In October of last year Michael Easter wrote a story for Tonic entitled: "The Ketogenic Diet Is Probably Not for You," to which my visceral response was: “Oh yeah?” I just reread it moments ago and realized that, through his reporting, Easter had given me all the research-backed information I needed to put “keto” somewhere near the bottom of my list of wacky diet plans I need to experience first hand, perhaps only slightly above the Sleeping Beauty Diet.
I decided to try keto regardless because of something his article didn’t have: pictures. Specifically, the piece was entirely bereft of the kinds of mirror selfies taken by people with well-defined abs that purportedly owe their conspicuousness to the liberal consumption of bacon, butter, coconut oil, salmon, lard, steak, and eggs. My desire to believe that eating all the fatty foods I love would give me the body I wanted outweighed every bit of Easter’s case that it probably wouldn’t.
I totally ignored his warnings that keto was: a pain in the ass, not a silver bullet for achieving optimum health, unsubstantiated as a breakthrough in improving body composition, and not without risk. Of course, there are several studies—like this one—that show that keto can be effective in lowering body fat while preserving muscle mass. Another recent pilot study showed that over 12 weeks of ketogenesis, study participants lost over 12.4 percent of their total body fat. What I wanted to discover firsthand was how quickly I could find myself in a ketogenic state and whether this sort of regime could be compatible with my lifestyle.
Easter’s and other articles do a good job of describing what keto is so I’ll just give you a sub-Tweet-length version: Ketosis is metabolic state your body enters when it doesn't have enough carbohydrates from food for your cells to burn for energy. Instead, the body burns fat. As part of this process, it makes ketones or ketone bodies as a by-product.
Some scientists maintain that prior to the agricultural revolution, ketosis was how paleolithic people powered their lives. At a time in which carbohydrates make up the lion’s share of people’s diets, turning to fat as a fuel source is the body’s response to starvation. But some years ago, researchers figured out you can trick your ass into eating itself by consuming a certain ratio of macronutrients instead. Before the development of anticonvulsant medication in the 1930s, the keto diet had been used fairly effectively to treat pediatric epilepsy since it was discovered by the Mayo Clinic’s R.M. Wilders in 1922. In more recent times, it’s been heralded as a way to make abs pop. Which, I suppose, is progress of a sort.
The optimal keto mix for the purposes of improving body composition is broadly agreed to mean getting around 75 percent of food energy from fat, 20 percent from protein and 5 percent from carbohydrates.
I eat around 2,200 calories daily which breaks down to around 1,650, 440, and 110 kcal for each macro respectively. We could most simply visualize this as two sticks of butter, a pound of skinless, boneless chicken breast and one half of a medium-sized russet potato. Rather than resign myself to that bullshit, I scour the internet for more appetizing alternatives.
I smack my chops looking at painstakingly staged pictures of cheese, bacon, mushroom and olive omelettes, salmon salad stuffed avocados, ribeye steaks, pan-seared in butter with handful of steamed broccoli florets drenched in olive oil. I get all the ingredients I’ll need for the next few days plus the keto adherent’s go-to healthy fat source—medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil. Odorless, colorless, tasteless, and refined from coconut oil, this stuff can be added to food, coffee or gulped by the spoonful to ensure that you get the necessary type and amount of dietary fat to switch the way in which your body sources its energy.
The switch from glycogenesis—the process in which glycogen is produced from glucose and stored chiefly in liver and muscle cells—to ketogenesis can only start to happen when your body goes through its remaining glycogen stores and isn’t being fed a sufficient amount of carbohydrates. I read that how long this takes varies from from person to person but generally, after a few days of eating less than 20g of carbs per day, a person’s glyo-tank will be empty. There are at-home blood tests you can use to get an accurate idea of when you make the fuel switch but I opt for cheaper, ketone detection strips that you dip into a urine specimen for 40 seconds.
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They are less trusted than a blood test—particularly weeks and months into ketogenesis—but helpful for neophytes like me who are trying to figure out when they’ve made the switch. The pad on the end of the strip changes to a color that corresponds with the amount of ketones your body is producing. According to Jeff Volek and Stephen Phinney, researchers authors of The Art and Science of Low Carb, the optimal amount is between 1.0 and 3.0 millimol per liter (mmol/L) which on my indicator is the somewhere between a coral and mauve hue.
Starting to produce ketones doesn’t mean that you’re out of the woods. In fact, it’s merely the end of the beginning. At this juncture, the body has yet to suss out how to effectively use the new energy source. This can take weeks or even months and, at the beginning of this adaption period, people often report what’s called “keto flu”—a period of feeling achy, tired, irritable, and mentally foggy. Additionally, the diet is rumored to give you keto-breath which I’ve heard variously described as nail polish remover, hamburger meat, and rotten apples. Eventually, they say, this potpourri of anti-social outcomes goes away. That’s just as well because if it didn’t, a rockin’ bod would be about as useful as an ashtray on a motorcycle.
On the day I start my experiment, I eat baked ziti, some garlic bread and I drink a beer. Unsurprisingly, my first urine strip confirms that I am assuredly not in ketosis.
I begin the following day in earnest by dumping a teaspoon of MCT oil in my coffee. It doesn’t have a taste but the makes the texture of my morning cup less Maxwell House and more Astroglide. With a well-lubed mouth and gullet, I put together a delicious egg, guacamole, and sausage pattie stack—a meal suggestion from a keto app—and then head to the gym. Ramping up exercise is one of the ways to deplete glycogen stores more completely and make the switch quicker.
One of the first snags I hit is the realization that carbs don't just live in bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, beer, and wine but are hiding out in the kind of foods that I’d wrongly assumed I could consume at will. A paltry 20g of carbohydrates is the limit you’re trying not to exceed and a serving of broccoli, half an avocado, and a swig of milk can put you over the top. I was surprised of how unappetizing the well-marbled slab of meat on my plate can became when the amount of green stuff it can be eaten with needs to be carefully meted out so meanly.
Immediately after figuring out just how measly servings of vegetables ought to be, I read that eating too much protein can fuck things up by causing gluconeogenesis—a metabolic pathway that results in the generation of glucose from non-carbohydrates. It would seem that mobilizing adipose tissue for energy is the body’s last resort and pulls out every trick in the book to avoid it. What’s more, the sheer amount of fat one needs to consume to make this work is staggering and, if your total blood cholesterol is on the high side as mine is, a little worrying. It appears that my concerns aren’t backed up by research with several studies—such as this one—concluding that the fat-heavy diet poses no significant health risks.
I get through the first day with no ill-effects but the first night is a different story. I get up to pee on three different occasions, experience strange abdominal pains, have a dry mouth, and have trouble staying asleep. I entertained the idea that this could all be a strange coincidence, but a little 5 AM googling reveals that these sort of symptoms are common.
I find that I feel awful next day, which seems strangely long. Additionally, I don’t poop, which is most irregular. Constipation is another oft-mentioned consequence of adapting to ketosis. My girlfriend and I both enjoy the steak and roasted Brussels sprouts I make for dinner, but the evening feels incomplete without a glass of wine or a some semblance of dessert. Instead, we round off the evening with her watching me pee into a plastic cup to take my second ketone measurement. While I’m not quite in the zone, the color has changed from beige to a sort of salmon pink meaning that I’m probably headed in the right direction, though I haven’t lost any weight.
I’m somewhat surprised by this as many people report a sudden and significant of weight loss in the first week of trying keto. Fat loss isn’t the cause at this early stage but a loss of water weight. This is low-carbohydrate consumption has a diuretic effect—the cause of my multiple nighttime bathroom visits. This water shedding tapers off after about of week but from what I can glean any weight loss associated from your body cannibalizing your muffin tops for fuel is, for me, likely weeks away.
My third day is a busy one that sees me leave the house for a 12-hour stretch. After I eat my greasy-ass bacon omelette at 8 am, I pack a pre-cooked salmon fillet, two boiled eggs, a few ounces of cheddar and a serving of raw broccoli florets to munch on throughout the day. I mention what I’m doing to everyone I interact with, lest they detect a smell and wonder if my insides are rotting. I also notice at this point that my body odor has instensified and taken on an unpleasant tang. I’m exhausted by the time I get home at around 9 PM, a hot rotisserie chicken under my arm. I eat half of the bird, with a paltry amount of broccoli and chase it down with a gulp of MCT oil. I get an email inviting me to a dinner party at what would be day five of my keto adventure and I go to sleep stewing on whether I should attend or not.
By day four, I have a heavy heart. And I mean that literally. Maybe it’s psychosomatic but I definitely feel several twinges in my chest and I can’t help imagining my cardiovascular system straining under the weight of the lipids I’m forcing to deal with—despite the lack of evidence to back up my worries. My latest strip test seems to show that I’m in the keto zone at 3.0-4.0 mmol/L.
My weight, however, hasn’t changed and I’m feeling miserable by day six. I read that my cravings for carbs will taper off eventually but even after that, it’ll be awhile before my body gets its shit together and starts turning my fat stores into energy and months before I can notice a difference. This discouraging news, plus a dearth of evidence to demonstrate that this diet is more effective than more balanced regimens and flurry of new social engagements is finally convincing me that—despite all the shirtless selfies and evangelical zeal—the keto diet is not something I can hang with.
Fuck it, I’m having a beer.
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