The keto diet has a reputation for being strict and regimented. Some guidelines you do have to follow, particularly concerning carbohydrate intake. However, just as a Primal diet allows plenty of room for personalization based on food preferences, goals, activity level, and more, keto diets can actually be quite flexible.
In fact, once you’ve successfully made the transition to keto, I think you should make adjustments to ensure your diet feels sustainable and works for your life.
That said, all of the suggestions below are totally optional. They aren’t inherently better than whatever you’re doing now. If you’re happy with your current diet, there’s no need to change it. I know, though, that many of us in the MDA community are questioners or enthusiastic self-experimenters, always up for trying something new and looking for ways to tweak and optimize our diets and lifestyles.
I’m all for self-experimenting and developing your personal expression of keto, one that you find easiest and most enjoyable. So, without further ado, here are nine things you can do to personalize your keto diet.
9 Ideas for Creating a Custom Keto Diet
1. Increase Carbohydrate Intake
The Keto Reset recommends a carb intake of about 50 grams per day (total, not net) for most people, perhaps down to 30 grams for folks who are sedentary or insulin resistant.
Other keto protocols recommend capping carb intake at 20 grams or less. That’s tough to do unless you’re sticking to a fairly limited range of foods. A small handful of macadamia nuts or blueberries represents a quarter of your daily carb allowance if you’re trying to stay under 20 grams. One big-ass salad can put you near or even over your limit.
Some people need to keep carbs that low for medical reasons. There’s no need for the rest of us to be that restrictive, especially not if it makes your diet difficult and unenjoyable.
Even 50 grams may be overly conservative for some people. Athletes and other very active folks can probably go above 50 grams per day and still stay in ketosis, especially if they time their carb intake around training.
2. Decrease Carbohydrate Intake
In the Keto Reset community, I see fewer people overeating carbs than restricting carbs unnecessarily. Still, there are a few reasons someone might want to consider decreasing their carb intake:
To increase ketone levels for specific medical purposes (on the advice of a doctor or nutritionist) or as a self-experiment
Still experiencing unwanted sugar cravings
Dealing with insulin resistance or poor glycemic control
Just a few years ago, the prevailing wisdom was that protein intake should be kept to low-to-moderate levels on a keto diet. Now, a growing number of folks who identify as keto are eating meat-centric or entirely carnivorous diets.
Anecdotally, many people feel better, experience greater satiety, and have an easier time losing weight when they increase their protein intake (if they were on the lower end to start). The majority of people find their protein sweet spot somewhere in the range of 0.7 to 1.0 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass. Highly active folks, older individuals, and people looking to gain lean mass should aim for the higher end or perhaps a bit over.
There’s no need to force protein. Above a certain threshold, around 0.8 grams per pound of total body weight, eating more doesn’t seem beneficial, at least not for gaining muscle and strength.1 All things considered, though, it’s better to take in a little more than we need than to undereat protein, especially as we age.
4. Change Up the Sources of Fat in Your Diet
One of the most controversial aspects of ketogenic diets is that they can raise LDL cholesterol. I know many readers here are skeptical of the conventional lipid hypothesis of heart disease, so you might not think this is a big deal. However, lots of people—and lots of people’s doctors—freak out when they see LDL jump after going keto.
This is obviously a huge topic, far too complex to hash out today. For now, let me just say the evidence regarding keto diets’ effects on LDL is mixed. Even if you believe that LDL (or LDL-p) is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, it remains to be seen whether high LDL confers the same risk in the context of a low-carb, high-fat diet as it does in the context of a pro-inflammatory SAD diet.2
That said, if you or your doctor is concerned because your LDL rose significantly, especially if it remains high after the first six months on keto, look at the fat composition of your diet. Keto diets with more saturated fat could lead to greater increases in LDL.3It might be worthwhile to drop the fatty coffees, swap some of the bacon grease for avocado oil or olive oil, and see what happens.
5. Experiment with Carb Timing
There are two main reasons you’d want to do this: One, you’re trying to manage blood glucose levels. Glucose tolerance tends to decrease over the course of the day and be poorest in the afternoon or early evening. The same is probably true for insulin sensitivity, though the evidence here isn’t quite so straightforward.4 Try eating more of your carbs earlier in the day to see how your glucose levels respond. This is also an interesting experiment if you’re wearing a continuous glucose monitor for self-quantification purposes.
The other reason is sleep. Sleep disruptions, especially waking in the middle of the night, are somewhat common when people first switch to keto. Some folks swear that they sleep better when they eat most of their carbs at dinner.
6. Try Carb Cycling
Carb cycling is a catch-all term for incorporating periods of higher-carb eating into your keto diet. This might look like:
Eating one or two high-carb meals per week
Eating keto macros during the week and loosening the reins on the weekend
Being keto for a set time, say six or eight weeks, and then eating a “regular” diet for a week or two
For females, eating more carbs at certain points of their menstrual cycles
For athletes, varying carb intake according to where they are in their training regimen
These strategies can be worthwhile for folks experiencing increased hunger, menstrual irregularities, or stalled weight loss, which can all be signs of leptin resistance. Athletes whose performance or motivation is suffering could also try cycling in some carbs.
I know cheese lovers in the crowd don’t want to hear this.
When someone complains of any issue that could possibly have an inflammatory component—autoimmune symptoms, joint pain, brain fog, skin problems, fatigue—the first thing I ask is if they’ve tried eliminating dairy. In my experience, of all the variables you might tweak, this is the one that can be most impactful… and the one people are most reluctant to try.
I get it, I love my creamy morning coffee too. However, if your keto diet isn’t getting hoped-for results, I strongly encourage you to try a period of dairy-free eating. If nothing has improved after a few weeks, you can always add it back.
8. Try Intermittent Fasting
You’re probably already aware of the myriad benefits of intermittent fasting. (If not, Mark has a new book coming out called Two Meals a Day that you’ll want to check out.) Fasting is not required to do keto “correctly,” but they’re highly compatible. Both can contribute to insulin sensitivity, glycemic control, reduced inflammation, mitochondrial health, fat loss, appetite regulation, and autophagy.
The easiest way to start is by eating when hunger ensues naturally rather than sticking to set eating times. You’ll likely find that you naturally eat in a window of 6 to 12 hours because you just aren’t as hungry on keto.
9. Change Your Eating Window
Already intermittent fasting? Try lengthening or shortening your eating window, or shift it to a different time of day.
Most people start by skipping breakfast, but eating earlier in the day might be preferable from a circadian rhythm perspective. Research suggests that early time-restricted feeding (eTRF) promotes better glycemic control and insulin sensitivity, improved beta cell function, less inflammation, and even anti-aging benefits.56
Early time-restricted feeding means having breakfast and lunch or a mid-afternoon meal, then skipping dinner. Since hunger tends to be lower in the morning, especially if you’re used to skipping breakfast, you’ll have to start by eating when you’re not actually hungry. It might feel wrong, but your hunger will soon adjust to your new eating schedule. Give this experiment at least a few weeks before deciding if you like it or not.
Who Should Try These?
Everyone should feel empowered to experiment with their diet, keto or otherwise, and customize it to work for them. I’m not saying you have to try the specific ideas above, but you certainly could, especially if you’re:
Finding keto to be too restrictive
Not getting the results you wanted
Bored with your current way of eating
Motivated to get the most out of your diet
Looking for a sustainable long-term diet that suits your tastes and lifestyle
As an evergreen reminder, though, if your current diet isn’t working as you hoped, it might not be about the food. Food is only one piece of the puzzle for any health, fitness, longevity, or general wellness goal. Your diet might not be working because you aren’t getting enough sleep, your stress bucket is overflowing, or you’re spending too much time sitting at your desk and not enough moving and getting fresh air and sunshine. Remember, food only represents two of the ten Primal Blueprint Laws, and they all work synergistically to build health.
Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior writer and community manager for Primal Nutrition, a certified Primal Health Coach, and the co-author of three keto cookbooks.
As a writer for Mark’s Daily Apple and the leader of the thriving Keto Reset and Primal Endurance communities, Lindsay’s job is to help people learn the whats, whys, and hows of leading a health-focused life. Before joining the Primal team, she earned her master’s and Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also worked as a researcher and instructor.
Lindsay lives in Northern California with her husband and two sports-obsessed sons. In her free time, she enjoys ultra running, triathlon, camping, and game nights. Follow along on Instagram @theusefuldish as Lindsay attempts to juggle work, family, and endurance training, all while maintaining a healthy balance and, most of all, having fun in life. For more info, visit lindsaytaylor.co.