Originally designed to treat medication-resistant epilepsy in children, the ketogenic diet has become popular in recent years due to evidence that it can help with weight loss. Whatever the reason you are looking into a keto diet for beginners, we strongly recommend you consult a medical professional before embarking on any large-scale dietary changes.
There are a few things to consider when working out if the keto diet is right for you. You might want to look at specific types of keto, as the percentage of carbohydrates you are allowed to consume in comparison to other macronutrients can differ. You can try a vegan keto if you're not a fan of animal-based foods. It’s also worth considering whether you’ll be able to sustain a keto diet for a period of several weeks or months. And since the goal of the diet is to trigger ketosis, you may need to try different variations and stick to it until your body has entered this metabolic state, so sustainability and motivation are important factors to think about too.
Read on to find out everything you need to know about getting started on the keto diet, including meal ideas and expert advice on how to approach it safely.
The basics of the keto diet
The keto diet is very low carbohydrate, encouraging the body to go into an alternative metabolic state known as ketosis. By cutting out most of the body’s preferred source of energy (carbohydrate) it is forced to use the body’s fat reserves. This creates something called ketones that can be used as an alternative energy source.
As mentioned, the keto diet was designed to treat medication-resistant epilepsy in children, but a review in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (opens in new tab) has indicated that it could also be beneficial in the treatment of obesity. Although, any extreme dietary changes should be taken under the supervision of a doctor or nutritional specialist, who will be able to monitor progress and any side effects you may experience.
Laura Clark, a dietician and food therapist, also says that the keto diet can be used for weight loss, but over 12 months other dietary approaches may lead to similar results. “Keto diets are associated with quicker initial weight losses, mainly due to the loss of water as carbohydrate stores in the body are used up,” she says. “Some people find the satiation achieved with higher protein and fat intakes useful as a weight management tool. However, 12 months down the line, weight loss results between low carb and low fat approaches are similar.”
Types of keto diets
Depending on the percentage of carbohydrates, fats and proteins you are eating, the keto diet can look quite different. Clark tells Live Science that a true keto diet falls into quite specific parameters. “For a diet to be officially 'keto' only 5-10% of daily energy should come from carbohydrates,” she explains. “This means less than 50g of carb per day. This shifts the emphasis towards the other macronutrients in the diet, namely protein and fat.”
Protein intake can range from 10-20% and fat intake is generally 70-80% for a diet to be truly ketogenic, according to Harvard School of Public Health (opens in new tab). This gives you a little bit of scope to experiment with what works for you. Protein has been shown to potentially help with feelings of satiety, according to one study by the British Journal of Nutrition (opens in new tab), so it may help you to lean on a slightly higher protein intake to give yourself some variety.
Keto diet for beginners: How to get started
Dr Nurisa Kumaran, Medical Director and Founder of Elemental Health Clinic (opens in new tab), recommends gently easing into the keto diet. “To get started on a keto diet you need to gradually reduce carbohydrates,” she says. “Start by avoiding sugars and refined carbohydrates to stabilize blood sugar balance, then gradually remove unrefined carbohydrates from the diet.
“Beware of potential keto flu symptoms which are symptoms of irritability, fatigue, headaches, brain fog, muscle cramps and dizziness. This is caused by the changes in fluid and salt metabolism. Increasing water and salt in the diet can help to overcome this. These symptoms are temporary as your body adjusts.”
To make keto easier, Kumaran encourages building your meals around high protein foods. “Center your meals around lean meat, oily fish, eggs and protein rich foods,” she says. “Incorporate plenty of vegetables, particularly low carbohydrate vegetables and salads. Add healthy fat sources such as extra virgin olive oil and nuts.”
Have a look at our guide to 'what fruits can you eat on keto' for a list of low-carb, keto-friendly fruits.
Keto diet for beginners: Breakfast ideas
- Keto pancakes
- Bacon and avocado frittata
Keto diet for beginners: Lunch ideas
- Crustless quiche
- Chili beef in a lettuce wrap
- Grilled salmon salad
- Skirt steak with green salsa
Keto diet for beginners: Dinner ideas
- Barbeque beef steaks with tomato salad
- Grilled lemon chicken with a goat’s cheese salad
- Lamb skewers with tzatziki dipping sauce
- Low carb cauliflower steaks
Keto diet for beginners: Considerations and tips
For those thinking of embarking on a keto diet, Kumaran lists some of the most important considerations:
- Ensure you get adequate protein in your diet
- Ensure you have adequate nutrients from vegetable sources – aim for colorful, low carbohydrate vegetables to meet your antioxidant needs
- Don’t eat excessive fats, particularly saturated fats in dairy and red meat
- Focus on healthy fats, particularly extra virgin olive oil, nuts, oily fish and avocado
- Drink plenty of water, and replenish salts if needed
- Consider meal timings, and combining it with intermittent fasting
- Track your ketosis with a keto monitor
She also advises caution when embarking on the keto diet. “Whilst many health benefits have been found for a keto diet, especially for weight loss, type 2 diabetes, chronic fatigue, brain health and more, it is best to seek advice from a health professional as there may also be negative health consequences, especially with the development of kidney stones and gallstones, rising LDL cholesterol markers, nutritional deficiencies.”
Ketogenic Diet for Obesity: Friend or Foe? (opens in new tab)International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (2014)
Diet Review: Ketogenic Diet for Weight Loss (opens in new tab) Harvard School of Public Health.
Dietary protein – its role in satiety, energetics, weight loss and health (opens in new tab) British Journal of Nutrition (2012)