It has probably happened to you. You are at a party, see someone looking fit and energetic, and they are eating two bun-less burgers while you nibble sadly on a salad. They see your look and say, “It’s not for everyone, but I’m on the keto diet and I love it!” You ask what that is and they start telling you about their love affair with the ketogenic approach to nutrition. You leave the conversation a bit skeptical, but curious.
Now you are here to learn more.
What is the ketogenic diet? How can beginners get started? Why is this diet everywhere all of the sudden? What makes it so special? If nothing else, how can I start a diet that includes Texas barbeque? And can I still drink Starbucks?
From biological facts to pop culture anecdotes, let’s run through the foundations of Keto and help you decide if it’s right for you.
- Before we get to eat all that barbeque, there are some important keto words that we need to learn:
- Ketones & Ketosis
- Macros (Protein; Fat; Carbohydrates)
You already know some of these, and once you know the rest, you’ll know how and why the keto diet might be a good choice for your nutritional health and fitness needs.
What is ketosis?
Ketosis is what happens when your body burns fat instead of carbohydrates. Sounds like a good idea, right? This is what we are all hoping to do – burn off that fat! It is also why low-carb diets are frequently popular. The difference with the keto diet, however, is that we are consciously cutting those carbs to a specific, scientifically determined level of less than 30 grams a day to kick-start this biological process.
We teach our body to burn fat for fuel by dramatically reducing insulin in our body, which we get predominantly from our carb and sugar intake. Without insulin, cells can’t eat their go-to energy source, glucose, so they turn to something else: ketones! This is also why people with diabetes often find the keto diet works well, as they already have low insulin levels.
When your body burns fats instead of carbs, the liver produces a chemical compound called ketones. These fatty acids fuel your cells just as well as glucose, so you stay fueled without all the carbs. And don’t let the words “fatty acids” fool you – these ketones are good for you.
Too much of a good thing can be bad, however. Keto diets include some carbs (usually between 20 and 30 grams) because if your blood only eats acids, it gets acidic and you could enter a state of ketoacidosis. Ketoacidosis is a dangerous condition that can lead quickly to vomiting, rapid breathing, and even coma! If you choose a ketogenic diet, you must be prepared to always keep a small amount of glucose in your blood.
Track Your Macros
“Macros” is short for “macronutrients,” the things we put in our body that our body uses for fuel. We already talked about reducing your carbs and increasing your fats. You know that your body needs protein for strong muscles and muscle growth, so protein is going to be our go-to source for healthy, lean muscles while you lose weight.
But how do you do balance these three components?
Start by reducing your carbohydrate intake to roughly 30 grams a day. Some people find a little more (up to 50 grams) or a little less (no less than 20 grams) works best. Talk to a fitness and nutrition professional who will help you find the right balance.
Your fitness coach will also help you calculate your body fat percentage (it sounds worse than it is!). This number will let you calculate exactly how many macros – fat, carbs, and protein – you need to take in.
The basic keto diet is built from 75% fat, 20% protein, and 5% carbs.
You can find free keto calculators all over the web and your preferred app store that let you know your starting point for daily calorie intake and how many grams of your macros you should be eating to maximize ketosis.
Benefits of a ketogenic diet
If you search “keto diet,” Google will also let you know about related diets like Atkins, low-carb diets, and paleo. These nutrition choices are all similar in identifying that proteins and fats are connected to our health in positive ways, while carbohydrates and sugars are often connected to negative health outcomes.
The keto diet has some special benefits that make it one of the best fast weight-loss choices today. What started as an effective natural treatment for epilepsy has turned into a fully supported and supportive community of energetic, healthy, and happy people around the world.
The fast weight-loss results of a ketogenic lifestyle are incontrovertible. Study after study proves the basic biological fact that reducing carbs to reduce glucose production, when counteracted by an increase in fat to prompt ketone production, results in rapid and sustained weight loss.
While people often turn to a ketogenic diet for its fast weight-loss benefits, more energy in daily life may be the second-most popular reason people love keto. By reducing carbs and eliminating excess sugar, we can break our body out of a cycle of energy highs and lows. There is no mid-day crash because your keto diet never set you up with a big carb or sugar load early in the day. By changing your diet to include filling, high-fat foods instead of those empty, high-carb meal choices, you create hormonal and emotional balance. The payoff is clear, even energy all day long!
Helps get rid of acne
Some ketogenic dieters point to the improvement in their skin once they adjust to their new ketogenic lifestyle. Actress Halle Berry is just the latest celebrity to make this claim. Nutritionists suggest there may be science behind it as well. The healthy fats in the keto diet – nuts, avocados, fatty fish – are high in skin-healthy vitamins A and D as well as omega-3 fatty acids. Who needs fish oil supplements with all the fish oil you are enjoying at lunch and dinner!
The ketones, those natural chemicals in your bloodstream created when the body breaks down fat instead of carbs, have actually been shown to directly impact the brain in some fascinating ways. The body produces ketones when we get stressed, as they have a calming effect on neural pathways. Producing more ketones as part of our weight loss plan, then, has a double-bonus.
Ketones also act like antioxidants in the blood, negating the impact of oxidants in the brain that impact memory. Some studies suggest that an increase in ketones can help combat neuro-degeneration.
Ketogenic diets first appeared in the 1920s as a way to treat childhood epilepsy. Today, they have continued and proven success. A carefully-controlled, low-carb, high-fat diet can reduce seizures and often leads to a reduction in anti-seizure medication as well. It is not recommended by the Epilepsy Foundation for adults, simply because it can be so difficult to maintain and even one day off-keto can make it less effective against seizures. It is still recommended, however, for adults looking for fast weight loss.
Curb your hunger
Studies have shown that curbing your hunger is not always a matter of learning to eat less. The central nervous system can also impact those hunger pains, controlling everything in your body from your sleep cycle to your gastrointestinal system. Nutrients, hormones, as well as other signals from your body (like ketones!) can tell your central nervous system that you are still satisfied from that last meal. By sending your body into ketosis, it will not crave more glucose for your cells and you will not feel as hungry.
How to reach ketosis
A ketogenic diet is more than just your food choices. It is, like all good diets, a lifestyle change. Within two weeks of changing your habits, most people enter a state of ketosis. It is better to make the changes abruptly, rather than phase them in. Changing only one part of your diet will not give you any noticeable benefit without following the rest of the steps.
Reduce Your Carbs
The goal is to quickly switch from fueling your body with glucose to fueling with fats. This means the first, most important step, is to get your carbs down to around 30g. Count those grams!
Moderate Your Protein
While we want to increase protein to support our muscles, too much protein is too much of a good thing. Aim to moderate your protein intake to about 20% of your daily intake. Use a keto calculator to figure out what that means for you. You may choose to track grams or calories, but start tracking on Day One.
Increase Your Healthy Fats
If you have eliminated glucose, you need to start producing new fuel fast! Coconut oil, avocados, butter, and full-fat Greek yogurt are just a few of the healthy, high-fat foods that will become staples in your keto kitchen cabinets.
Get Some Sleep
Treating your body well as you ask it to work in newer and harder ways for you is essential to any lifestyle change. You make experience some of the typical side effects of the keto diet, so sleeping well and staying healthy are key to your transition.
Keep up your Workouts
Since you are considering the keto diet as part of a healthy overall lifestyle, your choice must include a great fitness program. Work with a knowledgeable trainer to build in some extra time to keep moving and keep your head clear, especially in the first few weeks of keto. Increasing your metabolism through strength training balances well with the changes to your metabolism that happen once you reach ketosis.
How do you tell when you’re in ketosis
Your body has adjusted to its new fuels and is running efficiently in ketosis! How do you know?
Anecdotally, your keto flu is long-forgotten, as is your craving for pasta! If you are feeling foggy and lethargic still, morning workouts can help you cope and combat that fog. You will soon feel more energetic and your are noticeably losing weight. The impact is fast and effective. Your mind has gone from extra-foggy to clear and precise.
You also may be experiencing some of the biological side effects of ketosis like bad breath and/or constipation. Your muscles may also cramp from the decreased hydration. Don’t forget to drink lots of water.
Scientifically, you can also track the ketones in your blood with test strips that give you a sense of how well your body has switched fuels. A glucose meter works in the opposite direction, allowing you to track the reduction in glucose in your blood. By being aware of your baseline and tracking your changes, you will clearly follow your body as it switches from glucose-burning to fat-burning.
What you can and can’t eat
I promised we’d get back to talking about that barbeque!
After they tell you how much energy they have, your friends eating a keto diet inevitably start talking about the great food they get to eat. You can get your fat and protein macros from some really great places!
Foods that are okay
- Seafood: Both crustaceans and fish provide healthy fats and protein.
- Red meat: Stick to grass-fed if you can, but enjoy your fatty, protein-rich meats.
- Poultry: A leaner protein source you should definitely keep in your diet.
- Low–carb Vegetables: High in fiber and vitamins, don’t eliminate your vegetable; use them wisely.
- Dairy: If you can digest dairy, organic cheeses and butters are key to maintaining a good daily intake of fats.
- Nuts, Seeds, and Nut oils: Nuts like walnuts and brazil nuts, flax seed, and pumpkin seeds, and their oils provide heart-health omega-3s, keto-friendly fats, and are low in carbs. Get cooking!
Foods to avoid
- Pasta & Bread: Everyone who has ever gone on a low-carb diet has struggled with this one. But to keep your carbs under 30g, these, starchy, big-carb foods are off your list.
- High-starch vegetables (including potatoes): “Starch” is code for high-carb. Choose a larger quantity of low-carb vegetables for greater nutritional value (vitamins, minerals) instead of a small portion of high-carb vegetables.
- Fruit: Yes, fruit is good for you, but if you are following a strict keto diet, fruit has much too much sugar. Avoid!
- Candy: Sugar, sugar, and more sugar!
- Alcohol: Wine, Beer, and Sprits are high in sugars, which means more glucose and less ketosis.
- Sweetened beverages: From your morning OJ to the sugar in your coffee, make sure your don’t waste your carbs on a drink that doesn’t fuel your body.
Potential side effects
Like in any lifestyle change, your body many not react the way you hope. This is why it is so important to work with professionals like John Wellborn Fitness to track your progress and carefully assess any risks. The keto diet has some great advantages, but also has some potential side effects.
In some people, the actual biological process of ketosis can cause prurigo pigmentoso, known as “keto rash,” on the chest, neck, or back. More predominant in women, this prickly skin condition can cause discomfort and is one of many reasons to pay close attention to your body, inside and out, when transitioning to a ketogenic diet.
When your blood cells start processing ketones instead of glucose as their main source of energy, sometimes your body has trouble processing some of the chemical byproducts. The most pungent of these are ammonia and acetone.
When you are in ketosis, one of the ketones produced is acetone. Since your body probably can’t use all the ketones you create on your new diet, some of these are released through your breath. Ammonia is also released through your breath when you eat too much protein and since the keto diet is high in protein, it is not unusual to encounter this side effect.
Constipation and Cramping
One of the less discussed side effect of a ketogenic diet is gastrointestinal distress. You might not want to talk about it with your fitness and nutrition advisor, but you should let them know – it’s normal!
When we switch our body over to a ketogenic diet, most people dramatically increase dairy and decrease vegetables and breads. In other words, we increase our consumption of a food category that is hard, if not impossible, to digest; and we decrease our main source of fiber. This combination is destined to result in constipation and cramping. The best way to beat it is to stay hydrated and commit yourself to keeping excellent, high fiber, cruciferous vegetables in your diet.
A well known symptom of cutting carbs and sugars is a withdraw headache. The keto diet comes with these as well. While not everyone will experience the same effects of removing carbohydrates from their body, don’t let that headache deter you. It will go away once your brain and body adjust to less glucose.
What is the keto flu?
When you radically change the way your body processes fuel, your body is bound to push back. Some of the symptoms include:
- Brain fog
- Mild nausea
- Difficulty sleeping
In other words, it will feel like you are about to come down with the flu!
Not everyone gets the flu, and not everyone gets a keto flu, but many, many people do, so you will not be alone. The symptoms range from a few hours to several days as your body adapts to the new demands you are putting on it. Your metabolism is rebalancing, your brain is readjusting, and your organs, especially your kidneys and liver, are working overtime to switch over to ketosis.
Like any flu, this will pass. In the meantime, treat this like you would any cold.
Hydration is especially important! Add some electrolytes to your hydration to make up for any extra fluid loss as your kidneys produce more urine to remove that new acetone and ammonia buildup.
“Take 2 and call your Trainer in the morning!”
The old advice holds good for the keto flu. Don’t be afraid to combat those flu symptoms with some over-the-counter pain relievers, get some rest, and then let your nutrition professional know. They will give you some additional coping strategies to get through the next few days and have your feeling great again in no time.
Keto Friendly Meals
To get you started, here are some ideas of delicious, keto-friendly meals that can introduce you to how tasty – and easy! – starting a ketogenic diet can be. And we have to start with steak:
The Perfect Ribeye Steak is a must for all non-vegetarian keto dieters. The magic is in the homemade Thyme butter. Since this dinner is high in both calories and fat, it makes a great dinner for a date night or for cutting into great leftovers.
Katie’s Keto Granola is a fan favorite! Find it in Marc Sisson’s Keto Guidebook, The Keto Reset Diet. Her fabulous blend of fatty nuts and seeds mixed with honey, vanilla, coconut and a dash of Himalayan sea salt will be your go-to granola fuel!
Keto Pancake Breakfast Sandwich
Brunch-lovers will love this. Whether you just want the keto-friendly pancakes or are enjoying the whole egg, sausage, and pancake extravaganza, this will be your new Saturday morning favorite.
Mexican dishes are a great choice for folks on a keto diet because you can start with a great base and just add fixins, like this Keto Chicken Enchilada bowl. Start with a great protein and add in your favorites, from onions and cheese to great low-carb vegetable options like jalapeños!
Head over to the blog of The Aussie Keto Queen for her irresistible recipe for Keto Baked Fish with Lemon Butter. Trust us, it tastes even better than it sounds and you can have it on the table in 15 minutes. It doesn’t get any better.
Keto Tacos? Yes, please! Nothing made with bacon, avocado, and mozzarella will ever bring you down.
How about dessert? Try these delicious, spicy Fragrant Keto Cookies when you are looking for something for dessert that reminds you of the “old days.” Or if you are going to a party, you can still bring something along that even your non-keto friends will eat. A warm blend of cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper, ground vanilla in cacao butter is the secret to this tasty treat.
More Questions? We have more answers
Now that you know the basics, we know you have more questions, and here at John Wellborn Fitness, we have the answers.
Coach John a certified fitness educator who specializes in creating healthy, holistic fat lost plans for his clients. His clients have found great success in pairing his fitness coaching with nutrition planning, from intermittent fasting to the Keto Diet.
Online and in person, he will work with you to find the nutrition and wellness fit perfect for you and can help you keep you keto diet on the right track.
Reach out now for your free fitness consultation. He’s ready to take you from beginner to pro!