I hate diets — especially rigid ones that cut out entire food groups and require tracking numbers.
Restrictive diets don't seem realistic to me in the long term, and I've heard of so many people gaining the weight back when the diet is over—sometimes even more weight. I don’t like denying myself. It makes me want that banned food so much more. I believe in subtle, moderate lifestyle changes that add up over time and become the new normal.
Sounds reasonable, doesn't it?
That philosophy hasn't worked. My weight has slowly crept up about seven kilograms since I met my boyfriend six years ago and moved in with him three years ago. (It’s not his fault. Really.) That weight gain isn’t as obvious on my 5’11” frame as it is for other women, but I can’t fit into my fancy Joe jeans comfortably. I haven’t worn them in at least two years. The same goes for my pencil skirts and form-fitting dresses.
Plus, my time away from those strength-training classes at the gym has meant muscle loss, so the weight I do have is fat, not muscle. I can see the difference in my body’s composition, especially in my arms. I still run about three times a week, but cardio can do only so much. I feel bloated, I’m exhausted all the time, I have mood swings, and my skin gets acne and eczema.
All that is reason enough to make a lifestyle change, but there’s motivation more important than the way I look, and even feel: I am a sugar addict who needs an intervention.
In May 2016, my doctor told me to cut down on my daily dessert intake. My blood sugar levels weren’t pre-diabetic yet, but they would be if I kept up my sugar habit, he said. Try having a bowl of ice cream once a week instead of once a day, he suggested. “Ha!” I thought with (unhealthy) skepticism. “Easy for you to say.” My typical day included two or more sweet treats—plus four kinds of fruit—a day.
But ultimately, what my doctor said scared me into taking some drastic sugar-reduction action.
So, I turned to this crazy keto diet as a way to kick-start my sugar-less, carb-less life. It’s a ridiculously strict low-carb, high-fat diet. For two weeks, I tried to eat only 20 to 30 grams of carbohydrates a day to get my body to reach ketosis. This is the state when your body switches from burning carbohydrates to burning fat for energy.
This diet isn’t for everyone, says dietitian Samantha Rigoli. She’s also a nutrition consultant with a master’s in public health, a yoga instructor, and the founder of Healthy to the Core NYC.
“People will lose weight, but I rarely see it kept off. It’s hard to maintain,” Rigoli says. Uh-oh.
On top of that, she predicted the diet might make me extra-cranky, too. That's because I'd be cutting out both complex carbohydrates (whole grains, potatoes, beans, fruits, and even some vegetables) and simple carbs (the kind found in soda, candy, and my beloved gelato). And complex carbs make you feel good, she says, but not in a sugar-high kind of way. They create more serotonin in the brain, one of those happy chemicals we love, and without those slight lifts, keto dieters often feel irritable.
So naturally, the weekend before I started the keto diet, I scarfed down as much dessert as I could get my paws on, plus all sorts of bread, pizza, baked goods, and pasta. I made an apple-pear crumble with a brown sugar, whole-wheat flour, and oats topping, and paired it with vanilla bean gelato. When I ate out, I got the fries, ordered the soda, and ate the bread that came to the table before our salads. (I still had salad! Don’t judge.)
I was initially going to do this diet for two weeks, but then I kept it up because—spoiler alert—it worked. Here’s what I learned during 19 days on the keto diet (plus during the nine months afterward), along with photos of the delicious meals I ate along the way:
It's All About The Ratios
I’ll admit, I’d never heard of this diet until recently, despite being passionate about food and fitness all my life. It has similarities to paleo, Whole30, and that now-vintage diet called Atkins. I read a bunch of different websites like Keto Connect, but used Diet Doctor the most.
On the site, doctor Andreas Eenfeldt explains the keto diet for beginners pretty well. Basically, when your body switches to burning fat (the fat you consume that day as well as your body’s existing fat) for its primary fuel source, that’s when you hit ketosis and the magic happens.
The key is the ratios: You’re supposed to get at least 70 percent of your calories from fat, 15 to 25 percent from protein, and 10 percent from carbohydrates—that means only about 20 grams of carbs or fewer.
You’re supposed to avoid all grains, legumes, pulses, root vegetables, fruit except berries, and of course, sugar. Like I said, it’s pretty freakin’ extreme.
Counting Macros Doesn't Have To Be Hard
I’m really not into counting macronutrients like carbs, protein, and fats. It takes work and math. Ugh.
But this Keto Diet Tracker app saved me. It has pretty much every brand of store-bought and restaurant food in there, plus basic ingredients and dishes that you cook at home.
You type in your meal (sometimes by ingredient) and the amount you ate, and it will add up your macronutrients in a little wheel graph, showing your percentages as you go each day. That helped me realise in the first few days that I needed to eat more fat and less protein.
Eating That Much Fat Was Actually Hard
It’s hard to eat more fat. I never thought I’d say that. Based on my goals, my app suggested I eat 189 grams of fat per day!
True, the health world has switched from vilifying fat to making sugar the bad guy, but still, I’m programmed to go for chicken breast and 1 percent Greek yogurt whenever I can. On keto, I was eating as much delicious full-fat cheese and cream as I could.
It wasn’t easy to get all that fat into my daily diet, surprisingly. You're advised you to look for healthy fats, so I tried to eat fattier, grass-fed, organic meats.
I also drank unsweetened vanilla almond milk instead of whole milk, because the former has zero carbs, if not that much fat. I tried to liberally douse my food with olive oil and butter, and eat avocados and nuts daily.
Preparation Was Key
Carbs are convenient; keto is not.
The only way to succeed on this diet is to prepare. I had to go grocery shopping the Sunday night before I started, and I bought a ton of eggs, whole-milk ricotta, hard and semi-soft cheeses, almond milk, green leafy vegetables, broccoli, zucchini, chorizo, and some andouille sausage. I read a lot of recipes on Diet Doctor, as well as Grass Fed Girl, which is a terrific food blog for paleo and keto followers.
RELATED: 6 Signs You’re Not Eating Enough Fat
Breakfast Was Tough
One of the biggest hurdles—well, besides the no-dessert thing and practically no carbs—was breakfast. I usually have oatmeal with yogurt, flaxseed meal, nuts and fruit, in all sorts of combinations. It’s microwaveable, quick, filling, and healthy—I thought.
Rigoli told me my regular breakfast was a mistake, especially for someone with constant sugar cravings. “When you start your day with sweet, you tend to end your day with sweet. Oats are good, but not every day. Maybe quinoa instead of oats,” Rigoli says. “I wouldn’t even start off with fruit in your day. Definitely [eat] a fat and protein in the morning. Savoury breakfast helps in controlling your blood sugar.”
I didn't want to fry an egg each and every day. I’m more of a soft-scrambled kind of gal, and that takes more time and patience. I don’t have that, especially when my coffee hasn’t kicked in yet.
On Sunday nights, then, I would make a giant egg casserole so that I could quickly grab a square every morning. I like variety, so when I realised I wasn’t eating enough fat, I’d alternate melting different cheeses on top or mashing on some avocado.
When I just couldn’t take another day in a row of the same casserole, I also did cottage cheese or yogurt once in a while, with cinnamon, nuts, flaxseed meal, and unsweetened coconut flakes.
The Side Effects Were Real
There are a lot of warnings about possible keto diet side effects, especially between days three and seven of the diet.
The most common ones are constipation, flu-like symptoms in the first few days, reduced physical performance, and bad breath that smells like nail polish remover. I tested my breath on my cat (he ran away), my boyfriend (he didn’t), and decided to buy mouthwash just in case.
I felt exhausted in the mornings, but that’s not unusual. I never feel rested unless I get eight-plus hours, which is hard to do when I typically go to bed after midnight or 1 a.m.
As far as physical performance, my first run on day two and my second run on day four both felt normal. My third run did not. Day five might’ve been my keto flu day. I felt so run-down. I figured it was because I ran 20 kilometres the day before, but in hindsight, it might’ve been a ketosis side effect. Then, my run on day nine was the kicker. I had no energy. I felt winded and my heart was beating rapidly, even when I was running at snail pace.
Luckily, runs since then have been fine. I think my body has adjusted.
I’ve had no stomach problems, probably because I’m eating a lot of fibre from all the leafy greens and other vegetables. My sleep is great, especially when I started going to bed a little earlier. What fun is it to stay up late when there’s no ice cream?
The Holidays Were A Serious Bummer
Autumn and winter holidays were a struggle.
Halloween sucked. I went to my supper club’s Halloween-themed dinner, and it turned out that the meal was vegetarian. I normally would've loved this kind of dinner—roasted carrots stood in for steak—but I’m not supposed to eat carrots because they’re a root vegetable, which are especially carb-heavy.
Grumbling inside, I had a small carrot with tons of parsley and some butternut squash, drizzled with tahini—a lot of tahini (for that fat!).
I then watched in utter agony as my boyfriend took bite after bite of dessert. Finally, I could take the deprivation no more. I snuck over to the cookie tray and ripped off one corner of a cookie. It. Was. Amazing.
Two days later, I succumbed to more Halloween pressure and ate two mini Airheads—about 20 carbs—which really threw off my ratios. The next day, I donated the leftover lollies because I cannot be trusted.
Eating Out Wasn't As Bad As I Thought
It was actually pretty simple. Just swap the burger bun for lettuce, the fries for salad, and potatoes for extra vegetables. Say yes to cheese and butter and no to bread. Order the salad with meat and cheese on top.
Watching my boyfriend and friends eat the carbs wasn’t fun. But watching my scale each morning helped, as it dropped, little by little.
Substitutes Were Key
I’m a fan of having almost what I want, rather than having nothing. Enter: substitutes. Zucchini noodles—or “zoodles” if you wanna be that person—were a saviour.
I also made a substitute pizza crust that was so unlike crust that the keto recipe blog, The Big Man’s World, calls it a "pizza base" instead. It was kind of icky. But I put pizza toppings on it anyway. Something is better than nothing.
The Results Were...Awesome
I lost four kilograms within two weeks!!! That’s much more than I hoped for, and may be a bit more than is healthy, but whatever. It’s success enough to inspire me to keep doing this agonising diet. I heard it gets less agonising.
Some observations: My rings are looser. My stomach looks less round and bloated. I still can’t fit into my fancy jeans, but maybe that will change with more time. My skin hasn’t improved. I suspect red meat and dairy contribute to that. And most importantly, my sugar cravings are way, way down—not gone, but better. That's a huge win.
9 Months Later...
It’s been nine months since I went on my keto diet journey. It helped me lose 4 to 8 kilograms in less than a month—which is a lot. And guess what? I’ve kept most of those pounds off.
But I’m not officially doing this super-strict diet anymore. It’s a ridiculously limiting food plan, and, honestly, sometimes I just need a burrito.
I sure as hell didn’t keep counting my macros. I gleefully deleted the Keto Diet Tracker app from my phone. All that neurotic record-keeping those first few weeks trained me to be able to eyeball my ratios of fat, carbs, proteins, and fibre.
I do keep practicing some of the principles, like the main one: fat, good; carbs, bad—at least the processed, simple, white carbs
I jumped onto the fat-filled bandwagon for the keto diet, and I haven’t fallen off. I eat all my boyfriend’s fancy cheeses without any guilt, and full-fat or 2 percent Greek yogurt and cottage cheese are my picks these days—never the fat-free stuff.
In fact, when I look at labels, I hardly take into account the fat grams. I just look at sugar, protein and fiber. Fat and calories can shove it.
My meal prep routine has gotten more...relaxed
Sunday food prep was great and all, but no, I don’t religiously do it anymore. I've kept a few meal-prep principles though: Early in the week, for breakfast, I make double or triple the eggs so I have leftovers for a couple other mornings. I also buy the right things at the grocery store, though, like cauliflower, zucchini, unsweetened nut milks, and a lot of nuts. That's kind of like meal prep, right?
Breakfast is still tough. I continue to turn to eggs, just scrambling them with whatever vegetable I can find, sometimes a green leftover from last night’s dinner. Or, sometimes I'll quickly slather almond butter or mashed avocado with a salt sprinkle on grain-free seed crackers. With coffee, of course. Much coffee.
I'm definitely not in ketosis anymore
The "side effects" of weight loss are still with me, though, and I love how my clothes fit. Oh, and I ran my fastest 5k race in four years just a few weeks ago. Less body weight meant my running pace sped up.
Sticking to any kind of diet during the holidays will always be hard. I went on a three-week vacation to New Zealand (a summer holiday, if you will), and I did well by ordering more salads and barely any bread or pasta, but I went all YOLO when it came to desserts.
Honestly, it was worth it—but my sugar cravings returned with a vengeance after reveling in all those vacation treats. Live and learn, I guess.
Even though I'm not technically keto anymore, eating out still has its limitations—especially when you find yourself at coffee shops on the regular. So many places only have baked goods. Ugh.
But I usually still make it work, ordering salads or the meal without the bread. Sometimes, I decide I’m just going to have those enchiladas, so I have virtually no carbs for breakfast, lunch, or snacks beforehand. Balance.
RELATED: How Do You Know You're In Ketosis?
I continue to use substitutes
Take pasta: I use zucchini noodles or edamame or black bean spaghetti, which has only seven or eight net carbs per serving.
I make bread from coconut or almond flour. When the cold cereal craving becomes insurmountable, I’ve also made it myself, with nuts, seeds, coconut, and just a tad of maple syrup.
My shocking success on the keto diet inspired me to keep going...
...although in a more relaxed, sustainable way.
But life happens. One sweet treat is a slippery slope for me, so I have to remain vigilant, while still living life to the fullest.
For me, that means sometimes I go the #treatyoself route, but the majority of the time I take the other path, so I don’t inch my way back to pre-diabetes. I’m basically trying to keep on keeping on with a low-carb, high-fat lifestyle. And avoiding my biggest vice and love: ice cream … unless it’s truly amazing.
This article originally appeared on Women's Health US