A ketogenic diet, or keto diet, is a low-carb, high-fat, and adequate-protein diet that can transform you from a sugar burner to a fat burner. But there’s more to this diet than speedy weight loss: going keto can lower your risk of deadly diseases and improve your overall health and well-being .
No matter if you are just eager to learn about the ketogenic diet or need practical advice to get you started, we have you covered! In this article, we go over everything there is to know about going keto. Going keto is easy once you have all the facts. Knowing what to expect on your keto journey will also give you the confidence you need to stay on track.
Keep reading to discover what ketogenic diets are, their different types, their health benefits, the science behind ketosis, and practical ways to achieve it.
A ketogenic diet is a high-fat, moderate-protein, and extremely low-carb diet. The goal of this diet is to force the body to burn fat instead of glucose for fuel. This fat can come either from the food you eat or from your body fat. The fat that your body will prefer (food or body fat) will depend on whether you are restricting calories.
The ketogenic diet goes against the grain of healthy eating; you eat a lot of fat, a bit of protein, and a tiny bit of carbs. But don’t think this means that you are dealing with another fad diet; the ketogenic diet is a well-established form of therapy. In fact, it has been around for a really long time — at least since the 1920s when Dr. Russell Wilder at the Mayo Clinic designed it for treating childhood epilepsy .
These days, the ketogenic diet is going through a resurgence, and not only as an epilepsy treatment. Health communities across the globe are using it to boost health, and Google searches for this diet are soaring [3,4]. Even scientists are increasingly involved in researching ketogenic diets. For instance, over two dozen studies were carried out in the past decade that confirmed that ketogenic diets are better than low-fat and other diets for health .
The Science Behind Keto
When you starve your body of carbohydrates for at least 24 hours, it switches to a metabolic state known as ketosis. Your body makes this switch by releasing fatty acids from fat stores and by converting fatty acids into fuel molecules called ketones, hence the name. Let us explain ketosis in more detail.
When you eat carbohydrates, two things happen in your body:
- Your liver converts the carbs into a simple molecule called glucose – the body’s main source of energy.
- Your pancreas releases a hormone called insulinthat your liver, muscles, and fat cells need in order to absorb glucose.
When you eat more carbohydrates than required for energy production, your body makes too much glucose that ends up being stored as body fat . And the fat you eat with those extra carbohydrates? It doesn't go to waste either – it gets stored as fat tissue as well.
But when you eat fewer carbohydrates than required, your body is forced to look elsewhere for fuel. And where does it go? Well, within the first 6-24 hours, it goes to the liver and muscles to use up glycogen stores. When glycogen is depleted within the next 12 hours, your body has no other options but to use fat as fuel and convert a portion of it into ketones.
Once your body starts producing ketones, you’ve officially reached every keto dieter’s goal — ketosis. If you're worried about ketosis being an abnormal metabolic state, don't be! Ketosis is completely natural and healthy, and it happens normally when you sleep, exercise, and fast.
Types of Ketogenic Diets
The Standard Ketogenic Diet (SKD)
Also known as classic keto, this variation is the gold standard of ketogenic eating and the version initially developed by Dr. Wilder. The macronutrient ratio here is 4:1, meaning four parts fat for every one part protein or carb. Specifically, the standard keto plate must include the following ratios:
In weight terms, this means you should eat no more than 50 grams of carbohydrates and 60 grams of protein when following the SKD. The diet does not have an official weight limit for fat because energy requirements vary from person to person.  Studies show SKD to be effective for weight loss, high blood sugar, and with some chronic diseases. If these are your goals, then SKD is the right pick for you.
Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD)
The TKD is popular among highly active people because it enhances glucose availability during workouts. The TKD is just like the standard ketogenic diet in terms of macronutrient ratios, so it won't kick you out of ketosis. It simply involves eating carbohydrates at specific times, specifically before or after exercise.
A TKD takes the middle approach to ketogenic dieting. It can be a great tool for replenishing glycogen stores in your muscles for greater workout performance. Most people following a TKD find that eating 20-50 grams of carbohydrates half an hour before your workout works best . If you're considering this diet, make sure that the carbs you eat are easily digestible such as fruit juices or white bread.
MCT Ketogenic Diet
This version relies primarily on medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) for fat. MCTs are types of saturated fats that studies show aid in calorie spending and fat burning . They're a popular keto ingredient because the body produces ketones more easily from MCTs than any other fat.
When adding MCTs to your keto meals, you can eat more carbs and protein than in classic keto and get the same results. Food containing MCTs include coconut oil and palm kernel oil. You can also get MCTs in pure oil form, such as our Kiss My Keto Unflavored MCT C8 Oil.
People go keto to lose weight, boost energy, increase focus, improve digestion, control diabetes, and prevent cancer and neurological diseases. And they're right for doing so because numerous studies show that a keto diet is an effective remedy for almost any ailment . Below is a quick overview of the science-backed benefits of ketogenic diets.
There's no doubt that ketogenic diets boost weight loss. Carbohydrates are an easily-digestible source of calories that the body can use immediately. Fat and protein, on the other hand, are difficult to digest and use up energy in the process. One of the latest systematic reviews found that ketosis suppresses appetite, explain further why ketogenic diets often lead to weight loss .
Not so long ago, medical experts were concerned about the safety of high-fat diets like keto, especially in regards to cardiovascular health. But now, studies show that ketogenic diets can actually lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides – the lipids considered as major culprits of atherosclerosis .
Type II diabetes
A lot of people choose to go keto because they're pre-diabetic or have type II diabetes. This is because ketogenic diets are proven to lower blood sugar and insulin levels which, of course, is helpful when you're battling diabetes and related conditions.
Ketogenic diets were originally designed to treat epilepsy, and they're highly effective in this regard. In fact, a recent review found that 55% of children become seizure free when following a ketogenic diet and up to 85% have fewer seizures just 3 months into treatment .
Carbohydrates are a leading acne-causing suspect. One reason for this is the fact that insulin increases both sebum production and skin cell turnover – both of which are known acne triggers. With that in mind, lowering insulin levels through a ketogenic diet can result in flawless skin.
Researchers agree that high blood sugar and elevated insulin increase the risk of some cancers. Besides that, there's this thing called the 'Warburg effect' where cancer cells depend on glucose to grow. This is exactly why starving cancer cells of carbohydrates can, and often does, slow-down cancer .
Apart from epilepsy, going keto can help with other brain disorders such as headaches, migraines, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, brain trauma, and even autism. Ketogenic diets protect neurons by normalizing energy metabolism within nerve cells. This effect also results in increased mental acuity in healthy keto dieters.
You've done your research, you've learned about the benefits, and now you need to tackle the how's of ketogenic eating. Here, we break down the essentials of ketogenic diets to give you a smooth start.
The planning stage
There's no reason why you couldn't just go headfirst into ketogenic eating. But it's always wise to plan ahead when making big changes. When switching to keto, planning starts with defining your goals. Ask yourself the following:
- Are you trying to lose, gain, or maintain weight?
- Do you want to improve your health or physical performance?
- Is your aim to boost productivity and mental acuity?
Knowing what exactly you are trying to achieve is the first step in going keto, partially because it determines your calorie intake (i.e. should you go for a calorie deficit or surplus). Once you've set your goals, begin calculating your macros.
Know your macros
The three macronutrients (macros) are fat, protein, and carbs. Fat is the cornerstone macronutrient of ketogenic diets and will make up for most of your calorie intake. You will need to calculate your macros based on your goals and your body type. Use our simple keto calculator to get your recommended macros today.
Or you can simply follow the general keto guideline for macronutrients and follow this staple ratio:
20 – 25% proteins
5-10% net carbs
These macro ratios are a no-fail for anyone starting on a keto diet. However, do be careful with carbs, especially net carbs which are total carbohydrates minus the fiber.
The preparation stage
Once you know your goals and macros, it's time to prepare for your keto journey. Start by asking yourself the following questions:
What groceries will you include?
How will you prepare your meals?
What snacks will you have on deck?
What supplements will you include, if any?
How will you measure ketosis?
Knowing what foods are keto-approved will help in making your shopping list. If you're a beginner, we suggest using our food list here to make your personalized grocery list.
What to Eat?
Still not sure what to eat on a ketogenic diet? Don't worry, for most people it takes time and knowledge to build a keto-friendly food repertoire. Below is a brief overview of what you can and should not eat on a ketogenic diet.
Fats & Oils – Get your daily fat from natural sources like eggs, fatty fish, nuts, seeds, and avocado. Prepare your food in butter, ghee, lard, and coconut oil and supplement your diet with olive and macadamia nut oils.
Proteins – If convenient, try eating organic meat and free-range eggs. You can also get your protein from fish, full-fat dairy like cheese and cream, and low-carb nuts like peanuts and Brazil nuts.
Carbohydrates– You need to eat a tiny amount of carbs when going keto to avoid nutrient deficiencies. Leafy green vegetables are your best bet, as are berries. Nut and seed flours are good substitutes for grains. The above-listed food will give you enough fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to keep you healthy.
Drinks – Plain water is best, especially when you are starting keto and are at risk of dehydration. Unsweetened coffee and tea are also fine in small amounts. You can sweeten your beverages with stevia or erythritol.
Do not eat these foods:
Grains– All grains, including whole grains, will get you nowhere near ketosis. Avoid these at all costs.
Legumes– Legumes may be high in protein, but they're even higher in carbs. Beans, chickpeas, lentils, green peas, are all food you need to avoid.
Starchy vegetables – Potatoes, corn, yams, winter squash, and most tubers are rich in starch, so stay away from these.
Sugars– Table sugar, honey, maple syrup, and corn syrup will make your attempts at going keto fall flat. If you must sweeten your dishes, do so with keto-friendly sugar substitutes.
The above examples are just to give you an overall idea of what keto eating involves. You can use our huge collection of keto recipes if you need some inspiration.
Symptoms of Ketosis
The body goes through some major metabolic adaptations on a ketogenic diet. So, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that ketosis comes with its own set of symptoms. Be on the lookout for these changes as this can help you know you're on the right track. Here is how you'll know you're in ketosis:
- Fruity breath– Ketosis causes a fruity smelling breath. The culprit for this is a ketone called acetone that exists the body through the lungs. But don't worry. You'll experience this only in the initial stages of your keto journey. You'll lose the fruity breath after your body adjusts to ketosis.
- Ketones in urine – You can use our Keto Urine Test Strips to measure the level of ketones in your urine and to know for sure if you've reached ketosis. Acetone leaves the body through urine as well, and urine strips are the most affordable way to measure your ketone levels.
- Fatigue – After decades of running on carbs, your body will need time to adjust to running on ketones. This often leads to short-term fatigue for beginners and accompanying symptoms referred to as 'keto flu' (more on that later).
- Loss of appetite – Changes in your diet alongside elevated ketone levels will reduce your appetite.
- Frequent urination – When you are in ketosis, your circulating insulin levels drop which causes your kidneys to remove excess sodium, and this leads to frequent urination.
- Weight loss– If you've noticed the number on the scale go down, you may be in ketosis but don't start celebrating just yet. What you are losing now is water weight, which is the result of frequent urination we mentioned earlier. Real weight loss from fat burning happens a week later.
- Digestive problems– Constipation or diarrhea often affects people when their body is first adjusting to a high-fat, low-carb diet.
Your genetic makeup and lifestyle habits both determine how well your body reacts to a keto diet. So, don't worry if you don't notice any of the above symptoms or if your symptoms seem unbearable. However, if these symptoms don't go away after a month, you may want to discontinue the diet for now and have your health checked.
What Happens to Your Body?
An organ that undergoes the biggest transformation on a ketogenic diet is the liver. It makes a switch from an organ of carbohydrate use and fat production to one of fat burning and ketone production . But how does this happen?
It happens through a process called ketogenesis which is complicated science, and you don't really need to delve into that. You only need to know that ketogenesis is a biochemical process your body produces ketone bodies by the breakdown of fats and protein. This process takes place in the liver which then releases three types of ketone bodies to be used for energy:
- Acetoacetate (AcAc)
- 3-hydroxybutyrate (3HB)
The first two ketone bodies provide much of the energy for your organs while acetone is a byproduct of the two and is released through breath and urine. Normally, your body produces ketones overnight when they supply 2–6% of your body's energy. On a 3-day fast, however, ketones supply 30–40% of your energy needs.
Another process that takes place during ketosis is ketolysis (breakdown of ketones). Ketolysis takes place inside the mitochondria of all organs except the liver. There, enzymes metabolize ketones and convert them into energy. The heart, kidneys, brain, and muscles have the highest concentration of these enzymes, so they use most of the ketones produced. The liver does not have these enzymes and it cannot rely on ketones for fuel, so it relies on fatty acids instead.
For your body to adapt to such major changes, it may take from one to three weeks. This is known as 'keto adaptation', and it varies from person to person. The adaptation period happens because your body needs time to increase the number of transporters and enzymes needed for ketone production. Keto adaptation also involves certain tissue like the muscles preferring free fatty acids for energy to save more ketones for the brain which can't use fat.
A common side effect of going keto is the infamous 'keto flu'. The keto flu refers to the wide range of symptoms some people experience on a ketogenic diet. If you too develop the keto flu, you will notice the following symptoms:
The keto flu is not a consequence of ketosis or a sign that you're sick. It is your body's reaction to carbohydrate restriction, and it often mimics withdrawal symptoms. In other words, when you're experiencing the keto flu, you're a carb junkie going cold turkey.
The type of symptoms, their severity, and length of the keto flu vary from person to person. These differences are due to your genetics (e.g. enzyme insufficiencies), dietary habits, and activity levels. For example, highly active people who don't eat that many carbs usually have less severe keto flu symptoms than sedentary, carb-loving folks. But even if you're an athlete, a genetic deficiency in fat-digesting enzymes may give you a severe bout of the keto flu.
As far as symptom-relief goes, consider the following tips:
Drink more fluids– Just like with the regular flu, you can ease some of the keto flu symptoms by staying hydrated. Body aches, leg cramps, headache, and insomnia are usually the result of low electrolytes caused by increased urine output. Drink water with a pinch of salt or add a bouillon cube to replenish your electrolytes.
Eat more fat – You could be feeling run down because you are not eating enough fat. A lot of people feel intimidated by the amount of fat recommended on a keto diet, don’t be that person. Go ahead and indulge in easily digestible fats such as MCTs and olive oil.
Exercise– It may seem counterintuitive to exercise when you're feeling sore and run down, but exercising will help you feel better by bringing more oxygen to your muscles and brain. Studies also show that exercising has an anxiety-relieving effect which can help you get a good night's sleep .
Tips and Precautions
The ketogenic diet is safe for most people. However, those with rare medical conditions that prevent normal metabolism should avoid keto diets. Examples of such conditions include the following:
Luckily, these disorders are extremely rare and a result of genetic abnormalities. If you happen to suffer from any one of these disorders, ask your doctor about dietary alternatives to improve your health.
Another thing to keep in mind is the difference between ketosis and ketoacidosis. Ketosis is a completely healthy metabolic state, ketoacidosis is not. Ketoacidosis involves extreme and uncontrolled ketone production and usually happens in people with type I diabetes. In healthy people, the liver produces a limited amount of ketones (185g /day), so the chances of developing ketoacidosis are low .
When considering a ketogenic diet, you'll need to pay special attention to your protein intake because there is a thing called gluconeogenesis – a metabolic process whereby the liver and kidneys convert proteins into glucose . This means that your body will turn excess proteins into sugars. Keeping your protein intake at recommended levels will prevent this.
Here are a few more tips to help you go keto:
Try intermittent fasting – Keto dieters will often use intermittent fasting to limit their calorie intake. Intermittent fasting is easiest after you're well into your keto journey because you won't experience hypoglycemic crashes.
Exercise– Regular exercising helps maintain ketosis because it takes glucose out of the blood and into your muscles and liver . Regular exercising will also allow you to eat a bit more carbs, so your body can store them as glycogen.
Don't forget fiber – You want to limit net carbs on a ketogenic diet. But you don't need to limit dietary fiber. Fiber is an indigestible carbohydrate you need to get regular bowel movements. Consider supplementing your diet with psyllium to improve digestion.
Include magnesium supplements – Magnesium deficiencies are a risk of ketogenic diets. They happen because you eat less fruit and vegetables – the main food sources of this mineral. Including a daily magnesium supplement easily resolves this problem.
- Add MCT oils– MCT oils are a valuable tool for reaching and staying in ketosis. Unlike other fats that require enzymes and bile to be digested, MCTs go straight to your liver to be converted into ketones.
A ketogenic diet doesn't have to be expensive if you plan it right. In fact, it costs the same as any other clean eating diet. In the beginning, you may have to fork out when overhauling your kitchen. But after the initial investment in keto-approved groceries, you'll see that keto doesn't cost too much. Here are a couple of tips help you budget on keto:
Buy in bulk – Buy all your food in bulk, especially from wholesalers to get bargains. Stock up on nut flours, cooking oils, and frozen veggies. You can also buy meat and meat alternatives in bulk and freeze them for up to 4 months.
Buy food online – Buying online is a great way to save you both time and money. Make sure to check shipping rates and buy from trusted sources.
Cook your own food– Dining out is usually more expensive than eating home, especially when it comes to keto-approved meals. So, strap on your apron and make some keto-friendly meals. You can make these meals in bulk to refrigerate and freeze for convenience.
Look for discounts – There's always a deal out there for butter, chicken thighs, and olive oil so keep an eye on new deals to save more money
Make a shopping list – Going to a store without a shopping list is bound to be a drain on your wallet. Not only because you'll succumb to impulse buys, but you may also buy the wrong stuff which you thought was keto-friendly in the store only to find out otherwise.
Eat seasonally – This tip is valuable when you're shopping for fruit and vegetables. Buy products that are in-season to save money. Otherwise, stock up on frozen or canned produce.
Don't let it go to waste – Throwing away leftovers or food that's gone bad won't save you money. You can use leftovers for a range of dishes – think chicken chowder from leftover chicken breasts. Also, don't buy more than you can eat. It is important to plan ahead when food shopping.
A ketogenic diet is a powerful tool for weight loss, health, and well-being. The diet may seem extreme to newcomers, mainly because it turns the food pyramid upside down. But it is actually proven to not only be safe but also effective in treating common health conditions plaguing our societies.
The ketogenic diet can improve your physical and mental performance. You will feel more energetic and productive once you've adapted to the keto way of eating. Just follow our tips and advice, and you can expect to go into ketosis within just a few weeks.
If you'd like to try your hand at keto, make sure to get well-informed first and follow our guidance. Enroll in our Ketocademy to learn more about the keto diet and how to get started. The Ketocademy is a free learning course that will teach you about keto dieting, macros, food preparation, and more!