What is the Ketogenic Diet: What Foods to Eat and How it Works

What is the Ketogenic Diet: What Foods to Eat and How it Works

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What is the keto diet? How about what foods to eat and how a ketogenic diet even works? Sit back and relax, because this post has it all covered, from reaching ketosis to avocados and the distressing keto flu.

The keto diet is well known for being a low carbohydrate diet, but the science of it goes much deeper. Simplified, the goal is to reach ketosis, a natural body process that helps us in survival situations when food intake is low.

During ketosis the body produces ketones from the breakdown of fats in the liver. The body will use ketones as an energy source, once it is no longer supplied with an adequate amount of carbohydrates. The first thing is to get a general grasp on what the keto diet is about. Grasping the general principles is fairly easy, as is learning what to avoid, as I will show in the next section.

What foods you should be eating on the ketogenic diets

Red Meats

Unprocessed meats are keto-friendly since they are low in carbohydrates and if you can find meat from animals that have been raised on a grass-fed diet and organically without any added hormones, that is the best. Processed meats like cold-cuts and sausages often contain additional carbs, so be careful and look at the ingredients list - aim for under 5% carbs.Keep in mind that the ketogenic diet is a high-fat diet, not a high-protein one, so you won’t need to consume huge amounts of meat. Eating more protein than is needed for your body can make it difficult to enter and maintain a state of ketosis.


Seafood is a perfectly good source of protein while on the keto diet, one of the best, especially fish like salmon that have a higher fat content. However, it will be important to avoid packaged fish products that have been breaded. If you can source fish and seafood that has been wild-caught, that is the best.


Eat them, eat them in any way you would like, boiled, fried in heavy butter, scrambled or as omelettes. Buying organic is a healthy option, and consider keeping your intake below 30 eggs per day to avoid a cholesterol spike.

Natural Fat and High Fat Sauces

Most of your calories should be consumed from fat while you are on the keto diet. You will (hopefully) get the most of it from natural sources like eggs, red meat and seafood, but it's important to use heavy and healthy fats in your daily cooking. Focus on using butter, coconut fat, olive oil etc. Additionally, adding Bernaise or garlic butter sauces to the menu might seem indulgent - but trust me - you want to do this, it's now par for the course.


All vegetables are good for you, helping you balance your micronutrients and other necessities, but focus on eating the vegetables that grow above ground - leafy greens as a prime example. Fry your veggies in butter and pour plenty of olive oil on your salads. If you view the vegetables as your fat delivery system it can be a good way to ensure a constant supply of both. Replace your pasta, rice, and root vegetables with other more vibrantly coloured vegetables for the best results.

"The higher the fat the better, that is the rule and law of keto. "


High-fat cheese and yogurts are good in moderation. Use heavy cream for cooking, but avoid drinking milk because the milk sugars add up quickly by themselves. Milk can be used sparingly in coffee, but for the real keto diet, it's best to do away with it altogether, since milk that is commercially available does not have a high enough fat content. The same tip goes for snacking on cheese, it’s just not providing you with enough fat. Butter is to be used as much as possible, including your coffee.


When I first started the keto diet I rushed right out and bought $60 of nuts from our local Bulk Barn. Not only was that a bad idea because it took me 6 months to eat that many nuts, but I hadn’t read the fine print. Nuts can be had in moderation, and definitely not as a daily or hourly snack. Not only is it too easy to eat too many of them when snacking (pulling you out of ketosis) but also certain nuts - like the cashews I adoringly purchased - are also high in carbs. Choosing the right nuts (like macadamia or pecans), and only then in moderation is the best.

What foods you should avoid on the keto diet

Part of learning any diet is receiving some education on what the stores are selling you that is not so good. Ideally this knowledge will be helpful even if you choose not to continue with the diet in the future, but for now, this section will talk specifically about what to avoid on the keto diet.


Sugar is a big no-no, this is a common thread in most diets. Cut out all liquid calories like soft drinks, fruit juices, sports drinks, and sugar water (vitamin water). Avoid sweets, candy, cookies, all baking, muffins, cakes, energy bars, pastries frozen treats (including ice cream), and breakfast cereals.

Reading the labels and scanning for the hidden sugars will serve you very well. Hidden sugars are present in sauces, condiments, drinks, canned food, dressings, and any packaged goods. These are honey, agave syrup, glucose, fructose, maple syrup and several others. Ideally avoid or at least limit artificial sweeteners as well.

Fruit is pretty high in carbs

Fruit contains lots of sugar, so treat fruit as a natural form of candy, which is way out of bounds for being in an effective ketosis state. However, you don't have to go totally fruit-free on the keto diet. Some keto-friendly fruits that contain fewer carbs include avocados, olives, coconut, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, tomatoes, and lemons.


Bread, pasta, rice, potatoes (including sweet potatoes - I know the fries they make are so good), all french fries, potato chips, porridge (oats), and muesli. Whole Grain products are also bad and should be avoided, don’t be tricked into thinking they are a healthier way to cheat.


Beans and lentils are high in carbs, even when the can they come in is not saturated with huge amounts of added sugars.


Is to be avoided, specifically beer. If you can't avoid alcohol altogether, red wine is one of the best options.

Processed Replacement Foods

Margarine for example has artificially inflated levels of fat, no health benefits (despite the packaging images), and research papers have linked it to asthma, allergies, and other inflammatory problems and diseases.

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Balancing your macronutrients

Your body requires many different nutrients from macronutrients (or largest - by daily consumption) to the micronutrients (or smaller - by daily consumption). The diets that work alongside the bodies natural requirements, are the diets that work for you.

The 3 main macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates and lipids

All three of these nutrient groups have different effects on a ketosis state from their digestion, following through, they also will affect blood sugar and hormone levels.

The optimal proteins are typically around 45% ideal for a ketosis state, and roughly 55% suppresses it because insulin levels arise from when over half the consumed protein is converted to glucose.

Carbohydrates are the main roadblocks to a ketosis state being totally anti-ketogenic because they increase blood sugar and insulin levels.

Fats are 90% optimal for a ketosis state, while the other 10% acts as a suppressor of the ketosis state because of the small amount of glucose that is released in the conversion of the fats.It is crucial for the body to have all of these at a certain amount to stay in a healthy form, despite proteins and carbs blocking our transitions into ketosis states. To reflect the different needs of your body there are 3 different keto diet variations.

Types of ketogenic diets

The Standard Ketogenic Diet (SKD)

This style is called the standard for a reason. Not only is this style the most common, but it is by far the best diet to do if this is your first time changing your lifestyle to the ketogenic diet. The SKD is the common diet discussed by people, and it is the best one for the vast majority of the population to follow.

Aim to keep net carbohydrate consumption down to 20-50 grams per day. Typically an intake of 30 grams of net carbs or less will aid significantly in inducing a ketosis state.

Consume adequate levels of protein. Around 0.8 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass for the average person. To get your lean body mass, subtract your body fat percentage from your total weight. After calculating your dietary requirements of protein and carbs, your healthy fat intake should make up the rest of your daily caloric intake.

Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD)

The TKD style variant is meant for people who have a higher workout rate (specifically high-intensity or extended duration) so that you don't suffer energy dips. The Targeted in TKD means you are increasing your intakes before and after workout times.

The TKD is ideal for maintaining exercise performance and allows for glycogen re-synthesis without removing your body from the ketosis state.Whereas the SKD is good for the vast majority of people, the TKD is best for people who know their bodies limit's and have experience with ketosis, so they already know what pushes their body out of the ketosis state.

On the TKD, you're aiming to consume 25-50 grams of net carbs or less within 30 minutes to an hour before exercise. This diet is specifically for those who feel their high-intensity workouts have been suffering due to low sources of blood glucose.

Cyclical Ketogenic Diet (CKD)

The CKD is a style that is designed for bodybuilders and advanced athletes. The CKD uses the principle of the 5/2 cycle or “up/down days,” which involves eating the standard low-carb keto diet for several days followed by a break where eating higher carbs is preferred. This is also called carb-loading, or possibility binging if you don’t back it up with a strict hardcore workout regimen.

The length of time where you carb-load can last between 24-48 hours and usually requires 450-600 grams of carbs per day during that time span. Like the TKD, the CKD is best suited for people who have extensive personal experience with being in the ketosis state and know their limits. The purpose of the carb-loading is not to “take a break” or “go easy” with the diet, but rather to enable them to push further in their personal health goals.

Calculating your calorie needs for a keto diet

Percentage of daily values that you find on the food labels may seem to summarize everything you think you need to know, but those numbers refer to an average person's needs of 2,000 calories per day. There is a pretty good chance that your needs don’t fit in that easily misunderstood grouping. There are several ways to determine your personal caloric needs:

  • Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
  • Physical Activity
  • Thermic Effect of Food

The BMR or Basal Metabolic Rate describes the amount of energy (Kcals) your body needs while resting, which makes up roughly 60-70 percent of the calories burned in a day, with men generally have a higher BMR than women. It is recommended to determine your own BMR and one of the foremost accurate ways of doing that is the Harris-Benedict Formula:

Male: 66 + (6.3x weight in lbs.) + (12.9x height in inches) - (6.8x age in years) = BMR

Example: If I weigh 230 lbs., and I am 6’4 (76 inches) and 30 years old then my BMR is 2,291.4.

Female: 655 + (4.3x weight in lbs.) + (4.7x height in inches) - (4.7x age in years) = BMR

Example: If I weigh 155 lbs., am 5’4 (64 Inches) and 24 years old then my BMR is 1,509.5.Calculate your total daily caloric needs by multiplying your BMR against your appropriate activity level:

  • Sedentary (little or no exercise in a week): BMR x 1.2
  • Lightly Active (light exercise/sports 1-3 days per week): BMR x 1.375
  • Moderately Active (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days per week): BMR x 1.55
  • Very Active (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days per week): BMR x 1.725
  • Extra Active (very hard exercise/sports & physical job or 2x training): BMR x 1.9

Setting protein intake levels for a keto diet

Many people tend to over-consume protein when first trying out the keto diet, and it heavily reduces the effectiveness and efficiency of entering the ketosis state. Follow the formula below to find the optimal amount for yourself.

(Total Body Weight) x (Body Fat Percent) = (Total Body Fat)

So for example, if you weigh 200 lbs and your body fat percentage is 30 percent, your total body fat will be 60 lbs.

(Total Body Weight) - (Total Body Fat) = (Lean Body Mass)

Example: Subtracting your total body fat of 60 lbs from your total weight of 200 lbs will leave your lean body mass at 140 lbs.

(Lean Body Mass) x (0.8 protein limit) = (Suggested Protein Intake)

Multiply your previous result by 0.8 grams, the suggested average protein intake per pound of lean weight, and your protein intake will be 112 grams.

Setting carb intake levels for a keto diet

Sugars abound in the market or stores, while they are naturally occurring in fruits and milk products, they are also added to the majority of food during processing and preparation, or even at the table. While nutritionally they provide calories, they don’t provide a significant amount of vitamins, minerals, or any other essential nutrients.

Additionally, fibres, such as starches are mostly made of sugar units bonded together and break back down into sugar in the body. Some starches are even resistant to the digestive enzymes, making digestion much harder, and ultimately they pass mostly intact through the process and into your large intestine.For these reasons and many more, keto places the restriction on carbohydrate intake to 20-50 grams per day.

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Setting fat intake levels for a keto diet

Demonized as the reason we gain fat, beneficial fats have gained a terrible reputation. The fact that fat has been looked down upon for that reason is simply misinformation and ignorance. Fats are an insanely important part of keeping the human machine operating, and extremely beneficial for working on your body goals. In fact, too little fat in our diet can cause harmful effects.

The fat intake levels you're looking for is to make up all your extra daily calorie requirements. The 20-50 grams of net carbs and the formula for your personal protein intake levels will deliver only so much of your daily caloric needs. Use fat to bring your calorie intake up to where it should be.

Buying keto-friendly foods

Eating before you go and having a list and sticking to it are two very successful strategies for not ending up with an extra bag of chips or that one chocolate bar. Visual Merchandising and Shelf Placement is a whole branch of work in grocery stores that focus on consumer buying behaviours. Items placed at eye level and nearer to the check out tills, sell better and actively create impulse buys.

Use this same principle at home: place ketogenic food staples on eye level shelves, display non-refrigerated keto items on your dining room table in a nice basket. Remove non-keto items from areas you frequent, try super high or super low shelves and cupboards.

"Fiercely defend your grocery cart from the items that are not on your VIP list. If you can win at the grocery store you will win at home because you won't have to struggle directly with the tempting items. "

Keto on the go

This is the best time to be keto, here and now. First, it's where all the change, from who you are to who you want to be, happens. It's important to keep your keto mindset no matter where you are.

Eliminating Starch

Most restaurants will be happy to offer substitutes for similar items or items that share or lower the cost. Ask if they will substitute a salad for that potato side, or remove the bun from your sandwich by creating a lettuce wrap. Even if they will not exchange an item, simply eliminate it from the meal regardless, the money you would “save” by eating the item will cost you more in the long run - your health and diet success.

Adding Fat

Requesting extra butter melted over your veggies or meat is a common request, as is additional olive oil and vinegar for your salads. Keep an eye on the sauces and dressings offered by most restaurants as they often will be mostly carb based, such as ketchup and ranch dressing. If you are unsure about an item, don’t be shy to ask for its ingredients list.

Choosing Beverages

Avoid alcohols and sugared/flavoured beverages at all costs. Ideally aim for water, tea and coffee where you can.


Do you still want that crème brûlée that has everyone at your table anxiously grasping at their forks? Substitute a coffee or tea, if it's late - go decaf or herbal. If you absolutely can't avoid temptation, avoid the obvious and target a cheese plate or heavy cream and some berries. While the last options aren't keto, at least you won't be bombing the diet totally.

Health benefits of ketogenic dieting

Weight Loss

Water weight is always the first to go, but soon after the fat stores in the body will be burned as the body looks for the fuel it needs as it is not receiving enough carbs.

Appetite Control

On diets that are not using carbs as the primary form of body fuel, you will find that your hunger and cravings will drop, and you can stretch out the times you want to eat.

Better Mental Focus

When in a ketosis state your brain uses ketones as a fuel source, which is a consistent source it can rely on, allowing you to focus for longer periods of time.

More Energy

The body only stores so much glycogen and requires you to constantly refuel to maintain energy level when not on keto. However, when following a keto diet your body has plenty of fat to burn and it can store more fat which provides a consistent, slow-burning energy source. This provides even energy distribution throughout the day.

Helps Type II Diabetes

Because the ketogenic diet is a low carb diet and removes all sugar from the menu, it helps to lower the HbA1c count and can effectively reverse Type II diabetes.

Lower Blood Pressure

Keto lowers blood pressure allowing some to even stop taking prescribed blood pressure medication (always check with your physician before removing yourself from prescribed medications).

So is keto a short or long-term diet

While new studies are being approved to look at this exact question, current data is inconclusive. There has been much debate over the health benefits and risks of adopting a body hack diet like keto for a long period of time. The fact remains that there has been no independent, longitudinal studies using qualitative methods that have explored the effect of the ketogenic diet.

The science behind it relatively young despite the ketogenic diet being in use since the 1920’s.Some of the claims suggesting keto is unsafe long term have been disproven, but we lack the essential raw data to prove a specific theory, for either long or short term arguments.

"I recommend trying keto if you are interested and adapt it accordingly to your own experience to make it sustainable or adapt its length and cycle into and out of it."

Cons of the keto diet

Has been found to harm thyroid levels

An unbalanced thyroid can lead to weight gain, hair loss, fatigue, depression and may put you at risk for other diseases.

Potential of nutrient deficiencies

If your food is not varied enough it's easy to come up short in a diet that removes entire food groups.

Low Electrolytes

Keto might require increasing the intake of electrolytes to balance out the body's natural reactions to the keto diet.

Low Blood Sodium

Ensure you are ingesting enough salt, even just a little with every meal will go a long way.


Your water intake should be increased. The suggested amount is 2.5 litres a day, which is around 10-11 cups.

Caution: The Keto Flu

The keto flu is a well-known collection of symptoms experienced by some people when they first start the keto diet. These symptoms can feel similar to the common flu and are caused by the body adjusting to the new diet of much fewer carbs.

Those who typically consume high amounts of carbs usually are at greater risk of experiencing the keto flu and might have a more difficult time adjusting their bodies to the new diet.Some people are able to make the transition without experiencing any of the effects listed here, while others may experience one or multiple of the following symptoms:

  • Vomiting;
  • Constipation;
  • Diarrhea;
  • Headache;
  • Irritability;
  • Weakness;
  • Muscle cramps;
  • Dizziness;
  • Poor concentration;
  • Stomach pain;
  • Muscle soreness;
  • Sleeping difficulty; and
  • Intense sugar cravings.

While experiencing these may be distressing they commonly only last a week, but some have reported lasting a month or more. The best methods to reduce or avoid symptoms are:

  • Staying hydrated;
  • Avoid strenuous exercise;
  • Replace electrolytes;
  • Ensure adequate sleep; and
  • Sticking to the keto guidelines (having enough fats, and low carbs)

About the Author

With over 10 years of providing detailed articles with a strong SEO background in the online market, Addison Jackel has sharpened his experience with his passion for Health and Nutrition. Providing A - Z content management, his editorial expertise has driven social conversations and created communities centred on his clients’ core values. In over a decade of elevating engagement to accomplish his partners’ social media communication goals, Addison Jackel has developed his services as a distinguished writer and editor. His articles balance high fidelity research with a creative and personal approach to readership engagement.