Sometimes people who want to lose weight or be healthier focus so much on the minutia of “optimizing” their diet, supplements, exercise, and lifestyle that they miss the basics. It is a mistake. Whatever your goal, you need to lay a good foundation before worrying about the finishing touches. When you start a keto diet, it means gradually reducing carbohydrates to create a base of metabolic flexibility and get into ketosis.
To be clear, you can Put your body into ketosis by going from the several hundred grams of carbs per day typical of a modern diet, straight to the very low carb intake required for keto. I don’t recommend it, however.
For one thing, switching from a high carb diet to keto prepares you for the world of pain known as keto flu. When you suddenly starve your body of glucose, you can expect to experience headaches, lethargy, brain fog, and an inability to perform your usual workouts. Gradually cutting carbs gives your body the ability to up-regulate its ability to burn fat for fuel, a necessary prerequisite for ketosis.
There’s a reason a gradual transition also gives the people in your life time to get on board. You might be excited about your big lifestyle change, but I hear all the time from people who are struggling because their partners, kids, or roommates are not really favorable of them throwing away all the junk food and refusing to go through the drive-thru on the way home.
Even if you are already on a moderate carb Primal diet, I still recommend that you take the time to make your transition as seamless as possible. No matter where you start, the best way to achieve ketosis is to gradually and systematically reduce your carbohydrate intake. This is the same approach I describe in The Keto Reset Dietand it has worked for the thousands of people who have participated in our Keto Month challenges.
What is Ketosis?
Ketosis is a metabolic state in which your liver makes ketones, which are molecules that any cell containing mitochondria can use for energy. Your brain and heart especially thrive on ketones. To enter ketosis, you must deplete hepatic glycogen (the glucose stored in your liver) and keep insulin levels low. Very low carb diets and fasting, or a combination of the two, will get you there. Exercises that deplete glycogen also help.
Ketogenic (“ketone-making”) diets are popular for everything from weight loss to lowering insulin and blood sugar to traditional raising cancer treatments. Inflammation is the root of all chronic disease and ketones are anti-inflammatory. They are also an efficient fuel source, and athletes across the athletic spectrum are experimenting with using low-carb diets to burn fat and ketones during exercise.
The Primal Blueprint is considered a low-carb style of eating, especially compared to the standard American high-carb diet, simply because it eliminates the major sources of carbohydrates in the typical modern diet: cereals and sugar. The version of keto I recommend is an offshoot of the Primal diet you know and love, but with fewer carbs — less than about 50 grams per day. That’s orders of magnitude less than what an average person eats, and maybe half or a third of what a typical primal person consumes. So how do you get there?
How to gradually cut carbs and get into ketosis
Step One: Start with the Big Violators, Grains and Added Sugars
That means more sugary breakfast cereals, cupcakes, sodas, or donuts, but it also means more “heart-healthy” whole-grain bread or pasta. Instead, prepare your meals and snacks around Primal dishes – meat, produce, eggs, nuts and seeds, optional whole dairy, and “sane indulgences” like very dark chocolate (not the super sweet stuff). For those of you familiar with the Primal Blueprint, this should be familiar. In Keto Reset lingo, we call this the metabolic reset phase. This is the first step to becoming suitable for fatswhich means your cells can efficiently burn fat for fuel instead of glucose.
At this point, you’re not counting carbs, nor are you worried about the carbs that naturally come with fruits, vegetables, dairy, or any other Primal food source. Depending on where you start, it may take some time to completely eliminate grains and added sugars and become comfortable eating Primally. Stay in this step for as long as necessary. There is no urgency here.
Step two: Eat fewer fruits and carbohydrate-rich vegetables, tubers and legumes
Next, take a look at the foods you’re currently eating and start noticing their carb content. Most people have no idea how many carbohydrates or how much fat or protein they eat on average per day. A nutrition tracker like Cronometer is helpful here. You don’t need to meticulously weigh and measure your food at this point, but you do want to pay attention to what’s on your plate.
Start limiting the portion sizes of your highest carb foods or replace them with low carb alternatives. There are no rules on exactly how to do this, but aim for between 75 and 100 grams of carbs, more or less, in a typical day. (If you ate mostly to begin with, that might already be your norm.) If you eat two or three servings of fruit a day, maybe you can cut it down to one and swap grapes (27 grams of carbs per cup) for strawberries. (12 grams of carbs per cup). If you eat another cup of Black beans three times a week, try half a cup twice a week, then once.
Step Three: Go Keto!
The last step is to tighten the reins and reduce your carbohydrate intake to 50 grams per day. I don’t worry about carbs from green vegetables and aboveground avocados, so you have some wiggle room, but 50 grams a day is a good goal to keep in mind.
While the first two stages were somewhat laid back, here you have to be strict. Ketosis only occurs when the metabolic conditions are right. There is a separate on-off switch. Too many carbs and you won’t be in ketosis. For this reason, it is often necessary to track your food carefully for at least a few days to see where you stand. You may also want measure your ketone levels to make sure you reach your goal. It is not mandatory.
At this point, there won’t be much room in your carb intake for fruits, underground vegetables, or legumes. Prioritize the most keto friendly fruits And vegetables will allow you to enjoy the most filling and satisfying meals.
What else should you do to encourage ketosis
Transitioning to keto is all about developing new metabolic pathways. Much depends on what you eat, but there are other things you can do to help the process.
- Increase your electrolytes. When you go into ketosis, your kidneys begin to eliminate electrolytes. Consciously increasing your intake of sodium in particular, but also potassium and magnesium, is essential to avoid the keto flu.
- Adjust your exercise. During the transition, you will likely struggle to access maximum speed and power. Reduce the intensity and/or duration, then gradually return to your normal volume.
- Pay attention to your stress. Stress activates the fight or flight response, which will increase the body’s demand for glucose.
Reverse the Process – Opting Out of Keto
Switching from keto to a more moderate-carb approach is as simple as gradually increasing your intake of fruits, high-carb vegetables, and perhaps the tubers and legumes you cut back on in stage two. Add maybe 25 grams of carbs per week until you find your personal carb tolerance sweet spot, when you feel your best mentally and physically.
Why would you want to stop eating keto? You do not have to. I know people who have been keto happily and successfully for a few decades. But I don’t think constant ketosis is necessary. For optimal metabolic flexibility, I prefer to go in and out of keto. It also gives you the freedom to enjoy vacations, meals with friends, and fresh summer fruits without worrying about staying in ketosis 24/7.
That’s it, pretty simple really. Comment below with any questions or topics you’d like me to cover next!