Disclaimer:The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Catalyst. This blog is not meant in any way as medical advice. Please consult a medical profession before commencing any new eating regime.
What would you say if I told you there's a diet where you can eat all the food you normally deny yourself, stop counting tedious calories, shift some weight, gain extra muscle and get an energy boost too? If you're anything like me you'd be asking 'where do I sign up?'! So when I heard about the ketogenic diet from a colleague I was immediately intrigued. This simply sounded too good to be true. Could I really eat fat and get lean? Enjoy peanut butter treats and squeeze into my skinny jeans? Never one to shy away from a challenge, I decided to see for myself, and so my six week experiment with the ketogenic diet began.....
So what actually is a ketogenic, or 'keto', eating plan? In its most simple form, this is an extremely low-carb, high-fat diet. By lowering your carb intake your body is pushed into a metabolic state known as ketosis (key -tow -sis), where your body switches from burning carbs as its primary energy source to burning fat. To be more precise, it uses ketone bodies or ketones from the breakdown of fatty acids in the liver. Hence the name, ketosis. Now fatty fuel can come from a meal you've just eaten or from the stores of fat on your body (aka, the evil muffin top). While it may sound a little questionable, ketosis is actually an entirely natural metabolic process that the body initiates to help us survive when our food intake is low. Typically our body runs on glucose derived from the breakdown of carbs - this is because glucose is the easiest molecule for the body to convert and use as energy, so it will be chosen over any other energy source. But when your body doesn't have enough carbs for your energy needs it will switch to ketosis to keep you pepped. The ketogenic diet is basically tricking your body into thinking your food intake is low, while actually allowing you to eat your fill.
So what do you eat on a ketogenic diet?
First and foremost, the term 'diet' is a bit of a misnomer to me - with its connotations of limits or restriction - as this eating plan allowed me to tuck into all sorts of healthy foods including good fats such as coconut cream, avocado and (my personal kryptonite) all natural peanut butter, as well as energy-giving eggs and a range of green veggies.
The first step however, is brutal. There's no way round this. To get into ketosis all major carb sources in your diet have to be eliminated, so it's goodbye to bread, pasta, sugary treats and fruit, but hello to high-quality fats. The more restrictive you can be with your carbs at this stage, the quicker your body will enter the ketosis. Between 20-30 grams of carbs is recommended (roughly 2 slices of bread or 3 large carrots) so as tough as this was (and believe me, it was) I lowered my intake to the guideline amounts. The second challenge was to work out what I could actually eat - as I had no intention of putting butter into my coffee (a keto technique). A wealth of meal ideas are available online, and after a few weeks sticking to these I began to tweak and devise my own (a couple are below).
The food on the keto plan is, in one word, yummy. A big change from my usual low-fat fare, and once I got over my initial fruit withdrawals, I genuinely began to enjoy it. The trick came less in changing what I ate, but changing my mindset. For this experiment to work I had to switch both my metabolism and my ingrained attitude towards fat. I'm a subscriber to the 'fat makes you fat' and 'calories in: calories out' dogma, so the notion that I should be shoving extra fatty kilojoules in to shift kilograms seemed crazy at first. With every cheese plate eaten that little demon on my shoulder sang 'you shouldn't be eating this...!' but like every good scientist I shrugged off the irrational and threw myself wholeheartedly into the experiment.
First few days were uneventful but on day 5 I was struck down with the "keto flu" - a bout of lethargy and flu-like symptoms - a common side effect of entering ketosis. Then I got brain fog, you know that hazy state where you walk into a room and can't remember why you were going in there? But the most notable side affect was an incident of what I believe to be reactive hypoglycemia. After hitting the gym for a normal workout my hands began to shake and my heart felt like it was banging on the wall of my chest. I was then overcome with waves of severe nausea. Apparently reactive hypoglycemia happens when your body is in the process of transitioning from burning carbs to burning fat. Your pancreas hasn't quite cottoned on to your new diet and continues secreting insulin for your old higher level of carb consumption. Eventually more insulin gets secreted than is needed and a blood sugar crash results. Your body then snaps into action to get you some sugar and fast! Adrenalin is released to tell the liver to break down some protein into glucose causing the symptoms. Did I say the first step was brutal?
Once you transition it is smooth sailing. Energy levels begin to rise and the keto flu is but a distant memory. I'm not going to lie, the keto plan takes a lot of prepping, planning and maths, so for the newby it is actually quite labour intensive. With all the food weighing and rigorous carb counting I approached my first ketosis test with both excitement and trepidation. Had it worked? Was I a fat burning machine? A quick trip to the pharmacy to buy some ketosis test strips followed (the strips measure the ketones in your urine), followed by a bathroom pit stop and voila success! My reading was 4 mmol/L a very high level indeed. With levels of 1.5 - 3 mmol/L the recommended level for weight loss. Excitedly I jumped on the scales...only to be deflated, my weight had stayed eerily stable at 65.8kg - but why?
Further research revealed I had made a few rookie mistakes. Firstly, eating too much protein. Protein is converted to energy before fat. On this diet you should get 70% of calories from fat, about 20% from protein, and under 10% from carbs. I was only counting carbs and alas my protein and fat intakes were nearly equal. To help me stay on top of the tricky calculations and keep track of my food I devised a spread sheet.
Secondly, and sadly, some people do in fact need to count calories on this diet and I'm one of them. When I added it up I was eating a whopping 2500 - 3000 calories a day. That is double the 1500 calories I would usually consume. Yikes! (they did say put butter on everything!). Most people would be satiated on a much lower calorie intake but I'm one of the rare few that isn't.
So, what happens when you overeat on at ketogenic diet? Well, as my results will show, not very much. Overall I gained a mere 500gms but when you break it down I lost 3.5 kg of fat because I gained 4kg of muscle (yay!). I was actually shocked that I hadn't piled on the pounds. I definitely feel stronger and I have bulked up especially in my arms and shoulders - places I'd always found it hard to build muscle previously. Compliments have been pouring in as people comment on how "buff" or "fit" I'm looking. A welcome side effect for a change!
So with the experiment drawing to a close and obvious positive changes to my outward appearance I began to wonder what might be happening on the inside. So I headed to my GP for a check up. Tests revealed my overall cholesterol level increased from 4.8 mmol/L to 5.7 mmol/L . Which is still in the healthy range. While an increase in cholesterol sounds negative it may not be. The majority of the increase was in my HDL (the "good" cholesterol) which went from 2.0 mmol/L to 2.7 mmol/L. My doctor seemed very happy with my 2.7 HDL result, and if she is happy I'm happy. My LDL (the "bad" cholesterol) also increased but only slightly from 2.5 mmol/L to 2.7 mmol/L. My liver and kidney were both healthy and functioning in normal ranges.
It has taken me the full six weeks to really settle into low carb living. But now that I've got the hang of it I'm hooked. My next challenge is to lower my calories to somewhere near what they were before I went keto. I'm keen to see what changes this will bring about in my body. Stay tuned for part 2...meanwhile please pass the peanut butter.
Comment: Dr Stephen Phinny made the following comment with regards to shaking and after the gym "tremors and tachycardia (very rapid heartbeat) are the classic symptoms of inadequate sodium/salt in someone who is not yet keto-adapted. Ironically, my early research demonstrated that it takes at least 3 weeks for the body to adapt to using mostly fat during exercise, and that regular intake of a modicum of salt is a vital part of this adaptation process"
Source : http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/4127938.htm