My friends are probably getting tired of my energetic, up-beat posts on Facebook exclaiming how much energy I have and all the things I’m getting done. So, instead of flogging that horse, I’m just going to make one big celebratory post here on my blog!
But first let me qualify everything here by making two things clear:
1. I am incredibly, unapologetically zealous in my belief that everyone should be eating as “cleanly” as possible, reducing or even eliminating highly processed foods and sugar from their diet;
2. I am incredibly unconcerned with HOW people choose to do that, whether it be it paleo, vegan, vegetarian, “Mediterranean”, or ketogenic.
What has worked for me may not work for you, for a large variety of reasons. All I’m talking about in this essay is what has worked for me, and why I think it has worked. I’ve broken it up into sections because it’s a wall of text as it is. If all you want is what and how, check out the last part, labeled “Resources.”
Okay! Here we go!
2. Decision Time
3. Everlasting Gobstopping Energy
4. What’s really going on?
6. “Okay, fine, but what are you really DOING?”
See, the thing is, life has been one long slog for me. Overweight and out of shape, I cannot really remember a time in my life as a teenager or adult where I wasn’t at some level of exhaustion. Oh I’ve done it all: taken up jogging, done juice fasts, eaten high-carb/low fat, gone on low-calorie diets, lifted weights…all of it. Sometimes I lost weight, even. My most successful weight loss was in my mid-twenties, where I ate very low fat and spent, no lie, 2.5-3 hours a day working out intensively. It was exhausting and unsustainable. Because here’s the thing: if what you are doing makes you feel like crap, your body and your brain will find a way not to do it anymore no matter what.
And feeling like crap all the time eventually gets old.
A few years ago, in late 2010, I went paleo in an effort to deal with issues of insomnia, IBS, acid reflux and (mild) eczema. I knew being hungry all the time wasn’t a good sign either. I hoped to lose weight but that wasn’t my priority. And it worked! It was like a light bulb went off: don’t eat junk and you will feel better! It’s not as simple as it sounds since in our modern society even food labeled “diet” or “nutritious!” can actually be pure trash. I cut out the crap, and all those symptoms went away. I even lost over 30 pounds completely effortlessly. It was a wake up call.
Since then I’ve done a lot of research via blogs and books about obesity, diet, sugar, and health. The real breakthrough moments came pretty much on the heels of each other earlier this year: first, Gary Taubes’ book “Why We Get Fat” followed by Dr. Attia’s inspirational TED-MD talk. I was floored, and horrified. Everything I knew was WRONG. Just plain wrong. Everything I had suspected (that I had feared) was true: the advice given to overweight people to “eat less, exercise more” is not only flawed, it is a huge part of the problem; the foods we are told are healthy in no way fit that description; and the idea that a “calorie is a calorie” is simply not true.
WHAT YOU EAT MATTERS MORE THAN ANY OTHER FACTOR. And what we’ve been told is okay to eat is killing us.
As I did this research, I also came to the conclusion that I am a sugar addict. I mean, a total junkie, with bad impulse control and uncontrollable cravings. Looked at objectively, my relationship with sugar (and starches) was insane. Even on paleo, where I was not eating grains regularly, I was allowing myself lots of fruit and potatoes and just plain sugar in the form of ice cream or “gluten free” baked goods. I was hyped up on the stuff, and when I ate it regularly, I kept making the bad dietary choices that fed that addiction.
It had to go. And based on the research, I knew that it simply boiled down to cutting out carbs in every form, because essentially they all turn to sugar in my body. I decided to follow a ketogenic protocol, after studying up on the health and safety warnings I had heard about it. What I learned was that all those warnings were overblown if not outright lies. I decided to take control of my life and cut out the sugar. For good.
I started on a low-carb/high-fat ketogenic protocol to induce nutritional ketosis on July 2. By July 5, I was actually in ketosis.
And I was MISERABLE.
Anyone who has ever cut sugar/carbs out of their diet knows this story, no matter if you call it “sugar blues” or “carb flu” or “keto flu.” You feel like crap. Some people get massive headaches and intestinal cramps. I think, being generally on paleo already (albeit with too many cheat days inspired by my sugar addiction), I was spared the worst of it. Instead, I got three weeks of lethargy bordering on narcolepsy and an inability to form complete sentences. The “brain fog” as I call it was profound. Most people get through keto flu in less than a week, but mine just dragged ON and ON. I really figured I’d get to day 30 and decide to scrap the whole damn project.
Instead, about day 25 or so, everything changed.
Everlasting Gobstopping Energy
I don’t think I can convey what happened over the course of those five days when the keto flu finally lifted without sounding incredibly cheesy. It’s all true, though: I started sleeping less, my appetite dropped off a cliff, my mental acuity sharpened up noticeably, and I was hit with a boundless level of energy.
This is the fact that just amazes me. See, before keto, I would come home from my very sedentary job exhausted. I’d fix dinner, plop down in front of the computer and not move. Get home and do chores? Get home and do anything? Out of the question.
I might manage to get up early enough in the morning to do yoga or go for a walk, but I could never sustain that. On Sundays, I’d get up and go to the laundromat to do laundry, and when I got home a couple of hours later I basically felt like my day was shot. I mean, I had done my laundry!!! I really shouldn’t be expected to do anything else, right? RIGHT?!??!????
When riding the bus, I’d hope and pray that everything was on time so I could catch the connection that would drop me close to my job. We’re talking about a distance of one mile, tops, but the idea of walking that one mile was too overwhelming to contemplate. Seriously, missing the bus could drive me to tears.
These days I walk it every morning, foregoing the connection bus completely, and I love it. I walk it back in the afternoons after work, and then when I get home I fix dinner, relax, and then get up and dance for 30+ minutes or go for a long walk. I’ve got so much energy it’s hard to fall asleep sometimes as my brain is going a mile a minute (and not from stress and worry for a change!). I’ve taken up swing dancing just because I can.
I even wrote a post about the fascinating, foreign (to me) concept of “getting up to stretch my legs” after sitting for a while. My own body demanding that I move around and be active is a completely new thing to me. It’s exciting, but also confusing. How do people put up with all this damn energy? o.O
What’s really going on?
A light bulb moment for me was one particular statement in Taubes’ book. To paraphrase: “Maybe marathon runners are not thin because they run, but run because they are thin.”
Yes, absolutely, it’s possible to lose weight by taking up running/exercise. I’ve done it, as have many others. Combine running with a low-calorie restrictive diet and almost anyone can lose weight. A very rare 5% (and that’s a high estimation) of that number of “losers” have managed to keep the weight off long term. But most of us don’t.
And that bothered me. I spent years watching my mother (and then myself) yo-yo diet by extremes (I’m talking losses and gains of 50+ pounds at a time) and what never made sense to me was the fact that being healthy was supposedly so hard and complicated. That is just counter-intuitive. Influenced by evolutionary theory or James Watson (“beautiful truth”) or Occam’s razor, whatever, I wasn’t buying it. But all the diets out there are predicated on precisely counting macros such as calories, protein, fat, etc. and doing exactly so much exercise in order to reach what is, what should be, an effortless baseline for us. I didn’t think being fat itself was the problem, because personally I was otherwise really healthy (great blood pressure, no problems with sugar or cholesterol counts, etc.). I was a really fat healthy person…and that made no sense, if being fat was the problem. I was out of shape, that is my fitness level was in the tank and that never changed much no matter how much or how little I ate or worked out. By the numbers I was very healthy no matter how much I weighed, but even at my most fit and my lowest weight, I was always exhausted and hungry. Nothing about that seemed right to me.
In other words, I kind of stumbled over the logic that Taubes and Attia explicitly lay out: obesity is not the problem, it’s a symptom. A symptom of what? A lot of things, apparently, and it can vary from person to person. But what it is NOT is an outcome of lazy, slothful gluttony and irresponsibility.
Yes, absolutely optimal health generally requires some strict guidelines. The experiences of Olympic and professional athletes (and movie stars getting ripped for roles) proves that. None of us are going to reach the height of our fitness potential just by cutting out wheat or sugar.
We should all at least start from a baseline of “healthy” and fit (barring genetic disorders or illnesses, of course). If getting to that baseline is damn near impossible, if we are constantly stuck in the “negative zone” of fitness and health then there is much bigger problem than our pants size going on.
While being fat was not particularly unhealthy for me, I don’t like it. I hate it, in fact. Also, it just freakin’ bothered me that food was such a hassle. After my mother died, I swore to myself that I would never count another damn calorie again and I haven’t, not in 20 years. But I also have never stopped fiddling with the nature of what I eat. What I knew by instinct, and what I have since learned to be fact, is that eating should be pleasurable, filling, and healthy; that going hungry is not a good sign of self-control but of imminent damage to my body; and that being hungry right after eating and needing to eat every two hours is inherently wrong.
So while I truly loathe being overweight, I was coming to the conclusion that maybe that IS my baseline. Until I stumbled over paleo/primal and then, eventually through Taubes and Attia, nutritional ketosis.
The simple fact is that sugar and starches have kept my body in a permanent state of glucose dependence (I’m simplifying here — if you want actual science, check out Taubes and Attia, okay?) which led me to overeating and eating junk because my body was A) starved for actual nutrition and B) constantly in a state of needing the next “fix” of glucose. I won’t even speculate on the effect it was having on my brain, and my insulin production. *shudders*
So I cut out the sugar, and everything that resembles it. It wasn’t easy. Becoming what is called “keto adapted” took three weeks and I felt awful the whole time, as I mentioned above.
However, that led to where I am now: easy weight loss, amazing energy and mental acuity, and a naturally positive attitude. Gone are the late night blues, the insomnia, the bloating, the IBS, and the irrational cravings for ice cream. Gone, just gone!
I was right all along, but I had been fed so many lies and half-truths that I spent most of my life feeling like crap and feeling guilty about feeling like crap (and how messed up is that?). Being healthy is NOT hard, it’s not difficult, and in my case requires zip-zero-zilch tracking of macros. I eat what’s good for me, completely avoiding carbs that are not in vegetables or cheese, and that’s that!
Watch out. It’s a brand new day, and buddy, I’m just getting started!
Okay, a few people have tapped me for information, so I’ll talk about the research and resources that have led me down this path. (If you want to find diet gurus who are critical of low-carb and ketogenic diets, there are plenty out there, and you’re welcome to google them. They do not have anything to offer me, after 30 years of failure and misery.)
But I have to be honest: this is NOT an easy road to travel. Giving up foods you love is emotionally upsetting, and if you are addicted to sugar like I was it is downright scary. We are surrounded all the time by exactly everything we cannot have, and while I personally have not experienced cravings (at all!) or a desire for, say, a blueberry muffin, I do know some people have a hard time with that especially at first. Going out with friends and not eating the pizza puts a lot of social pressure on you, and if you can’t handle that, your attempt to “go keto” will not be successful.
Also, the first couple of weeks of living this way means you will probably feel like crap, as I noted above about my own experiences. You’ve got to have the determination to power through a couple of bad days or you won’t see the results. That said, it’s less about “needing willpower to diet” and more about “resolving to change my whole life for the better” but YMMV.
Personally, I grew up during the era when low-carb diets were vilified as terrible health risks but that is NOT based on scientific fact, despite being portrayed as such. There are a lot of myths out there like “high protein diets will kill your kidneys!” which, unless you already have kidney problems, is completely unsupported by any scientific study. I know, that’s easy for me to say, and I don’t expect you to believe me — I didn’t even believe it myself for a long time.
So here are the resources I used myself to find out the facts:
1. I started out going paleo first, and if that interests you, the best source online for paleo information is Mark’s Daily Apple. Lots of great success stories there and plenty of information on how to live paleo, no need to buy his books or anything:
2. Taube’s book “Why We Get Fat” which I mentioned above is simply required reading. You cannot skip this book. This is his “easily accessible, not filled with science jargon” version of his earlier book, “Good Calories/Bad Calories” which is a better choice if hard-core science is your bag. It’s not mine, so I went with this book. It’s a total eye opener. (I just sat there in shock, then wrote him a weepy three page letter about my mother’s health issues and death. So you know.)
3. Dr. Peter Attia is an MD whose articles on ketosis are wayyyyy over my head scientifically but still interesting. Again, if hard-core science is what you need to convince you, this is your next stop: http://eatingacademy.com/
4. This is Dr. Attia’s short, highly emotional TED-MD talk about obesity which basically convinced me to totally give up sugar and follow my instincts to try ketosis:
(I also wrote him a thank you email, talking about my mother and how she died ashamed of being fat; he wrote me back such a heartfelt, compassionate note that I really did break down in tears. This guy is just a GOOD person, and that goes a long way with me.)
5. More Dr. Attia! This is a very long (1hr+) lecture about his own experiences going ketogenic, filled with scientific information and geared specifically to high performance athletes:
6. An in-depth FAQ about ketosis for health and weight loss:
7. My own choice for keto over,say, Atkins is high fat/low carb, and this is a basic primer for it: http://www.dietdoctor.com/lchf
8. Keto on Reddit – I read these boards daily, and post my weekly updates to xxketo (as kimboosan). Great places for information and questions.
http://www.reddit.com/r/xxketo/ (specifically for the womenfolk)
http://www.reddit.com/r/keto/ (general board, also has links to other keto subreddits)
9. And here you go, my own weekly updates as posted at xxketo, which are text-wall posts that leave nothing out. You have been warned! Week 1 I did not post anything, so it starts with week 2:
Week 2: http://www.reddit.com/r/xxketo/comments/1ihyap/introduction_2_wks_in/
Week 3: http://www.reddit.com/r/xxketo/comments/1ithhv/week_3_update/
Week 4: http://www.reddit.com/r/xxketo/comments/1jcyx8/week_4_update_i_feel_awesome/
Week 5: http://www.reddit.com/r/xxketo/comments/1jw27h/week_5_update_im_a_happy_happy_ketoid/
Week 6: http://www.reddit.com/r/xxketo/comments/1kay9s/week_6_update_much_shorter_this_time/
“Okay, fine, but what are you really DOING?”
Here’s my general dietary plan. I’m a creature of habit and not much of a cook, and my plan reflects that.
1. First thing in the morning I have a low-carb (whey isolate) protein shake, usually made with a cup of full-fat coconut milk or heavy cream and a splash of coffee. I have never been a breakfast person, so getting up and cooking will never happen. This way I have about 30g of protein along with a lot of fat to get my system started.
2. When I get to work I have a modified bulletproof coffee: 1 1/2 cups of coffee, 2T of unsalted high-grade European butter, 1T coconut oil.
3. For lunch I usually have a prepared portion of some kind of meat/veggie/egg scramble or casserole. (I cook huge batches of food on the weekend, and pack it for lunches through the week.) This is my main meal of the day.
4. Afternoon snack is a fat bomb or a hard boiled egg.
5. Dinner is more of a snack: either a really small portion of leftovers (four small meatballs) or some slices of cheese and a handful of nuts. If I’ve worked out or done a lot that day, I make sure to have another fat bomb or a heavy-cream hot chocolate drink before bed.
Yes, I’m low on veggies, but it’s hard to cram a salad in when you’re not hungry. I’m experimenting with really high-fat dressings in order to use a small salad as my dinner snack. Sometimes I’ve incorporated creamed spinach (I make my own), so that’s something. :/
You’ll note that this is not really a low calorie plan. I’m not cutting or counting calories anyway, so I don’t know my exact macros, and I don’t care. I’m IN ketosis, and the calories I do get in fill me up in a way the same number of calories never have before. Even with what you see here, I often end up leaving food on the plate, simply because I’m full. Also my grocery bill has dropped dramatically, because the amount of food it used to take to get me through the week now lasts me two weeks.
Once a week I let myself have a glass or two of wine. I’ve found that alcohol really hits me much harder now, so that’s really enough. It does not throw me out of ketosis, but for some people it does. YMMV.
And that’s it. When I go out, I get hamburgers w/out the buns, and coleslaw instead of fries; or a steak; or a salad. I can eat nearly anywhere but a pizzeria, and if they serve meatballs, I can even eat there (although w/out the sauce, which is usually high in sugar!). I really don’t feel like I’m suffering in any way; I’ve spent years driving myself into “starvation mode” by being hungry all the time, and trust me, that’s a hell of a lot more misery-inducing than passing up on the bread sticks.
I’m never going back. I expect I will continue to lose weight but honestly I don’t care. I feel AWESOME, I feel ALIVE, and that matters more to me than anything else.