The ketogenic diet is a high-fat, low-carb diet that continues to grow in popularity thanks to how efficiently it can help you reach your health and fitness goals. But many people still need the keto diet explained.
This guide will provide all the necessary information about the keto diet, how it works, and why this lifestyle can be great for your health.
What Is the Ketogenic Diet?
The ketogenic diet — most commonly referred to simply as “keto” — is a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet that puts your body in a fat-burning state known as ketosis. In ketosis, your body uses body fat, rather than carbs, as its main source of energy.
To get into a state of ketosis, cutting down your carb intake is vital. Many people think of the keto diet as a super high-fat diet, but consuming massive amounts of fat isn’t nearly as important as cutting carbs when it comes to changing your metabolism to run on fat.
To fully understand this metabolic shift, it’s important to understand how your metabolism works.
How the Diet Works
When you eat a diet rich in carbohydrates, your body converts those carbs into glucose (blood sugar) which spikes your blood sugar levels.
When blood sugar levels rise, they signal your body to create insulin, a hormone that carries glucose to your cells so that it can be used for energy. This is what is known as an insulin spike[*].
Glucose is your body’s preferred energy source. As long as you keep eating carbohydrates, your body will keep turning them into sugar which is then burned for energy. In other words, when glucose is present, your body will refuse to burn off its fat stores.
The only way to start burning fat is by removing carbs. This depletes your glycogen stores (stored glucose), leaving your body no choice but to start burning its fat stores. Your body starts converting fatty acids into ketones, putting your body on a metabolic state known as ketosis[*].
What Are Ketones?
In ketosis, your liver converts fatty acids into ketone bodies or ketones. These byproducts become your body’s new energy source. When you decrease your carb intake and replace those calories with healthy fats and carbs, your body responds by becoming keto adapted, or more efficient at burning fat.
Ketosis helps your body function on stored body fat when food is not readily available. Similarly, the keto diet focuses on “starving” your body of carbohydrates, switching you into a fat-burning state.
The Difference Between Keto, Low-Carb, and Atkins
Too often, the keto diet gets lumped in with other low-carbohydrate diets like the Atkins Diet. There are a few key differences between them.
Difference in Carbohydrate Intake
The main difference between keto and low-carb is the macronutrient levels. Low-carb diets are considered any diet with a total carb intake under about 100-150 grams of carbs per day. It’s likely that you’ll have to lower your carb intake much more to enter a state of ketosis.
The keto diet works best when you stick to consistently low-carb intake — under about 50 grams per day for most people.
Difference in Protein Intake
Most low-carb diets are also high-protein diets. However, the keto diet focuses on moderate protein, low-carb veggies, and quality fats.
Difference in Goals
The goals between these diets vary as well. Unlike Atkins, paleo, or the Mediterranean diet, the goal of keto is to enter ketosis, weaning your body off burning glucose for fuel for the long-term.
Although you may enter ketosis for a brief period on Atkins, you may never enter ketosis on a low-carb diet.
Ketogenic Diet Macronutrients
Macronutrients seem to be the cornerstone of any keto diet, but contrary to popular opinion, there is no single macronutrient ratio that works for everyone.
Instead, you’re going to have a completely unique set of macros based on:
- Your physical and mental goals
- Your health history
- Your activity level
The best way to figure out these numbers quickly is to use the free Perfect Keto calculator.
Outside of your personal macros, there are general macro guidelines for a ketogenic diet:
- 70-80% of calories from fats
- 20-25% of calories from protein
- 5-10% of calories from net carbs
Keto Diet Explained: Different Types of Ketogenic Diets
There are several main approaches to the ketogenic diet. When deciding which method works best for you, take into account your goals, fitness level, and what’s realistic for your lifestyle.
Standard Ketogenic Diet
This is the most common and recommended version of the diet. Here, you stay within 20-50 grams of net carbs per day, focusing on moderate protein intake and high-fat intake.
Note: The SKD method is the most used and researched version of keto. The majority of the information in this guide pertains to this standard method.
Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD)
If you are an active person, this approach might work best for you. Targeted keto involves eating roughly 25-50 grams of net carbs or less 30 minutes to an hour before exercise.
Cyclical Ketogenic Diet (CKD)
If keto seems intimidating to you, this is an excellent starting method. You cycle between periods of eating a low-carb diet for several days, followed by a period of eating higher amounts of carbs (typically lasting several days).
High-Protein Ketogenic Diet (HPKD)
This approach is very similar to the standard (SKD) approach. The primary difference is your protein intake. While a standard keto diet will include moderate protein, here you up your protein intake considerably.
Learn more about the different types of keto diets.
What Can You Eat on a Keto Diet?
Now that you understand the basics behind the keto diet, it’s time to make your low-carb food shopping list and hit the grocery store.
On the keto diet, you’ll enjoy nutrient-dense foods and avoid high-carb ingredients.
Meat, Eggs, Nuts, and Seeds
Always choose the highest quality meat you can afford, selecting grass-fed and organic beef whenever possible, wild-caught fish, and pasture-raised poultry, pork, and eggs.
Nuts and seeds are also fine and best eaten raw.
- Beef: steak, veal, roast, ground beef, and stews
- Poultry: chicken breasts, quail, duck, turkey and wild game
- Pork: pork loin, tenderloin, chops, ham, and sugar-free bacon
- Fish: mackerel, tuna, salmon, trout, halibut, cod, catfish, and mahi-mahi
- Bone broth: beef bone broth and chicken bone broth
- Shellfish: oysters, clams, crab, mussels, and lobster
- Organ meats: heart, liver, tongue, kidney, and offal
- Eggs: deviled, fried, scrambled, and boiled
- Nuts and seeds: macadamia nuts, almonds, and nut butter
- Leafy greens, such as kale, spinach, Swiss chard, and arugula
- Cruciferous vegetables, including cabbage, cauliflower, and zucchini
- Lettuces, including iceberg, romaine, and butterhead
- Fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchi
- Other vegetables such as mushrooms, asparagus, and celery
Choose the highest quality you can reasonably afford, selecting grass-fed, whole-fat, and organic dairy whenever possible. Avoid low-fat or fat-free dairy products or products with high sugar content.
- Grass-fed butter and ghee
- Heavy cream and heavy whipping cream
- Fermented dairy products like yogurt and kefir
- Sour cream
- Hard and soft cheeses
Approach fruit with caution on keto, as it contains high amounts of sugar and carbohydrates.
- Avocados (the one fruit that you can enjoy in abundance)
- Organic berries such as raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, and cranberries (a handful a day)
Healthy Fats and Oils
- Butter and ghee
- Coconut oil and coconut butter
- Flaxseed oil
- Olive oil
- Sesame seed oil
- MCT oil and MCT powder
- Walnut oil
- Olive oil
- Avocado oil
Foods to Avoid on a Keto Diet
It’s best to avoid the following foods on a keto diet due to their high carb content. When starting keto, purge your fridge and cupboards, donate any unopened items, and throw away the rest.
Grains are loaded with carbs, so it’s best to stay away from all grains on keto. This includes whole grains, wheat, pasta, rice, oats, barley, rye, corn, and quinoa.
Beans and Legumes
While many vegans and vegetarians rely on beans for their protein content, these foods are incredibly high-carb. Avoid eating kidney beans, chickpeas, black beans, and lentils.
While many fruits are packed with antioxidants and other micronutrients, they’re also high in fructose, which can easily kick you out of ketosis.
Avoid apples, mangoes, pineapples, and other fruits (with the exception of small amounts of berries).
Avoid starchy vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, certain types of squash, parsnips, and carrots.
Like fruit, there are health benefits connected to these foods but they’re also very high in carbs.
This includes but is not limited to desserts, artificial sweeteners, ice cream, smoothies, soda, and fruit juice.
Even condiments such as ketchup and barbecue sauce are usually filled with sugar, so make sure you read the labels before adding them to your meal plan. If you’re craving something sweet, try a keto-friendly dessert recipe made with low-glycemic sweeteners (like stevia or erythritol) instead.
Some alcoholic beverages are low-glycemic and appropriate for a ketogenic diet. However, keep in mind that when you drink alcohol, your liver will preferentially process the ethanol and stop producing ketones.
If you’re on a keto diet to lose weight, keep your alcohol consumption to a minimum. If you’re craving a cocktail, stick to low-sugar mixers and avoid most beer and wine.
Health Benefits of a Keto Diet
A ketogenic diet has been associated with incredible health benefits that stretch way beyond weight loss. Here are just a few ways keto may help you feel better, stronger, and more clear-headed.
Keto for Weight Loss
Keto for Endurance Levels
Keto for Gut Health
Several studies have shown a link between low sugar intake and an improvement in symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). One study showed that a ketogenic diet can improve abdominal pain and overall quality of life in those with IBS[*].
Keto for Diabetes
Keto for Heart Health
The keto diet can help reduce risk factors for heart disease, including improvement in HDL cholesterol levels, blood pressure, triglycerides, and LDL cholesterol (related to plaque in the arteries)[*].
Keto for Brain Health
Ketone bodies have been linked to possible neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory benefits. Therefore, the keto diet may support those with conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, among other degenerative brain conditions[*][*].
Keto for Epilepsy
The ketogenic diet was created in the early 20th century to help prevent seizures in epileptic patients, especially children. To this day, ketosis is used as a therapeutic method for those who suffer from epilepsy[*].
Keto for PMS
How to Know When You’re in Ketosis
You can follow the macronutrient guidelines, eat the prescribed keto diet foods, and still struggle to enter ketosis.
Why? Because ketosis is a metabolic state, and you may need to tweak your meal plan, exercise regimen, and other lifestyle choices in order to enter it.
There are plenty of signs and symptoms to suggest you’re in ketosis, but there’s only one reliable way to know whether or not you’re in ketosis: Test your ketone levels.
There are three ways to do this:
- In your urine with a ketone test strip
- In your blood with a glucose meter
- On your breath with a breath meter
Each method has its advantages and disadvantages, with a blood test being the most accurate (and most expensive). Although it’s the most affordable, urine testing is typically the least accurate method.
Supplements to Support a Keto Diet
Supplements are a popular way to maximize the benefits of a ketogenic diet. Adding these supplements alongside a healthy, whole-food keto diet plan can help you feel your best while supporting your health goals.
Exogenous ketones are supplemental ketones — usually beta-hydroxybutyrate or acetoacetate — that help give you that extra boost of energy. You can take exogenous ketones in between meals or for a quick burst of energy before a workout.
MCT Oil and Powder
MCTs (or medium-chain triglycerides) are a type of fatty acid that your body can convert to energy quickly and efficiently. MCTs are extracted from coconuts and are sold mostly in liquid or powder form.
Collagen is the most abundant protein in your body, supporting the growth of joints, organs, hair, and connective tissues. Amino acids from collagen supplements may also help with energy production, DNA repair, detox, and healthy digestion[*].
Keto Micro Greens provides all your micronutrients in one convenient scoop. Each serving size contains 14 servings of 22 different fruits and vegetables, plus herbs and MCT fats to assist with absorption.
Whey supplements are some of the best-studied supplements for weight loss support, muscle gain, and recovery[*][*]. Make sure to choose grass-fed whey only and avoid powders with sugar or any other additives that could spike blood sugar.
Electrolyte balance is one of the most critical — yet most overlooked — components of a successful keto diet experience. Being keto can make you excrete more electrolytes than usual, so you have to replenish them yourself — a fact few know about when starting their keto journey[*].
Add more sodium, potassium, and calcium to your diet or grab a supplement that can help support your body.
Is the Ketogenic Diet Safe?
Having ketone levels in the 0.5-5.0mmol/L range isn’t dangerous, but it may cause a range of harmless issues known as the “keto flu.”
Keto Flu Symptoms
Many people have to deal with common short-term side effects similar to flu symptoms as they become fat adapted. These temporary symptoms are byproducts of dehydration and low carbohydrate levels while your body adjusts. They can include:
- Brain fog
- Stomach pain
- Low motivation
The symptoms of keto flu can often be shortened by taking ketone supplements, which can help make the transition into ketosis much easier.
Keto Diet Explained: Get Started on Keto
If you’ve tried the ketogenic diet before and didn’t make it past the first few days or weeks, this 30-day guided program is for you. If you’re on a keto diet right now and have hit a slump or plateau, you should also try this program.
The Keto Kickstart includes:
- Tips and tools on how to get into and stay in ketosis
- Shopping lists
- Easy, family-friendly keto recipes
- Simple lessons on how ketosis actually works
- Tips on figuring out if you’re in ketosis and how to track your progress
If your curious about the ketogenic diet and would like to learn more about this lifestyle followed by thousands of people, check out these articles that offer lots of useful, easy-to-follow information.