5 Things You Need to Know Before Going Keto
Avoid these common mistakes when starting the keto diet.
The keto diet trend shows no signs of slowing down. If you’ve decided to give it a shot, there are some key things to know from the start to help you get the best results.
What Is Keto?
The keto or ketogenic diet is designed to put your body into ketosis. Nutritional ketosis is a metabolic state in which the body creates ketones, and burns ketones and fat instead of glucose from carbohydrates. “The focus of the ketogenic diet is consuming lots of healthy fats, which provide the body with energy, while at the same time drastically reducing your carb intake,” says Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., author of Keto Diet. “Unlike some other weight loss diets, the diet isn’t focused on calorie restriction, or on consuming lots of protein in place of carbohydrates.”
Along with weight loss, the keto diet, which was used originally to treat epilepsy in children, is touted for boosting brain health and curbing sugar cravings, among other benefits. More research is still needed on the benefits of the keto diet.
Having the right ratio of macronutrients — fats, protein and carbohydrates — for keto is key to success, and that can be tricky. When following a keto diet, you need to get about 70 to 80 percent of your calories from fat, 15 to 20 percent from protein and 5 percent from carbs, notes Kristen Mancinelli, MS, RDN, author of The Ketogenic Diet. “It’s not enough to remove sugar and starch from your diet to become ketogenic,” she warns. “You also have to shift your caloric intake to be mainly fat.”
It may sound complicated, but with a solid understanding of the basics, you can find success and enjoyment from a keto diet. Here are some expert tips to get you going on the right foot.
Keto is not a meat-heavy diet.
“The ketogenic diet is a moderate-protein diet, not a high-protein diet at all,” Mancinelli says. “It’s important to not go overboard on the protein if you’re trying to maintain ketosis because it can really prevent you from being in a ketogenic state.” This is because the body can convert excess protein into glucose, and too much glucose in the blood can knock you out of ketosis, Dr. Axe warns.
One way to think about it: “My rule of thumb is, you should eat about half the amount of meat or animal protein that you think you should be eating, and add fats and some vegetables on the side,” Mancinelli says. She recommends a modest portion of protein cooked in fat with a side of vegetables covered in a fat-rich sauce, such as one made with tahini, olive oil or butter.
Mancinelli also finds that her clients mistake a diet of lean protein and vegetables for keto. “When I look at their food logs, they’ve had an enormous salad with grilled chicken breast, and their fat will be like 30 percent [of the calories], which is not even close to what you need for a ketogenic diet,” she says. If you’re going to have a salad, she recommends adding a fattier type of protein, such as steak or salmon, drizzling with plenty of olive oil or using an oil-rich dressing, adding half of an avocado, and/or sprinkling the top with cheese, nuts or seeds.
This Bacon Cheeseburger Bowl will redefine what you think of as a salad. You’ll feel like you’re enjoying an indulgent fast food meal, while actually getting plenty of nutrients and healthy fats.
You may not feel great at first.
“While on the keto diet, you’ll need to cut out grains, fruits, starchy vegetables, desserts and sugary drinks and snacks from your diet,” Dr. Axe notes. “Because your body is accustomed to using carbs for energy instead of fats, it can be a rocky transition for some people to enter into ketosis. It requires your body to go through some metabolic changes that can cause temporary side effects, such as fatigue, headaches, indigestion, constipation and cravings.” This state, sometimes called the “keto flu,” usually lasts one to two weeks, and once it lifts, you should start to feel better and have more energy.
Try this comforting Loaded “Baked Potato” Soup — it’s made with low-carbohydrate cauliflower and radishes (you won’t believe it doesn’t have any potato in it), combines bacon, cheese and olive oil for plenty of fats, and has a moderate amount of protein.
It’s important to vary your fats.
Bacon and butter are fine some of the time, but a healthy ketogenic diet should also include avocados, nuts and seeds, fatty fish, beef, chicken, cheese, eggs, olive oil and more, so you cover the different types of fats, including saturated, monounsaturated and omega-3, Mancinelli says. “Americans don’t eat enough seafood, that’s something we all could use more of. Most Americans don’t get enough omega-3 fatty acids in their diet, and they get too much omega-6 [largely from vegetable oils]. If you’re looking to shift to a ketogenic diet, you can correct some of these other things, too,” she notes.
This Poached Salmon with Green Goddess Sauce combines omega-3-rich salmon with olive oil, sour cream and mayonnaise, so you get the fats you need from a variety of sources.
The quality of your food matters.
There’s a faction within the keto world that advocates “IIFYM,” or “if it fits your macros,” meaning you can eat any junk food you want, as long as it falls within the fat-protein-carb ratio that makes it technically keto. Since keto is so trendy, plenty of companies are offering snacks, drinks and desserts that are low in carbs and high in fats, and there are scores of Instagram accounts with images of bunless fast-food cheeseburgers. But keto junk food is still junk food, and you won’t get the health benefits you’re after.
“The bottom line is, we can shift you to a ketogenic diet, and you can completely destroy your health by continuing to eat junk food that conforms to your ketogenic diet,” Mancinelli says. “If that’s what you’re after, then I recommend that you don’t even bother with the ketogenic part, because you’re wasting the effort.”
In order to feel your best while on keto, “Avoid foods with poor quality oils, processed meats, high-sodium foods, fried foods and fast foods,” Dr. Axe says. “While you do still need at least some carbs in your diet, it’s best to select high-fiber, nutrient-rich options to keep carb consumption to a minimum, especially vegetables, which provide important nutrients.”
You don’t have to be strictly keto 24/7 for the rest of your life.
“Being in ketosis is appropriate for most people for a duration of about two to 12 months — potentially longer if it’s helping to manage a health condition, such as epilepsy or diabetes. This would be decided by a doctor ideally,” Dr. Axe says. “In order to maintain results once the diet is over, you may choose to try approaches like keto-cycling or carb-cycling long-term. These involve eating very low-carb most days of the week, but intentionally increasing carbs on other days to restore glycogen reserves,” which can help some people feel better and make the diet more sustainable.
And if keto seems too daunting, that doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate some of its principles and still see benefits. “Many people would benefit from a significantly lower-carbohydrate diet than the average,” Mancinelli says. Reducing your carb intake to around 100 grams per day by avoiding refined products such as breads, crackers and pasta, as well as sugary drinks and desserts, can bring great improvement to your health, she notes. For that 100 grams of carbs, load up on vegetables and enjoy fruit in moderation, so you get plenty of nutrients to boost your health. Try Bell Pepper Keto Nachos as a way to swap a vegetable for a refined carb.