As a rule, I shy away from extreme diets or eating regimens. Atkins? Never heard of him. Whole 30? Wholly not going to bother with it. Paleo? Some things are better left in the history books.
However, the simplicity of the ketogenic (keto for short) diet appealed to me, and seeing as I had a wedding to attend—and a bridesmaid's dress to wear—I needed something effective to help me shed some weight, and fast.
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I started the diet about one month before the wedding with a goal of losing 10 pounds. Since a low-calorie diet can produce up to a 2-pound weight loss per week, 10 pounds over 4 weeks didn't feel extreme. If the keto diet was as great as had been touted, I thought 10 pounds would be easy.
Before I started, I spent several weeks researching the diet, following keto-focused Instagram accounts for inspiration, and creating a plan. This last part, I would soon learn, was the most important thing for my journey.
I used an online keto calculator to set a goal for calories, carbs and fat. I mostly followed the suggestions, with the exception of fat. The calculator suggested over 200 grams of fat each day. That's tough to hit without loading ghee into my coffee or swigging some coconut oil before lunch. Can it be done? Absolutely. I just couldn't get there. For me, the focus was on reducing carbs. I let the other pieces just fall into place.
I also asked a friend to join me as an accountability partner. She had tried the keto diet before with good success, so having a guide for my myriad questions was a big help. It was also nice to have someone to message at 10 p.m. when I really wanted a cookie so she could commiserate with me. (We agreed the cookie would be delicious, and then ate a cheese stick.)
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Eating only 20 grams of carbs a day is hard. The keto diet is a high-fat and low-carb (HFLC) diet. I would actually describe it as extremely low-carb—you're allowed to eat just 20 grams in a day. Some people on keto follow a net-carb plan (you can subtract the grams of fiber from a food's total carbs) and you're allowed to eat more carbs in a day. For my 30-day diet and for the sake of simplicity, I stuck with total carbs.
As a rule, I aimed for 20 grams each day—2 at breakfast, 5 at lunch, 3 for snacks and 10 for dinner. I found that if I aimed for 20, I'd land under 30. That was successful enough for me.
The key to hitting my number was to plan, plan, plan. I worked out all three meals, down to the condiments, plus snacks on the weekends. If I knew what I was having and what I was "allowed" to have while staying under my carb goal, I found managing the infrequent cravings and hunger pangs easier. I can't stress enough the importance of planning for a keto diet.
The food is repetitive. I ate a lot of bacon, cheese, eggs and meat (steak and chicken mostly). For a person whose eating philosophy is typically more plant-based and whole-food-focused, eating processed pork products every morning took a lot of personal persuasion. It also took a complete mental shift, because eating multiple pieces of bacon every day for weeks on end goes against everything I've been taught for personal health.
This is a very low-calorie diet. Keeping your carb count near 20 reduces your calorie consumption too. Carb-heavy foods are some of the most calorie-dense foods we eat, mainly because we eat a lot of them. If you cut carbs, you dramatically reduce your possible calorie intake.
Some days, I struggled to get over 1,200 calories. For my goal of 1,800 calories, I fell short almost every day. That's enough of a calorie deficit to produce weight loss, even without the low-carb count.
My body tried to revolt. The "keto flu" is a term you'll see on keto blogs and forums. For me, it was a very real event, but not everyone will experience it.
As your body breaks through the carb cycle and enters ketosis (where you rely on ketones, instead of carbs, for energy), you may experience fatigue, mental fogginess, even irritability. My "keto flu" only lasted a day, and once I passed it, I never experienced the symptoms again. I even ate a cookie one day during the diet to celebrate my birthday. I certainly came out of ketosis when I ate that treat, but I didn't experience any repercussions for it.
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I beat my weight-loss goal. While I set out to drop a quick 10 pounds, I quickly surpassed it. I was down 10 pounds within three weeks and hit 15 pounds two days before the wedding.
It's important to keep in mind that when you are on a low-carb diet of any type, you will lose several pounds in the first few days. That's because your body is dropping water weight. When I returned to typical eating over the wedding weekend, I gained 4 pounds. I didn't overeat that weekend. I had just returned to eating carbs, so the water weight returned.
Even better, I had so much energy and I didn't experience the typical midafternoon energy slumps. Gym time was a bit of a challenge. Without carbs, your body has to burn fat for energy, and some days, that will leave you feeling drained of energy during a workout. That's OK. Stick with it, and try again tomorrow.
I learned to be very creative in the kitchen. It's almost impossible to eat at a restaurant and keep your keto status. (After the third time you ask the server to hold the onions from your chicken fajitas, you'll just want to never go into a restaurant again.) Luckily, I consider myself an adventurous cook, frequently cooked at home before the diet, and am willing to try new recipes.
Of course, with a keto plan, your ingredient list is dramatically shortened. I scoured blogs, Instagram, Pinterest and other sources for reliable recipes, and then I put my own thinking cap on and came up with several dishes I really enjoyed.
Write the recipes down, use a meal-tracking app like MyFitnessPal to record the ingredients, and you can figure out if a recipe can work for you. It takes a bit more work than an average meal plan, but it's worth it.
I broke my sugar addiction. You can't eat sugar on the keto diet, and most of the no-carb sugar substitutes don't work for me. So when you're left with no recourse, you just have to quit sugar.
That doesn't mean the cravings went away. In the first few days, the cravings for a peanut butter cup or a soda or even just a banana were strong. (Here's when having an accountability buddy really helps.) When you go back to typical eating, you might find (as I did) that many foods you ate regularly are now just too sweet to finish.
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I won't be staying with keto for the long term—I really can't eat that much bacon anymore—but I do expect I'll return to it several times a year. If nothing else, the strict diet works well for me as a reset after a long splurge (hello, holidays!), and my month-long experiment helped me break my dependency on some of my biggest food crutches (sugar, pasta, crackers).
The keto diet is not for everyone. Certainly, if you have blood sugar issues or a history of heart disease, you should not try this diet without a doctor's supervision. However, if you're in good health and are looking for a weight-loss jump-start, the keto diet might be the opportunity you've been looking for. I just hope you really like bacon.