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Ketogenic Diet: The 101 Keto Guide for Beginners

Blanca Garcia

Updated on - Written by
Medically reviewed by Kathy Shattler, MS, RDN

keto diet

If you have ever considered weight loss, finding the right diet plan can be overwhelming. The choices are dizzying, and results can vary widely. For a while, the low-fat diet was the craze, then the high-protein diet came in, and now the low carb is king. 

With most diets, weight loss can happen, but the struggle is frequently after weight loss. The battle is keeping the weight off and having a well-balanced diet. Most diets can vary drastically; some are low carb diets, low-fat diets, low carb high-fat diets, or very low carbohydrate diets. They all work; you lose weight, and your body fat percentage decreases, but only in the short term. 

Following a well-balanced diet in the long-term with enough nutrients can help you reach a healthy body weight that lasts. The ketogenic diet may help you lose weight, but it also has many other health benefits, making it one of the best weight-loss diets.

What’s a Ketogenic Diet?

The ketogenic diet is known as a low-carb, high-fat diet with moderate protein. Originally keto diets were used to treat children with epilepsy in the 1920s, but once epileptic medication came around, it faded in use. It has recently grown in favor of a weight loss type of diet[1] similar to the Atkins diet. The difference between the two is the percentages of fat and protein in your meal plan.

Keto Diet for Beginners: How it Works?

Usually, the body uses sugar (glucose) as the source of energy, through carbohydrate metabolism. These carbohydrate (carb) foods are usually bread, pasta, tortillas, fruits, and starchy vegetables. To lose weight with a keto diet, a very low carbohydrate diet must be followed; this means low-carb foods in general and low-carb vegetables (veggies) and fruits, specifically.

Having a low carbohydrate intake forces the body to find a different type of fuel for the body and brain to function. The body fueled with low carbs enters into a metabolic state called ketosis. In ketosis, the liver burns fat into ketone bodies, an alternate energy source. 

A lower-carb diet leads to a higher protein and dietary fat intake. The protein is considered moderate but can be too much protein for people with kidney problems. The fat is significantly higher at 70% of the day’s total calories, and because most of its sources may be animal-based, the fat may be mainly saturated. Saturated fats are primarily found in meats, poultry, cheese, cream cheese, and eggs. A good alternative to reduce the use of saturated fats is to add extra-virgin olive oil to salads and foods when cooking them to decrease the use of saturated fats like butter.

What Are the Different Keto Diet Types?

Before starting a ketogenic diet, knowing the different types of ketogenic diets can help you figure out what best suits you and help you achieve your weight loss goals. Several versions of the ketogenic diet exist but the most researched are the Standard Ketogenic Diet (SKD) and the High-Protein Ketogenic Diet (HPK).

Most Common Ketogenic Diets

  • Standard Ketogenic Diet (SKD): A very low carbohydrate diet (at 10% of total calories), moderate protein (at 20% of total calories), high fat (at 70% of total calories). This is the keto diet that is the most researched and recommended. 
  • High-Protein Ketogenic Diet (HPKD): Higher in protein (35% protein), high fat (at 60%), low carbs (at 5%) compared to SKD. Also, with some research and commonly used. Research shows[2] that this type of diet reduces appetite and lowers food intake more than a comparable diet high in protein but moderate in carbohydrates making it a nonketogenic plan.

Least Common Ketogenic Diets

  • Cyclical Ketogenic Diet (CKD): A ketogenic cycle with days of higher carbohydrate intake. A cycle can be five ketogenic days with two high-carb days. This type of plan is said to reduce incidences of keto flu and improve athletic performance, but research is limited.
  • Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD): High-carb intake is permitted to be consumed on intense workout days. The philosophy behind this diet is the ability to perform more intense workouts with a faster recovery time. Increasing your carbohydrates to 25-50 grams pre-workout increases insulin levels which have an anabolic effect on muscles. 

The least common are mostly used by athletes or bodybuilders[3].

How Does Keto Diet Impact Weight Loss?

By restricting carbs on keto, you effectively burn through glycogen stores; the type of carbs is stored in muscle and liver. You are so depleted in carbs for energy that your body enters into a state of ketosis. In the state of ketosis, the body burns fat producing ketone bodies, an alternate source of energy for the brain and body. 

In the first week, the weight loss is fast and is mainly water loss; the fat loss eventually happens and can typically be 1-2 pounds per week.

Other Benefits of a Ketogenic Diet

Acne

When on a keto diet, getting to a state of ketosis can reduce high levels of insulin in the blood, thus reducing several markers of inflammation. The severity and progression of acne can decrease. Also, women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) may also struggle with acne, and this diet can also benefit. 

Diabetes

With the use of the very low carbohydrate keto diet, studies have shown a decrease in a person’s HbA1C and an overall reduction in diabetic medication[4]

Heart Disease

The keto diet can help manage cardiovascular disease by reducing body fat, controlling low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, improving high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, lowering blood pressure, and helping lower blood sugar levels in the blood[4].

Epilepsy

The original use of the diet has been shown to reduce seizures in epileptic children[5]

Cancer

Recent research suggests that the keto diet can slow the progression of some cancers. However, the benefit of the diet will first need to be evaluated for its anti-tumor effect for every single type/genetic subtype of cancer[6].

Nerve System Disorders

There is promising research that a person with nerve system disorders like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s can see an improvement in motor and nonmotor symptoms[7].

How Do You Start a Keto Diet?

After learning about all the health benefits of being on the keto diet, you want to start and get some of that promised weight loss. The most important thing before starting, though, is to identify if you fall into the two groups of people that need to be under medical supervision while on this diet. 

If you have diabetes or high blood pressure and are on medication, you need to be under medical supervision. Why may you ask? Well, this diet does manage blood sugar control and helps in reducing blood pressure, and if you are on medication, you may need to get it adjusted. 

Not adjusting your medication can result in your blood sugar becoming so low that you may have hypoglycemia. On the other hand, you can also have low blood pressure, and the medication can lower it even more. 

You wonder then how to start a keto diet? Is there a keto diet plan? A keto diet food list to follow?

The answer is yes; you can find Registered Dietitians who can help you develop a keto diet plan, show you the foods that you can choose, and create keto meals. You can also find an infinite amount of keto recipes online.

Keto-Friendly Foods

The keto-friendly foods you can consume are typically very low in carbs, moderate in protein, and high in fat. 

But to remain in ketosis, you need to consume foods that are low in net carbs. What are net carbs? It’s the number of carbs a food has minus the fiber. Each food type has a number assigned: the net carb per 100 grams (3.5 ounces). The lower the number, the better. 

The following are typical foods in a ketogenic diet:

  • Meat and Poultry-0 grams of net carbs
  • Fish and Seafood-0 grams of net carbs
  • Eggs-1 gram of net carbs
  • Cheese-1 gram of net carbs
  • Natural Fats-0 grams of net carbs
  • Above ground vegetables-1-5 grams of net carbs

Typical drinks to consume in a ketogenic diet:

  • Water- 0 grams of net carbs
  • Tea- 0 grams of net carbs
  • Black coffee- 0 grams of net carbs
  • Wine-2 grams of net carbs

Foods to Avoid in Keto

The goal of the ketogenic diet is to have a low carbohydrate intake; with carbs below 20 grams of net carbs per day, a lot of foods are to be restricted. 

  • Pastas
  • Breads
  • Avoid most fruits and fruit juices– a moderate intake of berries is ok.
  • Candy
  • Rice 
  • Beer
  • Starchy vegetables, (potatoes, carrots, yams, sweet potatoes)
  • Beverages with added sugars, juices, sodas, smoothies
  • Pastries, cakes, cookies, doughnuts

Side Effects and How to Minimize Them?

The biggest complaint is the commonly known “Keto flu,” the keto flu symptoms resemble the regular flu. Usually, you feel tired, with a headache, can’t focus, have irritability, dizziness, muscle cramps, and very little energy for physical performance. These symptoms are due to the body adjusting from using sugar as a fuel source to fat as its fuel source. The best way to alleviate the symptoms is to replenish fluids and electrolytes (think broth soups). It can take time, a few weeks or months for the body to adjust, and symptoms should subside. 

Also, if a person suffers from a kidney condition, they are more likely to develop kidney stones due to the high intake of animal protein. Animal protein increases calcium and uric acid levels in the urine making it more acidic and creating a favorable environment for stones to form.

Some other symptoms can occur when you are in ketosis; you usually have a dry mouth, increased thirst, increased urination, “keto breath,” a fruity smell that others may notice, tired at first, then a surge of energy, and, finally, a decreased appetite.

Final Thought

People with unhealthy eating habits can benefit from following a ketogenic diet; the low carb and low sugar require eliminating fast foods, highly processed foods, baked goods, and sugary beverages.

The ketogenic diet can be a good kickstart to a healthy lifestyle; you reduce food intake of unhealthy foods, choose healthier foods and choose healthy oils. You, in turn, have fat loss, reduced heart disease, improved insulin sensitivity, and reduced sugar cravings. The ketogenic diet may even help with the management of chronic health conditions such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s Disease[8]

The important thing to keep in mind is that the restrictions can be difficult to follow. You end up eliminating a variety of foods in your diet and are likely to regain weight if you go back to eating the way you were before you started the diet. The keto diet is higher in fat and if you are not paying attention you can end up in a yo-yo situation with this diet. Going back to old eating habits while keeping your high-fat foods is bad news and fuel for the yo-yo syndrome.
Although the ketogenic diet does give positive weight results and short-term health benefits, moderation with a long-term diet is best. A restrictive diet can be difficult to keep up with, and the best for the body is to have a variety of foods representing all food groups. Long-term restrictions[9] on carbohydrates may lead to heart problems, osteoporosis, kidney problems, and increased cancer risk.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a true keto diet?

A true keto diet is a very low carb diet at (10%) with under 20 grams of net carbs per day. The protein is kept at around 20% of the total calories and fat at 70% of the total calories.

Does keto work for everyone?

Keto can be followed by anyone that is healthy. If a person has diabetes, high blood pressure, or is an individual with epilepsy, they should be monitored by a physician. It’s not recommended for pregnant, lactating women and healthy children.

Will I lose muscle?

You will have a harder time with physical performance due to the low carbs affecting your energy levels which, in turn, affect muscle mass. It can also take weeks to months for the body to adapt to burning fat for energy instead of carbs.

How does the keto diet work?

The ketogenic diet reduces the main source of energy in the body, carbs. Not feeding the body what it needs forces the body into a metabolic state that burns fat, and the resulting molecules, ketone bodies, are used for energy.

Does keto burn belly fat?

Most bodyweight loss occurs as a reaction of the individual to their own genetic body profile’s reaction to weight loss. While some diets have been shown to reduce abdominal girth, such research also shows a reduction in total body mass index.


+ 9 sources

Health Canal avoids using tertiary references. We have strict sourcing guidelines and rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic researches from medical associations and institutions. To ensure the accuracy of articles in Health Canal, you can read more about the editorial process here

  1. Paoli, A., Rubini, A., Volek, J.S. and Grimaldi, K.A. (2013). Beyond weight loss: a review of the therapeutic uses of very-low-carbohydrate (ketogenic) diets. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, [online] 67(8), pp.789–796. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/ejcn2013116/?crsi=6624969164.
  2. ‌Johnstone, A.M., Horgan, G.W., Murison, S.D., Bremner, D.M. and Lobley, G.E. (2008). Effects of a high-protein ketogenic diet on hunger, appetite, and weight loss in obese men feeding ad libitum. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, [online] 87(1), pp.44–55. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/87/1/44/4633256?login=true.
  3. ‌Mohan, V. and Shilpa, J. (2018). Ketogenic diets: Boon or bane? Indian Journal of Medical Research, [online] 148(3), p.251. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6251269/.
  4. ‌Gershuni, V.M., Yan, S.L. and Medici, V. (2018). Nutritional Ketosis for Weight Management and Reversal of Metabolic Syndrome. Current Nutrition Reports, [online] 7(3), pp.97–106. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6472268/.
  5. ‌Ułamek-Kozioł, M., Czuczwar, S.J., Januszewski, S. and Pluta, R. (2019). Ketogenic Diet and Epilepsy. Nutrients, [online] 11(10), p.2510. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6836058/.
  6. ‌Weber, D.D., Aminazdeh-Gohari, S. and Kofler, B. (2018). Ketogenic diet in cancer therapy. Aging, [online] 10(2), pp.164–165. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5842847/.
  7. ‌Phillips, M.C.L., Murtagh, D.K.J., Gilbertson, L.J., Asztely, F.J.S. and Lynch, C.D.P. (2018). Low-fat versus ketogenic diet in Parkinson’s disease: A pilot randomized controlled trial. Movement Disorders, [online] 33(8), pp.1306–1314. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6175383/.
  8. ‌Rusek, M., Pluta, R., Ułamek-Kozioł, M. and Czuczwar, S.J. (2019). Ketogenic Diet in Alzheimer’s Disease. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, [online] 20(16), p.3892. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6720297/.
  9. Bilsborough SA;Crowe TC (2021). Low-carbohydrate diets: what are the potential short- and long-term health implications? Asia Pacific journal of clinical nutrition, [online] 12(4). Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14672862/#:~:text=Complications%20such%20as%20heart%20arrhythmias,of%20carbohydrates%20in%20the%20diet.
Blanca Garcia

Written by:

Blanca Garcia, RDN

Medically reviewed by:

Blanca is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and freelance nutrition writer from Los Angeles, CA. She has more than 8 year’s experience in nutrition and dietetics. She is a Latina and enjoys traditional Mexican and Salvadoran cooking, eating flavorful meals and sharing her knowledge about food and nutrition with others through her writing.

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