America is unhealthy. More than 42 percent of Americans are obese and about 1 in 10 Americans have diabetes. Most Americans with diabetes have Type 2, which can often be controlled by diet and exercise.
Knowing these statistics, it’s not a surprise that America’s weight-loss industry is worth 72 billion dollars. Products, books, and advertisements that promise to help people lose weight and feel better are flooding the market.
The keto diet, developed by a physician in the 1920s to treat epilepsy, has been stealing the spotlight recently and with good reason.
In studies of obese patients, keto is showing promising results. Obese patients in a six-month study not only showed significant weight loss, but also lower cholesterol. There were no bad side effects.
If you’re interested in keto, but you feel information overwhelm, continue reading this straightforward guide to the keto diet for beginners.
What Is the Keto Diet?
The keto diet is a high-fat, low-carb diet designed to force your body into fat-burning mode. Originally created to treat children with epilepsy, the keto diet has also been shown to help people lose weight, stabilize blood sugar, and improve overall health.
How It Works
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors experienced periods of abundance or “feast,” followed by periods of scarcity, or “famine.” The human body learned to adapt by becoming efficient at storing fat to use for energy when food was scarce.
When you eat carbs, your body’s preferred energy source, it turns these carbs into glucose. This raises your blood sugar, sending the message to your body to release insulin, a hormone that delivers fuel to the cells for energy.
Any unused glucose is stored by the body as glycogen. When the glycogen tank is empty and your body doesn’t have any carbs to burn, the liver starts breaking down fats.
The breaking down of these fats produces ketones that your body turns to as an energy source now that carbs are unavailable.
This is similar to an electric car that starts using gas when the charge is low. The “gas” in this example is the supply of ketones. But unlike an electric car, which burns the “clean fuel” first, the body uses ketones only when the regular fuel is unavailable.
In a state of ketosis, the body burns the fat you eat as well as stored fat, which is why the keto diet has become so popular. Anyone who has tried to lose weight knows how hard it is to burn fat once you’ve accumulated it.
Today, our bodies aren’t forced into ketosis due to the availability of easily-acquired food combined with a high-carb diet and a sedentary lifestyle. This makes it much harder to burn fat.
Enter the Keto Diet.
Won’t Eating Fat Make Me Fat?
It can seem counterintuitive to eat high amounts of fat. This is due to misguided nutritional information the public has received over the years.
In 1992, for example, the USDA’s food pyramid lumped fats and oils with sweets in the “Use Sparingly” category at the top.
The base or foundation of the pyramid? Carbs. Six to eleven servings per day, to be exact. But with fat as the enemy and carbs as the champion, Americans gained weight.
Simple carbs, such as sugar and refined flour, can spike your blood sugar. This leads to blood sugar crashes later in the day, causing you to eat more.
Fat keeps you satiated longer and balances your blood sugar. Your brain, which is 60 percent fat, needs healthy fats to function optimally. Healthy fats include Omega-3s, which are discussed later in this article.
The purpose of the high-fat, low-carb keto approach is to get your body into ketosis, or the fat-burning state, so that it burns fat for fuel, leading to more stable blood sugar levels and mental clarity.
Keto versus Paleo
While the two diets are very similar, the paleo or “caveman” diet allows more carbs in the form of fruit. The main focus of paleo is not ketosis.
Is it safe for everyone?
If you have gallbladder and/or liver issues or have had your gallbladder removed, eating a high-fat diet may be difficult. As always, check with your doctor prior to changing your diet.
The Keto Diet for Beginners
Now that you understand how the keto diet works and why your body needs fat, here’s our no-nonsense, nuts-and-bolts guide to help you get started.
In this section, you’ll learn what to eat, what to avoid, and tools you’ll need.
What Can I Eat?
First, remember that at least 75 percent of your caloric intake should come from fat. This means clean, healthy sources of fat.
Healthy sources of fat include foods such as coconut oil, olive oil, a variety of nuts and seeds, avocados, oily fish, and grass-fed butter. Avoid fried foods and trans fats. These are not healthy fats.
To achieve a fat-burning state, the general recommendation is to have five percent or less carbs in your diet. Avoid high-starch and high-sugar fruits and vegetables like corn, potatoes, carrots, and most fruit, particularly dried fruit.
Instead, eat berries, which are lower in sugar, leafy greens, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.
The rest of your calories — about 20 percent — should come from healthy sources of protein, such as eggs, cheese, and oily fish, including salmon, sardines, and mackerel.
Focus on Nutrient-Dense Foods
A good nutrition guideline to follow, regardless of whether or not you choose the keto diet, is to load up on nutrient-dense foods. The good news is that many of the most nutrient-dense foods are also keto-friendly:
Salmon and sardines, both oily fish, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega 3s reduce the risk of many diseases, such as heart disease, and are good for the brain.
Oily fish are also sources of high-quality protein and fat, and they provide other valuable minerals as well.
If you like tuna salad, you can easily substitute sardines for tuna. They are most easily found in a tin alongside the tins of tuna. Be sure to get seafood that is sustainably-caught in clean waters.
Nuts are high in both fat and protein but low in natural sugars, making them a great snack or addition to a salad. You easily can make your own nut butter in a food processor. Pecans, in particular, are a great choice for keto-dieters.
For low-carb choices, kale and dandelion greens are high in vitamin C as well as several minerals. Dandelion greens are bitter. Bitter foods stimulate bile production in the liver, helping you digest food better.
Berries are a great low-sugar, low-carb treat. Limit your intake to a handful a day when you are on the keto diet.
Foods to Avoid
Keto will force you to cut out foods that aren’t good for you anyway, such as sugar, processed foods, and cheap oils used to fry food in fast-food restaurants. In general, avoid junk food and processed food.
There are some healthy foods that you need to avoid if you want to stay in ketosis, though, such as nearly all fruit except berries, beans, rice, and all other grains.
Biggest Challenges for Beginners
Building healthy habits takes time. Be patient with yourself and talk with your friends and family about your decision so they can support you. Presenting them with facts, such as those in this article, will help.
Below, we’ve listed the biggest challenges and how to overcome them.
In the first few weeks of being on the keto diet, some people report “keto flu” or flu-like symptoms, such as sluggishness and headaches. This is because your body is detoxing from the “drugs” of sugar, causing you to have withdrawals.
We recommend slowly decreasing your carbs, particularly sugar and refined carbs found in bread and pasta, before going full-on keto. You’ll not only feel better, but you’ll be more likely to stick with it.
Saying Goodbye to Sugary Foods
Giving up sugary foods and refined carbs such as pasta, bread, and desserts can be emotionally challenging. We become addicted to these foods because of the hit of dopamine we receive, a neurotransmitter that gives us a sense of pleasure.
We also have many memories associated with certain foods, such as the baked goods our grandmother made.
The good news is that you can probably still enjoy a healthier version of these foods. Most high-sugar, high-carb food can be made in a keto-friendly way. Using almond flour, butter, and monk fruit extract, you can make delicious shortbread cookies. Add Lily’s stevia-sweetened chocolate chips for chocolate chip cookies.
Some people can’t even tell the difference between keto desserts and the original version, except that their blood sugar doesn’t spike and crash after eating dessert.
Adding sweet-smelling spices, such as cinnamon, cardamom, fennel, and star anise can make your food taste sweet, even though there’s no sugar. Licorice, marshmallow, and mint make a wonderful sweet-tasting, sugar-free tea.
You can also buy keto-friendly wine, such as Dry Farm Wines, which has a lower alcohol content, is organic, and is sugar-free.
Re-Learning How to Cook
Once you get the hang of it, you’ll learn how to substitute ingredients to make the dishes you love keto-friendly. This includes main dishes and not just dessert.
For example, you can still have pizza, but with cauliflower crust. You can make sandwiches with keto breads consisting of almond flour and coconut flour. Instead of pasta noodles, make your own zucchini noodles with a spiralizer.
The biggest criticism of the keto diet is the difficulty in sustaining it long-term. Due to its increased popularity, this is changing due to the keto-friendly products flooding the market.
If you don’t have the time or patience to learn to cook the keto way, it’s easy to buy keto forms of the foods you love, including bread, pizza, ice cream, and cookies. Almost anything can be adapted to fit a keto diet.
One of the biggest fears people have when changing their diet is the impact on their social lives. That’s understandable. Food is how we connect with others.
Learning to navigate social situations when your diet is different from those around you takes some finesse, but here are some easy tips:
When someone invites you to their home for dinner, let them know about your diet without making demands that they make an entire keto meal for you.
Instead, offer to bring a dish to share with everyone. If they ask for ideas, give them some simple suggestions that have wide appeal.
When dining out in a group, try to choose the restaurant yourself. If not, call the restaurant in advance to find out keto options. Most good restaurants are adept at dealing with a variety of dietary restrictions.
If you don’t have time to call the restaurant first, don’t fret. You can quickly explain your situation and then ask the waiter to hold the salad dressing or serve your burger without a bun.
Avoid appearing “preachy” or judgmental towards those who choose a different path.
Be sure to plan your meals in advance, create a grocery list, and make sure you have everything you need by the beginning of the week. Learning something new takes up real estate in the brain, so planning will help prevent overwhelm.
Purchase keto strips to test your ketones each day. Since everyone’s body is different, using test strips will help you adjust your diet accordingly to achieve and maintain ketosis.
You can buy test strips online or at the pharmacy. They are easy to use and inexpensive.
Keto for Vegans and Vegetarians
Keto is not just for meat-eaters, but being vegan makes it more challenging. Vegans wanting to benefit from ketosis should focus on eating high-fat plant-based foods such as avocados, nuts, seeds, coconut oil, and olive oil.
Vegetarians have it much easier since they can also consume eggs and dairy. Be sure to check with your doctor and consider working with a nutritionist who is familiar with both diets to ensure you’re getting adequate nutrition.
Ready to Go Keto?
Once their bodies adjust, many people report feeling more clear-headed, well-rested, and energetic. They don’t have the energy highs and lows associated with a high-carb diet, they lose weight, and they don’t need to snack between meals.
This is a big decision, which is why our site focuses on the keto diet for beginners. Check back regularly to learn more or contact us with questions. We’re here to guide you!