Keto Diet Plan Basics: Everything You Need to Know to Get Started

Learn about the benefits of this popular diet and how to decide if it's the right lifestyle change for you.

Celebrities, friends, family members—these days there's an abundance of keto diet followers. The keto plan consistently makes the top charts in U.S. News & World Report's annual Best Diet list, ranking No. 4 this year in the Best Fast Weight-Loss Diets category. If you're looking to lose weight or change up your eating habits, the keto diet plan might be on your list to check out. We've got a great overview for beginners, so you can make a decision on whether or not the keto diet is something you'd like to try. Read on for the basics, a list of keto diet foods, and more tips on the trendy low-carb diet.

Ketogenic Diet book and ingredients
Photo courtesy of Getty Images / ThitareeSarmkasat. Getty Images / ThitareeSarmkasat

What Is the Keto Diet?

The ketogenic diet (yes, keto is short for ketogenic) is a low-carbohydrate diet—only about 5% of your calories come from carbs (in case you're curious, government dietary recommendations are 45 to 65%). The majority of your calories (20 to 35%) come from fat. And the remaining 10 to 35% come from protein.

How Does a Keto Diet Work?

When you scale back your carbohydrate intake to such a low amount, your body goes into ketosis, which means it burns fat for energy. Your liver also turns fat into ketones to feed your brain (though your brain prefers to use—and usually does use—glucose from digested carbs). As your body withdraws from carbs in that first week, the so-called "keto flu" is pretty common. You might feel achy, tired, mentally foggy, or experience headaches.

The benefit to this diet plan—so long as you follow it properly and get into and stay in ketosis—is that you will lose weight. A 2013 study of studies (called a meta-analysis), showed that a low-carb ketogenic diet was more effective for quick weight loss for people with diabetes than other popular diets. Similar studies looked at people without diabetes.

Some articles—and anecdotal stories of people following a keto diet plan—suggest that eating this way could reverse Type 2 diabetes. Depending on the diabetes medication you're taking (because there are some medications that don't recommend a keto diet), you may be able to better control your diabetes or even go off of Type 2 diabetes drugs on a keto diet.

How to Eat on a Keto Diet

When getting started on a keto diet plan, it's important to familiarize yourself with what you can and can't eat. Knowing what you can eat is a huge factor in determining if it's a diet you can stick to.

Approved Keto Diet Foods

Fatty animal proteins, such as bacon, red meat, and poultry with the skin on, are all high on the approved section of a keto food list. Then there are oils and other fats, like avocados, butter, and ghee. Lower-carb veggies such as asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and leafy lettuces help you pump up the volume of your meals and add some fiber to your diet. Nuts are also keto diet staples.

Foods Not Allowed on a Keto Diet

Foods like bread, pasta, and rice, which are high in carbohydrates, are no-gos on keto. Most fruits are not allowed on a keto diet plan (though high-fiber ones like raspberries and blackberries are usually OK in small amounts), and definitely no juice.

Obviously, sugar-laden items like soda, candy, and other sweets (such as cookies, cakes, and ice creams) are also banned on the ketogenic diet. Sometimes you can make room for lower-carb beers, wine, or liquor, but nutritionally you shouldn't "spend" all of your carbs on alcoholic beverages.

The next thing you should do before diving into a keto diet is spend some time educating yourself about carbohydrates. Which foods are high in carbs and which ones are low? And how many grams of carbs are we talking about? Most keto diet plans cap your daily carbohydrate intake at 20 grams, so dialing in on the actual number is a must.

Truth be told, following a keto diet plan isn't easy. It can be challenging and time-consuming. Although you could safely stay on it for an extended period of time, you'll probably find it easier to use it to jumpstart your weight loss and then transition to a diet that's more sustainable.

And, of course, because the keto diet is so popular, there are now variations—like lazy keto and dirty keto—that you can default to. If you do decide on giving it a try, add some of these keto recipes to your meal plan.

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