I’m on a lot of email lists relating to nutrition and wellness so over the last 12 months, I’ve been reading more and more about the Ketogenic (Keto) diet. But the catalyst that made me decide to try it was watching “The Broken Brain” series by Dr. Mark Hyman. He talks about how the ketogenic diet is actually good for not just your body but your brain. I was intrigued so I decided to try it for myself to see what would happen.
What is the Ketogenic diet?
The Keto diet is a very low carb, high-fat diet that puts your body into a state of ketosis. Ketosis is a metabolic state whereby your body burns fat, instead of carbohydrates, as its main source of energy.
You can think of it as though your body has two “engines”: a carbohydrate burning engine and a fat-burning engine. Based on our modern diets, the carbohydrate burning engine is the default “setting” for your body. But if you remove most carbohydrates from your diet, your body will switch over to the fat-burning engine.
When the fat-burning engine is on, you are in ketosis. There are reportedly lots of health benefits to being in ketosis ranging from weight loss to improved brain function. The list is long. You can go to www.reddit.com and enter “benefits of a keto diet” to hear from people who have experienced it.
How does it work?
To get your body into ketosis, you need to severely limit your carbohydrate intake. How severe is severe? Someone eating the Standard American Diet (SAD) probably consumes around 250 grams of carbohydrates per day. While the range to get your body into ketosis varies depending on each person, the general range seems to be between 20-50 grams of net carbs per day (or fewer) to get to ketosis.
I started towards the Keto diet thinking I would just try to go under 60 grams of net carbs per day to see how I felt. I tracked it all in Myfitnesspal.com, a free online application I use whenever I make big diet adjustments. I’ve been eating pretty clean/ low(ish) carb for several years so keeping under 60 grams of net carbs required a few adjustments, but it wasn’t so hard. Then, since I was in range, I thought I’d see if I could cut out a few more grams of carbs and try to get into ketosis.
It turns out those last grams of net carbs were hard to cut out. I had to make lots of adjustments. I was taking the whole thing at a relaxed pace so the adjustment was more gradual. For ketosis, I’m not sure if gradual is a good thing since I was probably swinging my body in and out of mild ketosis which is kind of the worst of all worlds. My advice to someone else would be to just commit and go all in for two or three weeks and then decide.
By week three, I was getting into it and when I tested myself, I was in medium ketosis. How did it feel?
My mood felt smoother, my energy levels remained high and I felt a bit mentally clearer. I definitely could focus better.
Hunger pangs were different. I still got hungry but it was more a gradual awareness I was hungry, and I should eat. There wasn’t an edge to it.
I felt like I had more energy to deal with all the things I usually put off so a lot of the irritating errands and chores I had been avoiding started getting done.
I felt very relaxed and less annoyed by most things. I still went Scorpio once or twice, but generally, my mood was quite upbeat.
I started feeling very present, to the point where it was hard to think about things in the future. I became extremely absorbed in whatever I was doing in the moment, and this actually caused me to be late for a few appointments which was sort of funny since I’m usually strict about being on time.
I knew what to eat, I was enjoying my meals, I felt some food limitations but I was happy with my meal choices, and I wasn’t feeling hungry. I also ate less volume. I never focused on it before, but high carb foods are kind of bulky (rice, quinoa, potatoes, etc.). When I cut way down on carbs, the volume of food I ate seemed to drop. So my meal sizes were smaller, but I was still feeling satiated.
I wasn’t trying to lose weight, but I did end up a bit leaner. This supports the idea that you can eat fat to lose weight since I was eating well over 100 grams of fat per day. However, I think it is important to point out “eat fat to get thin” probably works best if you are actually in ketosis. If you are eating moderate or even low, but not that low carbs and a lot of fat, your body is still using the carb-burning engine so the fat won’t burn off the same way…You could eat fat and get fat.
I also noticed I was much more conscious about my eating. It was like every bite counted so I was very aware and mindful of what I was consuming. I like that aspect of keto very much. As an unexpected benefit, my appetite to drink alcohol dropped off noticeably. I’m not sure if this is a keto thing or just being super mindful of my choices, but it was observable.
It turns out carbs are everywhere! And in lots of foods I didn’t expect– like popcorn. And I love popcorn! So some of the foods I wanted to eat I had to severely cut back on. This was hard.
It required meal adjustment. I’m a repetitive eater so I have to be mindful of getting enough nutrients and vitamins since I eat the same thing over and over. With fewer food choices, I had to focus on this even more. I think if I did this long term, I’d have to work hard to make sure I got all the vitamins and nutrients I need.
I ate way more dairy than I usually do. My version of keto excluded meat so that left fewer low carb options. I ate lots of cheese.
I was measuring everything! Breakfast was 12 almonds, 3 brazil nuts and 3 tablespoons of yogurt… I’m fine doing that for a while, but I don’t think I want to live that way…
What did I eat?
Tons of things…
Walnuts, brazil nuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, peanut butter, Greek yogurt, konjac noodles, romaine lettuce, green leaf lettuce, butter lettuce, arugula, feta cheese, parmesan cheese, blue cheese, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, avocados, fish, tomatoes, olives to name a few. It is worth noting eating out wasn’t particularly hard. One of my favorite recipes is below.
My advice to people who are thinking of doing this:
If you are going to try keto or extremely low carb, I highly recommend you plan your meals in advance. It makes all the difference. If you are hungry and unprepared, you will feel discouraged, depressed and sad. And you will probably make worse food choices for yourself.
Unless you have an acute medical condition, I’d favor a staged approach. When I did this, I had already cut sugar, fructose and gluten. So dropping carbs was hard but not that hard. If you are trying to drop sugar and carbs at the same time, I think it will be difficult. And if you are eating 250 grams of carbs a day and trying to get to 35, it would be like moving from the heart of New York City to the high plains of Tibet. You will probably feel shocked and disoriented and may start to miss Manhattan…If you are living in Nepal and moving to the high plains of Tibet, it will still be a big change but not such a shock.
Get Ketostix so you can test yourself. Trying to determine if you are in ketosis subjectively is hard. For example, one of the signs of being in ketosis is feeling thirsty and having a dry mouth. But I live in Athens, Greece, and it is the middle of summer. I am pretty sure everyone’s mouth is dry, and we all feel thirsty. And we aren’t all in ketosis… I could give more examples but you get the idea. Just buy the strips so you don’t have to guess. The strips are easy to read and cheap to purchase.
Is this safe? It’s a nuanced answer. There are 7 billion people in the world. Probably for some of them, it isn’t safe. And probably for some of them, it is life-saving.
Apparently, if you have Type 1 Diabetes, liver or kidney issues, this might not be the path for you.
And if you have epilepsy, dementia or some forms of cancer, this is a great path for you.
If you have any health issues, I’d do some research before deciding to try this diet. For me, it felt fine. There were a few times in the first 10 days I felt “weird” or a little more tired than usual. But that passed after the two-week mark and after that I felt normal and energetic.
Is it really ok to eat this much fat?”
I started to wonder this as I started really cutting back on my carbs. You basically have three macro options: fat, carbs and protein. So as you start to cut way back on carbs, you are left with fat or protein to eat.
After years of being mindful of fat, suddenly, I was eating a lot of it. I think the key here is to make sure you are eating the “healthy” fats (coconut oil, olive oil, avocados, raw nuts and seeds, etc.). I began ordering Indian food but I could tell the oil wasn’t good quality so I stopped. My body could tell the difference. I think the high fat is ok, but it is important to make sure it is good fats.
I will also say, being in ketosis doesn’t mean you can ignore grams and calories and just eat fat endlessly. The laws of physics still apply in ketosis. Your body still works the same way, it is just burning fat now.
The general idea is you can relax about calorie count because you will feel full faster with a high-fat diet. This works if you only eat when you are truly hungry. But you can go off course…
For example, I love peanut butter. I am crazy about it. I love the taste and the texture and everything about it. I could eat jar after jar of peanut butter on a daily basis if I didn’t force myself to be moderate. If I had the idea that being in ketosis meant I could eat jars of peanut butter every day, that would be wrong. The idea with ketosis is that you eat when you are hungry (not when you are craving things you like). It is an important distinction.
Do the math right and consider both net carbs and total carbs.
What is the difference between total and net carbohydrates?
In its most simple terms, net carbs is total carbs less total fiber.
For example: If you eat 1/2 an avocado that has 6 grams of total carbs and 5 grams of fiber, your net carb count is 1 gram.
However, this is the simplistic way to count net carbs.
The more accurate way to count net carbs is to take total carbs and remove insoluble fiber. This article describes the difference and also offers a handy sheet to see how various foods stack up.
In my example, if you take the 5 grams of fiber in ½ an avocado, 60% or 3 grams of the total fiber is insoluble fiber. To accurately count net carbs, you take 6 grams of total carbs-3 grams of insoluble fiber=3 grams of net carbs.
If you are trying to stay under 20 grams of net carbs per day, these differences matter.
Interesting other facts as you put it all together: Each gram of fat contains 9 calories. Protein or carbohydrates each contain 4 calories per gram.
Does it work?
It depends on what you are trying to do, but based on my limited experience it seems to work. Many of the benefits I read about I experienced including feeling fuller longer, having high energy and having a clearer mind.
My goal isn’t to stay in ketosis forever but to stay in it for at least three weeks so my body becomes “fat-adaptive.” This means your body has been trained to burn fat instead of carbs so you can kind of switch back and forth. In my engine example, you become a hybrid. There are lots of benefits to a fat adaptive body.
Overall, I thought this whole process was great. I liked how it brought so much consciousness to my eating and drinking. I feel like cleaning up your diet is always a good thing. I like to understand what my body is capable of. And while I’m not particularly interested in a long life per se, I am very interested in having lots of energy and high quality of health while I am alive. I feel like keto eating can be one more tool to use towards that goal.
If you are interested in wellness, join us in Paros Island, Greece starting Sept 2nd for our annual all-levels Yoga+Wellness holiday. All are welcome!