The Ketogenic Diet: A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Keto

The ketogenic or keto diet drastically reduces carbohydrates to induce a metabolic state of ketosis. Various studies suggest the keto diet as a tool for weight loss, balancing blood sugar, and improving hormone health.

In this detailed guide, we cover everything you need to know about the keto diet, including its different types and approaches, what to eat and avoid, supplements, and more.

What is the Keto Diet?

The keto diet is a low-carb, high-fat, and moderate-protein eating plan. When going keto, you should lower your carbs to 20-50 grams per day. This puts you in ketosis — a natural metabolic state in which your body burns its stored fat instead of carbs for energy.

In ketosis, fat breakdown results in the rise of ketone levels. Ketones are an alternative fuel source for your brain and body when insulin and blood glucose levels are low. The three major ketone bodies are beta-hydroxybutyrate, acetoacetate, and acetone (1).

But wait. Isn’t glucose our main energy source?

You may have heard that you need more carbs to perform optimally. But your body can use ketones as an alternative fuel. In fact, research shows that ketones can provide more energy than glucose (2).

A low-carb, high-fat diet is often used to attain weight loss and achieve other health advantages. Study shows that it has benefits against Type 2 Diabetes (3).

It is also being proposed as adjuvant therapy for cancer treatment (4).

Types of Keto Diet

There are four types of the keto diet that you should know about:

  • Standard Ketogenic Diet (SKD) – The standard keto diet is followed by most people. Standard keto dietary macros are divided into the following (6): 5% to 10% carbohydrates, 30% to 35% protein, and 55% to 60% fat. The SKD is also the most researched plan supported by lots of evidence.
  • Cyclical Ketogenic Diet (CKD) – The cyclical keto diet, called “carb cycling,” entails eating less than 50 grams of carbs 5 to 6 days a week, followed by a higher carb intake for the remaining 1 to 2 days. Essentially, you’ll be going in and out of ketosis on a weekly basis.
  • Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD) – The targeted keto diet is a standard keto diet with higher carb intakes around workout times. Consuming extra carbohydrates prior to a tough workout will help increase your physical performance.
  • High Protein Ketogenic Diet (HPKD) – The high-protein keto diet is similar to the standard version, except that you’re consuming more protein. The HPKD is ideal for people who are looking to preserve or increase muscle mass. For example, bodybuilders and older individuals.

Keto Diet Benefits

Here are some benefits of the keto diet for your body.

1. Ketogenic diets can help you lose weight

Many people find that they lose unwanted body fat effectively on the keto diet.

Reducing carbohydrates depletes glycogen in your liver and muscle. For those who don’t know, glycogen is the storage form of glucose. As your glycogen gets depleted, your body starts to burn fat (7).

Study shows that ketogenic diets can help patients lose 2 kilograms more weight than low fat diets in 1 year (8).

Another study suggests that sustaining the diet long-term does not only reduce body weight and body mass index, but also lowers blood glucose, triglyceride levels, and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels (9).

2. Ketogenic diets can help prevent or reverse type 2 Diabetes

Diabetes is a chronic disease that’s characterized by very high blood glucose levels. It can affect a person’s life physically, emotionally, and socially (10).

Virta Health, a science-based specialty medical clinic, was able to reverse type 2 diabetes and prediabetes in patients using nutritional ketosis. Within 70 days, 92% of the patients who were under Virta Health’s care achieved the following results (11):

  • Lowered HbA1c values from 7.5% to 6.5% (HbA1c is the average blood glucose reading for the past 3 months)
  • Reduced medication use by over 45%
  • Reduced weight by 7%

Here’s what reversal means:

Note that “diabetes reversal” does not imply “cured.” In the context of a keto diet, reversal describes blood glucose readings below the diabetes range as long as the diet is being maintained.

3. Ketogenic diets can help improve cholesterol levels

Several researches show that reducing carbs can improve cardiovascular risk factors.

A low-carb diet can help increase HDL cholesterol while decreasing triglycerides, LDL cholesterol, and total cholesterol. Furthermore, it decreases systolic and diastolic blood pressure as a result of the person losing weight (12).

Your food choices on a low-carb diet matter as they play a role in the prevention of heart disease. It’s important to choose healthy unsaturated fats such as avocados, nuts, olive oil, and fish.

4. Ketogenic diets can help improve your brain function

Some people eat a low-carb, high-fat diet not for weight loss, but for brain health and mental performance. Back in the 1920s, the keto diet was used as a treatment modality for epilepsy. The keto diet mimicked fasting, which is known to have anti-seizure effects (13).

Lower brain glucose metabolism is present in conditions like Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and mild cognitive impairment (MCI). This explains why ketones can be therapeutic fuel for the brain (14).

Ketones enhance memory not just in older adults, but in any age (15).

5. Ketogenic diets can help maintain proper hormone balance

Women whose hormones are out of balance may benefit from a low-carb, high-fat diet.

Dietary fat is important for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E, and K. Fats also regulate the production of reproductive hormones.

Examples of foods that contain healthy fats include olive oil, fatty fish, avocados, egg yolks, and nuts.

6. Ketogenic diets can help prevent acne

Recent studies show that the keto diet improves acne.

In a study, patients were given increasing amounts of chocolates each day, which led to acne flare-ups. In another study, high blood insulin levels were observed in participants who were fed with chocolates (16).

This shows us that diet can trigger acne by increasing insulin (hyperinsulinemia). Reducing insulin or increasing insulin sensitivity can be achieved through a low-carbohydrate diet.

Keto Diet Variations

A person can follow the keto diet differently depending on their food preferences. In this section, we cover keto diet variations that all induce ketosis and help you achieve your goals.

  • Traditional Keto Diet – The traditional or standard keto diet is the most common and least restrictive approach. In this dietary plan, you can eat meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, vegetables, and fruits.
  • Vegetarian Keto Diet – The vegetarian keto diet focuses on plants while eliminating meat, poultry, and seafood. However, they are allowed to eat animal products like eggs and cheese.
  • Pescatarian Keto Diet – The pescatarian keto diet is a variation of the vegetarian diet, except that you can eat seafood. This includes fish, shrimps, clams, and scallops. Individuals who follow this diet find that it’s easier to go meat-free by adding seafood to their diet.
  • Mediterranean Keto Diet – The Mediterranean keto diet focuses on staples like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish and seafood, and olive oil. Processed foods are to be avoided as much as possible. Red meat should be eaten rarely. Olive oil becomes the major source of fat for this diet.
  • Carnivore Keto Diet – The carnivore keto diet, as the term implies, sources nutrients from animals only. These foods include meat, poultry, fish, animal fat, and dairy. Some individuals, though, tend to avoid dairy. Any plant-based food is to be avoided on carnivore keto.
  • Paleo Keto Diet – The paleolithic or paleo keto diet is a practice that mimics the way our ancestors eat millions of years ago. It is also termed as the “caveman” or “hunter-gatherer” diet.

Keto Diet Foods to Eat and Avoid

Stay in ketosis by stocking up on these food items and avoiding the rest.
(Note: The options below fall under a traditional or standard keto diet which most individuals follow.)

  Eat Avoid
Meat Chicken, Turkey, Beef, Bacon (unprocessed), Pork, Lamb.  
Fish Salmon, Mackerel, Tuna, Anchovies, Sardines, Trout.  
Nuts & Seeds Almonds, Brazil nuts, Pecan nuts, Macadamia nuts, Hazelnuts, Peanuts, Hemp seeds, Chia seeds, Flax seeds, Sesame seeds.  
Vegetables Cauliflower, Broccoli, Spinach, Asparagus,Kale, Brussel sprouts, Cabbage. Potatoes, Sweet potatoes, Carrots, Corn, Peas, Squash, Lima beans, Black-eyed peas, Garbanzo beans, White beans, Pinto beans
Fruits Avocados, Blackberries, Raspberries, Strawberries, Cantaloupe, Watermelon, Lemon. Apples, Bananas, Pears, Mangoes, Nectarines, Peaches, Oranges, Dried fruits.
Dairy Butter, Ghee, Heavy whipping cream, Sour cream, Hard and soft cheeses, Greek yogurt, Fermented yogurt, Kefir. Low-fat milk, Evaporated milk, Condensed milk.
Oils Extra virgin olive oil, Coconut oil, Avocado oil, MCT oil. Corn oil, Soybean oil, Canola oil, Safflower oil (regular, Sunflower oil (regular), Vegetable oil.
Condiments Sugar-free dressings and sauces. (Be sure to check the label when buying at the grocery.) Regular dressings and sauces contain hidden sugars.
Drinks Water, Plain black coffee, Bulletproof coffee, Bone broth, Tea, Dry wines. Fruit juices, Fruit smoothies, Soda, Beer, Sweet wines.

Keto Diet Sample Meal Plan

Here’s a sample keto diet plan for beginners to help you stick with the right eating plan. Depending on your mood or preference, feel free to mix up the options below.

Day 1

  • Breakfast: Classic Bacon and Eggs
  • Lunch: Instant Pot Chili Verde
  • Dinner: Fathead Sausage Rolls

Day 2

  • Breakfast: Keto Burrito
  • Lunch: Avocado Tuna Salad
  • Dinner: Indian Cabbage Stir-Fry

Day 3

  • Breakfast: Peanut Butter Smoothie with Almond Milk
  • Lunch: Low Carb Sesame Chicken
  • Dinner: Easy Low-Carb Cauliflower Mac ‘n Cheese

Day 4

  • Breakfast: Keto Bagels
  • Lunch: Beberé Enchilada Style Stuffed Peppers
  • Dinner: Cheesy Cabbage Sausage Skillet

Day 5

  • Breakfast: Smoked Sausage Frittata Recipe With Spinach & Mushroom
  • Lunch: Artichokes with whipped lemon butter
  • Dinner: Thai Beef Lettuce Wraps

Day 6

  • Breakfast: Baked Mini-Frittatas with Mushrooms
  • Lunch: Pickle-Brined Keto Fried Chicken
  • Dinner: Zucchini Noodles with Pesto

Day 7

  • Breakfast: Spicy Tuna Stuffed Avocados
  • Lunch: Vegan Keto Lo Mein
  • Dinner: Lemon Miso Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Over time, you’ll be able to make your own keto diet recipes. We hope these meal ideas can give you a head start!

Taking a different approach on keto? We provide Vegetarian, Pescatarian, Carnivore, Mediterranean, and Paleo keto meal plans in this guide.

Keto Diet Snacks

Wondering what keto diet foods you can snack on? Here’s a list of options:

  • Deviled or plain hard-boiled eggs
  • Veggie sticks
  • Bone broth
  • Fat bombs
  • Lettuce wraps
  • Pork rinds
  • Salad
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Veggie sticks with guacamole
  • Fat bombs
  • Seaweed snacks
  • String cheese
  • Kale chips
  • Low-carb or keto bars
  • Keto smoothie
  • Cauliflower buffalo wings

Tips When Eating Out on a Keto Diet

The reality is that you won’t always be at home to cook meals. Family gatherings and other occasions can involve dining out.

Learning how to eat keto outside your home is easy. No matter what restaurant you’re going to, there are plenty of ways to modify your foods so that they fit your keto macro ratios.

For example, instead of having the whole burger, remove the buns and dressing (which most likely contains sugar). If possible, ask for lettuce wraps to replace the bun.

You could also add healthy fat by asking for extra butter. Let it melt on your meat or veggies. If you’re having salad, request for olive oil and add a drizzle on your salad.

What about dessert? You know you shouldn’t have regular sugar, so ask if they have sugar-free desserts. If not, try heavy whipping cream on berries or plain black coffee/tea.

Bottom line: Get as creative as possible. Don’t hesitate to ask and make requests. If you’re planning to eat outside, go a step further by researching low-carb restaurants nearby!

Keto Diet Supplements

Certain supplements are great to include in your keto diet plan. They increase your performance, help you overcome side effects like the keto flu, and ensure that you don’t lack any nutrients.

  • MCT oil – MCT oil is a supplement that’s made of fat called medium-chain triglycerides. Thus, the abbreviation MCT. The oil is often extracted from coconuts.
  • Exogenous ketones – Exogenous ketones are basically ketones that you take externally. Keto diet pills that contain beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB) are common in the market.
  • ElectrolytesThe low-carb nature of the keto diet prompts your body to lose water by urinating more frequently. With that, you also lose some electrolytes.
  • Collagen – Collagen is the most abundant protein in your body. As the substance that holds your body together, it provides structure for your skin, tendons, bones, and ligaments.
  • Blood sugar support – These supplements are usually a combination of extracts from herbs and plants. Examples are berberine, cinnamon, bitter melon, garlic, and mulberry leaf. (Important: If you have diabetes and are trying to lower your blood sugar through keto, see a doctor first.)
  • Caffeine – One of the most popular supplements, caffeine is consumed by 80% of the world’s population (17).
  • Vitamins – Vitamin deficiencies can happen when you eliminate carbs in your diet. That is why you need to monitor your vitamin intake.
  • Omega-3 – Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid that’s found in various foods like fatty fish and nuts and seeds.

Keto Diet Side Effects

Ever wonder why you feel awful during the first week of keto?

Keto diets can bring about side effects that turn people off. They happen as your body moves from burning carbohydrates to fat for fuel.

Don’t worry because these side effects are temporary. Here’s what to normally expect and what you can do to beat them.

1. Keto flu

Nutritional ketosis flu or “keto flu” is a collection of symptoms that you may experience when you first enter ketosis. Such symptoms include headache, fatigue, lightheadedness, nausea, and constipation (18).

What to do: Take plenty of electrolytes, especially sodium. A simple tip would be to increase your salt intake by 2 grams per day. Stay hydrated as well. Increase your fat intake. Healthy fat sources include eggs, MCT oil fatty fish, and avocados.

2. Thirst

Excessive thirst is another common side effect. This happens because of water loss, since you’re urinating more often.

What to do: It’s really simple — keep refilling with water. You may also want to add a pinch of pink Himalayan salt to your glass of water to help replenish sodium. In addition to water, eat low-carb, water-rich foods such as cucumbers, brussel sprouts, and broccoli.

3. Hunger and cravings

Let’s not forget about hunger. Hunger is a huge reason many dieters throw in the towel at the start of their journey. Of course, your body is still craving for carbohydrates.

What to do: Listen to your body. If you feel truly hungry (and not just thirsty), eat something that’s high in fat. Fat is highly satiating (19). Also, make sure that you’re getting whole foods in your diet.

4. Keto breath

This isn’t your typical bad breath. Rather, it’s the kind of breath that smells like nail polish. Ketosis breath or keto breath results from the production of acetone — another type of ketone body. Acetone exits your body via your breath (20).

What to do: Don’t let this small issue prevent you from staying in ketosis. Deal with keto breath like you would typical bad breath. Take mints and gums — however, choose sugar-free options. On top of brushing your teeth regularly, floss and use a mouthwash. Finally, stay hydrated!

5. Digestive issues

The low-carb, high-fat diet can give you diarrhea or constipation. These symptoms are expected since you’re changing your macronutrient ratios. Increased fat in your diet causes loose stools. And if you’re not eating enough fiber, you get constipated.

What to do: To recover from diarrhea, drink more water. You may also need to reduce the amount of dairy you’re consuming — butter, cheeses, and whipping cream. Ease up on MCTs as well. For constipation, eat more high-fiber foods that are also keto-friendly.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How does the keto diet work?

This eating plan involves getting most of your calories from fat while reducing carbohydrates to about 20 to 50 grams per day. When glycogen, the storage form of carbs, gets depleted, your body burns through its fat stores. The result is an increase in ketones.

2. What are ketones?

Ketones or ketone bodies are chemicals that the liver produces as the result of fat breakdown. There are 3 types of ketones, namely: Acetoacetate (AcAc), Beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB), and Acetone.

3. How do I start a keto diet?

Reduce your carbs, keep protein moderate, and boost your fat intake. These are the standard keto ratios: 5% to 10% carbohydrates, 30% to 35% protein, and 55% to 60% fat. If you want a specific breakdown of your daily macros, use a keto calculator.

4. Is a keto diet safe?

Ketosis is a natural state of your body, and inducing it through a well-formulated diet makes it safe long-term.

Virta Health defines what a well-formulated keto diet means. It includes the following (21):

  • Prioritizing whole foods
  • Seeking ongoing medical supervision
  • Ensuring proper electrolyte and mineral intake as well as hydration
  • Not obsessing over calorie counting
  • Maintaining lean body mass

The time keto becomes unsafe is when a person with a medical condition does it on their own without consulting their doctor first.

5. How much protein do I need on keto?

Moderate protein on keto looks different from standard recommendations. While the RDA for protein is 0.8 grams per kg of body weight, a keto dieter needs between 1.2 g/kg to 2.0 g/kg of body weight. (Lower end = 1.2 g/kg; Upper end = 2.0 g/kg) (22).

6. What are the signs and symptoms of ketosis?

Common ketosis signs and symptoms include increased ketones in your blood, breath, and urine, bad breath, appetite suppression (once your body has adjusted), insomnia, digestive issues, and increased focus and energy (once your body has adjusted). Note: Negative side effects are temporary.

7. How do I measure ketosis?

There are 3 ways to measure ketone levels: Urine testing, breath testing, and blood testing using ketone meters. Among them, blood testing produces the most accurate results.

8. What’s the difference between clean keto and dirty keto?

The clean version of keto prioritizes whole, unprocessed foods —  just think of any food that spoils easily. Meanwhile, the dirty keto allows you to eat pre-packaged and processed foods. Obviously, clean keto produces better health.

9. Can I eat more carbs on some days?

Yes, you can. This is one way of doing the ketogenic diet — “cyclical keto.” It involves following the standard keto diet plan for 5-6 days a week, and eating more carbs for the remaining 1-2 days.

If you’ve got more questions, we’ve compiled a list of FAQs on this post. Please check it out!

Keto Diet Risk

Nutritional ketosis offers many benefits, but it isn’t for everyone. A high-fat, low-carb diet is contraindicated in these medical conditions:

  • Liver failure
  • Pancreatitis
  • Gaucher disease (a lipid metabolism disorder)
  • Tay-Sachs disease (a lipid metabolism disorder)
  • Primary carnitine deficiency
  • Carnitine palmitoyltransferase I deficiency

Basically, these are conditions in which the body cannot absorb and use fats for energy.

Pregnant and lactating women, as well as people taking medications that lower blood sugar, should consult their doctor first.

The Bottom Line

We hope you learned from this basic keto guide.

You already know what the keto diet is, how it works, and everything you need to thrive and feel your best.

Take it easy, keep it clean, and stay patient. If you have questions, feel free to drop them in the comments section below. We love helping you out!

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Evidence based

This article is based on scientific evidence, written and reviewed by experts.

The founders of Ketogenic Buddies are health care professionals. As we grow, we include other qualified subject matter experts as part of our content team.

This article contains scientific references. The numbers in the parentheses (1, 2, 3) are clickable links to peer-reviewed scientific papers.