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What is the Keto Diet? A Complete Guide

Most diets (especially the standard American diet) are filled with carbohydrates.  This includes lots of sugar – by far the worst carbohydrate for your health.  

The keto diet, by contrast, emphasizes consuming almost no carbohydrates at all and taking in as little sugar as possible.  Also known as the ketogenic diet, a keto approach combines a high intake of healthy fats, with moderate amounts of protein, in addition to a low consumption of carbohydrates.  

This ratio of macronutrients puts your body into an optimal metabolic state, which helps to burn fat.  This state is called ketosis, and in this state, your body burns fat, rather than carbohydrates.  

Simply put, the easiest way to quickly get into this metabolic state, is to drop your carbohydrate intake.  While high dietary fat consumption is important for ketosis, it’s not as crucial as cutting out the carbs.

How Exactly Does A Keto Diet Work?

For the average diet, our body takes the abundance of carbs ingested and converts them into glucose. You more likely know this as a spike in blood sugar.  The ‘sugar rush’ you get after eating a cupcake, for example. 

This conversion of carbohydrates into quick energy results in elevated blood sugar levels.  This, in turn, creates insulin. At this point, insulin is then used to shuttle glucose into your cells.  

This is how your metabolism works when you eat a standard, high carb diet.  A keto diet, by contrast, works completely differently.

Your body will continue to use glucose as its main source of energy if you keep eating carbs.  Thus, it becomes very difficult to burn fat, while still taking in lots of glucose.  

The keto approach works by removing these carbohydrates, forcing your body to rely on its fat stores for energy.  This, in turn, helps you burn off fat. In this keto-adapted state, your body creates energy by converting fatty acids. It turns these fatty acids into ketones (sometimes referred to as ketone bodies). 

What Are Ketones?

When we were cavemen, we relied on ketones when the food supply was low and needed a mechanism to help us survive in times of famine.  But, interestingly, there isn’t just one type of ketone – there are actually three.  

Acetone, acetoacetate (AcAc), and beta-hydroxybutyric acid (BHB). These ketones are all produced in the liver but are all technically different.

What Is The Optimal Macronutrient Ratio For Keto?

This is actually a popular misnomer – there is not one ideal ratio of macronutrient intake. Instead, macronutrient intake is highly individualized. What may work well for me, will not necessarily work well for you.  

There are many factors to consider, and please consult with a doctor before changing your diet drastically.  Some of the individual factors to look at include how often you exercise, whether you have any diseases, what medications you might be taking, your physical goals, your sleep levels, your stress levels, and your long-term goals.

There are macronutrient calculators out there, but they are only going to give you a good ‘guesstimate’.  It’s important to consult individually with your doctor, before making the switch to keto.  

That said, there are general guidelines, which are rough estimates for ideal macronutrient ratios.  Roughly, only 5-10% of your calories should be coming from carbs, 20-30% should be coming from protein, and the majority (70-80%) should come from healthy dietary fats.

How Much Fat Should I Eat On A Keto Diet?

Again, it’s important to emphasize that these are only general guidelines. Your doctor will have a far better insight into your individual health plan. 

Fat is nonetheless the backbone of a keto diet, and the large majority of your calories should be coming from healthy fat sources. Since carbs will be cut down to 5-10% of your diet, and too much protein can actually kick you out of ketosis – fat accounts for about 3/4 of your daily calories. 

For the standard American eating a daily amount of roughly 2,000 calories, this translates into 150-175 grams of fat per day. As we will cover later in the piece, it is critical to get this fat from healthy sources – not just any fat will do.

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How Much Protein Should I Eat For A Keto Diet?

Typically, the best advice to give about protein is the more, the better but with keto, this isn’t always so.  While protein is still critical, too much may be overkill. If you are active, or you're an athlete, your protein needs will be much higher than the average person. 

You will essentially want to determine what your lean body mass (LBM) is and then adjust protein intake to that. Generally, 0.75 grams of protein per each pound you carry, is a good baseline.  Again, your doctor will have the ultimate answer.

How Many Carbs Should I Eat To Get (And Stay) In Ketosis?

This answer is a little more straightforward. 5-10% of your calories coming from carbohydrates, is fairly standard across the board.  This works out to be about 25-40 grams of carbs, per day.

Again, however, our individual needs should be taken into account. Interestingly, very active individuals can sometimes consume nearly 100 grams of carbohydrates per day while still remaining in ketosis.

How Do I Know I’m In Ketosis?

While there are many hints and signs that you’re now in a preferred state of fat-burning, the most foolproof way to tell if you’re in ketosis is a blood test. 

However, there is also the optional urine test, as well as the breath test. The blood test is the most reliable, but also the most expensive, and the least convenient.

One warning with the take-home urine tests – they’re not terribly accurate.  You may think you’re in ketosis when you’re not actually in it.

The breath test falls into the middle, though your significant other or spouse will be a much better barometer of your current breath.  I wish I was kidding, but those who date a keto dieter can quickly identify when they have acetone on their breath. It’s definitely noticeable.

What Is The Difference Between Keto, Low-Carb, and Atkins?

The world of low carb diets is vast, but many people still do not understand that there are clear (and substantial) differences, between approaches.  For example, the keto diet is extremely low in carbohydrate intake.

Weirdly, low carb diets that are not keto - may actually have more carbohydrates in them. While they are still very much “low carb”, they won’t keep you in constant ketosis. 

Low carb approaches keep carbs under 150 grams per day but keto diets routinely shift carb intake to below 50 grams per day. Atkins differs, in that it usually cycles the dieter between zero carbs and higher amounts of carbs. This is similar to a cyclic ketogenic diet (CKD).

By the nature of macronutrient ratios, most low carbohydrate approaches are also high in protein intake.  However, a keto approach is moderate in protein intake and emphasizes food quality (i.e. low carbohydrate vegetables, and healthy fats). 

Atkins is more open-ended, leading to the popular ‘if it fits my macros’ regimen. While this approach is popular, it isn't always the best long-term option. Food quality is always the most important indicator of a healthy diet.

Interestingly though, most low carb approaches recommend cutting starches and sugars; a keto approach is the only one whose long-term goal is completely shifting your metabolism. 

Low carb diets may never get you into ketosis and Atkins only briefly introduces you into a ketogenic state. A keto approach, however, always keeps your body burning off fat. By constantly having your glycogen stores low, your body has no choice but to keep relying on fat stores.

Are There Different Types Of Keto Diets?

Interestingly, there are multiple types of keto approaches – at least four are popular.  You should carefully weigh the pros and cons of each, before deciding on which method works best for you. The standard version is still the most popular, although that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for you.

The Standard Ketogenic Diet (SKD)

Most keto dieters go with the standard approach and it's also is the approach with the most scientific research behind it. 

As we’ve gone over, this usually entails 20-50 grams of carbs per day, large amounts of fat, and moderate amounts of protein.  Unless you have a specific condition or goal, this is likely the route you will want to pursue.

Cyclical Ketogenic Diet (CKD)

A personal favorite, a cyclical keto diet involves multiple days of ketosis, followed by a day or two of higher carb intake. This allows for a wider variety of food intake, which, in theory, keeps you more dedicated to a keto approach, over the long-term.

On the negative side, it is important to be careful not to overindulge and essentially overdose on carbs (especially sugar), on your off days. This can actually cause negative traction if you do. Tread lightly.

Plant-Based Keto Diet

This approach is possible, but be forewarned, it requires a ton of work.  Because protein requirements are very tough to meet with this approach, a doctor or nutritionist is absolutely imperative. 

On top of that, it is very difficult to keep yourself in ketosis, when you started eating a lot more vegetables. Again, it’s possible, but be prepared for a lot more commitment, to successfully maintain this approach over the long-term.

High-Protein Ketogenic Diet (HPKD)

Not dissimilar to the standard keto approach, the high protein version ups your protein intake. This is largely ideal for athletes and those who are very active.  However, there are usually not huge downsides to taking in more protein, so it may be suitable for other dieters, as well.

What Can I Eat on a Keto Diet?

Unlike the popular media perception, a healthy keto diet is really not all that restrictive.  And one of the best parts? You can eat foods that were previously thought to be ‘very unhealthy’. 

And with the huge market awareness of the keto diet, there are now tons of keto-friendly desserts, as well as keto snacks, treats, beverages, etc.

Really, you only want to avoid overly sugary foods (this includes fruits), grains, and legumes. Processed foods also tend to be high in carbohydrates but they should be largely avoided due to their poor food quality, not just because of net carb count.

Everything else is fair game on a keto diet.  But the classic axiom -- ‘everything in moderation’ – is even more true, when following a keto approach.  You don’t want to be having plates of cheese and bacon, just because you technically ‘can’.

Keto-Friendly Proteins

The good news – you can eat any meat, any nuts, seeds, and eggs, on a keto diet.  This is one of the best categories of food, to get your daily protein in.

It is also important to note that sourcing is paramount.  This means grass-fed, pasture-raised, wild-caught, and organic – whenever possible. But be careful to avoid these foods if they are fried, breaded, or sugar-coated.

Here is a good list of keto-friendly meats, nuts, seeds, and eggs:

  • Beef (fattier cuts are better, i.e. steak, veal, roast, ground beef, roast, veal, steak, stews)
  • Bone broth (includes chicken and beef bone broths)
  • Eggs (any kind, including fried, deviled, scrambled, boiled)
  • Fish (includes mahi-mahi, tuna, halibut, mackerel, catfish, salmon, trout, cod)
  • Goat
  • Lamb
  • Organ meats (includes liver, tongue, heart, kidney, etc.)
  • Pork (includes tenderloin, chops,  pork loin, sugar-free bacon, and ham)
  • Poultry (includes duck, quail, turkey, wild game, chicken breasts – fattier meats are ideal)
  • Shellfish (includes clams, lobster, crab, oysters, and mussels)
  • Vegetarian sources (nut butters, almonds, macadamia nuts, etc.)

Healthy Fats

Fat is your primary fuel source when it comes to a keto diet.  But not every fat will suffice. You need to stick to the healthiest and most beneficial fats.  Besides avocados, some of the best fats to eat, while following a keto diet, are as follows:

  • Avocado Oil
  • Butter / Ghee
  • Coconut Oil / Coconut Butter
  • Lard
  • Mayonnaise
  • MCT Oil / MCT Powder
  • Olive Oil
  • Walnut Oil


Make sure to buy full-fat dairy, and that it is always properly sourced (organic, grass-fed, etc.) Here are some good dairy choices, for the keto approach:

  • Butter/ghee
  • Fermented dairy (kefir and yogurt)
  • Cheese
  • Heavy whipping cream (heavy cream can also be consumed)
  • Sour cream

Vegetables (Low-Carb Choices)

Unlike any other diet, it is actually possible to eat too many vegetables, when following a keto diet. Since many vegetables have lots of carbohydrates, it is important to stick to veggies with lower net carb count, like the following:

  • Cruciferous vegetables (including cauliflower, zucchini, cabbage)
  • Fermented vegetables (including kimchi and sauerkraut)
  • Leafy greens (including arugula, Swiss chard, spinach, and kale)
  • Lettuce (including romaine and iceberg)
  • Other vegetables (like celery, asparagus, and mushrooms)

Fruits (Low Sugar Choices)

Fruit is not all that optimal for a keto diet, as it is very high in sugar. If you are going to eat fruit, stick with avocados (actually a perfect staple for keto), or dark berries (blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, or cranberries).

Is the Keto Diet Safe?

The keto diet – even as popular as it has become – still has a bad rap, in some circles. To contradict the voices out there who say otherwise - keto is completely safe.

Of course, as with any diet, it is critical to regularly visit your doctor, including before you begin a keto approach.

What detractors are likely thinking of is not a keto diet but rather, ketoacidosis. This is a highly dangerous (and completely separate) condition. Diabetic ketoacidosis is usually seen in those with diabetes (type 1). It is not something you need to worry about when simply engaging in a normal ketogenic diet.

Will I Get The Keto Flu?

Probably. With all seriousness though, the keto flu is not uncommon. This is especially true if you were previously consuming a large number of carbohydrates.

The bigger the shift, the more likely you are to experience some discomfort. Not unlike the regular flu, the keto flu consists of many of the same symptoms.

Sluggishness, fatigue, irritability, etc. To avoid the effects, make sure you drink plenty of water, supplement with lots of electrolytes, and try to gradually reduce your carbohydrate intake, rather than drastically cutting out carbs.

Do I Need Supplements For A Keto Diet?

You certainly don’t need supplements on any diet that is high-quality in nature.  However, there are a select few supplements, which may provide you with even better results. One of the most popular options is ketones themselves. 

Slightly different than the ketones produced inside your body, these ketones can aid in your ketogenic state, and help give you some extra energy. Some recommended taking them before or after a workout, but the research is split on whether or not this actually provides any extra benefits.

Another great option for keto dieters is MCT oil.  Medium-chain triglycerides are almost like rocket fuel when it comes to ketosis.  These fatty acids can be converted into energy quicker, giving the consumer a boost.  MCT oil is also relatively inexpensive and may aids in weight loss as well. 

In addition to MCT oil, collagen peptides are another good choice for anyone following a keto diet. Since collagen accounts for almost 1/3 of all the proteins in your body and connects and supports your hair, joints, organs, and skin, it is critical to your overall health.  The amino acids found within collagen supplements are especially helpful.

Many on the keto diet consume caffeine, as a performance booster.  It can definitely be helpful before your workout, so any pre-workout powder with caffeine should be a solid choice. 

One of the most critical (but often overlooked) supplements for a keto dieter? Electrolytes. This because a keto diet reduces the intake of some electrolytes, like potassium.  You actually need to take in more sodium, during a keto diet, as well.

This is due to the increased secretion of electrolytes. So be sure and load up on sodium, potassium, calcium, and other electrolytes, for a truly optimal keto experience.

Fish oil is beneficial for just about everyone, and that remains true for anyone consuming a keto diet.  If you are trying to make the best choice when it comes to fish oil, DHA offers the most benefits.  About 1g per day is the amount which seems to offer the most benefits.

Whey protein is another great supplement choice as it aids in muscle growth, recovery, overall health, and helps meet your daily protein requirements. 

Lastly, any supplements related to blood sugar control (like ceylon cinnamon) will be beneficial for anyone consuming a keto diet, especially anyone struggling with blood sugar issues.

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