So, how do you actually start a ketogenic diet? That's the big question. Here, we discuss how to start the keto diet and what tips and tricks you need to get started.
So, you’ve been learning about the keto diet and now you feel ready to take the next step. Perhaps you’re interested in losing weight or maybe you want to experience certain health benefits such as greater mental clarity, fewer gut symptoms or improved metabolic wellbeing.
While these are some of the many reasons you may choose to become ‘keto’ making the required dietary changes might at first seem confusing, counterintuitive, or even a little overwhelming.
The first thing to keep in mind is that the purpose of the ketogenic diet is to get into ketosis. When this happens, your body shifts away from using carbohydrates for fuel and begins to convert stored fat from your body, as well as fat from your diet, into an alternative energy source called ketones.
Therefore, in order to enter ketosis, we need to get more calories from fat than from carbs, so let’s start there.
Increase healthy fats
In order to enter and then stay in ketosis, you want to get 55%–60% of your daily calories from fat. This means that a person consuming 2,000 calories per day needs approximately 120–130 grams of fat daily.
Many of us are afraid of fat because we’ve been told that it is unhealthy. Much of this attitude is the result of observational studies from the 1950s. However, since then there have been numerous studies debunking this message and even showing that moderate amounts of saturated fat, from the right foods, may even be beneficial to our health (1), (2), (3), (4), (5).
That being said, we need to recognise that some fats are healthy, and others are decidedly unhealthy. We should avoid trans fats found in processed foods, fried chips, margarine, baked goods, and biscuits wherever possible. These are associated with long-term inflammation, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes.
Also, when it comes to saturated fat, it’s important to recognise that not all saturated fats are created equal. A diet high in saturated fats from fast food, fried products, sweet pastries, and processed meats are far less desirable than the saturated fats found in coconut, grass-fed meat and full-fat dairy. We can certainly add moderate amounts of these fats to a healthy ketogenic diet.
Other types of healthy fats to include in a keto diet are olive oil, avocado oil, fatty fish, flaxseed oil, nuts, and seeds.
MCT oil is another type of fat that can be used in a ketogenic diet and makes getting into ketosis easier and more effective.
MCTs are a unique form of fatty acids that are used rapidly by the body for energy. Studies have shown that MCT oil can optimise ketone production, improve satiety, support weight loss, increase energy production and enhance cognition (6), (7), (8).
To prepare for a diet higher in fat, start by making small adjustments to what you eat every day. You can increase your fat consumption over time before you have fully embraced a keto diet.
Pro tip: A keto diet should help with satiety. If you are still getting hungry between meals, you may not be getting enough healthy fats.
The other side of the keto equation is making sure that you reduce your carbohydrate consumption. In doing so, your body will change its metabolic habit of burning carbohydrates for fuel to using fats instead. This is perfectly natural and, while we typically consider carbohydrates to be our primary energy source, the body is more than willing and able to accept fats as fuel once it has become keto-adapted. This typically takes about 2 to 4 days.
This means that you will need to restrict your carbohydrate consumption to 20–50 grams per day.
The easiest way to do this is to cut out the highest-carb foods first. But don’t worry, you will still have plenty of tasty, fresh and healthy low-carb foods to choose from. You’ll also find that once you are in ketosis, your cravings for high-carb foods start to disappear.
The foods that need to be reduced or eliminated are:
- Grains and starches: bread, rice, pasta
- Starchy/Root vegetables: potatoes, sweet potato, carrot, etc
- High-sugar fruits
- Beans and legumes
- Sweetened yogurt
- Honey, syrup or sugar in any form
- Sauces and condiments
- Chips and crackers
You should eat plenty of non-starchy vegetables such as leafy greens, squash, zucchini, asparagus, cabbage, cauliflower, avocados, and broccoli. Also, you can add in berries including strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries as well as watermelon, cantaloupe, lemons and limes.
Just make sure to enjoy these in moderation.
Pro tip: If you’re looking for a low-carb substitute for rice, try cauliflower rice. It’s super-nutritious, high-fibre, low-carb and can be used in any recipe that calls for regular rice.
Getting enough fibre
Cutting out certain carb-rich foods, such as grains, root vegetables and beans, also means that you are removing common sources of fibre, which is important for feeding good gut bacteria and maintaining adequate bowel movements.
Fortunately, there are plenty of low-carb foods that are fibre rich and won’t bump you out of ketosis. These include avocado, chia seeds, almonds, pecans, flaxseed, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, green leafy vegetables, cauliflower, cabbage, and coconut.
Pro tip: Try making a green smoothie with coconut milk, avocado for creaminess (and fibre!), green vegetables or green superfoods powder. You can also add a teaspoon of LSA (ground flaxseed, sunflower seeds, and almonds) for an extra source of fibre, minerals, and essential fatty acids. See Melrose recipe…
Maintain your protein intake
The importance of protein can’t be underestimated. It’s the key macronutrient your body needs for growth, repair, and cellular function, so it’s essential that you meet your daily protein requirements. That doesn’t mean that, on a keto diet, you should eat as much protein as you like. In fact, eating too much might interfere with your ability to burn fat.
That’s because if you eat more protein than your body needs it can then convert the excess into glucose. This will shift you back into carb-burning mode and prevent you from going into ketosis. The jury is out when it comes to exactly how much protein is too much, but there are some helpful guidelines we can follow to ensure we are getting what we need without overdoing it (6).
The aim is to get up to 20% of your calories from protein. As a rule, a protein intake of 1.2 grams per kg of body weight is optimal for preserving muscle mass, improving body composition, and optimising health. This equates to approximately 75 to 100 grams of protein per day (7).
If your goal is to lose body fat while also increasing muscle mass, you will want to aim for a higher protein intake in the realm of 1.6 g per kg of body weight (8).
Good sources of protein foods for a keto diet include:
- Meat: chicken, turkey, venison, beef, pork, lamb
- Fish: salmon, sardines, tuna
- Seafood: prawns, crab, muscles, oysters, scallops
- Organ meats: liver, kidney, heart
- Soy: tofu, edamame, tempeh
- Dairy: Natural cheeses, unsweetened, full-fat yoghurt
- Protein powder
If healthy weight loss is your goal getting enough protein on a ketogenic diet is critical. Not only will you be eating foods that are naturally high in essential nutrients, but high protein foods also contribute to satiety, meaning you will stay full and satisfied for longer.
Pro tip: Aim for at least 20 - 25 grams of protein at each meal, but don’t be too concerned about hitting an exact target. Your body is very accommodating, and the ideal protein range is broad.
Keep up your electrolytes
When your body is replete with carbohydrates they are stored in your liver and muscles as glycogen in a suspension of water. When you eat fewer carbs, these stores are released for energy which also leads to water loss.
Having a diet that is lower in carbohydrates also causes insulin levels to drop. And, while this is a good thing for reducing risks associated with type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease, it also tells your kidneys to start flushing out that excess fluid along with some essential minerals, known as electrolytes. The main electrolytes affected are sodium, potassium, and magnesium.
This means that in the first few days of a keto diet there is a chance of dehydration and low levels of electrolytes which might lead to symptoms commonly referred to as ‘keto flu’. If you notice symptoms of fatigue, muscle cramps and weakness you may want to consider taking a low-sugar electrolyte drink. Coconut water and salted bone broth are also good sources of electrolytes.
Of course, a well-planned keto diet, rich in nutrient-dense foods, berries, green leafy vegetables, grass-fed meat, fatty fish, nuts, and seeds will minimise the chance of this happening altogether.
Pro tip: Dehydration is probably the main cause of keto flu. Drink plenty of water and it might also help you feel fuller.
Testing for ketosis
You can confirm if you are in ketosis by testing for ketones in your blood (finger prick), breath, or urine.
A blood ketone meter will give you a reading of the amount of the ketone β-hydroxybutyrate circulating in your blood. It requires a finger-prick to produce a very small drop of blood for testing and is relatively accurate, quick, and easy.
Ketone breath analysers are convenient, non-invasive testing devices that measure acetone levels. The accuracy of results can be affected by your breathing technique, the food you eat and the time of day.
The cheapest, but perhaps less accurate way, to test for ketones is with urine test strips. These are designed to check for the ketone acetoacetate. After providing a small urine sample in a sample cup a test strip is submerged in the sample for up to 60 seconds.
Aim to be metabolically flexible
For many people, a keto diet is not a permanent diet. However, while some concerns have been raised about staying in ketosis indefinitely, there is no evidence to suggest that it's anything but healthy.
Nevertheless, the reality is that most people don’t stay on a ketogenic diet in perpetuity.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t experience the benefits of ketosis throughout your lifetime. If this is what you are looking for then you may want to aim for the long-term state of metabolic flexibility.
Metabolic flexibility means that your body has adapted to efficiently use whatever fuel is available. This might be fuel from stored body reserves in the form of fat or glycogen, or it might be from fats and carbohydrates in your food.
One way to achieve metabolic flexibility is by keto cycling. This simply means that you are going in and out of ketosis on a weekly basis. Once you have been in ketosis for a while you can then look at transitioning to keto cycling, which involves alternating between lower-carb and higher-carb days.
Pro tip: Intermittent fasting can also assist with metabolic flexibility and helps to reduce insulin levels quickly, prompting your body to switch fuel sources to use ketones.
Starting a keto diet is actually a lot easier than it may at first seem. By planning meals ahead of time and including healthy keto-friendly snacks (not too many) and plenty of fluids you’ll be well on your way to ketosis and metabolic wellbeing.
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