The keto, or ketogenic, diet is growing in popularity. It focuses on eating almost no carbs. Instead, you replace your daily calories with fat and protein to encourage your body to enter a state called ketosis, where it starts to burn fat for energy.
While this sounds like the ideal weight loss plan, it can be challenging to understand or even to know where to start. What do you need to know about the keto diet before you decide to try it out?
1. It’s not something you can do casually
The keto diet requires a change in your mindset. The entire basis of keto is that you maintain perpetually low carb levels so that your body has no choice but to burn fat for energy. This, in turn, can help you lose weight as your body turns to your internal fat stores to keep you moving. It’s called a diet, but it’s more of a lifestyle change.
Your body converts carbohydrates into glycogen which is stored in your muscles. This is why athletes will eat a ton of carbs before running a marathon or playing a football game. The glycogen stores serve to fuel them during their match.
Without that extra glycogen from carbohydrates, your body still needs a source of energy — especially if you’re active or moving around a lot. Athletes are used to eating more than 200 grams of carbohydrates a day, but that’s many times the amount you’ll want to eat on the keto diet.
2. The basis of the keto diet
How do you get started with the keto diet?
The keto diet is a high-fat, low-carb, moderate-protein plan. You need to take your regular carbohydrate intake — which for most Americans is between 200 and 300 grams a day — and reduce that to 20-50 grams a day. To do that, you need to learn how to calculate your macros.
Macros are the three primary nutrition groups you’ll want to pay attention to — fats, carbs, and protein. Carbohydrates are the only macronutrient that isn’t necessary for survival. There are no essential carbs, which means you can reduce them dramatically while still maintaining a healthy diet.
Ideally, on the keto diet, you want to get between 60-75% of your calories from fat, 15-30% from protein and only 5-10% from carbs.
Tracking your macros can be difficult at first. You need to learn how to read labels to figure out what has a lot of carbs and what is suitable for your diet. You also need to learn how to calculate your net carbs. You can’t just count all the carbs you eat during the day. Instead, you take note of the total number of grams of digestible carbs that you eat. Then, you subtract the number of grams of indigestible fiber you consume. The result is your net carbs.
All that’s left to do now is choose the right foods to help push your body toward ketosis.
3. Choosing the right foods
How do you reduce your regular carb intake while still enjoying the foods you love? Start paying attention to the carbs in everyday meals. Things like natural fats — butter, various oils — and meats have no carbs per 100 grams. Many kinds of cheese also have zero carbs – be sure to check the label. Eggs usually have one carb per 100 grams, and vegetables that are above ground have anywhere from one to five carbs.
On the other side of the spectrum, you’ll want to avoid things that have too many carbs. Pasta, bread and most sweets are anathemas on the keto diet. You can eat an entire day’s worth of carbohydrates in a single protein bar.
So what do you want to eat? Eggs are an excellent option for the keto diet. Each egg contains 13 percent of your daily recommended protein intake, based on a 2,000-calorie diet, in addition to 5 grams of fat and tons of vitamins and minerals. In addition, lean proteins like chicken, turkey and red meats are low-carb options that can help you meet both your fat and protein macros for the day.
Don’t neglect your vegetables and fruits. Veggies that grow above ground have very few carbs per serving. Further, they are chock full of healthy fiber that helps reduce your daily net carb intake.
4. It’s not for everyone
While the keto diet can be a great way to lose weight, it’s not for everyone. Doctors don’t recommend this extremely low-carb diet for pregnant women or breastfeeding mothers.
Although many people with Type 2 diabetes become more sensitive to insulin on a ketogenic diet, particularly when they lose weight. Furthermore, diabetics on medications that lower blood glucose by increasing insulin levels (e.g, insulin, sulfonylureas, glinides) must monitor their sugars closely while on this diet because of the increase in insulin sensitivity.
A study of the keto diet in mice found that this high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet could raise the risk for Type 2 diabetes in otherwise healthy individuals. It doesn’t allow the body to use insulin properly, which can, in turn, lead to insulin resistance. This adds one more note of caution related to keto diets and diabetes.
Related content: Why All the Confusion About Healthy Diets?
Make sure you talk to your doctor before you make any major changes to your diet to make sure you’re healthy enough for this kind of lifestyle change. The goal is to get healthier, not make yourself sick trying to lose weight.
Take it slow and enjoy the results
Don’t try to cut your daily carb intake down to 5% in one shot. The most important thing you need to know when starting with the keto diet is to take it slow. Take time lowering your carbs until you reach your desired macros.
Don’t get discouraged — you will feel like crap as you work toward ketosis. They call it the “keto flu.” It’s the result of your body making the shift from burning glycogens to burning fat.
If you can keep your body in ketosis, it can be a fantastic tool to help you lose weight. Just be sure to talk to your doctor before making any major changes to your diet. If done properly, the keto lifestyle can be the health boost you need.
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Jennifer Landis, writer and founder of Mindfulness Mama, has been writing for the last decade and holds a BA in journalism. She is an avid goal setter and achiever.
Jennifer’s proudest accomplishments include two all-natural births, running a marathon, successfully making a croquembouche, and running two half marathons.
In addition to The Doctor Weighs In, her writing has appeared in VeryWell Family, Fortune, Scary Mommy, The Huffington Post, and Women’s Running. Tweet her your favorite health tips @JenniferELandis.