The ketogenic diet may be controversial, but it’s undeniably popular. Some nutrition experts call keto’s fat-embracing, carb-slashing focus too extreme. Even so, fans say keto isn’t just an effective weight-loss diet — it’s a lifestyle in which they thrive.
Toni Iafrate is a keto believer. “I’ve been on keto religiously for just about a year now,” says Iafrate, a 43-year-old communications professional in the Boston area. Within the first two months, she says, “I was amazed — not just with the weight loss, but with my mood, my weight, my emotions, my energy, my sleep pattern. I wasn’t getting headaches. Even to this day, I feel as energetic as I did in high school.”
If you’re interested in trying keto, these tips can help you know what to expect, make healthier, tastier food choices and stay strong on the keto bandwagon.
Start with a simple framework.
What motivated Iafrate to make this major dietary change? “I’ll never forget waking up and stepping on the scale and thinking to myself: Boy, Toni, you have to do something,” she recalls. “I was lacking energy, my sleep was horrendous, I was getting constant headaches — and I just didn’t feel good about myself.”
That’s when she jumped into keto with both feet. Her advice is to ease into keto eating, rather than worrying about elaborate meal plans or recipes. “Start simple,” she suggests. “Use a simple framework for every meal: a protein, a green vegetable, a healthy fat.”
Purge your kitchen.
Many diets — including keto — commence with a ruthless purge of forbidden foods, followed by resupplying your fridge and pantry with diet-friendly items.
Iafrate notes that unlike commercial diets, for which you have to buy their branded food, a keto kitchen restock is fairly simple. “You can just go to the grocery store, have the right list, have the right stuff you want to stock your fridge with and get rid of the stuff that may tempt you,” she says.
In her purge, Iafrate shed two full bags of non-keto foods. “I’m 100% Italian,” she says, and previous staples like bread and pasta now had to disappear. “I was a huge sugar fan,” she adds, and so sugar supplies and sugary snacks also had to go. “To go from the amount of sugar I was eating a year ago to what I’m doing now is like night and day.”
Hydrate with water and more.
Because you’re eating far fewer carbs on the keto diet, your body won’t retain as much water. So it’s more important than ever to stay well-hydrated. Drinking plenty of water will keep you hydrated and help you feel full as a bonus.
“I make sure to drink as much water as I can,” says Iafrate, who also downs a sports drink every morning. “I do that for hydration and electrolytes,” she explains. “To me, it’s really a great way to start the day.”
Other ways to stay hydrated include coconut water, unsweetened coffee or tea, fruit popsicles, seltzer water, plant-based milks like almond milk, bone broth and keto-friendly soups.
Be ready for the possibility of so-called keto flu.
Making a dramatic change in your diet — like severely reducing carbs — can cause some initial side effects as your body reacts to the abrupt metabolic shift. Although it’s not really flu, people talk about keto flu to refer to symptoms like nausea, constipation, fatigue, headache and mental fog.
While keto flu can leave you feeling miserable, it tends to fade within a few weeks as your body adapts. And some fortunate people never experience it.
“I didn’t feel any of that at all,” Iafrate says. “And I started cold turkey. One day I just woke up and I said: I’m doing this. And I just did it. But I didn’t feel any symptoms.”
See if intermittent fasting is right for you.
Incorporating intermittent fasting into a keto lifestyle can be an option. Intermittent fasting means regularly cycling through a set period without eating. That could mean eight hours a day where you can eat followed by 16 hours of fasting, doing alternate days of eating and fasting or other combinations.
“I usually do intermittent fasting,” Iafrate says. In the past, she adds, “I was one of those people who would eat at 7:30 or 8 o’clock at night and say, hmm, I want something sweet.” However, she eventually realized how much evening snacking disrupted her nighttime sleep pattern.
“I stop eating now, say, as of 7:30 p.m.,” Iafrate continues. “I don’t eat the next day until about noon. Sometimes I’ll give myself a little break on Sunday and have an omelet or something. But, (otherwise) I really stick to it, because it makes me feel so good.”
Track your ketones.
When you’re following a standard keto diet (rather than some form of modified keto) your body is burning fat as its primary energy source. In this process — known as ketosis — your body burns both stored fat and dietary fat. This creates a byproduct called ketones.
You can measure your own ketone levels to determine if you’re truly in ketosis. For instance, Iafrate uses keto test strips to check her urine. She also purchased a breath sensor, a device about the size of a pen, which she can blow into several times a day to find out whether she’s still in ketosis.
“Some people have their blood tested, but that’s not something I really want to do,” Iafrate notes. “I’m not really a blood fan.”
Watch whose advice you follow.
There’s a plethora of available keto resources and advice on social media — some more helpful than others. “I absolutely started following some quote-unquote keto influencers, although I soon realized they’re shilling a lot of products,” Iafrate says. “So that was not the best way to go.” Joining Facebook groups for keto novices and keto meal tips was helpful, she found.
Scrutinize ‘keto’ products.
You can find myriad products branded as keto online, at the supermarket or even on pharmacy shelves. Just remember that slapping ‘keto’ on the label doesn’t guarantee a product’s quality or whether it really adheres to keto guidelines.
“A lot of folks get caught up,” in these foods, Iafrate says. “There are so many products that are marketed as keto. My one piece of advice is: Look at the ingredients. Is it the right type of sugar? Is it the right type of fat? Because all of those things can kick you right out of ketosis.”
Try keto favorites.
Puffy, zesty and crunchy: Pork rinds are among favorite keto-friendly snacks, according to a survey of keto followers conducted by U.S. News and America’s Test Kitchen.
Keto novices also enjoyed adding these foods to their diet: cauliflower, spaghetti squash, avocado, fish and cheese, according to the USN-ATK survey.
As far as their favorite, keto-friendly meals to make, participants praised steak, shrimp, cauliflower, salad, zucchini, lasagna, bacon, eggs, Brussels sprouts, asparagus and roast chicken.
Broaden your food horizons.
As a chef and chief creative officer at ATK, Jack Bishop believes meals should be tasty, enjoyable — and varied. “If you just do keto in its plainest form, it is incredibly repetitive,” he says. “Sure, you could just eat steak three times a day — but how sustainable is that?”
Using trusted resources can broaden your food horizons. In the survey, 85% of dieters said they turn to websites for guidance, and another 55% said cookbooks are helpful.
Bishop suggests finding a website or cookbook with a variety of well-tested keto recipes that make good use of herbs and spices, and offer more than “just steak after steak and egg after egg.” One possible resource: ATK’s “Easy Everyday Keto.” Recipes like Smoked Salmon Brunch Plate and Nut Crusted Pork Chops can make keto meals more enticing.
Balance keto principles with sound nutrition.
Make sure to consume enough fruits and veggies, lean proteins, healthy fats, legumes and whole grains to avoid nutritional deficiency.
During six months of testing keto-friendly recipes at ATK, Bishop says, “We spent a lot of time really thinking about: How do you adhere to keto principles in a way that is appealing? And, also, how do you create something that feels flavorful but balanced?”
Food replacement is one key to incorporating a full spectrum of nutrients. Although many people initially believe they can’t eat veggies or can only tolerate a few — like potatoes — their tastes can be accommodated, too, Bishop says.
Keto recipes often make an artful use of vegetables. For instance, recipes for cauliflower rice, or pureed cauliflower that mimics mashed potatoes, can help provide familiar textures and flavors with a subtle twist that’s consistent with the keto diet.
Concentrate on healthier permitted foods.
If you’re focused on health as well as weight loss, look at how nutritious foods are overall — not just their carb, protein and fat counts.
Consider food sources and quality, and avoid processed foods where possible. Instead of fried chicken tenders, go with baked chicken breasts. Opt for beef from grass-fed cattle rather than relying on fast-food burgers or processed meats.
Incorporate healthy fat, too. Avocados, olives, avocado and extra virgin olive oils, nuts and nut butters, chia seeds, hemp seeds and flaxseeds all provide healthy fat.
Fish is another healthy fat source. Salmon and tuna deliver healthy omega-3 fats as well as high-quality protein to your diet.
Find sweet treats that work within the diet.
Dark chocolate can be a lifesaver if you’re a keto follower and a chocolate enthusiast. However, you’ll need to cut down on sweetness and choose chocolate with higher cocoa content — usually 70% cocoa or more — and less sugar to stay within your daily allotted carbs.
Peanut butter mixed with dark chocolate is a keto dessert favorite. Nibble, don’t gobble — even dark chocolate should be enjoyed in moderation.
Iafrate bought an inexpensive, mini-waffle maker to whip up “chaffles,” which are basically waffles made with eggs and cheese. “You can add in flavoring like cinnamon or a little cocoa powder,” she says.
Exercise for added energy.
Since starting keto, Iafrate made exercise a priority. She invested in a fitness MIRROR, set up the surrounding space with a gym mat, weights and kettlebells and works out almost every day. “The energy I feel every day is truly amazing,” she says.
Iafrate lost almost 60 pounds altogether. “It feels great to lose the weight,” she says. “But even had I lost only 30 pounds, I would still feel as energetic and as good about it.”
Among ATK survey respondents, most have kept their levels of physical activity about the same since starting keto. However, 27% are exercising more since following a keto diet. And of those who do exercise, 65% said that exercising is positively impacting the success of the diet.
Be patient and self-forgiving.
When you start out, “the most important thing is to make sure you’re listening to your body and being patient,” Iafrate says.
Don’t let a large, early weight loss set you up for later disappointment. “When I first started — within the first week — I lost 8 pounds,” she says. “You won’t keep losing that much weight every single week. You have to stick with it.”
Avoid putting yourself on guilt trips, too. “If you have a bad day, or a bad weekend, where you maybe have eaten something that you haven’t in a while, don’t feel guilty,” she says. “Don’t get angry. Just hop right back on the wagon and start fresh.”
Keto diet tips for success
Going keto is a big endeavor– take these steps to help make keto work for you:
— Start with a simple framework.
— Purge your kitchen.
— Hydrate with water and more.
— Be ready for the possibility of so-called keto flu.
— See if intermittent fasting is right for you.
— Track your ketones.
— Watch whose advice you follow.
— Scrutinize ‘keto’ products.
— Try keto favorites.
— Broaden your food horizons.
— Balance keto principles with sound nutrition.
— Concentrate on healthier permitted foods.
— Find sweet treats that work within the diet.
— Exercise for added energy.
— Be patient and self-forgiving.
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