Health & Wellness
13 Essential Tips for a Successful Keto Diet
The ketogenic diet is an increasingly popular eating plan that promises big results. However, it’s not the easiest diet to follow. Ease into success with these helpful tips.
Track your carbs
The goal of a ketogenic diet is to force your body to stop burning glucose from the carbs you eat and start burning fat stores for energy. The body does this by converting the fats to ketones—a state called ketosis. Keto dieters accomplish this by cutting way back on their carb intake. To do it right, you can’t guess your carb intake. “If you are a beginner to the keto diet, counting carbs is an absolute necessity to avoid frustration in the future,” says Steven Santo, a spokesman for Kegenix/Real Ketones. Track your intake with an app like MyFitnessPal or LoseIt, or just a paper and pen.
The average daily goal for keto is 20 grams of net carbs. Net carbs are the total carbs in a given serving of food, minus the carbohydrates that are supplied by fiber. You’ll find carb grams quickly add up, even when you’re choosing the best low-carb foods, like spinach and avocado.
Get enough fat
Keto runs counter to many of the low-fat diet fads of the 80s and 90s: It actually emphasizes fat. “That is hard to comprehend because we don’t eat anything that’s pure fat, says Kristen Mancinelli, RD, author of The Ketogenic Diet. “We don’t eat a stick of butter or a spoonful of olive oil. That would be unpleasant, so we have a hard time wrapping our heads around this concept of the ketogenic diet.”
In order to succeed on a keto diet, 60-80% of your food intake will be healthy fats, according to Sara Gottfried, MD, author of The Ketogenic Diet in Women. “That means you’ll eat avocado, coconut oil… fatty cuts of meat, fatty fish like salmon and sardines, as well as nuts and seeds,” Mancinelli says. Dairy is allowed on keto, she adds, but it has to be heavy cream. Milk, even full-fat, isn’t keto-approved. Here are some foods you should avoid if you’re on the keto diet.
Don’t eat too much protein
Getting your macronutrients—fat, protein, carbohydrates—in balance ensures your body has the best sources of energy. “The ketogenic diet for ‘nutritional ketosis’ is 20 percent protein, 5 percent carbs and 75 percent fat,” says Jake Crandall, a trainer and CEO and founder of Okie Crossfit in Tulsa, OK. “If you go too high in protein, you’re effectively on the Atkins Diet and are low-carb. You’ll achieve weight loss, but not the health benefits of being in ketosis.”
The best way to have a real picture of what you’re eating is to track it daily. Some smartphone apps are designed to help you track everything you eat. Once you have daily goals in mind, you can monitor your food plan for potential pitfalls. Don’t miss these 13 things doctors want you to know about the keto diet.
Eat quality foods
Many unhealthy foods easily meet keto’s low-carb, high-fat criteria. However, that doesn’t mean they’re the best option. “A huge benefit to following the keto diet is that the vast majority of processed food doesn’t have grains,” Santo says. “Unfortunately, lower-quality dairy, meat and veggies may fill the gap.” Look for healthier sources of protein and fat, such as grass-fed meats, and limit processed dairy as much as possible. Also, be careful not to drop vegetables from your diet: “Vegetables tend to get replaced by things like butter, cream, cheese and meat, but veggies contain a lot of great vitamins and minerals that can help you thrive,” Santo says.
Eating out while going keto can be tricky. Planning ahead helps you know where your next snacks and meals will come from, so you aren’t tempted to reach for an easy, high-carb treat. Each week, plan out meals and snacks, and if you’re using an app, go ahead and fill in your estimated macronutrients ahead of time. This will help you get an idea of your overall intake, so you can make adjustments to reach your daily goals. Get started by planning to make these 53 keto recipes so good you’ll never know you’re on a diet.
Balance your electrolytes
Your dietary needs change dramatically with keto. Sodium, magnesium and potassium become critical nutrients. “In the initial stages of the keto diet, you will urinate more. One of the key electrolytes lost through urination is magnesium,” says Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, a health and nutrition expert and author of The Magnesium Miracle. “Magnesium is an energy mineral, which will help you burn fat and lose weight. Dr. Dean suggests preventing a magnesium shortage by staying hydrated and adding salt and high-magnesium foods or a magnesium supplement to your day. Foods high in magnesium include almonds, spinach, avocado and chard.
Eat the right vegetables
A lot of veggies are carb-heavy—and don’t fit into an ultra-low-carb diet. These include potatoes, yams, corn, peas and carrots. The best options for keto dieters are asparagus, bell peppers, Brussels sprouts, leafy greens and zucchini. “What’s tough for many people is that you can’t really eat a lot of [certain] vegetables,” Mancinelli says. “When you’re keeping carbs super low, you have to limit vegetables—which goes counter to everything you know about how to eat healthy and lose weight.”
Dieters and healthy eaters try to get vegetables at every meal in order to reach their daily plant quota, but Mancinelli says the cumulative total can blow through your daily net carbs. “The carbs in all those vegetables add up. A few carbs here and there with cheese, nuts and seeds, and you can really miss the mark for ketosis.” Start smart by cooking with these low-carb vegetables.
Have a high fiber intake
While you’re focusing on fat, protein and carbs, you should also make sure you’re getting adequate fiber. “People often assume that they should only eat things like meat and butter on the ketogenic diet,” says Farshad Fani Marvasti, MD, an associate professor and director of Public Health, Prevention and Health Promotion at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Phoenix. “You should make sure you are eating enough vegetables because you need the fiber.”
Specific fiber goals for every day will depend on your overall intake, current weight and weight-loss intentions. Thankfully, some high-fat, low-carb foods are also loaded with fiber. These include nuts and seeds, avocado and squash. “I see so many clients go for high protein, high saturated fat and no carb,” says Sunny Brigham, MS, CNS, a board-certified nutrition specialist with a private clinic in North Texas. “They become constipated because they aren’t getting enough fiber.” And that’s just one of the 11 downsides of the keto diet.
Avoid artificial sweeteners
White sugar, honey and most traditional sugars are out because of the high carb counts. While many artificial sweeteners deliver sweetness without carbs, that doesn’t mean you should eat them, Crandall says. “We have demonized sugar—rightly so—for causing unneeded insulin spikes,” Crandall says, but “many artificial sweeteners do the exact same thing.” One study found that eating artificial sweeteners may increase cravings—especially for sweet things. This can stymie your weight-loss intentions. Check out these foods that are surprisingly high in sugar.
Don’t give up!
Many keto eaters lose a lot of water weight rapidly after beginning this diet. Without carbs to maintain your glycogen (energy) stores, your body burns through them and dumps all the water they hold. That’s the “water weight” you will rapidly lose in the early days of a keto diet. “We see people quitting before they feel all the benefits of being a fat-burning machine,” Santo says. That’s often the result of keto flu, a temporary condition that many keto eaters experience as their body transitions natural energy sources. Keto flu symptoms include mood swings, nausea, headaches, sluggishness and more. “Many people do not realize that keto leads to fundamental changes in how the body operates,” says Dr. Metzagar.
Be sure to get enough water
You’ve heard this proclamation even before starting keto diet: You need plenty of water each day for your health. That’s especially true with the keto diet. Without carbs, your body won’t store as much water. Anything you drink passes right through—you can expect to urinate frequently. “Starchy foods have more water retention,” Dr. Marvasti says. “When you avoid these types of foods, you need to make sure you are compensating by drinking enough water.” Here are the best, and worst, hydrating drinks.
Put in the research
“The biggest mistake people make is that they neglect to do substantial research into the keto diet,” says Stephanie Lincoln, founder and CEO of Fire Team Whiskey Health and Fitness. Lincoln recommends taking more time than a Google search or two to prepare yourself. Otherwise, the diet probably won’t be suggessful since it can be so tricky. “Do some real research. Read a book or two on the subject.” Here are more things you need to know before starting the keto diet.
Don’t focus on the scale
“Weight loss for most people will be significant for the first couple of weeks,” Lincoln says. “But just like any eating lifestyle change, your body will adapt and the weight loss will slow down.” Lincoln tells clients who are starting out on a keto eating plan to focus on the “non-scale victories.”
“If you need things to celebrate while you wait for the scale to start ticking down, look toward your other accomplishments—body composition, pictures and measurements after three months.” Give your body time to adjust, and the results will show and become permanent. Read about these great foods for the keto diet.