The Keto Diet Explained

This low-carb diet is unlike others, it’s been around for a long time and has been shown to be effective at burning fat. But before you dive into this diet, learn more about what being in ketosis means!

The Keto Diet Explained
Photo by David B Townsend / Unsplash
17 min. read 2/10/2022, 5:24 PM

You’ve probably heard about the keto diet a million times before, on social media, from celebrities, health magazines, or maybe you’ve seen keto supplements at your local health food store! Although the ketogenic diet has been very trending these last few years, and some consider it a fad diet that will go away soon… this diet is not exactly new. Unlike other fad diets that have only been around a few years, this one is nearly 100 years old (originated in 1920 to be exact)!

Like other diets, keto might not be for everyone, but it’s up to you to find out if it works for you or not! Everybody is different and we all have our own set of goals in mind, but there’s one thing about keto that’s definitely worth giving it a try: It’s the most healthy and effective way to store and burn the fat that’s in your body! Want to know exactly how this works? Then let’s get started!

What is the keto diet?

The ketogenic diet, more commonly known as keto diet, is an eating approach that consists of consuming high amounts of fat in your foods, with moderate amounts of protein, and very low levels of carbohydrates, in order to force the body to burn fat instead of carbs. This happens through a process called ketosis, and we’ll explain this to you in a moment, but first let’s talk a little bit about how your body handles these two macronutrients to better understand the concept of ketosis:

When you’re on a regular or high-carb diet, your body takes those carbs and turns them into glucose (sugar) which spikes your blood sugar levels. This causes your body to create insulin in order to make use of that glucose, turning it into glycogen, which is basically stored glucose in your cells that your body uses as the main source of energy whenever it’s needed. And this will happen as long as you keep consuming carbs, so when you significantly lower your carb intake, your body has to change its energy source, and this is when fats come in.

When you start your keto diet, you start burning your remaining glycogen stores for energy, leaving your body no option but to start tapping onto your fat storages, which will be full due to your high fat intake. Your body, specifically your liver, will start converting fatty acids into molecules called ketones, which will be the new source of energy for your body. This metabolic state that your body goes through is what’s known as ketosis, and it usually takes from a few days to a whole week (or more) to reach it.

To put it simply: Being in ketosis means that your body is taking the fat that comes in and breaking it apart for energy, instead of storing it for you to get rid of it later. This is the main difference between a regular low-carbohydrate diet and a keto diet since low-carb diets only restrict your carb intake, but keto actually replaces it with something else (which is fat) in order to change the way that your body creates energy. So once you’re in ketosis, if you keep your diet nutrient-dense and low-carb, you’ll start burning body fat without the need to actively restrict calories or even keep track of them!

How many carbs do you need to eat to stay in ketosis?

Essentially, your carbs should make up less than 5% of your caloric intake. But here’s where it might get confusing… When following a keto diet, you should track net carbs instead of total carbs. When starting keto, it’s recommended to eat up to 20g of net carbs daily.

Here’s how to calculate your net carbs: Total Carbs - Fiber = Net Carbs.

For example, one cup of brussel sprouts has a total of 8 grams of carbs and 3.3 fiber. Meaning one cup of brussel sprouts has 4.7 grams of net carbs. So, instead of tracking it as 8g, you’d track it as 4.7g. The reason for counting this way is because dietary fiber doesn’t have a significant metabolic effect, meaning it doesn’t spike blood sugar levels.

This is the best way to get into ketosis if you’re just starting out, but there are different ways to approach keto that include slightly more carbs than this method.

Types of keto diets

  • Standard Ketogenic Diet (SKD):

Referred to as standard because it’s the most common and recommended type of keto diet, and it’s the one that we just discussed above. SKD is very low-carb (only 5-10%) with moderate protein intake (around 10-20%) and very high in fats (75% or more). Everyone’s macros will be different, except for carbs. Following SKD means following the 20g net carb rule.

If you go on this diet and after a few days or weeks you find that it’s not for you, or it’s too demanding for your lifestyle, maybe try exploring other types, like the high-protein keto diet!

  • High-Protein Keto Diet (HPKD):

This approach is similar to the standard keto diet, but with a more balanced fat and protein intake. With this version of the diet, you still go very low on carbs (5-10%) while increasing your protein intake (around 30%) and decreasing your fat intake a little bit (about 60-65%). This is another friendly approach to keto as it doesn’t involve eating as much fat as the standard version, which could be difficult at first for some people.

  • Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD):

The targeted version of the keto diet works best for those who lead active lifestyles since it involves eating carbs before exercising for better performance. Typically, with TKD you eat around 25-50 grams of simple and easily digestible carbohydrates 30 minutes to an hour prior to your workouts in order to get a boost of energy.

  • Cyclical Ketogenic Diet (CKD):

As the name suggests, with the cyclical keto diet you cycle between your periods of eating low-carb. It typically involves going several days on a low-carb (ketogenic) diet and then a few days (around two or three) of eating high-carb. You could see it as a way of resting from your keto diet! This approach is also very popular among athletes and really active people looking to support muscle growth since they are constantly burning glucose and depleting their glycogen stores, so with CKD, they get a carb “refill” for a couple of days and then go back into ketosis.

Foods to eat and avoid

When going on a ketogenic diet, you need to pay close attention to your macros and the food that you eat because this is the most important part if you want your body to reach a state of ketosis. Some low-carb and high-fat foods that you should include in your diet are:

  • Meat (beef, poultry, pork, seafood)
  • Eggs
  • Nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds)
  • Non-starchy vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, zucchini, celery, mushrooms, asparagus)
  • Low-sugar fruits (avocados, organic berries such as blackberries and raspberries)
  • Healthy oils (avocado oil, extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil)
  • Fermented dairy products (yogurt, kefir)
  • Sour cream
  • Cheese
  • Butter

On the other hand, you should stay away from foods that are high in carbs and sugar, such as:

  • Grains (whole grains, wheat, bread, corn, rice, pasta, oats)
  • Beans and legumes (black beans, lentils, chickpeas)
  • Starchy veggies (potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots)
  • High-sugar fruits (mangoes, pineapples, grapes, apples)
  • High-sugar condiments and sauces (BBQ sauce, ketchup, honey mustard)
  • Sugary drinks and desserts
  • Alcohol

You should also pay attention to artificial sweeteners and other additives in your food since they often go unnoticed. Limiting the consumption of sugar is key for this diet plan to work, but don’t worry, after your body has reached a state of ketosis you’ll likely start experiencing fewer sugar cravings!


Weight loss

As with many other diets, the main reason why people try the keto diet is because of its weight loss benefits, since your body switches to using up fat for energy. According to a study published by the British Journal of Nutrition, a very low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet is actually better and more effective for fat loss than a regular low-fat diet, and it also showed a decrease in diastolic blood pressure on those who tried the keto diet. [1] Another reason as to why keto could be beneficial for weight loss is that it helps reduce the levels of the “hunger hormone” ghrelin in your blood, increasing satiety, and helps support sustainable weight loss and intuitive eating without reducing muscle mass! You’ll be able to wait longer between foods, and it helps you reduce your food portions when it’s time to eat since you won’t feel as hungry all the time.

Energy and endurance levels

Along with helping you normalize your hunger levels, going on a keto diet may increase your energy levels, helping you achieve greater physical performance. This is because fat is a better and more reliable energy source than sugar, and in a state of ketosis your blood sugar levels are balanced, which means that you won’t be experiencing sugar crashes or sudden energy drops throughout your day! Your body may take some time to get used to the switch from one energy source to another, but when the transition is done you’ll start noticing a positive change in your energy levels!

Stabilized blood sugar

Due to the low-carb intake of the keto diet, your blood sugar levels are more balanced, meaning that it works as an excellent way to manage type 2 diabetes by reducing your A1c (blood sugar) levels within the normal range! There are many studies to back this up, like this one published by the Journal of Diabetes Research that shows how emphasizing fat and protein intake over carbs can functionally reverse the diabetes diagnosis according to A1c tests, as well as lower body weight and blood pressure. [2] A reverse diagnosis does not mean a cure for type 2 diabetes, but it does help diabetic patients have their sugar blood levels in check without the need for other medications!

Seizure prevention

The keto diet was first invented and implemented as a treatment to prevent seizures in epileptic patients, back in the early 20th century, and it’s still being used to treat people with epilepsy effectively to this day! The results of this particular study show that 24% of epileptic patients that had daily seizures experienced a whole month free of seizures after being on a ketogenic diet, and in all but 6 patients (out of 276) seizure frequency after recurrence was significantly less than before. [3] This happens because the electrical impulses causing the seizures seem to decrease and in some cases even stop as a result of the changes that the brain goes through when in ketosis.

Heart health

Another great benefit of the ketogenic diet is how effective it is at lowering heart disease risk factors, such as LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar levels, particularly in patients with obesity and high cholesterol levels, according to a study. That same study also shows an increase in HDL cholesterol levels, which is the “good” cholesterol that helps reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, and demonstrates that being on a keto diet for a relatively long period of time is perfectly safe! [4]

Other important health benefits of keto diets include:

  • Polycystic ovary syndrome relief thanks to a reduction of your insulin levels
  • Improved gut health, particularly among irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) patients
  • Improved PMS symptoms
  • Reduced acne breakouts

All in all, going on a keto diet has amazing health benefits! This diet not only supports weight loss and physical performance, but it also works as an effective relief for many diseases and health problems thanks to its low-carb content and the benefits of being in ketosis.

Side effects

Even though the benefits are great, going on a ketogenic diet, just with like any other diet, may have some side effects such as:

  • Keto flu

This is the most common side effect, and it usually happens on the first days of the diet when your body and your brain are still getting used to using fat as fuel. Some of the symptoms can include headaches, fatigue, brain fog, and nausea. But don’t worry, it’s not recurring, and it only lasts a few days!

  • Reduced physical performance

Just like with the keto flu, on your first days on this eating plan, you may experience a drop in your energy levels and a limited physical performance. This is because your body is changing its energy source from glycogen to ketones, and getting used to it in the process. After a few days, your physical performance will get back to normal, improved even! But if some time has passed and you still don’t feel like you’re giving your best, you may benefit better from another keto approach, like the targeted keto diet that partially includes carbs for improved performance.

  • Constipation

The keto diet is usually very low in fiber, which may result in constipation and digestive issues. But you can get rid of this problem by adding more non-starchy veggies and seeds that are rich in fiber to your diet, as well as drinking more water and electrolytes!

  • Keto breath

When your body enters a ketosis state, it will start producing ketone bodies. One of them is acetone, which shows up in your breath and feels like some sort of metallic taste, and it can also smell like nail polish (which is made from acetone). Not pleasant, but not permanent! This side effect goes away after a few days, and some people don’t even experience it in the first place.

As you can see, most of the side effects of going on a keto diet go away after your body gets used to using fat as fuel! So if you’re going to try this diet, be prepared for what may come in the first few days. Give it about a week or two, as you and your body get adapted to the new diet, and it’ll be smooth sailing from there.

Is the keto diet right for you?

Just as with any other diet, that depends on your goals, but also your health! The keto diet is not advised for people with liver failure, since you need a healthy liver to properly create ketones and effectively turn your fat into fuel, or pancreatitis and several fat metabolism disorders. People with liver and kidney disease, as well as high blood pressure, should consult their doctor or dietitian before going on this diet in order to make sure that they’re making the best dietary decision for their bodies and respective health conditions. On the other hand, as we previously mentioned, people with type 2 diabetes or epilepsy may actually benefit from this diet, which is why it was implemented in the first place, but again, always consult with your doctor first!

If you’re a healthy individual, then it only comes down to your goals and lifestyle! If your goal is sustainable (not short-term) weight loss, then this is a great way to start. It can also help you reduce your sugar cravings, and you’ll feel more energized in your day-to-day life, making it ideal for those who want to combat sugar and carb cravings, feel more energized, and be healthier overall. Of course, that’s not the case for everyone, since we all have different bodies and lifestyles that we like to maintain, so a restrictive diet like this may not be the best option for someone who likes being in more control over what they eat. It may also not work for everyone, but there’s no way to know until you try it, and try it for good! Stopping after the first few days will not get you any results and may leave your body confused as it undergoes a change of metabolic state, so try to commit to it for at least two weeks in order to reach full ketosis and really start feeling the benefits in your body.

Bottom line is, although the keto diet can support weight loss goals (and among other things), it isn’t for everyone. Some find that their body type works better with a low-carb, ketogenic approach, and others may feel that their bodies work better with carbs. If you feel like the keto diet is the right approach for your goals, then make sure to do your research before starting! Many people jump into trendy diets like this one without being informed and end up being overwhelmed, quitting, and gaining any weight that was lost back.

With that being said, we want you to have the best possible experience going into this diet, so we wrote a helpful guide on how to get started on keto the right way! We go over the keto rules and give you a few helpful tips such as keto-friendly recipes and how to build your weekly meal plans to get you going safely and successfully.

Frequently Asked Questions

We know that after reading everything about the keto diet, you may still have some questions, so we’ll go through the most common concerns that people have when researching this diet!

1. I thought fat was bad for you... Isn't eating saturated fat bad for your heart?

When you’re on a keto diet, you’ll be eating mostly healthy fats. We’ve come to believe that all fat is bad for you, but it’s not like that at all! When consumed in adequate quantities, or keeping a low-carb intake just like with this diet, high-fat foods can be as beneficial as any other, especially when they’re being used as a source of energy by your body! And as with everything, too much of a good thing is bad, so remember, moderation is key.

2. Do I need to take any supplements?

Not necessarily, but being in ketosis may cause you to lack certain minerals such as selenium, zinc, and copper, which are usually found in your glycogen stores. You can handle this by eating enough fibrous veggies that are high in minerals and adding extra salt when preparing your meals to keep your levels balanced, but you can also opt for mineral supplements if it’s easier for you to get your minerals that way!

3. Can I still gain muscle on keto considering it's a low-carb diet?

The keto diet is as effective as any other diet when it comes to building muscle mass and improving overall performance while minimizing fat gain, especially the cyclical keto diet. But since one of the side effects of going on this diet is a reduced physical performance on the first days, it may lead some people to believe that it’s not a good diet for active people, when in reality that’s just your body adapting to a new source of energy, and after that’s done you go back to being your best active self!

4. Do I need to track my macros or just carb intake?

In order to really get the best out of this diet, you need to pay attention to all three of your macros, especially carbs and fats since they’re probably going to be changing a lot from your regular diet! While tracking your carb intake is important, doing it along with your fat and protein intake ensures that you enter a state of ketosis. If you were to limit your carbs without paying attention to your other macros, then you could be consuming more protein than fats, limiting your body’s ability to be in ketosis. You would be on a low-carb diet, but not a keto diet because your body wouldn’t be burning fat for energy. So start tracking your macros to effectively reap the benefits of this diet!