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The 4 Phases of a Well-Formulated Ketogenic Diet For Weight Loss

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Quick Summary tl;dr

A well-formulated ketogenic diet isn't just very low in carbs. It's nutrient dense, rich in healthy fats, contains few if any processed foods, and provides adequate but not excessive protein. Dr. Steve Phinney and Dr. Jeff Volek have spent decades researching how and why the diet works, and we're fortunate that they've shared this with all of us.

During weight loss, a portion of your energy needs are met by the release of stored body fat. As you move toward maintenance, dietary fat intake steadily increases until it makes up between approximately 70-80% of total calories.

However, you may need to experiment in order to determine precisely what works best for you during weight loss and especially in maintenance. Of primary importance is personalizing the WFKD in a way that allows you to achieve a healthy weight, maintain that weight long term, and enjoy all the benefits of keto living.

Table of Contents

Although the growing popularity of ketogenic diets is encouraging, the importance of taking a well-balanced, safe, and sustainable approach during weight loss and maintenance can't be overstated. In this article, I'll describe the basics of a well-formulated ketogenic diet, its four phases, factors that may affect your rate of weight loss, and strategies for long-term success.

What Is a Well-Formulated Ketogenic Diet?

The term “well-formulated ketogenic diet (WFKD)” was first coined by researchers Dr. Steve Phinney and Dr. Jeff Volek, the founders of Virta Health. The goal of a well-formulated ketogenic diet is not only achieving a state of nutritional ketosis but doing so in a way that supports optimal health and can be safely followed indefinitely.

Principles and characteristics of the WFKD include

The 4 Phases of a Well-Formulated Ketogenic Diet For Weight Loss

Research on WFKDs for Weight Loss & Health Improvement

A WFKD can be extremely effective for achieving weight loss and blood glucose control, along with lower levels of inflammatory and cardiovascular risk markers. Indeed, many people who follow a WFKD have reported these benefits, among others.

Within the past few years, Virta Health has published several impressive studies looking at outcomes of people with type 2 diabetes following a WFKD long term ( 1, 2,  3).

In a pilot study, overweight type 2 diabetic adults were randomly selected to receive nutritional guidance based on either an ad-lib (non-calorie-restricted) WFKD or a low-fat “Plate Method” approach. All interactions were conducted via an online format ( 1).

At the end of the 8-month study:

  • The WFKD groups' HbA1c — which reflects a person's average blood glucose level over a period of 2-3 months — decreased twice as much as the Plate Method group's did
  • 10 out of 11 people in the WFKD group lost more than 5% of their body weight, while this only occurred in 2 out of 8 people in the Plate Method group
  • The dropout rate among the WFKD group was only 8% (1 person) vs 46% (6 people) in the Plate Method group
  • Based on self-reported data, participants in the WFKD group felt better on their diet and found it easier to stick with compared to the Plate Method group

In a larger study, 262 overweight type 2 diabetic patients were randomized to receive standard nutrition education and care or a WFKD that included health coaching and medical management ( 3).

Throughout the study, researchers reported significantly greater improvements in weight and cardiometabolic markers in the WFKD group compared to the group who received usual care.

A few of the changes experienced by WFKD participants after one year:

  • HbA1c decreased from 7.6% to 6.3%, on average
  • Weight decreased by 13.8 kg (30 lbs), on average
  • Insulin therapy was eliminated or dosage significantly reduced in 93% of patients, and most oral medications were reduced in dosage or eliminated altogether
  • Insulin resistance decreased by 55%, on average
  • The inflammatory marker C-reactive protein (CRP) decreased by 39%, on average

These results demonstrate that a WFKD can lead to long-term metabolic improvements. Moreover, becoming keto-adapted improves insulin sensitivity and allows people to easily access their own fat stores for energy.

The 4 Phases of a Well-Formulated Ketogenic Diet

The four phases of a WFKD reflect the changes in energy (calorie) intake and expenditure during different stages of weight loss through weight maintenance.

One of the most important things to note is that on a keto diet, fat always supplies the majority of calories during every phase.

This chart from the Virta Health blog illustrates the changes in calorie intake and expenditure that would be expected to occur in a hypothetical 5'6” woman as she loses 40 pounds on a WFKD.

The 4 Phases of a Well-Formulated Ketogenic Diet For Weight Loss

Phase 1: Induction

The Induction phase represents the first few weeks of a WFKD, when fat loss is most rapid. In fact, body fat can supply almost half of energy (calorie) needs in some cases.

Weight: 180 lbs (82 kg)
Average Intake: 1,300 Calories
Average Expenditure: 2,400 Calories
Average Deficit: 1,100 Calories

A WFKD doesn't involve intentional calorie restriction — mainly because it isn't necessary. There's compelling evidence that being in ketosis suppresses appetite ( 4,  5). Indeed, most people find that they automatically eat less on a keto diet due to increased satiety and the ability to maintain blood glucose and insulin levels within a healthy low range. Moreover, because they're consuming fewer calories than they need, stored body fat is released to meet the rest of their energy requirements.

Average energy distribution during the induction phase:

Total Carbohydrates: 30 grams (5% of energy needs)
Protein: 90 grams (15% of energy needs)
Dietary Fat: 91 grams (34% of energy needs)
Body Fat: 122 grams (46% of energy needs)

The woman in our example is eating very few carbs and a moderate amount of protein. At first glance, her fat intake of 91 grams might not seem to provide enough energy for someone on a keto diet. However, her body is actually using more than 200 grams of fat per day for energy — and at this point, it's a combination of dietary fat and stored body fat.

Phase 2: Weight Loss

During the Weight Loss phase, body fat continues to decrease, although at a slower rate.

Weight: 160 lbs (73 kg)
Average Intake: 1,500 calories
Average Expenditure: 2,150 calories
Average Deficit: 650 calories

Our hypothetical woman is now eating about 200 more calories and burning about 350 fewer calories than during the Induction phase. However, she's still in an energy deficit and continues using fat as her main energy source.

Average energy distribution during the weight loss phase:

Total Carbohydrates: 40 grams (7% of energy needs)
Protein: 90 grams (17% of energy needs)
Dietary Fat: 109 grams (46% of energy needs)
Body Fat: 95 grams (30% of energy needs)

Carb intake increases slightly (Remember that this is total carbs; net carbs may still be under 20 grams), while average protein intake remains the same. Most of her energy is now coming from dietary fat. However, body fat still provides almost a third of her energy needs, which are decreased overall now that she's at a lower weight.

Phase 3: Premaintenance

In Premaintenance, weight loss continues to slow down as the calorie deficit narrows.

Weight: 150 lbs (68 kg)
Average Intake: 1,810 calories
Average Expenditure: 2,050 calories
Average Deficit: 240 calories

Average energy distribution during the premaintenance phase:

Total Carbohydrates: 50 grams (10% of energy needs)
Protein: 90 grams (18% of energy needs)
Dietary Fat: 139 grams (61% of energy needs)
Body Fat: 27 grams (11% of energy needs)

Again, total carb intake increases by about 10 grams while protein remains constant at 90 grams. By this point, dietary fat is providing the overwhelming majority of her energy needs, although body fat is still making a small contribution.

Phase 4: Maintenance

In the Maintenance phase, our successful keto dieter is no longer losing body fat because she's achieved her goal weight and is energy balance.

Weight: 140 lbs (64 kg)
Average Intake: 2,000 calories
Average Expenditure: 2,000 calories
Average Deficit: 0 calories

During weight maintenance, this woman's average calorie intake matches her average calorie expenditure. The number of calories that she consumes vs. burns may vary from day to day, and sometimes these numbers won't be exactly the same on each side. However, the differences will average out, and her weight will remain stable because she'll be in overall energy balance.

Average energy distribution during the maintenance phase:

Total Carbohydrates: 60 grams (12%)
Protein: 90 grams (18%)
Dietary Fat: 156 grams (70%)
Body Fat: 0 grams (0% of energy needs)

Total carb intake increases to 60 grams per day (Net carbs may be anywhere from 25-45 grams per day, depending on the amount of fiber consumed). Average protein intake has remained stable at 90 grams throughout the weight loss transition and will stay at this level during maintenance. Dietary fat is now providing about 70% of her energy requirement, whereas previously a combination of dietary fat and body fat supplied 70-80% of energy needs.

The 4 Phases of a Well-Formulated Ketogenic Diet For Weight Loss

Caveats and Personalization of the 4 Phases of a Well-Formulated Ketogenic Diet

Different macronutrient ratios

Although a WFKD is always high in fat, the distribution of carb, protein, and fat may vary somewhat throughout the different phases. Dr. Phinney and Dr. Volek have discussed the importance of individualization, as some people may be able to tolerate slightly more carbs and protein than others.

Your ideal macronutrient ratio may fall within any of these ranges during weight loss and maintenance:

  • 5-12% carbs
  • 15-25% protein
  • 65-80% fat (from dietary fat in maintenance and a combination of dietary and stored body fat during weight loss)

Rate of weight loss

It's an undeniable fact that people lose weight at different rates, regardless of macronutrient distribution and calorie intake.

Factors that affect how quickly weight loss occurs include:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Starting weight and body composition
  • Weight loss and dieting history
  • Health disorders (hypothyroidism, PCOS, lipidema, etc.)
  • Genetics

You may have one or more factors associated with slower weight loss and have a tougher time making progress. Fortunately, for many people, keto and low-carb diets offer the best chance for ultimate success.

The appetite-suppressing effects of nutritional ketosis may vary

Studies have shown that in general, a WFKD controls hunger and provides satiety better than other diets do. However, the degree to which this occurs differs among individuals and is often strongest in the initial phase of the diet. Although the woman in our example only consumed about half of the calories needed to maintain her weight — which allowed her to use body fat for the remainder — you may not be satisfied eating 1300-1400 calories every day, even at the beginning. On the other hand, you'll almost certainly end up eating fewer calories than needed for weight maintenance.

Calories in vs calories out?

Although a calorie deficit is necessary for weight loss, it's not as simple as calories in vs. calories out. Here's a quote from Dr. Steve Phinney's excellent 2014 presentation, Optimizing Weight & Health with an LCHF Diet:

“It's much more complex than that issue. It's not just how many calories come in, but how many calories you feel compelled to eat, which determines what comes in. And getting into nutritional ketosis gives people permission to burn quite a bit of their body fat stores.”

The importance of micronutrients

A WFKD contains healthy, well-balanced meals that provide optimal amounts of vitamins and minerals in addition to an appropriate macronutrient distribution.

Basing your meals on minimally processed animal and plant foods that are naturally high in fat and low in carbs is key. Check out these free Ketogenic Diet Meal Plans, which are in line with WFKD principles.

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Franziska Spritzler, RD, CDE
Registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and creator of

Franziska Spritzler

Franziska Spritzler, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator, is a strong proponent of carbohydrate restriction for people struggling with diabetes, insulin resistance, obesity, and PCOS.

She follows a very-low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet for blood sugar control and has experienced many improvements in her health as a result of making this change.

Expert Article

This article was written by Franziska Spritzler, RD, CDE who is a qualified expert. At KetoDiet we work with a team of health professionals to ensure accurate and up-to-date information. You can find out more on the About us page.

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Comments (21)

One thing I always wonder about in terms of maintenance, and being in ketosis. In the example above, the woman is taking 25-40 net carbs a day, which I think we can assume would remain in ketosis.
Is it safe to say that most will always aim to remain in ketosis, or is that as much a concern at this point? Is there a negative affect on the body if you continually come in an out of ketosis every few days?

Hi Scott, you can be in and out of ketosis as you can use either carbs or ketones & fat. One of the advantages of this approach is the flexibility between switching from carbs to fat/ketones. I wouldn't recommend going on a high-carb diet and alternating it with keto. Staying low-carb although not necessarily ketogenic the whole time is a great approach. It's safe to stay in ketosis but it's not necessary for long term success. What you want to achieve is appetite control via carb restriction and you don't need to be in ketosis for that.

I have been " in ketosis" since Christmas and have lost 15 ibs with 20 more to go. Just recently I have been warned about the danger of  "going into afib" or " the need to actively watch my electrolytes" . Is there a real danger of heart irregularities?

If you're following a well-formulated ketogenic diet and getting plenty of sodium, potassium, and magnesium, you're not at increased risk of going into a-fib. However, if you have a-fib or any other serious medical condition, it's important to  talk to your doctor prior to starting a ketogenic diet.

Great article.
I’ve noticed that the abbreviation WFKD changes to WKFD about a 3rd down for a few & then changes back again?

Thank you for spotting that Brian, fixed!

I have been on the keto diet since mid January. I lost 6 kilos in the first 3 weeks but since then nothing! I stopped weighing myself after getting no results (too depressing) but my goal was 28 kilos. I measure myself instead and there has been no change since March. I have not cheated at all and am pretty sure I am eating less than 20g of carbs per day. I have tried intermittent fasting - I now generally skip breakfast but do have a coffee with some cream and stevia instead. If I do have breakfast it is usually eggs and half an avocado and sometimes bacon. Lunch is 50g chicken breast, slice of cheese and 30g nuts. I do drink once can of no sugar coke per day but no alcohol. Dinner is meat an low carb veg with butter. The confusion for me is that I once had very high keto readings on the same diet but have had no trace for months even though I am eating the same.....Really don't know what I am doing wrong - I am attempting to measure macros but finding it a little confusing. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Hi AJ, I'm sorry you haven't been losing weight despite following a keto diet consistently. Although I can't provide specific nutrition guidance here, you may find this article helpful: Not Losing Weight on a Low-Carb Ketogenic Diet? Don’t Give Up and Read Further. Wishing you the best going forward - Franziska

I've been on the keto diet now for 1 week and I've lost 5 lb although this might be a false number  since yesterday I had a horrible run of severe pain, diarrhea & nausea. I believe this is due to my gallbladder stones (I'm a 64 yr old female -20 lb overweight with gall stones) - a "gall bladder attack" which I believe was triggered by a super high fat breakfast which included MCT oil in my tea, coconut butter, 1/2 avocado, ground flax & pumpkin seed).  What can I do to mitigate for this in the future?  It's frankly scared the heck out of me and now makes me hesitate re fat consumption which I'll need to embrace on this diet.  Do you have any suggestions or recommendations?  I do have 1/8 cup, splash of lemon juice with a bit of stevia in hot water every morning first thing and when the nausea ramped up to the point where I thought I would vomit I quickly took in more of this mixture which backed me away from the precipice of actually vomiting.  Thanks for your help!  I would take this to my doctor but I fear he'll just say, "Stop that crazy diet and you'll be fine." 😊
Kathleen Meadows

Hi Kathleen, I'm so sorry to hear you're experiencing these side effects. Although I can't provide personalized advice to you here, I generally recommend that people with gallbladder issues (gallstones, cholecystectomy, etc.) ease into LCHF/keto gradually rather than starting out with a diet so high in fat (especially the MCT oil). Hope you feel much better soon! - Franziska

Hi there,
What I don't understand is how do you determine how long to stay at a phase in the 4-phase plan?
How do you know when it's time to move to the next phase?

Hi CH,  
Good question! The time spent in each phase is very individual, and progression to the next phase can be very gradual. For the most part, moving from one phase to another doesn't involve intentionally altering the way you eat, other than increasing your dietary fat intake while moving into weigh maintenance. I wish you the best of luck! - Franziska

Okay thanks for your reply. How would I know it's time to move from induction phase 1 to weight loss phase 2? I'm still not getting it 😞

It isn't a case of consciously moving to the next phase, like the Atkins ladder. According to Phinney and Volek, the four phases represent how your calorie requirements change as your weight decreases, leading to greater fat intake as you approach your weight loss goal. You don't have to worry about moving to Weight Loss Phase 2 if you continue eating keto/LCHF. Hope that helps!  - Franziska

(This comment is a follow-up to the one I made about an hour ago):
If you want to figure out your own calorie and macronutrient needs -- and see how they change during weight loss -- use the KetoDiet Buddy to enter your current weight, then at 10 pounds less, then at 20 pounds less, and so on: KetoDiet Buddy - Easy Macro Calculator for the Ketogenic Diet.  Hope that helps! 😊 - Franziska

Hi, I have been on a healthy Keto diet faithfully for 3 months now. I take a superior multi vitamin, potassium and magnesium supplement. I make Keto Lemonade and drink filtered water. I wake up so congested and I’m on my 3rd cold. I don’t have any health problems and no food sensitivities. I have eaten pretty much organic for the past 20 years but that does include sugar. I’m sure I’m insulin resistant and I need to lose weight. I lost 20 lbs since I started but wonder about the sneezing, sinus congestion and the colds. Any ideas.? Thanks.  Cynthia

Hi Cynthia, this is just a thought but do you get enough vitamin C? Here's a post Franziska wrote about this topic: Top 10 Low-Carb and Keto Sources of Vitamin C

Excellent article from Franziska. Sums it all up very nicely!

Thank you, Vicki! I'm so glad you found it helpful! - Franziska

Thank you.  I hate to cook.  Do you have any recommendations for prepared snacks and meals?

Hi Diana, I think this depends on what you like. Suitable keto snacks are: roasted nuts, seeds and coconut chips, beef jerky, hard-boiled eggs, avocados, etc. You can also find keto snacks here (some are travel-friendly): Recipes (use the filtering tool and select Snacks & Appetizers"). I hope this helps!