6 Common Low-Carb & Keto Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Woman Eating Meat“Carbohydrate restriction is commonly practiced but seldom taught.”

This is the tagline of a book I was reading the other day, The Art And Science of Low-Carbohydrate Living.

This book was written by two of the leading researchers on low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diets worldwide, Drs Stephen D. Phinney and Jeff S. Volek.

One of them is a medical doctor, the other a registered dietitian (one of the “good” ones – yes, they do exist).

These guys have many years of clinical experience prescribing low-carb diets for patients and are therefore in a unique position to give practical advice on how to do this diet properly.

According to these guys, cutting back on carbs isn’t enough.

To reap the full benefits and get your body into full-blown nutritional ketosis, some additional steps are required.

When your brain is fully keto-adapted and efficiently burning ketones for fuel, that’s where the “metabolic magic” happens, so to speak.

Kind of like Atkins on steroids.

1. The Fear of Fat May be Holding You Back

When you take carbs out of the diet, you have to replace them with fat.

Many people think that because low-carb is good, a combination of low-carb AND low-fat will be even better. That’s a big mistake.

All of the populations around the world that have sustained themselves with little carbs (the Inuit, for example) have eaten a LOT of fat to compensate. They choose the really fatty cuts of meat, they don’t go for the lean parts.

Fat should be your biggest source of calories on a “well-formulated” low-carb/ketogenic diet. I’ve personally aimed for 50-60% in the past but according to Volek and Phinney 70-80% might be even better.

2. Eating Too Many Carbs

“Low” carb is a pretty vague term. Someone might call 100-150 gram per day pretty low, at least compared to the Standard American Diet (SAD).

To get into ketosis, a carb intake of less than 50g per day is recommended. Even lower may be optimal, but this depends on the individual.

Personally I now aim for 20-30g per day, but I still manage to fit in plenty of low-carb vegetables like leafy greens.

3. Eating Too Much Protein

Normally, a low-carb diet restricts carbs only. Fat and protein are allowed in unlimited amounts.

This appears to be a potential issue for some folks. The thing is, when you eat very little carbs but a high amount of protein, a lot of this protein will be used for energy or turned into glucose by the liver.

According to Volek and Phinney, too much protein can keep you out of ketosis, which is the metabolic state that we should be aiming for to reap the full benefits of low-carb.

A “well-formulated” low-carb/ketogenic diet, according to the authors, is low-carb, high-fat and moderate-protein.

4. Sodium Requirements go Way up on Low-Carb Diets

A high-carb diet raises insulin levels. That we know.

One of the side effects of elevated insulin is that the kidneys start hoarding sodium, which leads to bloating and excess water weight.

This is the reason people lose so much weight when they start a low-carb/ketogenic diet. Their body “sheds” the excess sodium and water follows along.

This is a good thing, but it can become too much of a good thing when your kidneys keep dumping sodium until you become deficient.

Sodium is a crucial electrolyte in the body and cells require it to remain within a tight range.

If you ever feel “lousy” on low-carb; headache, fatigue, lightheadedness, even constipation then you should add some sodium to your diet (if you have a medical condition, consult your doctor).

There’s no need to fear a little extra sodium on a low-carb diet. Your requirement goes up and you are simply replacing what is lost via urine.

What you can do is simply put more salt on your food (salt = sodium + chloride).

Or better yet, you can drink a cup of broth every day.

What I do is dissolve an organic (no MSG) bouillon cube in a cup of hot water and drink. Adds 2g of sodium to my daily intake.

It’s delicious actually. Like a low-calorie soup in a cup. Yum.

5. Not Supplementing With Potassium And Magnesium

Another two electrolytes that may need to be supplemented are potassium and magnesium.

According to most of the low-carb/keto experts, including Dr. Petter Attia, Dr. Michael Eades, Drs. Volek and Phinney and Lyle McDonald, supplementing with magnesium and potassium is a good idea.

Personally I take 200mg of Potassium with each meal and 400mg of Magnesium Citrate in the evening, about an hour or two before sleep.

6. Not Giving it Enough Time

It can take weeks to become fully adapted to a low-carb, ketogenic diet. You can expect to be in ketosis within a few days, but the entire adaptation period can take weeks.

Feeling like crap is not uncommon for the first few days, but that’s because your body is still adapting to using ketones and fatty acids for fuel instead of glucose.

Once the adaptation period is over, many people claim feeling better than before. Sharper mentally, less hunger and even improved physical performance.

Take Home Message

If you want to try this out, I suggest you sign up on Fitday (free) and log your food intake for a few days.

Trust me, if you want to keep your macros within a tight range, this is a MUST… at least in the beginning until you get a “feel” for your portions.

Personally I’m now keeping carbs under 30g per day and protein under 125g. Before, I was eating too many carbs, too much protein and wasn’t drinking broth to add sodium.

If you’ve tried low-carb in the past but didn’t get the results you expected, then perhaps you were doing it wrong.

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  1. The point about moderate protein is pretty interesting. While I haven’t given up carbs altogether (I’m about 5’10” and 155 lbs), I’m definitely eating a lot more protein. Mostly in the form of greek yogurt, sprouted bread, almond butter, and edamame.

    I’m following a HIIT strength training/cardio workout program and am eating the extra protein to build more muscle and curb my cravings for junk food. Keeping edamame on hand (with a little salt) keeps me from getting chips at the vending machine.

    My wife is a registered dietitian (gasp!) and we were discussing how much protein I should eat to build muscle, so point # 3 is pretty interesting…


    • If you’re actively building muscle, then indeed you might have more specific protein requirements for what you’re trying to do, and need to adjust your intake.

      However, if you’re not specifically diong weight training etc, point #3 is good general advice.

  2. Hallgrimur says:

    Isnt it wise to count the calories as well as cutting down on carb intake

    • It depends, but usually isn’t necessary. Low-carb tends to make people eat less without trying.

      • I agree with you, Kris. In order to take strong control over my husband’s diabetes at the beginning of this year, he went low-carb carefully. He was a nurse and a professional powerlifter competitor, so I trusted he researched the low-carb lifestyle well. Sure enough, he was eating less (which also saved money) and he was eating quality food (whole foods, zero processed). In the end, he killed his diabetes in under a year of his diagnosis. I can’t sing the praises of a responsible low-carb enough! :-)

    • Kris, can you tell me why the potassium and magnesium supplements are a good idea? I’ve been wondering if I need to take any supplements.

      • Bev, the body uses its potassium and magnesium stores very fast in ketosis, and are hard to replace with keto friendly food alone. Here is a detailed run-down on the issue: http://www.bodyrecomposition.com/nutrition/whats-causing-my-muscles-to-cram.html It’s a Lyle McDonald article.
        I’ve found when I get severe chocolate and/or sugar cravings, my body is informing me to hurry up and give it some electrolytes.

        • Thanks, Jude. I’m not working out in a gym or anything, just making a specific effort to walk 2 miles per day on most days in addition to normal daily activity.. Cramping hasn’t really been a problem, but the last couple of days my knees and thighs were aching some before I went to sleep. I don’t generally crave sugar, but do crave chocolate and salt.
          Appreciate the reference in the article to drinking milk after a workout, since we are involved in the dairy industry! Perfect reason to chug a glass of milk when I return from my walk!

      • Mainly as a precaution really. If you don’t have any issues like leg cramps then there’s probably nothing to worry about.

    • Gaining fat means you are storing more calories in your fat tissue than you are burning for energy. It is just a simple fact that you’re doing that, and reducing the amount you eat may not help the situation at all, because it’s not caused by eating, it’s caused by a certain type of hormone (im)balance.

      But there are other ways you could eat more calories than you burn and *not* gain a lot of fat. For example, if you eat more protein than you burn, but you wind up storing it in your muscle, how would that make you fat? It wouldn’t.

      So there’s a lot more to “calorie theory” than most of the experts will let on. It’s far too simplistic and it fails for too many people. Eat for nutrition (calories are not nutrition) and for hormone balance. The rest should hopefully take care of itself.

  3. One common thread among all successful weight loss programs is plenty of healthy fats. People think fat is the enemy, but in truth we have cut out all the wrong kinds of fats. Fat-free food is a nutritional disaster. Then, those who cut fats generally end up eating more processed sugar, processed grains, and unhealthy oils. We need the right kinds of carbs, the ones that grow on trees and from plants, not those that come in wrappers, bags, and boxes. Great post Kris, once again.

    • The ones that come in wrappers, bags, and boxes were originally from plants. Better yet, cut way back on the amount of seeds you’re eating–even nuts, which I understand become a big issue when someone’s eating Paleo. Seeds, being the offspring of stationary living things that can’t maul you for attacking their babies, don’t like to be eaten and will happily induce a state of chronic poisoning in retaliation. Most mammals are not adapted for eating them, us included.

      Ditch most of the seeds and keep nuts to a minimum, then re-assess. If that’s not working then cut out the starchy plant parts too, also the high-sugar fruits. At that point you should probably get most or all of your situation under control.

  4. Does a cheat day ruin your low-carb efforts? I started Atkins Induction last week – no carbs (bread, baked goods, deserts, barely any alcohol) but on Saturday, had a little slip and had a couple mini cupcakes (I love cupcakes…..) Does something like this ruin all the effort I put in?

    • Not at all, but the more consistent you are the better your body will adapt to the diet.

      There are many different versions of this, some include one day per week where they “carb up” and eat a whole lot of carbs. That seems to be very effective too.

      • That’s not what volek and phinney suggest in ‘performance'; I took it that eating sufficient carbs to shut down fat release and ketosis will pop you right back at step one (in respect of becoming fat adapted, the point at which you can function – athletically – almost as well as when fuelled by carbs). Whether this is true for every person remains to be seen; I’m sure that someone who eats a paleo style diet and fasts regularly won’t be as badly affected as someone who come at it from a SAD. It also depends on what you’re wanting out of going keto; if you want athletic performance there’s probably little room for error, but if you just want to change your metabolism a little and aid your fat burning then you’re just a little behind where you were before your adventure into the world of cupcakes.

        Hope this helps,

        • They didn’t talk about it in the book but this is how the Cyclical Ketogenic Diet (CKD) works – weekly “carb ups.” It is very effective for fat loss, improvement in body composition, etc. and is often used by bodybuilders.

          I don’t do the carb up thing myself though. It all depends on the goals.

          • In this video interview, Dr. Phinney says if you cheat and break your ketosis it takes 2-4 WEEKS to re-adapt. (His comment appears at 3:30 in the video)

          • Be that as it may, a cyclic ketogenic diet is in common use by people trying to lose fat and maintain or gain muscle.

            It’s a real thing and it works: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyclic_ketogenic_diet

            Here’s a good description of the carb up process: http://www.clutchfitness.com/forums/showthread.php?t=6456

            There are more than one way to do a ketogenic diet.

            SKD – Strict ketogenic diet – basically, no cheating and no carb ups, which is what Volek and Phinney recommend.

            CKD – Cyclic ketogenic diet – very low-carb, moderate protein, high fat during the week with carb ups during the weekends to refill glycogen stores.

            TKD – Targeted ketogenic diet – very low-carb except around workouts, where some carbs are thrown in.

            I prefer the SKD route myself, but I do acknowledge that there are other approaches that may work just as well.

            Again, this all depends on a person’s goals. For a healthy person simply looking to improve body composition, the cyclic ketogenic diet seems like a viable and effective option.

            I don’t believe that it takes weeks to get back into nutritional ketosis after a cheat meal or one day of increased carb intake. Seems far-fetched to me. If you can show me a reference for it then I may change my mind.

    • Durf Dervy says:

      Don’t worry about it babe, you’re hawt.

  5. Kris,

    I’ve read this book and I found it very informative. The additional sodium to help facilitate the low-carb diet was something I didn’t know about before. I personally prefer to cycle carbs and not go low-carb every day.

    I’ve found that on certain days when I exercise intensely, timing carbs after workouts helps me feel better than if I avoided them completely. For people who have a lot of fat to lose and who don’t exercise intensely, then going low-carb everyday may suit them better.


  6. This is probably a really dumb question, but is it OK to eat sugar free gum? I’ve been chewing alot of this gum to help curb my sweet tooth, but wonder am I actually doing more harm than good?

  7. Kris said: “I don’t believe that it takes weeks to get back into nutritional ketosis after a cheat meal or one day of increased carb intake. Seems far-fetched to me. If you can show me a reference for it then I may change my mind.”

    It may not be a reference per se, but Dr. Phinney’s decades of work in this area should count for something. He was almost certainly basing his comment on some data.

    • I’m sure he was, but I don’t take anyone’s word as gospel – even scientists like Phinney that I greatly respect.

      I can imagine that several days/weeks of high-carb eating, perhaps then it could take weeks to become fully keto-adapted afterwards. Back at the starting point, basically.

      But a single cheat meal, high-carb day… I doubt it. Glucose and insulin will rise and then fall again quickly, the liver can only store around 100g of glycogen, then the brain will need ketones very soon.

      • I’m just reading The Ketogenic Diet by Lyle Mcdonald and he’s got a reference in there noting that adaptations, once fully fledged can last for around 3 weeks, this wouldn’t sit well with Dr Phinneys advice, but I can see that one situation applies to becoming adapted in the first place (not being able to take time off/cheat) and another to having adapted fully (being able to have a cheat meal or day and then getting back on Keto).

        Perhaps this explains the difference?


  8. Just curious what Potassium supplement you’re taking. I can’t find a good high mg one. Thanks!

    • I use Lite Salt. It’s half sodium and half potassium. Just salt up your foods and take both problems out at the same time.

    • Potassium salts in high concentration can be toxic, so Over-the-counter forms are limited to 99mg. Higher strength prescription tablets are in timed release form. You can get “LiteSalt” at the grocery store. It substitutes potassium for half the sodium in table salt. You just use it instead of regular salt.

    • I take Potassium Gluconate 99mg tablets, two with each meal. But I eat only two meals per day which brings my total up to about 400mg. I definitely wouldn’t take more than that in one day unless recommended by a qualified health professional, too much can kill you.

  9. Wenchypoo says:

    Coconut water aids me in supplementation–I use it to make my morning smoothies.

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