The Beginner’s Keto Diet Primer

In the past year, the keto diet, a low-carb/high-fat approach to eating, has risen to the ranks of Bianca Stratford-level popularity in the healthy-eating world. (If you have forgotten about Bianca Stratford, allow this “10 Things I Hate About You” clip to refresh your memory.) But if you aren’t familiar with it, the ins and outs of the diet can be a bit difficult to grasp. Below, a breakdown of the popular, avocado-embracing diet, so you can decide if it’s for you.

What is the ketogenic diet?

When on the ketogenic diet, you consume most of your calories (70 to 75 percent) from fats, then protein (around 20 percent), then a small sliver (around five to 10 percent) from carbs, which is a BIG shift from the traditional American diet, which revolves around carbohydrates. The goal of the ketogenic diet is to switch your body’s fuel source from glucose to ketones—landing you in a state of ketosis—where you’re primarily burning fat for fuel. You can find an extended breakdown of how the Keto diet works here.

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Why does it seem like everyone and their mother is on the ketogenic diet right now?

While it may seem like a quick-rising star on Instagram (the #keto hashtag boasts over 5 million posts), the diet’s actually been around since the 1920s, with doctors originally prescribing it as a form of treatment for epilepsy. It’s made a comeback in recent years, with everyone from Nike Master Trainers to folks suffering from anxiety and depression touting it as a game-changer when it comes to weight, mood and mental clarity. Experts say the diet can help to control blood sugar (adios, mood swings), reduce inflammation (the culprit behind just about every severe health issue out there), and can reduce free radicals in the body, among other perks. So long story short, while it landed on the very bottom of the list on U.S. News and World Report’s Top Diets ranking for 2018, it still has prom-king status in the popularity department.

That said, it doesn’t work for everyone.

While some proponents of the diet have praised it for working wonders on their mental health or weight, others have tried to no avail. You also have to be extremely diligent when it comes to monitoring your fat, protein and carbohydrate intake to make sure you are sticking within the guidelines to get you to—and keep you in—a state of ketosis. On top of just counting fat, protein and carb grams, many diet devotees use urine strips to test their ketones. So, in short: If you want the diet to work for you, it’s a serious commitment, and if you’ve been known to cheat, um, every day on every diet you’ve tried, it’s probably not going to be the glass slipper of diets for you.

And the perks are hard-earned.

The keto flu—that’s a feeling of sluggishness, fogginess and general “blah” during the time it takes your body to convert from using glucose as a source of fuel to using ketones, which can last anywhere from days to a couple of weeks—is spoken about in the same way people recall food poisoning on their honeymoon. In other words, it’s known to be an awful, awful time. On the other side of the flu is said to be a mental clarity like no other, but it takes some suffering to get there. If you plan on trying the keto diet, here is a rundown of tricks for fighting the keto flu.

How long are you supposed to stick with it?

Some people view the keto diet as a detox-style diet change, trying it on for a month or two at a time, á la Whole30, while others stick with it forever. Like just about every diet out there, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. See a debate between experts on the pros and cons for going short-term and committing for the long haul here.

Can anyone dive in?

Because the keto diet requires such precision and can be tough on the body to start, most experts suggest pairing up with a dietitian or doctor to coach you through trying it for the first time. May the keto flu-fighting force be with you!