What is the Keto Diet and How Does it Work? A Beginner’s Guide
What is the Keto diet? How does it work? Get answers to your Keto diet questions in this beginner’s guide to the Ketogenic diet!
If you keep a pulse on the latest health and fitness developments, you’ve probably heard of the Keto diet (also Ketogenic diet). But what is the Keto diet? And what are its benefits?
If you’re still unclear about what the Keto diet is, how it works and why it is or isn’t a good fit for you, this article and infographic will get you up to speed. At the end, we’re also showing you how to make our meal plan recipes keto-friendly!
Guide to the Ketogenic Diet
Learn about the ketogenic diet, the process of ketosis, and what foods to eat and avoid in this infographic guide.
What is the Keto Diet and How Does it Work?
By default, your body naturally burns carbs (glucose) as its primary source of fuel. But when you don’t eat a lot of carbs (like when you’re on a low-carb diet such as Keto) your body begins to burn fat (ketones) for fuel instead. This process is known as ketosis and it’s a natural metabolic state your body enters into (kind of like a protection plan) when it needs fuel but doesn’t have enough glucose to burn. It’s this metabolic state that forms the basis of the Ketogenic diet.
So what is the Keto diet?
In essence, the Keto diet is a method of eating that kicks the body into ketosis and keeps it there in a way that’s healthy and sustainable.
Yep, there are healthy and unhealthy forms of ketosis.
In the most extreme expression of ketosis (like during starvation) the body can deplete resources like muscle tissues as it tries to fuel itself. However, on the Ketogenic diet, the body gets enough healthy calories that it never needs to go beyond simply burning fat.
But to keep your body in ketosis and to get enough healthy calories, you need to eat one thing in large amounts: fat. In fact, on the Ketogenic diet, around 70 to 75 percent of your total calories come from fat, 20 to 25 percent come from protein and 5 to 10 percent come from carbs, which means the focus isn’t really on counting calories, it’s on eating particular macronutrient (macro) — fats, proteins and carbs — ratios. Luckily, apps like MyFitnessPal make tracking macros super simple.
Keto Diet Food List: What to Eat and What Not to Eat
Remember the food pyramid you were taught as a kid? In order to meet the recommended macros for Keto, the pyramid is essentially turned on its head. So rather than having the base of the pyramid be breads, pastas, rice and cereal, on the Keto diet, the base consists of healthy fats like grass-fed butter, olive oil, avocados and lots of meat proteins like beef, chicken and seafood. A general rule for Keto is: the more healthy fats the better; the fewer carbs the better.
So what can you eat on a ketogenic diet? Here’s what a typical Keto food list looks like:
Foods to Eat on a Keto Diet
- Healthy fats and oils. Butter, lard, coconut oil, olive oil and high-fat dressings.
- Dairy. Full-fat cheeses, sour cream and heavy cream.
- Protein. Eggs, beef, pork, chicken and seafood (these mainly supply protein so you’ll want to eat them in moderation to stay within your macros).
- Vegetables. Dark leafy greens like spinach and bok choy as well as other above-ground vegetables.
- Fruits. Lower-carb fruits like blackberries, raspberries and strawberries.
- Nuts and Seeds. Macadamia, pecans and almond butter are excellent high-fat options.
Foods Not to Eat on a Keto Diet
- Starchy Vegetables. Vegetables that grow underground like potatoes are high in carbs.
- Pastas, breads, rice and cereals. These are carb-heavy foods that should be avoided.
- Fruits. High-carb fruits like bananas, grapes and mangos.
- Ultra processed foods. Chips, margarine, TV dinners, crackers, low-fat anything.
- Milk. Milk, even full-fat milk, contains lactose (sugars).
- Sweets. Candy and cakes.
On the Keto diet, you’re simply changing the breakdown of what’s on your plate to fit into your macros. This may be one reason why the Keto diet is so exciting for people who struggle with weight loss — they still get to eat satiating foods so it feels less like an actual diet.
How is the Keto Diet Different From Paleo?
The Paleo diet has been touted as “The Original Human Diet” because it’s based on the premise that if our ancestors (cavemen) ate it, we can (and should) eat it too. So foods that were invented through modern agriculture like processed grains are off the table.
Instead, the Paleo diet focuses on eating healthy fats, lean meats, fruits, vegetables, seafood, nuts and seeds, or anything that our ancient ancestors would have been able to hunt or gather. So foods like dairy, grains, processed food and sugars, legumes, starches and alcohol are all avoided.
On the other hand, the Keto diet — although some Keto foods overlap with Paleo foods — is focused on producing a particular physiological response in the body, i.e. ketosis.
In other words . . .
Paleo: Did a caveman eat this?
Keto: Is this food going to keep my body in ketosis?
What are the Health Benefits of a Keto Diet?
But can a diet that encourages you to eat butter and bacon really be healthy? It seems the health benefits of the Keto diet range far and wide, starting the origin of the diet itself — it was first introduced by physicians in the 1920s as a treatment for epilepsy in children. Besides providing benefits for those with epilepsy, it’s suggested the Keto diet can also:
- Protect brain function
- Increase energy levels
- Encourage weight loss
- Protect against cancer
- Decrease inflammation
- Reduce the risk of heart disease
- Reduce the risk of Type 2 Diabetes
- Protect against age-related illnesses like dementia and Alzheimers disease
As the Ketogenic diet becomes more mainstream, more studies will come out to support or refute its therapeutic applications. We recommend digging into the research yourself and always consulting your doctor or nutritionist before starting a new diet. For more information about the health benefits of the Keto diet, these articles are a good place to start:
- The 43+ health benefits of ketogenic dieting (in addition to weight loss) from KetoSchool
- Beyond weight loss: a review of the therapeutic uses of very-low-carbohydrate (ketogenic) diets from the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition
Who Should Not Do the Keto Diet?
In general, people with the following conditions are not good candidates for the Keto diet without proper medical supervision:
- Kidney disease
- Blood sugar issues
- Pregnant or nursing
- Liver, pancreatic or kidney problems
Who Should Do the Keto Diet?
Once you’ve gotten the all-clear from your doctor or nutritionist, there are still a few questions you’ll want to ask yourself to determine if the Keto diet is a good fit for you, including:
Can You Commit?
On the Keto diet, if you decide to eat a piece of cake one day, you can quickly kick yourself out of ketosis and your body will shift back to burning carbs for energy, so eating a Keto diet is a constant commitment.
Can You Track Your Macros?
The Keto diet is all about tracking your macro levels. Without this information, you really don’t know whether you’re within the proper macro zone for ketosis or not.
Can You Keep an Eye on Your Calories?
As you ramp up your fat intake, your hunger cravings will naturally fall off. So when you’re just starting out, it’s not enough to simply listen to your body’s hunger cues, it’s important to actually track your calories to make sure you’re getting enough food.
If you answered “yes” to the questions above, you’re probably a good fit for the Ketogenic diet. Over time, you’ll start to develop a sense of the best foods to eat and how many calories you’re taking in, but until then, stick to using apps like MyFitnessPal to help take out the guesswork.
How to use Cook Smarts Meal Plans on a Keto Diet
Now that we’ve covered what the Keto diet is, the types of foods to eat, and who is and isn’t a good candidate for it, it’s time to get into the fun stuff — how to use Cook Smarts weekly meal plans on a Keto diet!
While we don’t offer a Keto diet meal plan, we do offer a Paleo meal plan, which contains similar ingredients. So using our meals plans on a Keto diet may be easier than you think — it’s simply a matter of knowing which ingredients to use and which not to use so you can swap out “no’s” for “yes’s.”
Here’s a Keto-friendly Cook Smarts formula to follow:
- Start with our Paleo meal plan recipes (the ingredients are the closest to Keto).
- Check out the macros for each recipe under the “Nutrition Facts” section to get a sense of the nutritional breakdown.
- Examine the ingredient list and look for ways you can swap ingredients and incorporate high-fat options. For example, if the recipe is “Spinach Salad with Apples and Cashews,” you can easily swap out the apples for parmesan or feta. Or add extra splashes of olive oil to increase the amount of fat.
- Log your meals directly from the Cook Smarts app into the MyFitnessPal app to keep track of your macros and calories.
We told you it was easy! Keep a Keto food list handy to help you in your swapping process. And get creative with it! Who knows, you may discover your new favorite Keto diet recipe along the way!
Have you tried the Keto diet? Any Keto diet tips you want to share? Let us know in the comments!
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