The Keto Diet: What You Need To Know Before You Start
I’ve been reading about the ketogenic (keto, for short) diet for a while, but until recently I’ve had less than zero interest in trying it.
Y’all know by now that I love my sweets and my bread. Give up croissants? Ice cream? Caramel Macchiatos? No. Freaking. Way. I figured it was one of those fad diets and I gave it a hard pass.
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BUT I changed my tune recently. My husband Craig and I have both put on about 20 pounds since we got married just over two years ago. And that was on top of some “happy weight” that had already started to accumulate when we began dating.
I’m 5’11” so I’ve always been able to hide five or ten pounds here and there. Yes, this makes my shorter friends envious. But by the time I notice weight has crept on, I have more to lose than just five or ten pounds. It’s more like 20 pounds – or more. Yikes!
Right around the time Craig and I both decided we didn’t feel so great, I had my annual physical. I talked to my doctor about it and she suggested working with a cardiologist in her group. She said his office focused on using keto diets to help patients get healthy.
Carbs and sugar are real-life kryptonite for me, so I wasn’t sure if I could actually succeed. But I figured it was worth a try. Especially with some medical guidance. Craig was interested in it, too, and we agreed we had a better chance of success if we did it together.
So off we went. I met first with the doctor, then with Marylou Hopkins, the registered nurse who runs the keto program for Virginia Hospital Center. She broke down the keto diet for me in a way that was beyond simple. And that seemed achievable.
I didn’t say this to Craig, or even out loud when we started. But in the back of my head, I kept thinking that what I had heard so far sounded too good to be true. So I would give this two weeks and see what happened. Then I would just quit if I was miserable. It would be like a little experiment.
So I went all in for two weeks and at the end of that time, my scale was down ten pounds.
And when I went in to meet with Marylou again, we found that my waist was also down by one inch. And of the weight I had lost, the large majority of it was actual fat loss. Yippee!
No way I was quitting!
What Is The Keto Diet, Anyway?
There are many other websites, books, and magazine articles that will give you more detail than you could ever want about the keto diet. But in short, the keto diet is low-carbohydrate, high-protein and -fat, similar to the Atkins diet.
The basic premise is that you should limit your carb intake to about 20-50 net grams per day. This will lead to a release of the stored fatty acids that your liver converts into ketones.
To narrow this down even further, though: Yes, you’re aiming for about 20 grams of carbs per day. The temptation will be to save those carbs and eat them all at dinner. Or drink them all in a couple of glasses of wine with dinner.
BUT (and this is important to your keto success, especially in the first few weeks) you shouldn’t consume all your carb grams in one meal.
Your body can only process about 5-10 grams of carbohydrates at a time. So with the keto diet, you should aim to only consume only the carbs your body can process.
Your body then will turn to process fat and ketones for energy, thus going into “ketosis.” 5-10 grams of carbs looks something like a small salad of greens or a handful of asparagus or spinach.
How To Prepare For Success On The Keto Diet
Craig and I took about a week to get ready rather than jumping straight into the plan. We spent this time educating ourselves on what was recommended to eat and what we should avoid, and why. And preparing ourselves – and our kitchen – for the changes we would be making.
And let’s be honest. Craig wanted to enjoy a couple more beers and I wanted to enjoy some sweets before we got started.
But in all seriousness, taking a bit of time to do some legwork upfront will absolutely make it easier for you to take the jump into a keto lifestyle.
1. Research Before You Begin
I’ve only touched on the very basics of the keto diet itself because there are so many other resources out there. I encourage you to get online and read.
But be aware that there are a lot of websites that will try to sell you something related to their version of the diet, or their products for the diet, or whatever.
Do not buy that stuff. You do not need it.
I repeat: You do not need it.
There are countless pills, shakes, powders, and other diet products that claim to get you into keto faster or accelerate the process. They will not help you succeed. In fact, there’s really no need to spend much money on keto if you just do a little research to make sure you understand it.
You can find most of the tools you need online. FOR FREE.
For example, be sure to hit up Pinterest. I’ve set up a Keto board on This Custom Life’s page that might give you some ideas. Check it out – and follow me there; I’m constantly sharing new tools, recipes, and other finds that will help you.
All of that being said, I have included some things here that I have found helpful. I’ll repeat that most of this stuff is optional – you don’t have to have it for success.
But if you have the means to try a few new things, check out the links throughout this post and the “Resources” section at the end that features some of the sources/cookbooks/etc. that I have found valuable.
2. Stock Your Pantry
Before we got started, we wanted to make sure our kitchen and pantry were stocked with anything that might help us on our journey.
Some people also suggest purging your kitchen to rid yourself of any temptations. We have kids who enjoy cereal and chips, so we did not do a major purge. We just knew that stuff was off limits and we’ve both been able to avoid it all. (avoiding cereal is something I am particularly proud of!!)
That being said – if you can do a purge, I think that’s definitely the way to go. But if you can’t, try to put the foods in a place that won’t tempt you.
Here are a few things we found helpful to always keep in stock during our transition into keto:
To do well on keto, you do not need to drink a shake a day or substitute shakes for meals or any of that. However, it is helpful to have some sort of easy meal in your back pocket when you need it.
I work full time, run a blog on the side, and have a husband and stepkids I want to spend time with. It’s a balancing act and I’m guessing you are just as busy. Our time is at a premium every day, am I right?
There are many mornings I’m running out the door or many evenings I get home late. I like to have a backup in place in the event I don’t have time to fix–or just plain don’t feel like making–a big breakfast or a full dinner.
Marylou recommended these protein drinks to me. I actually really like them – and they have the added bonus of filling any sort of sweets craving that I may have going on.
One of my favorite go-to snacks has become moon cheese. It’s a crispy treat that is 100% cheese. Starbucks sells it, but it’s much cheaper on Amazon.
The cheddar flavor tastes a little like a poor man’s Cheeto (that may sound terrible, but it’s actually good – and won’t leave you with orange fingers!). The Gouda flavor is hands-down my favorite and Craig really likes the Pepper Jack flavor. We keep bags and bags of it on hand at all times. I definitely advise having some of this stuff on hand before you start keto.
Marylou advised us to always keep bone broth on hand when you’re on the keto diet. You can make it from scratch or buy it in jars/cartons. (and if you don’t love the taste of it, you can add spices or seasonings to your liking)
At the beginning of your keto diet, there may be times you feel lightheaded, or tired, or fevery, or just not up to par. Drink a cup of bone broth. I’m not kidding, Marylou swears that stuff is basically a cure-all.
It functions like Gatorade and boosts your electrolytes, but without all the added sugar and carbs.
I’ll be honest – I haven’t had to try it yet. I’ll probably get around to drinking some, but it will probably be because I’m making something with it rather than because I need it. But I have faithfully kept it on hand just in case!!
EZ Sweetz Sweetener
The whole idea behind keto is to eliminate excess sugar and carbs from your diet. So if you can go without sweetener of any kind, good for you. I cannot!
Marylou recommended these drops to me, made by EZ Sweetz. You only need one or two drops for a cup of coffee, and you can also use it in recipes. They contain stevia and monk fruit, but without the bulking agents in the packets, like maltodextrin and dextrose, that add carbs and calories.
I haven’t tried the stevia/monk fruit drops, but have tried EZ Sweetz’s original sweetener drops and I really like them.
They contain sucralose, which is similar to what’s in sweeteners like Splenda, but also without the filler material in the packets. They don’t leave the same aftertaste like some of the other stevia-type products.
If you know you need a little bit of a taste of sugar in your coffee, or if you need something to wean you off of sweet tastes, I highly recommend keeping this on hand. I keep one bottle at home and one in my purse.
3. Keto Testing
If you want to closely monitor whether your body has entered ketosis, you can use strips or blood tests. I experimented with both.
Keto Testing Strips
The strips are pretty self-explanatory. The instructions call for you to dip it in your urine (really, you’ll pee on it) and then compare the color to a little chart to see if you’ve entered ketosis.
From everything I’ve read, they may not be as exact as the blood test, but the strips are fairly reliable for telling you if you’re in ketosis. You can find the strips for $7 – $8 on Amazon.
Keto Home Blood Tests
More reliable (but unfortunately a bit more expensive) is a blood test. I chose this one, and have found it fairly easy to use.
Sort of like a glucose monitor, you prick your finger, put a drop of blood on a strip and insert the strip into a meter. I like being able to get a more exact reading, so I’ve used the blood test way more than the strips.
You certainly don’t have to monitor yourself this closely to succeed on the keto diet. I love metrics and I like knowing I’m on track even beyond the scales, so I have enjoyed following my progress. But if you’re strapped for cash, or just not interested, this is not crucial to succeeding.
On a side note, I cannot get Craig to try the finger pricking monitor. This is a guy who has deployed multiple times and has cleaned up all manner of bodily fluids from four children and two pets, but he’s scared of a teeny little finger prick. I’ve even offered to prick his finger for him, but no luck. Go figure.
4. Mentally Prepare Yourself
In the leadup to launching yourself into this new world of keto, there’s a fair amount of anticipation. Can you actually succeed? Will you have major cravings as you get off of sugar and carbs? Are you going to get the “keto flu”? Will this be totally terrible?
It’s easy to psych yourself out of this if you don’t get ahold of all those thoughts and questions. Part of getting ready for keto is really doing some gut checks about how you feel and how you plan to approach this new way of eating.
I know I keep calling this the keto diet. For me, it started because I wanted to lose some weight, so in that sense, I guess it is a diet. But more important than that, I wanted to get healthy and start to eat cleaner. I had to decide to focus on that second aspect more than the first.
Let’s face it, the word “diet” is usually associated with deprivation. If you look at this as just a temporary diet, you may feel that you’re taking away a lot of foods. You may start to resent that.
If you dwell on the fact that you won’t be able to go to a restaurant and enjoy the pre-dinner bread basket, you’ll continue to focus on the deprivation aspect of keto. Which will eventually make you resent the plan and make it even harder to stick to.
Deprivation is simply unsustainable.
Preparing for, and then succeeding at, keto (like many things) is all about your mindset. You can’t go into this thinking about all the stuff you won’t be able to eat. You’ll be miserable and chances are, you won’t succeed.
In the time you take before you start keto, get online and look at some of the amazing recipes out there. If you have the money, buy a couple of cookbooks.
Look at this as a fun way to try some new things and experiment with some interesting meals and ingredients. Change how you frame the diet in your mind. Focus on all the stuff you will be able to eat with abandon. Steak, cheese, bacon, butter, cream. Did I mention bacon?
Once you’re able to change your internal narrative, it will be much easier to look forward to all the awesome foods you’ll be able to have at each meal.
Take it from this carb- and sugar-loving chick, it can be hard to change your mindset. But once you do, it will make all the difference. Especially in the first few weeks.
5. Find A Partner
This may not be possible for everyone, but if you have a partner doing this with you – whether its a spouse, a parent or friend – it’s much easier to stay on track.
Craig and I decided to do this together – largely because we knew we could keep each other accountable.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I had one fairly major cheat after my first two weeks on keto. A big ol’ McDonald’s breakfast meal. I don’t mean just a breakfast sandwich. I’m talking a sausage and egg McMuffin complete with hash browns.
I was driving home from dropping off one of the kids and when I saw those golden arches, something inside me just cracked. I could just taste the hash browns and before I knew it, I was in the drive-thru line placing my order. And y’all. I ate it all. And truly, it was every bit as good as I thought it would be.
Except I felt guilty about it for the rest of the day (which was helped along by how upset my stomach was all afternoon!). Not because I had done something “bad” – but because I had been feeling really good about how I had been eating, and I didn’t want to ruin my progress.
I told Craig about it that night. He was super supportive and instead of judging me, he asked me how it made me feel. I told him about my afternoon spent in and out of the bathroom and we agreed that I probably didn’t need to do that again.
Mistakes will happen. But it really helps when you have a partner who will support you regardless and will encourage you to get back on that horse when you fall off.
If You Don’t Have A Partner
If you aren’t able to find a partner, be your own. Get a journal, or set up a file on your computer or a note on your phone, where you can record your feelings and have a bit of internal dialogue as you go.
No, I don’t mean start talking to yourself all the time (although I suppose that’s an option). I mean if you’ve had a tough day – maybe you fell victim to McDonald’s, too – write it down. Don’t judge yourself, just record it and think about how it made you feel. Then next time you are tempted to turn into that drive through, you might take a pause.
Is The Keto Diet Right For You?
It depends. I do think anyone can do it. But not everyone may enjoy it. And for those taking medication for diabetes or high blood pressure, or those breastfeeding, you’ll want to do some extra research and likely talk to a doctor.
Frankly, no matter what your health is like, you should talk to your doctor about keto before you begin. To know that what I was doing was backed by doctors really reassured me as I started down this journey.
The keto diet can be controversial. Some have said it’s not healthy to cut down one food group so much or that your cholesterol will go up. When I did my research before starting, I read those opinions also. You should do the research, read as much as you can, and decide for yourself if this is for you.
The Case Against Sugar – This book is not about the keto diet. But it is extremely informative about how much sugar has become a part of our society. As a self-professed sugar addict, I’ve really enjoyed reading it and have actually recommended it to a number of friends.
I’ll never not want sugar. But the book gave me some helpful perspective on how to approach it in a more healthy way. And if you can start reading it before you begin keto, it does provide some good motivation.
While you can find a lot of recipes online, I bought a few cookbooks that I enjoyed:
The Keto Diet Cookbook For Beginners
Keto for Carb Lovers: 100+ Amazing Low Carb, High Fat Recipes & 21 Day Meal Plan
Easy Keto Dinners: Flavorful Low-Carb Meals For Any Night Of The Week
www.dietdoctor.com: Marylou recommends this site as offering great keto advice, especially for beginners.
I hope this has been helpful as you prepare for your journey. Keto isn’t for everyone, but if you decide to try it out, I know YOU CAN DO IT!
I would love to hear your thoughts. Have you tried keto? Do you have any additional tips from your experience? Please comment below. And look out for the next installment about how to survive the first two weeks of the keto diet!
Very informative post. I used Keto successfully to reverse my type 2 diabetes in 2 months. It does work and even now I still practice it to maintain a healthy lifestyle
Thanks, Anthea! Great to know how successful Keto has been for you. I agree it has great benefits!!
I have done a similar way of eating but did not keep track of ketosis. I definitely lost weight, but more importantly, leaned out. However, I found it difficult to maintain. That being said, it is a great way to prep for spring break or summer! Good advice from you to have a partner. My husband just grumbled that he couldn’t have rice. He was not the best partner.
Thanks, Jenny! Yes, I agree – having a partner really can make such a big difference in being able to stick to these changes. I’m sorry you didn’t have the best experience with yours!! I found once I got past the first couple of weeks, which were hard, it was much easier to maintain. (next week, I’ll have a post on getting through those first tough weeks!
Sounds like thebKetondiet is working well for you! Congratulations!
Great article! As someone who has been following keto since October 31, 2018- I can relate to all of this advice! I’ve lost 6 inches in my waist!! That’s enough to keep me going. We all have rough days- I just cheated with a McDonald’s Crispy chicken sandwich last weekend and it was delicious 😋, but I didn’t beat myself up and I it right back on track for dinner that same night!
Also thanks for the book recommendations! I am going to check them out.
Thanks, Kelli! Glad to know I’m not the only one who has fallen victim to the McDonald’s cheat! 🙂 Good for you for getting right back on track – I think that’s the best way to recover when you slip up!! Good luck!
I love the keto diet and all your tips here are great. Moon cheese is a personal fav. When I get off track and need to get back on – like after vacation – I like to get back into my bone broth, avocado and cheese rotation – they all satisfy.
Thanks, Angela! Yes, isn’t moon cheese the best? I think I might be addicted! 🙂 That’s the best thing to do after you get off track – get right back on. Good job!!
I do a modified version of KETO. Not sure I am mentally committed to whole hog yet. Pun intended.
I’m a plant-based vegan but, I will share this with folks who inquires about Keto. 🙂
This is more than I’ve ever learned about Keto. To be honest, I’m much more in love with protein than sweets. Bread, though, would be the hard part. God, I love breads!
Karla, thanks! I love bread too and have been shocked at how little I miss it!! 😆
So glad this has worked for you! I don’t “diet”, but instead make lifestyle moderations to adjust what I need adjusting. Exercise being the key. I do, however, make my own bone broth & drink/use often…great nutrients.
Thanks, Suzan! I agree, it’s got to be a lifestyle. And love that you use bone broth – I am going to give it a try soon to add something to our routine!
Great post! I have done the Atkins diet off and on for over 30 years, this seems to be close to the same same thing! I think I will try the keto version and see if I get the same great results! Thank you for sharing the tips, especially about not eating all the carbs in one day!!
Thanks so much, Holly!! Let me know how it goes – my next post will be how to get through the first few weeks. Hopefully that will also help!!
This is super helpful for a lot of people that don’t know the ins and outs of this diet! Thanks for sharing
more and more bits and pieces I get on KETO more I want to try it out.. at some point i thought it might be just another “fashion trend”, but I may be wrong. thank you your post is very infomative
Thanks so much, Alexandra. That is exactly why it took me so long to try it. But I’m glad I jumped in!!
I’m really glad you found that it works for you. I do try to cut down on my carbs and sweets. But it’s pretty hard for me. I am for sure going to check out the moon cheese! Thanks for sharing this info!
Thanks, Shirley! I hope you enjoy moon cheese as much as we do!! 😆
I eat pretty similar to keto but i add yogurt and fruit. hip2keto is a great resource for new recipes!
Thanks! I will have to check that out!
I try to eat lower carb, but I haven’t gone into ketosis. Chocolate is my downfall, but I don’t crave it as much after I avoid it for awhile. Then I have some, and I have to start over!
I hear you on chocolate!! I’m sure if I get to the point that I need something off-plan, it will be chocolate!! 😆
I have tried Keto in the past and lost weight with it. But it was so hard to sustain it. Congrats to you for finding what works for you!
I love the keto way of eating. I feel so much better getting all of my carbs from veggies!
Wow! 10 pounds in two weeks! That’s amazing! I already love Premier Protein shakes. Cookies and Cream is my favorite. I just might have to try Keto. I’ve tried whole 30 and it’s not too much of a jump to go from that to Keto. 🙂
Oh, I have not tried the cookies and cream, will definitely have to give that a try!!! Thanks!!
Well, that was interesting – thanks for breaking that down a little more for us. I’ve been curious, but have heard both the good and the bad about this diet. I am definitely on the “lower my carb” path, but am not sure I am ready to call it “keto.” Good luck to you on your journey with this!
Thanks so much! And you, as well – whatever path you choose!!
This is a great post, with really good recommendations, thank you for sharing!
I love Keto. Super hard for me when I travel but none the less I love it!
Thanks for the info! Although I know a fair bit about keto, I’m always nervous to try what seems like “fad” diets. It’s encouraging to hear that those in the medical community also recommend it.
Thanks, Liz – yes, the fact that there’s research to back it up gave me a lot of comfort!
I am following keto too, but I don’t check or monitor for ketosis. I didn’t approach it as a diet either, I approached it as just changing the way I eat. There are also lots of great Facebook groups out there too that are helpful. I have kids and it’s been fairly easy cooking for all of us. I just modify my portion. I’ve also eliminated any sweeteners. These are great tips
Thanks so much!