A Ketogenic Diet for Beginners
A Ketogenic Diet for Beginners
By Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt, MD – Updated August 2017
A ketogenic diet (keto) is a very low-carb diet, which turns the body into a fat-burning machine. It has many potential benefits for weight loss, health and performance, but also some potential initial side effects.
A ketogenic diet is similar to other strict low-carb diets, like the Atkins diet or LCHF (low carb, high fat). These diets often end up being ketogenic more or less by accident. The main difference between strict LCHF and keto is that protein is restricted in the latter.
A keto diet is designed specifically to result in ketosis. It’s possible to measure and adapt to reach optimal ketone levels for health, weight loss, or for physical and mental performance. Below, you can learn how to use keto to achieve your personal goals.
Make keto even simpler by signing up for our free two-week keto challenge. Get unlimited meal plans, shopping lists and much else with a free membership trial.
Introduction to the keto diet1. IntroductionWhat to eat on a keto diet2. What to eatBenefits3. BenefitsMeasuring Ketones4. How to know you’re in ketosis
Optimal ketosis5. How to reach optimal ketosisKeto guides and tips6. Tips and guidesKeto side effects7. Side EffectsFine-tuning and Troubleshooting a Ketogenic Diet8. Q&A, troubleshooting & resources
1. Introduction: What is Ketosis?
The “keto” in a ketogenic diet comes from the fact that it makes the body produce small fuel molecules called “ketones”.1 This is an alternative fuel for the body, used when blood sugar (glucose) is in short supply.
Ketones are produced if you eat very few carbs (that are quickly broken down into blood sugar) and only moderate amounts of protein (excess protein can also be converted to blood sugar).
Ketones are produced in the liver, from fat. They are then used as fuel throughout the body, including the brain. The brain is a hungry organ that consumes lots of energy every day,2 and it can’t run on fat directly. It can only run on glucose… or ketones.
On a ketogenic diet your entire body switches its fuel supply to run almost entirely on fat. Insulin levels become very low and fat burning increases dramatically. It becomes easy to access your fat stores to burn them off. This is obviously great if you’re trying to lose weight, but there are also other less obvious benefits, like for example less hunger and a steady supply of energy.
When the body produces ketones it’s said to be in ketosis. The fastest way to get there is by fasting – not eating anything – but obviously it’s not possible to fast forever.
A ketogenic diet, on the other hand, can be eaten indefinitely and also results in ketosis. It has many of the benefits of fasting – including weight loss – without having to fast.
Learn more about ketosis
checklistWho should NOT do a ketogenic diet?
A ketogenic diet is safe for most people, but in the following situations you may need extra support:
Are you on medication for diabetes, e.g. insulin? Learn more
Are you on medication for high blood pressure? Learn more
Are you breastfeeding? Learn more
2. What to Eat on a Ketogenic Diet
Here are typical foods to enjoy on a ketogenic diet. The numbers are net carbs per 100 grams. To remain in ketosis, lower is generally better:
Keto diet foods: Natural fats (butter, olive oil); Meat; Fish and seafood; Eggs; Cheese; Vegetables that grow above ground
The most important thing to reach ketosis is to avoid eating most carbohydrates. You’ll probably need to keep carb intake to under 50 grams per day of net carbs,3 ideally below 20 grams. The fewer carbs the more effective.
Try to avoid
Here’s what you should not eat on a keto diet – foods full of sugar and starch, including starchy foods like bread, pasta, rice and potatoes. As you can see, these foods are much higher in carbs.
Foods to avoid on low carb: bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, fruit, beer, soda, juice, candy
The numbers are grams of digestible carbs per 100 grams (3.5 ounces), unless otherwise noted.
This means you’ll need to completely avoid sweet sugary foods, plus starchy foods like bread, pasta, rice and potatoes. Basically follow the guidelines for a strict low-carb diet, and remember it’s supposed to be high in fat, not high in protein.
A rough guideline is below 10% energy from carbohydrates (the fewer carbs, the more effective), 15-25% protein (the lower end is more effective), and 70% or more from fat.
More specific advice on what to eat – and what not to eat
What to drink
So what do you drink on a keto diet? Water is perfect, and so is coffee or tea. Ideally, use no sweeteners. A modest amount of milk or cream is OK (but beware of caffe latte!). The occasional glass of wine is fine too.
Check out our full guides to keto drinks and keto alcohol.
Visual keto guides
For more on specific areas – like what fruits or nuts to eat on a ketogenic diet – check out our visual guides:
Keto VegetablesVegetables Keto FruitsFruits Keto NutsNuts
Keto SnacksSnacks Keto AlcoholAlcohol Keto Fats & SaucesFats & sauces
Keto drinksDrinks 20 and 50 grams of carbs in different waysHow many carbs?
Check out all our hundreds of keto recipes, or a few popular examples below:
Ketogenic low carb Easy 20 + 15 m
Hamburger Patties with Creamy Tomato Sauce and Fried Cabbage
Ketogenic low carb Medium 15 + 30 m
Pesto Chicken Casserole with Feta Cheese and Olives
Ketogenic low carb Easy 10 + 45 m
Creamy Chicken Casserole
Ketogenic low carb Medium 10 + 50 m
Keto Garlic Bread
Ketogenic low carb Easy 5 + 20 m
Low-Carb Pancakes with Berries and Whipped Cream
Ketogenic low carb Easy 15 + 30 m
Asian Cabbage Stir-Fry
Ketogenic low carb Challenging 30 + 40 m
Here are two weeks worth of recipes for breakfast, lunch and dinner on a ketogenic diet:
14-Day Keto Diet Plan
Get lots of weekly keto meal plans, complete with shopping lists and everything, with our premium meal planner tool (free trial):
Low-Carb Frittata with Fresh Spinach
Tuna Salad with Poached Eggs
Baked Chicken Wings with Creamy Broccoli
Low-Carb Tex-Mex Casserole
Salmon Burgers with Green Mash and Lemon Butter
How low is keto?
The fewer carbohydrates you eat, the bigger the effects on weight and blood sugar will be. A keto diet is a very strict low-carb diet, and thus highly effective.
Here are three examples of what a low-carb meal can look like, depending on how many carbs you eat per day. Note that only the left plate is reliably ketogenic:
Ketogenic low carbKetogenic 0-20 moderate low carbModerate 20-50 Liberal low carbLiberal 50-100
We recommend following the dietary advice as strictly as you can. When you’re happy with your weight and health, you may carefully try eating more liberally (if you want to).
How to Eat Low-Carb, High-Fat Video Course
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For everything you need to get started – meal plans, shopping lists, daily tips and troubleshooting – just sign up for our free 2-week keto low-carb challenge:
3. The Benefits of a Ketogenic Diet
The benefits that come from a ketogenic diet are similar to those of any strict low-carb diet. However, the effect might be even greater since protein is more restricted. This raises ketones more, and lowers insulin (the fat-storing hormone) more.
Low carb and weight lossLose weight
Turning your body into a fat-burning machine has obvious benefits for weight loss. Fat burning is vastly increased while insulin – the fat-storing hormone – levels drop greatly. This creates ideal circumstances in which fat loss can occur, without hunger.
Around 20 scientific studies of the highest class (RCTs) show that, compared to other diets, low-carb and ketogenic diets result in more effective weight loss.4
How to lose weight using optimal ketosis
Learn more about losing weight on low-carb diets
Low carb and diabetes reversalReverse type 2 diabetes
A ketogenic diet is excellent for reversing type 2 diabetes,5 since it lowers blood-sugar levels and the negative impact of high insulin levels.
Learn more about reversing type 2 diabetes using a low-carb diet
Low carb and weight lossImproved mental focus
Ketosis results in a steady flow of fuel (ketones) to the brain. And on a ketogenic diet you avoid big swings in blood sugar. This often results in the experience of increased focus and improved concentration.
A lot of people use keto diets specifically for increased mental performance.
Interestingly, there’s a common misperception that eating lots of carbs6 is needed for proper brain function. But this is only true when ketones are not available.
After a few days (up to a week) of keto adaptation – during which people may experience some difficulty concentrating, have headaches and become easily irritated – the body and brain can run effortlessly on ketones.
In this state, many people experience more energy and improved mental focus.
Low carb and weight lossIncreased physical endurance
Ketogenic diets can vastly increase your physical endurance, by giving you constant access to all the energy of your fat stores.
The body’s supply of stored carbohydrates (glycogen) only lasts for a couple of hours of intense exercise, or less. But your fat stores carry enough energy to easily last for weeks or even months.
When you’re adapted to burning primarily carbohydrates – like most people are today – your fat stores are not easily available, and they can’t fuel your brain. This results in constantly having to fill up by eating before, during and after longer exercise sessions. Or even just to fuel your daily activities and avoid “hanger” (hungry and irritable).
On a ketogenic diet this problem is solved. As the body and brain can easily be fueled 24/7 by your powerful fat stores, you can keep going forever like the Energizer Bunny.
Whether you are competing in a physical endurance event, or just trying to stay focused on reaching some other goal, your body has the fuel it needs to keep you going and going.
So how is it possible that most people believe that carbs are necessary to perform exercise? There are two reasons. To unlock the power of ketogenic diets for physical endurance, and not instead suffer reduced performance, you need:
Enough fluid and salt
Two weeks of adaptation to burning fat – it does not happen instantly
Learn more about maximizing endurance on a keto diet
There are many studies showing that low-carb diets improve markers of metabolic syndrome7 such as blood lipids, insulin levels, HDL-cholesterol, LDL particle size and fasting blood sugar levels. Improvements have been shown to be even greater when carbs and protein are restricted to a the point of being steadily in nutritional ketosis.
Keto and epilepsyEpilepsy
The ketogenic diet is a proven medical therapy for epilepsy that has been used since the 1920s. Traditionally it has mainly been used in children with uncontrolled epilepsy despite medication.
More recently it has also been tested successfully by adults with epilepsy, with similar good results. There are many randomized controlled trials that demonstrate the effectiveness of the ketogenic diet in decreasing seizures in patients with epilepsy.8
Using a ketogenic diet in epilepsy is that usually allows people to take less anti-epileptic drugs, while remaining seizure-free. It’s not unusual to even be able to completely stop taking these drugs while staying seizure-free.
As all anti-seizure medications have side effects – like drowsiness, reduced concentration, personality changes or even reduced IQ – being able to take less or no drugs can be hugely beneficial.
More about controlling epilepsy on a ketogenic diet
More common benefits
The benefits above are the most common ones. But there are others that are potentially even more surprising and – at least for some people – lifechanging.
Did you know that low carb often can normalize blood pressure result in less acne, control migraine and much else?
Follow the links below for more knowledge, stories and science:
Calm StomachCalm your stomach Low carb and blood pressureNormalize blood pressure Low carb and acneLess acne Low carb and heartburnLess heartburn
Keto and migraineFewer migraine attacks Beat your sugar cravingsLess sugar cravings Keto and PCOSReverse PCOS Keto and brain cancer (GBM)Treating brain cancer