You’ve seen it on magazine covers, food packaging, your favorite restaurant menus, and on every form of social media. The ketogenic “diet” has been touted by some for its near panacea level benefits, while others have railed against it with claims of safety and stability concerns. And, that is pretty much the case with any diet – proponents will sing its praises and squash downsides so much that it borders on zealotry, while detractors will fail to find any value, throwing around terms like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
So, if you’ve considered starting the keto lifestyle… or any major lifestyle change, you’re likely to encounter both confirmation bias and immense skepticism about what you’re doing. That’s normal. To get you ready to adopt the keto lifestyle, here are 7 things you need to know before starting.
The right mindset is critical when starting keto
Before changing to the keto lifestyle, getting in the right mindset can make the difference between sticking through the challenging times or reverting to old habits.
When I started my keto journey, I had a pretty nasty cycle to break. My addiction to carbs, and sugar specifically, ran deep. On my hour commute into the office each day, I would generally stop at a McDonald’s for an assortment of $1 breakfast items or pull into the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru for a few sugary concoctions to scarf down in the car. That would last me until lunch, where I would make my way to the nearest McDonald’s, Panda Express, Burger King, or another fast food joint to get a quick lunch that would allow me to get right back to the office.
By the time I drove home from work, I had typically ingested 3,000+ garbage calories from fast food, sugary drinks, and whatever garbage was in the candy bowls around my office. When I arrived home, I would typically at least eat something that came from a grocery store – albeit still processed and filled with sugars.
I was at this for nearly three years, and my weight climbed to astronomical heights and my mental and physical health plummeted. I started outgrowing the five or six “fat” outfits I had in my closet to wear to work. Then, about a month before my wife was due with our second child, I stepped on the scale – morbidly curious to see how bad it had gotten. The results were far worse than I expected.
By that point, I was infatuated with the promise of the keto diet and wanted to try it. I yo-yo dieted before by drastically restricting calories. But, I always reverted quickly to my old habits and the weight came back.
The only way to make it stick is by truly preparing yourself to undergo a substantial change in your lifestyle. While there are varying schools of thought on what can help a change take root, some things that I’ve found useful include:
- Assess your values as a person and your short and long-term goals.
- Read a book and/or listen to podcasts that can help you get excited about achieving your goals
- Recommending reading: Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins
- Recommended listening: Impact Theory with Tom Bilyeau
- Track your metrics and celebrate small milestones
- On the flip-side, don’t dwell on slipups or plateaus
- Find the right exercise to give you clarity of mind, including walking, jogging, yoga, or meditation
- Create a vision board and refer to it often
By implementing these or finding your unique ways to bolster mindset, you can be well on your way to lasting change. Fortunately, according to a 2010 PubMed study, a diet low in carbohydrates can improve brain function. In other words, once you’ve become keto-adapted, it may become even easier to keep a strong mindset.
It’s okay to mix dirty keto with clean keto
There are two hallmarks people use to determine whether or not they are following a ketogenic diet. First is the macronutrient breakdown (60-65% calories from fat, 30-35% calories from protein, and 5-10% calories from carbohydrates). Generally, this means someone is consuming between 20-50 grams of carbohydrates per day. Second, and more accurately, using blood strips, urine strips, or a breathe analyzer can give you a more measurement of whether or not you have elevated levels of ketones in your body. The only foolproof to way to know if the macros you’re ingesting are putting you in ketosis is to do the testing.
With that qualifier out of the way, both dirty keto and clean keto can put you in a state of ketosis. While the definitions of “clean” and “dirty” keto are up to some degree of interpretation, an overly simplified view might be the following:
A Simplified Definition of Dirty Keto:
Eating whatever high fat, moderate protein, low carbohydrate foods that satisfy your macros. This might include the following: conventionally raised meats, processed cheeses, conventional pork, chemically-altered snack foods, diet soft drinks, and fast-food burgers stripped of the buns.
A Simplified Definition of Clean Keto:
Nutrient-dense foods that fit the macros of the keto diet. This might include grass-fed beef, high volumes of Non-GMO or Organic vegetables that are low in net carbohydrates, raw nuts, raw cheeses, Organic dairy, and Organic MCT, EVOO, Avocado, and Coconut Oils.
It’s obvious, for long-term health benefits, it’s much better to have much more from the “clean keto” bucket than the “dirty keto” bucket. But, used in moderation, dirty keto can help you out of a jam and allow you to stay in ketosis.
On average, I have about 2-3 meals per week that fit into the “dirty keto” classification. My kryptonite is a trip to Five Guys served on lettuce. I make this a very limited part of my diet, but do build some of it in so that I can socialize with friends and family in a restaurant setting, and not just sit there salivating at their food.
Find what works for you. The general rule – try to eat as clean as possible, but don’t beat yourself up for eating somewhere that feels guilty. If you’re going out to eat at a restaurant and want to know what the options are, check out nobunplease.com for great insights on what you can get from popular fast-food restaurants.
You might not feel well when transitioning to ketosis for the first time
If you’ve talked to someone who has transitioned to the keto lifestyle before, you may have heard that they experienced feeling ill and run down. This is commonly referred to as the “keto flu.” According to DietDoctor.com , as the body shifts from burning sugar to fat as its primary source of fuel, you begin to urinate substantially more, causing a depletion of sodium and water.
Symptoms of the Keto Flu include:
- General fatigue
- Sugar cravings
- Cognitive issues
Not everyone experiences the symptoms of keto flu to the same degree. There are some things that you can do to curb your transition into the keto lifestyle, which are well worth it.
- Stay hydrated/increase water intake
- Use more high-quality salt than normal to replace what is being excreted
- Increase your fat intake with high-quality oils
- Stay satiated during your transition to keto
- Don’t overexert yourself with physical activity
While the symptoms of keto flu are unpleasant, they are temporary and can be a sign of progress in your diet. They can also be largely mitigated by following the tips above. Your body is making a significant change in how it gets its energy, and the keto flu is a sign that transition is happening. This is one of those times where you may need to rely on your enhanced mindset to get you through.
Be cautious of “cheat days” while trying to adhere strictly to the keto diet
Before transitioning to keto, a cheat day was always a staple of my dieting repertoire. I would eat ~1,500 calories six days a week, and turn into an absolute pig on the seventh. Scientifically, that doesn’t work with the ketogenic diet.
When I think of my definition of cheating, I’m taken back to middle school, where I’d sit near the smartest kid with the poorest answer blocking technique on test day. I’d wait until he leaned too far to the side and then I would start copying his scantron like I was a Xerox machine. The result? I got a good grade, didn’t have to do the work, and until now, the only negative effect was a little internal guilt I had.
The ketogenic diet is predicated on using fat as the body’s fuel source. By doing a cheat day and throwing your macros out of whack, your body will go back to using the carbohydrates as its preferred source of energy.
That’s not to say you can’t get back into ketosis. Depending on your biology and factors, like your glycogen stores, it will take some time to get back in ketosis. This can vary by person, but may take anywhere from two days to a week. If it takes you toward the longer end of the spectrum to reach ketosis, a weekly cheat day can almost assure that you never reap the full benefits of the diet.
There are things you can do to speed up getting into ketosis, including:
- Intermittent or extended fasting
- Keeping carbohydrates close to 0 grams
- HIIT exercise
- Ingesting MCT oil
I prefer to call them “treat days” to eliminate the guilt, and I know exactly what I am getting into after I have one. Personal rules I follow for cheat days are:
- Only indulge in two treat days per month
- Fast for 36 hours immediately following the last bite of food
- The first two days of eating after a treat meal, I eat > 10 g carbohydrate
- Engage in HIIT exercise for four days straight after my treat meals
Over time, I desire divergence from my macronutrient ration less and less. There have been many “treat days” that have come and gone without me touching a carbohydrate-laden food. In the beginning, it was impossible to think of a day where I wouldn’t want sweets. Now, my body more-often-than-not craves nutrient-dense, ketogenic food options.
You’ll need to know how to respond about your keto lifestyle to others
It’s pretty common for people unfamiliar with the keto lifestyle to have concerns when they find out what you are doing. They might buy into the decades-long belief that the Standard American Diet is healthy and that carbohydrates from whole grains, legumes, margarine, skim milk, and other low-fat foods are the singular path to health.
God love my parents, but they fall into this bucket. Living hundreds of miles from them, in adulthood I see them only a few times per year. After roughly six months apart, they came to town for a visit and noticed my changed physique. They mentioned that my skin was looking much better, I looked full of life and energy, and that I had trimmed down and gained a noticeable amount of muscle. Then, they asked for specifics. When I informed them that it was a combination of a daily exercise routine, a diet that is high in fat, and intermittent fasting, my mom was concerned.
“You don’t eat breakfast, eat only 2 meals per day, and when you do, it’s primarily calories from fat? Tommy! That can’t be safe.”
These are objections I’ve faced when talking to friends, professional acquaintances, and others who have noticed the transformation or have seen me order a burger without a bun.
And, unfortunately, advocating for the diet and giving references to multiple peer-reviewed published medical studies is often not time well spent. While some will be intrigued and want to look into or give you positive affirmation that you are doing something good, others will scoff at you, warn of the dangers of the diet, or think you are a quack. This is why I am a proponent of having an elevator pitch about the keto lifestyle and your reason for following it.
My keto elevator pitch goes like this:
After trying a variety of diets and either failing miserably or losing the weight only to put it back on, I wanted to find a lifestyle that had proven benefits and that I could stick with. The keto lifestyle has clinically proven to promote lasting weight loss, improve conditions of the skin, and studies have shown it may be beneficial to the heart, brain, and even prevent some forms of cancer. Some prestigious research institutions, like Johns Hopkins, recommend the diet for patients with certain conditions for stark improvement. It may not be for everyone, but it works for me.
Most times, that will either get someone to probe deeper if they are interested in learning more (which I’m obviously glad to share), or give a nod and drop the subject.
In the end, you have to be satisfied with your rationale for living the lifestyle, and while others who warn you may be well-meaning, you don’t owe them a debate.
Getting the right vitamins and minerals in your body is essential
There is some conjecture about whether supplements are necessary on the ketogenic diet. Some experts say that no supplements are needed if you are doing the diet correctly, while others recommend a handful of supplements to meet your daily needs.
Whether you need supplements or not will ultimately depend on what foods you eat within the ketogenic diet. If you are eating green leafy vegetables, grass-fed meats, grass-fed full-fat butter, and organic EVOO or coconut oil, your need for supplements will probably go down significantly. If you are primarily existing on the “dirty keto” plan, supplementation is highly encouraged to meet your baseline nutritional needs.
The most commonly recommended supplements for the keto diet include:
- Electrolyte supplement (important for the beginning of a keto diet)
- MCT Oil
- Greens Powder
- Digestive Enzymes
I am a confessed supplement junky. I do use some staples in my diet, including:
- Desiccated Beef Organs (various types)
- Vitamin D3 (5,000 IU)
- Soil Based Probiotics (50 billion CFU)
- Digestive Enzymes
- Daily Multivitamin
- MCT Oil
I also rotate certain supplements regularly to help my body get key nutrients but to help my pocketbook absorb the hit. These supplements include:
- Reishi Mushroom Powder
- Greens Powder
While some object that this simply makes “expensive urine,” I’ve found overtime magnificent benefits from using supplements. While I don’t recommend anyone break the bank stocking their cabinets with supplements, I do recommend doing research on supplements that might address some of your areas of need and giving them a shot.
Done properly, a low carbohydrate diet can be part of a sustainable lifestyle
I’ve got a reputation over 30+ years from people who know me for being a person who goes hard in the paint initially, and then quickly flames out with certain things. Historically, diet and exercise have been at the very top of that list.
Most of us know how a new diet or exercise regimen feels. You start in a place you don’t want to be and you looking far into the future of the ideal “you,” with chiseled abs, no chronic health issues, and mental clarity and stamina to last for days. Most times, we fall short of our overall goal, and the few times we do get there, the crash diet and grueling program that got us there isn’t sustainable, so we revert to our old ways.
Done properly, the ketogenic diet can help set you up for a life of metabolic flexibility, where you can enjoy long-lasting health benefits, keep your figure, and lead a physically fit, functional life.
Insert the standard language that I’m not an MD, and I’m not qualified to give medical advice, but I have seen the n=1 results of me applying the same keto diet that others have experienced success with, and now I am seeing results as I enter into my mid-30’s that I couldn’t get in my 20’s through other popular diet and exercise programs.
If you’re stuck in a rut and want to get more out of your health and wellness, could the keto diet be worth a shot?