At first glance, the ketogenic diet, most commonly referred to as the keto diet, might seem nearly impossible to follow. This low-carbohydrate diet is unlike any other. It's a (very) low-carb high-fat diet that requires your carb intake to make up only 5-10% of your caloric intake, while your fat intake is about 60% and protein at 30%. It's a huge departure from the typical standard American diet, which is usually high in carbohydrates. But many people have been drawn to trying this diet due to the benefits of being in the state of ketosis. Being in a ketosis state allows your body to use fat as a fuel source instead of glycogen, or carbs. Thus making it effective at burning fat which can lead to weight loss, but also other things like stabilizing blood sugar levels, improve energy levels throughout the day, improves focus, etc. Although it's been proven to be a healthy and effective way to lose fat and improve your health (if approached the right way), you should know all the facts about keto before diving in headfirst because this diet is not suitable for everyone.
With that being said, how do you make practical preparations and also prepare yourself mentally for such a big change to come? If you're going to do keto you shouldn't take it lightly, it's a drastic change that can affect you negatively if it's not approached correctly. So, if you're jumping into this high-fat, low-carb way of eating, we put together the best tips to help you sidestep challenges and set yourself up for success!
10 keto tips for beginners
Before we jump into the tips that will help make your keto journey successful, we must highlight the keto basics... There are two general keto rules:
- Everyone's macronutrients will be different, but generally, here's what keto macros look like - 70% fat, 25% protein, 5% carbohydrates.
- Track your carb intake by counting net carbs instead of total carbs. It's a simple calculation: Total Carbs - Fiber = Net Carbs
This is the best way to get into ketosis if you’re just starting out, but there are different ways to approach keto that include slightly more carbs than the above macros. To have a successful keto journey that is going to help you achieve your goals, follow the below tips to help you tailor your keto diet to your needs and lifestyle.
Determine your approach
Everyone has different goals when starting a keto diet plan. It could be for weight-loss reasons, or for other health benefits that are unrelated to fitness. When starting out, you should try the method above for at least a week or two to get you adjusted and get you in ketosis quickly. But if you find this method to be too extreme or too much of a drastic change, you can always try a different approach that might fit your goals and lifestyle better. Here are four types of keto eating plans you can follow:
- Standard: The Standard Ketogenic Diet (SKD) approach is the most common and the one mentioned above. SKD involves eating very low carbs (5% or 20 net carbs) with a moderate protein intake (around 10-20%), and very high in fats (around 75%).
- High-Protein: A High-Protein Keto Diet (HPKD) approach has a more balanced fat and protein intake. The carbs are still very low (5-10%), but there's an increase in protein intake (around 30%) and decreasing fat intake to as low as 60%. This is ideal for those who have fitness goals they want to achieve, or even for those who prefer eating less fat than what the standard approach requires.
- Targeted: The Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD) approach is ideal for those living an active lifestyle or who have specific fitness goals they want to achieve. This approach involves eating carbs before exercising for better performance. So, with TKD you are able to eat around 25-50 grams of carbs 30 minutes to an hour prior to your workout, specifically simple and easily digestible carbs. This is to help give you a boost of energy before taking part in high-intensity exercise, that way you are still able to make progress even when your carb intake is lower than it was previously.
- Cyclical: The Cyclical Ketogenic Diet (CKD) approach involves cycling between the period of eating low-carb. This means going several days eating a standard, low-carb keto diet, and then two to three days of eating high-carb. This approach makes following a keto diet more sustainable because it gives you a few rest days from eating lower carb. It’s very popular among active people looking to support muscle growth since they are constantly burning glucose and depleting their glycogen stores, so with CKD, they get a carb “refill” for a couple of days and then go back into ketosis. Be aware, this does not mean you can use those two or three days as "cheat days", instead this gives you a chance to eat good complex carbs that are filled with fiber and other nutrients you need.
Get comfortable with fat
No matter what keto approach you choose, you'll still be eating more fats than you previously were. This can be a hard adjustment for some since we are so accustomed to the Standard American Diet which is typically a low-fat diet, high-carbs, and moderate protein. People are also afraid of fat because of the bad reputation it gained throughout the years, like it being associated to increase heart disease risk. But recent studies show mixed results in relation to fats and cardiovascular health. Some studies suggest that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat while avoiding unhealthy trans fat is important for mitigating heart disease risk, while others suggest that total fat and the types of it aren't associated with heart diseases.  On the other hand, the keto diet has been shown to reduce risk factors for heart disease, including improving HDL cholesterol levels, blood pressure, triglycerides, and LDL cholesterol.  This goes to show that fat is not necessarily the enemy, instead, it comes down to the quality of your diet. If you're eating a high-fat diet that involves a lot of processed foods (which contain a lot of carbs), then there's a chance of increasing the risk of negative effects on your health.
So, let go of the idea that fat is the enemy, and focus on slowly incorporating healthy fats into your diet. You can start by incorporating healthy oils to cook more with like coconut oil, avocado oil, olive oil, or even ghee. Also, consider choosing fattier meats over lean meat. Skinless chicken breasts are normally a part of a low-carb diet, but if you want to up your fat intake then consider changing things up and getting chicken thighs since they contain more fat. You should also include fatty fish in your diet like salmon, halibut, cod, etc. Other high-fat foods that would make good snack options are nuts, cheese, yogurt, nut butter, hard-boiled eggs, dried meat, and more.
You want to slowly start pushing out carbs to get in more fat. So, instead of your usual side of potatoes consider having a mixed green salad with a hard-boiled egg, avocados, and a bit of olive oil and lemon as a dressing. Slowly adjusting to the changes and learning to fix your relationship with fats will help you adjust to the keto life successfully!
Tracking macronutrients is a must for anyone that is trying to lose weight or build muscle, but it's especially important on keto. Whether you're doing it for fitness reasons or not, you should calculate your keto macros and track them to ensure that you're getting enough of other important nutrients, not just your carbs. And although calorie intake is important, on keto tracking your macros trumps tracking calories.
So, the first thing you need to do is calculate your macros. Instead of trying to calculate what macros work best for you using various formulas, look for a keto macro calculator to help make it easier! Then download a food tracker app like MyFitnessPal, or CarbManager (designed specifically for keto and low-carb diets), to help you track your meals.
Plan your keto menu every week
If you want to avoid giving into cravings at the start of keto and continue staying on track then make your life easier by creating a keto meal plan every week! Once a week, sit down and plan out what keto meals you'll be eating, along with a list of items you'll need. Having a grocery list when shopping will ensure that you don't stray outside of that list and grab foods that are non-keto, like:
- High-sugar foods and drinks: Includes sodas, cake, ice cream, fruit juices, cookies, pretty much anything that has a lot of sugar.
- Grains and starches (yes, even gluten-free options): bread, pasta, legumes, cereal, rice.
- Most fruits: Although fruit is healthy, they are too high in natural sugars to sustain ketosis. Fruits you should stay away from are mangoes, grapes, pineapple, apples, bananas, oranges, anything that has extremely high sugar or carbs.
- Starchy vegetables: Carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and parsnips are healthy, but again, they are high-carb and can kick you out of ketosis if over consumed, making it best to avoid them.
- High carb condiments: Although some condiments are low-carb like mustard, organic mayo, ranch, others contain a lot of sugar. Avoid condiments such as ketchup, BBQ certain salad dressings, etc.
- Inflammatory fats: Processed fats like (some) mayos and vegetable oils can increase inflammation within the body.
So, what foods should you include in your keto meal plan? Let us tell you in the following section...
Focus on whole foods
Remember, the nutrition and quality of the foods you eat are still important for your overall health. So, don't just load up on all the cheese and bacon in the world, or keto substitutes for your old favorite comfort foods. Always focus on whole foods first. Consider adding these keto-friendly foods to your grocery list:
- Meat and Poultry: Beef, pork, chicken, and wild game, are all a part of a balanced keto diet. If you can opt for grass-fed or organic fattier cuts (80/20).
- Seafood: Stick to salmon, mackerel, halibut, cod, tuna, mahi-mahi, catfish, and trout.
- Eggs: Eggs are not only a great source of protein, the yolk packs a good amount of healthy fats!
- Nuts and Seeds: Stick to lower-carb nuts like pili nuts, pecans, almonds, walnuts, cashews, macadamia nuts, peanuts, and pistachios.
- Non-Starchy Vegetables: Low-carb doesn't mean you can't have any veggies! Your main carb source should come from the following veggies, zucchini, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, swiss chard, spinach, lettuce, kale, cauliflower, bell peppers, asparagus, and broccoli.
- Low-Sugar Fruits: Although you should avoid the high-sugar fruits, you should load up on these low-sugar options... Avocados, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, coconut, lemon, and limes.
- Dairy Products (preferably full-fat): Yogurt, sour cream, heavy cream, cheese, butter, and ghee, are good to have around whenever you need to add some fat to your foods.
Your meal plan should focus mainly on the above foods, then if your macros allow it you can include healthy keto snacks, which brings us to our next point!
Get comfortable reading ingredients labels
Nutrition and ingredient labels are going to be your best friend! Since keto requires greatly reducing your sugar and carb intake, you'll have to pay close attention to the ingredients label. Condiments like salad dressings, ketchup, bbq, etc, are surprisingly high in sugar and should be avoided. This is when keto-friendly (or sugar-free) options come in. There are various options for sugar-free syrups, ketchup, bbq, salad dressings, etc., but make sure that they don't have any sneaky ingredients like maltodextrin.
Another thing, since keto has become extremely popular there has been an increase in keto foods. There are keto ice creams, chocolates, bread, tortillas, chips, cookies, pancakes, you name it! But just like with the real stuff, eat them in moderation and check the nutrition label! Just because it's labeled keto doesn't necessarily mean it's low carb. Sometimes it can be marketed as keto, but have 10 net carbs per serving, which is half of your daily carb intake! So, just be wary about these keto-friendly options, there are good ones, but you have to read the nutrition and ingredient label to ensure you're not going to get kicked out of ketosis.
Hone your cooking skills and explore keto recipes
Living a keto lifestyle comes with its obstacles... Like going out to your usual brunch or dinner with friends. On one hand, keto forces you to cook healthy meals at home, on the other hand, you'll have to say "no" to a lot of food outings. So, hone your cooking skills. Get creative with some of your old favorite recipes and "ketofy" them or look for new recipes! Thanks to the popularity of keto there are now many resources for keto-approved recipes. There are websites and cookbooks dedicated to keto recipes that you'll love!
Although having a few simple healthy meals that you eat consistently will help you stay on track, it can get boring and could lead to you hating keto. This is why you should explore different keto recipes, from cooking to baking, you can save the better recipes for the weekend and stick to your usual meal plan during the week. Plus, this will save you from wondering what to eat which can result in you turning to carbs.
Plan healthy swaps
Who doesn't love to snack!? With keto, it might be a bit harder since a lot of snacks contain carbs and sugar, but luckily, there are healthy swaps you can make!
Here are a few ideas for you:
- Have chocolate cravings? Unfortunately, you can't grab your favorite chocolate bar, but you can replace it with dark chocolate! You can even add a nut butter of your choice to make it extra delicious.
- Need a low-carb, high-protein snack? Try some beef jerky, or salami, with cheese for some added fat! Depending on your serving size you can get up to 30g of protein with a snack like this.
- Need a new salty movie snack? Macadamia nuts are your go-to! They are sweet, salty, and packed with healthy fats. You can also have pork rinds as a replacement for chips!
- Swap out regular table sugar and artificial sweeteners with keto-approved sugar substitutes. You can use the following in your foods, drinks, or for baking... Stevia, monk fruit extract, or erythritol!
Be aware of the keto flu
There's one side effect you should be aware of and prepared for before starting keto - the keto flu. Luckily, it doesn't affect your entire keto journey, only at the start. The keto flu occurs on the first few days of the diet when your body is still adjusting to using fat as fuel. In the first week, or 10 days, you can experience symptoms that range from headaches, fatigue, brain fog, nausea, and constipation. Some people experience very mild symptoms, others experience them at full force. It all depends on how you've prepared for your new diet change.
To combat the keto flu and minimize the symptoms, here are a few tips:
- Start keto on a date when your week isn't hectic. You don't want to overwhelm yourself with deadlines, obligations, and a new diet.
- Take it easy with exercise the first week or two. Your body will be adjusting to burning fat rather than carbs, so you might experience a dip in your exercise performance during the first few days. Listen to your body and rest when you need to. If you usually partake in high-intensity training like lifting weights, consider lowering your weights or doing low-intensity exercise.
- Drink lots of water! Your body is going to flush a lot of water in the first few days, so make sure to hydrate enough.
- Add sodium, potassium, and magnesium to your diet. Like we said before, your body will be flushing out a lot of water, and with that goes electrolytes. If you really want to avoid having the keto flu add an electrolyte supplement that contains sodium, potassium, and magnesium.
- Eat enough fats! At the beginning stages of keto, it can be hard to eat the required amount of fat, but if you notice your energy levels dipping then consider upping your intake. An easy way to add fat to your diet and to fight the keto flu is drinking a cup of organic bone broth with some sea salt or adding MCT oil to your coffee.
Prepare a plan for life after keto
Although there are people who live a keto lifestyle, it's not entirely sustainable for everyone. In fact, most just use it as a short-term diet for weight loss or just to clean up their eating habits! There's nothing wrong with wanting to only follow a keto diet for a few months or a year, just don't let your efforts go to waste. Don't go straight back to a standard American diet, instead, shift your diet and mindset to involve eating less bread, pasta, and sugar. Ease back into carbs by introducing them slowly, start by introducing starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, then whole-grains, and so on. Quitting keto and eating all the sugar and carbs you missed can lead to disastrous effects on your body! Avoid that by planning ahead for life after keto to ensure that your hard work paid off and that those healthy eating habits you built are there to stay!
In summary, the keto diet can be the answer you've been looking for, but only if you know how to approach it. Many people tend to jump into trendy diets without doing research which can lead to hating dieting, bad relationships with food, and unhealthy habits. So, if you're going to make a drastic change to your diet by going keto then make sure to follow the above tips to ensure that you sidestep any challenges you may face and set yourself up for success.