10 tips to starting a ketogenic diet the right way
Scientific evidence and anecdotal claims suggest going keto results in many benefits – better body composition, improved health, athletic performance and recovery gains are a few.
But completely overhauling your diet isn’t necessarily straight forward (10 mistakes athletes make when going keto) and the ketogenic diet doesn’t work for everyone (The downsides of going keto). For anyone who trains regularly, you can’t afford to make mistakes when going keto as you don’t want your performance, recovery or health to suffer!
Here are 10 tips to start the ketogenic diet the right way and set yourself up for success.
Why do you want to do the ketogenic diet? Is it for fat loss, body composition, metabolic health? Are you interested in the neuroprotective and longevity effects? Or are you a long distance runner seeking to improved performance?
Note down your objectives. Be clear that going keto is the best option for you to achieve that goal. There are usually multiple ways of achieving an objective and choosing the method that best suits (and is simplest) will increase your chances of success.
Your objective for going keto will also assist you with how you use the ketogenic diet and the adaption period that you require to begin gaining benefits
2. Assess current body fat levels
Body fat is essential and important and will influence how much carbohydrate you can intake on the ketogenic diet. Being at a body fat percentage of 30% versus 8%/14% (male/female) is a very different ball game. A body fat percentage of 30% means that there are stores of fat available to metabolism to generate ketone bodies.
If you’re at a lower body fat percentage, you need to keep that body fat, as it’s essential for hormonal balance and insulation. You are also likely to be able to eat a higher level of carbs and still get into nutritional ketosis and this is also likely to benefit your training.
3. Determine energy requirements
Even if you’re following the ketogenic diet to lose fat/optimise body composition, for the first couple of weeks of the diet (minimum), maintain energy intake. The initial period of adaptation may be perceived as a stress to the body. Too many stressors at once may counteract potential benefits – elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol may result in storing fat around the abdomen, whilst breaking down muscle stores. It may also contribute to reduced levels of thyroid hormone T3 (triiodythronine). Not what you want!
The ketogenic diet is well known for its satiating effects which may be problematic for someone who trains regularly/is relatively lean and needs to ensure adequate energy intake for sustaining individual needs and energy availability. Studies show that athletes on the ketogenic diet, lose weight, despite being encouraged to eat as much fat as they’d like (1).
What are the downsides to going keto? details more info on the potential risks of going keto. If you train regularly then going keto may increase your chances of low energy availability and corresponding unwanted consequences, such as reduced performance and recovery, frequent illness, decreased levels of sex hormones, irregular/loss menstruation, brittle bones and risk of fracture etc.
Become familiar with your current energy intake and ensure that you are meeting this on the ketogenic diet. Once you have adapted, consider adjusting your energy intake in line with your training and objectives.
4. Determine protein needs
Protein needs, like energy requirements are very individual, and some of us work better on a lot more protein than others. General recommendations for protein intake are 1.2-2g/kg bodyweight protein, but if you’re active, or aiming to lose or gain weight, then aim for 1.4 g/kg bodyweight up (2). Please note that these are still averages for what is required – this is different to recommendations based on what is best for the individual. Trust what works for you, don’t compare yourself to anyone else and make sure you get enough protein.
Adequate protein intake is also really important for overall health and to support recovery and muscle repair and growth. You also then need to adjust your protein intake to be in line with your objectives – weight loss and muscle gain goals will benefit from a higher intake of protein.
5. Incorporate carbs and time appropriately
Exercise has a significant effect on nutritional ketosis and can get you into nutritional ketosis independent of diet. If you train regularly, without going keto, it’s likely that you dip in and out of nutritional ketosis already. The volume and intensity of exercise you do will determine levels of glycogen depletion and therefore the subsequent amount of carbs you can eat and still be in nutritional ketosis.
Studies show that individuals who are considered healthy can have 15-25% of their energy intake from carbs and be in nutritional ketosis (3). It should be noted that individuals at 5% of energy intake were in nutritional ketosis consistently whereas the other groups were not. However, the study showed that the response to levels of carbohydrate and subsequent bHB (b-hydroxybutyrate) levels is highly individual.
If you train regularly then you will likely benefit from a higher overall carb intake and cycling in higher periods of carbs around your training. Times when you’ll benefit from incorporating some carbs either before/during/after exercise include, intense high intensity exercise, intense weight training, or exercising for longer than 90 mins.
As well incorporating carbs being fine for you remaining in a state of nutritional ketosis (the majority of time) and being beneficial for performance, it’s also helpful for maintaining optimal hormonal balance.
6. Eat mostly whole, unprocessed food
Eating mainly whole, unprocessed foods will result in very different results from eating processed food. You’ll feel better and be healthier. For fat loss, eating real food is considerably more satiating. For improved health, or adaptations for athletic performance, consuming mainly whole foods will provide you with necessary nutrients, beneficial for immune function and overall inflammatory levels.
By focusing on mainly dark leafy and non-starchy vegetables, fresh meats, fish, eggs and low carb fruits such as berries, you avoid fiber levels dropping, important for satiety and bowel movement.
Focus on fat intake within whole food sources and go for predominantly saturated and monounsaturated fats. Sources of saturated fats to choose include butter, lard, gee, eggs and meat. Monounsaturated sources of fat include olives, avocados and macadamias. Be aware of your balance of omega-3/omega-6 balance and focus on increasing omega 3 sources. Omega 3 sources of fats are primarily found in cold water fish, omega 6 sources of fats are found in processed and refined oils (corn, soybean, sunflower etc), grains and meats.
Eating a mainly whole and unprocessed diet doesn’t and shouldn’t be at the expense of enjoyment, socialising, practically and having an overall level of balance. Processed foods may be a handy option at times, for instance – when you’re time strapped, training and need something quick, or just fancy it! Just don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the label ‘keto’ = ‘healthy’. Making a shake is also a quick, practical and tasty solution.
Good options for something sweet/dessert, are dark chocolate, coconut yoghurt/cream and berries. Your taste buds will adapt to eating less sweet food. And if you do want sweeteners like honey, just take into account quantities and timings – like mentioned, if you’re training regularly, there’s no need to cut these foods out even when going keto.
7. Consider it as a tool, not a life sentence
For someone who is more metabolically flexible in the first place and trying the ketogenic diet for a specific objective, such as increasing their capacity to metabolise fats for fuel in their running/cycling races, being in nutritional ketosis continually, nor following a ketogenic diet continually is necessary, nor possibly optimal.
The purpose of the ketogenic diet is to get into a state of nutritional ketosis in order to gain potential benefits from ketone bodies as well as the physiological adaptations that take place. Sure, it’s beneficial to spend a certain amount of time in nutritional ketosis to begin with in order to get the body adapted, but then use nutritional ketosis as a tool, basically periodising your nutrition.
Even if you use the ketogenic diet for other goals such as optimising body composition, it’s still beneficial to cycle in and out of it simply because you keep your body and mind used to utilising carbs to, this can be healthy in the sense of metabolic flexibility and more broadly speaking.
8. Schedule an adaption period
Depending on how well fat adapted/metabolically flexible you are will influence how readily you adapt to being in nutritional ketosis. If you’ve already got the metabolic machinery and insulin sensitivity to access those fat stores readily, your body doesn’t have to change so much versus if you don’t.
How readily you adapt is likely to correlate with levels of discomfort since your body is having to change what it is using for fuel. You may feel lethargic, low in energy and grumpy and your workouts will suffer.
Plan to accommodate this period of adaptation! For the first two weeks of going keto swap your higher intensity exercise for lower intensity workout. Ensure that you’re adequately hydrated, are rebalancing electrolyte levels and are eating sufficient amounts for your energy needs. Look after yourself, make sure you get enough sleep.
A planned adaptation period also enables you to become familiar to the change in your macronutrient ratios and different diet.
9. Ensure you are hydrated and be mindful of electrolyte levels
You will lose significant amounts of water as you go keto and deplete carb stores – since carbs are stored with water. You will also lose the electrolytes that go with the water as well as excreting more sodium due to being in nutritional ketosis. Drink enough to reduce symptoms of the keto flu and avoid muscle cramps, fatigue, headaches, diarrhoea and constipation.
You are also in a more vulnerable position due to regularly training, so just be mindful of your intake of fluids and salts. Good choices for hydration and electrolytes on keto – water, water with dissolved electrolytes, bone broth, and unsweetened kombucha. Also chose nutrient rich foods on a daily basis and just get them blended up in a shake post workout – avocados are great for potassium and cacao is rich in magnesium.
10. Make a plan, commit, trial and assess
You don’t need to get carried away in detail but making a plan, especially when you train, is really helpful – not only does it save time, but it is facilitates you getting a nutrient dense diet and meeting your energy requirements.
Keep meals simple and repeat them when necessary. Cooking whole and unprocessed foods is essentially fast food. Quick and tasty ideas include, omelette with smashed avocados and a side of broccoli, baked salmon, coconut milk sauce and wilted spinach, tray bake chicken thighs olives and cherry tomatoes. None of these require a recipe book and can be prepped in under 15 minutes. You can always cook a few portions at once and mix and match for lunch boxes.
Have go to recipes that you can rely on, easily make, support you meeting your goals and you find deliciously tasty to eat. Shakes with avocados and protein powder are great quick fixes for around training and are opportunities to incorporate more carbs here.
Plans not only avoid the diet being an energy drainer on your mind but also supports you to adhere to the diet despite daily challenges. Following a plan will help you to be able to readily adapt it to ensure you’re eating the right amount.
Bonus tip: Don’t take it too seriously or make it your identity
Following a diet, or a plan can quickly become a set of rules which I would encourage you to move away from. Especially the ketogenic diet, with the testing of blood glucose and ketone levels. Sure, if you are doing it for therapeutic reasons, it’s completely different, but otherwise there is no need to take it too seriously.
If you’re quite in touch with your body, you will know when your body is adapting and has adapted. Look for indicators and signs, but try not to get attached to this. Focus on the objectives that you’re motivated to achieve from the diet and the whys behind what you’re doing.
There is definitely more to you than any diet becoming your identity or consuming your life!
Thank you for reading – let me know your comments below. Have you tried any of these tips? Have I missed out anything you think is key?