You’ve heard people rave about the amazing benefits of the keto diet: fat loss, more energy, improved mood, and even as a possible treatment for cancer and neurological disorders.
But you may be wondering what exactly the keto diet is, and if it would even work for you.
This easy ketogenic diet guide will walk you through what the keto diet is, if it’s right for you, what foods you should eat, what foods you should avoid, and other useful tips and tricks you can use along the way.
What Is the Keto Diet?
The keto (short for “ketogenic”) diet is a very low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet with a multitude of benefits, from weight loss to managing neurological disorders.
The basis of the diet revolves around encouraging your body to burn fat for fuel instead of glucose, or carbohydrates. The term “ketogenic” comes from the fact that when you lower your carb intake to a certain amount, your body uses up all of its carb stores and begins burning fat and “ketones” produced by your liver for fuel. This is called entering “ketosis”, and it has been widely studied as a fat loss and even therapeutic tool for many conditions.
Types of Keto Diets
There are different types of keto diets you can try, depending on your goals and lifestyle.
Standard keto diet. The standard keto diet is a very low-carb, moderate-protein and high-fat diet, typically containing 75 percent fat, 20 percent protein and only 5 percent carbs.
Cyclical keto diet. This version involves periods of high-carb refeeds, such as five keto days followed by two high-carb days. This is often used by athletes to ensure they have enough energy for workouts.
Targeted keto diet. This allows you to add carbs around workouts and is another great option for athletes and bodybuilders who work out intensely several days a week.
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.
6 Benefits of the Keto Diet
The keto diet has been widely studied for its many beneficial effects. Read on to see how it may help with everything from fat loss to cancer.
1. Reduced risk of heart disease
The keto diet, even though it’s high-fat, has been shown in multiple studies to actually reduce the risk of heart disease markers like high cholesterol and triglycerides. (2) This is because healthy fats are different from the processed bad fats often associated with high-fat diets. Healthy fats, like those eaten on the keto diet, have been shown to improve cholesterol numbers.
One study found that patients sticking to a keto diet for 24 weeks experienced decreased levels of triglycerides, LDL cholesterol and blood glucose, while also increasing their HDL “good” cholesterol. (3)
2. May help fight cancer
Research shows that cancer cells consume higher amounts of glucose compared to ordinary cells. Because of this, scientists have theorized that reducing or even eliminating glucose from your diet using a keto plan can essentially help “starve” cancer cells. (4)
Studies seem to back this theory, showing a ketosis diet can help reduce tumor weight and size in mice and humans, and can also help enhance responsiveness to chemotherapy. (5)
Research has also shown that cancer cells dislike using fat as an energy source (which they’re forced to do when they have no glucose to “eat” when the body is in ketosis) because it causes damage to their structure and function. (6)
3. Helps manage epilepsy
The keto diet was initially developed in the 1920s when researchers discovered that fasting had anti-seizure properties. (7) Now, the keto diet has been widely studied as a method to mimic fasting and help manage epilepsy.
Studies show ketones themselves may have anticonvulsant properties, which is backed by the fact that many seizure patients on anticonvulsant medications become seizure-free or have a significant reduction in seizure frequency during and after going on a ketogenic diet. (8)
Studies show that keto diets result in more weight loss than low-fat diets
4. Improves focus and brain power
The keto diet can also help improve brain power due to its unique effect on our mitochondria. Mitochondria can be thought of as the tiny power plants in our cells that provide energy for everything we do. Interestingly, ketosis has been shown to increase the number of mitochondria in our brain cells, providing more energy-producing factories (aka more brain power). (9)
5. Improved mood
Ketosis not only increases your brain power, but also has the ability to improve your mood. Studies show that people on a ketogenic diet undergo beneficial changes in their brain energy profile, and that ketosis can actually induce positive gene expression in your brain. (12)
This is essential when it comes to improving your mood, since brain function and mood are intricately linked. In fact, studies have shown that a ketogenic diet could act as a mood stabilizer in bipolar illness. (13)
6. Fat loss
The keto diet has gained most of its popularity from its ability to cause rapid fat loss. The reason the keto diet is so effective at burning fat is because you essentially take away your body’s main fuel source, glucose, and encourage it to burn pure fat for energy. This includes body fat and fat that you’re consuming.
Studies show that keto diets result in more weight loss than low-fat diets, and also promote improved cardiovascular health at the same time. (1)
Side Effects of the Keto Diet
The keto diet is considered safe for healthy people. However, there may be some side effects.
The most common side effect of the keto diet is the onset of “keto flu,” which is essentially experiencing lethargy and headaches, body aches, and other flu-like symptoms at the beginning of the diet.
This “flu” occurs as your body tries to adjust to burning fat as an energy source instead of carbohydrates. When you drop your carb levels, your body rapidly uses up your carb stores, then starts looking for more. Before it realizes it needs to switch to fat-burning, you may experience bouts of tiredness.
It’s important to get adequate minerals and calories during this time to minimize these effects. Eat lots of green veggies, seaweed, and healthy fats.
7 Foods to Eat
Now for the fun part: all of the delicious foods you can eat on the keto diet.
- Grass-fed meats: steak, pork, chicken, turkey, ground beef, etc.
- Pasture-raised eggs
- Wild-caught fish: salmon, cod, herring, sardines
- Nuts and seeds: chia, almond, walnut, hazelnut, macadamia, etc.
- Healthy oils: cold-pressed, virgin coconut and olive oils
- Low-carb veggies: broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, etc.
- Low-carb sweeteners: stevia, monk fruit.
9 Foods to Avoid
In general, foods that are high in carbohydrates, sugar, and fructose should be avoided. Check out the list below to get a better idea of exactly what you should avoid.
- Sugary foods: candies, chocolate, fruit juices, soda, cakes, cookies, pastries, etc.
- Fruits: avoid all fruits, fruit juices, and smoothies, minus a small handful of low-sugar fruits like blueberries
- Grains: breads, pasta, rice, millet, barley, buckwheat, etc., and all products made with them
- Beans and legumes: chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans, white beans, baked beans, etc.
- Most condiments and sauces: read the labels carefully, most contain a lot of sugar
- Alcohol: alcohol is often high in sugar and carbs
- Root vegetables and tubers: sweet potatoes, white potatoes, beets, taro, sunchokes, carrots, and parsnips
- Unhealthy fats: avoid processed vegetable oils
- Low-fat products: most are highly processed and loaded with sugar for flavor
Useful Supplements for the Keto Diet
Sometimes transitioning to the keto diet can be difficult since your body is used to burning glucose for fuel. You may feel extra tired or drained. The supplements below will help keep you feeling good during the process.
Coconut oil. If you’re finding you’re having a hard time getting into ketosis, or you just need an energy boost, consuming virgin coconut oil has been shown to increase ketone production, and can help give you a shot of energy. (14)
MCT oil. MCT is short form “medium-chain fatty acids”, which are the main fatty acids in coconut oil. For the same reason you consume coconut oil, you might want to add a concentrated version of these fatty acids to encourage ketone production. (15)
Magnesium. Magnesium is a mineral found in many veggies, tubers, nuts, and seeds. Because you’re drastically lowering the amount of starchy carbs you’re eating, you could initially lack minerals, and this could exacerbate keto flu symptoms. Be sure to supplement with magnesium and/or eat plenty of magnesium-rich foods like avocado and seeds.
Sea salt and seaweed. Adding sea salt and seaweed (whole or as seaweed flakes you can purchase at your natural health store) to your meals is a great way to add additional minerals to your keto diet to make sure you’re getting everything you need.
9 Keto Snack Ideas
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Nuts and seeds
- Low-carb veggies dipped in homemade guacamole
- Sliced cucumbers topped with olives
- Coconut yogurt (unsweetened with no added sugar or additional ingredients)
- Homemade jerky
- Unsweetened almond milk with a teaspoon of pure cacao powder
- Canned fish like tuna and salmon
- Spoonful of almond or other nut butter
For more keto snack ideas, check out these keto-friendly snacks.
Who Are Good Candidates for the Keto Diet?
The keto diet is great for people who are overweight, who have diabetes, trouble with insulin or metabolic syndrome, people with epilepsy and mood disorders, and those looking to improve their metabolic health.
Of course, you should always talk to your doctor before starting the keto diet if you have a specific condition. This is especially true for diabetics, who have to caution against developing ketoacidosis – a condition where ketones affect blood acidity level.
Who Should Avoid the Keto Diet?
The keto diet may not be a great idea for serious athletes or bodybuilders, or for those who need to gain weight. The keto diet may not supply enough energy for athletes, and could put additional stress on muscles that are already being pushed hard several times a week.
Tips for Eating Out Keto
Eating out keto is easy if you focus on protein, healthy fat, and veggies.
When in doubt, ask for a plain protein and replace any starchy food with veggies or a side salad. You can also stick to eggs and bacon at breakfast restaurants, and “bunless” burgers at burger joints.
At Mexican restaurants, order extra meat with extra guacamole and salsa.
Frequently Asked Questions
How much protein should I eat on the keto diet?
Try to keep your protein intake to around 35 percent of your daily calorie intake, as eating too much could cause you to come out of ketosis.
I’m feeling tired constantly – should I eat more carbs?
You’re most likely still in the keto flu phase. Try adding more healthy fats, MCT oil, and lowering your carb intake.
If this fatigue persists for longer than a couple of weeks, however, you may want to see your doctor to rule out any other conditions.
My breath smells fruity. Is this normal?
Yes. In the beginning stage of ketosis, ketones will give off an odor you can taste. This will subside over time.
Can I build muscle on a keto diet?
It’s not impossible, but you may have better results on a moderate-carb diet.
Isn’t the keto diet dangerous?
People confuse ketosis with “ketoacidosis,” which is not the same thing and is a dangerous state related to diabetes.
7-Day Sample Keto Meal Plan
Below is a 7-day sample meal plan to start off your keto diet:
Breakfast: Eggs sautéed in olive or coconut oil with avocado and spinach
Lunch: Large green salad topped with chicken or salmon, green veggies, nuts, and olive oil and vinegar
Dinner: Roasted chicken with asparagus
Breakfast: Eggs over-easy with sautéed mushrooms, broccoli, and bacon
Lunch: Large smoothie filled with coconut milk, almond butter, spinach, kale, stevia, and vanilla extract
Dinner: 4-6 oz grass-fed steak with broccoli or green salad
Breakfast: Breakfast shake with coconut cream, almond or hazelnut butter, spinach, stevia, and topped with coconut shreds
Lunch: Shrimp salad with an avocado, pumpkin seeds, green veggies, and olive oil and vinegar
Dinner: Wild salmon with sautéed zucchini
Breakfast: Omelet with avocado, mushrooms, spinach, and bacon
Lunch: Chicken stir-fry with broccoli, kale, bok choy, onion, and cabbage
Dinner: Meatballs (made using coconut flour instead of breadcrumbs) with asparagus
Breakfast: Egg and ham scramble with kale
Lunch: Green salad topped with tuna, walnuts, cabbage, seaweed flakes, and olive oil and vinegar
Dinner: Baked wild white fish with roasted broccoli and Brussel sprouts
Breakfast: Unsweetened coconut yogurt topped with nuts and seeds and stevia
Lunch: Bunless burger topped with an egg and avocado
Dinner: Grilled chicken salad with walnuts, sprouts, green veggies, olive oil and vinegar, and seaweed flakes
Breakfast: Eggs over-easy with bacon, ham, spinach, and onion
Lunch: Roasted chicken with sautéed zucchini and broccoli
Dinner: Wild salmon with asparagus and a side green salad