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The Ultimate Keto Diet Guide for Beginners

Last updated: May 10, 2020 at 7:44PM | - Published on: Dec 19, 2018

 

Written by Raphael Sirtoli, MSc

Scientifically Reviewed by Sarah Neidler, PhD

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1. KETO BASICS

Before we get too far into all things keto, let’s cover a few of the basics to give you a foundation.

What is the ketogenic diet?

The ketogenic diet, or keto for short, is a style of eating that focuses on, first and foremost, keeping carbs very low and secondly, having a high-fat consumption; you may also hear it referred to as “high fat-low carb” diet. A hallmark of this way of eating is to put the body into a ‘fat burning state’ whereby the body burns more fat compared to what you would on a high carb diet. In doing so, your body converts fats into little molecules called ketone bodies, which can contribute to ATP (cellular energy). By teaching the body to rely on an alternate source of energy aside from glucose, we’re able to alter how it uses energy.

What are ketones

Ketones are molecules formed from the fats, like those released from your belly. This tends to happen at a higher rate on a ketogenic diet, but only if carb intake is sufficiently low, thus forcing your body to rely on an alternative source of fuel — fat. Basically, you turn fat into ketones which, when used for energy, eventually get turned back into acetyl-CoA, the molecule your cellular ‘engines’ (mitochondria) actually use to make ATP.

Ketogenesis is the process of making ketones from fats. When this happens at a high enough rate, you’re said to be ‘in ketosis’. Ketosis is a metabolic state, but there’s not an exact number to tell you when you’re in or out of ketosis.

What are keto macros?

Depending on whether you follow a strict keto or simply a very low-carb diet, your macronutrient ratios may differ. Typically, if you’re weight stable, your macronutrient breakdown will look a little something like this:

Your macronutrient and calorie breakdown will also depend on specific goals and lifestyle factors such as sleep, exercise patterns, stress levels, and genetics. Just remember, we’re all unique and have different needs, so it’s important to understand your lifestyle and tailor your macronutrients to what your body needs.

How to tell if you’re in ketosis

Your body doesn’t provide you with a clear signal saying “I am in ketosis” to let you know whether you are or not, and sometimes going off feelings isn’t that easy. Here are some key physical signs to look out for that will indicate when you’re in ketosis.

  • ‘Fruity’ breath (mostly at the start)
  • Fewer sugar or starch cravings
  • Increased focus
  • Stable energy levels

If you’re interested to learn about how to handle withdrawal from junk-carbs and become keto-adapted, check out our article here!

How to measure ketones

Being on a keto diet doesn’t mean you have to constantly measure your ketones. In fact, for most people, it makes sense to gain an intuitive sense if you’re ‘in or out’. However, most people will benefit from initially checking and people with medical conditions requiring a certain ketone level will have to do so regularly. To each his own.

So if you’re not totally sure whether you’re in ketosis, there are a few simple at-home ways to measure your ketone levels that will indicate how ketogenic you are:

  • Urine testing (peeing on a strip)
  • Breath testing (blowing into a device)
  • Blood testing (pricking your finger for a drop of blood)

Blood testing provides the most accurate picture of how ketogenic you are, but breath and urine testing can be useful depending on the circumstance. If you want to figure out what’s the right way for you to measure, take a deeper dive into the topic by checking out our article 3 ways to measure ketones.

Types of ketogenic diets

The ketogenic diet seems pretty straightforward, but there isn’t just one way to go about it. In order to stick with a diet and have the most favorable outcomes, it’s important that it fits well with you and your lifestyle, which is why with keto, there are a few different options to choose from.

Each has a slight variation on carbs vs. fat intake to suit your needs and your health goals. Which type of diet you follow will also be determined by if you follow a meat or plant-based diet. When choosing which one you like best, make sure you have clear goals in mind. It may take some experimentation in order to find what works for you.

The standard ketogenic diet (SKD)

The standard ketogenic diet is the most common version. With SKD, the net-carb count is kept between 25-50g, but this isn’t set in stone. It focuses on keeping carbs very low, adequate amounts of protein, and high fat

The targeted ketogenic diet (TKD)

This version is targeted more for individuals that are highly athletic and feel the need to eat 25-50g of carbs in a window of 30 minutes or less before exercising in order to achieve maximum performance. How many carbs you ‘need’ is hotly debated, so we encourage experimentation.

The cyclical ketogenic diet (CKD)

If you’ve never tried keto before, the cyclical ketogenic approach can take some of the pressure off. It entails cycling between periods of eating low-carb, followed by periods of more carbs (not a junk-food feast!). This version is great to help you notice how differently you feel in and out of ketosis. Be careful though as you can’t really go in and out every day; it’s more like a few weeks on, a few days off of keto.

The carnivorous or higher-protein ketogenic diet

How much protein you can eat before being kicked out of ketosis is another hotly debated topic. The higher protein approach to keto is similar to the standard ketogenic approach, with the main difference being that carbs are basically 0 and protein intake can be on the higher side (25-35%). Some people will see very low levels of ketones with that amount of protein (< 0.3 mmol/L blood BhB) whilst others will stay well above 1 or even 2 mmol/L blood BhB. We see a lot of individual variabilities here.

Intermittent fasting on keto

For people new to the ketogenic diet, intermittent fasting can seem quite daunting. But let us tell you, it’s nothing to fear. While going longer periods of time without eating can seem absolutely horrible, it doesn’t have to be and is in fact quite liberating.

So what is intermittent fasting? It’s simply the idea of rearranging your eating schedule to allow your body to go anywhere from 12 to 16 hours without food throughout the 24 hour day.

But there isn’t just one way to do intermittent fasting. You can work it to fit into your schedule — whether it’s the 16/8 method, alternate day fasting, the 24-hour method, or one meal a day, IF adapts to you and your needs.

If you’re curious about intermittent fasting, it’s a great thing to incorporate with the ketogenic diet. Why is this? Because a well-formulated keto diet helps to normalize appetite, which tends to naturally move people into intermittent fasting.

To find out more, check out our complete guide to intermittent fasting here — it’s got everything you need to know about getting started with intermittent fasting!

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2. UNDERSTANDING NUTRITION LABELS

Reading nutrition labels is something that seems like common sense, but it can actually be a little deceptive if you’re not entirely sure what you’re looking for. And especially with the ketogenic diet, where you’re trying to avoid bad fats like seed oils and ‘hidden’ carbs, being able to read and understand nutrition labels is crucial.

There are a few basic categories you should be able to recognize:

 

Serving size

A serving of almonds could be ½ an ounce but a service of ice cream might be ½ a cup, which isn’t all that helpful. It’s useful to be able to compare different foods and to do that, you need to choose the same baseline for all of them. For example, use a standard measure of 100g. Keep in mind that 1 serving (of whatever it is) tends to be smaller than what you will actually eat in one go. So when looking up info about food, make sure the serving size reflects what you’re likely to eat or you’re looking at the 100 g values.

Calories (and calories from fat)

The caloric value of food doesn’t tell you whether or not it’s healthy for you, it’s just a basic fact about it. For example, 100g of dry roasted and salted macadamia nuts contain 716 kcals, about ¼ of the calories a tall, strong, and active man will eat in a day. It’s interesting to note that fat has nearly three times more calories per gram than carbs do and more than twice the number of calories compared to a gram of protein.

Total Fat

This is one of the important pieces to look at when understanding a nutritional label on the ketogenic diet. Since your diet is comprised of anywhere between 70-80% fat, the bulk of your calories will come from this section. If you’re not sure how many calories you’re getting from fat, multiply the total grams by 9 to find out

Saturated fat

Dietary saturated fat has been demonized for decades, but it’s not all bad. Raw, full-fat dairy, red meat, and shellfish together will provide great sources of saturated and unsaturated omega-3 fats.

Trans-fat

If a product contains industrial trans fat, as margarine or some deep fried products do, avoid it at all costs. An exception would be the naturally occuring trans-fat called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) found in dairy products that doesn’t need need to be avoided.

Polyunsaturated fat

When it comes to polyunsaturated fat, opt for the active form of omega-3’s you’d get from salmon, for instance, rather than the inactive plant version you’d get from flax or canola oil. To avoid over-consuming omega-6 PUFAs, avoid consuming seed oils like canola oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil, or linseed oil as they are highly inflammatory. The standard American diet often contains an imbalanced ratio of omega 6-to-3 so it’s important to pay close attention to the amount you’re getting. Try to aim for anywhere between 4:1 to 1:1.

Monounsaturated fat

These fats are a normal component of any diet and are fine to eat as well, whether from pork or an avocado. Monounsaturated fats are more stable than polyunsaturated fats, specifically polyunsaturated fats. Olive oil contains large amounts of monounsaturated fat, but due to increased risk of oxidation, it’s best to avoid cooking with it and consume it raw.

Total carbohydrates

This number isn’t a perfect indication of how many carbs you’ll be eating but is useful to know if you’re on a keto diet. You’ll often hear the term ‘net-carbs’ in the ketogenic diet — this simply means you subtract dietary fibre intake (or the carbs ultimately not absorbed as simple sugars) from the total carb count. The total carb count includes both the absorbable and non-absorbable ones that are fermented by your gut bacteria. As the ketogenic diet is strict on carb intake, you will want to be aware of the net-carb count for all foods consumed, as too many carbs can bring you out of ketosis. If you’re not sure how many calories you’re getting from carbs, multiply the total grams by 4 to find out.

Fiber

Don’t bet on it as a long-term strategy to keep you full, but if you enjoy fibrous foods (e.g. kale, nuts) then it’s fine to include in your diet. Technically speaking, you don’t have to have plant-derived fiber in your diet. In fact, if you have digestive issues, consider restricting certain fibrous foods and your overall fiber intake. This sometimes can help to improve one’s digestion or minimize immunological flare-ups. The higher the fiber content of food, the higher the total carb count will be. However, when you subtract fiber from the total, you’ll end up with a lower net-carb total.

Sugar

Sugars from fruit are something that should be moderated on a ketogenic diet. They contribute to a higher carbohydrate count, which will pull you out of ketosis past a certain amount, largely depending on how insulin sensitive you are.

Protein

Protein is a necessary part of any diet, so eat a lot of foods providing high quality sources like eggs, beef, fish, cheese, and shellfish. With the keto diet, protein typically accounts for 20-25% of the diet. If you’re not sure how many calories you’re getting from protein, multiply the total grams by 4 to find out. Don’t worry about overloading on protein such that you’re kicked out of ketosis, especially if you’re eating full-fat raw dairy and fatty cuts of meat. However, it is true that some people may lower their ketone levels past a point where they don’t feel as good as when they eat a little less. This is a case where individual variation demands a little self-experimentation (like with the Keto Mojo for example).

Did you know?

Fibre is only found in plant foods, right? Nope! There’s such a thing as animal fiber and you’ve probably already had some. Animal fibre is all the ligaments, tendons, and bones you might get from caned sardines. Or when gnawing the last bits of rib-eye off a bone. Eating animals ‘nose-to-tail,’ so to speak, is another way of getting fermentative substrates in (also known as fiber).

It’s also important that you not only know what the macronutrient content of your food is, but what is in your food. Make sure that before you buy a product, you know what the ingredients are. Foods are packaged to appear healthy, but when you actually read the ingredients, you’ll see that they sometimes aren’t.

Here are three suggestions to remember when looking at an ingredient list:

1. the fewer the ingredients, the better;

2. watch out for the dozens and dozens of different names for starches and sugars; and

3. avoid all products with seed oils (but animal fats, olive oil, butter, and coconut oil are fine). And while you may think being labelled as “organic” or “all natural” makes it healthy, these terms are actually meaningless. Sugar is sugar, whether it’s organic or not.

Try to buy whole, fresh foods, which should be the bulk of your diet – they might not even have a label. However, when you’re starting out with the ketogenic diet, learning a few examples of the calorie, carb, and fat content of the typical foods you’ll be eating is useful.

EXAMPLE 1:

Eggs (2% carbs / 35% protein / 63% fat) and Bacon (0% carbs / 11% protein / 59% fat)

EXAMPLE 2:

Salmon (0% carbs / 60% proteins / 40% fats), Avocado (19% carbs / 4% protein / 77% fat), Rocket lettuce (93% fiber), Tomatoes (70% carbs / 12% protein / 9% fat)

Nutrition facts from 2 different keto plate.

The idea is that you will eventually tune into your body and notice how much you eat according to your real hunger rather than your cravings for high-sugar foods (e.g. bananas, dates) and junk-foods (e.g. ice cream, pizza, donuts, “sports” bars).

3. WHAT TO EAT ON KETO (and what TO AVOID)

There are millions of products on the market targeted at pretty much every type of diet you could think of. As the ketogenic diet has become increasingly popular, there are, of course, also products marketed to those who follow keto. Let’s check what fit into the keto diet food list:

Standard american diet vs Ketogenic diet

But for now, we’re going to give you a run-down of what’s keto-approved and what’s not.

Keto Animal foods

Beef, pork, chicken, beef liver, sardines, salmon, eggs, they have all a point in common they are Keto friendly

There are plenty of animal food options when following a ketogenic diet. These foods are typically thought of as the ‘protein’ in one’s diet. It’s true in the sense that you get the full range of essential amino acids from them, but they’re more than that – you also get tons of vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids too.

To support local farmers and regenerative agriculture, try getting pasture-raised meats when possible. Healthwise, there might not be that big a difference between feedlot and pasture-raised animals. However, feedlot cows are given way too many antibiotics, so even if they don’t show up in the meat to a significant degree, ‘over-medicated’ cows shouldn’t be subsidized.

Importantly, rather than choosing lean cuts of meat, go for the fattier cuts — not only will they add flavor, but they’ll help boost your fat intake! By this we mean darker cuts of poultry, ribeye, blade roasts, pork belly, or a high-fat content ground beef (e.g. 85/15 as opposed to 90/10). When it comes to animal protein, your options aren’t limited. Here’s a short list of some choices:

Animal foodKeto ScoreInsulin Index
Chicken8/1032%
Lamb9/1011%
Beef8/1017%
Turkey8/1032%
Duck8/1026%
Pork9/1027%
Salmon8/1025%
Sardines8/1023%
Mackerel8/1025%
Halibut9/1037%
Oyster7/1038%
Mussels6/1038%
Beef Liver8/1036%

Be careful when buying cured meats and sausages, as they can often contain added sugar, fillers, emulsifiers and other additives of a suspect or unknown effect(s) — all things you want to avoid on the ketogenic diet, or any diet for that matter. As a responsible consumer, please do your best to buy animal-sourced foods from sustainable and ethical businesses (e.g. pasture raised pigs) rather than the typical and cruel industrial operations.

Protein shakes can also be a way of getting high-quality protein, but these don’t impact appetite as normal whole food do, which can lead to higher intakes and ultimately reduce your blood ketones from their usual or desired level.

Keto Vegetables

list of all keto friendly vegetables

When it comes to vegetables, your options are far from limited. Vegetables are a staple to the keto diet for anyone who enjoys them and suffers no plant-triggered digestive issues. And as long as they don’t displace too many essential animal-sourced foods, they’re fine. However, not all vegetables are created equal. It’s important to have a rough estimate of the net carb count of vegetables and limit those that are on the higher end of the scale.

Need some ideas of what’s good to consume? As a rule of thumb, stick to vegetables that are grown above ground, as their carb count is often significantly lower.

VegetableKeto ScoreInsulin Index
Kale7/1037%
Spinach7/1030%
Romaine
8/1021%
Chard6/1036%
Dandelion6/1036%
Arugula7/1031%
Watercress6/1039%
Peppers7/1037%
Celery7/1029%
Cucumber7/1034%
Zucchini6/1036%
Broccoli6/1039%
Cabbage6/1034%
Cauliflower6/1036%
Brussel sprouts6/1038%
Mushrooms white6/1042%
Green beans6/1038%
Bok choy7/1033%
Asparagus7/1028%
Radish7/1032%
Kohlrabi7/1029%
Onions5/1053%
Garlic4/1055%
Pumpkin4/1055%
Rutabaga5/1046%
Celeriac5/1047%
Turnip6/1044%
Carrot6/1042%
Ginger5/1051%

While keto limits, but doesn’t exclude, the consumption of root vegetables, there are a few choices that make it easier to stay ketogenic. But remember, keep tabs on the net-carb count to ensure you stay within your limit.

With fruit, we have to be a little more cautious. Fruit contains natural sugars and is relatively high in carbohydrates with respect to its macronutrient composition. However, a handful or two of berries won’t be a problem for most people on a keto diet. But things like dates, bananas, and raisins are more concentrated sources of sugar and are much more likely to increase your insulin enough to lower your blood ketones below 0.3 – 0.5 mmol/L blood ketones (BhB).

Keto Fruit

List of all keto friendly fruits

So keto does limit your choice of fruit somewhat. If fruit will be a part of your diet, it’s best to stick to those with a low-glycemic score that will have minimal impact on insulin, as well as those that have very few net-carbs.

Here’s a list of what’s more keto friendly, especially if just starting out with this way of eating:

FruitKeto ScoreInsulin Index
Blueberries5/1048%
Blackberries7/1024%
Raspberries7/1025%
Cranberries7/1034%
strawberries6/1040%
Gooseberries7/1034%
Coconut9/107%
Lemon Slice8/1023%
Plum5/1051%

While following keto, it’s best to avoid fruits with a high net-carb (and lower fiber count). The higher the net-carb count, the more likely you are surpass your daily carb threshold, which leaves less for the remainder of the day.

It’s also important to avoid fruit juices, fruit concentrates, and dried/dehydrated fruit, as both the calorie count and sugar count (therefore net-carb count) is concentrated. While dried fruit may seem like a healthy snack option, the process of drying concentrates the sugars and gives them a higher carbohydrate count by weight.

Keto Nuts and seeds

List of all keto friendly nuts

Nuts and seeds are a decent source of protein and a good source fat, but it’s important to remember that they also have carbs.

Raw and organic give you the best chance of avoiding insecticides and fungicides, as well as any oxidized seed oils used to roast them.

Coconut flour and almond flour can be used as grain flour substitutes. They’re especially good for gluten intolerant or people with Celiac disease. Unlike normal white or whole wheat flour, nut flours may need to be cooked differently. So check the recipe before wasting a batch of ingredients!

For amazing keto & low-carb recipes check out Libby Jenkinson website ditchthecarbs 

Keep in mind though, if you’re dealing with inflammatory issues, you may want to avoid almond, chia, or flax seed products entirely. This is because the concentrating, grinding, and heating of PUFAs necessary to make flour seems to excessively oxidized the delicate oils.

When it comes to nuts and nut flours, they’re not all low-carb. Here are your best options:

NutsKeto ScoreInsulin Index
Macadamia9/104%
Almond9/1010%
Peanuts9/1011%
Brazil9/105%
Pecans9/104%
Walnuts9/108%
Pine
9/108%
Coconut Flour9/1014%

Next time you find a recipe that calls for a breading or a cup of a specific flour, don’t worry! Even your favorite recipes and baked goods can be made keto by little substitutions and modifications.

keto Dairy

List of all keto friendly diaries

Dairy is one of those grey areas when it comes to paleo and primal, but it doesn’t need to be. Paleo is shorthand for ‘properly adapted to’ and many people do fine with dairy, even though no caveman ever had any. So exclude it for a few weeks and reintroduce it to see if you’re better off with or without it.

So assuming you tolerate dairy products well, go for it! Just don’t make dairy a bigger part of your calories than your meat or fish intake. Try to buy full-fat and raw dairy. Finding raw dairy is much easier in Europe than the United States due to laws and restrictions. You also want to avoid low-fat or nonfat dairy products, as they are laden with additives to replace the fat. Stick to full-fat dairy to increase health benefits and satiety.

If you’re going through a fat loss stall and you’ve never tried reducing or eliminate dairy for a few weeks, that’s worth a try.

While not inclusive, here are some good options:

DiaryKeto ScoreInsulin Index
Heavy Cream10/104%
Ricotta8/1018%
Cottage Cheese7/1029%
Cream Cheese9/109%
Mascarpone10/104%
Fresh Mozzarella9/1013%
Goat7/1034%
Brie9/1011%
Blue9/1013%
Camembert9/1012%
Gouda9/1014%
Parmesan8/1018%
Feta9/1014%
Milk7/1038%

As fats will comprise a large portion of your diet, you’ll want to figure out which are the best kinds to consume. Being keto doesn’t mean you have to eat chunks of butter or drown yourself in coconut oil. There are plenty of ways fats can be incorporated into the diet — roasting, fat bombs, salad dressing, sauces, any way you’d like!

Fats are crucial to proper body function, but if sources of concentrated fat displace too many sources of fat from whole animal foods, then this can stop fat loss. In the ketogenic diet, we focus on a few main kinds of fat:

Saturated
Despite everything you’ve probably heard about saturated fat, don’t be afraid of it. You’ll find it in food like meat and seafood, butter, lard, tallow, coconut products and dairy! All of these are good.

Monounsaturated
Found in products like pork, beef, fish, olive oil, and of course olives, avocados, nuts and seeds, monounsaturated fats are also great for you so. Enjoy them!

Polyunsaturated
There’s a difference between naturally occurring polyunsaturated fats found in meat, nuts and fruit versus the concentrated sources like seed oils (e.g. sunflower oil, soybean oil, peanut oil, linseed oil, and corn oil). Make sure you diligently avoid them.

Trans fat
These industrial fats are the product of processing and chemical alteration that renders them highly unhealthy. Naturally occurring ruminant-derived trans fats, however like CLA, are perfectly healthy.

The ketogenic diet, while part of it is about high-fat consumption, isn’t just about loading up your plate with every type of fat you can find. It’s important to recognize what types of fats are present in various foods, how much we’re actually consuming, and getting a tasty range. This is especially true if you’re looking to lower your excessive omega-6 intake from seed oils, thereby improving your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.

In a typical diet, the ratios of these two fats are significantly skewed towards omega-6s. While both are necessary and play important signaling roles, omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory precursors and the omega-6 are pro-inflammatory ones. An easy rule of thumb is 1. avoid seed oils, and 2. eat lots of fatty red meat and fatty sea creatures. This will improve your system’s immune response now that you’ve removed sources of chronic inflammation.

Wondering what ty