The low-carbohydrate keto diet has made it into the mainstream, with everyone from Al Roker to Vinny from “Jersey Shore” touting its weight-loss benefits (Vinny even wrote a keto cookbook). You probably know that keto involves eating lots of meat and no carbs, and might have heard something about having to test your urine to see if you’re really in ketosis, but are you still unsure exactly how it works? Well, here’s a breakdown of what the keto diet actually is, what you can and cannot eat on it, and what you can expect if you try it out.
What Is the Keto Diet?
The keto diet is essentially a low-carb, high-fat diet that tricks the body by taking advantage of its own natural processes. The process of ketosis is the breakdown of fats that are stored in the liver. Back in the olden days when food was a lot harder to come by, ketosis was the process that kept humans alive and energized until they found a food source.
Nowadays, we tend to take in a LOT of carbohydrates. The thing about eating carbohydrates is that the body produces glucose (which is essentially sugar) when the carbs break down. That glucose is super easy for our bodies to convert to energy, so the body uses glucose for energy and stores our fats away.
The keto diet seeks to cut back on carbs so much that the body has no choice but to enter ketosis. With no carbohydrate intake, there’s no glucose to convert to energy; the body would have to break down fats for energy instead of storing them to plump us up. So, the keto diet is light on carbs, and heavy on fats. A lot of people take issue with the concept that a fatty diet can also be a weight-loss diet, but it really is all about forcing your body into breaking down that fat and using it for energy.
What Is Ketosis & What Are Ketones?
Ketosis is the process of burning fat for energy, and is also the state you’re in when that process occurs.
When we burn fat, our livers produce ketones, chemicals that are released as acid in the bloodstream; these can be very harmful if you have diabetes, but if you’re generally healthy, your naturally occurring insulin and other hormones should regulate your ketone level while your muscles, organs, and tissues will use them for fuel.
Many people choose to test either their urine or their blood to make sure they are in ketosis, by monitoring the level of ketones they’re producing. (Therefore, many consider testing strips an essential keto tool.)
What Are the Health Benefits of Keto?
For those who are not diabetic, it turns out that having a good amount of ketones in your body has a lot of benefits. The ketogenic diet has actually been used since the early 1900s to treat symptoms of epilepsy, and it may be beneficial in treating those with Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease.
For the more casual keto dieter, the primary benefits include weight loss (hats off to the Keto Guido), greater mental focus (though, paradoxically, mental fogginess can be a side effect in the beginning as you withdraw from sugar and carbs), an increase in physical energy, and even a curbed appetite (because you’ll feel fuller longer).
When you pair the keto diet with an exercise regimen, you’ll find your blood sugar and cholesterol are much more under control and your skin may clear up too.
Are There Drawbacks to Keto?
Besides the aforementioned issues with diabetic ketoacidosis, there are some concerns about keto and heart disease, and it can also be harmful if you have high blood pressure or are on any medications. Even if you don’t have any preexisting conditions, you should always consult your doctor or a registered dietitian before starting any diet, keto included.
So, What Can You Eat on Keto?
All meats are on the table, as you shouldn’t neglect protein. Eggs are also acceptable! All leafy greens and above-ground vegetables like broccoli are going to be very important, as well. Despite Vinny tearing the cheese off his pizza, hard cheeses are actually keto-approved. So are high fat creams, butters, and saturated fats (yes, you can eat bacon on a diet). Remember, you want to force your body to break those fats down. For a snack, rely on nuts, seeds, avocados, and berries. You can also explore fat bombs.
Related Reading: The Best Keto Costco Buys | The Science Behind Making Keto Bread That Doesn’t Suck
What Can’t You Eat on Keto?
You’d be surprised at some of the things you should avoid on the ketogenic diet. You may think all fruit is acceptable, but apples, bananas, and oranges have a very high glycemic impact, which means that your body would break down the glucose in these fruits for energy instead of fat. That’s the opposite of what you want! The reason you can stick to berries is because there is not nearly as much natural sugar present in berries as there is in, say, a banana. Any sweeteners you use should be low-carb (like stevia), and you should avoid agave, honey, maple syrup, and the like. Finally, you should really be taking in less than 15 grams of net carbs a day, so avoid wheat, rice, corn, potatoes and other tubers and starchy vegetables.
Related Reading: The Best Plant-Based Swaps for the Carbs You Crave
A Sample Keto Meal Plan
To make sure you get off on the right foot, here’s a day’s worth of keto meals—from breakfast to dessert—but see a more thorough guide to keto meal planning for more ideas and tips. And don’t forget about keto Instant Pot recipes!
I also like this book that’s easy to follow and cook from:
Simply Keto: A Practical Approach to Health & Weight Loss, with 100+ Easy Low-Carb Recipes, $19.21 on Amazon
Breakfast: Egg Muffin Cups
Not only are these super easy to make, but you can get really creative and still stick to the keto diet. Ham and cheese, buffalo chicken, and jalapeño popper are just some of the many flavor combos you can enjoy. Get the Egg Muffin Cups recipe.
12-Cup Silicone Muffin Pan, $8.99 on Amazon
Ideal for making egg muffins too.
Lunch: Bacon Cheeseburger Salad
You absolutely read that right. I promise, it’s totally OK to enjoy this salad. It’ll keep you full until dinnertime and it’s incredibly low in carbs. Get the Bacon Cheeseburger Salad recipe.
I said you could enjoy bacon on a diet and I meant it. This seems like the most indulgent dinner in the world but it’s totally keto-friendly. As a side for this tasty meal, I recommend a cauliflower mash (because remember, potatoes are no bueno). Get the Parmesan-Crusted Chicken with Bacon Cream Sauce recipe.
Dessert: Keto Fudge Brownies
Header image courtesy of TanyaJoy/Shutterstock.