There’s a common misconception that eating fat will make you fat. But in reality, your total caloric intake (including carbs and protein) and lack of physical activity are what will cause you to gain fat, not fat itself. Plus, fat is essential to our overall health, and it’s an energy source along with carbohydrates.
And in this guide to Keto diet basics, we’ve explained how replacing carbs with fats (ketogenic diet), for the most part, can help you to lose weight and improve certain factors of health.
There’s extensive research to support the potential benefits of going keto, and if you’re considering this diet, then hopefully, you’ll leave with more knowledge than you had before.
Also, check out our Keto Calculator to determine your ideal macros for keto dieting.
Here’s a guide to the keto basics
Note: The following information is intended for educational purposes only and should never be used to supplement professional medical advice, self-diagnosis, or self-treatment. Always consult with a medical professional before making any dietary changes, especially if you suffer from health issues, are taking medications, or are pregnant.
What Is Keto?
The keto or ketogenic diet replaces a large portion of carbohydrates with fat and protein. However, fat makes up most of the diet.
Typical macronutrient ratios for keto are 75% fat, 20% protein, and 5% carbs, or even 55% to 60% fat, 30% to 35% protein, and 5% to 10% carbohydrates. For the average 2000 kcal/day diet, keto is sustained when carbs are 20-50g/day. (1, 2)
But whether you eat 2,000 or 4,000 calories per day, this is the ideal macro range to remain within. We’d also like to mention that there are no caloric recommendations with keto, so you’ll need to determine that on your own.
There are a few different versions of the keto diet, although the most basic and studied for efficacy are the high-fat and high-protein variations.
What Is Keto
Here are the most common variations:
- Standard ketogenic diet (SKD): The most basic and commonly used version, the macro ratio for SKD is typically 55% to 60% fat, 30% to 35% protein, and 5% to 10% carbohydrates or 75% fat, 20% protein, and only 5% carbs.
- High-protein keto diet: For this version, you’ll have a higher-protein intake although, you’ll still consume a higher percentage of fat in comparison. The ratio for this variation is typically 60% fat, 35% protein, and 5% carbs. This version is recommended only for those who weight train to ensure you remain ketotic.
- Cyclical ketogenic diet (CKD): This version involves higher-carb refeed days in addition to keto days. For example, five days following keto and two days of eating higher-carbs.
- Targeted ketogenic diet (TKD): This approach is more “conditional” in a sense where carb intake is concerned. So, for example, you can have carbohydrates around your training times.
Note: Cyclical and target keto diets are typically utilized by athletes to maximize performance but also to maintain lower body fat levels.
Now let’s get scientific.
So the definition of ketogenic is something along the lines of “to produce ketone bodies”.
What are ketone bodies?
Good question. Ketone bodies or ketones are substances that the liver produces from the breakdown of fatty acids when there are not enough carbohydrates (the body’s primary energy source) available in the body to be turned into glucose and used as energy.
The ketones are released by the liver into the bloodstream and used for energy instead.
When carbs are intentionally restricted, such as during the keto, or even the Atkins diet, for example, fatty acids are metabolized to a substance called acetoacetate, which is then converted into beta-hydroxybutyrate and acetone. Beta-hydroxybutyrate and acetone are the main ketones in the blood during this metabolic process which is called “nutritional ketosis.”
According to research, it’s generally safe to be in a consistent state of nutritional ketosis as it doesn’t have any adverse effects on blood PH. However, very high levels of ketones in the blood (ketoacidosis) can be dangerous, and we’ll touch on this a little later on.
So to reiterate, ketones are essentially another fuel source when carbohydrate intake is too low to allow the body to store enough glucose to be used as energy.
Ketones fuel the muscles, kidneys, heart, and brain, and they also protect cells in the body from disease-causing free radicals. But it’s also important to note that the production of ketones in the body can vary due to certain factors such as resting basal metabolic rate (BMR), body mass index (BMI), and body fat percentage.
According to research, ketones produce more adenosine triphosphate (ATP) than glucose and, consequently, are referred to as “super fuel“. ATP fuels cell energy and is very important for muscle contractions, nerve impulse propagation, ion transport, chemical synthesis, and substrate phosphorylation.
After the initial phase of implementing a keto diet, this “super fuel” increases energy rather efficiently.
But ketones aren’t just created when you go on a keto diet. When you fast, sleep for several hours, or eat a low-carb diet in general, your body is low on insulin and will produce ketones.
Now let’s talk about some of the research behind keto to justify adopting this approach for the potential benefits that we’ll also discuss.
Research-Backed Benefits Of Going Keto
The studies on the potential benefits of going keto are pretty solid. We’ve provided several examples below…
Helps with Epilepsy
It’s well-known that eating a very low-carb diet can have neuroprotective effects. Hence why it’s effectively used for children with epilepsy or seizure disorder, which is a neurological issue caused by a disturbance of nerve cells in the brain.
In many instances, children with epilepsy have been able to decrease or even eliminate medications for treatment. (3)
Keto may also help with other neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Although, the research isn’t as conclusive as it is for Epilepsy.
Can prevent/improve diabetes
Obesity and Type 2 diabetes are closely connected, and because keto is effective for weight loss when done right, it could improve or even reverse it.
In a 16-week study of 28 overweight individuals with Type 2 diabetes, keto dieting improved glycemic control to the point where some participants were able to discontinue diabetes medication. Others were able to reduce their dosages. (4)
And because keto has also shown to improve insulin sensitivity, the body is better able to use fats for energy, which would result in fat loss.
Because ketones have antioxidant properties, they protect the body’s cell from damage caused by disease-causing free radicals. That means it could have protective effects for the brain, heart, diseases, and cancers. (7, 8)
Keto may also be beneficial for cholesterol levels.
One study prescribed a 24-week ketogenic diet to 83 (men and women) obese patients with high glucose and cholesterol levels. (9)
After the study, body weight and body mass index (BMI) were significantly lower, while HDL (good) cholesterol increased, and LDL (bad) cholesterol decreased along with triglycerides and blood glucose.
They also found no significant side effects during this period, which showed that keto could be safely followed for prolonged durations.
One thing to note about cholesterol is that some research suggests it may raise LDL (bad) cholesterol. Although, this may just be at first, but that’s why, again, it’s good to monitor your health by getting blood work every so often. (1)
Beneficial for weight loss
While the previously-mentioned health benefits of keto are convincing enough, we could probably all agree that most people do it to shed a few pounds, whether for the health benefits or to improve their appearance simply. And the good news is that keto is effective for weight loss.
According to scientific literature, “a greater intake of sugar-laden food is associated with a 44% increased prevalence of metabolic syndrome and obesity and a 26% increase in the risk of developing diabetes mellitus“. (10)
When you consider the fact that carbohydrates make up more than half of the typical American diet with an average intake ranging from 200 to 350 g/day, it’s easy to see why. But not all carbs are created equally of course. Large amounts of refined and low-quality carbs are the main culprits here.
Not to mention, because it can be so tempting to fill your belly with an abundance of delectable, low-quality carbs, it’s all too easy to neglect healthy eating.
Now, we’re not saying eating a lot of low-quality fats and proteins is any better because it’s not. But there are some interesting findings where it relates to the association between carbs and obesity/disease risk.
So let’s talk about the mechanisms by which this weight/fat loss occurs and we’ve also provided a few studies showing the effects that keto has on weight loss.
How does keto help with weight loss
By now, you probably put two and two together and figured that during ketosis, your body burns fat, which results in weight loss.
But very low-carb diets also cause a good amount of water loss, especially at first since carbs tend to absorb water, hence the diuretic-like effects. It’s not uncommon to lose 10 lbs of mostly water in 2 weeks initially. Although, fat loss eventually follows, so keto isn’t just “water loss”. (1)
This is how you know you’re in ketosis…
Being in a state of ketosis also improves insulin sensitivity. The hormone insulin is essential because it’s responsible for metabolizing fats, carbs, and proteins in the body. Therefore, when the body is able to utilize insulin most optimally, we’re able to burn those fat stores more efficiently.
Research has also shown a very low-carb diet to reduce the feelings of hunger in general, although it also decreases levels of the hunger hormone, ghrelin. So, you’d eat fewer calories overall, which is key to weight loss. (11, 12)
Low-carb vs. low-fat diets
There are plenty of studies comparing low-carb vs low-fat diets for weight loss and health. Most of them find that low-carb is the superior method for weight loss, and the difference is consistently significant. And although both low-carb and low-fat groups tend to both show improvements in markers of heart health, the low-carb groups seem to have a slight edge more often than not.
But interestingly, low-carb groups who even ate more calories than those on a low-fat diet still experienced more weight/fat loss.
It’s fair to mention that a few studies found no statistical difference between the two groups as far as weight loss and factors of heart health are concerned. Although, this outcome was a lot less common.
It’s also important to note that the low-carb groups experienced more weight loss in comparison to the low-fat groups, up to 6 months. By 12 months, the differences tended to be less statistically significant between the two groups.
Foods To Eat On Keto
There are plenty of great food choices on keto, not to mention; you can combine ingredients for tasty options. We recommended limiting foods such as red meats, cheeses, and butters although there aren’t necessarily restrictions when it comes to approved foods.
- Meats – quality red meats, turkey, chicken, duck, bacon, etc
- Fish – fatty options such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, etc
- Eggs – pasteurized
- Cheeses – muenster, cheddar, blue and other acceptable options
- Butter and ghee – ideally grass-fed
- Acceptable oils – sesame oil, extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, MCT, etc
- Bone broth
- Low-carb vegetables – greens, peppers, onions, etc
- Berries in limited amounts
- Fresh, dried herbs and spices
- Plain coffee
Foods To Avoid On Keto
These foods should either be avoided altogether…
- Grains/starches – bread, rice, pasta, oats, cereal, etc
- Highly-processed meats
- Sugary foods and sugar in general – cakes, cookies, sodas, candy, etc
- Fruit and fruit juices except for small amounts of berries
- Junk/fried foods – chips, cookies, pizza, hydrogenated oils, vegetable shortening, etc
- High amounts of sauces/dressings high in sugars and fats
- Alcoholic beverages
- Caffeinated beverages containing sugars
Foods to limit On Keto
- Roots/tubers – potatoes/sweet potatoes, cassava, yams, etc
- Beans/legumes – beans, peas, lentils, etc
- Full-fat milk/cheese
- Nuts, nut butters, and seeds – Almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, etc
- Fermented foods (sauerkraut, pickles, kefir, etc)
Acceptable supplements on Keto
Daily supplementation is as common as breathing for many people and may just be an essential component of keto diet basics. It also helps that there are countless options suitable for maintaining various factors of health and daily function.
Here’s a list of a few supplements that are beneficial on keto, although these aren’t the only options.
- Exogenous ketones – supplementing with ketones is a good way to ensure you remain in a ketotic state. But it can also get you into ketosis a lot quicker. (13)
- Whey protein – many whey protein powders have very little to no carbs.
- Keto protein powder – keto protein powder is simply keto-friendly.
- MCT oil – short for medium-chain triglycerides, MCTs are partially man-made fats that digest quickly and can help you to remain ketotic. MCTs are typically found in coconut oils.
- Omega-3 fatty acids – marine fatty sources are important for overall health.
- Creatine – creatine is one of the most proven and studied substances for increasing muscle mass and strength and improving physical performance and brain health.
- Low/no-carb electrolytes – electrolytes prevent water imbalance in the body and are important for nerve, heart, and muscle function.
- Minerals – minerals are a good idea when on keto for health purposes.
- Pre- and probiotics – maintaining your gut health is very important for your overall health.
- Digestive enzymes – digestive enzymes help to break down nutrients for better absorption and nutrient utilization.
How to know when you’re in a state of ketosis
A few simple ways to know if you’re in a ketotic state include…
- Increased urination
- Flu-like symptoms (keto flu)
- A resurgence of energy and cognitive function after the trial period
- Keto breath
- Decreased appetite/increased satiety
- Reduced cravings for sugar
If you still have doubts then there are always urine ketone strips, blood ketone meters, and breath ketone analyzers.
Is Keto good for building muscle?
The answer is an absolute yes!
As long as your nutrition habits are adequate for supporting muscle growth, then following the higher-protein version of keto will yield gains…
Low-carb diets improve insulin sensitivity and insulin, which is an anabolic hormone, plays an important role in muscle growth. According to research, insulin increases the rate of transport of amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. It also increases protein synthesis (the building of proteins) and prevents protein degradation in muscles. (14)
In one study involving college-aged men who followed either a Western diet or ketogenic diet in combination with a resistance training program, researchers found the keto diet to be as effective for causing positive changes in body composition, in addition to improving performance and hormone profiles. (15)
Other studies have shown similar effects, not to mention, many bodybuilders and individuals with impressive physiques cycle keto dieting for the fat loss, health-promoting, and brain-boosting benefits.
And the keyword here is “cycle” because it’s not likely that keto is an effective standalone diet if looking to put on large amounts of muscle mass (at least no as quickly as you possibly could).
Optimal protein intake for muscle-building
To build and preserve muscle tissue, we need plenty of quality protein.
But according to research, consuming too much protein on a keto diet could possibly result in gluconeogenesis, which converts non-carb substrates such as amino acids into sugar to be used as energy. (16)
Although, studies have shown that a higher protein intake of up to 1g per pound of bodyweight or 2.1g/kg and even as high as 1.5g/lb bodyweight won’t affect ketosis. But that’s also why it’s important to engage in resistance training with a higher protein intake to ensure that your muscles use it to build and repair. (17, 1, 15)
Is Keto safe? Are there side effects?
Because keto could be considered a more extreme form of dieting, it’s important to keep an eye on your health and check-in with a medical professional regularly.
Many people follow a keto diet and do just fine for years, while others experience unpleasant side effects. But in general, it’s safe when done correctly, and there’s plenty of research to back that up.
Now, while there could be a few reasons why some people don’t do well with keto, nutrient deficiency is something to be careful of because it can be tempting just not to eat when it comes to diets that involve nutritional restrictions.
It’s also important to acknowledge that going from a moderate or high-carb diet to a very low-carb diet often results in something called “keto flu.”
However, this is usually temporary (it should be) and typically only lasts no longer than a few weeks at most. Of course, the severity or number of symptoms experienced will depend on the person and how they approach the diet. It also helps to gradually ease into a keto diet and drink lots of water (since you’ll be losing lots of it) to lessen the overall severity of any side effects.
Symptoms of keto flu may include:
- Brain fog
- Exercise difficulty
- Sugar cravings
And the potential long-term side effects that are possible include…
- Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
- Kidney stones
- Hepatic steatosis
- Electrolyte imbalance
You may have heard this word thrown around, but it’s different than ketosis. Ketoacidosis is a potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when ketone and blood sugar levels are too high. It’s typically caused by complications of Type 1 diabetes when the body isn’t producing enough insulin, and it can also occur in those with Type 2 diabetes.
Ketoacidosis causes the blood to become very acidic and, consequently, can affect the normal function of your organs such as your liver and kidneys.
Triggers for ketoacidosis include poor diabetes management, compromised health, malnutrition, and poor lifestyle choices to name a few.
Blood ketone tests are the best way to check for ketoacidosis as this method measures levels of beta-hydroxybutyric acid, the primary ketone during ketoacidosis.
Ketoacidosis should be treated immediately.
What are the drawbacks of going keto?
Drawbacks of going keto include diet restrictions, initial flu-like symptoms, more planning, and the need for more checkups, and health monitoring.
Some may not consider these to be drawbacks at all if it works for what they’re trying to achieve. Many people do just fine with dieting and don’t feel like they’re being restricted either.
But the good news is, there are a few different versions of the keto diet as explained earlier on in the article. For example, the cyclical version involves doing keto most days, but then you can consume more carbs around your training times.
Also, if you just want to try keto for a few weeks or months, then you can do that too. No diet is a life sentence, and they can be used effectively to achieve a specific outcome. Keto can be a great option.
Is keto the same as the Atkins diet?
While both involve low-carb dieting, the Atkins diet gradually reintroduces carbs and does not limit protein intake while keto keeps carbs low during the entire duration of the diet and limits protein.
Who are good candidates for the keto diet?
Keto is ideal for healthy individuals or those with health conditions who get approval from their doctor while being monitored during the diet.
Is Keto worth it?
It’s absolutely worth it for healthy individuals who follow this diet properly and regularly monitor their health. And we hope that this guide on the keto diet basics will serve you well in your ketogenic endeavors.
There are pros and cons to going keto, and it’s not the “perfect” diet. But overall, if you’re looking to lose weight and possibly improve other factors of your health too, then keto is great!
Is it for everyone? Heck no. But that could be said for other diets too.
It’s necessary to have realistic expectations and to listen to your body.
To be on the safe side, try it for a few months and go from there. Many end up sticking with it for a long time while others can appreciate what it does for them in the short term. The good news though, is that most studies agree that it’s a safe diet approach.
And, the weight should stay off if your diet, exercise regime, and lifestyle are all in check. The keto diet is used by millions of people successfully and based on the research; it’s a practical option for both the short and longer-term.
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