Written by Kristi Storoschuk
You are ready to make a change for the better, and we are here to support you! No matter what diet you are transitioning from, whether that be a paleo diet full of whole foods or Standard American Diet, we want you to be armed with the best tools to make sure you start keto off on the right foot.
First, let’s cover some bases...
What is a ketogenic diet?
A ketogenic diet is a diet that puts the body in a state of ketosis, where the body has switched from burning sugar to fats and ketones as its primary fuel source. This can be achieved with a very low carbohydrate, high fat, moderate protein diet, and is typically defined by blood ketone reading greater than 0.5 mmol/L.
Note: everyone’s ketogenic diet will look slightly different. For example, someone who is very active may be able to sustain ketosis eating more carbohydrates than someone who is sedentary. You might have to experiment a little to find out what diet works best for you to achieve ketosis and reach your goals.
The typical keto macro recommendations are:
Carbohydrates: Under 50g total carbs or 20g net carbs
Protein: 1-1.8g.kg lean body mass, most people do better on the higher end of the spectrum
Fat: Remaining calories for the day or to satiety, but will generally account for 65-85% of your daily calories
How does the keto diet work?
On a carbohydrate-based diet, the body’s primary fuel is sugar (glucose). When we stop eating carbohydrates, glucose levels fall and this suppresses the hormone insulin, since one of insulin’s primary roles is to move glucose out of the blood and into our cells. When the liver stops receiving glucose from our food, it uses its stored glucose (glycogen) to maintain normal glucose levels between meals and when we sleep… until we eat carbohydrates again. However, on a ketogenic diet this influx of carbs no longer occurs, so liver glycogen is left depleted. This signals to the body to start burning stored body fat as an alternative fuel. The only issue is that the brain cannot use fatty acids directly as fuel like the rest of the body. To solve this issue, the liver converts fat into ketones, which can then go on to fuel the brain and other organs. As ketosis is sustained, the body becomes better adapted to using fatty acids and ketones, a process known as keto-adaptation.
Overview of fuels as we transition into ketosis:
Carbohydrates from food (glucose) → liver glycogen* (glucose) → fat stores or dietary fat (fatty acids + ketones)
*The brain retains a small requirement for glucose even in ketosis. The liver takes care of it by converting gluconeogenic substrates (glycerol from the breakdown of fats, amino acids, and lactate) into glucose to make sure these requirements are met. There is no essential requirement for carbohydrates in the diet.
How to get started on keto
Understand how the diet works
Remember that ketosis is the result of low glucose availability and the suppression of insulin. Low glucose availability is the result of carbohydrate restriction. If carbohydrates prevent ketosis, it makes sense why you need to limit them on a ketogenic diet. Recognize that refined carbohydrates (e.g. sugars and flours) will spike glucose and insulin to a greater degree, and are therefore more likely to kick you out of, or prevent, ketosis. When choosing carbohydrates opt for those with a low glycemic effect, e.g. fibrous vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Protein from whole-foods has a very minimal effect on insulin, and fat, virtually no effect. That’s why fat is the dominating macronutrient on a ketogenic diet.
Keto-fy your kitchen
You might think you are stronger than your emotions, tendencies, and bad habits, but the truth is, exerting willpower day in and day out is heka hard. Take the time to cleanse your kitchen of all those tempting foods like cookies, crackers, chips, ice cream, and whatever else you have hiding in your fridge and pantry. This removes any chance of talking yourself into why you deserve “just one bite,'' that almost always turns into ten. Donate what you can to a local food bank to make you feel better about the whole process. Next, stock up on keto-friendly foods.
Foods to get rid of:
- Grains (flours, rice, cereals, quinoa, etc.)
- Sugars (white sugar, honey, maple syrup, agave, coconut sugar, etc.)
- High-sugar fruits (bananas, pineapple, apples, grapes, etc.)
- Starchy vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, etc.)
- Sugar-containing condiments (ketchup, bbq sauce, salad dressings, etc.)
Foods to stock up on:
- Low-carb vegetables (broccoli, zucchini, cauliflower, etc.)
- Animal foods (eggs, fish, beef, lamb, poultry, etc.)
- Nuts and seeds (macadamia nuts, pecans, walnuts, etc.)
- Low-sugar fruits (avocados, olives, berries in small amounts, etc.)
- Full-fat dairy (butter, heavy cream, cheese, etc.)
- Fats* (butter/ghee, coconut oil, extra-virgin olive oil, etc.)
- Low-glycemic sweeteners (allulose, erythritol, monk fruit, stevia, etc.)
- Products that make keto easier (Heka Keto Bars, electrolyte supplements, MCT oil, etc.)
*Avoid vegetable oils (canola oil, sunflower seed oil, soybean oil, corn oil, etc.) at all costs!
Start cutting out carbohydrates
Gradually cutting carbs out of the diet may be a better approach than going cold turkey, especially if you are transitioning from a carb-heavy diet. But if cold turkey is your style, than power to you! The most obvious dietary carbohydrates are those in foods like bread, pasta, cookies, and cakes… aka refined carbohydrates. Spend your first week cutting these foods out, and at the same time start introducing some of the common substitutions like zucchini noodles, cauliflower rice, almond flour, and non-glycemic sweeteners. Don’t worry about counting carbs or getting into ketosis yet, just get used to eating meals without these foods. Have some Heka Keto Bars on hand for when you get a craving for sweets. This way you won’t end up at the store with a cart full of chocolates and candy because you let your cravings get the best of you.
Find meal inspiration
The internet is full of amazing keto recipes, and there’s no shortage of keto cookbooks out there, either. Have some fun in the kitchen getting used to cooking without carbohydrates, experiment with new dishes, and find some staple meals that you love. A ketogenic diet doesn’t need to be complicated. It can be as simple as eggs and avocado, or as fancy as zucchini noodles with homemade meatballs and marinara sauce. Stay open minded as you try out new dishes.
Most of us are pretty lousy at eye-balling portions and counting carbs, so tracking macros ends up being the best option for familiarizing yourself with a ketogenic diet. Download an app like Cronometer or MyFitnessPal, and start keeping track of what you’re eating. We will admit, tracking macros can be a bit tedious, but we assure you this will teach you a lot about your food choices. There is a learning curve to a keto diet, but this will help you get over it!
When tracking macros, the main focus should be on carbohydrates. You can be a little more flexible with protein and fat. For example, if you are done eating for the day and you didn’t hit your fat “target”, you don’t need to eat fat bombs to make up for it. Let your body fat do the work. This is one of the caveats with tracking macros, where sometimes we focus too much on the numbers and less on intuitive eating. Nonetheless, tracking is an amazing tool to customize a ketogenic diet that keeps you satiated and in ketosis. Once you are familiar with the foods that work for you, you may find tracking is unnecessary, and a ketogenic diet will become second nature.
Supplement with electrolytes
You’ve likely heard of the “keto flu”, which typically describes the symptoms of electrolyte imbalances. When you adopt a low-carbohydrate diet, you can end up losing a lot of water weight, and with that electrolytes. Electrolyte imbalances are easily prevented by staying hydrated, and getting adequate amounts of sodium, potassium, and magnesium. This can be achieved through supplementation or simply liberally salting your food and eating green vegetables.
Test for ketones (optional)
The only tried and true way to know you are following a ketogenic diet is to test for ketones. Testing ketones will teach you a lot about your personal metabolic response to different foods, i.e. what foods keep you in, or kick you out of ketosis. From there you can tweak and experiment with different macronutrient ratios to customize a ketogenic diet that suits you best. The most accurate way to test for ketosis is to use a blood ketone meter, but in the beginning stages you may also find the urine ketone strips useful and certainly more affordable. Breath ketone meters are also an option and have become more reliable with advanced technologies.
Don’t stress it!
The ketogenic diet is not supposed to complicate your life. If you are overwhelmed by the transition, take it slowly. Forget about numbers and tracking in the beginning, just give it your best shot reducing carbohydrates as you get the hang of a low-carb lifestyle. Yes, there are amazing benefits to being in ketosis otherwise we probably wouldn’t be here, but there are also many health benefits to simply eating low-carb, with or without ketosis! So, don’t get down on yourself if you haven’t reached ketosis, be proud that you are on a journey to better health.
Written by Kristi Storoschuk