What is keto and how do I start?
If you are looking to start eating a Ketogenic diet, I hope that this essay will provide you with some simple tips and encouragement. I use the word diet in the literal sense, the original meaning, “the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats.” I have followed a Ketogenic diet for two and a half years and it has led to such a profound improvement in my life that I have made it my permanent way of eating. I know that there is a lot of information out there and it can seem completely overwhelming. Let me say this, all you have to do to start a Ketogenic diet is to order the burger without the bun. It’s not necessary to know everything there is to know to begin. You will hear a thousand terms thrown around, lazy Keto, dirty Keto, strict Keto, clean Keto, macros, if it fits in your macros, OMAD (one meal a day)… I could go on and on and on. I didn’t know anything about any of that when I started. I simply skipped the bread and started doing my research. The science behind the Ketogenic diet is absolutely fascinating, but it can also be intimidating. I’m not going to dive into the details here but I will link a few lectures that I found interesting all the way at the bottom.
Eating a Ketogenic diet simply means that you are eating foods that promote ketosis. Ketosis is the metabolic state of using fat for fuel instead of glucose. This is achieved through eating a high fat, moderate protein, low carbohydrate diet. For most people this means eating fewer than 20 net grams of carbohydrates a day [ Net carbs are total carbohydrates - fiber]. Most carbohydrates, when consumed, will be converted into glucose by our bodies. When you cut off your body’s supply of glucose by drastically reducing carbohydrates, it will look for other sources of fuel. You will begin to use fat, both the dietary fat you consume and stored body fat, for energy. This process of transitioning between using glucose for fuel to using fat for fuel takes from a few days to a few weeks. It’s very common to feel not so hot during this process. I was fortunate enough to not experience many of these side effects. Read more about keto flu and how to combat it here.
When I first started a Ketogenic diet I read every nutritional label of every food I ate in search of hidden carbs. I decided to make a few rules for myself when I started to try to avoid feeling so overwhelmed and discouraged. I by no means am an expert on anything except what has worked for me. I’m going to share what worked for me in hopes that it helps others. First, I eliminated all sugar, starches and grains from my diet. No sugar, no starchy vegetables like potatoes, and no grains like wheat, rice, or oats. These foods are carbohydrate dense and eliminating them automatically drastically cut my carbohydrate intake. Eliminating sugar can be tricky because there are just so many names for it. Most end with -ose. the sugar in milk is lactose. the sugar in fruit is called fructose. There is dextrose and Sucrose and…… so very many more. I was absolutely shocked at how much sugar was in everything, everything! Almost every food that I used to purchase had added sugar listed as one of the first few ingredients. By eliminating all sugars I automatically eliminated almost every single packaged food. This brings me to my second piece of advice for starting. Keep it simple. Eat eggs, meats, full fat dairy, green veggies (always watch portions), oils like olive, avocado and coconut. These are all naturally low carb foods. You will need to weigh and measure everything you eat to make sure that you are ingesting less than 20 net carbs a day. Eating from this food list will make it much harder to accidentally over-do it. Sticking to this simple foods list will also give your palate a chance to re-set. Because the foods in a standard American diet have so much added sugar in them, we develop a taste for sweeter and sweeter and sweeter things. Once you begin eating a ketogenic diet, you will be eliminating most sweet things from your diet and you will begin to taste natural sweetness for the first time in a long time. As many recipes as I post that are keto versions of traditional desserts, I actually suggest avoiding them and any artificial sweeteners for a few weeks. I was never able to do this completely, I’m pretty addicted to a packet of Truvia in my coffee :) but I did eliminate all other sources of sweet. I really think it’s beneficial to give yourself a clean break from sweet. You will be breaking so many habits and forming so many new ones. You will be well served by taking this opportunity to also reset your body’s sensitivity to sweet. Since a standard American diet absolutely bombards you with sweet, morning, noon and night, this will be hard! I won’t lie. If you are someone who has a real sweet tooth, this will be tough. But believe me, once the first few weeks have passed you will be absolutely amazed at how many things will begin to taste sweet to you that never did before.
Step 3, watch your calories. This is an important step but doesn’t need to be your first step. If you are trying to lose weight you will have to watch your calories. It doesn’t matter what type of a diet you follow, if you are taking in more calories than you are burning you will not lose weight. Although the calorie in, calorie out model is outdated and oversimplified, there is definitely some truth in its basic concept. If you are taking in more energy than you are expending, your body will keep storing body fat for future use. If you are just starting a ketogenic diet, I would worry about removing all sugars, starches and grains first. Then I would read every label of everything you eat and look up nutritional information for all green veggies and keep track of your carbohydrates. Make sure you are eating less than 20 net carbs a day. And then, and only then start to track your calories. This new way of eating may be a drastic change for you. In my personal opinion, it’s ok to cut yourself a little slack when it comes to calories in the first few weeks of the diet. If you have successfully implemented steps 1 and 2 and are feeling energized and not overwhelmed, excited and not frustrated, then by all means, absolutely start tracking your calories. My advice is only meant as a suggestion to be kind to yourself. You’re making a lot of changes and it’s ok to not get everything perfectly handled on day one.
Step 4, stop fearing fat. You will probably be consuming more fat than you ever have before and will be experiencing a natural satiety from this fat that will make it hard to go overboard too badly. :) I know that personally, I found myself going for hours and hours between meals without even thinking about food. For the first time in my life I felt truly satisfied, not full or stuffed, but a complete lack of hunger after eating. It may seem counterintuitive but eating more fat actually helped me keep my calories in check. We are taught to fear and avoid fat because it’s higher in calories per gram than carbohydrates or protein. But fat also helps your stomach send the signal to your brain that you’ve been fed. We actually have cells in the lining of our stomach that detect fat. It helps you feel full and keeps hunger at bay far better than the other two macro nutrients. You will find a ton of information about good fats and bad fats and fats to avoid (trans fats especially), but for now simply stop avoiding it. We need fat in our diet. Our brains need fat! Opt for full fat cheese. Scramble some eggs in real butter. Select the Ribeye instead of a super lean cut. Enjoy those fats. :)
There are a thousand other things I have learned along the way that I look forward to sharing with you. I can’t think of any advice that helped me more in the beginning than to just do your best. Perfection doesn’t exist. If you aim for perfection you’ll never get there and you’ll be fueling your quit tank. You may not have a quit tank, but I sure did. Every tiny perceived failure was added to my quit tank until I had topped it off, until I had gathered enough evidence to convince myself that I would never succeed. And I would quit. I’m not quite sure why we expect ourselves to be perfect with food but we do. We tend to be much kinder to ourselves when we slip up in other areas in life. Somehow, with food, we expect 100% adherence to a diet or we consider ourselves failures. Perhaps it’s simple chemistry that has allowed me to be successful on a Ketogenic diet or maybe it was seeing consistent losses that kept me committed. Whatever the reason, I was able to adhere to this way of eating long enough to lose 117 lbs. as of today and I would never have been able to do that without starting. The Ketogenic diet may not be for everyone but you’ll never know if you don’t give it a shot. Starting this way of eating was the best decision I have ever made and I hope that my advice will give you some help and encouragement to start. :)
Nutritional Ketosis - Dr. Stephen Phinney