The Ketogenic Diet: A Detailed Beginner’s Guide to Keto
The ketogenic diet (or keto diet, for short) is a low-carb, high-fat diet that offers many health benefits.
In fact, over 20 studies show that this type of diet can help you lose weight and improve your health
Ketogenic diets may even have benefits against diabetes, cancer, epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease
Here is a detailed beginner’s guide to the keto diet.
What Is a Ketogenic Diet?
The ketogenic diet is a very low-carb, high-fat diet that shares many similarities with the Atkins and low-carb diets.
It involves drastically reducing carbohydrate intake and replacing it with fat. This reduction in carbs puts your body into a metabolic state called ketosis.
When this happens, your body becomes incredibly efficient at burning fat for energy. It also turns fat into ketones in the liver, which can supply energy for the brain
Ketogenic diets can cause massive reductions in blood sugar and insulin levels. This, along with the increased ketones, has numerous health benefits
Different Types of Ketogenic Diets
There are several versions of the ketogenic diet, including:
- Standard ketogenic diet (SKD): This is a very low-carb, moderate-protein and high-fat diet. It typically contains 75% fat, 20% protein and only 5% carbs
- Cyclical ketogenic diet (CKD): This diet involves periods of higher-carb refeeds, such as 5 ketogenic days followed by 2 high-carb days.
- Targeted ketogenic diet (TKD): This diet allows you to add carbs around workouts.
- High-protein ketogenic diet: This is similar to a standard ketogenic diet, but includes more protein. The ratio is often 60% fat, 35% protein and 5% carbs.
However, only the standard and high-protein ketogenic diets have been studied extensively. Cyclical or targeted ketogenic diets are more advanced methods and primarily used by bodybuilders or athletes
Ketogenic Diets Can Help You Lose Weight
A ketogenic diet is an effective way to lose weight and lower risk factors for disease
In fact, research shows that the ketogenic diet is far superior to the often recommended low-fat diet
What’s more, the diet is so filling that you can lose weight without counting calories or tracking your food intake
One study found that people on a ketogenic diet lost 2.2 times more weight than those on a calorie-restricted low-fat diet. Triglyceride and HDL cholesterol levels also improved
Another study found that people on the ketogenic diet lost 3 times more weight than those on the diet recommended by Diabetes UK
There are several reasons why a ketogenic diet is superior to a low-fat diet, including the increased protein intake, which provides numerous benefits
The increased ketones, lower blood sugar levels and improved insulin sensitivity may also play a key role
Ketogenic Diets for Diabetes and Prediabetes
Diabetes is characterized by changes in metabolism, high blood sugar and impaired insulin function
The ketogenic diet can help you lose excess fat, which is closely linked to type 2 diabetes, prediabetes and metabolic syndrome
One study found that the ketogenic diet improved insulin sensitivity by a whopping 75%
Another study in people with type 2 diabetes found that 7 of the 21 participants were able to stop using all diabetes medications
In yet another study, the ketogenic group lost 24.4 pounds (11.1 kg), compared to 15.2 pounds (6.9 kg) in the higher-carb group. This is an important benefit when considering the link between weight and type 2 diabetes
Additionally, 95.2% of the ketogenic group were also able to stop or reduce diabetes medication, compared to 62% in the higher-carb group
Other Health Benefits of Keto
The ketogenic diet actually originated as a tool for treating neurological diseases such as epilepsy.
Studies have now shown that the diet can have benefits for a wide variety of different health conditions:
Heart disease: The ketogenic diet can improve risk factors like body fat, HDL cholesterol levels, blood pressure and blood sugar
Cancer: The diet is currently being used to treat several types of cancer and slow tumor growth
Alzheimer’s disease: The keto diet may reduce symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and slow its progression
Epilepsy: Research has shown that the ketogenic diet can cause massive reductions in seizures in epileptic children
Parkinson’s disease: One study found that the diet helped improve symptoms of Parkinson’s disease
Polycystic ovary syndrome: The ketogenic diet can help reduce insulin levels, which may play a key role in polycystic ovary syndrome
Brain injuries: One animal study found that the diet can reduce concussions and aid recovery after brain injury
Acne: Lower insulin levels and eating less sugar or processed foods may help improve acne (
Foods to Avoid
Any food that is high in carbs should be limited.
Here is a list of foods that need to be reduced or eliminated on a ketogenic diet:
Sugary foods: Soda, fruit juice, smoothies, cake, ice cream, candy, etc.
Grains or starches: Wheat-based products, rice, pasta, cereal, etc.
Fruit: All fruit, except small portions of berries like strawberries.
Beans or legumes: Peas, kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, etc.
Root vegetables and tubers: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips, etc.
Low-fat or diet products: These are highly processed and often high in carbs.
Some condiments or sauces: These often contain sugar and unhealthy fat.
Unhealthy fats: Limit your intake of processed vegetable oils, mayonnaise, etc.
Alcohol: Due to their carb content, many alcoholic beverages can throw you out of ketosis.
Sugar-free diet foods: These are often high in sugar alcohols, which can affect ketone levels in some cases. These foods also tend to be highly processed.
Foods to Eat
You should base the majority of your meals around these foods:
Meat: Red meat, steak, ham, sausage, bacon, chicken and turkey.
Fatty fish: Such as salmon, trout, tuna and mackerel.
Eggs: Look for pastured or omega-3 whole eggs.
Butter and cream: Look for grass-fed when possible.
Cheese: Unprocessed cheese (cheddar, goat, cream, blue or mozzarella).
Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, etc.
Healthy oils: Primarily extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil and avocado oil.
Avocados: Whole avocados or freshly made guacamole.
Low-carb veggies: Most green veggies, tomatoes, onions, peppers, etc.
Condiments: You can use salt, pepper and various healthy herbs and spices.
A Sample Keto Meal Plan For 1 Week
To help get you started, here is a sample ketogenic diet meal plan for one week:
- Breakfast: Bacon, eggs and tomatoes.
- Lunch: Chicken salad with olive oil and feta cheese.
- Dinner: Salmon with asparagus cooked in butter.
- Breakfast: Egg, tomato, basil and goat cheese omelet.
- Lunch: Almond milk, peanut butter, cocoa powder and stevia milkshake.
- Dinner: Meatballs, cheddar cheese and vegetables.
- Breakfast: A ketogenic milkshake
- Lunch: Shrimp salad with olive oil and avocado.
- Dinner: Pork chops with Parmesan cheese, broccoli and salad.
- Breakfast: Omelet with avocado, salsa, peppers, onion and spices.
- Lunch: A handful of nuts and celery sticks with guacamole and salsa.
- Dinner: Chicken stuffed with pesto and cream cheese, along with vegetables.
- Breakfast: Sugar-free yogurt with peanut butter, cocoa powder and stevia.
- Lunch: Beef stir-fry cooked in coconut oil with vegetables.
- Dinner: Bun-less burger with bacon, egg and cheese.
- Breakfast: Ham and cheese omelet with vegetables.
- Lunch: Ham and cheese slices with nuts.
- Dinner: White fish, egg and spinach cooked in coconut oil.
- Breakfast: Fried eggs with bacon and mushrooms.
- Lunch: Burger with salsa, cheese and guacamole.
- Dinner: Steak and eggs with a side salad.
Always try to rotate the vegetables and meat over the long term, as each type provides different nutrients and health benefits.
Healthy Keto Snacks
In case you get hungry between meals, here are some healthy, keto-approved snacks:
Fatty meat or fish
A handful of nuts or seeds
Cheese with olives
1–2 hard-boiled eggs
90% dark chocolate
A low-carb milkshake with almond milk, cocoa powder and nut butter
Full-fat yogurt mixed with nut butter and cocoa powder
Strawberries and cream
Celery with salsa and guacamole
Smaller portions of leftover meals
Tips for Eating Out on a Ketogenic Diet
It is not very hard to make most restaurant meals keto-friendly when eating out.
Most restaurants offer some kind of meat or fish-based dish. Order this, and replace any high-carb food with extra vegetables.
Egg-based meals are also a great option, such as an omelet or eggs and bacon.
Another favorite is bun-less burgers. You could also swap the fries for vegetables instead. Add extra avocado, cheese, bacon or eggs.
At Mexican restaurants, you can enjoy any type of meat with extra cheese, guacamole, salsa and sour cream.
For dessert, ask for a mixed cheese board or berries with cream.
Side Effects and How to Minimize Them
Although the ketogenic diet is safe for healthy people, there may be some initial side effects while your body adapts.
This is often referred to as the keto flu and is usually over within a few days.
Keto flu includes poor energy and mental function, increased hunger, sleep issues, nausea, digestive discomfort and decreased exercise performance.
To minimize this, you can try a regular low-carb diet for the first few weeks. This may teach your body to burn more fat before you completely eliminate carbs.
A ketogenic diet can also change the water and mineral balance of your body, so adding extra salt to your meals or taking mineral supplements can help.
For minerals, try taking 3,000–4,000 mg of sodium, 1,000 mg of potassium and 300 mg of magnesium per day to minimize side effects.
At least in the beginning, it is important to eat until you’re full and avoid restricting calories too much. Usually, a ketogenic diet causes weight loss without intentional calorie restriction.
Supplements for a Ketogenic Diet
Although no supplements are required, some can be useful.
MCT oil: Added to drinks or yogurt, MCT oil provides energy and helps increase ketone levels. Take a look at several options on Amazon.
Minerals: Added salt and other minerals can be important when starting out due to shifts in water and mineral balance.
Caffeine: Caffeine can have benefits for energy, fat loss and performance.
Exogenous ketones: This supplement may help raise the body’s ketone levels.
Creatine: Creatine provides numerous benefits for health and performance. This can help if you are combining a ketogenic diet with exercise.
Whey: Use half a scoop of whey protein in shakes or yogurt to increase your daily protein intake
How to Start a Keto Diet: 7 Tips for Beginners
If the tenets of a keto diet—high in fats and low in carbs—sound familiar, you’re not wrong. Atkins and keto are not dissimilar. The goal of both diets is to help you lose weight more efficiently by reaching a metabolic state in which your body burns fat (instead of carbohydrates) and sugar (for fuel). Classic keto diets are very high in fat, can be quite restrictive, and are often done with medical supervision. But this ultra-high level of fat may not be necessary for you to maintain the fat-burning state of ketosis. Atkins is a ketogenic diet, but one with more food choices and a greater balance of macronutrients.
Consuming a well-constructed keto diet with adequate fiber from vegetables, moderate protein, approximately 40 grams of net carbs or less a day, and about 65% of your daily calories coming from healthy fats—as you do on Atkins 20® or Atkins 40®—has shown to be safe and effective. If you’re new to the keto diet, here are a few easy tips to getting your diet plan started.
Keto Diet for Beginners
- Decrease carbs (but eat more veggies)Eating a very low carb diet is important to achieving ketosis, but low carb does not mean no carb. With Atkins 20, net carbs are restricted to 20g or fewer per day for about two weeks to guarantee that ketosis is achieved. After this induction phase, you will gradually add small amounts of net carbs back into your diet while still burning fat.When limiting your carb intake on a keto diet to 20–40 net grams per day, it is important to eat plenty of foundation vegetables to ensure you’re getting all of your necessary vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber. Reach for nutrient-dense, non-starchy veggies like kale, broccoli, spinach, asparagus, mushrooms, and peppers. Another bonus: the combination of eating whole foods plus gradually adding net carbs as you maintain ketosis also helps prevent setbacks, hunger pangs, and cravings for processed foods.Bonus tip: Swap in low carb ingredients to make your favorite meals. For example, use zucchini noodles to replace regular noodles in your favorite pasta dish!
- Decrease stressWe know that sometimes this is easier said than done! High levels of the stress hormone cortisol can elevate your blood sugar levels and get in the way of your body’s ability to achieve ketosis. If your job or personal life is currently more stressful than usual, you may want to wait to start a keto diet. You can also help reduce stress by getting lots of sleep, exercising regularly, and trying relaxation techniques like meditation or yoga.Bonus tip: Prioritize sleep by sticking to a set bedtime schedule, and aim for a consistent 7–9 hours of sleep every night.
- Increase healthy fatsLow carb keto diets replace your reduction of carbs with an increase in fat, which typically accounts for at least 60% of your daily calories. Because we’ve been told for so long to avoid fat, most people under eat fat when trying a keto diet. It is important to choose healthy fats from high-quality plant and animal sources, such as olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil as well as cheese, eggs, nuts, and fish.Bonus tip: If you find yourself getting hungry between meals, you may not be consuming enough healthy fats.
- Increase exerciseAs with any diet, increasing your activity levels can help you achieve your weight loss goals. Regularly exercising while on the keto diet, however, can also help you achieve ketosis and transition into a low carb, high fat lifestyle more quickly than you would otherwise. That’s because to achieve ketosis, your body needs to get rid of any glucose, and the more often you exercise, the quicker your body uses up its glycogen stores before turning to fat for energy.Bonus tip: It’s not uncommon to feel a bit sluggish when starting a keto diet. Ease into any new workout regimen, and be sure to include plenty of low intensity exercises as you adapt to your new diet.
- Increase your water intakeWater is crucial to supporting your metabolism and regular body functions, and low carb diets like keto have a diuretic effect on the body. Not consuming enough water, especially during the induction phase, can lead to constipation, dizziness, and cravings. In addition to drinking enough water, make sure you’re getting all of your electrolytes by adding some broth to your diet or a little extra salt to your food.Bonus tip: Stay well hydrated and drink a minimum of 6 to 8 glasses of water daily. Drink even more if you have upped your exercise or if it’s a hot day.
- Maintain your protein intakeA keto diet requires eating enough protein to supply the liver with amino acids to make new glucose for the cells and organs, such as your kidneys and your red blood cells, that can’t use ketones or fatty acids as fuel. Not consuming enough protein can lead to loss of muscle mass, while consuming an excessive amount can prevent ketosis.Bonus tip: When following a keto diet such as Atkins 20, aim for 20-30% of your diet to be made up of protein.
- Maintain your social life!Starting a keto diet doesn’t mean you have to eat every meal at home. Make smart choices when dining out by checking the menu ahead of time, asking the restaurant for nutrition information, sticking to meat and veggie options, and opting for a side salad instead of a starchy side like fries.
Sample Keto Diet Plan for Beginners
This sample keto diet for beginners provides 21.4g of net carbohydrates.
Breakfast: 4.6g net carbs
Eggs scrambled with sautéed onions and cheddar cheese
Snack: 1g net carbs
Atkins French Vanilla Shake
Lunch: 6g net carbs
Grilled chicken over baby spinach, tomato, and avocado salad
Snack: 4.4g net carbs
1 cup sliced red bell pepper with 2 tbsp ranch dressing
Dinner: 5.4g net carbs
5 oz hamburger, 1 oz pepper jack cheese, 1 small tomato, ½ Hass avocado, 2 romaine lettuce leaves