The quick scoop:
My reasons for trying Keto were twofold. I was experiencing some serious mood swings and spikes in my blood sugar (some may call it “hanger”) and my busy schedule often made me feel out of control of my diet. I was grabbing things out of convenience, not eating full meals, and binging on sweets out of stress and lack of energy. It was a spiral that needed to stop. I was also doing Sober October, which paired well with the keto lifestyle.
Back up: what is the Keto Diet?
The ketogenic diet is an extremely low-carb, high-fat diet. By reducing carbohydrates and replacing this intake with fat, your body goes into a metabolic state called ketosis. When you are in ketosis, your body becomes a fat burning machine, turning fat into ketones in the liver which supplies energy for the brain. So, instead of getting energy from carbs, you are getting them from fat. Originally developed in the treatment of epilepsy, it can cause massive reductions in blood sugar and insulin levels. It also helps people lose weight without hunger or deprivation.
The local gal that I leaned on:
Since I’m a newbie at this, I pulled in Cheryl McColgan, who is a nutrition coach and keto lifestyle enthusiast behind the blog Heal Nourish Grow. When I initially announced that I was going to give Keto a try, she was quick to reach out with helpful tips. Here were some of my most burning questions.
What’s the #1 biggest tip?
Keep up your electrolytes, especially at the beginning.
Electrolytes are minerals in the body that are important for just about every function, including heart health, bladder regulation, allowing muscles to contract properly, energy and brain functioning, and more.
When you don’t have enough electrolytes, you may experience symptoms known as “keto flu” (fatigue, headaches, irritability, sugar cravings, brain fog, sleeplessness, etc.). Apparently this is very common for beginners.
When you minimize your carb intake, your body produces less insulin and stored glycogen from carbs are emptied. This all causes water to be excreted versus retained from the body, often resulting in dehydration.
To prevent dehydration, you must increase sodium consumption (think: pink himalayan sea salt), increase your potassium (from avocados, nuts, green leafy vegetables, and meat), calcium (from dark leafy greens, broccoli, hard cheese, salmon) and magnesium (from kale and spinach, nuts, and seeds, or supplemented with a magnesium tablet at night time to help aid in sleep).
HOW DO I SNACK?!?
A huge issue that I had early on was having quick meals and snacks on hand. I found myself feeling great for a few hours, then all of a sudden feeling like i was starving. Cheryl explained that this soon fades as your fuel source switches between carbs to fat. Once you are in ketosis, your hunger pangs subside significantly. She was right-- a few weeks in, my need to snack went away once I was “fat adapted” (aka, in ketosis).
Where she prefaced her response with “real food first”, we all know that every now and then life gets crazy and you need something quick. The snacks she recommended were macadamia nuts or almonds (high fat, low carb, easy to grab and go). I picked up a few bags of these at Whole Foods and stored them in my backpack that goes with me everywhere, and in my car.
As for bars, there were two bars Cheryl recommended. The Perfect Keto , which has super clean ingredients, and DrKellyAnn, which is a smaller bar with fewer calories and apparently tastes like an Almond Joy. I didn’t get around to trying the drkellyann bars, but the perfect keto bars were a life-saver for me on many occasions.
How do I know that I’m in ketosis (Without having to buy pee test strips):
It takes some time for your bod to switch over from burning carbs to fat. It first needs to deplete the carbs in your system. This can take some time, but exercising, keeping around 20-30 grams of carbs a day and adding in MCT oil all help. MCT oil can help speed up this process (I added it to coffee which I found really gross, so decided to put it in shakes and cook with it instead. I DO NOT recommend the vanilla flavor! Yuck). Once you are adapted, you’ll know. You won’t experience those hunger pangs, your energy will be up, and those flu-like symptoms will subside. More on this in Cheryl’s article here.
What’s the deal with artificial sweeteners?
I was very strongly against artificial sweeteners going into this experiment, but knowing how hard it is to totally cut out sugar (and all the great keto recipes that are out there with artificial sweeteners as key ingredients like these muffins that were INSANE), I knew I had to take a fresh look at them.
Cheryl really helped a sister out here. To quote: “the only sweeteners I go for are stevia, monk fruit, allulose and sometimes erythritol. Some of the sweeteners raise your blood sugar the same as real sugar! Especially avoid maltitol.”
My advice to first time keto-ers:
PLAN. your meals, your trip to the grocery, your pending dehydration… many of the negative feelings that I experienced upfront can be avoided by educating yourself and preparation. Expect to NOT have to give up your life! Once you understand what you can eat and what to avoid, it makes eating out a breeze.
Some additional resources that I found helpful for meal planning:
- Cheryl’s recipe blog, found here. What I really appreciate about Cheryl is her focus on “clean” eating. It is SO easy to eat crap on Keto. A big mac without the bun is considered an approved meal. Her recipes and guidelines keep you from falling into the "dirty keto" category.
- @ShredHappens on Instagram. Arash has become a friend of ours in the health and wellness community, and his Instagram page is home to drool-worthy recipes that just so happen to be Keto.
Finally... my results.
After experiencing slight “keto flu” at the beginning, a few weeks in I turned a corner and felt amazing. Like the best I have felt in a really long time. I will say that I missed fruit (I started my day with a banana probably for the past 5+ years), but once I got used to my new meal plan, I found it incredibly easy. And what’s even better is that once you are in fat-adapted, if you fall out of ketosis for whatever reason (birthday cake, thanksgiving stuffing, a random Saturday night of one too many glasses of wine) it’s pretty easy to rebound and get back into ketosis.
This diet would be great for anyone who experiences brain fog (the neurological science behind this diet is absolutely fascinating and worth reading up on if you are interested), have some big goals for weight loss and like the idea of not having to count and measure out every little thing before you eat it. Before this trial period, I couldn’t imagine a world without carbs, but with the growing popularity of this diet, there are some really truly amazing substitutes for bread, pasta and crackers out there, making it all too easy to adopt the keto-lifestyle for good.