I posted on Facebook that I was going to start a ketogenic diet a few days ago and got way more feedback than I expected. I got a couple messages asking for tips and, well, coping strategies, so I thought I’d write down all that I’ve learned after doing this a handful of times. Besides, there’s nothing that makes you feel sexier than squeezing into a smaller pair of skinny jeans knowing that dat ass looks great and feeling in control of your cravings.
The Ketogenic Diet as we know it today is actually about 90 years old, though the underpinning mechanics have been vaguely understood for thousands of years. French doctors first tested the effectiveness of fasting-induced ketosis on epileptic patients in 1911 and found the release of ketone bodies helped significantly control the patients’ seizures. 10 years later, Mayo Clinic pediatrician Mynie Peterman formulated the diet we know now to control the seizures of her epileptic patients without starvation, and discovered that the fat-based diet was able to control the kids’ seizures better than any anti-convulsant medication, with 60% of her patients ultimately becoming seizure-free. Her colleague Clifford Barborka then tested the diet on adult epilepsy patients and found that over half benefited from the diet, though with a much smaller percentage finding total relief from their seizures. Most patients, both adults and children, also reported positive side effects like better sleep, better mood and feeling more alert during the day. Though the diet isn’t as effective as on older patients, it is still prescribed as a standard treatment protocol for kids with severe epilepsy today.
Ketosis is a state that our bodies are used to evolutionarily, but avoiding ketosis is also built deeply into our DNA. Naturally, we want to keep as much body fat on our stupid skeletons as possible to protect us against food shortages and starvation. The ability to break down our body fat and use it as fuel is evolution’s last protective measure to save us from dying. And I do mean absolutely dead last.
Your body would rather take some of its most calorically inefficient systems offline than start using body fat, which is why starvation and extreme calorie restriction is more likely to cause you later weight gain than feeding the body and working out. The reason you feel foggy and lethargic for the first few days off of carbs is because your body and brain don’t immediately want to switch fuel sources. Your body will make you feel supremely unpleasant the first few days of no carbs before it starts burning fat, because evolution designed us to keep gathering more easily-burned calories than to dip into savings. You’re basically going to feel like it’s 3:30 pm after a burger-and-fries lunch for about 3 days at the minimum.
However, when you really want a slice of bread, feel free to fry yourself up some no-breading hot wings in Crisco and eat it with a side of homemade ranch, bleu cheese,a bunch of celery, and two fingers of bourbon on the rocks instead of a beer. That’ll tell your sugar cravings to sit the hell down, and it’ll make you realize you definitely chose the right diet. That’s why I love this diet, and why I think it’s the easiest to stick to. When you’re having a craving for something sugary, you get to replace it with something rich and filling. If you’re already not eating much sweets, beer or bread, you could easily become a fat-torching machine with a few tweaks.
It’s not at all a falsehood that to lose weight, you really do have to eat. If your body thinks it’s starving, it will lock down its potential fuel sources in an attempt to preserve your life and body fat as long as possible. The key to the keto diet is staying fueled on extremely low-carb, high-fat meals, and to eat your way through those first few days of mental fog and shaky hands. Everything after that is cake, er…steak.
Think of it like the difference between how far you can get on a tank of gasoline with a gasoline combustion engine versus a tank of diesel in a diesel engine. You have to stop much more frequently to refuel in a gas engine, exactly the way insulin highs and lows inherent to eating carbs hijack your brain into seeking simple carbs to fuel that big, inefficient fire that is your carb-fed metabolism. However, switch that system to a carbless, fat-burning one, and you eliminate hunger pangs, blood sugar drops, shaking hands, and that special kind of rage that comes over you at 10 am when you had a donut for breakfast at 8:30. Once you get over the first 3-5 days of misery, you’ll feel like a plane cruising at a smooth 30,000 feet. You can shorten this misery by exercising a lot and burning up your stored glycogen, which is kind of like telling you to take the “shortcut” through quicksand and half-mile fire walk, but I digress.
Unlike when we were still occasionally leaning on our knuckles for walking support, carbs are easy to find and eat year-round. The feel-good high we get when chowing down on refined carbs is part of a natural feedback loop that would keep our stooped-over ancestors on the hunt for ripe fruit and starchy roots. If it weren’t for this feedback loop, we’d probably still be all humped over in mud huts and shitting in the woods.
Unfortunately, your body wants to burn your fat like a sick kid wants to swallow a bitter pill. Your body will even preferentially “burn” alcohol calories before it will burn your fat, even though the actual caloric value of pure alcohol is basically nothing. If you’re in ketosis and go on a bender, rest assured that you’ll wake up with the same Day 1 hunger to start off your morning, though it passes much quicker than actual first day hunger.
There is another caveat with the high-fat, low-carb diet: if you cheat, you gain weight, guaranteed. To know why, you have to understand how the insulin/fat storage mechanism works. When we eat, our bodies release a whole bunch of hormones and chemicals to signal to other parts of our body the nutritional content of what we’ve just eaten. One of those hormones is insulin, released in response to a rise in our blood sugar, which is the product of eating carbs. The short version of what happens here is that it signals the body to preferentially burn the carbs its eaten, inhibiting the breakdown of fat and stimulating the storage of fat. If you’re already eating a calorie-dense diet, even a few carbs will cause a kind of fat gain you ain’t seen since the Great Christmas Cookie Binge of ’08. Insulin doesn’t exactly “make you fat,” but it does tell your body to store excess energy as fat since it has a more immediately available source of energy. When we burn through those carbs, our brain gets the signal that we need another boost in quick fuel, so we go out on that insatiable hunt for more easily-burned carbs. The sudden drop in your blood sugar is also what causes those intense, I’m-going-to-strangle-someone-if-I-don’t-get-a-sandwich-right-fucking-now feelings. So, if you cheat even a little, those few carbs and the insulin reaction they induce will cause you to put on the pounds in a hurry.
You’ve. Been. Warned.
When you switch your fuel source over to something that essentially cuts insulin out of the deal entirely, you eliminate all of those awful insulin-related feelings. If you really commit to eliminating all carbs, you’ll also excuse yourself from hunger and most of your cravings. Not only that, but you’ll start melting fat off in a way that no other diet can achieve.
But back to the long-term sustainability.
A weird thing happens when you go into ketosis for a while. If you’ve been eating a modern diet filled with refined carbs, you’ll find that taking your insulin offline for a while is like putting it into a sensory deprivation chamber. The first time you try to eat carbs after your diet, you’ll find that you feel over-full, almost to the point of illness, with just a few bites. Ketosis will ratchet up your insulin sensitivity so much that you’ll feel sick before you feel full, and getting back on that addictive sugar train will be a surprisingly uncomfortable experience. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen — we’re evolutionarily destined to love carbs — but don’t assume that you’ll be able to binge on them right away like you used to.
Best of all, exercising on keto is more of a way to speed up weight loss than a requirement of weight loss. If you’re one of those people that can’t find 90 minutes of gym time, you’ll still lose tons of weight without working out. Now, it’s been proven that exercise, much more than food, influences the chance that you’ll keep the weight off long-term, so I would strongly encourage you to use this time to, above all else, create new activity habits. Once you start seeing the weight fall off, you’ll be extra motivated to keep your date in the gym and keep your carbs low in the long haul.
There are, of course, a few downsides. For one, your breath smells like shit if you don’t get on a serious brush/floss/Listerine schedule twice a day. It smells vaguely like you’ve been drinking nail polish remover because acetone is one of the ketone bodies you’ll be releasing into your blood, so keep some sugar-free gum on you throughout. Second, it’s hard to gain a lot of muscle volume when you’re in hardcore ketosis, so if you’re trying to bulk up your muscle while winnowing fat, it’s best to do it in two phases with the guidance of a body builder or fitness professional. You can gain plenty of strength while in ketosis, but you won’t get as swole as when you fuel heavy lifts with carbs. However, if you’re hiding the definition of your youth under a thick veil of beer blubber, this diet is going to be your best friend.
Not to mention that sugar and carbs are stuffed into all kinds of foods that should not contain carbs for any reason, even processed meats. Make sure you’re reading the nutrition label of everything you put in your cart and subtract the grams of fiber to get the net carbs. Your total for the day should be less than 25 carbs. Hear me when I say you will be gobsmacked at how difficult this will seem on your first keto shopping trip. You have to get low-sugar ketchup, make your own barbecue sauce, and even skip starchy veggies like peas and carrots. You’re going to find that many “healthy” foods are just as bad for you as a box of Gushers. Once you’ve gotten into the groove of ketosis though, you’ll be happy to eat carb-free.
The third and most important thing is this: DRINK ALL THE WATER WHILE IN KETOSIS. Your body is going to be making a lot of ketone bodies, which can damage the kidneys if you don’t flush them out regularly. This is also not going to be a diet for people who already have kidney problems or diabetes (says a doctor, cross my heart). If you’re healthy though, there’s no reason you can’t safely go through ketosis as long as you keep your water intake up.
Well, actually, the most important thing you can do is get some recipes that actually taste good. Don’t get stuck in a rut of baked chicken and bunless bacon cheeseburgers. Just like with any other diet, keeping your tastebuds interested in what you’re eating is the key to success. I’ve become slightly dependent on the Ruled.Me website for my resources, as I’ve had the most recipe hits from that site. They do a great breakdown of all the recipes with an engaged community if you need good support.
So, for the next month or so, I’ll occasionally dip in here to share some good recipes I’ve discovered or developed. I promise that I’ll try not to turn this blog into The Keto Show, but it’s always worth sharing something delicious when you find it, and to occasionally read the deranged thoughts of someone going cold-turkey on sugar and carbs. Stay tuned for the insanity.