When I was starting my health journey 2+ years ago, I decided to begin by changing my diet. Since I was 14, I adopted a high carb diet that saw me often go through extreme restriction followed by extreme binging. This decimated my metabolism. Aside from that, I was also increasingly anxious about my overall health and no longer wanted to take a backseat approach to my personal nutrition. I really wanted to change my life, and I wanted to do it in a sustainable way that was also healthy for my body and mind. In 2019, the Ketogenic Diet gained a lot of traction amongst the circles I was interacting with. This diet is a high fat low carb diet that switches your body from using glucose as your main fuel source to using fats which are converted to ketones for energy. With this switch, your body utilises a more stable supply of energy because once it uses up the fat you consume, it turns to using the fat that you have stored- hence enabling you to lose weight. To be frank, the major appeal of this diet was that it promised weight loss with minimal effort. This is the exact same strategy that all other quick fix programmes utilise. Though I was attracted to the idea of instant fat loss, I decided to dedicate the first month to research only. I did so because though I was drawn to the idea of easy weight loss, I was 1000% sure that this would not be the case. Even so, I was still eager to try this diet, but wanted to do so in a healthy way. To bolster my new food lifestyle, I read lots of articles and watched tons of videos analysing the current nutritional values globally, why the ketogenic diet works, how it works and what to expect along the way when embarking on this process. The information I got was key to me understanding how I could best navigate this diet, how to avoid the trappings of instant gratification and really reframed my understanding of food and its impact on my body and mind. This post therefore details how I approached the ketogenic diet, examines the pros and cons of being keto and gives some advice to those interested in embarking on a new diet or lifestyle approach.
HOW I APPROACHED THE KETOGENIC DIET
I began my journey by purging everything from my pantry that was not keto friendly. This was to remove any potential to subconsciously sabotaging my goals. I did a massive grocery haul and I then took before pictures. In order to keep myself motivated, I would take progress pictures every Sunday and also take pictures of my meals to encourage myself to cook and eat great food. The typical keto meal macros are 75% fat, 20% protein and 5% carbs. I tried to maintain these macros by using websites like ruled.me to get recipes and also googling the nutritional content of all the foods I was having. There are two main ways that people approach the ketogenic diet. There is clean keto (Emphasises the quality of fat and protein ingested) and dirty keto (Not really concerned with quality, but rather convenience eg. Packaged foods and low quality meats and fats). I started off kind of in the middle of these two approaches. I tried to ensure that most of my fat sources were great quality. I did so by eating lots of avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, nuts and seeds, butter and high fat cuts of meat. Due to sheer laziness to expand my palette, I also had a considerable amount of bacon, sausages and mayonnaise in my diet. On nights out, I also found myself tipsily walking towards the kebab truck to order chicken wings or burger patties. The same approach also occurred with what I chose to drink. At the beginning, 60% of my drinks consisted of water, bulletproof coffee, lemonade and spinach juice. The other 40% consisted of gin and diet coke.
Over time as I got more invested in my health and got more information about food quality, I found my habits naturally evolving. Though the diet was difficult to stick to, it was genuinely the best decision I had made for myself at the time. When I was starting this journey, I felt like I had totally lost control of my life. The ketogenic diet was the perfect way for me to regain some autonomy. It was the one thing I had full control over. It gave me a sense of power over my daily choices. The daily ability to follow through with this one commitment gave me enough confidence to imagine a future time where I could regain control over the other facets of my life that I felt were in shambles. I stuck to the diet diligently for 4 months. Below highlights some of the main pros and cons I experienced as well as why I decided to change my diet later on.
PROS OF THE KETO DIET
These are the main benefits I experienced during this diet.
- Weight loss: The weight melted off me like butter on a hot skillet. For the majority of the time I was on the diet, I saw a consistent drop in my weight. The first 2 weeks I saw the most dramatic body changes, primarily attributed to loss of water (carbs tend make your body store more water). My general hunger was also much less. I found myself naturally switching from having 3 meals a day to having two meals.
- High and stable energy levels: I felt like I had endless energy and overall alertness. The great thing with running on ketones is that my body had a constant supply of energy. The benefit of this is that I never experienced the energy spikes and crashes associated with consuming glucose.
- Emphasis on food quality: Though this is not the only diet that promotes this, I truly enjoyed and benefited from researching about food quality and understanding how different foods impact not just the physical body, but also the mind and how you feel and process the world around you.
- Improved skin: This was a happy surprise that I attribute to the fact that I was not eating sugar, I was drinking lots of water and I had drastically improved the quality of food I was consuming.
- The Domino Effect: I started to incorporate other healthy habits like intermittent fasting where I would fast for 16 to 18 hours and have an eating window of between 6 and 8 hours. As I continued to read about the benefits of fasting, I started to introduce prolonged fasts lasting between 48 and 72 hours. This was to promote a process called autophagy whereby the body in a fasted state gets rid of old and damaged cells.
- Confidence Boost: When I began this journey, I had a very low sense of self and a very distorted view of my capabilities. Just by following through with the diet, I genuinely started to gain so much confidence in my ability to follow through with my plans towards my goals.
CONS OF THE KETO DIET
- Very restrictive: This is a very difficult diet to stick to if one does not have a lot of discipline. The world we live in is built on a foundation of carbs. In order to follow this diet, one must be very dedicated and meticulous in their nutritional journey, have the patience to keep researching and evolving, minimise eating out, have a social network that is supportive and you cannot have cheat days. It is unhealthy for your body to keep switching from glucose to ketones for fuel. Cheat days for me therefore involved making keto friendly desserts that require quite a bit of effort.
- Keto Flu: I developed something called the Keto flu about 5 days into the diet. The Keto flu are flu like symptoms that occur in some people as their bodies try to adjust to using ketones rather than glucose for energy. In my case I had intense sugar cravings, I could not sleep, I was extremely lethargic and achy, I was having erratic heart palpitations, I had headaches, I was dizzy, I was moody and anxious and I was constipated. Due to the fact that I had done enough research to anticipate this physical reaction, I stuck to the diet. 2 weeks later, all these symptoms subsided.
- Insane sugar cravings: For the entire time I was on the keto diet, I had intense, borderline sexual fantasies about coca cola. This is why I had to keep diet coke in my plan at the beginning. After doing some research on the effects of aspartame on the body, I gave up diet coke, but that only intensified the cravings. I was using stevia as a sweetener whenever I had cravings, but to be honest, it only made things worse.
- Side effects of sweeteners: The main sweeteners I used were stevia and erythritol. Let no one lie to you that a sweetener is just like sugar. It is not, and your body knows. Whenever I used sweeteners, they just sparked my sugar cravings. They also made me bloated and gassy. This is because most of these sweeteners are not easily digested in the small intestine. They are instead fermented in the large intestine by bacteria resulting in the creation of a lot of gas which causes bloating.
- Keto Rash: About 2 months into the diet, I developed the Keto Rash. It is a type of dermatitis, formally known as prurigo pigmentosa. It is a rare, inflammatory condition of the skin characterised by a red, itchy rash around the trunk and neck. In my case, it began on my neck, then slowly spread down to cover about half of my back. The longer I stayed on the diet, the larger the rash got. My research about how to cure it was wholly inconclusive, and mainly pointed to reintroducing carbs to my diet.
- Weigh loss plateau: After about 3.5 months, my weight loss plateaued. I knew it was due to the fact that I had to be more meticulous about counting my calories. It was ridiculously easy to eat more fat than I needed. Regaining control of this would mean me physically measuring out the fat calories I had in each meal. I did not care to do that. So I decided to slowly start incorporating carbs.
CHANGING MY DIET
After 4 months of being very strict, I stopped my keto lifestyle. I decided to change course primarily because I had reached a cross roads. Below are the main reasons I decided to reintroduce carbs back in my life.
- If I decided to stick to keto, I would have to become even more restrictive in order to keep losing weight.
- I did not know if it was possible to cure my keto rash while still on the diet.
- After a lot of research, I no longer feared carbs, I understood their place in my diet and also genuinely missed potatoes. I also felt like it was much easier for me to track my carb calories over my fat calories. Eg. 1 tablespoon of olive oil is 119 calories whereby 100 grams of cooked brown rice is 111 calories.
- I was tired of being a difficult person to invite to dinner. I wanted to enjoy meals with people without being overly picky, hyper aware or feeling guilty about potentially having a meal that had hidden sugar in it.
- I ultimately wanted to have a diet that I could sustain for the rest of my life. When I analysed the rigidity of this diet, I knew in my heart that it was impossible for me to maintain. I decided instead to work on a diet plan that I could maintain forever.
I switched my diet to eating roughly 25% carbs, 35% protein and 40% fat. This was also an excellent strategy for me at the time and it is how I primarily eat to date. After I switched to this new way of eating, I managed to keep losing weight until I reached my goal weight, which I am able to maintain relatively easily.
WHAT WOULD I ADVISE BASED ON MY EXPERIENCE?
- Unlearn everything you were taught or told, and be willing to learn everything with fresh eyes. Take your research seriously and with an open mind. Do not be afraid to break down old assumptions and build new ones. Then do not be afraid to break down the new ones again.
- Be very cautious about advertising- Companies are trying to sell products, not to help you get healthier.
- The more processed the food is, the more likely it is to be hyper palatable, more addictive, and the less likely it is to be overall beneficial for your body. Focus on whole foods. Minimise/ eradicate processed food.
- Sugar is insanely addictive and it is added to most processed items due to this property (Check out the term- Bliss point). If you can minimise your consumption of added sugar, this is perhaps the best dietary intervention you can do for your mind, body and soul.
- Focus on food quality and understanding where your food comes from. It is essential to be as aware as possible of what is entering your body and how it is serving you biologically rather than emotionally. Your body wants what it knows but does not know what it wants. Only research can help you know.
- When dealing with health, nutrition is most likely the most important aspect to consider. It affects absolutely everything about you; Your energy levels, your mood, your mental health, your body composition, your sense of self- Everything.
- Your nutritional journey is personal and it is endless. There is no quick fix. It is a lifestyle. It will take a lot of trials, errors and changes to figure out what works for you. It can be a fantastic journey if you give yourself the grace to try, fail and evolve throughout your life.
- Human beings are inherently lazy. We conserve energy. Your mind will convince you to take short cuts. But short cuts do not exist when the goal is just being healthy. The biggest obstacle between you and your goal, is your mind. It is difficult/ impossible to change your mindset through motivation, the only way to help this is through sticking through with a long term strategy, and slowly realising your goals. It is only when we are able to achieve something difficult, can we recalibrate our minds to appreciate enduring difficult tasks.
- You are accountable for your health and your life. Take care of yourself. Show yourself the same boundless love and attention you give to your sick pet or struggling house plant. Wherever you can, treat yourself to the highest quality foods, drink the cleanest water, indulge in the best quality cocoas, because you are what you eat. Do not give that power to any company, any person, or any cheap anecdote about unrealistic quick fixes.
- There is no such thing as perfection. Allow yourself some indulgence. I follow an 80/20 principle whereby 80% of my food is excellent sources of fuel, and the other 20% is not so great/ trashy soul food. This is what I find sustainable to me. Create sustainable goals and keep evolving to new heights whenever you have attained certain goals.
Despite the fact that I changed my nutritional plan, I am so glad I decided to start the keto diet. That decision was the catalyst that hurled me towards a much healthier, wholesome and happier life. For the first time in my life, I feel genuinely healthy, and I am so excited about what the future will bring. Would I recommend the diet? No. What I would recommend, is everyone taking personal responsibility for their health and understanding that there is no one size fits all. Creating healthy habits is a beautiful, difficult, frustrating, ever changing journey. So get off autopilot and start participating in your nutrition.