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Keto Diet for Beginners
The ketogenic diet, or keto for short, is a high-fat, moderate-protein, low-carbohydrate diet that has gained a lot of attention as a weight loss method in recent years. But does it really work? If you’re thinking about trying the keto diet, here’s a look at what to expect if you’re a beginner.
What Is a Keto Diet?
The keto diet may sound trendy, but it has been around for a while. It first surfaced in the 1920s. Originally, doctors recommended it to help with conditions like epilepsy and diabetes. But today, some people use the keto diet to lose weight.
For many Americans, carbs like breads, pasta, or potatoes make up more than 50% of their daily diet. Your body breaks down the glucose (sugars) found in carbs to fuel your body with energy.
In the keto diet, the goal is to swap out the glucose calories with fat. In a typical keto diet, your nutrition centers on fatty foods. They’ll make up anywhere from 60% to 80% of your daily calories. Proteins make up 15% to 20%. Carbs are restricted to no more than 50 grams. This makes it quite a restrictive diet.
Studies show that those who follow the low-carb keto diet are more likely to lose weight within the first 3 to 6 months than they would if they followed a more balanced diet. But because the keto diet calls for drastic changes in your daily diet, it’s best to ask your doctor or a nutritionist if it’s right for you before you get started.
How Does the Diet Work?
When you’re on the keto diet, you’re eating too few carbs to support your body’s energy needs. As a result, your body turns to burning your stores of body fat to fuel your energy.
When your body burns body fat for fuel, it produces ketones, substances made in your liver. Your body enters a metabolic state called “ketosis.”
If you follow the keto diet strictly, your body will reach ketosis in about 4 days. You will likely even see several pounds of weight loss the first week.
What Are the Types of Keto Diet?
If you’re planning to start the keto diet, keep in mind that there are several types. Each one focuses on slight changes in the proportion of fat, protein, and carbs in your daily diet.
The types of keto diet include:
Standard ketogenic diet (SKD). This is a very low-carb, moderate-protein, high-fat diet. It typically contains 70% fat, 20% protein, and only 10% carbs in your daily diet.
Cyclical ketogenic diet (CKD). This involves periods of higher-carb “refeeds,” such as 5 ketogenic days followed by 2 high-carb days.
Targeted ketogenic diet (TKD). This diet allows you to add carbs around intense workouts.
High-protein ketogenic diet (HPKD). It’s similar to the SKD, but you can eat more protein. The ratio is usually 60% fat, 35% protein, and 5% carbs.
The standard and high-protein diets have been researched and studied the most. They’re also the most common. The cyclical and targeted keto diets are recent additions and are mostly used by athletes or bodybuilders
What Is the Keto Diet Used For?
At first, the keto diet was primarily used as a way to help people with seizures. Over time, experts applied the benefits to several other health conditions, including:
- Cognitive and memory improvement
- Type 2 diabetes
- Cancer such as glioblastoma
- Psychiatric disorders
- Alzheimer’s disease
The keto diet has been highly effective for certain conditions, especially type 2 diabetes. One study looked at the before-and-after keto diet results for 349 adults with type 2 diabetes over a period of 1 year. It reversed diabetes in about 60% of the participants. The keto diet also helped many of those in the study to lower their dependence on prescription insulin drugs.
If you have a health condition, it’s best to talk to your doctor before you start the keto diet.
How Do You Start a Keto Diet?
To start the keto diet, you may have to toss a few things out of your pantry and add certain high-fat food sources to include in your daily meals.
Talk to your doctor or a nutritionist about what will work best for you. This is especially important if you have other dietary restrictions, such as being a vegan, vegetarian, or having certain food allergies. Experts can help you find alternatives or substitutes and come up with a meal plan that best suits your needs.
Before you start changing your meals, here are some questions you should consider or ask your doctor:
- Will the keto diet help manage certain health conditions?
- Do you need to lose weight?
- What are some of the side effects?
- Should you take or continue vitamins or supplements during the diet?
- How long should you stay on the keto diet?
- Should you exercise? If so, how much?
What Can You Eat on a Keto Diet?
Some keto-friendly foods are:
- Full-fat dairy products
- Greek yogurt
- Non-starchy and fibrous vegetables.
- Fatty oils
- Cottage cheese
For the 20 to 50 grams of carbs per day, choose non-starchy veggies like:
- Leafy greens
- Green beans
Foods to avoid or limit include starchy and high-carb foods like:
- Baked goods
- Sugary sweets
- Breakfast cereals
- Starchy vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, peas, and beans
- Fruits high in sugars
- Beer, unless it’s low-carb
In terms of acceptable drinks on the keto diet, you can opt for unsweetened coffee or tea. Cut down on how much alcohol you drink. If you drink alcohol, choose low-carb liquors like tequila or vodka and use soda water as a mixer.
What Snacks Can You Eat on a Keto Diet?
Keto-friendly snacks are a good balance of healthy fats and moderate protein with low carb content. You can make some at home or use store-bought versions.
This includes snacks such as:
- Brazil nuts
- Coconut yogurt
- Canned tuna
- Meat jerky
- Pork rinds
- Seaweed snacks
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Jicama (low-carb root vegetable).
These snacks can help you manage your hunger between meals and stick to staying in ketosis in the long term.
Are There Risks From a Keto Diet?
While research shows that the keto diet helps some people lose weight or manage health conditions, the restrictive diet isn’t a good idea for everyone. It may be harmful if you follow the diet incorrectly or without proper supervision.
The keto diet also affects each person differently. While some people can transition easily to the dietary changes, others may find that their body takes longer to adjust to the sudden changes.
It’s important to get your cholesterol checked regularly. The keto diet may decrease cholesterol for some people, but it may increase cholesterol for others.
The low-carb part of the diet may have long-term consequences for some people. For many, cutting out carbs so suddenly and drastically can lead to what many popularly call the “keto flu.” You may get flu-like symptoms as your body navigates switching from burning glucose to fat for energy.
Symptoms of keto flu include:
- Stomach aches or pains.
- Sugar cravings
- Muscle soreness
- Feeling cranky
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
- Poor focus and concentration
- Brain fog
Usually the symptoms of keto flu kick in a day or two after you cut carbs from your daily diet. They may last up to a week or less, but in severe cases, they could last up to a month. If the symptoms are severe or persist, see your doctor or stop the diet.
To lessen the chances of getting the keto flu, start the diet slowly, stay hydrated, do only light exercises, and get plenty of rest as your body gets used to your new meal plan.
Another pitfall that experts warn about is that there are too many types of keto diet and it’s easy to do it incorrectly. You may end up eating too many saturated fats instead of healthy fats that can put you at risk for high levels of bad cholesterol and heart disease. You may also not reach ketosis if you don’t follow the diet properly.
The keto diet can also affect your gut health. That’s because the diet mostly requires you to cut out nutrient-dense and fiber-rich foods like legumes, whole grains, starchy vegetables, and fruits. The studies on keto’s effects on gut health are conflicting. There needs to be more research done on this topic.
Other side effects can include:
- Low bone density and bone fractures
- High cholesterol
- Kidney stones
- Slower growth than typical
If you’re planning to give the keto diet a try for the first time, ask your doctor, nutritionist, or dietitian if it’s right for you. They’ll help you come with a tailored meal plan that may work best for you.
How to Start a Keto Diet: 7 Tips for Beginners
If the tenets of a keto diet—high in fats and low in carbs—sound familiar, you’re not wrong. Atkins and keto are not dissimilar. The goal of both diets is to help you lose weight more efficiently by reaching a metabolic state in which your body burns fat (instead of carbohydrates) and sugar (for fuel). Classic keto diets are very high in fat, can be quite restrictive, and are often done with medical supervision. But this ultra-high level of fat may not be necessary for you to maintain the fat-burning state of ketosis. Atkins is a ketogenic diet, but one with more food choices and a greater balance of macronutrients.
Consuming a well-constructed keto diet with adequate fiber from vegetables, moderate protein, approximately 40 grams of net carbs or less a day, and about 65% of your daily calories coming from healthy fats—as you do on Atkins 20® or Atkins 40®—has shown to be safe and effective. If you’re new to the keto diet, here are a few easy tips to getting your diet plan started.
Keto Diet for Beginners
- Decrease carbs (but eat more veggies) Eating a very low carb diet is important to achieving ketosis, but low carb does not mean no carb. With Atkins 20, net carbs are restricted to 20g or fewer per day for about two weeks to guarantee that ketosis is achieved. After this induction phase, you will gradually add small amounts of net carbs back into your diet while still burning fat. You can easily count the net carbs you are consuming with the Atkins® app or this guide.When limiting your carb intake on a keto diet to 20–40 net grams per day, it is important to eat plenty of foundation vegetables to ensure you’re getting all of your necessary vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber. Reach for nutrient-dense, non-starchy veggies like kale, broccoli, spinach, asparagus, mushrooms, and peppers. Another bonus: the combination of eating whole foods plus gradually adding net carbs as you maintain ketosis also helps prevent setbacks, hunger pangs, and cravings for processed foods.Bonus tip: Swap in low carb ingredients to make your favorite meals. For example, use zucchini noodles to replace regular noodles in your favorite pasta dish!
- Decrease stressWe know that sometimes this is easier said than done! High levels of the stress hormone cortisol can elevate your blood sugar levels and get in the way of your body’s ability to achieve ketosis. If your job or personal life is currently more stressful than usual, you may want to wait to start a keto diet. You can also help reduce stress by getting lots of sleep, exercising regularly, and trying relaxation techniques like meditation or yoga.Bonus tip: Prioritize sleep by sticking to a set bedtime schedule, and aim for a consistent 7–9 hours of sleep every night.
- Increase healthy fatsLow carb keto diets replace your reduction of carbs with an increase in fat, which typically accounts for at least 60% of your daily calories. Because we’ve been told for so long to avoid fat, most people under eat fat when trying a keto diet. It is important to choose healthy fats from high-quality plant and animal sources, such as olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil as well as cheese, eggs, nuts, and fish.Bonus tip: If you find yourself getting hungry between meals, you may not be consuming enough healthy fats.
- Increase exerciseAs with any diet, increasing your activity levels can help you achieve your weight loss goals. Regularly exercising while on the keto diet, however, can also help you achieve ketosis and transition into a low carb, high fat lifestyle more quickly than you would otherwise. That’s because to achieve ketosis, your body needs to get rid of any glucose, and the more often you exercise, the quicker your body uses up its glycogen stores before turning to fat for energy.Bonus tip: It’s not uncommon to feel a bit sluggish when starting a keto diet. Ease into any new workout regimen, and be sure to include plenty of low intensity exercises as you adapt to your new diet.
- Increase your water intakeWater is crucial to supporting your metabolism and regular body functions, and low carb diets like keto have a diuretic effect on the body. Not consuming enough water, especially during the induction phase, can lead to constipation, dizziness, and cravings. In addition to drinking enough water, make sure you’re getting all of your electrolytes by adding some broth to your diet or a little extra salt to your food.Bonus tip: Stay well hydrated and drink a minimum of 6 to 8 glasses of water daily. Drink even more if you have upped your exercise or if it’s a hot day.
- Maintain your protein intakeA keto diet requires eating enough protein to supply the liver with amino acids to make new glucose for the cells and organs, such as your kidneys and your red blood cells, that can’t use ketones or fatty acids as fuel. Not consuming enough protein can lead to loss of muscle mass, while consuming an excessive amount can prevent ketosis.Bonus tip: When following a keto diet such as Atkins 20, aim for 20-30% of your diet to be made up of protein.
- Maintain your social life!Starting a keto diet doesn’t mean you have to eat every meal at home. Make smart choices when dining out by checking the menu ahead of time, asking the restaurant for nutrition information, sticking to meat and veggie options, and opting for a side salad instead of a starchy side like fries.Bonus tip: Replace sugar-laden condiments like BBQ sauce and ketchup with yellow mustard, ranch dressing, hot sauce, or butter. Also, meet up with your friends at these keto-friendly restaurants!
Sample Keto Diet Plan for Beginners
This sample keto diet for beginners provides 21.4g of net carbohydrates. Atkins has even more plans personalized to your lifestyle, as well as an incredible library of delicious low carb recipes.
Breakfast: 4.6g net carbs
Eggs scrambled with sautéed onions and cheddar cheese
Snack: 1g net carbs
Atkins French Vanilla Shake
Lunch: 6g net carbs
Grilled chicken over baby spinach, tomato, and avocado salad
Snack: 4.4g net carbs
1 cup sliced red bell pepper with 2 tbsp ranch dressing
Dinner: 5.4g net carbs
5 oz hamburger, 1 oz pepper jack cheese, 1 small tomato, ½ Hass avocado, 2 romaine lettuce leaves
The Expert-Backed Guide to Following the Keto Diet for Beginners
Everything you need to know to get started with the (still) trendy diet, including a beginner keto meal plan with tons of high-fat, low-carb recipe ideas.
So you’ve decided you want to try out the high-fat, low-carb diet, better-known as the fat-burning ketogenic diet. Whether it’s to lose weight, have more energy, or fuel workouts differently, going keto continues to be a popular choice (at least for the time being). But figuring out a keto diet plan on your own is no easy feat, especially since eating a diet super high in fats doesn’t come naturally to many people who are accustomed to the traditionally carb-heavy American diet. (It’s especially hard to give a keto diet for beginners a go if you’re vegan.) But this should help: Nutrition experts explain how to set yourself up for success, plus provide ideas for exactly what foods to eat when you’re first getting started with a keto diet for beginners.
Before Starting a Keto Diet for Beginners
When it comes to starting the keto diet (or any diet for that matter), there’s one thing all experts agree on. You must have a plan. “Never try to wing a keto diet,” says Julie Stefanski, R.D.N., C.S.S.D., L.D.N., a dietitian based in York, Pennsylvania, who specializes in the ketogenic diet. “Set a start date and get prepared by reorganizing your pantry, planning out meal and snack options, and purchasing appropriate foods and dietary supplements,” she says. “The biggest reason people have a hard time sticking with keto is that people don’t have enough interesting foods to turn to, and high-carb favorites win out over good intention. If you didn’t buy foods at the grocery store that fit the guidelines, there won’t be an easy option in the fridge when you really need it.” (Pro tip: Keep this list of healthy, high-fat foods handy for help grocery shopping while trying a keto diet plan for beginners.)
What’s more, it’s especially important to make sure your keto diet plan for beginners is well thought out when you’re eating this way because the food options can be quite limited. In addition to consulting a dietitian, Stefanski also recommends that you “talk to your doctor and make sure [they’re] aware that you’ll be starting a diet that completely changes how your body metabolizes energy.” Before starting a keto diet for beginners, you might also want to check your most recent bloodwork levels for things such as cholesterol, vitamin D, and other indicators of health because these can change while on the high-fat eating plan. That’s because, for some people, a prolonged keto diet can result in certain nutritional deficiencies or even high cholesterol. (In fact, the potential to leave you short on nutrients is one of the reasons why this dietitian is completely anti-keto.)
All that said, many (if not most) experts will tell you that following the ketogenic diet is not a permanent lifestyle change — as is usually the case with lots of trendy eating plans such as the sirtfood diet. (Rather something a bit longer-term than a keto diet for beginners? Consider the Mediterranean diet, which health care pros often consider it be more of a way of life than a “diet.”)
What to Eat On a Keto Diet Diet for Beginners
One thing many people love about keto diet plans is that tracking your food is optional. “One of the biggest benefits of the ketogenic diet is that there’s no need to meticulously track your calories as you may in other diets,” notes Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of DrAxe.com and author of Eat Dirt. “Because you’re filling up on fat and protein, you’re more likely to feel satisfied and energized all day long, which causes you to naturally eat less.”
This isn’t to say that food tracking on a keto meal plan is discouraged. “Some people may find calorie counting a useful tool to be more mindful and aware of what they’re eating, but it’s not necessary on the ketogenic diet,” says Axe. But there’s no need to get too stressed about hitting a certain caloric goal, especially if you’re not trying to lose weight. (
One area where food tracking can be especially helpful, though, is ensuring that you’re hitting the right ratios of macronutrients: protein, carbs, and fat. “The most researched version of the ketogenic diet derives 70 percent of calories from healthy fats, 20 percent from protein, and only 10 percent from carbs,” explains Charles Passler, D.C., nutritionist, and founder of Pure Change. “In the ideal world, each keto meal and snack should have that same (70/20/10) ratio of macronutrients, but studies have shown that you’ll still achieve great results even if each meal varies slightly from that ratio, just as long as you don’t exceed 50 grams per day of carbs, or eat those carbs in one sitting.” In order to achieve these ratios without a preset beginner keto meal plan from a dietitian or doctor, some food tracking is probably going to be necessary. But once you get the hang of things, you may not need to keep up with it anymore.
How often you eat while following a keto diet plan for beginners is also up to your personal preference. “For most people, I recommend three to four meals per day with a few healthy keto snacks in between,” says Axe. “This ensures that you’re getting a good mix of protein and fat all day long to keep you feeling energized and satisfied.” That being said, he encourages people to listen to their bodies and tune in to when they’re truly hungry: “If you find that you feel better eating five to six smaller meals spread throughout the day, do what works best for you.”
Lastly, if you’re active, you might need to make some adjustments to take that into account. “For the first one to two weeks, temporarily reducing your exercise load can be helpful as your body adjusts to being in ketosis,” he says. “Additionally, for those who have an intense workout schedule, carb cycling may be a good option.” Carb cycling essentially means you’ll increase your carb intake on the days you’re doing exercise, ideally just two to three days per week. “While low-carb days may be around 20 to 30 grams of net carbs daily, high-carb days can range all the way up to 100 grams, although it can vary based on your size and activity level,” says Axe. (
Keto Diet Menu for Beginners
While it will probably take a little bit of trial and error to figure out your go-to meals at the beginning, this sample keto meal plan can help you get you started.
Option 1: Spinach, mushroom, and feta omelet with keto coffee (coffee with adding fat such as MCT oil, butter, or bone broth protein). “This breakfast is a good source of protein and healthy fats that will keep you feeling full to curb midmorning cravings,” says Axe.
Option 2: Whole milk, unsweetened yogurt mixed with full-fat sour cream, a few raspberries, chia seeds, and walnuts. “This type of combo requires careful carb- and portion-counting since all yogurts naturally have lactose, which is a carb,” says Stefanski. “Pairing it with a carb-free protein like two eggs can help balance out the macros.” (
Option 1: Oven-baked salmon with broccoli. “This lunch features salmon, which is high in heart-healthy fats, as well as broccoli, which is low in carbs but high in fiber,” says Axe. (
Option 2: Stefanski suggests a salad with nitrate-free bacon, avocado, cheese, spicy pumpkin seeds, and a few grape tomatoes along with a low-carb, high-fat salad dressing such as ranch or blue cheese.
Option 3: “Make your own keto ‘lunchable’ with cubes of grilled chicken, a slice of nitrate-free ham, cheese cubes, pickle slices, a hard-boiled egg, a few raw grape tomatoes, raw veggies like cauliflower or broccoli, a few almonds or walnuts, guacamole, and ranch dressing,” says Stefanski.
Option 1: Caesar salad with romaine lettuce, chicken breast, bacon, and Parmesan. “Rich in protein and super filling, this is the perfect meal to round out your day,” says Axe. “Pair it with an olive oil dressing and plenty of cheese to up the fat content.”
Option 2: Grass-fed ground beef sautéed with onions and low-carb tomato sauce. “This can be served with zucchini or shirataki low-carb noodles,” says Stefanski. “In order to get the fat content up in the meal, the zucchini can be sautéed in olive oil or additional garlic-infused oil can be added directly to the sauce.”
Option 3: Grilled chicken served with eggplant, yellow squash, and zucchini along with a few tomatoes, sautéed with garlic in olive oil. Adding additional fats in the form of a sauce incorporating heavy cream or coconut cream is a smart choice for balancing macros. (
Option 1: BLT roll-ups with turkey and avocado. “Create a roll using bacon, lettuce, tomato, turkey, and avocado for the perfect mix of fat and protein,” says Axe. (P.S. you could also include this kale avocado BLT salad as part of your beginner keto meal plan.)
Option 2: Spread some cream cheese between two cucumber slices. “Cucumber is a great low-carb veggie that works well combined with high-fat cream cheese for a satisfying, keto-friendly snack,” says Axe.
Option 3: Spicy guacamole with raw zucchini slices. The foods you choose between meals should still be keto-friendly and may even mimic an upcoming dinner, just in smaller portion size, says Stefanski. “Since carbs are minimal, it’s important to spend your carbs on high-nutrient foods like vegetables.”