The Keto diet is like finding a cheat code for fat loss.
I'd heard rumblings about this new diet fad for years. I hate fads. Like all the paleo excitement a few years back, I thought keto was just the latest passing trend that would fizzle out. I'd heard the low carb thing before and assumed it was unhealthy and unsustainable. Recently I'd noticed a few smart people in different circles praising it for one reason or another. This piqued my interest enough to investigate.
I stumbled upon this keto subreddit with before/after pictures. The results were astonishing, and there are years of posts from people of all ages, shapes, and body types. There were people who claimed to have done it for years. It's no double blind scientific study, but it was enough for me.
It's worth mentioning the similar Carnivore diet which is quite popular among Bitcoiners and other smart people I follow on Twitter. I'll admit it sounded crazy when I first heard about it, but after doing some of my own research, it actually sounded quite promising.
Changing the Way I Eat
When I finally decided to get serious about my health, I set some radical goals. The most extreme was "six week six pack abs," so I figured I'd adopt the most extreme eating change to accomplish that – strict carnviore. I love meat so how hard could it be? I love beef jerky and figured I could just make a ton on my own using this DIY jerky dehydrator.
I bought a ton of flank steak, cut it into strips, and packed it into the racks in my dehydrator. After 2 days, I pulled it out and it tasted great. For something I made from just $15 in materials, the jerky maker worked surprisingly well. There was only one problem. Cost. I didn't account for was how much water weight the meat would lose through dehydration. I checked the weight on my finished jerky and compared it to what I could buy in bulk online and it was roughly the same cost.
Strict Carnivore to Meat-based Keto
After that first week, I decided to make some changes to my diet. Not only was the cost a factor, but it turned out that going from 100% carb-ivore to strict carnivore was too big a jump, so I shifted to a meat-based ketogenic diet where I limited carbs to 20 grams per day. Keto would be difficult, but I felt like it was more sustainable than carnivore.
During the first week, I had no idea if I was in Ketosis or still transitioning. People report a weird taste or Keto flu being signs that your body is adapting. I didn't notice either, and I couldn't help but wonder if this radical diet change was even working. It's hard to commit to something if you're not seeing progress, so I highly recommend tracking your ketone levels when you're getting started.
Keto test strips are pretty inexpensive and easy to find at your local pharmacy. I found some at CVS. They work by reacting to the presence of ketones in your urine. If you're not in ketosis, there won't be any change in color. If you are, the color will darken based on the concentration of ketones.
After a few weeks of using these, I realized there are some drawbacks. Since it's measuring the concentration in urine, it's not going to be as precise or give you a real-time measurement. Note the difference in unit between this and the next device (mg/dL vs mmol/L).
Ketone Blood Meter
After a few weeks of using urine test strips, I wanted to get a more accurate picture of how my ketone levels fluctuated throughout the day. I found this reasonably priced keto tester on Amazon and ordered it.
Since it reading your blood for ketones, it's much more accurate and gives you real time feedback on your actual levels. You might have to get over your fear of blood/needles, but it's a quick easy finger prick. Most devices will store your readings, so you'll be able to scroll back and see how your levels trend over time.
If you're just starting out, I recommend taking readings throughout the day to understand how your body fluctuates throughout the day and after certain meals. Also, you can order extra blood strips if you run out, but they're expensive so you'll want to be strategic in how you use them.
My 90 Days of Keto Experiment
I set a goal of journaling my progress for 90 days. I've been using Roam Research for most of 2020 and found it to be perfect for maintaining a fitness journal (see example July 4th entry below). Each day, I entered my food intake, physical progress, cognitive changes, and overall feelings about the diet. The journal helped me track quality of life improvements and it was a source of accountability because I knew I'd have to report my diet and performance for that day.
I made some mistakes that slowed my progress during the first few weeks. I didn't realize how much sugar was in foods that I would've never considered "sweets." For instance, most store-bought beef jerky is loaded with sugar (carbs). Another surprise was milk. Apparently milk is loaded with sugar, and I was pouring loads into my coffee during that first week. Luckily I found that grass fed butter makes an excellent replacement for milk/cream.
Toward the end of the 90 day period, I made another mistake. My progress started to plateau, so I got more serious about tracking my macros to figure out what I was doing wrong. I realized I was consuming something like 3,500 calories per day. That's about 1,000 more calories than I actually needed, and since there was such a caloric surplus, my body never needed to tap existing fat stores. Keto is pretty amazing though, because even if you're eating more calories than you need, your body will not store those calories as fat.
Did it work?
- Cognitive Improvements - I've often struggled with brain fog after heavy meals. Since changing my energy source from carbohydrates to fat, I've noticed consistent clarity throughout the day. My thinking is sharper and energy levels are completely stable throughout the day.
- Healthier Heart - My blood pressure is lower and my resting heart rate is down slightly since starting. Also, for years I wondered if I had circulatory issues because my feet would be cold when I got in bed at night. I talked to doctors about it, and they did a whole battery of tests. They found no major underlying issues, and the doctor mentioned that this was fairly common, so I just accepted that this was just some weird quirk that I'd have to deal with. Well... the other day I realized I haven't experienced this a single time since getting keto adapted.
- No Inflammation - Another longstanding issues I've grown to live with is feeling stiff and sore every morning for the first 30 minutes after waking up. I'd mentioned this to doctors in the past and there was never anything they could identify that would cause these symptoms. By June 15th (2 weeks after starting keto), I was no longer waking up with that same level of soreness. I took my first cheat day after 100 days of keto, and the next morning the soreness was back. I'm now pretty confident the culprit is processed sugar.
- Ridiculous Fat Loss - I've never been obese, but I definitely had a visible layer of fat over my abs before starting. I'd say my body was pretty average or maybe even moderately athletic looking before starting this. It would've never occurred to me that I could go from 19% body fat to sub-12% in such a short period of time. I tell people it feels like I found the "cheat code" to fat loss.
- Bonus: Covid-19 Resistance - This is purely anecdotal, but I did catch COVID-19 at the 6 week mark and aside from some minor symptoms, my body seemed to do it's job with incredible efficiency. I realize that many young people have mild symptoms, but I think it's worth mentioning... particularly given the inflammation response I described above.
So What's the Catch?
In July I joined a new gym and they offered me a discount if I did an initial evaluation session with one of their trainers. I can't resist a discount, so I obliged and went through the motions with the personal trainer a few days later. When she asked me about nutrition, I explained my recent change to keto and the results I'd had so far. Alarmed, she explained that she refused to train anyone on the keto diet for safety reasons. I laughed, but she was totally serious. She went on to tell me all about her certifications and how keto would make my hair fall out, etc... I was baffled, but later I realized that this reaction is fairly common. There's a lot of misinformation out there and many well meaning people who work in the health and nutrition industry have no idea how damaging the modern American diet is.
While I haven't experienced any negative health side effects, I do think it's worth mentioning some potential drawbacks if you're new to keto. I don't think any of these are deal breakers and they're pretty minor compared to the amazing benefits you'll receive in a short time.
Transition Period / Keto Flu
It can take a few days before your body becomes keto-adapted. Some report feelings of extreme fatigue during the initial transition (referred to as keto flu), and it usually passes within a few days. Not everyone suffers through the keto flu. I'd heard a lot about it and braced for it, but never experienced any of the symptoms... probably because my diet was already so bad, my body couldn't feel any worse.
If you're impatient and want to get through the transition period faster, you might be able to speed up the process with intermittent fasting. Be careful though. I'm not sure if this will help or exacerbate those keto flu like symptoms worse.
Like any unconventional diet, there are definite social drawbacks to keto. If you have a family or roommates, you're going to be cooking and shopping for two completely different diets unless you can convince them to join you on this journey. See "Finding the Right Foods" below.
Dinner out can also be challenging. If you can stick to meat and salad, you're probably fine but it's going to be hard smelling all that bread and pasta at your favorite Italian restaurant.
The social drawbacks become less of an issue over time as your friends and family get used to your new way of eating. There are so many people with special dietary requirements these days, most restaurants are happy to check on ingredients for you. Also, if you're a beer drinker, you're not really going to be able to indulge in carb-laden brews... so that might be a big drawback.
Weights will Feel Heavier
If you're used to lifting heavy weights and suddenly shift to keto, those weights are going to feel way heavier. It's going to feel like someone let the air out of your muscles. I thought my muscles were wasting away from this new diet, but that turns out to be completely untrue. When you forgo carbs, your body uses up most of the glycogen that's stored in your muscles, so the muscles may feel less "pumped up" than they did before.
Don't let this get you down. You can try supplementing with creatine to help offset the lack of glycogen. Also, if you decide to have a "cheat day" or "cheat weekend," be sure to take advantage of the glycogen supercompensation that will take place. Your muscles will quickly absorb that glycogen and for a short period of time, your muscles will be larger and more defined than they would normally be.
Finding the Right Foods
This was probably the hardest part. At first I sort of made it up as I went and as a result there was very little that I could eat during those first few weeks. I made fat bombs, homemade jerky, and ate lots of pork rinds. I ended up going to the grocery store far too often looking for things that will work. In hindsight I should've picked up any of the hundreds of keto cookbooks out there.
I've found some great ready-to-eat snacks and meal replacements that require minimal prep work.
- "Real Good" chicken crust pizza
- "Ratio" keto yogurt
- "Two Good" keto yogurt
- Rebel Ice Cream
- Epic Pork Skins
- Keto friendly nuts - Pecans and Macadamia nuts are great. Pecans are much more affordable and they go well if you break them up in yogurt.
- For the emergency sweet tooth - keep some sugar free gum on hand when you're first starting out.
Resources: Watching/ Reading