While I'm not an expert on the ketogenic diet, I have been practicing it for several months now and am very pleased with the results. Weight loss aside, I find my digestion and inflammation issues have lessened and my energy is great. It was a bit of a learning curve to get where I am today, though. Here are eight things I wish I had known from the get-go.
Note: In keto, your daily carb, fat, protein, and calorie allotments are measured in grams and are called macros.
1. Tracking is very important.
I'm not a numbers gal when it comes to my body, so when I first started keto I thought I'd wing it when it came to counting my macros. Do not do this. It's important to be sure that your intake of carbs, fat, protein, and calories are in the right ratio (your macros) and especially in the beginning you really need to meticulously track that. Some people take the spreadsheet route, some jot things down in a notebook, others use one of the many apps out there. Either way, you must track everything, at least until you are very experienced with keto.
2. Read all the labels, all the time.
This is related to point number one. Carbs are sneaky little devils and show up everywhere and in the most unlikely places. You must read the labels on everything you buy and similarly become familiar with the carb counts of things that aren't labeled, such as meats, vegetables, and restaurant food. When your carb macro is potentially as low as 20 grams a day, it's really easy to surpass that with a few hidden carbs here and there. Example: One tablespoon of ketchup is 4.5 carbs, nearly a fourth of your daily carb allotment! One tablespoon!
3. You don't have to eat like a frat boy.
If you google "keto recipes" you'll probably find your screen awash in images of gooey, cheesy, bacony, meaty foods. And I get it — all that stuff previously forbidden on calorie- and fat-focused diets are suddenly OK and it's hard to not think "Hurray! This diet is great because it's all bacon all the time, baby."
But here are two little secrets. First, yes, bacon is allowed, and yes, bacon is a good keto food, but eating your leafy greens is just as important — maybe even more so. And second, bacon (and other super-fatty foods) will get old very quickly. By week three I was so sick of bacon (words I thought I would never type!) that I stopped eating it completely. Now I've worked it in again, but in moderation.
4. Don't forget the vegetables.
While I'm not a vegetarian by any means, my keto lifestyle consists mainly of eating lots and lots of kale, collards, spinach, and chard. Zucchini is another favorite, as well as cabbage and broccoli. I have noticed that I really feel better when I lean heavily in the vegetable direction. Of course, certain items are forbidden, such as potatoes and sweet potatoes, and other vegetables like tomatoes and beets need to be strictly monitored as their sugar count can add up. But in general, it's not that hard to eat a vegetable-focused diet while in keto. In fact, it's the best way to go.
5. Prep your pantry before starting keto.
Unless you have to cook for people in your household who aren't enjoying the keto lifestyle, do yourself a favor and get rid of all the carbs in your kitchen. Just get a nice big box and get 'em out. It's simply much easier to not cheat if there are no crackers or cans of chickpeas in the cupboard. So many of the quick snack foods are carb-heavy, and if you come home hungry that's what you're going to reach for (see point number six below for a solution.) If you're like me and hate throwing food away, give the box to someone who would appreciate it — in my case, it was a friend's son who was setting up in a new apartment.
6. Batch cooking is helpful.
You come home after a long day and you're starving, and there's nothing to eat because all the quick, grabbable food (chips, pretzels, hummus, crackers) are also laden with carbs. Even fruit like apples or bananas are forbidden due to their high sugar count. (News flash: ICYMI, carbs are everywhere!)
One solution is to cook up large batches of dishes appropriate for your macros on a Sunday and then portion it out for the week. This way there's always something available to quickly heat up when you're famished. Boiling up a dozen eggs is helpful, too, as a hard-boiled egg drizzled with spicy mayo or salsa verde makes a good, quick snack.
7. Get your restaurants lined up.
You're going out to dinner with friends. They suggest pizza. Can't do pizza. Pasta? Can't do pasta. Chinese? Probably difficult. Tacos? Nope. Some category of foods are just easier to keto-fy than others. A nice steak, a burger without the bun, or a cobb salad are classic keto-friendly restaurant meals and aren't that difficult to find. Or know for sure that you can manage to create something keto-friendly at some of your favorite spots. For instance, maybe you can get by on a salad and salumi plate at the pasta place. Either way, be sure to have three or four restaurants in mind for the next time your friends say "Where do you want to meet up for dinner?"
8. Drink more water than you think.
This is true in general, of course, but since I have been keto I've noticed more than ever that it's important to be well-hydrated. I can definitely tell when I'm not getting enough water as I feel immediately sluggish and headache-y. I have found that carrying around a water bottle (the non-disposable kind!) is essential for a happy keto lifestyle.
Keto for Newbies: Curious about the ketogenic diet? This high-fat, moderate-protein, and low-carb lifestyle puts your body in a metabolic state called ketosis, where you burns fat instead of carbohydrates as the primary fuel source. Read more here about what keto is and see all of Kitchn's coverage on keto here.