I first came across the ketogenic (keto) diet when I was in a mild state of hysteria about my upcoming wedding and the tight wedding gown that would accompany it. Somehow, getting my dress made two sizes smaller was one of those brilliant ideas I had a year before the wedding. There’s nothing like the pressure (and sheer panic) to look perfect that forces you to lose weight, right? Or so I thought.
But I was only five months away from the big day, still panicking, and nowhere near looking like the absolute picture of perfection that I imagined myself to be. I was eating uncontrollably like a kid going through a growth spurt. My addiction to sugar took on a new form: I was eating candy before I went to bed and would wake up with cookie crumbs in my sheets. I also started consuming instant foods—shin ramen anyone?–at an alarming frequency. I needed to find a way to look like I wasn’t bursting out of a sausage casing, stat.
I was lurking the Reddit forums for before/after pictures in the wee hours of the morning and noticed a trend: most of the remarkable weight loss photos were credited to this thing called the “keto diet.” Some of these people were losing hundreds of pounds in months, touting the diet as this holy grail for success. Color me intrigued.
What Is The Keto Diet?
Thus commenced the research that had me spiraling out into the darkest depths of the Internet at 3 AM. I found that the keto diet was actually created to help people who suffer from drug-resistant seizure disorders like epilepsy, not to help people lose weight. A research team at Emory University School of Medicine conducted a study that shows how the diet alters genes involved in energy metabolism in the brain, resulting in a stabilization of neurons exposed to the challenges of epileptic seizures. The tremendous amount of weight loss each participant experienced was simply a by-product of the high-fat meal plan, leading to its now mainstream implementation as a weight loss mechanism.
Andreas Eenfeldt, M.D. from Diet Doctor explains that the keto diet works by switching the body’s primary fuel source from glucose (because you won’t have much from your diet) to fat (which you’ll have an abundance of) broken down by the liver, producing an alternative energy source called “ketones.” The fat that you burn can come from fats consumed throughout the day as well as the fat you already have in your body. When your body switches to this state, you’ve hit “ketosis.” Insulin levels become very low and it becomes easy to access your fat stores to burn them off.
This is great if you’re trying to lose weight, but there are also other less obvious benefits, such as reduced appetite and a steady supply of energy, keeping you alert and focused. The key is to keep your overall carbohydrate intake to under 50 grams a day, 20 grams or less being even better.
There are several versions of the ketogenic diet, including:
- Standard ketogenic diet (SKD): This is a very low-carb, moderate-protein, and high-fat diet. It typically contains 75% fat, 20% protein, and only 5% carbs
- Cyclical ketogenic diet (CKD): This diet involves periods of higher-carb refeeds, such as five ketogenic days followed by two high-carb days.
- Targeted ketogenic diet (TKD): This diet allows you to add carbs around workouts.
- High-protein ketogenic diet: This is similar to a standard ketogenic diet, but includes more protein. The ratio is often 60% fat, 35% protein, and 5% carbs.
Foods to Eat/Avoid On The Keto Diet
I started the diet with my fiancée and he was thrilled that it catered to his predilection for the savory: eggs, grass-fed beef, seafood, full-fat cheeses, nuts, seeds, avocados, green leafy vegetables, healthy fats (such as butter, ghee, coconut, avocado, and olive oil), and lower carb, non-starchy vegetables and fruits such as a zucchini, cauliflower, and berries.
- Meat: Red meat, steak, ham, sausage, bacon, chicken and turkey.
- Fatty fish: Such as salmon, trout, tuna and mackerel.
- Eggs: Pastured or omega-3 whole eggs.
- Butter and cream: Sourced from grass-fed cows when possible.
- Cheese: Unprocessed cheese like cheddar, goat, cream, blue, or mozzarella.
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, etc.
- Healthy oils: Primarily extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil and avocado oil.
- Avocados: Whole avocados or freshly made guacamole.
- Low-carb veggies: Most green veggies, tomatoes, onions, peppers, etc.
- Condiments: Salt, pepper, and various other healthy herbs or spices.
For me, avoiding certain foods felt like a death sentence. No refined grains, starches, sugars, fruits, or alcohol (goodbye beer) basically eliminated the entirety of my diet at the time. Keep in mind, one slice of bread is 15 grams of carbs, which can easily put you over your daily carb intake of 20 grams. I had to completely overhaul the way I was eating. I may or may not have cried multiple times looking at the following “do not consume” list:
- Sugary foods: Soda, fruit juice, smoothies, cake, ice cream, candy, etc.
- Grains or starches: Wheat-based products, rice, pasta, cereal, etc.
- Fruit: All fruit except for small portions of berries like strawberries.
- Beans or legumes: Peas, kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, etc.
- Root vegetables and tubers: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips, etc.
- Low-fat or diet products: These are highly processed and often high in carbs.
- Some condiments or sauces: These often contain sugar and unhealthy fat.
- Unhealthy fats: Limited portions of processed vegetable oils, mayonnaise, etc.
- Alcohol: Due to their carb content, many alcoholic beverages can throw you out of ketosis.
- Sugar-free diet foods: These are often high in sugar alcohols, which can affect ketone levels. These foods also tend to be highly processed.
What To Expect
If you’re heavily dependent on carbs and sugars to get you through your day like I am, be prepared to go into battle.
There is a thing called the “keto flu” where you will feel under the weather for about a week as your body adjusts itself to using ketones instead of glucose. Mental fog, lightheadedness, nausea, constipation, fatigue, headaches, and intense sugar cravings are common. I had an intense bout of keto flu for a full week when I started the diet, while my partner on the other hand rarely experienced anything at all. Everyone’s body adjusts differently.
To start, you need to stockpile keto-approved foods, plan your meals in advance to eliminate any pitfalls, get rid of any potential temptations at home, drink a ton of water, and fully understand that the first week may be rough. Also, warn all the people in your vicinity that you will be an irritable, hot mess and ask for their forgiveness.
An important thing to note is that the keto diet isn’t a miracle fat burner. The calories in the fats and protein you’re consuming are still calories, so don’t think you can eat an entire stick of butter for every meal and watch the weight melt off. Keeping your total intake at a reasonable level still very much counts.
Words of wisdom: Take it easy. Seriously! Don’t get too regimented unless you’re the type of person that absolutely thrives on regimentation. Factor in cheat days, but don’t let your cheat days turn into cheat weeks (like I did on occasion). Do your research. Find go-to keto-alternatives to your favorite carb dishes (mine were coconut almond flour pancakes and zucchini lasagna). It’s also helpful if you can find someone to go on the diet with you; the partnership makes it way more bearable and keeps you accountable.
Keto is not for everyone.
It wasn’t for me, at least not the highly-regimented keto that I started out with. I slowly started weaning myself off of the macro-counting, food-weighing, portion-controlling version of keto that I was beating myself up with. I lost about 7 lbs in the first two weeks, which was partly water weight but still noticeable in my face and my waistline.
For some, it works really well and is a doable lifestyle change. My partner is still going strong with the keto diet after a few months and has lost over 15 lbs. He maintains his weight loss with no difficulty, and indulges in the occasional beer or carb dish without any guilt.
All in all, committing to keto for a couple weeks forced me to take a hard look at my eating habits, my relationship with food, and make some serious changes to my diet. I learned that I’m usually hungry because I’m thirsty or bored, and that sugar makes me crash and lose energy quickly. I’ve incorporated way more healthy fats into my meals and eat more vegetables now than ever before. I still have a strong sweet tooth and love bread, but I’ve found healthier alternatives that work to curb those cravings.
Now, the “diet” that I keep is loosely based on keto, but I still indulge here and there without any regrets. I am definitely way more conscious of the amount of carbs and sugar I eat and more mindful of the amount of food I eat in general.
Losing the weight was a nice sign of progress, but I realized that my relationship with the diet needed to evolve from a punishment I was inflicting on myself to a lifestyle that would teach me how to take care of my body and be kind to it.
Originally submitted for Issue 8 of Undo Magazine.
Writer: Kandice Che