For the past couple of weeks I’ve been living in some alternate-reality world — a place where:
- Fruit isn’t a wise snack, but a lump of butter rolled in toasted coconut can be.
- Nonfat Greek yogurt isn’t a good choice, but cheddar cheese is.
- If I’m craving something crunchy and salty, I should step away from whole-wheat Triscuits and instead bust open a bag of chicharrones.
I’m trying a low-carb eating plan for the month of June, and it is messing with my head.
Mr. Brooks subscribes to an eating plan that’s considered a ketogenic diet, where a severe restriction of carbohydrates forces your body to instead derive most of its energy from fats — either from the food you eat or the reserves your body’s been holding onto.
From what I’ve read, for a “keto” diet to really work you should limit carbohydrates to 10% of your daily food intake (which should work out to < 20g per day). You also can’t go hog-wild on protein, either; only 20% of your calories should come from it. (An alternate way of measurement is to say 1g of protein per kilogram of body weight. For someone who’s roughly 175 pounds, that means 80g of protein a day.) The rest of your daily calories — about 70 percent — should come from healthy fats such as olive, coconut or canola oils, or butter.
The “keto” reference is to ketones, which your liver produces when it burns fat for energy or fuel, which the rest of the body uses for energy when there’s not enough glucose available. So on a keto diet, even though you’re not eating a lot of carbohydrates or protein, your body’s still getting fuel; most of it’s coming from a different source than what it might be used to.
As your body adjusts, there can be some issues. Some people report a flulike feeling early on, which so far I haven’t been privy to. I’ve had a few minor headaches, but the biggie for me was muscle cramps. The first one happened in the middle of the night, making me wake up wondering what the hell had just happened to my calf. I’d never experienced anything like that before and it was particularly vexing because, well, I was asleep at the time. Wouldn’t that mean that I was relaxed and not, say, clenching or tightening my leg muscles? (But apparently, that’s when it happens to most people.)¹
The second one happened when I was shampooing my hair, and suddenly my hand was involuntarily turning into a clawlike shape to stave off the weird tightness. That one was less severe and lasted less than a minute, but still, very unnerving.²
So if I’m eating such weird things, and experiencing such odd side effects, why bother?
- Vanity (80%): I’ve got a beach vacation in a few months and I see extra bulk right above my hipbones. A keto diet targets body fat specifically, so I decided to give it a shot for the month of June and see what, if any, results I see in that timeframe.
- Curiosity (20%): As I mentioned earlier, Mr. Brooks lives a pretty much keto lifestyle now, and credits it with keeping his weight down as he, like I, creeps toward age 50. (Of course, he also runs multiple miles a day at the track nearby, something that doesn’t hurt in that regard but sounds like excruciating torture to me.)
Usually, our refrigerator is split down the middle, divided by what is clearly “his food” (full-fat ground beef, cheeses, guacamole) or “my food” (chicken breasts, nonfat Greek yogurt, cooked quinoa breakfast cereal). Now, though, I’ve loaded up my side with prepared meals that should last me more than a week:
- A “lasagna” that uses zucchini slices in place of pasta. Quite tasty — perhaps not surprisingly, considering it includes both sour and heavy whipping cream (where normally ricotta would be used)³ plus a bounty of melted shredded cheese.
- A chicken casserole with chicken thighs, cauliflower florets, and again with the sour and whipping creams, plus pesto for flavor (and oil).
- I made a “keto bread” that involved coconut flour and six eggs; it was like cornbread in texture but randomly blue-tinted at the bottom, is worrisome. If I’m starving for a snack, I’ll slather butter on a slice and eat without looking at it.
And every morning I blend up a shake: a scoop of powder that supplies 30g of protein; a cup of almond milk; a tablespoon of coconut oil or canola oil (to help with the protein/fat balance); and some ice cubes. (It’s part of a separate movement, to consume 30g of protein within 30 minutes of waking up.)
I’m about two weeks in, and the results have been amazing: I’ve lost exactly zero pounds.
Granted, there’s been a learning curve:
- The first week I didn’t know there was such a thing as “eating too much protein,” which can prevent your body from being in ketosis.
- Also, you in addition to eating foods in that 10/20/70 ratio, you still need to pay attention to your overall caloric intake. The setup doesn’t let you eat all you want.
- I also thought you were allowed to go all-in during your “cheat day,” when what it really means if you’re trying to keep keto is that you can maybe have a pasta dish at dinner.*
So, a lot of lessons that could have been learned if I had asked more questions or done more research before diving in to this vat of cheese and oil. But given that I was living in a world where I’d watch Mr. Brooks mow through handfuls of pepperoni slices as a “snack,” you might be able to see how I started off on the wrong foot.
For now, I’m keeping with the plan. I mean, I’ve already purchased coconut oil, almond and coconut flours, psyllium husk powder and a giant bag of shredded cheddar cheese, so it makes sense to at least use up my investment. Hopefully my keto kapabilities will kick into higher gear … which I will be able to measure by peeing on a special strip every morning and seeing what color it turns. I’ve also got a regularly scheduled doctor’s appointment later this month, to see if there are any negative effects to blood pressure, cholesterol, etc. But considering that a ketogenic diet is prescribed to some people with diabetes to help stabilize blood sugar levels, I think it might be safer for my health than I’d feared.
¹ When I mentioned this to Mr. Brooks the next morning, he said cramps were a fairly common side effect, and that I should supplement minerals like magnesium and magnesium; this site also suggests making sure you’re getting enough salt.
² I texted my sister and asked: “So, when women get menstrual cramps, are they as severe as leg cramps? Because if so, I have a whole new respect for you.”
³ Update: My next round will use cream cheese instead of heavy cream, to — you guessed it — reduce the number of carbohydrates per serving even further.
* I had kept a list of things I’d craved throughout the week, and on my first “cheat day” I plowed through many of them: an English muffin alongside my eggs and bacon at breakfast; a large butterscotch shake in the afternoon; a snack-sized bag of Cheetos (and, later, one of Doritos); and a handful of gummi bears.