Welcome to part three of our series on ketosis!
- Learn your macros
- Start eating keto (with a sample keto meal plan)
- Stay strong for two weeks (and what to do if you’re having a hard time/side effects on keto)
- Add-ons and alternatives (and how to tell if you should change your diet)
Let’s get to it!
Step 1: Learn your macros
A ketogenic diet is built around your macronutrient ratio – the balance of fat, protein, and carbs you eat. The general guidelines are:
- 60-80% of calories from fat
- 15-30% of calories from protein
- 5-10% of calories from carbs (or under 50 grams of net carbs per day)
There’s wiggle room here. You may be able to stay in keto with 10-15% carbs; your friend may need to stay at 5%. Everyone’s a little different. A good place to start is down the middle:
Assuming you eat 2,000 calories a day, that would be:
- 50g of carbs
- 100g of protein
- 155g of fat
Here’s a good calculator for figuring out your macros. Once you have your numbers, you’re ready to begin your keto journey.
One thing to keep in mind: you want moderate protein intake, with a minimum of 0.5 grams of protein per pound that you weigh (0.5g/lb protein), to prevent muscle loss . A 200-lb person would want 100 grams of protein a day, for example. If you’re working out and want to put on muscle, go for a high-protein version of keto that's closer to 0.8g/lb bodyweight (e.g. 160 grams of protein for a 200-lb person) . You can tweak your macros accordingly. Stick to around 0.8g/lb – higher protein than that may take you out of keto.
Step 2: Start eating keto
Break out your favorite high-fat, low-carb foods. You still want to follow principles of good nutrition: mostly whole foods, plenty of veggies and leafy greens, healthy fats (including saturated fat), and protein from well-raised or wild-caught animals. You can also use non-glycemic sweeteners like stevia. But you have a lot of tasty options on the menu:
Healthy fats (5-8 servings a day)
- Full-fat dairy
- Grass-fed butter and cheese (Kerrygold is a great brand)
- Coconut oil, coconut milk, coconut cream
- Nuts/nut oils (especially macadamia)
- Olives/olive oil
- Fatty fish (sardines, anchovies, salmon, tuna
Quality protein (2-4 servings a day)
- Wild-caught fish
- Grass-fed red meat (beef, lamb)
- Protein powders (whey, collagen, vegan proteins)
- Free-range chicken
- Pasture-raised bacon/pork
Low-carb veggies (6-10 servings a day)
- Bell pepper
- Kale (be aware, though: kale has more carbs than you’d think)
- Brussels sprouts (same as above – these have a few grams of carbs in a serving)
Pick and choose your favorite ingredients and turn them into a meal. Generally, a balanced keto meal has a quality protein and a heaping side of veggies, all covered in a fat source. Here’s what a sample day eating keto looks like:
- Two eggs, cooked in butter
- Two slices of quality bacon
- Half an avocado
- Grass-fed steak topped with herb butter (butter, minced garlic, chopped parsley)
- Roasted broccoli and cauliflower (Toss in olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, spread on a baking sheet, and bake at 350 for ~25 minutes)
- Seared sockeye salmon with hollandaise (Add egg yolks, lemon juice, salt, and a pinch of cayenne to a blender, blend, and slowly add melted butter until sauce thickens)
- Side salad (romaine, arugula, tomato, avocado, cucumber, hard-boiled egg) with Dijon-balsamic dressing (Dijon mustard, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar whisked together)
Not too shabby, right? You can eat well on a ketogenic diet. You can also find a lot of keto recipes and creative eating plans online; just avoid eating overly processed foods too often, even if they fit into a high-fat diet.
You may want to track your macros for the first couple weeks. Two solid apps for tracking are MyKeto and MyFitnessPal. Logging your food can be a pain, but it’s easy to accidentally have more carbs than you think you’re eating, especially when you’re starting out.
Carbs are the most important thing to keep an eye on. Keto curbs appetite pretty strongly, so you may find you get full before you reach your projected amount of fat and protein. That’s fine – no need to stuff yourself just to reach your percentages. But you do want to limit carbs quite carefully. Too many will take you out of keto (we’ll talk about how you can tell if you’re in keto in a minute).
And if that happens, it’s not the end of the world. You may have to go over your limit a few times before you figure out how many carbs you can eat. Be patient with yourself. This isn’t a prescription – it’s a process of figuring out what works for your body.
Step 3: Stay strong for two weeks (we can help)
If you’ve been eating a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet, your body is used to burning carbs for energy. When you switch to a low carb diet and cut those carbs out, your metabolism starts to shift to fat-burning mode.
Using fat for fuel has some pretty cool benefits…once you switch over. But the process of transitioning from carbs to fat can be rough for some people. You have to burn through all your glycogen (carb) stores before your ketone levels increase and you enter a metabolic state of ketosis.
During that transition – the first 5-10 days of eating keto, for most people – you may get the “keto flu.” It happens when your cells run out of carbs to use, but haven't yet figured out how to burn fat. Your energy production dips, which can lead to flu-like symptoms and a few short-term side effects:
- Brain fog
- Muscle aches
- Carb cravings
- Trouble sleeping
Stick it out for the first couple weeks! These should all pass. Here are a few tools to help you:
- Eat a lot. Now is not the time to count calories or stay in a calorie deficit. If you want to stay in a calorie deficit to lose weight faster, start once you’ve transitioned to ketosis. But for the first couple weeks, eat lots of satisfying fat when you’re hungry. Stay strong! The carb cravings should go away after you switch over. In this stage, medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil can be especially helpful. You can find it in the supplements section of most health food stores.
- Stay hydrated. Carbs require water for storage. Fat does not. So as you get rid of your carb stores, you’ll start to lose a lot of water weight. You may look like you’ve lost 5-7 pounds your first week of keto. A lot of that is water you’re losing. Be sure to stay hydrated to compensate.
- Double down on sodium. Your kidneys will also start to expel sodium when you’re on keto. Low electrolytes are often the culprit behind headaches when you’re transitioning. The good news is that you can compensate by salting your food with abandon. Add as much salt as you please to your food, and for the first couple weeks, Try dissolving a half teaspoon of sea salt in water in the morning.
- Take magnesium and potassium for muscle aches. You also lose the electrolytes magnesium and potassium when you drop all that water weight. If you find your muscles are cramping, it’s likely an electrolyte imbalance. Try taking magnesium and potassium supplements. Shoot for 200-400 mg of magnesium and ~4700 mg of potassium. Note: the linked potassium supplement is a salt substitute. It’s a great cheap way to get potassium. Dissolve half a teaspoon in water if you get muscle cramps.
- Try melatonin for sleep issues. When you’re switching over, your body isn’t happy with you. It doesn’t recognize fat as a viable fuel source yet, and it can get a little pushy about asking for more carbs. You may find you wake up in the middle of the night during the last 2-3 nights of your transition. That’s your brain triggering cortisol release to wake you up. Basically, it’s shouting, “You’re starving! Stop sleeping and find carbs!” Don’t give in. This is your body’s last-ditch effort to go back to carbs before it switches over to fat. Try taking melatonin to fall back asleep. Most melatonin supplements have an unnecessarily large dose – you only need 0.3 mg to have an effect. Here’s a good source with the right dose. P.S. don’t take melatonin every night for more than a month. Taking it long-term can interfere with your body’s natural production.
- Work out hard to speed up the transition. If you want to shorten your transition, try an intense workout like CrossFit or HIIT. It’ll empty your glycogen stores faster. Be warned that these workouts may be extra challenging. Your muscles will be looking for fuel and coming up empty. One hard workout should be enough to empty your glycogen. Rest after that until you start feeling good again.
There you go. You’re prepared to weather the keto transition. Stick with it.
Bonus section: how to tell when you’re in ketosis
After a while, you’ll be able to feel whether or not you’re in ketosis. Once you transition, you can expect your keto flu symptoms to go away, replaced with stable energy and mental clarity. But if you want to be absolutely sure and track your progress along the way, you can measure your ketones.
To be clear, you don’t have to do any of these. If you’re analytical and you like data, measuring ketones can be a fun. But if sampling your blood or urine sounds too hardcore, just look for signs that you’re in ketosis – mental clarity, fat loss, decreased inflammation, more energy, no more keto flu, and so on.
If you’re more hardcore, here are three options for measuring ketones:
- Pee on sticks. Ketones come out in your urine, so you can measure ketosis using test strips like these. Your local pharmacy will probably sell them too. This isn’t terribly accurate, but it’s by far the cheapest option, and it will generally tell you whether or not you’re in ketosis. Check the label – you want the stick to turn a color that correlates with higher ketones.
- Prick your finger. A blood ketone meter is the most accurate and reliable way to measure ketosis. A reading of 0.7 or higher is considered ketosis. Test strips get expensive after a while, so keep that in mind when you test. 1-5 mmol is a good range to be in.
- Breathe. You can also measure ketones in your breath. This is the most pricey option, and the newest. It’s more indirect than blood or urine, so it’s not always accurate, but it’s a decent choice if you don’t like needles.
Again, these can be helpful when you’re starting out, but they definitely aren’t necessary, and they become less useful once you get a feel for eating keto.
Step 4: Add-ons and alternatives (and how to tell if you should change your diet)
Once you’ve done keto for a month or so your body will be totally used to burning fat. At this point, you can start adding other things to your diet for even more benefits.
Alternatively, if you’re still feeling awful after a month, keto may not be for you. Here are a few tweaks that may work better with your biology.
Appetite suppression is one of the nice parts of keto. It can be a lot easier to go long periods without eating when you’re running on fat. The theory is that you’re used to burning fat, so when you run out of food, it’s quite comfortable to switch to burning your stored body fat.
This is where intermittent fasting comes in. You can try going 12-24 hours (or longer) without eating. Fasting carries a few benefits, including decreased inflammation, increased mental clarity, and spikes in growth hormone that helps with muscle building and fat loss. If you’re interested, check out our complete guide to fasting.
Some people do better when they don’t go without carbs for long stretches. If you struggle with normal keto, try having a carb refeed day once a month. Chow down on healthy carb sources like sweet potato, squash, pumpkin, and rice. You’ll refill your glycogen stores, which can work well if you feel crappy on full keto. Note that you’ll probably put on a few pounds during your refeed day. Don’t worry – it’s just water weight. It’ll come right back off over the next few low-carb days.
Targeted ketogenic diet – carbs before you work out
If you’re working out a lot, consider having some carbs pre-workout. A few grams of carbs (a bit of butternut squash or half a sweet potato, for example) before you exercise will bring your insulin level up a bit, which prevents muscle breakdown and may allow you to recruit more muscle fibers, helping you build more muscle .
Some people find they can eat more carbs when they exercise and it won’t pull them out of ketosis. It’s helpful to track your ketones for this one to make sure you’re staying in keto, or at least that you’re back in keto the next morning.
If this article has piqued your interest, try giving a ketogenic diet a shot. It can be great for some people. And if you want to know more, take a look at the first two articles in this series:
Do you have keto stories? Questions? Comments? Criticisms? Leave it all in the comments. Thanks for reading!