If you are thinking of how to start a ketogenic diet, you should find the following chapters informational and helpful. Even if you have been keto for a while, you might find some new and useful points in this article. It includes the keto basics: What you need to know about starting a ketogenic diet and living a keto lifestyle. If you are a very beginner and want to get a broad picture first, click here for a simple explanation and a couple of recipe ideas.
But first things first: If you have any doubts and/or medical issues, consult a qualified medical doctor before starting a ketogenic diet. Although I do happen to work in the healthcare industry, I am not a medical doctor and therefore do not give out any medical advice. It happens that, although helpful to many, the strict ketogenic approach is not suitable for every single individual. Do see our legal disclaimer for more information.
What is a Ketogenic diet?
I’d like to start with its history, but let’s just mention that epilepsy is probably to blame the most for the emergence of the ketogenic diet. If you’d like to know more, please read this very interesting article on epilepsy and the ketogenic diet.
So, let’s jump to blunt basics: A keto diet is a way of eating where the majority of caloric intake consists of fats. While on this diet, one is supposed to make sure that the protein intake is sufficient (but not too high), in order to be provided with amino-acids, essential for basic functioning. The carbohydrate intake is supposed to be minimal (below 50 grams a day), and its source should mostly consist of vegetables.
Varieties of the keto diet are also called LCHF (low-carb high-fat) diet, especially in Europe, or sometimes merely low-carb diet.
A ketogenic diet eventually “forces” the body to start using fat instead of carbohydrates as an energy source. This state is called ketosis. Many scientific studies suggest that some neurological and metabolic patients’ symptoms improve with this diet.
What is ketosis?
The keto diet shifts the body’s as well as the brain’s metabolism to ketosis. This state is marked by an increased amount of ketones in the blood. Ketones are formed during fat decomposition, which begins when not enough glucose is available. To simplify, we can say that on a keto diet the body metabolism changes and this change resembles fasting.
Do we need all that glucose?
The world of nutritional and medical science has been suggesting that the carbohydrate intake is not necessarily essential for functioning, while the protein and fat intake is. We can’t deny that certain cells and tissues need glucose to function properly (e.g., some parts of the central nervous system). At the same time, our bodies are completely capable of adapting to a situation when glucose intake through food is restricted. If the glucose is not available in the form of food, it can be derived from ketones.
It is true that glucose (carbohydrates) is the fastest source of energy. The human body is equipped with excellent mechanisms for regulating blood glucose (with the help of insulin), and using it quickly and efficiently. If it wasn’t for the insulin, carbs would lead to too much glucose int he body, which could be toxic. That is why the organism tries to normalize blood glucose levels as quickly as possible. The glucose is thus used for glycogen formation in liver and muscles. It is then either used either as a short-term energy source or is transformed into fat which represents a long-term energy source.
What about the fat?
Contrary to carbohydrate intake, we have to make sure that we consume enough fatty acids of certain kinds. Such essential fatty acids are omega 3 and omega 6. These, together with some amino acids, are necessary for functioning and survival, as our organism is not capable of forming them itself. That is why we need to get them by eating the right kind of food.
The idea behind the ketogenic diet is that fats are by far the most excellent source of energy. They offer energy, derived from fatty acids, ketones, and glucose, which is derived from glycerol – a fat component. Additionally, fats supposedly cause the least oxidative stress to the body.
So the basic idea is to get your body into ketosis, where it stops burning carbohydrates as a primary fuel and uses fat instead. This way of eating can eventually become a lifestyle for some. A lifestyle supposedly our ancestors used to live.
Why consider a Ketogenic diet?
Many people ask why even consider starting a ketogenic diet. I used to ask myself the same question.
The main problem with consuming glucose becomes quite apparent when we think about high-carbohydrate eating habits, present around the globe. Too much source of immediate energy that doesn’t get used up, can slowly lead a person towards disease.
Another problem is, most of us are not adapted to exploit the fat intake optimally, being used to a constant high intake of carbohydrates. Anyways, our bodies are evolutionarily adapted to a low and infrequent intake of carbohydrates.
As more and more scientific and individual reports show that a ketogenic diet works incredibly well with many individuals, it has gained its popularity among people who are trying to maintain blood sugar levels and lose body fat.
In short, people usually live a keto-lifestyle to get and be healthier. This is why starting a ketogenic diet is worth considering.
How to reach ketosis?
You can find a few variants of the keto diet out there, but the fundamental principle behind all of them is a relatively radical restriction of carbohydrate intake. The maximum amount of carbs consumed daily is supposedly 50 g, (or preferably between 5% and 10% of your caloric intake).
Anyhow, this amount highly depends on one’s gender, lean body mass, the amount of activity, etc. At the same time, the fat intake is supposed to be high (around 70% of your caloric intake) if one follows the classical ketogenic diet.
One is supposed to keep their protein intake at moderate levels, mostly because it is claimed that too much protein can keep or kick a person out of ketosis. The recommended protein intake is around 25% of one’s caloric intake. Again, the amount can slightly vary, depending on the activity level.
Image source: Ketogenic.com
Some benefits of a Ketogenic diet:
- Weight loss: Since the body starts burning fat as the main source of energy, it will, in time, start burning your fat stores to produce ketones.
- Stabilized blood sugar: Restricted carbohydrate consumption has been shown to lower blood sugar levels and insulin levels.
- Lack of hunger: Fat is naturally more satisfying than carbohydrates. The feeling of satiety also lasts longer than when eating a high-carb meal.
- Lower blood pressure: It has been shown that the keto diet can support regulating blood pressure. Do talk to your doctor before you start the diet if you’re on blood pressure medication.
- Improved cholesterol profile: Arterial buildup is most associated with cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which have been shown to improve with this diet in the long-term. The source of fat is important, though.
- Studies have shown that using the ketogenic diet to address some neurological issues, might be promising.
Side-effects of a keto diet
Starting a ketogenic diet, when your body shifts into a ketogenic state, it will use up pretty much all the glucose storage. This might likely cause a lack of energy and general lethargy. You may experience flu-like symptoms, which are called “keto-flu”. You may feel a bit lightheaded or even get headaches, caused by ketosis.
Most common low-carb diet side effects are also tiredness, dizziness, and muscle cramps. They can be mostly avoided by making sure you get enough electrolyte replacement since all the water you damp will also take minerals along with it.
Initially, you might also experience occasional low blood sugar levels, simply because the body is used to releasing a certain amount of insulin to take care of the glucose, which is suddenly no longer available in high amounts.
In the first few days, people often report a lack of mental clarity or “mental fogginess.” And while the extra glycogen in your liver and muscles is burning up, there’s a lot of water released in the process, so you will probably find yourself urinating a lot at first.
On the other hand, you’ll quite likely end up a little constipated because of dehydration, salt loss and a lack of magnesium. Try to avoid this by staying hydrated and by eating enough fiber.
At last, but not least, carb cravings can be quite intense for the first couple of weeks, when your body is still in the process of adaptation to life without starch and sugar.
Do not give in; we’re here for you. If you get through the first few weeks, bake yourself a keto treat!
Starting a Ketogenic diet
After reading a lot of credible literature on the subject, decide on how radical you want to go with the carb cut out when you begin. If you suddenly go from 300 g carbs per day to 20 g per day, you might feel quite miserable for a while.
You may want to try 40 g per day in the beginning. Of course, it’s for you to decide. Some keto practitioners advise that you go as low as possible at first so that you get past the keto flu as soon as possible. That is because the higher the carbs, the longer it will take for your body to get into ketosis, but the side effects (keto flu) could be milder.
What to expect
Before you get utterly miserable when you realize you reach the 40 g carb daily limit before noon, subtract the fiber from the total carbs, and track the net carbs consumed.
Vegetables are supposed to be your only carbohydrate source, along with unsaturated and saturated fatty acids. Be aware that the fats can make you feel full with quite some delay, so eat your keto meals slowly. Depending on your body composition and activity level, try to eat enough protein to satisfy your needs (between 70 g and 150 g daily).
Lowering your carb intake, you can start losing a lot of water along with minerals; so make sure you consume a bit saltier food than you’re used to, to keep those minerals in your body. You might want to consider some mineral supplements.
The solution to possible constipation lies in drinking enough water and eating fiber. Vegetables are an excellent source of fiber, but you may again consider taking supplements (e.g., psyllium husks).
Try to avoid sweeteners in when starting a ketogenic diet, since they may prolong the adaptation process and can even be the reason your carb cravings don’t go away. It means you should refrain from trying out My Sweet Keto recipes in the first few weeks but keep following us and pick out the recipe you find most intriguing. For when the time comes, you’ll deserve a reward!
If you are highly active and train a lot, you will probably find yourself having to lower exercise intensity for a while when starting a ketogenic diet. Within a few weeks, you should be back on track, though. Again, do drink plenty of water, and take some extra salt in.
Look after yourself
If you’ve got any serious medical conditions, such as diabetes, poor carbohydrate metabolism, your immune system is weak or are an elderly person, do start this diet very gradually and under the strict supervision of a medical doctor.
What to eat on a keto diet?
- Dairy and eggs (watch out for sweetened and high carb products (i.e., milk and yogurt))
- Coconut and its derivatives
- Fats and Oils (e.g., extra virgin olive oil)
- Nuts and Seeds (and flours and meals made out of them)
- Green vegetables
What to drink on the keto diet?
- Unsweetened tea
- Limited amounts of lemon and lime juice
- Diet sodas (limited amounts)
- Allowed alcohol (limited amounts):
- Dry wine
What should you avoid eating on the keto diet?
- Any variant of sugar, including:
- Corn syrup
- Lactose (milk)
- Maple syrup
- All grains and grain products
- Corn and corn products
- Potatoes and potato products
- Sweet potatoes
- Starchy vegetables (e.g., peas)
- Fruits (except berries in limited amounts, since they’re lower in carbs)
- Beans and lentils
What should you avoid drinking?
- Dessert wines
- Non-diet sodas
- Milk (especially skim milk and 1% milk which is full of lactose)
So, what’s on the menu for tomorrow? Starting a ketogenic diet or not, I suggest eggs and avocado, fried in coconut oil for breakfast, and a wild salmon fillet, grilled and soaked in virgin olive oil for lunch. Add some rosemary and green veggies. For a dessert, you can gather some ideas in our keto, lchf and low-carb recipes.