My previous article walked you through a few things to know before starting a keto diet. But knowing what to do and actually doing it aren’t the same things. So now that you know the basics—what keto is, how it works, and what to focus on—here are some tips for getting started and setting yourself up for success.
As I mentioned last time, keto really isn’t that big a deal. It’s only as complicated, difficult, and expensive as you make it for yourself. The single most important thing is keeping your carbohydrate intake very low. If you have the financial means to consume solely organic produce and grass-fed or pasture-raised animal foods, that’s a great way to go. But if you’re on a tight budget and your go-to grocery shopping strategy is to get whatever’s on sale at your local supermarket or discount chain, you’ll do just fine. Keto isn’t about the provenance of your food; it’s about keeping carbs low.
But like I also said last time, even though keto is just regular ol’ food minus the sugar and starch, for many people, this is a pretty radical change. No more cereal or toast for breakfast, no more mid-afternoon latte and muffin. No more pasta dinners, no more post-workout fruit smoothies. Whether going keto will be just a mild shift from what you’re eating now, or it will be a massive overhaul of your entire diet, here’s some advice to make it easier, more convenient, and more delicious! After all, if a diet—keto or any other way of eating—is difficult, complicated, and forces you to eat things you don’t like, you’re not going to stick with it for long. So here’s to making keto simple and fun.
Give Your Kitchen a Makeover
A key factor in keto success is surrounding yourself with suitable foods, and only suitable foods. This is easy if you live alone, but more difficult if you live with family or housemates who aren’t jumping aboard the keto train with you. Let’s look at the former scenario first and tackle the latter one in a bit.
Clear out your kitchen! If you’re ready to start keto and you want to start now, get rid of everything that’s not appropriate for a ketogenic diet. Purge your pantry, cupboards, fridge, and freezer of all high-carb items. Don’t wait until you finish them all up. Ditch them now. If you’re starting keto to lose weight or improve a serious health issue, those foods aren’t doing you any favors, so why would you want to finish them? Toss ‘em! (Consider taking all sealed and non-perishable items to a local food bank or shelter.)
Depending on the style of keto you’re going for—there are lots of different ways to do it—get familiar with the foods that will become staples of your diet, and go stock up! The details will vary, but the core foods you can count on to work for any iteration of keto include fatty meats (beef, lamb, pork, poultry, bison, game meats), seafood, eggs, nuts and seeds, and non-starchy vegetables. High-fat dairy products, like cheese, butter, cream, and sour cream, are fine if you tolerate dairy.
Stock up when things are on sale. On a keto diet, your freezer is your friend. Fill the freezer with fatty meats—steaks, sausages, ground meats, pork chops, bacon, roasts, chicken thighs or drumsticks—whatever you like. Also, keep a few fatty protein options in the fridge. Having all that nice meat on hand doesn’t do you do any good if it’s frozen solid. Remember to always have a couple of options defrosted and ready to go. When the meat is defrosted, cooking may only take a few minutes depending on the cut.
Do the same with frozen vegetables. If you have space in your freezer, stock up on the ones you like. Broccoli florets, brussels sprouts, chopped spinach, blends of peppers, and mushrooms. Most supermarkets even have frozen riced cauliflower and spiralized zucchini noodles for convenient keto cooking. (When buying frozen veggies, make sure they’re plain and unseasoned, or watch out for the carb grams per serving if they do have sauce or seasoning.)
Eggs on sale? Keto jackpot! Buy several dozen. Use your own discretion, but the “expiration” or “sell by” date on an egg carton is really just a general guide. Properly refrigerated, eggs last a very long time, and they’re a gold mine of perfect fat, protein, and micronutrients for keto.
Prep Your Environment
Keto will be easier to stick to if you prepare large quantities of food ahead of time so there’s always something ready to go. Vegetables are great to have on hand, but what if you get home from work and you’re tired and hungry? You don’t want to start from scratch with peeling and chopping things when you’re exhausted after a long day. (Suddenly that pizza delivery menu will start looking really good…)
Whether you’re cooking for a crowd or just for one, never cook only enough for one meal. In most cases, it doesn’t take any longer to cook a large amount of food than it does a small one. If you’ve got the grill going anyway, don’t bother cooking just one or two steaks or chicken breasts. Grill five or six at a time—or more. You can have one for dinner and have another, cold, sliced into strips and dipped in blue cheese or ranch dressing for lunch the next day. Or use it as the protein on top of an entrée salad for dinner. Make steak & eggs later in the week for breakfast, or use pre-cooked steak and chicken in fajitas for dinner one night.
If you live in an apartment or some other arrangement where grilling isn’t feasible, use your oven in the same way. Invest in a large glass baking tray or rimmed metal baking sheet. Bake or roast eight or ten chicken legs or pork chops at a time. Most of it’s hands-off time, so while those are cooking, you can wash, peel, and chop vegetables for the week.
You can roast or steam a massive pile of broccoli or cauliflower all at once. Use it throughout the week with different seasonings each time. Using different herbs, spices, and even cooking fats, can make the same ingredients taste like an entirely new dish. Dice a mountain of onions, zucchini, and/or bell peppers. Sautee them with salt and pepper for a bit and store them in a container in the fridge. Since they’re already cooked, they’re an almost-instant side dish for any meat, or you can use them in an omelet. Just reheat and add whatever seasonings you like—curry powder, Italian seasoning, Tex-Mex, sesame ginger. The possibilities are endless, and it’s all entirely customizable to your own taste preferences.
Take advantage of the kitchen appliances and gadgets that make cooking quick and easy. Slow cookers, pressure cookers, and air fryers are good for making large pieces of meat that you can enjoy over the course of several days. (Keto pro-tip, for those who don’t want to cook every day: embrace leftovers!) Slow cookers and pressure cookers can help in the budget department, too: cuts of meat that are tough tend to be priced lower than tender, premium cuts, but when cooked using one of these tools, they end up melt-in-your-mouth soft.
Hard-boiled eggs are a common grab & go keto snack. If you’re boiling the water anyway, why bother with just a few eggs? Boil one or two dozen. You’ll thank yourself all week when hunger hits and all you have to do is open the fridge and snag one. The same goes for sausage links and bacon. Learn to enjoy certain foods cold. Cooking bacon? Don’t mess around with two or three strips. Cook the whole package; cold bacon is a dynamite keto snack. (Bake in the oven rather than frying on the stovetop for easier cleanup.) Sausage links are another ideal keto grab & go option. Fry or bake a few packages at once and fatty protein will always be handy.
What about non-perishables? This is easy since they require no preparation and no refrigeration. Keep a supply of keto-friendly foods to use as meals or snacks: canned seafood (tuna, salmon, sardines, mackerel), pork rinds, low- or zero-sugar beef jerky or meat sticks, nuts and seeds, cheese crisps, pepperoni, and salami. (These might call for refrigeration after they’re open.)
The name of the game here is, be prepared. Keto recipes abound online, and there are some incredibly creative and enticing keto cookbooks out there. Your cooking can be as intricate as you’d like. You can prepare a five-course gourmet meal every night if that’s your thing, but if keeping things simple will make it easier for you to stick to keto for the long term, all you really need to do is base your meals around a fatty protein and round out with low-carb vegetables if you choose to.
Doing Keto Alone in a Houseful of People
Getting rid of all high-carb foods is easy if you live alone. But what if you live with family or housemates, and you’re the only one doing keto? This definitely makes it harder. Your storage space will be limited if your fridge, freezer, and cupboards need to accommodate your keto-friendly foods in addition to the sugary and starchy fare the rest of your household prefers. One strategy is to have a designated cabinet, drawer, or pantry shelf that’s for you and only you. Keeping your keto goodies separate from other food might help limit your exposure to things that are off-limits.
Navigating the fridge will be more difficult. You can’t completely blind yourself from seeing others’ high-carb foods and beverages. You might just have to shore up your mental reserves and stay strong. Remind yourself often of the reasons why you’re doing keto. It’s pretty rare that anyone eats this way just for fun, so chances are you’re looking to lose a significant amount of weight or make a dent in a health problem. Whatever you’re trying to accomplish, are those foods going to help you get there, or will they only set you back?
Don’t assume it’s going to be difficult, though. Sure, you’ll be avoiding many of the foods you might have consumed daily for most of your life, but the good news is, for many people, sugar cravings disappear pretty quickly once they get carbs out of their diet. It doesn’t happen magically overnight for everyone, but many people are pleasantly surprised when they experience for themselves how much they don’t long for high-carb foods. There might, indeed, be times when you have to white knuckle it, but tell yourself that sugar cravings aren’t life-or-death emergencies. They’re not pleasant, but no actual physical harm will come to you if you power through and don’t give in to them. Remember: feeding the sugar beast doesn’t make it go away. It makes it hungrier for more. (A good way to satisfy a sweet craving, though, is to keep a Keto Chow shake in the fridge, and rather than drinking it all at once for a meal, take a swig once in a while to quench the sweet demon.)
Ketogenic diets are so good at regulating appetite that beyond weight loss and beyond better blood sugar control and other improvements in health, for some people, the best thing about keto is that—for the first time in their lives—they’re not hungry all the time. Not thinking about food constantly. Not planning lunch in the middle of breakfast, and not fantasizing about dinner before lunch is done. Intrusive thoughts of food no longer plague them 24/7. They’re freed from the shackles that kept them tethered to sugar all day. I can’t promise this will happen for you, but consider the possibility that sticking with keto will be easier than you think it will be.
As for cooking, don’t make this more complicated than it is. Family meals don’t need to change much. If you’re the “head chef” in your household, don’t become a short-order cook, making customized meals for everyone at the table. Household members who are doing keto can have fatty protein and vegetables; the others can have the same meal plus a starch or a sugary dessert. Don’t reinvent the wheel. It’s just food.
Have “The Talk” With Your Family
The physical logistics of making room for keto-friendly foods in a shared kitchen are easy compared to navigating the mental and emotional aspects of being a lone keto dieter in a home shared with carb eaters. If you have a spouse, significant other, and/or children in your home who won’t be joining you in eating keto, it’s a good idea to set some boundaries.
Ideally, your loved ones will be supportive of you implementing a lifestyle change to improve your health. They don’t have to eat the same foods you do, but they should respect you enough to understand that you have reasons for changing your diet, and they can be positive and encouraging around you.
That’s the ideal scenario, though. More likely, there’ll be someone or perhaps multiple people in your life who will feel threatened by the changes they’ll see in you and they’ll end up sabotaging you, intentionally or unintentionally. Sabotage may come in the form of “food pushing” – “Oh, you can have just this one taste,” or, “Aren’t you going to have any dessert? I made this just for you!” It can even present as passive aggression—eating your favorite high-carb foods right in front of you, on purpose.
Food triggers powerful feelings in people. Sometimes this is because those around you who are not making changes may feel like you’re judging them (even if you don’t give a hoot about what anyone else eats), and significant others may be worried that if your physique or health changes substantially, they might not be “good enough” for you anymore. These feelings have nothing to do with you and everything to do with the person expressing them. Their fears. Their insecurity. They don’t genuinely want to sabotage you; they’re just scared. They might not even be able to recognize that this is what’s going on, but you know, and now you can navigate those relationships with tact and grace.
People get awfully worked up when people close to them make changes in their life. A new job, a new diet: anything that threatens to change the status quo and alter relationship dynamics can make people uncomfortable. It’s simply human nature and none of us is immune. Spouses and significant others can feel especially threatened when their partner makes a major change—especially one that might result in significant weight loss.
If people close to you express negativity about you doing keto, consider having a polite and calm conversation about this. Let them know you understand their perspective but make it clear that you’re making these changes because you want to live a better life. If obesity or a major health issue is compromising your quality of life, then improving these things can only make you a better spouse, parent, friend, sibling, or coworker. Having a frank and honest discussion about how your health or your weight is affecting you—physically and mentally or emotionally—and sharing openly with them can provide them an opportunity to do the same. Perhaps they know their own life is limited because of similar issues but they were afraid to be honest about it. Opening the conversation can help both of you.
In other situations, it’s best to keep your mouth closed. The quickest way to turn others off to this way of eating is to proselytize about it. Don’t be “that person”—the one who can’t eat anything without commenting about how many carbs it does or doesn’t have. You don’t want people judging you or commenting on your low-carb food selections, so give them the same respect with regard to the foods they eat.
If someone expresses curiosity or specifically asks you for information, then sure, point them in the direction of some good resources. But whether it’s about diet or pretty much any other topic, one thing most people don’t like is unsolicited advice. So don’t give any. Even when you feel moved to. Even when you think keto could really help someone in your family or circle of friends. The best way to get someone interested in keto is to serve as a silent example of the incredible things this diet is capable of doing. Let your results speak for themselves and you won’t have to convince anyone to try it. They’ll come around on their own.
Be Prepared for it to be Difficult – or Not!
I explained a little about the “keto flu” in my previous article. Keto flu is the nickname for the unpleasant things some people experience as their body transitions from being fueled mostly by carbohydrates to being fueled mostly by fat. I said “some people” experience it, because despite the alarming warnings in keto circles, most people don’t go through a rocky adjustment period. Most people sail through and feel great pretty quickly on keto, but you do need to be aware of what to expect in case you’re someone who has a few hiccups.
If you ditch the carbs and have more energy, clearer thinking, and a well-controlled appetite right from the start, great. But be prepared with plenty of salt and magnesium supplements if you have headaches, muscle cramps, or feel dizzy or lightheaded. (If you’re taking medication for diabetes or high blood pressure, work with a doctor who’s on board with you trying keto, because your medications might need adjusting very quickly after starting keto. Some of what you think is keto flu might be effects of being overmedicated.)
So What Are You Waiting For? Get Started!
Now you have no more excuses. You know what to be aware of before starting keto, and you have practical tips to jump in and do it. So get going. You can radically transform your health, and all you have to do is eat delicious food! That’s right: just regular food. What you don’t need to start keto is MCT oil, bone broth and collagen powders, ketone pills, gadgets, apps, and meters. It’s fine if you want to play around with all that later on, but when you’re just starting out, use your money where it will serve you best: on your food.
You’ve watched a bunch of videos, listened to some podcasts, lurked on a few forums, and you’ve decided you’re gonna do it: you’re gonna try this keto thing. Great! Come on in, the water’s fine! And guess what? It’s as simple as cutting sugar and starch out of your diet and keeping all other carbohydrates to a minimum. Do that, and congratulations—you’re doing keto!
But wait a minute…
Not so fast.
While it’s true that all you really need to do to get started is to eliminate the majority of carbohydrates from your diet, there are a few things to be aware of before you jump into this. Let’s take a look at what you need to know before starting keto.
- Make sure you understand what keto really is.
Contrary to what you might see on social media, keto isn’t about adding butter and coconut oil to everything you eat, and it’s not about eating piles of bacon covered with bacon, with a bit of bacon on the side. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that bacon part!) Rather than “keto,” think of this way of eating as very-low-carb. When you frame it that way, you put the emphasis where it belongs: on keeping your carbohydrate intake very low. This is the single most important part of a ketogenic diet. What makes a diet “keto” is not the presence of mountains of fat and oil, but the absence of the carbs.
You don’t need any special gadgets or gizmos to be successful on keto. This is a way of eating, not an erector set for a Mars excavator robot. You might’ve seen videos of people checking their blood sugar or ketone levels with special meters, and pictures of people’s kitchen counters decked out with bottles of MCT oil, keto bone broth protein powder, and keto coffee creamers. If you’re a data lover—and you have a couple of thousand extra dollars floating around—you’re welcome to use these kinds of things. But if you want to keep things low-tech and simple, know this: keto is about one thing: keeping your carbohydrate intake very low.
Your body isn’t a computer. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in math to figure out your “macros” or how many calories you should be eating. Keto doesn’t work by magical percentages of fat, protein, and carbs in your diet. You don’t need to calculate your diet down to the last microgram so that you “hit your fat macro” or “don’t eat too much protein.” What you need to do is keep your carbohydrate intake very low. Period.
- Have realistic expectations.
Keto is a very powerful way of eating that can radically transform your health and physique. But keep in mind that your transformation might not be as fast as you’d like it to be. Don’t compare your results to anyone else’s. We are all unique individuals, with our own genetics, dietary and medical histories, and lifestyle habits. Use other people’s successes as motivation and inspiration, but don’t “compare and despair.” Start where you are, and follow your own path. If you do the right things, you’ll get to your goals; the journey might just take a little longer than you wish it would.
If you’re specifically in this for fat loss, heed these words and save yourself a mountain of frustration and disappointment: women, don’t compare your rate of fat loss to a man’s. Men tend to lose weight more quickly on keto, even when they’re not as strict with the diet. It’s unfair, it’s infuriating, but it’s just the way it is. You can’t fight biology. Your fat loss will come; it’ll just come more slowly than it does for the men in your life. And older folks, don’t compare your fat loss to that of someone younger. There are always exceptions, but as a general rule, younger people lose fat more quickly than older people. Younger people have faster metabolisms. You can envy them that, but look on the bright side: you probably have more than ten dollars in your checking account.
Another note about fat loss: the more you’re looking to lose, the more quickly it’ll come off—at first. If you have a substantial amount of weight to lose, a good rate of loss is about 1-2 pounds per week. People who have less to lose will probably lose more slowly. If you’re new to this way of eating, you might lose several pounds in the first week or two but then things will slow down. This is normal and to be expected, so be ready for it. If you find things going slower a few weeks into keto, don’t worry that you’re doing something wrong.
Whatever you’re looking to achieve with keto—fat loss, relief from migraines, more energy, clearer skin, lower blood sugar—some of it might happen right away, but other things will take longer. Play the long game and be patient. Be on the lookout for beneficial things keto is doing for you even if you haven’t gotten to your main goal. (See point 8).
- Be prepared for keto flu.
Ah yes, the dreaded “keto flu.” The truth is, most people make the transition to keto with no problems. But some people experience a few hiccups as their body adjusts to life without sugar and starch, so it’s important for you to know about these in case they happen to you. The first thing to know is, these issues will be mild and temporary. They’ll pass quickly and they’re a small price to pay to feeling great and experiencing all the benefits of keto once your body adapts.
The most common issue is headaches. You may also feel dizzy, lightheaded, nauseated, or fatigued. Most of these can be prevented by taking in more salt. As I mentioned in a previous article, ketogenic diets increase your body’s need for sodium. Skimping on salt is usually the cause of headaches, lightheadedness, and feeling sluggish on keto. Be generous with salt and sodium in your diet: either sprinkle it liberally on your foods or add it to your beverages, or be sure to incorporate salty foods into your diet—things like bacon, olives, pickles, or pepperoni. Not a fan of those? Make a cup of broth using a bouillon cube for an easy sodium boost.
If you experience muscle cramps (especially in the legs) that you can’t attribute to overexertion, extra magnesium usually helps. Magnesium also helps with constipation, which some people experience on keto. If sodium alone doesn’t help with headaches, add magnesium; it’s helpful for headaches, too. (Check out the electrolytes from Keto Chow for convenient ways to get sodium and other important minerals.)
- Get professional guidance on medication.
If you take medication for diabetes (either type 1 or type 2) or for high blood pressure, you must have medical supervision when you start keto. This is not negotiable! Ketogenic diets are so powerful for normalizing blood sugar and blood pressure that you may need to adjust your medication doses with days of starting. For people with type 2 diabetes, insulin injections sometimes need to be stopped on the first day of starting the diet.1 (And people with type 1 might need to adjust their dose on day one.) If you take the same amount of medication you needed when you were eating a high-carb diet, but now you’re on a very low-carb diet, you might end up overmedicated, and this comes with effects ranging from dizziness and fatigue to more dangerous things, such as passing out.
Don’t adjust medication on your own. Work with a physician or other qualified medical professional who can advise you on changing your medication safely, as needed.
- Get baseline blood tests.
You don’t have to have any blood tests done before starting keto, but I recommend it—you’ll want to have something to compare to after a few months so you can see how much things have improved! Your body will give you loud and clear signals about how keto’s working for you—more energy, less joint pain, no more brain fog or heartburn—but it can be rewarding to also see objective proof that eating delicious food has had a positive impact on your health. Plus, if weight loss is a bit slow or you’re not getting closer to another goal you have, seeing certain measurements go in a favorable direction can help keep you motivated to stay on plan.
For a good baseline before starting, I recommend a comprehensive metabolic panel (CMP, which includes fasting glucose and liver enzymes), complete blood count (CBC), hemoglobin A1c, fasting insulin, C-reactive protein (CRP), and a lipid panel (cholesterol & triglycerides). Most of these are pretty standard tests, but you might have to specifically request fasting insulin. It’s not a routine test, but it’s important. For the lipid panel, ask your doctor if they can order a particle size test. (This isn’t essential, but it’s nice to have if you can get it.) If you suspect you might have a thyroid problem, ask for a comprehensive thyroid panel. (It’s important to ask for a comprehensive panel. If you ask for a “thyroid test,” many doctors test just one or two things, but a comprehensive panel provides much more information about thyroid function. See here for details.) If you’ve been taking antacid medication for a while—either by prescription or over-the-counter—consider asking for a vitamin B12 test. Antacids interfere with the absorption of vitamin B12, which is critical for energy levels and healthy neurological and cognitive function.
- Know how to order in restaurants.
In an ideal world, everyone would cook all their meals at home from scratch. But over here in the real world, where you and I live, dining out is one of life’s small pleasures. Whether you do it because you don’t like to cook, because it’s convenient, or because it’s a kind of treat and doesn’t have to cost a fortune, chances are you’ll find yourself in a sit-down restaurant or at a fast food drive-thru sometime after starting keto. Now that bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, beans, and noodles are off-limits, what can you order?!
Dining out or grabbing food on the go is easy. Just ask to swap out starchy sides in favor of non-starchy vegetables or a salad. Most restaurants will have no problem substituting steamed broccoli or roasted brussels sprouts for a baked potato or scoop of rice. At fast food places, bun-less burgers or grilled chicken are good ways to go. (Pro tip: ask for burger patties or grilled chicken patties a la carte if you don’t want the lettuce, tomato, and other toppings. It’s cheaper to just get the meat.) Tex-Mex places will serve you meat, veggies, and cheese in a lettuce bowl instead of wrapped in a tortilla. Just skip the rice and beans.
If you’re on the road and need to grab something quick from a convenience store, you’ll have no problem finding suitable items. With string cheese, nuts, pork rinds, pepperoni, and low-sugar beef jerky, there’s practically a smorgasbord of keto-friendly foods at these places now. If you’re passing by a grocery store, it’s even easier: grab some deli counter lunchmeat, a rotisserie chicken, canned fish (with a pop-top for easy opening), and/or pre-cut vegetables from the produce department. Many supermarkets have fresh salad bars now. These are perfect for a quick keto meal: lettuce, spinach, bell peppers, cucumber, radishes, mushrooms, turkey, ham, hard-boiled egg, shredded cheese. Being in a hurry or being on the road doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your low-carb ways. (See here for more tips on staying keto while dining out.)
- Go easy on yourself.
Some people sail right through transitioning to keto. What? I can eat ribeye steaks, macadamia nuts, and Gruyere cheese and lose weight? Where do I sign?! But for others, this way of eating is a struggle to get used to. When you’ve spent your entire life eating cereal, granola, bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, ice cream, fruit smoothies, and other sweet and starchy things, it can be difficult to let go of them.
When you think about it, keto really isn’t that big a deal. It’s just no sugar or starch. Other than that, you’re eating the same meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy, and low-carb vegetables you’ve always eaten. However, for some people, this is a really big deal! Be patient with yourself if you don’t master keto right away. (I sure didn’t!) Do the best you can, and if you find yourself faceplanting into a cupcake six days in, make sure you faceplant into just one cupcake, and not the whole box. Get back on the plan right at your next meal. Not tomorrow, not Monday, but immediately.
If you have trouble sticking to keto, it’s okay to ease into it gradually, rather than giving up carbs cold-turkey. The best way to experience the full effect of keto is to do it full-on right from the start, but if that all-or-nothing mindset has tripped you up in the past, then make a slower transition to this way of eating. A good way to approach this is to eliminate one high-carb food category each week. For example, week one: no fruit. You can still have bread, pasta, rice, beans, etc., just no fruit. Week two: no fruit and no pasta. You can still have bread, rice, beans, potatoes, etc., just no fruit or pasta. Each week (or even every two weeks), remove a high-carb food from your diet, and eventually, you’ll be on keto. It’ll take you longer to get there this way, but if doing it slowly helps you actually do it, that’s all that matters. Better to make a gradual transition and stay with it than to jump in overnight but have to restart every two weeks.
- Give yourself non-weight milestones.
Weight loss is just one of many reasons people adopt a keto diet, but since it’s probably the most common one, here’s something to keep in mind if you’re doing keto to lose weight. Look beyond the scale to assess whether keto is doing anything good for you. A lower body weight is only one thing on a long list of what keto can help you achieve. Looking for positive effects unrelated to your weight can keep you motivated to stay on plan if a weight loss stall or plateau has you feeling frustrated. Do you have brain fog? Acne? Acid reflux? What about migraines, hypoglycemia, hypertension, or low energy? Keto is good for all of these, and more. Research shows that metabolic health can improve substantially—including metabolic syndrome being reversed—even when you don’t lose a significant amount of weight.2,3 Here’s a list of 14 ways to tell if keto is working for you besides weight loss.
So, yes, if you want to start keto right now, all you have to do is stop eating sugar and starch. But keeping these 8 points in mind will set you up for success and give you a boost if your enthusiasm for this way of eating starts to wane in the early days. In a future article, I’ll give you some real-world strategies for making keto simpler and easier to stick with for the long term.
- Westman EC, Tondt J, Maguire E, Yancy WS Jr. Implementing a low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet to manage type 2 diabetes mellitus. Expert Rev Endocrinol Metab. 2018;13(5):263-272.
- Hyde PN, Sapper TN, Crabtree CD, et al. Dietary carbohydrate restriction improves metabolic syndrome independent of weight loss. JCI Insight. 2019;4(12):e128308.
- Feinman RD, Volek JS. Low carbohydrate diets improve atherogenic dyslipidemia even in the absence of weight loss. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2006;3:24.
Apart from the well-documented benefits ketogenic diets provide—like weight loss1, lower blood sugar and blood pressure2, and improved cardiovascular risk factors3—people commonly report sharper thinking. Brain fog disappears, and it’s smooth sailing for cognitive function. Is this—no pun intended—all in people’s heads, or is keto genuinely good for the brain?
Your Brain on Glucose & Insulin
There isn’t much published scientific research specifically studying the effects of ketogenic diets on brain function in healthy humans outside the epilepsy world, so we can’t say for certain that keto is “good” for the brain. However, we do have a pretty good idea of what’s not good for the brain: chronically high blood sugar and insulin.
Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure—two conditions rooted in high blood sugar and/or insulin—are among the risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease (AD). In fact, researchers now regularly call AD “type 3 diabetes,” and you might also come across the term “brain insulin resistance.”4,5 The links between metabolic syndrome (driven by chronically elevated insulin) and cognitive impairment are so strong that researchers also use the phrase “metabolic-cognitive syndrome.”6
The reason AD is called “type 3 diabetes” is that the primary problem in the brain of someone with AD is that neurons in affected regions of the brain are no longer metabolizing glucose properly—that is, they cannot convert glucose into energy, so they’re basically starving for fuel. Calling AD “a brain form of diabetes”4 is helpful because it immediately makes a connection to problems with glucose, but it misses what might be an even more important factor in this energy shortage in the brain: chronically high insulin.
Millions of people have normal blood glucose (a.k.a. blood sugar) levels, but very high insulin, and having chronically high insulin—even when blood sugar is normal—is a major risk factor for AD. This is independent of family history or genetics: if you have high insulin most of the time, you have an increased risk for developing AD. According to one study, compared to people with normal insulin levels, those who had high insulin but who were not diabetic had double the risk of developing AD.7
What about when your blood sugar is just a little bit higher than normal? What if it’s slightly elevated but not so high that you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes? Here we also see some frightening data. One paper said it pretty clearly: “… even in the absence of manifest type 2 diabetes mellitus or impaired glucose tolerance, chronically higher blood glucose levels exert a negative influence on cognition, possibly mediated by structural changes in learning-relevant brain areas.”8 In plain English: people with higher blood glucose had worse cognition than people with lower glucose, and this was probably due to changes in the physical structure of the brain. This echoed earlier research which had similar findings—elevated average blood glucose may be a risk for dementia even at levels lower than the diabetic range.9
Alzheimer’s is only the most severe manifestation of the adverse effects of chronically high blood sugar and insulin on the brain. What about when things are in a much milder state? Could this be what we casually call brain fog? When your blood sugar fluctuates wildly throughout the day, it’ll reach some big highs and drop to some precipitous lows. Nervousness, anxiety, confusion, and difficulty speaking are some of the brain-related effects of acute hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).10
So if chronically high blood sugar has a negative influence on cognition11, then it’s possible that keeping blood sugar within a healthy range could have a protective influence. We can’t say this for certain, but it’s a pretty safe bet that you’re better off having normal levels of blood sugar and insulin compared to chronically high levels of either.
Fueling the Brain
Well-meaning friends and family who tried to steer you away from keto may have peppered you with arguments about the brain “needing carbs,” or perhaps a medical or nutrition professional even warned you that your brain would starve on a low-carb diet because the brain needs 120 grams of glucose every day. Let’s set the record straight on this.
It’s true that your brain needs glucose. There’s no denying that. But a need for glucose doesn’t equate to a need for lots of sweet and starchy carbohydrates in your diet—or any carbs, for that matter. The human body is the ultimate reuse and recycle machine. It’s great at converting things into other things—moving and changing things here and there like some kind of wondrous biochemical Jenga game or Rubik’s cube. (Remember those?!) One of the things your body is great at making out of many different raw materials is glucose. You can make glucose from amino acids (from protein), glycerol (from fats), and from a few other starting points—no bagels, pasta, bread, rice, or cookies required!
One thing is clear: the brain is an energy hog. Sources differ, but as a general ballpark, your brain represents only about 2% of your body weight, but it sucks up nearly 20% of your body’s energy.12 But does all this energy have to come from glucose, or can the brain use some other fuel instead?
According to researchers, the brain metabolizes about 120 grams of glucose per day “under conditions of normal glucose availability.”12 But what about under other conditions? What about in someone eating a very low-carb or ketogenic diet?
Well, as I mentioned, your body can make all the glucose it needs in-house. If your brain absolutely required a certain amount of glucose every day and your body couldn’t supply it, no one would ever survive more than a day or two of fasting. So either your body has no problem generating 120 grams of glucose in the total absence of dietary carbohydrate, or maybe your brain doesn’t need quite that much glucose if it’s being fueled by something else.
In addition to being great at recycling, your body—and brain—are like hybrid cars. They adapt to running on whatever fuel you give them. Most cells in your body can use glucose, fats, or ketones. Your brain can use glucose and just a small amount of fat, but it’s a champ at using ketones. Look at this breakdown of how much of your brain’s energy supply comes from ketones at different blood levels of beta-hydroxybutyrate (βOHB).
|Blood ketone level|
|Proportion of Brain|
Data from reference 12.
Even people not on ketogenic diets could achieve a blood ketone level of 0.3–0.5 mM or higher if they do a hard workout and it’s been a few hours since their last meal. 1.5 mM is easily achievable when carbs are very low. The higher numbers in this table would likely only be seen in someone doing an extended fast, but levels in between—2.0–4.0 mM, for example—could provide a substantial amount of fuel for the brain and are not unheard of in people doing strict ketogenic diets.
Is it essential to be in ketosis, then? No. A few billion people all over the world who have a healthy cognitive function but who are not on ketogenic diets show us this implicitly. But based on the research we explored earlier, what probably is needed for healthy cognition throughout life is maintaining healthy blood sugar and insulin levels. Keto is certainly one way to do that, but everyone’s carb tolerance varies. Some people will have to stay ultra-low-carb most of the time; others can be more generous.
Exciting Research in Alzheimer’s and Traumatic Brain Injury
Getting back to the association between diabetes, metabolic syndrome (MetSyn), and cognitive impairment, some small-scale research suggests that ketogenic diets and other lifestyle interventions that help correct MetSyn may also improve cognitive function. Ketogenic diets combined with exercise, intermittent fasting, or brain training games were shown to reverse mild cognitive impairment (MCI, the precursor to Alzheimer’s) in three subjects, one with type 2 diabetes and two with MetSyn.13,14,15 The diabetes and MetSyn were also greatly improved, and while we can’t say for certain that those improvements caused the reversal of cognitive impairment, it’s a plausible hypothesis.
Most of the research looking at ketones as an alternative brain fuel to glucose in Alzheimer’s disease have used exogenous ketones or MCT oil rather than ketogenic diets. This is disappointing but understandable. It can be difficult even for young, healthy, able-bodied people to adhere to strict ketogenic diets. Now imagine someone with cognitive impairment, who might also have limited mobility and capacity to cook. Caregivers already face heavy burdens in looking after their loved ones; trying to force them to make dietary changes they’re opposed to only makes things harder. Plus, by using exogenous ketones or MCT oil without changing someone’s diet, researchers narrow down confounding issues that might cloud the results. If a subject’s cognition improves when their ketone levels are elevated from MCT oil or exogenous ketones, then it’s more likely that it’s a direct result of the ketones and not something else, like weight loss, better blood sugar control, less inflammation, or other things we know keto typically leads to.
Elevated ketones, by themselves, aren’t a slam dunk for radically improving Alzheimer’s or cognitive impairment. But let’s not dismiss even minor beneficial effects, especially considering that right now, there are no effective treatments for AD. Generally speaking, these studies show that at least some people have improved cognition when their ketone levels are elevated.16-19 In MCI, the brain energy deficit is specific to glucose, and “at least partially correcting this deficit with ketones results in cognitive improvements.”16
Ketogenic diets and exogenous ketones also show potential in improving recovery from traumatic brain injury (TBI). Almost all the research in this area has been done in animals, but it’s encouraging and holds promise for people affected by these devastating injuries. TBI and AD have a surprising amount of overlap, first and foremost, a reduced capacity of the brain to convert glucose into energy.20-22 TBI also results in increased free radicals, mitochondrial damage, an increased need for antioxidants, increased susceptibility to neuronal death, and other issues that ketones themselves or the collective effects of ketogenic diets can address.23
Using ketogenic diets or exogenous ketones as therapy in TBI is in its infancy, but one thing that has been well known for a while is that higher blood sugar is associated with worse outcomes in TBI patients. So why not adopt a nutritional strategy that keeps blood sugar in a healthy range and gives neurons an alternative fuel to glucose? Research in animals and humans suggests that a switch to a ketogenic state might help to protect damaged neurons.20,24
Spotlight on Vitamin B12 and Choline
Vitamin B12 is a crucial factor for anyone concerned about brain health and cognitive function. Outright B12 deficiency and milder subclinical insufficiency are common, particularly among older people who may be consuming fewer foods rich in B12, and whose digestive capacity may be waning, making them less able to absorb B12 from the foods they do consume. Inadequacy of this critical nutrient comes with a long list of signs and symptoms, including confusion, memory loss, dementia, dizziness, altered mental status, depression, apathy, paranoia, mania, delusions, psychosis, and hallucinations.25 So yes, it’s fair to say that suboptimal B12 status could have a major impact on the brain.
With this in mind, it’s possible that raising B12 levels is another way keto may be beneficial for the brain, entirely separate from its influence on blood glucose, insulin, and ketones. An omnivorous ketogenic diet that includes red meat, eggs, pork, seafood or shellfish, provides plenty of B12. People may have been eating these foods all along, even before keto, but when sugary and starchy carbs are off the menu, replaced by fats and proteins, it’s possible people get more B12 than they did before.
Consuming foods rich in B12 doesn’t guarantee your blood levels will increase or be maintained at healthy levels, though. As we mentioned in a previous article, eating certain foods doesn’t automatically mean you’ll digest them effectively and absorb the nutrients they contain. So if you know you have compromised digestive function, consider getting your B12 level checked (it’s a simple blood test), and take supplements if warranted. B12 is found only in foods from the animal kingdom, so lacto-ovo vegetarians can get B12 from eggs and dairy products, but strict vegans must supplement.
Choline is another nutrient critical for brain health and neurological function. It’s an essential part of all cell membranes, and is a precursor to acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that affects “memory, mood, muscle control, and other brain and nervous system functions.”26 Patients with Alzheimer’s may have lower levels of acetylcholine compared to healthy people, and one class of drugs used to treat AD is designed to reduce the breakdown of this critical compound.27
Your body synthesizes choline, but only in small amounts—not enough to meet the full demands, so you need to get some from your diet. Some of the richest sources of choline are the foods commonly consumed on ketogenic diets: eggs, red meat, pork, seafood, plus nuts and seeds, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts. Plant foods contain choline, but animal foods are more concentrated sources. To the extent that increased dietary choline may be providing more raw material for acetylcholine, this might be another way low-carb or ketogenic diets may be beneficial for the brain.
Ketogenic diets are impressive for helping people lose weight, banish acid reflux28, reverse non-alcoholic fatty liver29, improve hormone balance in PCOS30,31, and for many other health issues. It stands to reason that this very low-carb way of eating would also be beneficial for the brain. So if you’re doing keto and you’ve noticed improved mental clarity and cognitive sharpness, it is in your head—and in the rest of your body, too.
Wondering how keto affects mental health? Stay tuned. We’ll cover that in a future article.
- Staverosky T. Ketogenic Weight Loss: The Lowering of Insulin Levels Is the Sleeping Giant in Patient Care. J Med Pract Manage. 2016;32(1):63-66.
- Westman EC, Tondt J, Maguire E, Yancy WS Jr. Implementing a low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet to manage type 2 diabetes mellitus. Expert Rev Endocrinol Metab. 2018;13(5):263-272. doi:10.1080/17446651.2018.1523713.
- Bhanpuri NH, Hallberg SJ, Williams PT, et al. Cardiovascular disease risk factor responses to a type 2 diabetes care model including nutritional ketosis induced by sustained carbohydrate restriction at 1 year: an open label, non-randomized, controlled study. Cardiovasc Diabetol. 2018;17(1):56. doi:10.1186/s12933-018-0698-8.
- de la Monte SM. The Full Spectrum of Alzheimer’s Disease Is Rooted in Metabolic Derangements That Drive Type 3 Diabetes. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2019;1128:45-83. doi:10.1007/978-981-13-3540-2_4.
- Frazier HN, Ghoweri AO, Anderson KL, Lin RL, Porter NM, Thibault O. Broadening the definition of brain insulin resistance in aging and Alzheimer’s disease. Exp Neurol. 2019;313:79-87. doi:10.1016/j.expneurol.2018.12.007.
- Frisardi V, Solfrizzi V, Seripa D, et al. Metabolic-cognitive syndrome: a cross-t