The low-carb keto diet is all the rage, and for good reason:
It can produce sustainable, significant weight loss
It can normalize blood sugar and insulin, overcoming type 2 diabetes
It can lower risk of heart disease and possibly cancer
It reduces risk of Alzheimer’s and other neurological disorders
It optimizes metabolism, improving daily life and exercise performance
But keto isn’t a magic bullet or a walk in the park. Success on a keto diet requires two things to happen:
- Your body must undergo a physiological adaptation to ketosis. Because the keto diet radically limits carbs, your body has to develop the metabolic machinery to burn ketones (a byproduct of fat), and this process can be challenging.
- You have to adopt new food habits, shifting the way you think about food.
Doing the first without getting a handle on your relationship with food and carbs in particular makes success all the more unlikely.
We live in a carb-loving world: Carbs make up the center of most meals, and even if you’ve already transitioned away from carb-centric meals, high-carb foods are readily available in the form of bread, dessert, fries, chips and myriad other or some other processed carb delight. The average person gets more than 55 percent of their calories from carbs, with the majority of those calories coming from refined wheat, corn, potatoes, or rice.
Another issue is that most humans are hardwired to seek out carbs. Brain scans show that the brain’s reward system is activated by carbs, releasing dopamine and other neurotransmitters that make you feel good. You get the same neurochemical response from eating carbs as you do from hearing your phone ping with a new text, and we all know how addicting that can be.
When you rely on carbs for the majority of your calories, you reinforce the feel-good relationship. The pattern becomes unconscious and uncontrollable. Every bite of sugar triggers a hit of dopamine, which makes you want more.
This sort of carb-loving relationship complicates the transition to keto. When you first stop the carbohydrate—dopamine cycle it can spark intense cravings, which can set you up for a rough time of feeling less than your best.
Understanding why those symptoms are occurring can make this phase easier to cope with: Your body needs a few weeks to adapt and you need to break free from your relationship with processed carbs and added sugar. One thing that can make this process easier is to lay the groundwork with a pre-keto phase of moderate dietary changes in which you mentally prepare yourself to cut out carbs.
Lay The Groundwork With A Two To Four-Week Transition
Depending on where you are with your healthy lifestyle journey, it’s worth taking two to four weeks to incorporate habits that will set you up for success once you go keto. The transition phase is designed to reduce inflammation, improve digestion, burn fat, boost energy, regulate blood sugar, and improve energy levels, without the upheaval of starting a completely new diet. Once you’ve established the following habits, you’ll be better mentally and physically prepared to start the keto diet.
Step #1: Drink Enough Water. Ensuring you are well hydrated is important once you start keto because dehydration worsens unpleasant symptoms and can cause constipation. To estimate baseline intake, try 33-35 ml/kg bodyweight or 15-16 ml/lb bodyweight. For a 160 lb person (72 kg), this would be 2,400 to 2,560 ml or about 2.5 liters a day, though requirements will vary depending on activity levels and other factors.
Step #2: Do A Food Journal. Write down every single thing that goes into your mouth. An honest food journal will give you raw data you need to overcome bad eating habits and it will allow you to get a handle on how many calories, carbs, protein, and fat you are currently eating. Most people aren’t able to differentiate between the macronutrients and they have no idea how many calories they are consuming daily. These are skills you NEED to make keto work for you.
Step #3: Read All Ingredient Labels. With a keto diet, you’re going to shift away from eating packaged foods towards eating whole meat, fish, vegetables, eggs, dairy, nuts, seeds, and other healthy fats—many of the foods that are on the perimeter of the grocery store. However, you’ll occasionally need to use packaged foods and it’s important to ensure the ingredients are what you would expect. Food manufacturers love to add sugar to everything from nut butter to salad dressing, so if you’re going to clean up your diet and go keto, you’ve got to become ruthless about label reading.
Step #4: Plan Every Meal Around Protein, Vegetables, and Healthy Fat. For most people, embarking on a ketogenic diet, requires them to rethink their approach to food. Forget about the typical foods you used to eat at each meal. Don’t think about breakfast as cereal, bagels, or pancakes. Let sandwiches with big slices of bread be a thing of the past. Pasta and pizza are no longer your go-to quick dinner.
It’s time to start planning meals around complete animal protein, low-carb vegetables, and beneficial fats. By choosing whole protein sources such as eggs, meat, seafood, poultry, or whole-fat dairy, you get hunger dampening amino acids and fat that will help set up your neurotransmitters for a productive day. Getting low-carb vegetables in there provides flavor and fiber as well as an array of nutrients to counter inflammation and prevent disease. This trifecta will improve digestion and absorption of nutrients.
Step #5: Start Removing Refined Carbs. You don’t necessarily need to eliminate high-carb foods yet, but it’s important to be aware of where your carbs are coming from and begin removing them from you routine. Start by replacing all sugar-sweetened beverages with non-caloric options: This means soda, juice, sports drinks, and sugar sweetened coffee or tea are out and water and black coffee or tea are in. Stevia, a natural non-caloric sweetener from the stevia bush, can be used when you need a sweet fix in beverages or other recipes.
Step #6: Replace Unhealthy Fat With Smart Choices. Because fat is the cornerstone of a successful keto diet, you need to be comfortable eating it and know which to choose and which to avoid. You have two main goals: Choose fats in their least processed state and get a wide variety. Butter, ghee (clarified butter), coconut oil, avocado, olives, olive oil, nuts, seeds, dairy, eggs, fish, and fattier cuts of meat are all great choices. Fish and wild meats are especially important for their omega-3s, while nuts, avocado, and olive provide monounsaturated fat and all the omega-6 fatty acids you need. You can round things out with animal fats, while avoiding trans fats (a.k.a. hydrogenated fats that are mostly banned, but still pop in certain foods like peanut butter and processed foods) and vegetable oils (soybean, corn, canola, sunflower, etc.) because these have an inflammatory effect on the body.
Step #7: Focus On Lifestyle Habits. Stress, physical activity, and sleep will impact your ability to adopt a keto diet. The keto adaptation period is challenging. If you’re already bowled over by stress or aren’t sleeping more than a few hours a night, establishing completely new eating habits and getting keto adapted will be nearly impossible. Similarly, if you are sedentary, your metabolism will be in worse shape than if you are active and train regularly. Exercise is a catalyst for fat burning, sensitizing muscle to insulin and increasing metabolic flexibility, with the greatest benefits in the overweight populations.
Final Words: You don’t need to do everything at once. We recommend working through these habits step by step, giving each one anywhere between two days and a week. Once these habits are a part of your everyday routine, it’s time to move onto the first phase of the keto diet. This article helps take you there with Ten Tips For Success With A Low-Carb Keto Diet.