Kicking into ketosis

Right … so … this ketogenic diet/lifestyle thing? It works, but it’s also complicated. It’s not the Magic Thin Pill. Woe and alackaday, it demands thought and effort and more thought and analysis and then some thinking. And every now and then, despite one’s best efforts, one hears the Siren Song of the Carbs, which goes: “Eat me … yumyumyum … ee-ee-eat meee … yumyumyum.”

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Sirens are hard to ignore – just ask Ulysses. Warned that the sound of their singing would cause him to jump overboard and drown himself in a vat of chocolate sauce, he instructed his minions to tie him to the mast of his ship so he could hear the sirens without being overwhelmed by an Undesirable Urge. (Nowadays we have pills for that.) He could do this because he wasn’t responsible for any actual rowing. So this is the first big difference between me and Ulysses: I don’t have minions. I  have to push my shopping cart unaided, so if I take it into my head to wander down the candy aisle or past the baked goods, not making an unattractive spectacle of myself is pretty much all up to me. (Sometimes Himself is along, but we live in a conservative community; I suspect the folk at Costco would look askance if he tied me to the shopping cart. Blame 50 Shades of Grey for their icky assumptions.) So anyway, to get back to my point, Ulysses chose bondage as his path to enlightenment. His minions blocked their ears so that they wouldn’t hear the sirens, while vigorous rowing gave them a helpful outlet for any other testosterone-fueled impulses. Ulysses, lacking both protective headgear and a distraction, went completely nuts. I can feel for him; while not greatly affected by the nubile deliciousness of naked girls – legless or otherwise – I would definitely have to roll my eyes heavenward if sung at by, say, a scoop or six of creamy vanilla ice cream topped with strawberries.

In other words, February has been a challenge. The thing about the ketogenic lifestyle is that when you’re in the groove, you really do feel good. You have more energy, deeper and more restful sleep, fewer aches and pains, improved mood, clearer mental processes, no cravings or attacks of the munchies. Chomp down on that brownie, however, and the desire for carbs will grab hold of you faster than you can say “Please sir, can I have some more” – and the process of getting back in the keto groove is a real bear: tiredness, brain fog, flu-like symptoms, physical weakness, headaches, depression. I have spent this whole miserable February learning and relearning that my body is not going to cut me any slack at all – but, if I grit my teeth through the change-over from carbs to fat as my source of energy, and if I don’t make stupid choices regarding brownies and their ilk, I do in fact feel pretty darn good. (I know I’ve mentioned this before. It’s important that you understand, dear reader, that deep down I can’t quite shake the belief that you’re actually a figment of my imagination, and so a lot of the time I’m writing these blatherings to myself. I need these reminders!)

I’ve been wandering the web for the past several months, reading up about ketosis, ketones and ketogenic eating, high fat, low fat, the sneakiness of carbs, and just how important is exercise. The volume of conflicting information and opinions, and the gazillion “experts” trying to scare you into buying their products and programs, threatened to overwhelm. I needed a guru, and eventually settled on Jimmy Moore – specifically his book Keto Clarity. I picked Moore because he’s connected with a huge and varied team of experts in his field, he writes from the perspective of personal experience, and he doesn’t push a one-size-fits-all approach. . Rather, he offers practical advice on how to figure out what will work for your unique body.Plus, he never once asked for my credit card information

As a person whose body has been damaged by years of poor nutrition, minimal movement, much stress and regular sugar overload, I know it will likely take me four or six weeks to shift fully into nutritional ketosis. Meanwhile I teeter between feeling fabulous and feeling ghastly, and those excess bloody pounds just won’t let go. My solution is to adopt as extreme an approach as I can, focusing primarily on ingestion – I’ll add exercise later, as I’m able. The one caveat is, I will not get tangled up in a whole lot of numbers. I know what I weigh, and I’ll hop on the scale at random intervals to see what that number is doing – but there will be no awkward fumbling about with tape measures, or keeping food diaries, or filling in charts. (Yep, that’s me – ever the rebel!)

So, now for some practical information. My immediate goal is to get into nutritional ketosis, in an effort to get my body to work more efficiently, generate more energy, and burn fat. I want to tell you what I’m doing to get there – starting, today, with the food.

  • It’s all about quality – and that doesn’t have to be expensive. If you choose this as a lifestyle you’re not going to spend money on junk food, and once your body adjusts you’ll find you eat less by choice – so get the good stuff. We’re fortunate to raise our own eggs and beef, and I have the strongest of veggie garden aspirations for this summer. I’ve also identified local sources of pasture-raised pork and chickens. You can do this too! You may not be able to raise your own, but invest in a freezer, find local small farmers, and buy directly from them! It’s important to avoid meat that’s full of hormones, antibiotics and other volume-pumping chemicals because much of that garbage is stored in the fat, and this is a high-fat diet – you want those fatty cuts of meat, and it’s better for you if they’re clean.
  • NO CALORIE COUNTING! This is all about choosing the right kinds of food, eating as much as you need to be satisfied, and eating only when hungry. I have found that as I adapt to eating this way, I just don’t get hungry that often. Typically I’ll eat breakfast by mid-morning, and my next meal between mid-afternoon and evening. I may snack around lunchtime and bedtime. but more and more I’m just not hungry more than twice a day.
  • I’m keeping those carbohydrates as low as I can – as close as possible to zero, and definitely below 20 grams per day, calculated as total carbs, not net carbs. This means no sugar and no starch.  (Yes, hello, fruit contains sugar! An apple a day keeps the ketones at bay!) You’ll find detailed food lists all over the web; here’s one and here’s another. Usually I just google “how many carbs in food-type-whatever”. Gotta love technology! Mostly I eat dark leafy greens – I’m learning to love the texture and flavor of veggies like kale, collard greens and chard. The dark green indicates a high content of certain essential nutrients, and their carb content is minimal.
  • There are conflicting, often complicated theories out there regarding how much protein you should eat. If you consume more protein than your body needs, it will convert to sugar, and your body will use it before burning fat. On the other hand, protein contains essential amino acids, so you absolutely must eat enough for your needs. I try to eat around 30 grams at a time, usually twice a day. That’s a four-egg omelet for breakfast with a sprinkling of cheese, or 3 oz meat, or … again, detailed lists are all over the internet. Just google “Protein content of whatever”. An important factor defining how much protein you need is your activity level. Mine is slug-like, so I’ll be monitoring my progress, and I may cut back on my daily protein intake until I’m able to start exercising intensely if that seems the way to go.

This one-hour lecture will tell you pretty much everything you need to know about the role of protein in your diet.

  • I am continually bumping up my fat intake and monitoring how it affects me. Yes, this is counter-intuitive and a bit scary, but everything I read from serious keto writers reiterates that you have to eat dietary fat to burn body fat. A typical lunchtime snack, if I happen to be hungry or planning a later dinner, will be celery sticks or slices of salami, loaded with cream cheese. My breakfast omelet often contains a whole avocado. I dollop sour cream and butter onto anything that will carry it; I choose fatty cuts of meat, munch down on bacon, and save bacon fat to use for cooking. I also cook with coconut oil, and I sprinkle olive oil or mayonnaise generously onto salads. One of the many benefits of fat is feeling fuller for longer; I don’t often drink milk because it contains sugar, but a full-cream latte will stave off hunger pangs much more effectively than a cookie.
  • I try to drink lots of water. Initial weight loss on this diet is largely water, and you have to keep replacing it if you don’t want to become exhausted. When I forget to drink, I get tired and spacey. Some people find that caffeine triggers sugar cravings but it doesn’t have that effect on me – but mostly I choose water because I find it hydrates me more effectively than other liquids, and that makes me feel good. (It helps that the water from our well is just about the best I’ve ever tasted anywhere!)

Friends, I’m feeling pretty excited about this! Yes, it’s been tough to get even to this point, and I’m looking forward to continued improvements in my moods and energy levels – and weight loss, of course! Most people apparently see their poundage drop immediately, but that’s not been my experience. I’m hanging in, however, and continuing to tweak the way I eat as I figure out what works for me.

In future posts I’ll cover various other issues, including the short-term and long-term effects of nutritional ketosis, how to ensure that you’re getting all the nutrients your body needs, and exercise. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – your personal experience, concerns, questions, and – I hope – words of encouragement. So chip in! (Just not chocolate chips, okay? Okay!)

Making friends with fat

If you are obese, assuming you don’t have some underlying health problem that glues the flab in place, all weight-loss diets work. You just have to pick one and stay on it, and eventually you will lose weight. Add exercise, and you will lose more weight (or at least inches) and gain muscle. If hunger or slow metabolism are a problem you can take pills for that, too.

Sounds simple, huh? So … what goes wrong? I mean, every time, for almost everyone. I’ve heard that there are people out there who start out really fat and do something about it and end up thin and live happily ever after, in the same way that I’ve heard there are people who start really poor and get rich, and ordinary girls and boys who grow up and marry princes or princesses, even without having to kiss any frogs. But I don’t actually know anyone that’s happened to. And – getting back to my original point – for every success story, there are 10 research projects filled with the stories of people who started out really fat, got thin, and then got even fatter.

Screw the view. Look at my flab! (Source)
Screw the view. Look at my flab! (Source)

The other day I read this post (the key message is in the video) in a blog I follow. I like Nancy’s blog because usually it gives me hope, and it’s full of excellent advice – even if a lot of it is still way beyond my level of ability. But this post made me want to climb into bed and just give up forever. According to the video, my brain has pegged my present truly terrifying weight (which has been pretty much unchanged, bar minor short-term ups and downs, for more than a year) as “normal”, and it will bring all available resources to bear to resist any downward trend – because to my ancient crocodile brain, weight loss = starvation and death.

In my case, this means that every time I experience a period of sustained, rapid weight loss, instead of feeling happy and encouraged, I hear the rumbling of a crocodile growl, and the goblin horde rushes screaming to the crocodile’s defense.

Actual photograph of events inside my gut.
Actual photograph of events inside my gut. (Source)

And then … I … panic. The only way through that panic is candy. Or cake. Or ice cream. Or even just a surfeit of grilled cheese sandwiches – really, it doesn’t matter; the only way through is food, the more starchy and sugary the better – that’s why they call it comfort food. It appeases the crocodile and calms the goblins and allows me to waddle on in the knowledge that nothing too scary has happened. Nothing has changed.

I’ve been fighting this all my life. I’ve seen doctors, who have helpfully told me I need to practice self-discipline or die. I’ve seen shrinks and dietitians, I’ve read books, I’ve made promises to people who love me (and to myself, who doesn’t always love me), I’ve joined clubs and signed up for challenges. I’ve ingested pills and injected hormones. I’ve wept and joked and prayed and pretended I don’t care.

I even started an accountability record on this blog. I kept it up for 10 days before I felt so dang embarrassed to be offering my readers such tedious drivel that I quit. Not the diet – I stuck that out for nearly the 40 days I’d committed to, but gave up around day 38 because I just didn’t get past feeling ghastly and the pounds weren’t budging.

After watching the video on Nancy’s blog, I reminded myself of a decision I made last year. Over more than half a century, I have been, in turn, chubby, plump, overweight, fat, obese and grotesque. Most of that time I’ve either been on diet or been rebelling against having to be on diet or felt bad about failing yet another diet. It’s time to try something different – and at this point I would like to apologize publicly to my poor body for taking so long to figure that out.

Last year, after the Daniel diet failed I promised myself I would never diet again. I set myself free.

This is pretty much how I spent the month Himself and I got acquainted "in the flesh" (as opposed to via email). So of course he had to marry me! (Pic taken from http://shop.jillnealgallery.com/)
The first thing Himself and I acquired together as a couple was a small print of this painting by Jill Neal. It still speaks to me. (Source)

I bet you think this post is about making friends with the fat that’s on my body, right? Something all warm and gooshy about loving myself despite yadda yadda.

Nope. Sorry. Or not sorry, actually, because what I think I maybe, just possibly, might have is good news of a practical, rather than gooshy, nature. At any rate I’m pretty sure it’s good news for me, and you might like it too. Instead of a diet, I’ve been looking for a lifestyle change, and I think I may have found it. I’m sharing it because it seems likely that there are others out there whose bodies work the same way as mine.

And that brings me to my first point. Human bodies are different in terms of what fuel they need, and how they process it. So if someone cites Adam and Eve, or alternatively billions of Chinese agrarians, as proof that humans do best on a diet of mainly rice and vegetables, that’s true. And when someone else cites Paleolithic hunter-gatherers as proof that what we really need is meat and more meat and occasionally berries (but not bugs because one must draw a line somewhere), that’s also true. The trick is to figure out what type of body you have.

It turns out that what my body thrives on appears to be the ketogenic lifestyle. I’m going to share what I’ve learned through research and personal experience in the next few posts; today’s post is really intended to put what I’ll be sharing in context. So, briefly, here are the answers to a few of the most obvious questions.

What does “ketogenic” mean?
It’s a high fat, moderate protein, very low carbohydrate way of eating that forces the body to obtain energy from fat rather than sugar.

In other words, it’s the Atkins diet. Or Paleo.
Somewhat. It’s like Atkins or Paleo on steroids, because a primary goal is to get into ketosis and stay there

That is the opposite of what the food pyramid recommends. Won’t it make you sick? 
There is a growing body of evidence that the grain-based, high carbohydrate diet recommended by the World Health Organization, the US Department of Agriculture and other similar western bodies is in fact potentially deadly. In my own brief experience, switching from carbs to fats has dramatically improved my energy levels, eliminated brain fog and eased chronic pain related to inflammation. I haven’t felt this good in years!

But … high fat. Yuck! And dangerous! Fat makes you fat! It clogs your arteries and gives you heart attacks!
Nope – fat is fuel. Your body would rather run on sugar, because it’s easier to break down – but it runs more efficiently on fat. (That’s especially true of your brain.) And another good thing about fat? Unlike sugar, it’s not addictive!

Surely such an extreme diet is just setting you up for failure?
Well, you’d think so. After a lifetime of giving things up only to be gobsmacked by cravings, it’s hard to believe that I can simply walk away from cakes and candy. I’m not going to pretend I’m never tempted … Right now, in fact, I’d really enjoy a short bout with Messieurs Baskin and Robbins, and if I go out to dinner and someone wafts a hot brownie under my nose I’m probably going to bite it. But what’s different is, most of the time I don’t even think about food. I rarely experience cravings, and those I do feel aren’t that hard to shrug off. That’s why I believe this really could be a lifestyle change, and not just another diet.

How do you know it’s not just a fad?
I don’t. Further, I don’t care. Seems to me one person’s fad may be another person’s lifestyle. What appeals to me about this is the way it makes me feel – energetic, healthy and clear-headed, and getting better every day. Beyond just listening to my own body, I’ve discussed it with my doctor, and I’ve researched it up the wazoo. I’m cautiously optimistic – enough, anyway, to be ready to talk about it.

I have more to tell you, but this is enough for one post. If you’d like to do your own research you’ll find interesting resources here, and here, and … oh, just google “ketosis”. That’s what I did!

Do you have any experience with the ketogenic approach to eating? I’d love to hear your thoughts!