Are you a keto wannabe, or a keto beginner, confused and overwhelmed by the huge amount of information across the internet on how to start the keto diet? Not sure what to do or where to start? Too many things to read, too many rules to follow? I’ll make it so easy for you. There’s only 2 rules to follow when you start a keto diet:
Rule #1: Don’t eat carbs.
Rule #2: Repeat rule #1.
Seriously though… there’s not much more to it. Keto is beautiful in its simplicity, but some bad practices were built around it to over-complicate things – and make someone money. And the easy steps that ease you into keto are rarely mentioned – because they are sold as miracle programs. As anything in life, you can make it as easy or difficult as you want. I know which I prefer.
I strongly advocate keto for life: for me, is not a diet, it’s a way of living. But even if for you keto is only a tool to lose weight, and you intend to stop doing it as soon as you reach your goal (which will probably undo all your work), there’s no need to make things over-complicated.
So, here’s my easy keto start guide, with some science backed myth-busting included. It’s not sexy, but it’s gimmick-free: 7 straight-forward rules (plus a bonus life-saving one!) that make keto easy to start, easy to follow, and easy to go on forever, if you want to.
Rule #1: Quit sugar first
If you stopped eating sugar a long time ago, good on you 👏👏👏 Skip this section and read on. But if you are still eating sugar, it will be much easier for you to start your keto journey if you stop sugar first.
Sugar is addicting. It works on the body as a dependency-creating drug. I’m not just saying that, it’s a real scientific proven fact (1,2). Rats that are given servings of cocaine and sugar get addicted to sugar and not cocaine. Crazy, right?
If you are thinking: Well, that’s hard to do, remember that, to start a keto diet, cutting sugar is really just the beginning. To eat a ketogenic diet you also need to cut all the other carbs, even the ones you might consider healthy, like beans, potatoes, rice and brown bread.
So save yourself from too much pain, and cut sugar first. You’ll have less withdrawal symptoms to deal with. You can still have other carbs as consolation – you’re not keto yet. Just quitting sugar is going to make such an impact in your well being that you’ll be even more enthusiastic about the other incredible health benefits keto might bring you. And you’ll be more confident to start keto, because after quitting sugar, keto is
literally a piece of cake.
Rule #2: Don’t stuff yourself with unnecessary fat
Keto doesn’t mean a high fat diet. Read that again. I know, all the bullet proof coffee and fat bombs recipes on the internet beg to differ. But it’s wrong. Keto is a carbohydrate restriction diet. The other macros – protein and fat – can and should be played with according to your individual goals.
When beginning keto, for the first few weeks, you should be aiming at a higher amount of fat overall, and that’s where all the butter in the coffee jokes come from. You are showing your body, hey, there’s no more carbs coming in. Use this instead!
After your body recognizes and starts using the fat as fuel, if you are interested in losing weight or building muscle, you can drop you ratio of fat and increase the protein.
Fats are there to complete the caloric amount you need to survive. If you don’t want to stock on the extra fat you consume, don’t eat more fat than you need – see rule #3.
Rule #3: If your goal is weight loss, count your calories
Let’s clarify a big misunderstanding about the keto diet: If you are doing the keto diet to lose weight (there are many other reasons for it), you have to count your calories. You might have heard that counting calories on a keto diet is not necessary, because fats are satiating and you won’t eat as much as you would carbs. Yes, you will get there at some point, to this level of keto transcendence. But your body doesn’t re-learn how to recognize satisfaction magically after years of abuse just because you stopped eating carbs. And also… fats are delicious, and after you get the green light on cheese and bacon, do you really think it’s easy to stop?
For weight loss, the little things matter. A lot. Let’s say I ate a full, satisfactory dinner. There’s a bowl of salty nuts nearby. Hmm… Nuts. I’ll have just one, or two. A bowl of nuts later, you just ruined your efforts for that day. Yes, nuts are keto. But they still have calories, no? And if you eat more calories than you spend, you’ll still have them stored in your body.
Keto works so well to make you lose fat because, when you don’t have carbohydrates as a source of fuel, your body will learn how to burn fat instead. So you can burn energy straight from those rolls in your belly, instead of the fast energy from the carbs you consumed. But guess what happens if you eat more calories than you need (even if they are just fat, not one single carb)? Your body is going to use that extra fat for energy, and let the belly rolls comfortably sitting where they are.
Rule #4: Don’t waste time (and money) measuring your ketones
I’ve been keto for a long time and have never felt the need to measure my ketones. If you don’t eat carbs, then you don’t have to. You’ll eventually burn up all the stored glycogen and enter ketogenesis, and it will happen faster than you think. And you will feel it, straight away. The “listen to your body” part (see Rule#6) applies here: being in ketosis feels completely different.
Compare yourself to a car: carbs are the cheapest, cut with crap gasoline, and ketones are the special, expensive fuel for racing cars. It feels different to “run” on ketones than on carbs: you feel better, more energetic, you think clearer, you sleep deeper, and you wake up feeling rested and ready to kick ass. If that’s you, you are in ketosis.
Compare that to how it feels to “run on cheap gas”: You feel hungry all the time, tired all the time. You can’t concentrate, you feel sluggish after eating. You wake up and just want to hit snooze, because it never feels like you are rested enough. You feel lazy. You feel stuffed after eating, and bloated.
If that’s you, your are not in ketosis. See, it’s easy to tell without spending your money on unreliable test strips or picking your fingers bloody, isn’t it?
Rule #5: Avoid the keto flu and carb cravings: do intermittent fasting to speed up keto adaptation
Remember when I mentioned that you’ll burn through all your carbs faster than you think? Your body is ready to enter ketosis naturally after a prolonged fast. The carbs you ate in your last meal are completely gone from your system in about 12 hours, either used as energy on the spot or stored as fat for later. So, basically, depending on your dinner time, you kinda wake up in ketosis every day (3). If you just try to stop eating earlier in the evening and delay eating for a few hours after you wake, you’ll be doing intermittent fasting and your body will be slowly getting used to the idea of burning fat instead of carbs.
Doing so, when you cut the carbs source completely, it won’t be such a shock for your system. You’ll probably not even feel the dreaded “keto flu” symptoms at all. I didn’t, starting keto after 6 months intermittent fasting. And the best part: as you’ll be able to start burning fats right away, you won’t have carb cravings at all. You won’t be missing them.
Rule #6: Don’t “listen to your body”
Your brain is against you. Your body is against you. Don’t believe this “listen to your body, it will tell you what you need” craziness. I know this sounds bad, but face it. Your brain, and your body, evolved over thousands of years of food scarcity. You just had the opportunity to eat when you hunted, or when you got lucky and found a berry bush before it had been savaged by the creature you hunted.
Before agriculture, how often do you think human beings happened on a field of apple trees, or an easy pot of honey, in the wild? We would eat very low-carb, naturally. And on the rare occasions the early humans found these delicious carby, sugary sources of fast energy, what would they do? Eat as much as they could in one sitting, and store all the of the extra energy from what they just consumed as fat, because who knows when they would be able to eat like that again.
You see the problem here? Your brain is still programmed to think like that. You can’t rewire hundreds of thousands of years of learning in a few hundreds. At least not without genetic engineering. High calorie, fast energy food is everywhere now, you can eat any amount you want, at any time. But your body still reacts to it like it had happened on a lifetime opportunity to stock on fat to combat sure starvation. Don’t listen to your body.
Rule #7: Don’t be afraid of proteins
You have to keep your carbs as low as possible to start – a maximum of 5% of your calorie intake. Then you define how much proteins you need (hint: a lot more than you think). So you start planning what your keto meals are going to be. If you eat meat, that’s extremely easy to do: just cut all the sides. Have only the meat! How easy is that? If you choose fatty cuts, the fat is there already. If you really love vegetables (that’s the only reason to eat them), have leafy greens or sauerkraut. To complete your calories for the day, then you add fats: olive oil, avocado, coconut oil, butter, cheese, nuts and seeds. That’s it. Keto is no rocket science.
But… If I have all this meat… won’t the excess proteins turn into carbs and kick me out of ketosis?
First, don’t be afraid of being “kicked out of ketosis”. Your body has been running on carbs for decades, and you’re still alive, so it knows how to handle it. If you are beginning on keto, you should strive to maintain your body running on ketones for as long as possible, so it gets used to it. But after the body re-learns to use ketones as fuel, you’ll be fine going in and out of ketosis. The motor of keto veterans is flex: they’ll burn whatever fuel they have available. That’s why after you are fully keto adapted it is OK to indulge in
recreational drugs carbs once in a while.
Second, you are probably afraid of proteins because you’ve heard about gluconeogenesis, or GNG. GNG is a normal process in your body that occurs all the time, even when you eat a high carb diet. It consists in creating glucose out of sources other than carbs. But having more protein does not make your body create more carbs – glucose – out of it, just for the kicks. It’s a taxing process, and it’s just much easier and more efficient for your body to use the ketones as the main source of energy than having to create it via gluconeogenesis (4).
Protein isn’t even the preferred source material for GNG: The body will prioritize using lactates (a by-product of glucose used in muscle cells), and only then will use alanine and glutamine (amino-acids from protein), and glycerol (from fat). So, fat also fuels gluconeogenesis. Let that sink in for a moment.
The brain thrives on ketones, but still needs the energy from carbs in the form of glucose to function. And your red blood cells don’t use ketones at all, only glucose. The body creates just enough of it to fuel organs that don’t accept ketones. In conclusion, gluconeogenesis is your friend, that keeps you alive and your organs functioning in the event of prolonged starvation – or a keto or carnivore diet. Don’t fear it. This is the most harmful keto myth out there.
Bonus Final Rule: Don’t “give up” on anything that makes you happy!
Eating keto will make you feel full and satisfied. In time, cravings for sugar and carbohydrates will be gone. You’ll be eating the keto foods with pleasure – they are really good. And they make you feel good.
But you might, still, psychologically miss the feelings you associate with certain foods: the comforting smell of warm bread, the togetherness from sharing a pizza with friends. It’s not about craving the carbs or sugar: it’s a behavioral need – you miss the emotions.
One of the happiest recurrent moments of my life is when my husband and I make pancakes and eat them hot while watching cartoons in the morning. It’s a silly ritual, but it brings us so much joy. I don’t know how far I’d have gotten, or if I would even have considered doing lifelong keto if I had to give up moments like this.
My final rule for guaranteed keto success for you is: don’t think in terms of “giving things up”. You are cutting away ingredients that are not nutritious and bad for you, not foods. If you put a little effort into cooking healthy keto versions of your favorites, you won’t have to give up anything. You’ll get the same satisfaction and happiness, with a no carbs, no guilt, no ruining your health bonus. And eating your keto pancakes and pizza is gonna feel amazing. Guaranteed.
1 Ahmed SH, Guillem K, Vandaele Y. Sugar addiction: pushing the drug-sugar analogy to the limit.
2 Lenoir M, Serre F, Cantin L, Ahmed SH. Intense sweetness surpasses cocaine reward.
3 Mattson MP, Moehl K, Ghena N, Schmaedick M, Cheng A. Intermittent metabolic switching, neuroplasticity and brain health.