When it comes to starting keto, knowledge is your very best friend.
In other words, learn, learn learn! Spend time reading and researching to understand why the keto diet works, how to use keto to meet your personal goals, which foods are keto friendly, which foods to avoid, and how to troubleshoot potential setbacks like the keto flu.
These building blocks of knowledge will allow you to successfully start and maintain a keto diet!
The Basics Principles of the Keto Diet
You’ll want to keep a few basic principles in mind as you start keto. Most importantly, remember that keto involves keeping your carb consumption below 50 grams per day, while eating a moderate amount of protein and a significant amount of fat.
Try to avoid obsessing over calories, and instead focus on eating the right foods and listening to your body’s hunger signals. If you’re hungry, eat! If you feel satisfied and full, don’t submit to social pressure to eat--even if that means you’re only consuming one meal per day. The fat and protein you consume during keto have the added benefit of helping you feel fuller, longer!
You should also make a special effort to drink more water and consume more electrolytes while on a keto diet.
Foods to Eat on Keto
It can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the list of “foods to eat” and “foods to avoid.” As a general principle, remember that keto is all about eating real, unprocessed foods like nuts, meats, eggs, vegetables, dairy, and some fruit. Use this list as a starting point to get a good idea of the building blocks of a keto diet!
Meats, Fish, and Eggs
Most meats, fish, and eggs are great choices for keto. Salmon, tuna, lamb, steak, ground beef, chicken, and pork are good sources of fat and protein.
Butter, ghee, lard, coconut oil, animal fats
Avocados, olive oil, sesame oil
Yogurt, cream, full-fat milk, cottage cheese, cheeses, cream cheese, sour cream. Full-fat milk is also an option when consumed in small amounts.
Nuts and Seeds
Almonds, macadamia nuts, pine nuts, pecans, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and hazelnuts. Pistachios and cashews are also good in moderation!
Berries, in moderation are usually a safe choice, including blackberries, strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, and blueberries. Watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew melon are also good choices in moderation.
Non-starchy vegetables like broccoli, Swiss chard, cauliflower, kale, peppers, cherry tomatoes, spinach, and Brussels sprouts, asparagus, cucumber, zucchini, and summer squash. In moderation, you can also consume mushrooms, onions, snap peas, beets, and carrots.
Look for condiments with low sugar, like mustard, hot sauce, pesto, mayonnaise, some brands of ketchup, and cocoa powder. Natural carb-free sweeteners like Stevia and Erythritol can be used in your coffee or as sugar substitutes in recipes. Pickled foods like kimchi and sauerkraut are also good choices!
Water should be your main beverage. Unsweetened teas are also an option, as well as “keto lemonade,” which includes citrus juice, salts, and natural sweeteners for an electrolyte boost that can help with keto flu. When it comes to alcohol, dry white or red wine are options for the occasional adult beverage!
Foods to Avoid
While it might seem like “low-carb” foods are a safe choice, you’ll want to take special care in relying on or even using them. You’ll also want to steer clear of foods that are low fat or non-fat. Unprocessed, intact food--without the additives and potentially misleading labels--is always a better choice! As a general rule, you should avoid the following foods while on a keto diet:
You’ll want to avoid all forms of sugar, including refined cane sugar, agave, honey, ice cream, pastries, and soda. Keep in mind that many products hide high levels of sugar (like ketchup!) Check labels when in doubt.
You’ll want to avoid all grains while on keto. Common grains include rice, white potatoes, pasta, pizza crust, quinoa, corn, oats, bulgur, and any food made with flour.
Highly Processed, Preserved Meats
Check the label before eating preserved meats like hot dogs, pepperoni, and salami. These sausages often contain hidden sugars or carbs, and may be from lower-quality farming sources.
Pineapple, mango, bananas, and papayas are a few of the tropical fruits you should avoid, since they are high in carbs. You’ll also want to steer clear of fruit juices (no fiber and lots of sugar!)
Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, corn oil, canola oil, vegetable oil, and margarine
Sugary Gum and Mints
You’ll want to avoid gums and mints as much as possible as they can contain additives and hidden carbs. Some people enjoy sugar-free gum, but others find they trigger cravings for sugar.
Keep yourself on track with keto by keeping only keto-friendly foods in your house for meal prep. It’s much easy to stick to your diet--especially during the early days--if familiar, carb-heavy and sugar-heavy foods aren’t there to tempt you! There’s no need to feel guilty. Give food away to friends, or donate it to a good cause!
Planning meals in advance is one of the best ways to stay on track. Remember, listen to your body--not friends or family--when it comes to how many meals you eat per day, and portion sizes. Keep plenty of keto-friendly food stocked, especially ones you can eat quickly (such as avocado, hard-boiled eggs vegetables, cheeses, and nuts!)
Keep an eye on your macronutrients (fat, carbs, and proteins) for optimal results with keto. Remember, you’ll want to keep macronutrient levels at approximately 5-10% carbs, 15-20% protein, and around 70% fat. Maintaining the appropriate levels of protein will help avoid the loss of muscle mass (critical to both fitness and weight loss goals!) Fat should be the primary energy source in your diet, and will help you feel full and energized.
Don’t Forget Electrolytes!
In addition to keeping tabs on the macronutrients you consume, you’ll want to pay attention to your electrolyte levels! These micronutrients can easily become too low, especially in a keto diet. Potassium, magnesium, and sodium are three critical micronutrients you’ll want to monitor especially closely.
Seek out keto-friendly, natural sources of these micronutrients, and supplement when necessary. Keeping micronutrient levels in check will help you meet your goals and avoid keto flu too!
Some of the highest levels of naturally occurring potassium include avocados and salmon, while magnesium can be found in many nuts. When it comes to sodium, disregard conventional wisdom and apply salt liberally!
Am I in Ketosis?
The biggest question on many people’s minds is, “How will I know when I’m actually in ketosis?” There are several ways to gage whether or not your body is in ketosis:
Natural Signs of Ketosis
Several natural signs will indicate ketosis, including “fruity” breath that some people say reminds them mildly of nail polish remover (don’t worry, this will go away as you maintain a keto diet!) You’ll also notice a stronger smell to your urine. You may also notice that you’re thirstier than usual.
Keto Blood Tests
Blood tests are the most accurate way to determine whether you are in nutritional ketosis. They work by using a tiny pinprick of blood, similar to insulin testing for diabetics. Most experts agree that ketone levels ranging from 0.5–3.0 mmol/L mean you’re in ketosis. Remember, higher levels provide no benefit, so strive to stay in this range!
Keto Urine Strips
Urine strips are slightly less accurate than blood testing, but are an easy and generally reliable way to test for ketone levels regularly!
Keto Breath Strip Test
It’s also possible to test for ketosis using a breath analyzer. Similar to urine strips, this method is considered less accurate than blood testing but is easy to use on a daily basis and generally reliable.