Keto Diet for Beginners: A Guide for How to Start Keto
Starting any diet is tough, and starting a ketogenic diet is often even harder. In fact, I’m often asked if there’s a keto diet for beginners.
You’ve got to give up your toast and cereal (or donuts) at breakfast, your sandwiches at lunch, and your pizza for dinner. Oh…and no yummy desserts!
But starting keto doesn’t have to be painful!
I’m pointing out that starting a ketogenic diet isn’t a walk in the park (at least for us normal humans who dream about what to eat for lunch while we’re eating breakfast).
In this article, I’ll show you the absolute best way for a beginner to start a ketogenic diet. And then, I’ll show you 2 other methods that you might find easier, depending on your particular personality.
Check out Dr. Zyrowski’s video to get started then read on to find out which way works best for you:
Table of Contents – How To Start Keto Diet
- What is Ketosis and What is the Ketogenic Diet?
- 2 Questions to Ask Yourself BEFORE Starting a Keto Diet
- The BEST Way To Start A Ketogenic Diet
- 2 Potentially Easier Methods For Starting a Ketogenic Diet
- Common Mistakes to Avoid When Starting A Ketogenic Diet
What is Ketosis and What is the Ketogenic Diet?
We already have a much more comprehensive article on all the basics of the ketogenic diet here. So, if you’re new to the concept of ketosis and the keto diet, please read that first.
Basically, when we eat lots of carbohydrates, most of it will be turned into glucose and our bodies will use that glucose for energy. The excess glucose will get stored as glycogen and as fat (mostly fat as we can’t store much glycogen). However, our cells can also use fat for energy instead of glucose. And if you’re interested in losing weight, then you’ll want to know how to get your body to burn up fat and avoid storing fat. That’s where the ketogenic diet comes in.
Again, this is a really brief and simplified explanation of ketosis and the ketogenic (AKA keto or ketosis) diet as this article focuses on beginning a ketogenic diet. Please read the article I linked to above for more general information about keto. If you are still longing for more, listen to our podcast with Lisa MarcAurele on simplifying keto.
2 Questions to Ask Before You Start A Ketogenic Diet
There are 2 questions that completely change HOW to start a keto diet. And these questions might even tell you that you shouldn’t do a keto diet.
I know you’re ready to get into ketosis so you can start burning fat and clearing away that brain fog. In fact, you might be so eager that your MCT oil and exogenous ketones are already being shipped to you while you’re reading this.
But, before beginning a ketogenic diet, take a deep breath and ask yourself these 2 questions. Write down the answers if you have pen and paper handy.
Please Be Honest with Yourself! (Nobody else is looking.)
Why do you want to start a ketogenic diet?
Do you want weight loss, energy gain, better medical report?
Or is there something a bit deeper that you’re looking for? Perhaps you want to be able to run around with your kids or grandkids (or even your dog)? Or maybe you fear you won’t have enough time left to do all the things you’ve wanted to do in life? Or maybe you’re just tired of feeling like there’s something wrong with your body?
This question is important not just because you need to have a lot of motivation. (Although you do need to have good motivation.)
The other reason it’s important is because you need to know exactly what you want to get out of a keto diet in order to know HOW you should approach your diet. If you want to be a better athlete, that’s often going to be different than if you want to lose weight.
I’ll explain more below, but don’t underestimate how important this question is.
How long are you willing to try a keto diet?
Let’s face it, you sort of believe keto will work, but there’s also a nagging fear deep down that it’ll end up like every other diet you’ve tried…a failure.
At some point on your keto journey (whether it’s tomorrow or 4 weeks from now), you’ll decide that it’s just not worth it anymore. That cake is calling you or you’re simply not seeing the magical results everyone else is getting.
If your answer to this question is under 7 days, then let me tell you right now that keto is probably not for you. I’m sorry to be blunt, but I’m probably saving you a ton of money, time, and effort right now.
These questions are not a trick, and they’re not pointless.
From years of helping people make lifestyle and dietary changes, I’ve realized that the single biggest block for most people is MENTAL.
You think you just don’t have enough willpower or that you were eating the wrong diet, but often it’s as simple as not getting your mental state in order before you jump in.
Keto works for a lot of people (and the benefits of a ketogenic diet are plenty to be excited about). But it won’t work for you if you can’t stick to it for more than 7 days.
How to Start a Keto Diet
I might be a bit presumptuous calling this the best way to start a keto diet, because let’s face it, I haven’t performed a double-blind study for this…even in rats.
But having helped thousands of people start diets, and having been a beginner once myself, I’m fairly sure this method is the best for most people.
Still, I recognize that you and I have different mental states. Therefore, one of the 2 alternatives further down might work better for you, so please check those out as well.
This approach consists of focusing on 2 things: (1) intermittent fasting (i.e., skipping one meal per day) and (2) eating under 25 grams of net carbohydrates per day.
Who this approach is right for:
This approach is best for most people. So unless you have a good reason to believe that one of the alternative approaches below will work better for you, I highly suggest beginners use this approach.
Also, if you generally believe in balance and moderation, then you’ll really love this approach.
7 Steps: How to Start Keto Diet
Step #1: Pick a non-stressful week to start your keto diet.
Or just clear your schedule. Cancel any parties or lunch/dinner plans. And don’t start when you have to travel that week! Tell your friends and family what you’re doing and get them to help you out. Explain to them how important this is for you and ask them to support you instead of judge you for your choices. Don’t try to convince them that keto is the best diet – if they don’t already believe that, it’s unlikely you’ll change their mind.
Step #2: Clean out your refrigerator and pantry.
If you have non-ketogenic foods lying around then they will tempt you like a siren when you’re getting started. You might think you can tough it out, but believe me you won’t!
We used to suggest giving away all your unhealthy foods to friends and coworkers, but it seemed a bit mean to dump all your weight-gaining and diabetes-causing foods on loved ones. So now it’s just up to you what you want to do with all that junk food.
Step #3: Restock with ketogenic foods
Get our ketogenic diet food list here or our free 7-day keto meal plan here.
Yes, I know this costs money. And that’s why I asked you why you were giving keto a try. Because if your reason is a deep-seated desire to get healthier, spend more time playing with your kids, enjoy the rest of your life with vibrancy, then this is a worthwhile investment.
Step #4: Decide which meal you’d like to skip each day.
Yep, you read that sentence correctly. I’m asking you to skip 1 meal per day. For me, I like to skip breakfast as it allows me to sleep longer and have more mental energy in the mornings for work. Some people (like Dominic D’Agostino) prefer to skip lunch. And other people (like my husband) prefer to skip dinner.
Dr. Vincent M. Pedre, M.D. recommends an early dinner combined with a late breakfast. “If you’re new to fasting, I recommend eating an early dinner, stop eating for the evening, and push breakfast forward the next morning. Just by doing that even a few times a week, you can create a near-effortless 12- to 14-hour fasting window.”
Why would you skip a delicious feeding time and aren’t I going to starve?
I highly suggest you try this as it’ll really liberate your life. Instead of needing to eat 3 times a day, you’ll discover that you have more than enough energy to go about your day without constantly planning where and what to eat next. You’ll also find that after a few days that you’re not hungry in the least during that meal time and you’ll wonder why everyone else is so hungry!
Intermittent fasting (that’s the fancy term for skipping meals these days) has many benefits:
- You’ll tend to eat less overall even if you eat more during your other 2 meals.
- It’s a great way to get you less obsessed about food all day long.
- Short-term fasting can increase how much energy you burn when you’re not even doing anything (see study here).
- It could reduce oxidative stress (see study here).
Plus, preparing only 2 meals a day is just more simple. Registered Dietitian Abbey Sharp, RD., says, “This eating pattern is easily implemented and for those who like routine, it can be adhered to fairly easily (compared to the traditional calorie restriction that may be hard to follow in the long-run)!”
Again, I highly recommend you add this step into your ketogenic diet plan. But if you really think it’s not possible, then skip this step for the moment and consider adding this in later.
If you’re using our free keto meal plan to get started, then just cut out whichever meal you’re going to skip and expand the portions for the other 2 meals.
Step #5: Stick to under 25 grams of net carbohydrates per day and don’t limit how much protein and fat you eat initially.
There are many guidelines and articles written about how much fat, protein, and carbs you should eat in order to get into ketosis. But it’s best not to worry about those things during your first week or two.
If you’re using our free keto meal plan, then feel free to add in extra fats and protein into your meals. Add an egg and avocado and some coconut oil to your meals. Or add a can of sardines packed in olive oil.
Certified Nutrition and Health Coach Christina Oman agrees that it’s important to eat a lot of fat when transitioning to Keto. “My advice to someone starting keto is always to eat lots of dietary fat. As much as possible. Add butter or coconut oil to everything – coffee, vegetables and meat. Eat keto fat bombs galore…What I’m doing is helping you to teach your body that fat is a source of fuel that is not going to be in short supply, especially if the goal of keto, for you, is weight loss. In other words we need to force the body to burn fat by making it the most abundant fuel.”
Note about Keto Flu
You’ll likely experience Keto Flu in your first week of beginning a ketogenic diet. This means you’ll feel flu-like symptoms (dizziness, tiredness, mood-swings) as your body detoxes from your carbohydrate addiction. (More technically, keto flu is likely caused by your body not being able to efficiently turn body fat into ketones initially.)
To help you get over this period of feel crappy, it’s best to just concentrate on not eating too many carbohydrates. Eat as much protein and fat as you want during this period.
Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt, M.D. weighs in. “The good news is that these symptoms usually disappear by themselves within a few days. The even-better news is that these symptoms can often be avoided altogether. The main cause is usually dehydration and/or salt deficiency, caused by a temporarily increased urine production.”
So make sure to add in salt to your meals – you’ll excrete sodium faster on a ketogenic diet (and you won’t be getting all that sodium from junk foods), so make sure you get enough. Don’t be afraid of your salt shaker! It’ll often alleviate feelings of keto flu tiredness.
You can also supplement with ketones to minimize the impact of Keto Flu. They provide the ketone boost your body needs while it adapts to burning fat for fuel. We like Keto Upgrade.
Step #6: Start each morning with the following super short ketone-boosting routine…
- Drink a large glass of water (you’ll store less water in your body as you cut out the carbs).
- Take 2 teaspoons of coconut oil or 1/2 teaspoon of MCT oil as a supplement.
Quick Note About Coconut Oil, MCT oil, and Exogenous Ketones
Coconut oil (or MCT oil or exogenous ketones if you want to go that far) will help boost your ketone levels and help you feel less tired during the keto flu period.
MCTs stand for medium-chain triglycerides, and they are fats that can help ketone production (coconut oil contains MCTs and that’s why they’re extra good for a ketogenic diet). If you’re using MCT oil make sure to use a very very small amount initially (start with 1/2 teaspoon) as it can cause diarrhea if you’re not used to it.
Exogenous ketones are basically ketones you can ingest to boost your ketone levels. They are not ketones that are produced by your own body. These are generally useful for certain therapeutic purposes, but they’re definitely not necessary if you’re trying a ketogenic diet for weight loss.
Step #7: Lastly, track your ketone levels.
The point of a ketogenic diet is to get your body to use more fat as energy rather than glucose, and a great indicator of this is your ketone levels.
I’d recommend using this blood ketone tracker to track your ketone levels.
The Ketone Tracking Controversy
If you’ve read other websites or books about a ketogenic diet, then you’ll already know that there’s a lot of controversy on this topic. Some people think tracking ketones is pointless, others think it’s essential.
Both camps are correct…sort of…
Tracking your ketones is good practice – it can give you really useful indicators of how your body is transitioning. However, your ketone level is just one data point, so using it as the sole judge of how your ketogenic diet is going would be stupid.
When I asked about your goals earlier on, I bet your goal for beginning a ketogenic diet wasn’t to achieve super high ketone levels… So, if this diet is getting you the results you’re looking for (weight loss, mental clarity, better medical test results), then why on earth would you care whether your ketone levels were 0.5mM or 3mM.
However, tracking does serve 2 highly useful purposes as long as you don’t get carried away with it:
- It tells you if something is really off.
- Tracking your progress (whether it’s measuring ketone levels or even keeping a diary of how things are going) has consistently been shown to help with weight loss.
2 Potentially Easier Alternative Methods For Starting a Ketogenic Diet
While our biology is pretty much the same (as long as you’re human), our mental states are often different. Someone who can push themselves through a Tough Mudder race for fun tends to have a different frame of reference from someone who gets grumpy if they have to skip breakfast one day.
That’s why I’ve given you what I consider to be the best method for starting keto, but I’m also going to give you 2 alternatives. Because one size doesn’t always fit all!
All 3 methods work, but they only work if you can carry through with the plan.
Alternative Method #1: The Hardcore Approach
Fast for 2 days and then eat under 20 grams of net carbohydrates per day.
Who this approach is right for:
If you’ve tried low carb/Atkins before or if you’ve done intermittent fasting before, then this is a great way to get yourself into nutritional ketosis.
There are also some people who do better with a super strict approach (sort of jumping in at the deep end type thinking).
This method requires more mental commitment at the beginning, but the people that excel with this method say it’s easier to stick to because they’ve set themselves super strict rules that make decision-making much easier.
4 Tips For Fasting Success
Most of the 7 steps I’ve listed above still apply, but the main difference with this method is to get started with a 2-day (48-hour) fast. So here are a few tips for getting through that fast if you haven’t tried fasting before.
- Pick a good weekend to get started.This sounds silly to point out, but it can be really tough to fast during your regular work days – the stress and routine makes it really hard. So, give yourself a weekend off and do the fast then. Don’t do anything too stressful mentally – watch some TV, read a book, talk to friends, surf the web. This is the perfect excuse to do nothing for 2 days!
- Sleep more – time passes faster when you’re asleep!I would go to sleep late on Friday night, sleep in on Saturday to as late as possible. Then go to sleep as early as possible on Saturday night and sleep as long as possible into Sunday. Then you can eat again on Sunday night.
- If you really struggle, then take some coconut oil or MCT oil to help.Don’t forget to also drink plenty of water and add some sea salt to your water to ensure you get enough sodium.
- Do a little bit of exercise if you can.Do some walking or light aerobic exercises if you can manage it. This isn’t essential but can help you get into ketosis a bit faster.
Alternative Method #2: The Soft Approach
Start by just cutting out the bread, pasta, desserts from your diet. Add in some healthier carbs like sweet potatoes and white potatoes (not fries or chips). Start by eating under 80 grams of net carbohydrates per day. After a few weeks of that, go lower and lower in net carb intake.
Who this approach is right for:
If you currently eat a very high carbohydrate diet (e.g., 200-300 grams of net carbohydrates per day), then you might want to go for this option.
This is what 200 grams of net carbohydrates per day look like with processed food…
- Breakfast: 1 bagel = 44 grams net carbohydrates
- Lunch: 1 6″ Subway sandwich + 1 chocolate chip cookie = approx. 70 grams net carbohydrates
- Afternoon snack: 1 small milk chocolate bar (1 oz) = 15 grams net carbohydrates
- Dinner: 1 cup of pasta and 2 scoops (1 cup) of ice cream = 65 grams net carbohydrates
And if we add in a can of coke, another cookie, and a slightly bigger serving of pasta, then you’ll find yourself eating a 300 grams of net carbohydrates per day diet.
If that’s where you are at right now, then cutting down to 20 grams of carbs per day is going to be really painful. Instead, try to get rid of the processed foods from your diet first. Start by getting your carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables instead of processed foods (and I mean fresh whole fruits, not fruit juice or dried fruits or canned fruits in syrup).
4 Tips For The Soft Approach:
- Start your first meal of the day with lots of proteinDon’t eat fruits or sweet potatoes for breakfast. Eat some eggs or even use some protein powder and some spinach to make a green protein shake. This will help you stay less hungry and have fewer cravings throughout the day.
- Add in healthy fats slowly.If you’ve been eating a low fat diet for a long time, then your body won’t be used to digesting a lot of fat. So to avoid diarrhea and/or indigestion, add in coconut oil and olive oil into your diet slowly.
- Drink plenty of water and replenish your salt.I’ve talked about this above, but just make sure to drink lots of water and don’t be afraid of adding salt to your food. A great way to do both is to drink bone broth.
- Exercise some even if it’s just walking.
While you don’t need to do copious amounts of cardio to lose weight on a ketogenic diet, it is important to keep moving. It’s great for ensuring you lose more fat rather than muscle. And it’ll help you lose weight too.
Common Mistakes To Avoid On A Ketogenic Diet:
You’re excited to get started on a ketogenic diet, and that’s fantastic. But before you dive in, read through this section so that you can avoid these mistakes other people make. You’ll get the benefits of a ketogenic diet faster and with fewer painful hiccups.
- Eating Dairy Products Most people don’t think cheese and yogurt affect them, but it often does. So please avoid it as much as possible. And I’m not talking about lactose-intolerance here. The only dairy product that most people deal ok with is ghee (and to some extent butter). Switch to coconut or almond milk, coconut cream, and coconut yogurt instead.
- Not Getting Enough Sleep Many people find they need less sleep after being on a ketogenic diet for a few weeks. But in the initial few weeks, try to sleep more and keep to a routine. Keep your room pitch black when you’re sleeping to get better quality of sleep as well.
- Having Nutrient Deficiencies I know our ancestors didn’t take vitamin pills or greens powder or MCT oil or exogenous ketones! But that doesn’t mean we can’t be healthier than them by using all the scientific and technological advantages we have available.I would highly recommend running tests (like those offered by Chris Kelly at Nourish Balance Thrive) to see if you’re deficient in any vitamins/minerals, have parasites, hormonal imbalances, or any other health issues. In fact, you should do these tests before you try keto so that you can use keto to optimize your body further.In particular, most of us are deficient in magnesium so it’s good to supplement with that. Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Megan Ware, RDN says that magnesium deficiency is rare but can have serious complications. “Deficiency is linked to insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, coronary heart disease, and osteoporosis. It can lead to low calcium or low potassium levels in the blood.” Read more about nutritent deficiencies.Most of us could also do with eating more vegetables and getting more fiber so adding a quick drink daily made with greens powder and some coconut oil or MCT oil is another good supplement to use. A good multivitamin like this one from Thorne Research is also always good to take. But I would still highly recommend getting some good testing done. That way you can supplement more specifically and you can deal with any other underlying health issues that could hold you back.In addition to supplements, eating more nutrient-dense foods is key! Try adding some smoked oysters and canned sardines in olive oil to your keto diet. Organ meats are also nutrient dense and often cheaper than regular meat.
- Avoiding Vegetables I know that vegetables (even good ol’ spinach) has carbs, which you’re supposed to avoid. But one of the things we’ve discovered more since Atkins was popular 30 years ago is that gut health is super important. So eat lots of leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale. Eat onions and broccoli and cauliflower and artichokes and asparagus. Just avoid the tubers.One of the easiest ways to get more vegetables into your diet is to eat a large salad every night for dinner. Try our 5-minute sardines salad or our 15-minute tamari marinated steak salad.
- Forgetting That Food Quality Does Matter While we typically recommend everyone ignore organic and grass-fed labels initially or if they can’t afford it, the fact remains that food quality does make a difference. In particular, eating grass-fed beef and wild salmon is better for you.However, most people just go and buy organic or grass-fed junk foods like organic apple juice and grass-fed burgers and think this is now healthy for them.It’s way better to just eat regular fruits, vegetables, meats, and fish than organic or grass-fed junk. So, clean up your diet first, but if you can buy high quality foods, then definitely do so.
- Believing That Carbs Are Evil A ketogenic diet is a fantastic tool, but many ancestral tribes have lived on high carb diets just fine. There’s nothing inherently wrong with eating carbohydrates. But for most of us who have eaten a super high carb diet filled with practically zero nutrients, a nutrient-dense ketogenic diet can help our bodies re-adjust and heal.Just remember, a ketogenic diet is a tool, not a dogma! Listen to episode 10 for more on mindset.
Please Do This After You Start A Ketogenic Diet…
2 months after you start a ketogenic diet, please email me at [email protected] and share with me how you’re doing. How much weight did you lose? What was the toughest component? What other health issues did you overcome? How much energy did you gain?
Perhaps you’ll find that keto for beginners is a whole lot like keto for life. Once you’ve created a few new habits it doesn’t feel so hard any more.
Some people have amazing life-transforming experiences on a ketogenic diet while others get stuck and wonder what’s gone wrong. By sharing your experience, you can inspire millions of others to heal as well as help others troubleshoot their keto diet.