketosis on a regular basis. In order to return to ketosis, your body has to burn all your stored glucose before it will start burning ketones for fuel. This means that you have to exercise enough to burn through all the carbs you eat if you want to return to ketosis the next day.
Urine tests, blood tests, and breath tests are available to test the level of ketones in your system. These tools can help anyone on a keto diet determine if they're actually achieving ketosis. This is particularly important on the CKD to make sure that you're not eating more carbs than you're burning, regardless of your calorie deficit or how fast you're losing weight.
The Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD)
The TKD is also designed for athletes, though it has other applications as well.
Studies show that eating carbs before exercise can improve performance and that consuming carbs after exercise can speed recovery, build muscle, and improve performance (Source). The TKD keeps the same macro profile as the Standard Ketogenic Diet–carbs making up no more than 5-10% of your daily caloric intake–but you have to be strategic about the timing of those carbs.
Variations of the TKD can be beneficial for neurological performance in conditions such as narcolepsy and dementia. By limiting your carb intake during the day and saving those foods for times when you won't need to perform–such as right before bed–you can dramatically improve cognitive function and quality of life. Even healthy people find that they have improved alertness and mental clarity when in ketosis!
Other Adjustments to Ketogenic Diets
What is dirty keto?
If you do any research on the ketogenic diet or visit support groups for the keto lifestyle, you'll discover that there is quite a bit of controversy concerning "dirty keto."
It turns out that the controversy isn't all that complicated. Dirty keto (aka Lazy keto) is the term used for a less-strict keto diet. On a lazy keto diet, you can eat whatever you want as long as you keep your net carbs below 50 grams. On a "clean" keto diet plan, you will only eat unprocessed and sustainable foods and keep your net carbs closer to 20 grams.
Dirty keto can be a helpful stepping stone for individuals working towards other keto diets. It can also serve as a form of low-carb diet that is more intense than a traditional low-carb diet for dieters who aren't concerned about maintaining ketosis. Because of the higher carb intake, most of the risks and downsides of traditional keto are avoided. The tradeoff is that you may get less of the unique benefits too.
The High Protein Ketogenic Diet (HPKD)
Like dirty keto, the HPKD is a variation on the SKD that is less intense and easier to follow. This high-fat low-carb diet maintains the target carbohydrate threshold of 5-10% of your diet, but it allows for a little more protein (30% instead of 10-20%) and a little less fat (closer to 60%). This type of diet is excellent for stabilizing your blood sugar levels and managing hunger, even if you don't quite manage to maintain ketosis. And along with dirty keto, it can serve as a stepping stone to the Standard Keto Diet.
Keto + Intermitent fasting
Intermittent Fasting (IF) is another dieting trend that is currently popular among people who want to lose weight. IF is an eating strategy where you fast (don't eat) for a set amount of time each day or week, saving all your food intake for specific windows of time.
There are a ton of approaches to intermittent fasting. Some popular variations include:
- Alternate-day fasting (fast every other day)
- 5:2 fasting (fast two days per week)
- 18:6 (fast 18 hours per day)
IF is popular for many of the same reasons that the keto diet is. The food restrictions encourage the production of ketones, which have the benefits discussed earlier. You may achieve ketosis more consistently and comfortably by combining these two eating strategies.
How to Start Keto Diet
So now you're all hyped up to start a keto diet. Now what? What are the best ways of starting a keto diet? Follow these steps:
1. Determine your personal macro targets
One of the beautiful things about the ketogenic diet is that it isn't one-size-fits-all. Your target macros depend on factors such as your sex, body weight, health concerns, and performance goals.
It's recommended to calculate macros for the SKD and modify them from there to target your goals.
We will calculate a moderate ratio of 70% fat, 20% protein, and 10% carbs.
For a typical 2000-calorie diet, your macros for the SKD are as follows:
70/100 x 2000: 1400 calories from fat
1400/9 calories per gram =
156 g of fat
25/100 x 2000 = 500 calories from protein
500/4 calories per gram =
125 g of protein
5/100 x 2000 = 100 calories from carbs
100/4 calorie per gram =
25g of carbs
If these numbers don't work for you, calculator apps on the market will calculate it for you.
Asking for help from a licensed dietitian or personal trainer is also a great way to determine what your macros should be.
2. Set a start date and stock up on keto-friendly foods
The goal of the keto diet is to cut off your body’s supply of glucose. You want to aim to eat as few carbs as possible–basically aim for zero carbs–with the understanding that it's practically impossible to cut out ALL carbs.
Cut out all forms of sugar, including most forms of fruit. As a general rule, you'll want to avoid all grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables.
You'll want to stock up on non-starchy veggies, healthy fats, and some fatty protein.
Keto food list
- Avocado oil
- Coconut oil
- Full-fat milk (dairy and/or alternatives such as coconut and almond)
- Full-fat plain yogurt
- Heavy cream
- Lard, tallow, or something with a high smoke point
- Olive oil
- Sour cream
Tip: Harder cheeses have fewer carbs.
Non-starchy vegetables such as:
- Fresh Herbs
- Leafy Greens
Tip: Fresh cauliflower can be processed into substitutes for high-carb items such as rice and mashed potatoes. There are also bread substitutes that are cauliflower-based.
ALL fresh herbs are keto-friendly, so stock up! Sometimes just switching up the seasonings on your favorite meals can add variety to your keto diet plan.
Low-fructose fruits such as:
- Berries (blackberries, raspberries, strawberries)
- Lemons & Limes
Tip: Do some research on low-carb fruits before you eat them. Some fruits you'd think were off limits are fine in small doses (like berries), but other fruits have more carbs in a single serving than you're allowed to have in a full day.
Proteins such as:
- Almond flour (or another keto-friendly alternative)
- Fish & Seafood
- Nuts and Seeds
Tip: Aim for fatty animal proteins, such as dark-meat chicken, salmon, bacon, and ribeye. Many keto diet recipes are built around a serving of protein accompanied by low-carb vegetables cooked in healthy fat.
Tip: Look into what is gluten free flour since, as listed above, some of these flours are low in carbs and high in protein.
You don’t have to sacrifice flavor to go keto. Consider these amazing keto meals.
3. Start Simple
You’ve picked a diet and calculated your macros.
You’ve set a start date and stocked your pantry.
You’ve probably skimmed the list of recommended foods and mourned the loss of some of your favorite meals.
It’s time for the most intimidating moment: making your first keto meal plan!
It’s easy to go overboard with dozens of gourmet meals with 20 ingredients. Instead, just focus on some simple food combinations that are easy to measure.
- 1-2 breakfast options for the week
- one lunch for the week
- two dinner recipes to prepare (cook in batches to save time and resources!)
Find three keto recipes that excite you, and start with those. Drawing a blank? Check out Kevin’s FREE Recipes for inspiration.
As you get comfortable/bored add a new recipe or two.
Example of week 1:
Breakfast A: Coffee blended with MTC oil and butter
Breakfast B: Almond flour pancake with butter
Lunch: Cheese stick and mayonnaise wrapped in lunch meat and lettuce
Dinner A: Salmon and asparagus with garlic butter sauce
Dinner B: Chicken thighs with riced cauliflower and gravy
As you gain more confidence, add a new recipe or two to your menu each week. Before long, you will have a repertoire of easy keto meals that you can throw together without thinking too much about it.
There is nothing wrong with repeating the same meal several times a week. But if you want variety while saving time at the store, lessen your decision fatigue, and reduce your workload Kevin’s keto-friendly meal kits (insert link)!
You can also purchase keto meal kits to lessen decision fatigue and reduce your workload!
Common Questions and Keto Diet Tips
Can I eat a lot on keto?
Your typical keto meal is likely to have less volume than you're used to consuming. These meals may look small, but they pack a punch!
Fat and protein are very calorie dense. This means that they tend to be filling. But it's still possible to consume far too many calories. When building keto meal plans, you'll want to find keto recipes that work for your personal macro profile.
Tip: If you're following a keto meal plan and still feel hungry after a meal, try sipping some water and wait a few minutes before declaring yourself deprived. We've all had an experience where we still felt hungry after a meal, then suddenly felt full after drinking a glass of water. Time will help you adjust to the new portions. You can also try to aim for keto-friendly foods that are a bit more filling. Check out a more comprehensive keto food list for inspiration.
Can I eat bananas on keto?
A medium banana contains 25g of net carbs. This is your whole carbohydrate quota for the day! It might be possible to work in a couple of bites of bananas if the rest of your calories for the day came from drinking oil, but no dietician would recommend that! Some starchy foods are just too high in carbs for you to eat them and remain in ketosis.
Is bacon dirty keto?
Though there's a little bit of sugar in most cured meats, bacon is high in fat and low-carb enough that it can be incorporated into most keto diets. Enjoy!
Is Coke Zero OK for keto?
Yes, a little bit of diet soda is okay in moderation. Artificial sweeteners and natural options like monk fruit and stevia will not throw you out of ketosis.
Can I drink alcohol on keto?
Yes, there are limited alcohol options that can be included on a keto food list. Spiked seltzer water is generally sweetened with artificial sweeteners, which are compatible with ketosis. Most hard liquors have zero net carbs, and if you plan ahead you can incorporate the occasional mixed drink into your daily rations.
If you're starting a keto diet in order to lose weight, it's important to recognize that alcohol slows your metabolism. While it doesn't kick you out of ketosis, if you consume it (even in very small amounts) you will burn fewer calories.
Can you drink coffee on keto?
Yes! Coffee is full of antioxidants and is a great beverage choice. Enjoy it black. Sweeten it with artificial sweetener. Whip in some butter and MTC oil (liquid ketones) and you have yourself an energy-packed breakfast alternative that doesn't break ketosis!
Is peanut butter keto?
Though peanuts are technically a legume, they're nutritionally more like a nut. As long as it doesn't have added sugar, peanut butter is an awesome source of protein on the keto diet, as are other nut butter!
Can I feed my whole family keto?
You can plan keto meals for your own family. For children and others who want to keep eating carbs, you can add a batch of starch to any meal to give them options. Easy options include rice, whole grain bread, pasta, and potatoes.
The ketogenic diet has many benefits. With this way of eating becoming so popular, there are many products and resources available that can help ease your transition and help you keep up with it. With just a little prep and foresight, you can start your new eating plan in a safe and effective way!