I did not start out to write about health, weight loss, ketogenic eating, and metabolic syndrome. And 18 months ago, when I started losing weight, my sole goal was to crash-diet so I could make the weight limit to go paragliding — I wasn’t concerned about health or a long-term lifestyle change.
That I am now being asked by friends, friends of friends, and perfect strangers for diet advice is about the weirdest thing to happen in a long while. I am not a diet guru… I am just a person who found a way to lose weight that seemed easy and satisfying. And I’m writing about it here because putting everything in one place is easier than responding individually to lots of people. Plus, I’ll have all my recipes in one place! (Once I get them up)
It just goes to show that life doesn’t always happen as we plan.
The adventure that presented itself last year had nothing to do with rock climbing or scuba diving or skiing, and everything to do with the kind of conversations middle-aged people have about their cardiac health and their cancer treatments.
Happily, David and I are (I hope) on the back side of those issues for a while. He has to watch his blood chemistry numbers and I have to watch my cancer markers, but while we are watching, we can get back to living. And I’ll get back to the fun adventures soon, weaving food, hiking, travel, skiing, music, and all that fun stuff into this hodge-podge of a blog.
I keep saying this, but it’s important: I am not a diet expert. I am just one person with one story about what worked for me. (And David makes two!) At the same time, I approached this new body of knowledge the way I approach everything: I read a shelf full of books, I dived into a hundred websites, I learned as much as I could — and then I started writing about it.
I was especially interested in the question: If the ketogenic way of eating is so successful and works so well, why do so many people give up?
The following observations may be helpful as you start — or continue, or maintain — your journey.
First, this is not a diet, it’s a way of life.
Diets don’t work. We all know that. On this way of eating, if you follow it, you will lose weight. Other metabolic issues like high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and some blood lipid numbers will probably improve, too. But if you go back to doing what you did before, you will go back to having the results you had before. I remind myself of this every single day.
Expect some bumps in the road
There’s a learning curve and an addiction to overcome. Apparently (according to the books I’ve read) wheat and sugar act on the brain’s addiction centers. On an MRI, they light up the same places where opiates hang out. (This is my non-scientific understanding.) So when you go off high-carb foods, there is a withdrawal process that can make some people feel quite ill for a day or more. When I first ditched the carbs, I crawled into bed for two days with general lethargy and a feeling of utter disgust at the prospect of eating more meat and vegetables. My stomach demanded toast, oatmeal, pasta, bread…. and threatened dire consequences if I didn’t give in. But I got over it. I’d advise getting started by throwing out all the off-list foods and stocking up with the biggest variety possible of on-list foods that you love. And if you feel ill, just tell yourself that “this too shall pass.”
Moderation is not the road to health; it is the road to hell
I think most people react the same way I did when I first heard about this: shock and outrage. No pizza? No pasta? No beer? No potatoes? No sugar? Restricted fruit? Limited root vegetables? And a whole other list of thou-shalt-nots. Surely one cookie once in a while can’t hurt? And for some people it may not.
But the folks I’ve talked to who are having the most trouble with this way of eating are those who keep telling themselves that one little cookie can’t hurt. They are the ones who tell me they are cutting carbs — even as their hands are in a bag of chips. (This literally happens!)
This is a judgment free zone: Eat what you want, do what works for you. But don’t lie to yourself and then ask me why this way of eating doesn’t work!
Personally, I’d love to be able to eat the occasional cookie — or better yet, French bread, or apple strudel — but that doesn’t seem to work for me. I think for those of us who are prone to metabolic syndrome, moderation is too slippery a slope. And some writers, like William Davis (of Wheat Belly fame; see the booklist) believe that modern wheat has been engineered in a way that makes even minuscule amounts toxic to most people (though some can handle it better than others).
I was a little bit rebellious at the beginning of my journey. I refused to give up lattes (I did go from 2 percent milk to whole milk, but milk of any kind is avoided on a strict ketogenic diet, though full-fat cream is okay). I kept drinking wine (allowed, but not recommended on a daily basis, especially at the start). My salads were bigger than recommended and had more stuff in them, which added to the carb counts.
But almost immediately, I saw how well this way of eating worked. I changed over to cream in coffee, abandoned my daily glass of wine, and counted my carbs even more carefully.
Your tastes will change
As time has passed, I’ve noticed that the occasional fruit I have tastes much sweeter because I have no other sugar in my diet (and because I have fruit so seldom). I easily pass up bread and pasta: It now strikes me as empty filler fortified with nutritional additives. The food I am eating tastes fantastic. Flavors pop more. Quality matters. I have always enjoyed food, but now, I seem top enjoy it even more.
Keep an open mind because you may just find that foods you used to think you hate taste pretty wonderful.
“Calories in-Calories out”
Traditional thinking is that people with a weight problem need to simply get over their gluttony and lose weight by virtue of managing their calorie intake and exercising more.
The low-carb view is that weight problems occur not because of a lack of willpower, but because the carb-insulin cycle goes into overdrive, putting excess glucose into fat cells and then activating hunger signals to replenish the blood with yet more glucose… which then gets put into yet more fat cells.
One of the attractions of low-carb is that we don’t have to count calories. However, that doesn’t mean that a low-carb way of eating is a license to pig out! Calories still matter. The magic of a low-carb diet is that it feels more satisfying, so we eat fewer calories. And a ketogenic diet encourages and enables our body to use its stored fat for energy (a process that cannot happen when we consume too many carbs our insulin starts the one-way process of stuffing excess glucose into fat cells).
Portion sizes change
One of the ways this way of eating works for weight loss is that ingesting fats is satiating. So I feel more satisfied with smaller portions. I’ve had to rethink what a portion is. It is much smaller than it used to be. As I follow the advice to “eat when hungry, stop when fill,” I find myself skipping the occasional meal and leaving left-overs for another day. And it has nothing to do with will power.
This will happen over time. At first, I just: Cut. The. Carbs. That’s it. Then I listened to my body. It started saying “thank you.” Then it started behaving differently around food. This is the first time in my life I have felt that food and I have a positive relationship.
Your family may be an obstacle
Many people, particularly women (the traditional caregivers) have trouble sticking with a low carb diet when others in the household are still eating favorite forbidden foods. Some people succeed in converting other people in their household (after all, if carbs truly are bad for us, do we want to serve them to people we love?) But if that doesn’t work, many people find that making simple dinners, with carbs served separately from the rest of the meal, works. So we low-carbers can have steak, Brussels sprouts, and green beans, and our carb-eating families can have add a baked potato. I was lucky that David went on this way-of-eating with me (and it turned out, with his health issues last year, HE was lucky he did it, too!) Finding good tasting substitutes for favorite foods also works. I’ll be sharing recipes starting in a week or so.
Find great foods
At this writing, I have been on this way of eating for about 18 months and I totally and completely love the food. Do I occasionally chaff at restrictions? Yes, especially when I am traveling or socializing. The foods I can’t/won’t eat at literally everywhere. Avoiding them makes me one of “those” people…. you know, the ones with all those picky dietary limitations that ruin the meal for everyone else. I try to stay quiet. I pack my own food so I don’t arrive a t a cocktail party starving only to find that every canapé has carbs.
But I have found a lifetime’s worth of recipes that look delicious. Food seems to taste much better now that it isn’t dulled by carbs. Find foods you love and you will never miss the foods you used to love.
Shop the aisles
This isn’t news. The closer you get to real food in its simplest form, the better the chances that it’s good for you.
Most keto groups I am in recommend organic chickens and grass-fed beef to be sure your meat doesn’t have hormones and antibiotics in it. Be careful with cured meats and deli products; they often have added sugars. If you do venture into the aisles (mayonnaise? salad dressings? pickles?) read labels. Know the 60 different words for “sugar”!!!!
Don’t freak out about the cost
Who can afford wild-caught salmon, European cheese, and grass-fed beef? Surprisingly, David and I aren’t spending any more on this way of eating because we are no longer paying for processed foods and grains, and of the rest — yes, our meat and fish bills are more expensive, but we eat less. It seems to have mostly evened out.
Most of what we think we know about health is probably wrong
If you talk to the average person on the street and they tell you they are “eating healthy” they are probably doing the exact opposite of what I am doing. And if you ask your doctor what “eating healthy” means, the answer may be the exact opposite, as well. (I am lucky that my doctor is on board with a low-carb way of eating, but many doctors are most definitely not okay with it. Quite honestly, I chose my doctor because a friend of mine told me his office would support a low-carb diet.)
It’s important to know that the ketogenic diet is the opposite of the high-carb low-fat approach recommended by the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, and most government agencies. The writers I have been reading also take issue with traditional mainstream approaches to cholesterol and how lipid tests are read and interpreted and acted on (usually by prescribing statins).
The ketogenic diet breaks pretty much every “healthy food” rule we’ve been taught for the last 40 years — eat more fruit, eat healthy oatmeal, avoid full-fat foods, don’t touch the bacon, vegetarianism is healthy, avoid red meats, pull the skin off the chicken.
I am not going to argue whether this way of eating is healthy (these books and online resources do a much better job). We each have our own medical and metabolic issues and you will have to come to your own conclusions. All I can tell you is David and I have together lost 160 pounds. My A1c (the diabetes marker) is in the “super-optimal” range. David’s diabetes diagnosis was reversed and his A1c is in the normal range. My last blood pressure was 115/70 (technically declared “awesome”) and David’s is normal as well. I won’t get into cholesterol, because that’s a whole other controversy, but I am satisfied with our numbers.
From doctors I’ve spoken with, it seems that one reason that they aren’t always enthusiastic about this way of eating is that people, (being people) fall off the wagon and undo all the good they have done. For me, the decision to stay on the wagon is easy. Would I rather be healthy or not?
This is not one-size-fits-all
Some of the writers I’ve been reading seem to think that this is the right diet for everyone. I am not so sure. I know plenty of people who seem to do just fine eating carbs. And there are plenty of variations. For example, there is a lot of overlap between paleo diets and keto. Or between the Mediterranean diet and keto. And Whole 30 and keto. I am not coming at this from a “my way or the highway perspective.” If keto works for you, great. If some variation works for you, great. Maybe my experience can help. And if you can tolerate more carbs, good for you! Enjoy a pizza for me.