Not long ago, I had a conversation with my non-keto sister, and it suddenly dawned on me that she’s asking what likely hundreds more are wondering. I admit that I have been practicing the ketogenic lifestyle for so long now that I often forget how intimidating keto was when I first started. There is just SO much conflicting advice available on the Internet, and recently I’ve found that one of the more “accessible” ketogenic forums, ketogenic Facebook groups, tend to serve as major hubs of misinformation and polarizing, holier-than-thou attitudes regarding the ketogenic diet. I find most of them so frustrating and abrasive to newbies that I regularly suggest avoiding keto-focused Facebook groups entirely. Hopefully this post helps answer a few questions or assuage a few concerns for those of you who are interested in giving keto a try.
1. “So like yesterday, you didn’t eat super clean keto. How long does it take to recover? Like how strict do I need to be to have the positive effects of keto?”
To provide some context, we had eaten lunch at one of my favorite Tex-Mex restaurants the day before. It is literally one of the only places I will allow myself to stray away from my strict 20 grams of carbs per day, so this is a pertinent question regarding ketosis and how it affects my body.
I’m going to break down my response into a few pieces. So here we go.
“So like yesterday, you didn’t eat super clean keto. How long does it take to recover?”
It is important to first understand that there is a very significant difference being in ketosis short-term versus long-term. Long-term dietary ketosis switches your body from being primarily glucose/sugar-burning to primarily fat/ketone body-burning. This is what we like to call being “fat adapted,” and will usually happen within the first 1-3 months of maintaining constant ketosis. When someone is “fat adapted,” their body can easily switch back to burning fat after being “knocked out of ketosis” with an occasional carb spike – and I do very much mean OCCASIONAL.
The downside of short-term ketosis is that that exact same carb spike will knock you out of ketosis and your body will not automatically go back to burning fat, but instead it will resort to burning glucose/sugar just like it was doing the day before you started eating keto. You will gain back all the water weight you lost in the beginning, and the spike in insulin will make your body start storing away all those extra calories as body fat. Essentially, you will lose all the progress you’ve made on your journey to becoming fat adapted, and you will be forced to restart completely at ground zero.
“How strict do I need to be to have the positive effects of keto?”
So what this all boils down to for those of you just starting out is that it is VERY important to stick to 20 grams of carbs or less for a MINIMUM of one month in order to ensure that you become fat adapted. After you’re certain that you have achieved fat adaptation, you can start playing mad scientist with your carb macros and gradually incorporate more carbohydrate into your diet if you so choose. There are some special snowflakes out there who can go all the way up to 50 grams of carbs per day and maintain dietary ketosis, but I tend to think those individuals are more the exception than the rule. Every body is different, so naturally no two people will have the exact same reaction to increasing their carb intake. 35 grams of carbohydrate might be okay for Person A while Person B can only handle 25 grams and maintain ketosis, it all just depends on the individual. Self-knowledge is pivotal in order to effectively evaluate how your body handles dietary changes.
I didn’t eat “super clean keto” because I ate about ½ cup of refried beans, half an order of fried plantains, and a small corn tamal in addition to my 12 oz rare carne asada. All three of these food items are pretty carb-heavy compared to my normal diet and therefore inherently not very keto-friendly, but you’ll notice that most of my “cheat” is still what I consider to be well within the category of “whole foods,” with the house-made corn tamal being the most processed of the three. I allow for these kinds of whole foods/ “Paleo”-type treats because while they do have more carbs, they also retain a lot of their natural fiber. I can’t really justify the tamal as being either keto or Paleo friendly, but I love corn and I find that an occasional indulgence helps keep me in the right headspace to maintain keto long-term.
Since I have been doing keto for almost a year now, I am most certainly fat adapted at this point. By knowing how fat adaptation works and how it affects my body through trial and error, I was not at all concerned about this particular carb spike because I knew how my body would react. The price I pay for a small, occasional carby indulgence is a bit more stiffness and soreness in my joints for the next 48 hours or so as well as a small increase in the number on the scale, but after a day or two I drop the water weight and go right back to my pre-decadent self. I’m not sure of the actual carb count from this cheat meal because I didn’t make the food myself, but I can say with confidence that it was well under 100 grams of net carbs in total – which, by the way, is still considered “low carb” in terms of the Standard American Diet.
Even if had eaten 100 grams of carbs with this meal, I would still be okay because of fat adaptation. An indulgence of 100 grams of carbohydrate would have caused a temporary, albeit gigantic, spike in my blood sugar and insulin, but that’s okay because the spike is, again, TEMPORARY. It is an extremely rare occurrence that I go over 20 carbs in a single day, and if by some chance I do, I stay at 25 or under. Since the main therapeutic benefit of keto comes from its ability to lower AVERAGE blood glucose and subsequently average insulin response, a temporary spike is nothing to be overly concerned about. One spike is not going to drastically change my overall average numbers; however, repetitively cheating would conversely have a HUGE impact on my overall averages.
I also make it a point to keep my carbohydrate intake as low as possible in the few days following a “cheat” meal. Fat adaptation is wonderful if only for the fact that once you achieve it, you don’t derail yourself entirely from keeping the benefits of ketosis by temporarily increasing carbohydrate intake. In other words, if you “mess up” and accidentally go over your carb count by mistake (or on purpose in my case), you can just say “oops” and make the decision to eat 100% keto your next meal. One mistake won’t ruin all of your progress, and this concept became a source of comfort for me because “everybody makes mistakes; everybody has those days!” The key here is to not let an occasional “oops” turn into a daily or even a weekly “oops”. Planned deviation from your weight loss strategy is a recipe for failure, so even fat adapted ketonians need to be quite mindful of how often, if at all, they allow themselves to partake in “cheat meals”. For some, it’s easier to cage the tiger than to walk it on a leash. For others, cheat meals help keep motivation high. To each their own.
2. “I’m not sure if I can stop eating all processed foods. I really like Ritz crackers and candy.”
Speaking only for myself, keto is a way to help control my chronic inflammatory disease, so my motivation for staying faithful to the diet has very little to do with weight loss and everything to do with improving my day-to-day function with regard to my rheumatoid arthritis. When I eat keto, I experience fewer flares, less stiffness, and my overall energy levels are more steady despite my constant battle with chronic fatigue. What it truly boils down to, for me at least, is that the value of feeling like a normal human being is worth the cost of not eating some of my (former) favorite foods. Now I have a whole new set of favorite foods and I hardly feel like I am missing out at all!
Before starting, I’d suggest taking a few steps back and asking yourself why you’re thinking of doing keto in the first place. What are your goals? To be healthier? To drop weight? To gain mental clarity? To steady mood swings? There are innumerable reasons why one may want to try a dietary change like keto, but if you can really sit down and figure out why you’re starting, formulating and adhering to a game plan will be so much easier. Every time you have a chance to veer off path, you can easily remind yourself why you are doing this in the first place because you’ve already thought about it; you already have the answer. If your goal is to lose weight for a wedding, you can ask yourself if having those crackers or those few pieces of candy is worth not fitting in that dress. If you’re a global jet setter, is that fettuccini alfredo worth having to ask the flight attendant for a seat belt extender? If you’re taking your family on a Disney vacation, is that free bread worth not being able to ride the rides with your kid because you can’t fit in the seat? More often than not, you’ll find that you have more self-control than you once thought! There is an enormous sense of self-empowerment to be gained from maintaining the degree of constant dedication that the keto diet demands. It is not easy, but it is WORTH IT!
It does bear mentioning, however, that Keto is not a solution to all of life’s problems, and it surely does not take away personal accountability when it comes to dieting and losing weight. If nothing else over the past year, I have learned that lowering that annoying number on the scale takes heaps of dedication and loads of patience, both in reference to time and personal attitudes. For example, when focusing on losing a significant amount of weight, it is exceptionally easy to forget that your body likely took years to pack on all that excess poundage, so it is completely unreasonable to suddenly adopt keto and subsequently expect to lose 50 pounds in two or three months. Long story short: if your expectations are not realistic, despite giving it your all, you will become very discouraged and thus disenchanted with keto, probably drop the diet entirely, and stall your progress towards your long-term goals. This is not meant to be discouraging, but rather to encourage those of you reading to be more realistic with your expectations.
Ultimately, remember that you are responsible for your choices and you are responsible for what you put in your body. More importantly, realize that you are in COMPLETE control of what you are eating, so if you absolutely cannot live without your version of “Ritz crackers and candy,” then keto is simply not for you. Nobody is forcing you to eat that donut. No one is forcing you to drink five Cokes a day. If you decide to try keto, make it an active choice, not a passive decision. Take measures every single day to ensure your success and hold yourself accountable for what you’re putting in your mouth. Constantly ask yourself, “Is this worth stalling my progress?” “Is _______ worth sacrificing my goal?”
3. “Is it better to slip into keto gradually, or is it best to jump right into it?”
I truly think this depends on your personality. I am a jump-straight-into-the-deep-end type, but my sister is more of an “I’ll take the steps at the shallow end and get there eventually” type of person. I will admit, though, that I had done a LOT of research about keto before starting, yet even after all that reading, my first attempt at the diet in January of 2017 was an abject failure a learning experience, for no other reason than because my commitment level was “wishy washy” at best; I was skeptical that a dietary change alone would help me lose weight, let alone improve chronic disease symptoms.
When I tried keto the first time, I had no game plan. I had no meals at the ready other than eggs and bacon. I didn’t have any idea what I would do if I was caught out of the house without “keto food”. I had no idea what I could and could not order at any of the restaurants I frequented with friends. Basically I had no contingency plan for when life threw me its inevitable curve balls. I didn’t realize the ways in which changing my diet would impact other areas of my life that I (mistakenly) thought had nothing to do with diet at all, social events being the big kicker.
My next attempt at keto came in July of 2017, and this time I came armed and ready to kick ass. I started planning my meals ahead of time, or at the very least thinking about what I would eat. I anticipated potential problems and found solutions before I had the opportunity to mess up. I started looking up menus online and figuring out which substitutions I could make that were both reasonable and keto-friendly. I invested in the full version of a calorie counting/food tracking app so that I could adjust my macros and faithfully record every single thing that I was eating. I promised myself that I would stick to my diet – no excuses – for a month, and only after that month was over would I reconsider whether it was worth continuing. And here I am almost a year later, answering questions and giving advice that I would have undoubtedly benefitted from reading a year ago.
Now for those of you who find diving straight into the deep end too intimidating, fear not! There is a style of keto commonly referred to as “lazy keto.” This is a solution for a ton of people, and I have seen many success stories from lazy keto-ers! “Lazy keto” entails cutting out the vast majority of processed foods, including grains, and switching to sugar-free alternatives. I like to think of it as “Paleo without the fruit.” So long as you’re eating a bunch of vegetables, getting enough protein, and eating enough fat that you feel full, all while cutting out blatant sources of sugar, you’re golden, Ponyboy! No macros tracking required. Many people still lose weight this way without feeling like they are being deprived of life’s delicious treats. Personally, I tend to overeat carbs when I don’t track them, but if you think that “lazy keto” is the only way you can adapt it to your lifestyle, do it. Given the substantial increase in vegetables, even “lazy keto” will probably have you eating better and healthier than you were before anyway.
4. “I also get really overwhelmed at the idea of cooking absolutely all of my food. I understand you go to Wendy’s and In-N-Out, but I really don’t like fast food very much. What do you do if fast food isn’t an option?”
Cooking was probably one of the biggest obstacles for me when I first started keto. Baking, on the other hand, not so much, but that’s a different post entirely. I really wasn’t sure how to do anything that necessitated more skill than that which is required to scramble an egg, and the “fanciest” thing I had attempted until about a year ago was cooking bacon in the oven. Now I routinely make things up as I go, especially for things like mayo-based sauces or marinating vegetables. I know which flavors tend to mesh well together and which spices to use to evoke different types of cuisine.
I spent a solid month doing absolutely nothing in my free time except watching The Great British Baking Show and other similar shows, trying to glean new (very basic) cooking techniques and “common knowledge in the kitchen.” Once I had a grasp on how to do a few simple things, my “talents” seems to expand ever-so-slowly, and mostly through trial and error. It always helps to have a few quick-and-easy recipes that don’t take a long time or require a lot of effort to make just in case one of your culinary experiments goes awry and turns out to be a nasty, disgusting mess so bad even the dogs wouldn’t eat it learning opportunity.
In the meantime, there are a few ways to get around cooking if you just plain don’t want to or don’t feel like cleaning up the subsequent mess. Costco is a great resource for Premier Protein shakes and bars. They have a pretty low net carb count per serving, and are a great grab-and-go option. That’s just one available brand, and I’m not going to dwell on them because they aren’t paying me to promote their product, but their shakes and bars are something we consistently keep in the house “just in case” we need it.
I have also had success with meal prepping AKA Making Leftovers Great Again™. If you’re okay with eating the same (or very, very similar) meal every day of the week, this could be a good option. You can spend one day cooking and proportioning out daily meals instead of doing it once, twice, or three times a day. It can also help you avoid temptations by having your meal already prepped and ready to eat rather than trying to make the decision last minute.
Lastly, there is the fast food option, but relatively speaking, your options are pretty sparse. Nothing but bunless burgers, breadless sandwiches, and salads with no croutons. All without sweet dressings or ketchup. It can work in a pinch, but this is not the best way to go about supplementing your lunch if you can help it.
5. “It’s also weird to me that eating bacon every day is okay. It doesn’t seem like that is very healthy.”
Keto conflicts with the nutritional information made available about the carb-heavy Standard American Diet and the traditional food pyramid that we all grew up learning, so naturally a very common reaction to keto is, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you eat ALL THAT FAT! That is SO unhealthy, you’re going to clog all of your arteries!” when in fact, there is ample research that supports a number of health benefits associated with Low Carb High/Healthy Fat (LCHF) diets.
However, that does NOT mean that all foods are created equally. Bacon is great because it is virtually all fat and protein, so one can have quite a lot of it while maintaining a very low carb count. Unfortunately, store bought bacon, while being full of fat and protein, is laden with nitrites as a result of its processing. Nitrites are very unhealthy, and especially bad for the heart. So to say that “you can lose massive amounts of weight by eating nothing but bacon and eggs every day” is technically true, it’s certainly not the optimal way to incorporate a keto lifestyle.
Variety is the spice of life, and part of eating keto is eating a variety of healthy fats and proteins. The elite ketonian strives for a variety of grass fed, free-range protein sources in their diet, including but not limited to fattier cuts of beef, pork, and chicken, organ meats, and healthy, cold-pressed fats and oils from fresh foods like avocados, coconuts, and olives.