If you’re thinking about getting started with a low-carb lifestyle but not quite sure where to start or how to go about it, I can explain how I went about it.
What is keto?
Keto is a nutritional lifestyle which with a focus on eating few carbohydrates and replacing it with good saturated fats for fuel, with a normal amount of protein to sustain muscle mass. Keto focusses on eating natural food sources like meats, and excludes all wheat-based food products and other packaged foods. It works by helping to regulate your internal production of insulin so that your body may once again access your fat stores for fuel.
Day 0 – macros and myfitnesspal.com
When I decided I was going to start doing Keto, I wanted to be sure that I was eating the right amounts of the right things, and not eating too much. So, I used the Keto Calculator – an online tool for roughly working out what amounts of carbohydrates, protein and fat you should eat. It works by asking a few questions about your lifestyle and body measurements, and then suggests some targets to hit. As a male of height 6’1″ who weighed about 98kg, mine worked out at roughly:
- 25g carbs
- 100g protein
- 180g fat
Next, I used MyFitnessPal.com to track what I was eating on my phone (they have apps for all the major mobile OS‘), which is great because you can simply scan the barcode of the thing you’re eating (or just look it up if it doesn’t have a barcode) and it records the nutritional information as part of your diary. An even more important feature is that you can enter the nutrition goals that were suggested to you by the Keto calculator, so that MFP can tell you whether or not you’re achieving them!
Important: The thing about MyFitnessPal is that most of the nutritional information for a given food is provided by the community – they might not always be correct or accurate! You should double-check the product you’re adding if you’re not sure, or look up the nutritional information from the producer’s website. Also, a LOT of the articles and blog posts are not very keto friendly – they target the audience still partaking in the “traditional western diet”, so read them at your peril!
I’d say that when you’re starting out on a diet like this, it’s very important that you start tracking what you eat (even roughly) so that you begin to get an idea of what kinds of things you can eat, and what you can’t. Some things have a surprising amount of carbohydrates in it that you weren’t expecting! Once you get into the swing of things, you can perhaps ease off on the tracking, or only use it when you cook something new and you want to record what’s in it in terms of nutritional value. Yes, tracking food and meals can seem like a ball-ache to start off with, but it will be worth it.
You can also record your exercise with MFP too – if you go walking or running and have the ability to record how many calories you burned, you can stick it into MFP too.
A note about calories
According to conventional wisdom, you’ve probably heard that if you create a calorie deficit (i.e. eat less calories than you burn), you will just lose weight. I don’t believe that to be strictly the case. It really does depend on what those calories are made up of; if you need 1800 kcal per day to sustain yourself, and you only eat 1000 kcal, then you have created a deficit of 800 kcal. But if those calories that you’ve eaten are just made up of carbohydrates then sure you’ve eaten less but you’ve also completely denied your body the opportunity to get access to your fat stores for fuel, thanks to all the insulin coursing through your veins. It would be much better to eat 1500 kcal of good fats, proteins and a tiny amount of non-wheat carbohydrates than to create such a deficit.
For the same reason, you might not necessarily gain weight if you eat more than you should. Thanks to experiments like the 5,000 calorie-a-day experiment, where he ate nearly 5,000 calories a day for 30 days on a Keto diet, he only gained a tiny amount of weight. Nowhere near the amount that the calories in vs. calories out formula said he would.
Much more important is to look at the nutritional density of food, rather than the caloric density. Besides, the values quoted for any given food item can be grossly miscalculated as the process for measuring calories in something is inherently inaccurate, by as much as 30%!
So what should I eat?
Generally speaking, these are the kinds of foods that I cut out of my diet altogether:
- Pasta (spaghetti, lasagne sheets, penne.. all kinds, including whole wheat varieties
- Any type of bread; white, brown, whole wheat.. they’re all as bad as each other and have a higher glycemic index than pure sugar
- Rice, all kinds
- Breakfast cereal, all kinds
- Fruits (just to start off with)
- Packages sauces, used in curry or for pasta
- Any type of bought ready-meal
- Juice drinks, even the no-sugar types
- Legumes, beans and peas
- Potatoes of any kind
- Anything with “low-fat” or “fat-free” written on it
- Anything with trans-fats in it
That probably discounted about 90% of what was in my cupboards, meaning that I was pretty much going to starve. Unfortunately, this list also forms about 90% of the things we eat that are either created from wheat, have added sugar or contain starches that you don’t really want to be eating if you’re interested in looking after your health. But, this is what I added or otherwise continued to eat instead:
- Fish, particularly salmon and mackerel
- Meats, like chicken, turkey, pork, beef, mince, bacon, sausages (the higher the meat content the better). Try not to cut off the fat – it’s good for you!
- Cream, single or double. Ever since I was tiny I drank tea with milk and half a sugar, but I swapped it for coffee with single cream and a Stevia sweetener
- A small amount of vegetables, particularly green ones like broccoli, asparagus and pepper
- Cheese. Cream cheese is great with a full English, or just to dip your green vegetables into
- Olive oil and coconut oil (never use vegetable or sunflower, when heated they produce Formaldehyde amongst other things, which are highly toxic)
- I swapped margarine for butter
- Whole, unsalted nuts
- Classic basil pesto (goes great with breakfast)
Ok, so the list isn’t as big as the stuff I took out of my diet but, with the exception of the vegetables, they all contain relatively little carbohydrates. Besides, there is so much stuff you can cook with all this! Plus, it will be a lot tastier and you can finally feel good about eating all the “shit” that you felt bad about eating before.
For example, try this: take a bunch of asparagus, split them into bunches of 3 or 4, wrap them in parma ham, coat them in olive oil then roast them in the oven at 180 degrees for 15 minutes. Eat them with a good dollop of full-fat cream cheese. You can thank me later.
I’ll be posting some more awesome recipes in the blog posts to come.
What to watch out for
As I alluded to in my previous post, the first week or so of being on Keto and following your brand new food plan will be tough. You will feel more lethargic than usual, but try not to be tempted to take anything to pump you up. Just ride it out. All it is, is your body having to switch over from the one source of fuel that you’re used to, to another. From carbohydrates to fat. Thanks to the sudden shortage of carbs and the glucose hit that you normally get, your liver will start flooding your system with ketones, almost like an emergency fuel source that can readily be burned by your body, and your brain. Your body is now in a state of ketosis (hence the name Keto for the diet) and is a sign that your body is looking for an alternate source of fuel. It should only take you a couple of days to get into this state if you’ve been eating correctly.
Finally, I’ve mentioned it before in this post but low-fat products are ones to watch out for.. avoid them if you can. They’re low in fat but they add sugar to try and replace some of the taste. You’ll find that a low-fat variant of a product is usually higher in carbohydrates than its full-fat equivalent. This is for things like mayonnaise or cream cheese. Without the sugar they would just taste like cardboard.
How do I know if I’m in ketosis?
There are a couple of ways of detecting whether you are in ketosis or not:
- Physical changes – you may develop a slight case of halitosis (carry some Spearmint gum and/or use mouthwash more regularly!), or your pee may take on a funny odour. Not unpleasant, but still a bit odd
- You can test yourself using Ketostix – I used theses ones from Amazon. Basically, you pee on them a bit and the colour changes to reflect exactly how deep into a ketosis state you are. If the colour doesn’t change, you are not in a state of ketosis
The last point is interesting. If you make changes to your diet and cut out carbohydrates, you will enter ketosis reasonably quickly. After a few days, test yourself to make sure you are. As time goes on, you will slowly start testing negative. Provided you are still not eating very many carbs, all this means is that your body is making full use of the ketones in your system and isn’t expelling any through your urine. Ketostix are very useful for testing but only really at the beginning of your keto diet.
The only other thing to watch out for is the preparation: make time to make a meal with this stuff and put some effort into eating the right thing. If you take lunch to work, make sure you can make something that morning (or the night before) and have a container into work and have the means to heat it if necessary. This is possibly the hardest adjustment to make. If you don’t feel like you have time before you’ve even begun, I’d suggest that more radical changes are needed in your lifestyle to make sure that you eat the right thing in or out of the house. Otherwise there’s no point. If you don’t take something to work because you didn’t have time, the temptation to “skip a day” and eat something you shouldn’t only escalates.
With keto, you can’t afford to have off-days. Having an off-day sets you back so far and you basically have to start over again. However, it may make it slightly easier to get back into ketosis than if you’re just starting for the first time.
But won’t I be hungry all the time?
Generally, no. You’ll find overall you’ll probably want to eat less. The protein and saturated fats will satiate you extremely well and you shouldn’t feel like you want to eat all the time. It’s a little weird to explain. Before I started, I would snack on random things all the time because I felt like I wanted to eat, but on the diet I didn’t even think about it. Didn’t even cross my mind. It’s like the subconscious takes over and stops you diving in the fridge before you even walk in the kitchen.
You feel hungry on a typical carb-loaded diet because when you eat carbs, you feel satiated but then your blood sugar spikes, floods your system with insulin and removes all that glucose that you were trying to use for fuel, then your brain goes “Waaaiiit!! Whhaaa…?!” and then thinks it’s hungry again since you’ve just taken away its fuel source. Cravings and bad things ensue.
It’s fine to skip meals if you want to. If you’re not hungry, don’t eat. You don’t need to eat three square meals a day. You also don’t need to stop eating after 8pm – eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full. Listen to what your body is telling you.
But what about my cholesterol?
If you didn’t know, cholesterol is good for you. In fact, it’s not just good for you, it’s essential for your well-being and longevity. It’s so important, most cells in your body can make it. Your body makes a certain amount of cholesterol every day, but it’s pretty smart because if you take in cholesterol through your diet, it stops making it’s own. It regulates itself.
Besides, you do have so called “good” cholesterol and “bad” cholesterol. In a nutshell, carbohydrates promote your bad cholesterol which contributes towards inflammation of the arteries and CVD, and saturated fats help clean all that up and promote your good cholesterol.
Try it for 30 days. That’s all, and if you don’t like it you can go back to eating what you were eating beforehand. I know I did, and I put on a boatload of weight again – almost everything I lost.
But if you stick with it, you could shed those pounds that you’ve been dying to get rid of for a long time. Once you’ve gotten into the routine, it won’t seem like such a hardship and you can enjoy it!
At the bottom of my previous post, I outlined a few resources you can check out if you happen to be interested in reading into the science a bit more, but here it is again; some extra reading for when you have the time:
- Low-carb/High Fat for Beginners
- A guide to Ketosis
- Keto community on Reddit
- The poor, misunderstood calorie by Dr William Lagakos – explains the science in an easy to understand way
- The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson (or check out his blog)
- The Fat Head Movie blog by Tom Naughton
- Carb Loaded – the latest in a variety of movies about the benefits of low-carb, and the industry driving us to disease