Waking up every morning used to be dictated by the kitchen. Either I would wake up insatiably hungry — Toast! Juice! Peanut butter bar! Rawr! — or irrationally nauseous at the thought of food.
Instead, I woke up one morning, looked around at my neglected toaster, packed my lunch without feeling ravenous nor feeling weird about food, and walked out the door.
Lunch would usually be some form of sandwich or salad, encored by a snack around 3 p.m. My body would jump from mildly hungry to hangry so fast that I’ve been a living Snickers commercial more than once. Now, I have a solid hour to two hours of leeway between the first signs of hunger and when my energy drops.
What changed is that I’d been experimenting with the ketogenic diet, and while the ultimate shift in my appetite didn’t happen at once, it was one of the surprising parts about my relationship with food and fat while trying out this eating style for a little more than four months, beginning in late 2017.
Keto isn’t some miracle diet, but the emphasis on eating high-fat foods and practically no carbs worked surprisingly well for me. Not every diet or eating style works for every person, of course, and the ones that didn’t work for me are numerous: low fat, soup based, pescatarian, vegan, vegetarian, all whole grain, and only eat what my fitter mom was eating. Are all those real diets? No? Okay then.
Adopting the High-Fat, Low-Carb Ketogenic Diet
There are several versions of keto, short for ketogenic, but the plan I opted for is eating mainly fat and limiting carbs to 15 to 20 grams (g) a day. This dietary approach sets in motion ketosis, when your body begins to get its energy from fat rather than carbohydrates. Because your body burns all available carbs before burning fat, eliminating carbs is essential if you’re going to see a benefit from increasing your fat intake.
The entire process went against what I had been taught about nutrition since childhood. Suddenly, I was encouraged — mandated, really — to eat fatty foods with high salt content. Food like bacon, eggs, and organic butter were regular items on my grocery list, and apples, bananas, and whole grains were gone.
The biggest mental hurdle was allowing myself to indulge in forbidden fat. Butter? Encouraged. High-fat cream? A new staple. Lard? Surprisingly, yes, I even splatted lard into my sizzling pan of mushrooms.
The idea is that your brain craves fat. More fat means your brain gets the energy it needs, and the lack of carbs means your body doesn’t have that source to pull from first. It took a while to layer full-fat mozzarella on my lettuce wrap, all slathered in mayo, without feeling judgmental of my own dinner. I gradually released my apprehension as my hunger waned and the scale dipped.
When I started, I didn’t really understand how my body reacted to fatty foods, and I didn’t understand how it would adjust once quick-burn carbs were out of the picture. Yet despite what I’d read about keto, the results surprised me.
RELATED: How Do You Tell the Difference Between Good and Bad Carbohydrates?
Preparing Meals and Snacks on the Ketogenic Diet
By eating more fat, I stayed full longer, which means I ate less. Cooking with coconut oil and butter surprisingly made me want to eat more vegetables — a good thing because leafy greens are a big staple on keto.
I also didn’t snack nearly as much as I used to, and usually I ate only during an actual meal. I often stress eat, but I haven’t accidentally downed an entire bag or box of anything since I started and ended keto.
In my mind, this is where keto makes sense. Because weight loss is about net calories (or the calories you consume minus the calories you burn each day), keeping myself from eating more than I was exercising off meant I could get my weight under control.
Dinners might’ve been turkey-veggie chili with sour cream; lunch might’ve been salad with nuts, veggies, and ranch dressing; and breakfast might’ve been eggs with kale cooked in butter. I usually skipped breakfast because my dinner kept me feeling satisfied until noon, but I always kept macadamia nuts on hand, just in case.
RELATED: 10 Quick and Easy Keto Snacks Already in Your Fridge or Pantry
Eating well has been a priority since I graduated college, but for years my diet consisted largely of grains. Every meal had a carb — whole-wheat pasta with pesto and roasted vegetables, coconut brown rice with veggies, salmon with sweet potato on the side. At one point, I brought a sweet potato to lunch with me every day, usually with a granola bar.
Eating grains (especially the whole variety) certainly isn’t unhealthy, but I usually felt slow and bogged down after consuming them, and I couldn’t tell why. I exercised (I bike to work, and I’m a kickboxing gym member)! I did mental exercises! I ate low-fat things! Yet I still felt like I was dragging my body through the day — and I was slowly gaining weight to boot, even when I exercised three times a week.
Switching to the Ketogenic Diet Was a Difficult Choice I’m Glad I Made
Jumping on the keto train wasn’t a decision I took lightly. I finally became convinced to try it for a week after watching a friend slowly but consistently lose weight while on keto over six months. If I didn’t like the menu, I could always go back to my former eating habits with no pressure.
Eating things like avocados, cooking my veggies with coconut oil, and even eating cheese (Cheese! I can eat cheese!) fit right in with my food preferences. Even some of the changes that other keto dieters find challenging, like avoiding all fruit except berries, wasn’t so difficult.
Skipping out on dessert altogether also wasn’t quite as difficult as I expected — I tried a bite of a doughnut recently, and it was so sweet that it was honestly awful — but finding decent-tasting substitutes was a challenge. Stevia’s bitter, almost metallic aftertaste is no joke, and 100 percent baking chocolate will never not taste like chalk, no matter how many times I hear “your taste buds will change.”
Lucky for me, YouTube and its endless recipe inspiration videos exist, and so does almond flour, which is keto friendly if used in moderation (it’s about 3 g net carbs per ¼ cup).
RELATED: Everything to Expect If You Try the Ketogenic Diet
One big challenge: business dinners. But fortunately, I live in California, so at the very least there was a veggie platter I could snack on.
Stepping Away from Keto and Gradually Adding Carbs Back to My Diet
About four months in, I’d lost 15 pounds (lbs), which knocked me down to a healthier body mass index than I had been in years. During this whole time, my normal-level blood pressure didn’t change — something I was truly worried about while eating so much fat.
I ended up giving up keto in February after a fairly rough menstrual cycle, and I realized my body needed more carbs for energy during that time of the month than I was allowing myself. So I increased my carb intake to a 40 to 60 g range, but I have plans to return to keto for another spurt later this spring.
While I immediately gained back about 4 lbs once I returned to eating sweet potatoes, carrots, and rice (okay and the occasional dessert; I’m no saint), I no longer have to suck in my stomach to button my jeans, which is a victory in and of itself.
Long-term keto dieters will tell you that you have more mental energy as a result of prioritizing fat and lowering carb intake, which I suppose is true. I never noticed a significant change there, but my focus did improve, even if I wasn’t any more energetic. For me, the change in my metabolism and my hunger alone was worth the switch.
RELATED: 10 Essential Facts About Metabolism and Weight Loss
While I didn’t stick with keto to a T for the long haul, I now have a better understanding of how proportions of foods affect my body and how I need balance throughout the month.
I’ll also never again buy into the idea that I have to starve myself to get to a healthy weight.
Keto hit home the fact that I’m in control of what I eat. Before, I felt like I was literally running and running but getting nowhere with my health.
Now, I know how it feels to appreciate the journey.