A checklist for getting started on keto
The ketogenic diet (keto for short) is all about going low carb — very low carb. If you’re thinking about trying keto, you need to get ready.
The following keto diet for beginners checklist is a great place to start.
- Prepare the kitchen. When you’re making a drastic diet switch like keto calls for, you’ll want to rid your fridge, freezer, and cabinets of anything you can’t eat. This can take some time; you’ll find hidden carbs in foods you never imagined would hide them. Dedicate an afternoon to going through all your food stock and eliminating things you can’t have.
If you have roommates or family members who won’t be joining you on your keto journey, think of creative ways to divide foods you can eat from those you can’t. Reorganize your cabinets into “low-carb” and “regular” categories; this way, when you go to prep food, you’ll only have to look at ingredients you can have, eliminating the majority of the temptation.
- Prevent keto flu. Many first-time ketoers experience what is known as the keto flu when they first begin to transition off of carbs and onto a diet centered on healthy fats. As glucose and glycogen are eliminated from your system, they carry with them quite a bit of water weight and electrolytes and can create flu-like symptoms for a few days. Although keto flu isn’t an uncommon symptom of transitioning from a high-carb standard American diet to a low-carb diet, but the symptoms can be lessened or even avoided altogether. If you stay hydrated, keep your electrolytes up by taking a good multivitamin, and ensure that you’re getting enough rest every night, your transition can be so smooth that it’s barely noticeable.
- Transition well. Think of going from a standard American diet to keto as scaling a 10-foot wall; if you eat a high-carb diet through Sunday and go completely low-carb on Monday, it’s going to be quite an adjustment. If you begin adding in more healthy fats and slowly decreasing your carbs in the week leading up to your official keto start date, however, you’ll find that it’s like building a staircase for the wall — each step is that much easier.
Because you’re avoiding sugar, you’ll notice a distinct decrease in the amount of sweetness in your diet. Make a list of keto-friendly desserts that will keep you on track with your diet, but allow you to satisfy that sweet tooth when you have cravings.
- Remember what to subtract (carbs) and what to add (fats). Keto is a full diet transformation, and sometimes it can be easy to focus on only what you need to take away (carbs) or on what you’re adding (fats). You have to balance both: If you only subtract carbs, you’re going to be ravenous all the time, and that will eventually lead to uncontrolled snacking, which is almost certain to throw you out of ketosis. If you focus only on adding fats, you may not get your carb count low enough, and this could interfere with — or even completely stop — your weight loss.
- Know what to measure and what to ignore. Multiple studies have confirmed that when people pay attention to what they eat (by counting calories or watching their macros, for example) and how much they weigh (by stepping on a scale regularly), their weight loss efforts are much more successful. However, it’s possible to focus on the numbers too much and let it control you — remember to avoid this.
Your hydration level can cause weight to fluctuate by up to 3 or 4 pounds a day, so if you’re stepping on the scale every morning, keep that in mind. If you’re measuring ketones, don’t forget that urine strips test for excess ketones, so it’s possible to have a very slight indicator, or even none at all, and still be in ketosis (when your body is metabolizing fat for fuel instead of using carbs/sugar). Remember that all of these numbers are indicators and are useful for tracking progress over the long term, but don’t let any particular statistic discourage you in the short term.
- Tell your family and friends. Starting this incredible journey is exciting, and you should want to tell people! Other than just sharing something you’re pumped about, though, there are other advantages to telling family and friends about your diet. First, it will help keep you accountable — if everyone around you knows what you’re starting, you won’t be as tempted to cheat. Second, it will make the inevitable dinner party or double date less awkward if you wait until then to let them know you have dietary restrictions.
Don’t be ashamed of what you’re doing — own it! This is an excellent step toward better health, and you should be completely excited about going keto!
Keto-friendly foods are plentiful and delicious, but sometimes it helps to have a quick-reference guide to what you can and can’t eat. To get you started, here are some of the major food categories that will make up your diet on keto:
- Healthy oils and fats: Butter, olive oil, avocados, fish oil, flaxseed, chia seed, coconut oil, and even lard and bacon fat.
- Seafood and fish: Virtually anything in this category is good, just be careful of how it’s prepared (for example, breading is filled with carbs). Wild-caught seafood is the best! Keep your eyes peeled for tuna, tilapia, salmon, shrimp, cod, octopus, halibut, and bass, among others.
- Meats: Any kind of meat is fine, including chicken, lamb, venison, pork, and beef. If you have the option, choose grass-fed meat whenever you can.
- Vegetables: All the non-starchy vegetables are approved for keto. Avoid potatoes, large tomatoes, and corn. Instead, focus on broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, yellow squash, mushrooms, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, spaghetti squash, zucchini, onions, and garlic.
- Eggs: These are some of your best friends, and don’t think you’re limited to just the whites! The whole egg is fair game here, and the yolk adds phenomenal flavor!
- Dairy (especially full-fat): Milk itself has sugar and should be limited, but most other forms of dairy are keto-approved with no limitation. Various cheeses (especially hard ones), heavy cream, unsweetened yogurt, and butter are very common options on keto. Unsweetened almond milk is an excellent replacement for regular cow’s milk.
- Nuts and seeds: Be careful not to overindulge, but walnuts, almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds, and macadamia nuts are tasty treats you shouldn’t hesitate to include in your diet!
- Flour replacements: Don’t give up baking just because you’re going low-carb! Explore options like almond meal, flaxseed meal, almond flour, and coconut flour.
- Berries: Most fruit isn’t on the approved list, but many kinds of berries are! You still need to limit the amounts, but strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries are all good. On a related note, lemons and limes are also keto-approved, so use those to add some tartness to your new way of eating!
- Sugar alcohols and other sweeteners: Some of the best artificial sweeteners include monk fruit, erythritol, stevia, Truvia, and xylitol. Each of these varies slightly in its properties, so you may need to choose one for your morning coffee and a completely different one for baking.
Having a comprehensive list of snack options goes a long way toward preventing you from cheating on your diet. Here are two lists, one that requires no preparation and another that takes just a little bit of upfront effort.
- Pork rinds
- Full-fat Laughing Cow cheese
- Dark chocolate
- String cheese
- Moon cheese
- Omega PowerCreamer
- Cocoa nibs
- Jerky (just make sure the one you choose is sugar-free!)
- Cherry tomatoes
- Quest bars
- Nut butters
- Bulletproof coffee
- Cold cut roll-ups
- Green bean fries
- Chocolate avocado pudding
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Jalapeño poppers
- Keto lava cake
- Cream cheese celery
- Kale chips
- Frozen berries
- Chocolate bark
- Protein shakes
- Cucumber boats
- Sugar-free ice cream
Keto-friendly alcoholic drinks
Alcohol and the keto diet can mix — in moderation. Alcohol, like fat, carbs, and protein, is also a source of energy. In fact, alcohol gives you 7 calories per gram, making it more energy dense than both protein and carbs! These are empty carbs, however, and although they can provide a short-lived burst of energy, you’re not getting any nutrients, vitamins, or minerals from them. The body doesn’t consider alcohol to be an essential macronutrient, so the liver treats this fourth “macro” a bit differently than the others.
Like most things keto, alcohol consumption is about more than just the carb count. Because the ketogenic diet is so firmly rooted in science, the more you understand how your body’s biological processes are designed to work, the better off you’ll be. You should consider three main effects: what alcohol does to your carb count, what it does to your hydration, and what it does to your metabolism.
The easiest factor to calculate is your carb count: You can look at a bottle of your favorite mixer and easily discover how many carbs you’ll be consuming with each margarita. These add up quickly, but we’ve got some great tips to stretch your allowed carbs to their absolute limits.
The second-easiest aspect of alcohol to understand is how it affects your hydration levels. Alcohol dehydrates you, pure and simple. Plan on consuming at least twice the amount of water as the number of alcoholic beverages you’ll drink to maintain where you want to be hydration-wise.
Finally, understanding how alcohol affects your weight loss at a biological level is critical. Although alcohol is only toxic in extremely high amounts, the body views it as a toxic macronutrient and will shut down all other digestive processes to metabolize the alcohol and get it out of your system. This is good news to some degree, because metabolizing alcohol is what gives you that “buzzed” feeling.
When you’re on a high-carb diet, much of the glycogen stores in your body are housed in the liver, where they’re being metabolized along with any alcohol you consume. Because so much is going on, you’ll metabolize alcohol more slowly and you won’t notice the effects as quickly. When you’re in ketosis, however, you’ve cleared out those obstacles and will begin feeling the effects of alcohol much more rapidly.
This isn’t good news, however, if you’re trying to lose a significant amount of weight and you’re used to a regular nightcap. Because the body shuts everything else down to metabolize the alcohol, every 24 hours you’re essentially stopping your body’s fat-burning abilities, interrupting the process not only at that moment but also preventing yourself from building up any momentum. This can severely slow your weight loss efforts.
Another thing to consider is how alcohol affects your thought processes. We know that alcohol lowers inhibitions and impairs judgment, making the likelihood that you’ll cheat on your carbs much higher without being intentional about it. Studies have also shown what will likely come as no surprise to you: When you’re intoxicated, you crave high-carb, empty-calorie “filler” foods rather than healthy choices — it’s no wonder that Taco Bell and Little Caesars are open after last call, but few salad bars are.
Drinking in moderation is the key. Understanding what each drink “costs” you in terms of carb counts, hydration, and how it affects your metabolism will help you make educated decisions and keep you on the right track to achieving your weight loss goals.
Lean toward the low-carb alcoholic drinks
A range of alcohols are available that are very low-carb or don’t have any carbs at all. These are your best bet to stay in ketosis:
- Hard liquors: These include tequila, rum, vodka, gin, and whiskey, which are all carb-free. Hard liquors are excellent options for the keto dieter on occasion. You can feel free to add low-carb mixers to these, like seltzer water or even Wave Soda.
- Dry wines: Both red and white dry wines contain about 3 to 4 grams of carbs in a typical 5-ounce glass. Luckily, you’ll be able to enjoy a toast or two of these keto-friendly options when the occasion arises. Some of the best choices for red wine are Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Merlot. Pair these with a steak, and you’ll be sure to enjoy your night out! Approved white wines include Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Champagne.
- Light beers: These are generally around 3 grams of carbs per 12-ounce bottle or can as well. They’re light on carbs and flavor, which is great if you want a mild taste. Although light beers were first introduced to the market decades ago (and trust us, the first attempts were truly horrible), brewers have made incredible strides in preserving taste and full-bodied integrity. Some of the more popular options we’ve found include Bud Select 55, Bud Select, MGD, Rolling Rock Green Light, Michelob Ultra, Miller Lite, Natural Light, Michelob Ultra Amber, Coors Light, Amstel Light, and Bud Light.
Avoid the high-carb drink options
People often forget the amount of sugar that many mixed drinks have, which can quickly destroy an otherwise keto-friendly lifestyle. Don’t let a night out ruin an excellent start to your keto journey.
Drinks that include soda, juice, or other sugars, including the following, should be avoided:
- Sweet wines, such as Moscato, port, sherry, dessert wines, sangria, and Zinfandel
- Sugary mixers, like triple sec, whiskey sour mix, blue curacao, grenadine, margarita mixes, and simple syrup
- Flavored alcohols, including coconut rum, peach or peppermint schnapps, and Baileys Irish Cream
- Juices, such as cranberry, orange, pineapple, tomato, apple, clamato, blueberry, and grapefruit
- Energy drinks, such as Red Bull
- Sodas, which can raise your glycemic index even if you’re choosing a low-calorie diet option
- Liqueurs, such as amaretto, Kahlúa, sambuca, Campari, Cointreau, and Frangelico
- Fruit add-ins, including cherries, orange slices, pineapple wedges, and various berries
- Wine coolers
- Regular beers
How to choose a keto-friendly alcohol chaser
Few people are hardcore enough to enjoy straight alcohol, so in addition to the mixers listed earlier, it isn’t uncommon to use a chaser. Many of the more popular chasers, such as soda or beer, have a high amount of carbohydrates.
Some keto-approved options are
- Seltzer water
- Flavored seltzer water
- Diet tonic water
- Diet flavored bubbly water
- Stevia or erythritol (if you’re drinking at home — you’ll get a weird look if you ask a bartender for these)
- Zero-sugar drinks, such as Red Bull Sugar-Free, Bai5 sweetened with erythritol, diet sodas, and sugar-free Monsters
- Stur (but avoid the ones with aspartame)
- Mio Water Enhancement
How to deal with a hangover on the keto diet
Depending on how much you’ve had to drink, the morning after could be a non-event or a significant roadblock. Coping with a hangover and staying in ketosis is relatively straightforward: Drink more water. When you’re done with that, drink some more water. After you’ve knocked that out and want a change of pace for your day, well, drink more water.
Taking aspirin won’t hurt you at all, so if it feels like there’s an army of dwarves hammering inside your skull, don’t hesitate to pop a few. In the meantime, however, continue drinking water!
You don’t have to give up alcohol to go keto. The two can mix if you’re smart about it. Make sure to be smart about which drinks you choose so it doesn’t cause undue damage to your keto journey.