The ketogenic diet (or keto diet, for short) is a low-carb, high-fat diet that offers many health benefits.
In fact, over 20 studies show that this type of diet can help you lose weight and improve your health .
Ketogenic diets may even have benefits against diabetes, cancer, epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease .
Here is a detailed beginner’s guide to the keto diet.
What Is a Ketogenic Diet?
The ketogenic diet is a very low-carb, high-fat diet that shares many similarities with the Atkinsand low-carb diets.
It involves drastically reducing carbohydrate intake and replacing it with fat. This reduction in carbs puts your body into a metabolic state called ketosis.
When this happens, your body becomes incredibly efficient at burning fat for energy. It also turns fat into ketones in the liver, which can supply energy for the brain .
Ketogenic diets can cause massive reductions in blood sugar and insulin levels. This, along with the increased ketones, has numerous health benefits
There are several versions of the ketogenic diet, including:
- Standard ketogenic diet (SKD): This is a very low-carb, moderate-protein and high-fat diet. It typically contains 75% fat, 20% protein and only 5% carbs.
- Cyclical ketogenic diet (CKD): This diet 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 workouts.
- High-protein ketogenic diet: This is similar to a standard ketogenic diet, but includes more protein. The ratio is often 60% fat, 35% protein and 5% carbs.
However, only the standard and high-protein ketogenic diets have been studied extensively. Cyclical or targeted ketogenic diets are more advanced methods and primarily used by bodybuilders or athletes.
The information in this article mostly applies to the standard ketogenic diet (SKD), although many of the same principles also apply to the other versions.
A ketogenic diet is an effective way to lose weight and lower risk factors for disease .
In fact, research shows that the ketogenic diet is far superior to the often recommended low-fat diet .
What’s more, the diet is so filling that you can lose weight without counting calories or tracking your food intake .
One study found that people on a ketogenic diet lost 2.2 times more weight than those on a calorie-restricted low-fat diet. Triglyceride and HDL cholesterol levels also improved
Another study found that people on the ketogenic diet lost 3 times more weight than those on the diet recommended by Diabetes UK .
There are several reasons why a ketogenic diet is superior to a low-fat diet, including the increased protein intake, which provides numerous benefits .
The increased ketones, lower blood sugar levels and improved insulin sensitivity may also play a key role.
Diabetes is characterized by changes in metabolism, high blood sugar and impaired insulin function .
The ketogenic diet can help you lose excess fat, which is closely linked to type 2 diabetes, prediabetes and metabolic syndrome .
One study found that the ketogenic diet improved insulin sensitivity by a whopping 75% .
Another study in people with type 2 diabetes found that 7 of the 21 participants were able to stop using all diabetes medications .
In yet another study, the ketogenic group lost 24.4 pounds (11.1 kg), compared to 15.2 pounds (6.9 kg) in the higher-carb group. This is an important benefit when considering the link between weight and type 2 diabetes.
Additionally, 95.2% of the ketogenic group were also able to stop or reduce diabetes medication, compared to 62% in the higher-carb group
The ketogenic diet actually originated as a tool for treating neurological diseases such as epilepsy.
Studies have now shown that the diet can have benefits for a wide variety of different health conditions:
- Heart disease: The ketogenic diet can improve risk factors like body fat, HDL cholesterol levels, blood pressure and blood sugar.
- Cancer: The diet is currently being used to treat several types of cancer and slow tumor growth .
- Alzheimer’s disease: The keto diet may reduce symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and slow its progression .
- Epilepsy: Research has shown that the ketogenic diet can cause massive reductions in seizures in epileptic children .
- Parkinson’s disease: One study found that the diet helped improve symptoms of Parkinson’s disease .
- Polycystic ovary syndrome: The ketogenic diet can help reduce insulin levels, which may play a key role in polycystic ovary syndrome .
- Brain injuries: One animal study found that the diet can reduce concussions and aid recovery after brain injury.
- Acne: Lower insulin levels and eating less sugar or processed foods may help improve acne.
However, keep in mind that research into many of these areas is far from conclusive.
Any food that is high in carbs should be limited.
Here is a list of foods that need to be reduced or eliminated on a ketogenic diet:
- Sugary foods: Soda, fruit juice, smoothies, cake, ice cream, candy, etc.
- Grains or starches: Wheat-based products, rice, pasta, cereal, etc.
- Fruit: All fruit, except small portions of berries like strawberries.
- Beans or legumes: Peas, kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, etc.
- Root vegetables and tubers: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips, etc.
- Low-fat or diet products: These are highly processed and often high in carbs.
- Some condiments or sauces: These often contain sugar and unhealthy fat.
- Unhealthy fats: Limit your intake of processed vegetable oils, mayonnaise, etc.
- Alcohol: Due to their carb content, many alcoholic beverages can throw you out of ketosis.
- Sugar-free diet foods: These are often high in sugar alcohols, which can affect ketone levels in some cases. These foods also tend to be highly processed.
You should base the majority of your meals around these foods:
- Meat: Red meat, steak, ham, sausage, bacon, chicken and turkey.
- Fatty fish: Such as salmon, trout, tuna and mackerel.
- Eggs: Look for pastured or omega-3 whole eggs.
- Butter and cream: Look for grass-fed when possible.
- Cheese: Unprocessed cheese (cheddar, goat, cream, blue or mozzarella).
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, etc.
- Healthy oils: Primarily extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil and avocado oil.
- Avocados: Whole avocados or freshly made guacamole.
- Low-carb veggies: Most green veggies, tomatoes, onions, peppers, etc.
- Condiments: You can use salt, pepper and various healthy herbs and spices.
It is best to base your diet mostly on whole, single-ingredient foods. Here is a list of 44 healthy low-carb foods.
To help get you started, here is a sample ketogenic diet meal plan for one week:
- Breakfast: Bacon, eggs and tomatoes.
- Lunch: Chicken salad with olive oil and feta cheese.
- Dinner: Salmon with asparagus cooked in butter.
- Breakfast: Egg, tomato, basil and goat cheese omelet.
- Lunch: Almond milk, peanut butter, cocoa powder and stevia milkshake.
- Dinner: Meatballs, cheddar cheese and vegetables.
- Breakfast: A ketogenic milkshake .
- Lunch: Shrimp salad with olive oil and avocado.
- Dinner: Pork chops with Parmesan cheese, broccoli and salad.
- Breakfast: Omelet with avocado, salsa, peppers, onion and spices.
- Lunch: A handful of nuts and celery sticks with guacamole and salsa.
- Dinner: Chicken stuffed with pesto and cream cheese, along with vegetables.
- Breakfast: Sugar-free yogurt with peanut butter, cocoa powder and stevia.
- Lunch: Beef stir-fry cooked in coconut oil with vegetables.
- Dinner: Bun-less burger with bacon, egg and cheese.
- Breakfast: Ham and cheese omelet with vegetables.
- Lunch: Ham and cheese slices with nuts.
- Dinner: White fish, egg and spinach cooked in coconut oil.
- Breakfast: Fried eggs with bacon and mushrooms.
- Lunch: Burger with salsa, cheese and guacamole.
- Dinner: Steak and eggs with a side salad.
Always try to rotate the vegetables and meat over the long term, as each type provides different nutrients and health benefits.
In case you get hungry between meals, here are some healthy, keto-approved snacks:
- Fatty meat or fish
- A handful of nuts or seeds
- Cheese with olives
- 1–2 hard-boiled eggs
- 90% dark chocolate
- A low-carb milkshake with almond milk, cocoa powder and nut butter
- Full-fat yogurt mixed with nut butter and cocoa powder
- Strawberries and cream
- Celery with salsa and guacamole
- Smaller portions of leftover meals
It is not very hard to make most restaurant meals keto-friendly when eating out.
Most restaurants offer some kind of meat or fish-based dish. Order this, and replace any high-carb food with extra vegetables.
Egg-based meals are also a great option, such as an omelet or eggs and bacon.
Another favorite is bun-less burgers. You could also swap the fries for vegetables instead. Add extra avocado, cheese, bacon or eggs.
At Mexican restaurants, you can enjoy any type of meat with extra cheese, guacamole, salsa and sour cream.
For dessert, ask for a mixed cheese board or berries with cream.
Although the ketogenic diet is safe for healthy people, there may be some initial side effects while your body adapts.
This is often referred to as the keto flu and is usually over within a few days.
Keto flu includes poor energy and mental function, increased hunger, sleep issues, nausea, digestive discomfort and decreased exercise performance.
To minimize this, you can try a regular low-carb diet for the first few weeks. This may teach your body to burn more fat before you completely eliminate carbs.
A ketogenic diet can also change the water and mineral balance of your body, so adding extra salt to your meals or taking mineral supplements can help.
For minerals, try taking 3,000–4,000 mg of sodium, 1,000 mg of potassium and 300 mg of magnesium per day to minimize side effects.
At least in the beginning, it is important to eat until you’re full and avoid restricting calories too much. Usually, a ketogenic diet causes weight loss without intentional calorie restriction.
Although no supplements are required, some can be useful.
- MCT oil: Added to drinks or yogurt, MCT oil provides energy and helps increase ketone levels. Take a look at several options on Amazon.
- Minerals: Added salt and other minerals can be important when starting out due to shifts in water and mineral balance.
- Caffeine: Caffeine can have benefits for energy, fat loss and performance.
- Exogenous ketones: This supplement may help raise the body’s ketone levels.
- Creatine: Creatine provides numerous benefits for health and performance. This can help if you are combining a ketogenic diet with exercise.
- Whey: Use half a scoop of whey protein in shakes or yogurt to increase your daily protein intake.