A keto diet for beginners
A ketogenic diet – or keto diet – is a low-carb, high-fat diet. It can be effective for weight loss and certain health conditions, something that’s been demonstrated in many studies.
A keto diet is especially useful for losing excess body fat without hunger, and for improving type 2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome.
In this beginner’s guide, you’ll learn how to eat a keto diet. Our visual guides, recipes, meal plans, and simple two-week Get Started program are everything you need to succeed on keto.
Learn more about keto and…
Reduce carbs, get plenty of protein, and add fat for flavor and fullness.
What can keto do for you?
If you want to lose weight or improve blood sugar with little hunger and without counting calories, it’s a great option.
Is keto safe?
Keto is generally safe, but there are potential side effects and some people need precautions.
1. What is a keto diet?
When you eat far fewer carbs, your body begins to burn fat for fuel. This can put your body into a metabolic state called ketosis. In this state, your liver turns fat into small energy molecules called ketones, which your brain and other organs can use for energy.Eating a keto diet lowers insulin levels, often dramatically, which can help you access your body fat stores for energy. Many studies show significant weight loss on keto, without having to count calories. Keto diets may have other positive health effects, such as reducing blood sugar levels. In ketosis, your liver uses fat (from your body and diet) to create ketones that your brain can use for energy. Fat also fuels your muscles. Read more Eating a keto diet lowers insulin levels, often dramatically, which can help you access your body fat stores for energy. Many studies show significant weight loss on keto, without having to count calories. Keto diets may have other positive health effects, such as reducing blood sugar levels.
Learn more about ketosis
The keto video course
You can quickly learn more about the keto diet in this video course.
Watch the entire 8-part video course
Precautions before starting a keto diet
There are controversies and myths about a keto diet, but for most people, it appears to be very safe. However, two groups often require medical supervision:
- Do you take medication for high blood pressure? More >
- Do you take medication for diabetes, such as insulin? More >
Some people should avoid keto altogether:
- Do you breastfeed? More >
For more details about the pros and cons in different situations, check out our full guide: Is a keto diet right for you?
2. What to eat on a keto diet?
Here are typical foods to enjoy on a ketogenic diet. The numbers are net carbs per 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of food.
To remain in ketosis, foods with lower counts are generally better:
What’s the most important thing to do to reach ketosis? Avoid eating too many carbs. You’ll likely need to stay under 50 grams of net carbs (total carbs minus fiber) per day, ideally below 20 grams.
The fewer carbs you eat, the more effective the diet appears to be for reaching ketosis, losing weight, or improving type 2 diabetes.
Counting carbs can be helpful at first. But if you stick to our recommended foods and recipes you can stay keto even without counting.
For more on specific topics – like what fruits or nuts to eat on a ketogenic diet – check out our popular visual guides:
With the right strategy, creating keto meals is easy.
One way is to start by picking a protein source, such as meat, fish, seafood, eggs, or tofu. Then, to complete your meal, choose two low-carb vegetables and add a healthy source of fat.
What to drink
What can you drink on a ketogenic diet? Water is the perfect drink, and coffee or tea are fine too. Ideally, use no sweeteners, especially sugar.
A splash of milk or cream in your coffee or tea is OK, but beware that the carbs can add up if you drink multiple cups in a day (and definitely avoid caffe lattes!). The occasional glass of wine is fine, too.
Try to avoid
Here’s what you should avoid on a keto diet – foods containing a lot of carbs, both the sugary and the starchy kind. This includes foods like bread, pasta, rice and potatoes. These foods are very high in carbs.
Also, avoid or limit highly processed foods and instead fill your diet with our recommended keto-friendly food options.
Keto macros: Carbs, protein, & fat
When following a keto diet, the idea is to eat very few carbs, a moderate amount of protein, and just as much fat as you need to feel satisfied, rather than stuffed.
Limit carbs to 20 or fewer grams of net carbs per day, or 5 to 10% of calories. Although it’s possible that you may not need to be this strict, eating fewer than 20 grams of net carbs every day virtually guarantees that you’ll be in nutritional ketosis. Learn more >
Eat enough protein to meet your needs. Most people need at least 70 grams per day, or 20 to 35% of calories from protein. Learn more >
Include enough fat to add flavor. There’s no reason to add lots of fat unless you need extra calories. Plus, many whole foods like eggs and meat contain plenty of fat. On a keto diet, about 60 to 75% of your calories come from fat. Learn more >
Keto diet recipes
We have hundreds of fantastic keto diet recipes.
Here are the most popular ones:
3. Keto results —
how can it benefit you?
Weight loss without hunger
Science shows keto and low-carb diets are often effective for losing weight. 1
In fact, more than 30 high-quality scientific studies show that, when compared to other diets, low-carb and keto diets lead to greater weight loss.
Why do keto diets work so well for losing weight? As discussed earlier, being in ketosis lowers insulin levels, which can help you access your body fat stores more easily.2
Another reason may be that keto diets help people naturally eat less, as a result of feeling more satisfied. 3
Also, very low-carb diets may potentially have a weight loss edge over diets with more modest carb reduction.5
More than 250 people have shared their stories of losing weight — and achieving other health improvements — by following a keto lifestyle.
Check out our full guides to learn more about keto and weight loss:
Control or reverse type 2 diabetes
Keto and low-carb diets can provide powerful blood sugar control for people with type 2 diabetes. Why? Because carbohydrates raise blood sugar much more than either protein or fat. To lower blood sugar — and potentially reverse type 2 diabetes — eat fewer carbs. It can be that simple.
Keto and low-carb diets can provide powerful blood sugar control for people with type 2 diabetes.6
This makes perfect sense, since carbohydrates raise blood sugar much more than either protein or fat.8 To lower blood sugar, eat fewer carbs. It can be that simple.
In fact, keto and low-carb diets can reduce blood sugar so much that insulin and other diabetes medications often need to be reduced — or, in some cases, discontinued altogether. 9
You can read more than 200 success stories about people who improved or reversed their type 2 diabetes with keto.
Also, check out our complete guide to reversing type 2 diabetes.
health & blood pressure
Control type 1 diabetes
People with type 1 diabetes need to take insulin injections no matter what type of diet they eat. However, low-carb diets often improve blood sugar control and reduce the risk of hypoglycemia (dangerously low-blood sugar).
Improve fatty liver disease
In non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), too much fat is stored in the liver. Recent research suggests a keto or low-carb diet may help reduce or even reverse NAFLD.
Consuming a lot of refined carbs or sugar can be especially problematic.14 And although the exact mechanism isn’t completely understood, insulin resistance and high insulin levels are known to drive excessive storage of liver fat. 15
Fortunately, eating a low-carb or keto diet may help reduce liver fat, improve insulin resistance, and potentially even reverse NAFLD.16
Learn more in our complete guide, Fatty liver disease and keto: 5 things to know
Other potential benefits
Although there’s less high-quality research about the benefits of a keto diet for other conditions, emerging evidence suggests that it might be helpful for some people — and for many, it’s certainly worth trying
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Mental health
- Physical endurance
4. How to get into ketosis
Ketosis is a metabolic state in which your body uses fat and ketones rather than glucose (sugar) as its main fuel source.
How can you get into ketosis quickly and stay there? Here are three things to know:
- Eat less than 20 grams of net carbs per day. Cutting way back on carbs can help you get into ketosis rapidly, often within a few days.
- Avoid eating too often: If you’re not hungry, don’t eat. Intermittent fasting or even just eliminating snacks can help you get into ketosis faster.
- Measure ketones.Testing for ketones in your blood, breath, or urine can confirm that you are indeed in ketosis. Each of these methods comes with pros and cons. For a detailed comparison, see our full guide to the best way to test ketones.
5. Common mistakes
The “perfect” approach to keto will likely differ from person to person. But to help you get ahead of the game, here are some common mistakes to try and avoid to achieve keto success.
Going overboard with fat
Have you heard that fat is a free food on a keto diet, or that if you want to lose fat, you should eat more fat? The truth is that eating too much fat prevents your body from using its stored fat for energy. So, go easy on fat if you’re trying to lose weight. Learn more >
Eating too many nuts and dairy products
Most nuts and some dairy products (cheese and Greek yogurt) are keto-friendly. However, their carbs and calories can add up fast if you eat too much — and these tasty foods are easy to overdo. For best results, keep portion sizes small. Learn more >
Fear of too much protein
Are you concerned that eating a lot of meat, eggs, and other high-protein foods will lead to gluconeogenesis (literally “making new glucose”) and raise your blood sugar? You don’t need to be. Studies in people with type 2 diabetes suggest that protein has little to no effect on blood sugar levels.17 Learn More >
Chasing higher ketone levels
Being in nutritional ketosis means that your blood ketone levels are between 0.5 and 3.0 mmol/L. However, higher levels don’t appear to be any better than lower levels for weight loss. In fact, you don’t necessarily need to be in ketosis to lose weight. Learn more >
6. Intermittent fasting & keto
Some people on a keto diet choose to also practice intermittent fasting to speed up weight loss or when trying to reverse type 2 diabetes.
Intermittent fasting involves cycling between periods of fasting and eating. When eating a keto diet, many people feel hungry less often. And since we advise eating only when you are hungry, this means that you might naturally begin to eat fewer meals a day — or you may deliberately plan fewer meals to match your reduced appetite. For some people, this could mean eating two meals a day (often skipping breakfast). For others, this could mean eating once a day, which is often referred to as OMAD, meaning “one meal a day.”
Want to learn more about the potential benefits of intermittent fasting — or need information on how to get started? Read our full guide to intermittent fasting >
7. The keto flu & side effects
Once you’ve been on a keto diet for a few weeks or more, you will likely feel great and have lots of energy. However, the first few days to weeks can be tough, as your body switches from burning mostly glucose to burning mostly fat for fuel.
When your body makes this shift, you may experience what’s commonly known as the “keto flu.” It happens as a result of changes to your body’s balance of fluid and minerals when you begin eating very few carbs.
Symptoms of keto flu include:
- Lack of motivation
- Difficulty focusing (“brain fog”)
- Muscle cramps
- Less energy for intense exercise
Fortunately, you can minimize these symptoms before they start by replenishing fluids and salt. Good strategies include drinking a cup or two of salty broth or being liberal with the salt shaker.
Also, remember that these symptoms are temporary. As your body adapts to its new way of getting energy — from fat instead of sugar — symptoms should quickly subside.
Learn more in our complete guide: The keto flu, other side effects, and how to cure them.
8. Keto FAQBefore getting started, you may have a few — or perhaps even several — questions about keto diets.
Here are a few of the more commonly asked questions about keto:
Is keto safe?
For most people, eating a keto diet is safe. However, as mentioned earlier, if you take medications for diabetes or high blood pressure, you should speak with your doctor about adjusting your medications.
Those who should avoid being in ketosis include breastfeeding women and people with rare metabolic conditions that are typically diagnosed in childhood.18
Learn more about ketosis and ketoacidosis.
Keto diets aren’t harmful to your heart, kidneys, or bones either.
Read more about why keto diets are overwhelmingly safe in our guide, Top 17 keto and low-carb controversies.
How much weight can I expect to lose on keto?20
Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to this question.
Most people lose about 2 to 4 pounds (1 to 2 kilos) during the first week. Some people lose even more.
Keep in mind that a good portion of this is water weight, though. After the first couple of weeks, weight loss often slows down quite a bit. While a lot of people continue losing about 1 pound (0.5 kilo) of weight a week, many others lose more or less than this.
Weight loss typically slows down as you approach your goal weight. If your weight loss hasn’t budged for several weeks or months, check out our Top 10 tips to break a weight loss stall.
And remember that a “normal” body weight varies depending on the individual. This is based on your genes, health history, and other factors you have little control over.
Read more in our guide, Weight, health & happiness: striking the right balance.
How will I know whether I’m in ketosis?
Sometimes, you’ll have a pretty good idea when you’re in ketosis21. Among the most common signs are:
- Dry mouth or a metallic taste in the mouth
- Increased thirst and more frequent urination
- “Keto breath” or “fruity breath,” which may be more apparent to others
- Initial fatigue, followed by an increase in energy
- Decreased appetite and food intake (one of the more welcome side effects!)
However, the only objective way to verify that you’re in ketosis is by checking your ketone levels.
Learn more in our guide, The best way to test ketones in blood, breath, or urine
What is the difference between keto and low carb?
Keto and low-carb diets differ by how many carbs they contain, and sometimes by which foods are included.
At Diet Doctor, we define keto and low-carb diets by the following:
Keto: Less than 20 grams of net carbs per day
Moderate low-carb: Between 20 and 50 grams of net carb per day
Liberal low-carb: Between 50 and 100 grams of net carbs per day
On a keto diet, carbohydrates are minimized to achieve ketosis. On a low-carb diet, ketosis may occur, but it isn’t a goal.
More questions and answers:
9. How to start a keto diet now
Before starting a keto diet, check with your healthcare provider if you take:
- medications for diabetes
- medications for high blood pressure
In general, you should discuss any significant diet or lifestyle changes with your doctor.
If you are breastfeeding, a keto diet may not be right for you at this time. You can still limit unnecessary carbs without eating a strict keto diet. Learn more >
After you’ve gotten the go-ahead from your healthcare provider, just follow the next few steps:
1. Get a fresh start
Improve your chances for success by using this guide to clean out your fridge, freezer, and pantry.
3. Shop and restock
With your plan in hand, it’s time to grocery shop. Use this shopping list of low-carb foods to guide you.
Here’s our leaflet with basic keto advice. Print it out, put it on your fridge — or give it to your curious friends!
More on getting started
1. Clean out your fridge, freezer, and pantry.
Toss or give away the sugary and starchy foods. You can use our kitchen clean-out list to help you make sure your kitchen is keto-friendly when you start your diet.
If you share a house with someone not joining you on keto, discuss getting rid of the foods that are most likely to tempt you and storing the rest in an out-of-the-way spot.
2. Create a simple plan for the week.
A simple plan for keto meals will help keep you on track. If you are not handy in the kitchen, plan for meals that are easy to put together from basic ingredients. Meals should always include a protein source. Add a vegetable or two, plus butter, olive oil, or cheese, and you’re all set.
Or, if you are comfortable in the kitchen, try our weekly meal plans. They make getting started even easier for you. Check out our free 14-day keto meal plan. You’ll get keto recipes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for two weeks.
3. With your plan in hand, shop and restock.
Focusing on keto-friendly foods you love, restock your fridge, freezer, and pantry. You can use this shopping list of low-carb foods to guide you.
But you don’t need to buy everything at once. Choose foods you currently enjoy. You might add in some items you’ve been avoiding because you’ve been counting calories or restricting fat. You may be happy to know that bacon, cheese, and many kinds of nuts are keto-friendly.
The following steps are optional, but might help you find motivation and support as you get started:
4. Take “before” pictures and measurements.
This gives you a baseline, from which to track your progress. You may be amazed at how quickly things improve.
5. Sign up for our newsletter.
Join DD plus, and become a part of our members-only Facebook group. You’ll get resources to help you stay on track and meet others who are starting their keto journey.
Several meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials (RCTs), considered the highest level of scientific evidence, conclude that low-carb diets are often more effective than low-fat diets for losing weight: The British Journal of Nutrition 2013: Very-low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet v. low-fat diet for long-term weight loss: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials [strong evidence]
The British Journal of Nutrition 2016: Effects of low-carbohydrate diets v. low-fat diets on body weight and cardiovascular risk factors: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials [strong evidence] Learn more↩
Journal of Medical Internet Research 2017: An online intervention comparing a very low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet and lifestyle recommendations versus a plate method diet in overweight individuals with type 2 diabetes: a randomized controlled trial [randomized trial; moderate evidence]
For example, in a small study, 10 overweight adults who followed a non-calorie-restricted, very low-carb diet ended up reducing their usual intake by 1,000 calories, on average — even though they were allowed to eat all the fat and protein they wanted:
Annals of Internal Medicine 2005: Effect of a low-carbohydrate diet on appetite, blood glucose levels, and insulin resistance in obese patients with type 2 diabetes [non-randomized trial; weak evidence] ↩
This finding has been referred to as the “metabolic advantage” of low carb. In two studies, people who had previously lost weight were found to burn between 200 to nearly 500 more calories per day on a low-carb maintenance diet compared to a higher-carb maintenance diet:
This is mainly based on the consistent experience of low-carb clinicians, and stories from people trying different levels of carb restriction [weak evidence].
Additionally, one meta-analysis of RCTs found that very-low-carb diets limited to 50 grams of carbohydrates per day resulted in greater fat loss than low-carb diets that provided about 40% of calories from carbs:
Obesity Reviews 2016: Impact of low‐carbohydrate diet on body composition: meta‐analysis of randomized controlled studies [strong evidence for fat mass loss on very low-carb diets in particular] ↩
Meta-analyses of RCTs have shown that low-carb diets consistently outperform other diets for blood sugar control:
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2018: Effects of low-carbohydrate- compared with low-fat-diet interventions on metabolic control in people with type 2 diabetes: a systematic review including GRADE assessments [strong evidence]
Diabetes, Obesity & Metabolism 2019: An evidence‐based approach to developing low‐carbohydrate diets for type 2 diabetes management: a systematic review of interventions and methods [strong evidence] ↩
In a 2019 position statement, the American Diabetes Association stated: “Reducing overall carbohydrate intake for individuals with diabetes has demonstrated the most evidence for improving glycemia and may be applied in a variety of eating patterns that meet individual needs and preferences:”
]This has been demonstrated in several clinical trials:
European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2017: The interpretation and effect of a low-carbohydrate diet in the management of type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials [strong evidence]
Frontiers in Endocrinology 2019: Long-term effects of a novel continuous remote care intervention including nutritional ketosis for the management of type 2 diabetes: A 2-year non-randomized clinical trial [non-randomized study; weak evidence] ↩
In reviews of RCTs of low-carb and low-fat diets, metabolic health markers improved the most in those who ate very low-carbohydrate or ketogenic diets:
The metabolic syndrome consists of hypertension, abdominal obesity, low HDL (below 40 mg/dl in men or 50 mg/dl in women), triglycerides above 150 mg/dL, and elevated fasting glucose. ↩
In one trial, all 22 participants had such impressive results after eating a ketogenic diet for 12 weeks that they no longer met the criteria for metabolic syndrome:
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2012: Sucrose-sweetened beverages increase fat storage in the liver, muscle, and visceral fat depot: A 6-mo randomized intervention study [randomized trial; moderate evidence] ↩
Hepatology Research 2018: Comparison of efficacy of low-carbohydrate and low-fat diet education programs in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease: A randomized controlled study [randomized trial; moderate evidence]
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2020: Effect of a ketogenic diet on hepatic steatosis and hepatic mitochondrial metabolism in nonalcoholic fatty liver disease [non-controlled study; weak evidence] ↩
These include enzyme deficiencies, which interfere with the body’s ability to make and use ketones or to properly digest fats: