I was a chubby kid who grew into a fat adult. By the time I had graduated high school, I had ballooned to 270lbs. I struggled to lose the weight for several years until 2012 when I started following the keto diet.
My weight fell to around 195lbs with little effort and stayed there for quite a while. During that time, I moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where I lived for almost three years. When I returned in 2016, the stress of reverse culture shock and my renewed ability to buy cheap garbage food fattened me up again. And so my interest returns to the keto diet, on which I’ve lost nearly 40 pounds in the last 3 months.
The world of weight loss is a tough one to navigate. People aren’t so keen on hearing the truth if the truth is hard, unflattering, and inconvenient. In that case, they’d prefer to be coddled and marketed to. That means the weight loss industry, at least in its most mainstream incarnation, is less about losing weight and more about deflecting blame, blinding people with complicated "science", and selling overpriced, ineffective—or worse, counterproductive—snake oil.
I’ve fallen for it before. You’ve probably fallen for it before. In a misguided attempt to regain our health, we end up buying a special brand of fat-free potato chips and counting out exact portions of 12. Or we pay $300 a month to have someone send us bland prepackaged frankenfood. Or we join a gym and walk on a treadmill for an hour a day, imagining that’s the best way to lose fat.
It’s all smoke and mirrors, though.
The people taking our money are the ones we can’t trust about these things. We need to hear the hard truth and we need to know what actually works. And you probably already know what works.
Eat the right things and eat less of them. But the right things might not be what you think they are.
Before I go on, let me say that I’m not a medical doctor and I’m not advising you to do anything I’m writing about. I’m describing what I did. Talk to your doctor before you do anything.
My Experience with the Keto Diet
I had tried to lose weight from 2005 to 2011 without any real luck. The scale might drop 10 pounds every once in a while, but it shot up another 20 not long after. Instead of actually caring about my health, developing the right mindset, overcoming gluttonous tendencies, and tackling the issue at its deepest depths, I fell into a cycle of needless deprivation followed by an inescapable breaking point followed by overwhelming guilt.
The conventional American diet.
I bought all the gimmicky foods, books, and contraptions they recommended on The Biggest Loser. (Verdict: Don’t.) I had spells where I ate nothing but Lean Cuisine and drank nothing but Diet Mountain Dew. I purchased a deeply discounted, defective version of P90X from Thailand because I was convinced it would solve all my problems. I read The Maker’s Diet, The Abs Diet, and any other book with diet in the title. I watched Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, which appears to be a documentary but is actually a stealth infomercial for juicers. Then I went out and bought a juicer. (Verdict: Don’t.)
This carried on for a long time. I never actually believed I’d be able to lose weight. A series of failures will do that to a man. I thought I was doomed to this endless cycle and no success.
A turning point came when a friend introduced me to Mark’s Daily Apple, a blog by Mark Sisson that focuses on eating real food. It was the first time I had stumbled into a health and fitness community that wasn’t trying to sell me anything. Of course, there are products related to eating real food, but you didn’t need to buy anything to eat real food. They were giving away all the essential information for free. It wasn’t a gimmick. There wasn’t a book that had "all the secrets" in it. If I wanted to know the exact rules of successful weight loss, they were right there on the site. Freely available. Free to use. No need to join a website or buy a DVD or put cucumbers in a $99 juicer (I cannot emphasize enough how awful juicers are.)
The advice amounted to what I wrote above. Eat the right things and eat less of them.
This made Mark and his approach trustworthy from the start. Here was a guy giving me some advice, saying do this, this, and this for a month and see what happens.
And that’s what I did.
Mark’s approach is primal or paleolithic, which in practice means you eat real, whole, unprocessed foods minus grains, dairy, and beans. The primal/paleo approach is separate from the keto diet, but because of its suggested restrictions, I accidentally started following the keto diet. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing or that it had a name. But I liked the results.
From December 11, 2011 to January 11, 2012, I went from 252lbs to 229lbs. Then I changed things up a little bit, and the results were far less dramatic. I didn’t really know why. By July, I had finally come across the keto diet proper and could begin to understand exactly why I had seen so much success in December.
With my newfound knowledge, I began to specifically follow the keto diet. From July to August, I dropped from 219lbs and 35% body fat to 195lbs and 28% body fat. Most importantly, the process felt effortless.
Those results probably sound pretty good to you, especially combined with effortlessness. So then, what is the keto diet?
What is the Keto Diet?
Typically, your body takes the carbohydrates you eat and converts them into glucose, which it then transports all around your body for energy. That means most of the time your body is fueled by carbs, it’s fueled by an energy source you’ve very recently provided it. If you’ve got a lot of excess fat (which is stored energy), this is problematic. You have plenty of stored fuel for your body to use, but it prefers carbs and the resulting glucose.
If your body prefers to use carbs first, how do you make it burn up all the fat you already have? You stop eating so many carbs. If you eat very few carbs (generally \<20g per day), your liver will start converting fat into fatty acids and ketone bodies (which is why the diet is called ‘ketogenic’). The ketone bodies get pushed around your body, especially to the brain where they replace glucose as the main energy source. An elevated level of ketone bodies in the blood stream puts you in a state called ketosis.
The practical answer to, "What is the keto diet?" is this: the keto diet is a high-fat, adequate-protein, low-carb diet that helps you burn more fat faster and with little effort. If you’re familiar with the Atkins diet, keto is similar, except it has more fat and less carbs.
What do you eat on the keto diet?
On keto, it doesn’t technically matter what you eat as long as the carbs clock in at around 20g. You could eat 20g worth of cake if you were so inclined.
In practice, though, keto has quite a bit of overlap with primal/paleo. To get the best results, you primarily eat meats, vegetables, cheeses, nuts, and butter. You avoid breads, pastas, beans, starchy vegetables, fruits, and anything sugary. That is to say, you eat foods with the least amount of carbs.
There are lots of creative ways to make keto dishes, even ones that resemble favorite comfort foods. To see some of the possibilities for keto food, check out the images posted to the Keto Recipes subreddit. I’ve seen keto recipes for cold cereal, snickerdoodles, pork cutlets with mashed cauliflower, peanut butter fat bombs, and more. There’s always something new to try.
When I’m in ketosis, my go-to meal is bacon and buttery eggs because they’re fast and simple. Every once in a while I’ll make what I call "keto pizza", which is just a bowl of toppings. I mix a can of sliced mushrooms, shredded cheese, sweet basil tomato sauce and a package of pepperoni in an iron skillet. It’s like not being on a diet at all really.
How to start a keto diet?
To start the keto diet, you would limit your carb intake to around less than 20g per day (though in my experience it can be pretty flexible, especially once you’re already in ketosis) and then wait for your body to work through whatever leftover glucose you’ve still got. After that, you’d be in ketosis and your body would start to burn primarily fat as its fuel.
That’s the simple explanation. There’s a couple ways to go about it, though.
The first is to gradually adjust over a period of around three days. Eating normally, but avoiding grains, beans, fruits, and anything sugary. Do that and you’ll eventually wake up in ketosis. But you’ll probably be miserable.
I’ve found this process to be both tedious and somewhat torturous. It’s like teasing and tempting a drug addict who’s in withdrawal. If you try to approach it slowly, you’ll trigger a state that’s commonly called "Keto Flu", wherein you feel much worse before you start feeling better. I’ve heard of people having to push through weeks of this to get into ketosis. Not worth it in my opinion.
The second way to go about it, and my preference, is cold turkey. It’s possible for some people (myself included) to get into keto in a single day by fasting. Don’t eat anything, drink lots of water, and maybe do some light exercise (walking is enough). This approach would give you, at most, a single, slightly uncomfortable morning (unless you’re absolutely new to fasting of any kind, then you’re probably SOL anyway.)
One way to be sure you are in ketosis is to buy ketone strips which can check for the presence of ketones in your urine. You can get them from Amazon, Walmart, or just about any drug store. They’re typically with diabetic supplies. The degree to which you are in ketosis doesn’t matter, if the color of the strips change at all it means you’re good to go.
These strips might be good for you in the beginning, just to be sure it’s working, but in general they aren’t necessary. Another way to tell if you’re in ketosis is to check your tongue. If you’re tongue develops a whitish layer and your morning breath is especially awful, you can generally assume you’re in ketosis.
Moving Forward with the Keto Diet
The great thing about the keto diet is that you don’t need to know much and you don’t need to buy anything special. You can just start. (After checking with your doctor or someone more reputable than myself, of course.) The most difficult part of the keto diet is actually entering ketosis. It requires changing routines and habits, making different choices than you are used to, and maybe dealing with symptoms of the keto flu that make you think it’s a bad idea altogether. But if you can push past that, once you’re actually in ketosis, it’s surprisingly easy to maintain. You stop caring about the foods you thought you could never live without. More importantly, for the foods you really can’t live without, you can generally find a keto alternative.
If you’re like me, merely knowing that there is an alternative available makes you stop craving the food entirely. For example, if I thought I couldn’t eat ice cream at all, I might be tempted to obsess over the restriction until I caused myself to break. But because I know there’s Breyers CarbSmart or Halo Top ice cream out there, I don’t really care about it at all. I could go to the store and get those whenever I want, so the temptation and obsession are dead and I’d rather spend those carbs on a pork rind meat loaf.
If keto is something you’d like to do, I recommend checking out these links and resources below: