Ketogenic or “keto” diets have exploded in popularity. Considering keto can help you lose weight, improve blood sugar, and more, this is great. Unfortunately, this popularity means there are lots of self-proclaimed “experts” jumping on the keto social media bandwagon without any solid background in human physiology or biochemistry.
These well-meaning but uninformed hobbyists propagate myths and misinformation that make it hard for newbies to sort truth from nonsense. As a certified nutrition specialist and nutritional therapy practitioner, I have studied the benefits of low carbohydrate diets for years. So if your goal is fat loss, I'm here to clue you in on the 10 most common mistakes I see people make when they’re new to eating the keto way.
Mistake No. 1: Focusing on Macros
No magical percentage of calories will guarantee you’ll lose a particular amount of weight in a given time. The human body is not a calculator. Keto is often called LCHF (low carb, high fat). But the more important of these two things is the lowered carbs. What gets you into ketosis is a low carb intake, not a high fat intake.
Think about it: If eating lots of fat caused ketosis you could eat six bagels, but as long as you slathered enough cream cheese or butter on them to hit your “macros,” or “keto ratios,” you’d be in ketosis. But that’s not how this works. What puts you into a ketogenic state is the very low carb intake, not the high fat intake.
Mistake 2: Chasing Ketones
Ketones are the result, not the cause, of breaking down fat. Higher ketones don’t mean you’ll lose more body fat or lose it faster. If your ketones are high, you only know that you’re breaking down fat. You don’t know whether that’s the fat in your buttery coffee or the fat from your backside. You don’t need to have high ketones for this diet to work for you, and it’s even possible to gain weight when you’re in ketosis! Some people’s bodies naturally generate higher ketones than others. It doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong if your ketones are always low. And please don’t fall victim to “ketone shaming” on social media. As the people at KetoGains say: “Chase results, not ketones.”
Mistake 3: Overdoing the Fat
If your primary goal is fat loss, you can’t drown everything in butter and coconut oil and expect to arrive at your goal weight magically. Dr. Eric Westman, a leading keto researcher said, “Calories do matter, but you don’t have to count them.” Ketogenic diets are so good at taming the hunger beast that most people find themselves eating less than before without even trying. But if you’re adding gobs of fat to your food to hit that crazy “fat macro” when you’re not even hungry, you’re taking in calories you don’t need. If you’re eating very few carbs and are still struggling to lose weight, remember: The more fat you eat, the less need your body has to tap into its own stored fat for fuel. No more fatty coffees! They’re the keto equivalent of sugary sodas.
Mistake 4: Fearing Protein
Somewhere along the way, protein became the keto boogeyman: “Don’t eat too much protein; it’ll turn into sugar!” or “It’ll kick you out of ketosis!” This is a total misunderstanding of the science at work here.
The Atkins diet induction phase, arguably the simplest and most effective way to get into ketosis besides full-on fasting, was unlimited in protein. Unlimited — as long as it was plain beef, poultry, fish, etc., with no starchy breading or fillers. Protein fearmongering is entirely new and entirely unnecessary. If you’re using keto to lose weight, protein is your best friend. It’s the most satiating macro because it keeps you full for a long time. A common mistake on keto is people eating more fat because they’re afraid of protein. Protein affects insulin only slightly; you don’t get a big spike from it like you do from carbs.
Mistake 5: Not Getting Enough Salt
When people eat keto and feel sluggish, fatigued, get headaches or lose their “oomph” in the gym, they’re usually not getting enough sodium. Ketogenic diets change the way the body holds on to electrolytes, especially sodium, potassium and magnesium. You don’t retain as much of these, so you need to get more from your food, especially sodium.
Salt your food liberally or consider drinking a cup or two of broth made with a bouillon cube. For most people, high blood pressure comes from chronically high insulin and has very little to do with sodium in their diet. Leg cramps and muscle stiffness may benefit from supplemental magnesium or potassium. Of course, you should work with your doctor if you want to start a ketogenic diet and you’re taking blood pressure medication.
Mistake 6: Not Consuming Enough Calories
If your goal is fat loss, then you want to create a caloric deficit — but don’t starve yourself! Keto tends to be very satiating. You can go comfortably for several hours without eating, whereas in your previous high-carb life, you might have had to snack every couple of hours or risk getting “hangry,” irritable, shaky and light-headed.
The high satiety factor means that some people decrease their calories too much, leading to too big an energy deficit. That might be fine if you have a lot of weight to lose and you feel well. But if you have a very active lifestyle or participate in sports or work out, remember that you’ve got to fuel that activity, and fuel means food.
Mistake 7: Being Impatient
Some people drop a lot of weight and have seemingly miraculous health improvements very quickly when they go keto. For others, though, things take a bit longer to kick in. Don’t compare your results to anyone else’s. Stay the course, trust the process and let the good stuff happen for you in its own time. As I like to say, “Keep calm and keto on!”
Be mentally prepared for slowdowns and stalls in fat loss. They’re perfectly normal. If you’re an athlete, expect a decline in your performance at first. It takes time for your body to transition to performing optimally on a ketogenic diet. It could take weeks or even months to get back to your peak. But don’t worry; once you’ve adjusted, or “keto-adapted,” most low-carbohydrate athletes typically exceed their personal bests from their former high-carbohydrate life.
Mistake 8: Carb Creep
If you’re having a hard time losing weight on keto, are you really eating as low-carb as you think you are? If you’re tracking your diet by “net carbs” (the total carbohydrates minus fiber and sugar alcohols), consider recording your total carbs instead.
Some people do just fine with keto bars, bread, cookies and other products, while others are more sensitive to the fillers and sugar alcohols. If you don’t use any of these and you’re still struggling, track your food intake for a few days and see if you’ve let too many “real food” carbohydrates creep back in. Berries, nuts and nonstarchy vegetables are all allowed on keto, but the carbs do add up.
Mistake 9: Ignoring Non-Keto Problems
Contrary to what you may see, a ketogenic diet won’t make you invincible or immortal. Things still happen to our health that is unrelated to keto. You could come down with a virus or develop an unexplained illness. For women, the transition through menopause can wreak havoc with body composition. Hypothyroidism is highly underdiagnosed, and low thyroid function makes it difficult to lose weight regardless of how strict you are with diet and exercise.
Many people find that keto helps with hormone imbalances and other issues, but sometimes keto isn’t enough, and you shouldn’t ignore troubling symptoms. Many people in the keto community look down on pharmaceutical drugs, but let’s not dismiss these completely. When used appropriately, medication can improve quality of life if you have a problem keto hasn’t solved. Don’t fall for false messages on social media telling you to just “keto harder.”
Mistake 10: Keeping Keto When You Don’t Feel Your Best
Keto is supposed to help you feel better. If you’ve been at it for a while and don’t feel your best, consult with a keto-savvy nutritionist or dietitian — we do exist! If you follow sage advice and still don’t feel well, consider adding some carbs back to your diet.
Keto isn’t the only way to lose weight and be healthy. Consider a more flexible low-carb or Paleo-style diet in which your carbs are lower than if you ate grains and sugar, but they’re not down to ketogenic levels. Add things back into your diet like fruit, starchy vegetables and beans. If you don’t feel your best on keto, a professional can help you troubleshoot and identify ways to get things working for you, but it’s also not the end of the world to eat a bit more carbohydrates. This is a way of eating that is supposed to make you feel good — but remember, it’s not a religion.