What is the Keto Diet and why does it work?
(Updated Oct 10, 2018) Interest in Keto Diets is at an all-time high and growing, simply because these low-carb, high-fat diets actually work. This article is designed to be your comprehensive Keto guide. This article starts at the very beginning to help you answer the most basic questions of “What is the Keto Diet and why does it work for effortless weight loss?”
By the end of this article you will understand not only the basics of the Ketogenic Diet (Keto is short for Ketogenic and the two terms will be used interchangeably in this article), but you will also have a working understanding of ketosis, ketones, and a set of tools to actually make the Keto Diet work for you.
What is a Keto Diet
A Keto diet is a very low-carbohydrate, high-fat, moderate protein diet. These three items (carbs, fat, and protein) are referred to as macronutrients (or macros for short.) A macronutrient is defined as a substance required in relatively large amounts by living organisms.
Carbohydrates are strictly limited on a ketogenic diet, which causes your body to enter a natural, biological state called ketosis. (This is NOT the same as ketoacidosis, a complication of diabetes.)
Advantage Meals' Beginners' Guide to the Keto Diet.
Read these articles to master the Keto Diet, or jump around to the ketogenic information that you need today.
- The Rules of Keto
- Does the Keto Diet work?
- What is the Keto Diet?
- What can I eat on a Keto Diet?
- How long does it take to get into ketosis?
- What is the keto flu and how to cure it.
- The No-Cook Keto Meal Plan
Not finding the information you need? Just ask.
Keto is not a high protein diet. Protein is a part of Keto but should be kept at moderate levels because extra protein can be converted into carbohydrate inside our bodies.
Fat is the largest portion of daily calories on a ketogenic diet, and that is beneficial because it encourages your body to see its fat supplies as fuel. The fat in your Keto diet helps you maintain the state of ketosis to keep you burning fat, and it also keeps you feeling satiated and not as hungry. In time, you won’t even feel hunger in the same way that you do on a carbohydrate-based diet.
Let’s quickly address the old adage of “calories in / calories out” for weight loss. It is true that if you consume more calories than you expend, you will gain weight. Likewise, if you take in fewer calories than you expend, you will lose weight.
However, what form that weight gain or loss takes depends on the macronutrients of the calories consumed. If you consume too many carbs, your body will store the extra as fat, and you will get fatter. Too little protein, and you will lose muscle.
For the purpose of the Ketogenic Diet Plan, you want to maintain a ratio of macros that will encourage your body to burn fat while maintaining your muscle mass.
On a Keto Diet, your macronutrient ratio should be:
- Fat Minimum 60 to 70% of your calories
- Carb Maximum 5 to 20% of your calories
- Protein Target 20 to 25% of your calories
Note that fat is a minimum, carbohydrates is a maximum, and protein is a target. Those words were chosen carefully.
If on any given day you go over on fat, you’ll be fine.
If you miss your target protein, you’ll be fine.
However, if you exceed your maximum carbs, it could take you out of ketosis and you will no longer be following a Keto diet.
Each individual has a different tolerance for carbohydrate while staying in ketosis and different needs for fat and protein, so there is no magic formula that works exactly for everyone. A good starting point is 70% fat, 10% carbs and 20% protein.
Later we’ll talk about how to easily track your macros, but for now, just file this information away.
The important thing to remember here is that with this ketogenic macronutrient ratio, you’ll train your body to burn fat which means you’ll soon become a fat burning animal and weight loss will become effortless.
Why does a Keto Diet work?
A Keto diet works because it retrains your body to burn fat for fuel instead of relying upon carbs as its primary fuel source.
When you are consuming a Standard American Diet (SAD) which is very high in carbohydrates, your body relies upon those quick burning carbs for fuel. Regardless of the source of the carbs you consume (grains and sugar are the major sources of carbohydrates in the SAD) your body breaks those carbs down into glucose, an easy to use energy source.
The amount of glucose that can safely stay in your bloodstream is very small, so your body will always process it first or your bloodstream will become toxic.
When the glucose processing system breaks down and your body can’t get the glucose in your bloodstream down to a safe level, the result is diabetes.
When you eat any kind of carbohydrate, no matter if they are “good carbs” or “bad carbs”, your body produces insulin to allow you to process those carbohydrates. Insulin has several jobs in the process of burning sugar for fuel, which is called glycolysis.
One of the jobs of insulin is to tell your body’s cells to take in glucose. If your cells don’t need that glucose for energy right away, it can be stored in your muscles and liver as glycogen. However, our bodies can only store a small amount of glycogen.
So what happens to the extra glucose that we don’t use or can’t store as glycogen?
Then insulin tells your body to convert that glycogen into fat that can be stored somewhere in your body for future use, when you might not have access to an easy to burn, carbohydrate-heavy diet. However, it doesn’t have to be this way.
What happens when those easy to burn carbohydrates are not available?
Your body will naturally begin to burn the fat it has been saving for just such a time. Without carbs as quick fuel or excess insulin to tell you to store fat, your body begins to burn fat – both from the food you eat and from the extra fat that you have stored on your body!
You naturally switch from being a carb / sugar burning person to a fat burning person.
In a Keto diet, by restricting your carb intake, you switch your body to using fat for fuel. By eating plenty of fats, you tell your body that there is no danger of starvation, so it can burn off your fat stores and you will lose weight.
In the process, essential substances called ketones are produced in the liver as a by-product of burning fat. Your brain can run on glucose (carbs) or ketones.
When your body begins to produce ketones, we refer to this process as ketosis. During ketosis, ketones become your brain’s primary fuel source. Your goal on a Keto diet is to get into and stay in a ‘State of Ketosis’.
Being in ketosis is a natural state for our bodies. As humans evolved, sometimes our ancestors had access to lots of carbohydrates such as when the fruit trees were in season or when they found a beehive full of honey.
During those times their bodies would be fueled by glucose, and they’d be in a state called glycolysis. During these rare times of carbohydrate abundance, extra glucose would be stored as fat for the next time when easy food was scarce.
When that inescapable time of hunger came, their body would naturally switch to a state of ketosis to burn off that stored fat.
The more often that your body transitions from a state of glycolysis to a state of ketosis, the easier the transition becomes. That transition between being a carb burning person and fat burning person is a skill that takes practice, and, as the old saying goes, practice makes perfect.
Unfortunately, in a Standard American Diet (SAD) carbohydrates are never scarce, so we almost never switch to ketosis where we can easily burn fat.
A Keto diet solves that problem. With a diet like this, we can take advantage of natural and effortless weight loss that uses our body’s base systems of survival.
What are the benefits of a Keto Diet?
There are many health benefits of ketosis, including the physical and mental benefits that we’ll cover below. While weight loss is by far the primary reason that people seek out a ketogenic diet, once they achieve that easy weight loss, they often experience other unexpected benefits.
The ketogenic diet has been in clinical use for over 80 years. It was first implemented primarily for the symptomatic treatment of epilepsy, and new studies are taking place every year as its other advantages become apparent.
As we start to list the benefits of a ketogenic diet, you may be skeptical because the list is long and impressive. Keep an open mind as we move forward and remember that much of what we are sharing is from first hand experience backed by a growing body of research on the effects of a ketogenic diet.
Regardless of where you stand on the other potential benefits of this diet, never lose sight of the fact that nearly all the people who follow this diet achieve effortless weight control over time.
Here is the list of benefits of a Keto diet that we have either seen first hand or there is solid research to support. Not everyone will experience all of these benefits, and the evolution of some of these Keto benefits will take time.
Ultimate List of Keto Diet Benefits
- Effortless Weight Loss – Personal and Client Experience
- Effortless Weight Maintenance – Personal and Client Experience
- Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease – Research
- Reduce the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes – Research
- Reduce the Risk of Cancer – Research
- Reduce symptoms of Epilepsy – Research
- Reduce symptoms of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease – Research
- Reduce symptoms of ADHD – Research
- Increase Longevity and Strength – Research
- Reduce Pain and Inflammation – Research
- Dry spots on elbows cleared up – Personal and Client Experience
- Ability to skip meals without discomfort – Personal and Client Experience
- Reduced Heart Burn – Personal Experience
- Better Sleep – Personal Experience
Our experience with the Keto diet is quite different than most Keto experts you’ll find. Almost 15 years ago, we founded and have since operated a meal solution business called Magic Meals that serves our local community. In that business, we offer nutritional coaching and prepared, delivered meals that follow the diet that our client has chosen with the advice of their medical professional.
We have been a part of hundreds of people’s personal journey in finding wellness through diet, and we know from experience that the Keto diet has the most profound success rate.
Ketosis for life changing weight loss
The number one reason people come to us for a Keto diet is because they need to lose a lot of weight before their weight and the associated diseases stemming from their diet kills them.
Our first experience with ketosis weight loss was about twelve years ago, when our meal solutions business was contacted by a medical doctor in our community who was assisting a client that was at crossroads. She literally needed to lose weight or, he predicted, she would die within a matter of months.
He prescribed a diet that today we recognize as a calorie restricted, ketogenic diet.
In all honesty, we were shocked by the diet, as we were only familiar with the Conventional Wisdom of whole-grain, low-fat diets as the best option for health.
Since she was working under direct medical supervision, we reluctantly agreed to prepare her high-fat, low-carb meals for her. She began her new diet with two days of fasting to help her enter a state of ketosis. After two days without eating, she began eating a strict Keto diet.
Her daily, doctor prescribed meal plan was restricted to less than 1,000 calories and less than 20 grams of carbohydrates.
After a few weeks, she swore she had no hunger pains, and she lost over 100 pounds in the first year. We were shocked and amazed. Because of her success twelve years ago, we began studying ketogenic research.
Since then, we’ve helped other clients do the same thing, but usually with less calorie restriction, which leads us to the next benefit.
Keto Diet for moderate, sustainable weight loss.
The vast majority of our clients are not morbidly obese, but are instead, like most of the general population, overweight, frustrated, and probably diabetic or close to it. We have helped many of these people find diet success and peace in their relationship to food.
In these cases, we find that our clients have the best success with one of three diet protocols.
Three Week Keto Test
This approach is for those who feel like they have tried and failed at every diet under the sun. These folks just need to know once and for all if the Keto Diet will really work for them.
For these folks, we first encourage them to speak to their medical professional to find out if there is something in their personal situation that would make a Keto diet unsafe for them. Then, if they are local, we’ll prepare all of their meals for three weeks so they can just focus on eating what we provide while experiencing the success that they’ve been searching for.
For those who are not local, we offer them our Three Week No-Cook, No-Stress Keto Meal Plan that will allow them to easily and affordably test the Keto diet without the benefit of a meal solutions business like Magic Meals.
With the benefit of our meal delivery service, or with our Three Week No-Cook, No-Stress Keto Meal Plan, people find that without the need to cook and meal prep, many of the insurmountable hurdles that they faced as they strived to reach their wellness goals are eliminated.
Having a detailed and easy to follow diet plan available takes the guesswork out, leaving them the opportunity to evaluate their experience and know for sure whether Keto is right for them.
Honestly, we’ve never met anyone who truly followed our Keto diet plan for three weeks who did not have some measurable success.
Clean & Burn Keto Diet
This approach is for those who already know that the Keto diet will work for them, but they just need to reduce the challenges of going from the SAD state of glycolysis to becoming a fat burning person. It is more of a “step-down” approach compared to the “jump right in” of the Three Week Keto Test. This makes it a gentler transition but also takes more time.
The first step is to clean up the diet, moving from a Standard American Diet to a cleaner diet such as Primal, Paleo, or Whole 30. All three of these ways of eating focus on eating really good quality food, and reducing grains, processed oils, and sugar.
During this clean up phase, we do suggest people try to begin incorporating more high quality fat in their diet, such as grass-fed butter, avocado, coconut oil and olive oil. Otherwise, there are no carbohydrate or calorie restrictions or other macronutrient tracking. This phase lasts from 3 to 6 weeks or until the opportunity to eat great food is no longer a challenge.
While adopting this cleaner diet, the person will begin to become “fat-adapted”, moving away from a heavy reliance on carbohydrate for fuel which naturally leads to the body to transition to using fat as well.
The final step is to move into a full Keto diet by restricting carbs to the 5-20% maximum window while increasing fat consumption.
Constant Transition Keto Diet
There is a third Keto diet plan that we call the Constant Transition Keto Diet. Not only have we seen many clients have success with this ketosis eating strategy, but it is how we personally eat to maintain our weight and wellness goals. For us, this is the lifestyle version of Keto.
In this plan we eat a strict Keto diet 3 to 6 days a week and a diet of elevated carbohydrate levels on the other days. On the “carb loading” days, we allow our carbs to go as high as 40% of our diet, yet still avoid excessive sugar and grains and instead get the majority of our carbohydrates from more nutrient dense sources such as starchy vegetables. We also reduce our fat intake on those days.
While we have seen people have success starting their Keto journey by following a Constant Transition Keto Diet, it is much harder if you haven’t already trained your body to become fat adapted and make the switch from glycolysis to ketosis effortlessly.
In our experience, at least three weeks of strict Keto is needed to really get your body good at using ketones, and for some people it might take six to eight weeks. To that end, we encourage our friends and clients to follow the strict diet for at least three weeks. When their hunger sensations have entirely changed, then they can try one day of carb loading and immediately go back to the stricter Keto diet. If your body starts producing ketones again within 48 hours, then you are fat adapted and the game just changed for you. Congratulations!
Once you’ve achieved that easy transition, then you can move in and out of ketosis as you choose; to lose a little weight or clear your head for a big event coming up. Now you control what you eat, what fuel your body uses, and food no longer controls you. Keto for the win!
Keto for reduced hunger.
We already mentioned that a Keto diet isn’t necessarily a calorie restrictive diet. However, as you achieve ketosis, you will discover that the sensation of hunger has fundamentally changed for you.
Instead of experiencing the insulin and glucose crashes that we perceive as hunger pains, you’ll begin to feel hunger just as an empty feeling, followed by a drop in energy because you just don’t have enough fuel in your body. If you are carrying lots of extra fuel (fat) that energy drop may not be noticed. Sometimes a slight headache tells you it’s time to eat.
This monumental change in the feeling of hunger makes calorie restriction much easier if weight loss is one of your goals. It even makes Intermittent Fasting easier, which also has many related benefits.
How to track your macronutrients
You do not have to track your macros to be successful on a Keto Diet. You do need a good understanding of how much of each of the macros you need and how much you are actually eating.
We encourage everyone to track macros for at least three weeks when you start your ketogenic lifestyle.
The tool that we personally use is My Fitness Pal. It’s a software product owned by Under Armour and is available as an app on your Android or Apple device as well as on the MyFitnessPal.com Website.
The section of MyFitnessPal that you’ll use to track macros is the daily diary. Here you’ll add everything you eat in a day in just a few clicks. Then at the top of your daily diary, you’ll see a pie chart icon which will take you to your macro ratios for the day.
For most people, getting their fat high enough during the first few days is a challenge. If you fall into that group, refer back to the list of good fats found above in this article. Also remember that too much protein can be converted into carbs inside your body, so don’t go too far over your target. And of course, keep close watch on your carb percentage!
Will I have side effects on a Keto Diet?
Probably. Since most people have been in a continuous state of glycolysis for decades, their body has to re-learn how to move into a state of ketosis. During this re-learning period most people will have times when they don’t feel great, and this is commonly referred to as keto flu. For some people, it is very mild and they just feel a little off or have a headache, while for others it’s a more difficult transition.
For most people, keto flu lasts less than a week. Others say they still experience some symptoms up to three weeks out. Most importantly, for most people it isn’t nearly as bad as the real flu, but it still isn’t fun.
What are the symptoms of keto flu?
- Bad Breath
- Brain Fog
- Trouble Sleeping
- Nausea or Upset Stomach
What can I do to help Keto Flu?
Most people believe that the keto flu is a result of your body transitioning its fuel source. Since your body doesn’t have a lot of practice doing this, it’s a difficult thing to do, which leads to the symptoms similar to the flu.
However, there are also other factors at play. A ketogenic diet is diuretic (flushes out water) in nature, so you may be headed to the restroom more often than normal. Along with that extra water, you also flush out a lot of salt and other electrolytes such as magnesium, potassium and calcium. That causes electrolyte imbalances, and this is a big part of the keto flu.
Keto Flu Cures
While there is no guaranteed cure for the keto flu other than time, the following things might help.
- Incorporate more Salt and other electrolytes – don’t be afraid of the salt shaker. Include leafy greens and avocados for potassium, leafy greens, dairy and canned salmon with bones for calcium, and leafy greens and nuts for magnesium.
- We regularly use ConcenTrace Trace Mineral Drops in our water all day long, which supplements magnesium and potassium, along with many other minerals.
- Add some pink sea salt to your water, as well.
- Drink bone broth for electrolytes and gut-healthy collagen.
- Soak in an epsom salt bath.
- More Fat – make sure you are getting enough fuel to help your body adjust.
- More Calories – do not go crazy with calorie restriction. You don’t have to starve yourself to lose weight with a ketogenic diet. Your body will do the work for you once you’ve become fat and keto-adapted!
- More Water – with all the water getting flushed out, it’s easy to get dehydrated. Stay on top of your water intake, and drink water when you are thirsty!
Starting a Keto Diet
When changing your life, which is exactly what you are doing when you change your body’s primary fuel source, it’s a big deal. The first week or two will be hard, and at times it may seem daunting or not worth it. Focus on all the awesome, tasty, fatty foods that you’ve been told for years were bad for your health, knowing that they are actually supporting your goals and making you healthier. It is worth it.
If you are not used to cooking, consider making the transition into ketosis without adding new cooking skills. Those can come later after you are feeling better.
We’re proud to offer you the No Cook Keto Meal Plan, which is the easiest keto meal plan available. It’s been optimized to get you into ketosis fast with the least amount of fuss and stress possible.
Founder Advantage Meals
Angela earned her Master's Degree in Holistic Nutrition 14 years ago and began her lifelong journey of nutrition and wellness learning. She began keto meal planning and cooking over a decade ago when she began working with local clients who were under the direct supervision of a medical doctor. Angela is the author of No Cook Keto, the easiest keto meal plan available.
Disclaimer: I am neither a licensed nutritionist nor medical professional. I never prescribe diets. I only share my personal experiences and those of my clients for informational purposes only. Nutrition details are provided for informational purposes only, and should not be considered medical nutritional data. You should consult your medical professional before making any major changes in the way you eat.