- “I can’t wait to start this new diet that will make me feel absolutely horrible at first,” said no one ever.
Unfortunately, that’s kind of what you sign up for when you start the keto diet. That totally miserable feeling is actually called the “keto flu” and it’s basically a bunch of flu-like symptoms that often appear at the beginning of a keto diet overhaul (because, you know, starting a new diet isn’t hard enough).
So before you run to the grocery store to stock up on protein and healthy fats galore, listen up: Chowing down on all that thick-cut bacon might come with some unpleasant side effects in the beginning—here’s what to look out for and what to do if you think you’ve come down with the keto flu.
What exactly is the keto flu?
First of all, it’s not really the flu (as in influenza), but the symptoms are similar: headache, fatigue, body aches, dizziness, and nausea.
“These symptoms occur because your body is getting used to the effects the diet is having on you,”says Amy Gorin, RDN, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area.
She’s referring to a process called ketosis, which happens when the body starts burning fat for energy instead of using carbs. Carb withdrawal (yes, that’s a thing) is what makes you feel so miserable during this time period, says Beth Warren, RD, founder of Beth Warren Nutrition and author of Living A Real Life With Real Food.
What are the symptoms of the keto flu?
Carbs are quick energy, so without them you feel sluggish, but they’re also a good source of fiber, and missing out on that can lead to stomach issues. Other symptoms of the keto flu include brain fog, painful headaches, exhaustion or fatigue, mood swings, constipation, and nausea, says Kate Morton, an RD in Texas. The keto flu is basically your body reacting to a major diet change, so it may feel like everything is out of whack, similar to how you feel if you’ve ever dealt with the real flu. It might be harder to concentrate, or go about your everyday tasks like you’re used to.
Experiencing the keto flu isn’t necessarily a sign the diet is working or will work, from a weight-loss standpoint, or that it isn’t or won’t. It’s really just your body reacting to a new eating style. That being said, Morton says that if you are experiencing the keto flu, that might be a sign that you should talk to your doctor and consider a more balanced eating style. (There are plenty of diets out there, and there’s no reason to suffer through the keto flu just to try the keto diet.) “It is important to point out that the ketogenic diet was initially developed for children who have epilepsy. It was not necessarily designed for the average person, and we do not know the long-term effects of this diet on the body,” says Morton.
How long does the keto flu last?
It really depends on the person. “Some of these symptoms may pass within 24 to 48 hours of starting the ketogenic diet, but some may take up to two weeks to go away,” says Gorin.
Another similarity between the keto flu and the actual flu: its symptoms vary from person to person. Some people only have mild symptoms while others feel much more ill, and some people recover quickly while others wait weeks to feel like themselves again.
That sounds…awful. Can I prevent the keto flu?
If you’re interested in trying the keto diet, don’t rush the process. Instead, follow these tips to make your experience an easier one.
- Don’t quit carbs all at once. “Slowly decrease your carbohydrate intake while slowly increasing your fat intake, changing [more gradually] from a high-carb to a low-carb diet,” says Gorin.
- Plan your meals ahead of time. It’s a good strategy for any diet, but it’s especially true if you’re gearing up for keto, since it’s going to put your body through some major changes. Having a regular meal schedule can help with keeping your energy and digestion steady.
- Make sure you’re getting enough liquids. “Plan to stay hydrated and include plenty of fiber-rich vegetables in your diet to reduce the likelihood of constipation,” says Gorin. (The increase in fatty foods combined with the decrease in fruits and vegetables found in high-protein diets is a well-known recipe for GI backup.
- Talk to a doctor or dietitian. Gorin recommends getting an expert opinion, since the keto diet is such a big transition. “Have a registered dietitian make a meal plan for you so you have a specific plan of action.” (You can find one in your area at Eatright.org.)
Okay, but what if I already started the keto diet and feel terrible? Is there anything I can do to ease keto flu symptoms?
If you dove head-first into keto and are now feeling…ugh, there are some things you can do to lessen the symptoms if you’re willing to be flexible.
- Eat some carbs. Letting yourself have a few more carbs than a typical keto diet would allow or cutting back on eating all the fats right away might lessen the severity of your keto flu symptoms, so that you aren’t feeling so meh. Sure, it might make your keto journey slower, but it’ll make you feel a lot better, and make the diet more sustainable overall.
- Make sure you’re consuming electrolytes. “The keto diet puts you at an increased risk for dehydration, so if you do decide to go keto, adequate hydration is essential for the support of your overall body, especially your kidneys,” says Morton. Because keto forces you to cut out certain foods, you might be cutting certain minerals like magnesium and sodium, too. But being vigilant with your hydration and electrolyte intake might help you prevent symptoms of the keto flu. Try some electrolyte drink mixes that you can combine with water to make sure you’re getting the minerals you need.
- Remember that the keto flu is temporary. If you’re not willing to add even a few more carbs back into your diet, take comfort in the fact that the keto flu is temporary—and it will past. Once your body adjusts to your new normal, you should start feeling a little better. But again, if your symptoms are severe and you’re just NOT feeling this diet, there are plenty of other ones you can try that come with less side effects.
The bottom line: The keto flu is a set of symptoms that many people who try the keto diet experience for a few days to a few weeks, including low energy, brain fog, painful headaches, mood swings, constipation, and nausea. If you are struggling with the keto flu, try adding some more carbs back into your diet, focus on your hydration and electrolyte intake, and consider if a less restrictive diet is a better choice for you.
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