Looking for a new diet to kickstart serious weight loss? The keto diet is probably on your list of eating plans to consider. One of the most popular diet plans, the keto diet promises rapid weight loss by turning fat into energy (and let’s face it—who doesn’t need more of that?). Other benefits of the keto diet include clearer skin, better heart health, and lower cancer risk.
If this sounds like the #dietwin you’ve been looking for, you’ve come to the right place to learn all about it. Here, we’ll go into more detail about what is the ketogenic diet, how it works, and what you can—and can’t—eat if you follow the keto diet. And before you ask, yes, we’ve even included some keto recipes for you to try, including desserts! Consider this the keto diet for beginners.
What is the ketogenic diet?
The ketogenic diet is similar to the ever-popular South Beach diet of long ago. It’s a high-fat, low-carb plan that is meant to put your body into a state of ketosis in order to burn more fat faster. What is ketosis? It’s what occurs when your body doesn’t have enough glucose to burn for energy, so it begins to burn fat instead, resulting in a build-up of ketones in the body. In most cases, people get enough glucose through sugar or starch (i.e. carbs). But the keto diet excludes those foods, which depletes the body’s glucose stores and forces it to burn fat for energy.
Related: Whole30 vs. Keto Face-Off—Which Low-Carb Diet Is Better for Losing Weight?
What are the benefits of a ketogenic diet?
Following a ketogenic eating pattern allows you to sustain energy, mood, and cognitive focus without relying upon regular meals for energy, asserts ancestral health movement leader Mark Sisson, whose book Keto for Life comes out later this month. What’s more, he says, “fat and ketones burn more cleanly in the body, delivering a host of health and disease protection benefits.”
When your body burns fat for energy, like it does on the keto diet, one of the biggest benefits you’ll experience is weight loss, especially at first as your body enters a state of ketosis. But if you’re able to carefully plan and execute your keto diet plan, you’ll enjoy other benefits, too. Dr. Josh Axe, creator of DrAxe.com, co-founder of the company Ancient Nutrition and author of Keto Diet, Keto Diet Cookbook and the upcoming Collagen Diet brings us a few below.
No more counting calories.
Because the keto diet is chock full of healthy fats and proteins, you’ll feel fuller, longer.
According to the Perfect Keto website, “you’ll enjoy a constant, steady stream of keto energy instead of dips throughout the day because you’re not spiking your blood sugar levels.”
Enhanced mental clarity.
Ketones supply your brain, muscles and organs with a steady source of energy, says Dr. Axe. This can also lead to enhanced focus, attention, memory and potentially problem-solving and learning capacity.
The diet offers protection against a broad range of neurodegenerative disorders, Dr. Axe says, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injury and stroke.
Healthy blood sugar levels.
According to Dr. Axe, very low-carbohydrate, high-fat diets are safe and effective when it comes to reducing blood sugar fluctuations and insulin resistance in diabetic and prediabetic adults.
Is the keto diet safe? Are there side effects?
Like anything that sounds too good to be true, there are some drawbacks to the keto diet, ranging from temporary annoyances to dangerous conditions. When you first transition to the keto diet, you can expect symptoms like excessive fatigue, dehydration, dizziness, weakness, decreased concentration, sweats and cold-like symptoms, says Emily Tills, a registered dietitian. “That’s because the body is almost going into a starvation-like state.”
This is often known as the keto flu.
More seriously, the keto diet can cause increases in cholesterol levels, so it’s definitely not a good option for anyone with existing high cholesterol. “If you have a history of heart disease or heart attack, I would strongly encourage you to find another change to make with your food, rather than adding in more fat,” Tills advises.
And Lisa Richards, author of The Candida Diet, agrees: “Anyone with kidney disease, pregnant, nursing, diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, or anyone who has had their gallbladder removed should not follow keto. Fluctuations in chemicals and hormones can exacerbate these conditions,” she says.
Related: If You’re One of These 6 Types of People, the Keto Diet May Be Bad for You
Finally, it’s important to understand that following the keto diet without proper guidance and careful planning can lead to a life-threatening condition called ketoacidosis. That’s when the body produces dangerous levels of ketones, which can cause your blood to become acidic. It can lead to kidney failure, coma and even death if left untreated. So it’s important to seek the guidance of a dietician if you’re unsure.
What are the different types of ketogenic diets?
Admittedly, the keto diet can be a bit difficult to follow in the long run. That’s mostly thanks to how different it is than the diet that most Americans are used to. As a result, there are several different types of ketogenic diets you can choose from, ranging from super restrictive to somewhat forgiving. Dr. Axe breaks down the different types of keto diets below:
Clean keto diet
Focuses on minimally-processed whole-foods, including plenty of healthy fats/oils, quality meats/protein in moderation, and lots of non-starchy vegetables, herbs, spices bone broth and probiotic foods.
Keto-cycling or carb-cycling
Involves eating very low-carb most days of the week, but intentionally increasing carb intake 1-2 days per week in order to replenish glycogen stores and prevent side effects like fatigue.
Modified keto diet
Includes a bit more protein and carbs than a traditional keto diet, allowing for more flexibility and food variety. One drawback is that it may not be easy to stay in ketosis while following a modified plan, however some feel it’s a healthy and sustainable way to eat long-term.
This is a keto diet with a mostly plant-based or pescatarian twist. It’s a great fit for people who want to experience the benefits of keto but still want to eat a largely plant-based diet.
“Eco-Keto” is a catchy way of describing an eco-friendly, ketogenic diet. Most people interpret eco-keto as being totally plant-based, aka a vegan keto diet.
Find out how you can combine intermittent fasting and keto.
How do you know you’re in ketosis?
The best way is to test yourself either through urine tests, a breath test or a blood test, says Whitney Lauritsen, co-author of The Vegan Ketogenic Diet Cookbook. “In the book we talk about the different pros and cons. So the urine test can measure your level. You pee on it. It’s very affordable. It gives you quick results. You can buy them online, but it’s not the most reliable test,” she says. “A breath test you can buy a device online and that can measure the byproducts of ketones in your breath. But it can be really pricey and it’s not always the most accurate. The most accurate thing to do is to do a blood test. And you can actually do this at the doctor. You can get a device for this so you can buy online. But not everybody wants to test their blood every day cause it’s uncomfortable, but it is the most accurate way to test it. So it depends on how important that is to you.”
What are the best foods for a keto diet plan?
The best keto foods are those that are low in carbs and high in fat and protein. But that doesn’t give you carte blanche to tear through a whole sleeve of Oreos. Dr. Axe says, “A ‘clean’ keto approach is a ketogenic diet that focuses on whole foods, including plenty of healthy fats/oils, quality meats/protein in moderation, and lots of non-starchy vegetables.” A few simple steps can make your kitchen keto-friendly before you start the diet.
Fats and oils
Olive oil, coconut oil, grass-fed butter and avocado oil
Grass-fed meat, pasture-raised poultry, cage-free eggs, all types of wild-caught fish and seafood
Butter, heavy cream, sour cream, organic cheese, full-fat/unsweetened yogurt, kefir, milk.
Broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and other cruciferous veggies, all types of leafy greens, asparagus, cucumber, celery, mushrooms, bell peppers, zucchini, tomatoes and carrots
Nuts and seeds
Almonds, walnuts, cashews, sunflower seeds, pistachios, chestnuts, pumpkin seeds, nut butters and seed butters, chia seeds and flaxseeds
Need more ideas? Here’s a comprehensive keto diet food list with 150+ foods.
What foods should you avoid on a keto diet?
Hot topic alert! There’s quite a bit of debate when it comes to foods to avoid on a keto diet. That’s because many followers struggle with the restrictive nature of the diet, so they sometimes turn to processed food that’s technically “allowed” since it’s high in fat but low in carbs. Other followers, like Sisson, vehemently oppose this practice, insisting that it misses the entire point of the keto diet.
“The Internet buzz about ‘dirty keto’ is a great example of how NOT to do keto. Blending diet orange soda, heavy cream and ice into a slushy might be zero carb, but it offers little nutritional value and will not necessarily support internal ketone production. The prevalence of processed and packaged snacks labeled keto is pause for reflection, as we should better emphasize whole foods as close to their original state as possible,” he says.
Other foods to avoid on the keto diet include fruit of all types except berries, all types of sugar, including honey, agave, and cane sugar, foods made with grains or grain flour, all products containing corn, and snack/junk foods.
Here’s a round-up of keto sweeteners to help you out.
What are some keto diet recipes?
Yes, the keto diet is restrictive. Yes, the list of food you can’t eat is extensive. But, we’re here to tell you that it can be done. After all, we’ll sign up for any diet that successfully hides cauliflower in mac and cheese! We’ve listed some of our favorite keto dinner recipes below, as proof that you can enjoy delectable food while following the keto diet.
Cauliflower mac and cheese—Easy, cheesy and simply delicious, cauliflower mac and cheese is one of the most popular keto recipes out there. Sign us up!
Buffalo shrimp lettuce taco wraps—You won’t miss the carbs in this clever lettuce wrap, with buffalo-flavored shrimp and all the toppings you could ever want.
Citrus marinated grilled chicken—Citrus has a way of adding an abundance of juicy flavor to meat, which is why this citrus marinated grilled chicken is one of the best keto recipes in our opinion.
What are the best keto diet breakfasts?
Start your day off right the keto way with a few of our recommendations for the best keto diet breakfasts.
Low-carb breakfast casserole—Cheese, bacon and mushrooms combine for a perfectly delicious and filling keto-approved breakfast casserole.
Keto almond flour pancakes—Bet you didn’t know you can still enjoy this breakfast classic on the keto diet, but you can! Here, almond flour is the perfect substitute for unhealthy enriched flour.
Keto pumpkin muffins—Whether you’re welcoming fall or just a huge fan of muffins (and who’s not?) we love these keto-approved pumpkin muffins that whip up in a jiffy!
What are the best keto diet snacks?
It’s hard enough to follow a diet plan, but when the munchies hit? All bets are off! That’s why we’ve included some of our favorite keto snacks for you to browse through, hopefully before snack time rolls around. With just a bit of advance planning, you can keep one of these delectable goodies at your fingertips to snack on between meals.
Low-carb, keto protein cookie dough bites—These yummy treats are held together with collagen, which benefits hair, nails and joints. We’ll call this a double win.
Heavenly cream cheese dark chocolate keto fudge—Perfect for a holiday gathering or an office party, no one will guess these sneaky treats are keto-friendly.
Pickle roll ups—We can’t think of a better snack than pickles, and good news—they’re keto-approved! These rollups feature corned beef and cream cheese wrapped around a pickle for the perfect pick-me-up.
What are the best keto diet desserts?
Diets that cut out all the yummy food simply aren’t sustainable. After all, sometimes you deserve a sweet reward! Check out our short list of some of the best keto diet desserts we’ve seen.
Chocolate keto pie—There are no two ways about it: this pie looks simply amazing. With a stunning presentation and even better taste, it’s the perfect choice for a holiday gathering or simply to enjoy on your own.
Chocolate peanut butter cheesecake—Here’s another of our favorite keto-approved desserts that you won’t be able to get enough of. This peanut butter cheesecake will melt in your mouth, and it’s guilt-free, too!
Keto blueberry cobbler—This keto-friendly blueberry cobbler is the perfect choice for a simple, mid-week dessert. Almond flour keeps the crust in line with keto guidelines, and is the perfect backdrop for delicious, juicy berries.
Find out what celebs and influencers who have tried the keto diet have to say about the process with these keto quotes.