You've certainly heard about keto diets. Now learn the benefits, what you can and can’t eat on it, and how to get started. We've got answers to your most-asked questions so you can determine if a keto diet is right for you.

By Brierley Horton, MS, RD

From celebrities to your sister-in-law, it seems like everyone is doing keto. Even U.S. News & World Report gave it the green light when they ranked it as the No. 2 diet (tied with Atkins) in their Best Fast Weight-Loss Diets category for 2019.

Ketogenic Diet book and ingredients
Photo courtesy of Getty Images / ThitareeSarmkasat
| Credit: 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 percent of your calories come from carbs (in case you’re curious, government dietary recommendations are 45 to 65 percent). The majority of your calories (60 to 70 percent) come from fat. And the remaining 25 to 35 percent come from protein.

How Does a Keto Diet Work?

When you scale back your carb 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 keto diet 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 are 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 do You Get Started on a Keto Diet Plan?

First, familiarize yourself with what you can and can’t eat. Knowing what you can eat on a keto diet is a huge factor to determine if it's a diet you can stick to.

Approved Keto Diet Foods

Fatty animal proteins, such as bacon, red meat, poultry with the skin on, are all high on the approved section of a keto diet 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, rice, which are high carb 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 carbs. What foods are high in carbs and which ones are low carb? 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 isn’t the easiest of diets. 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 a keto diet 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.


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