The Keto Diaries: What this Dietitian Thinks About the Keto Diet after Trying it
I can’t tell you the number of times in the past year I’ve been asked what my thoughts are on the ketogenic diet. My answer has always been along these lines; there’s evidence to show that it is beneficial for quick fat loss, but it is highly restrictive and not sustainable long term.
However, there was always a small part of me wondering what it would be like to follow, and if I would feel or perform any different if I entered a state of “ketosis”. Further, having to experience it myself would make me more comfortable in guiding a client or patient in adhering to the diet should they need or want to for certain health circumstances.
Don’t get me wrong; if you’ve been following me on social media or my blog, you’ll know that my stance on health and nutrition is far from “restrictive”. I stand behind balance, variety and moderation. I don’t encourage my clients to follow restrictive diets, and I believe that all foods should be enjoyed and appreciated.
This being said, if a client approached me about a certain dietary pattern, I wouldn’t shut them down either. I believe in different diets for different people, and based on weighing the different factors (evidence of benefits, the needs of the client, their rationale for trying it), I would discuss with them to determine whether it would be appropriate and successful long term.
As a dietitian, I want to be able to relate to my clients and also have an “open mind” on different dietary patterns. After all, how can you talk about a diet or lead someone through it confidently without having actually tried it? Having a first-hand experience makes it easier to pose a strong argument for when it would and wouldn’t be appropriate. Further, it would provide context for the challenges and strategies to overcome them.
So, for these reasons, I decided to go “keto”.
The timeline: 2 weeks. The goal: document my experiences and keep an open mind.
How I went “keto”
For those who may not know, the ketogenic diet involves restricting carbohydrates to as low as possible (around 30 g per day), forcing the body to enter into “ketosis”.
Ketosis is a state where the body primarily burns fat as its fuel source. Minimal carbohydrates (sugar, starch) are coming in, and so the body switches to using both exogenous (outside sources) of fat as well as fat from body stores for energy. For this reason, the “conventional” ketogenic diet involves a macronutrient distribution of 70-80% of calories from fat, 15-25% from protein and only 5% from carbs.
Since I am quite active and wanted to avoid any significant loss of muscle mass, I chose to follow a “modified” ketogenic diet which involves a slightly higher protein ratio. I recorded my intake daily using a tracking app and followed this breakdown:
2200 - 2300 calories per day:
65% fat – 160-170 g fat
5% carb – 27 g carbs
30% protein – 165-173 g protein
*Note on carbs: The 27 g is from “net carbs”. Fiber is also a carb (in addition to starch and sugar), but it does not contribute calories nor raise blood sugar, so fiber is subtracted from total carb intake to get the “net carbs”.
This is what a typical day of eating looked like for me on this calorie / macro breakdown:
I also made sure to drink about 10-12 cups of fluids per day, add a bit of salt to my foods (for sodium) and eat as many low-carb vegetables (for potassium) as I could to keep my electrolytes up. The lack of carb intake on this diet causes increased water excretion and decreased retention of fluids, so it is extra important to stay hydrated.
So the good news is, I made it through the full 2 weeks. I could not imagine doing the diet for longer, simply because the negatives outweighed the benefits for me. The purpose of this article is not to bash the keto diet, but to give an honest overview of my experience.
This one is a no-brainer. The diet might sound great when you hear “bacon, eggs, butter” but think about all the foods you need to say no to. No fresh bread, roasted potatoes, desserts… no way. Even foods we think of as being super healthy like fruits, beans, and starchy veg like sweet potatoes and squash are off-limits.
If you’ve never tried keto, then you probably have no idea how hard it is to stay under 30 g of net carbs per day. Even low-carb foods have a few grams here and there and it all adds up! So tracking your intake using a program or app is a necessity for at least the first week to make sure you are within the appropriate keto macronutrient range (70-80% fat, 15-25% protein, 5% carb). I personally hate having to track my meals (I prefer to eat intuitively and follow my hunger cues) so this was a huge inconvenience for me.
Side Effects / Keto Flu
Before starting I was aware that I may experience some side-effects while my body adjusted to the change in energy source (fat) and types of foods. For the first 4-5 days some of the side effects I experienced included:
-Cravings for sweets and desserts
-Hunger pangs – my stomach had a hard time getting use to the lack of volume of food
-Extreme sensitivity to the cold weather (I could barely handle the negative temps)
Exercise / Workouts
Although I still had great energy to exercise (walking, working out), my ability to push through an intense workout (HITT, CrossFit) had definitely decreased. I also noted I was A LOT more sore from my strength training sessions. This meant my recovery had definitely suffered, likely due to the lack of antioxidant rich plant foods I was used to eating (fruit, colourful veg), and of course, lack of carbs after training.
Convenience & Cost
I will say that my grocery bill was higher following this diet. One of these reasons is because I had to decline food offered to me quite often because it wasn’t “keto appropriate”. In order to keep some variety and interest on the diet, I wanted to try different keto snacks and products, which yes, are often more expensive than their conventional counterparts ($7 muffin anyone?).
Emphasis on animal-based foods
This may have been one of the reasons I didn’t thrive on this diet. Aside from Greek yogurt and eggs, I’m not a huge fan of animal proteins like red meats, bacon, or cheese. I found I was often choosing eggs, tofu or fish over these protein types, because they simply don’t appeal to me.
Despite being in a calorie surplus (which I chose to do intentionally) and eating lots of high fat foods, I still lost some weight over the course of the two weeks. Most of this was likely water weight, but regardless, this was not a positive for me as I have a hard time maintaining my weight.
There were some positives to this diet and I will highlight them here.
Reinforced the power of support in behavior change
I wasn’t in this journey alone, my good friend and fellow dietitian Alysha Coughler embarked on this journey with me. If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that making a behaviour change is much easier when you have support. Having someone keep you accountable, and also navigate the challenges alongside you, makes sticking to something like a major diet change much more likely to be successful.
Trying New Things
The experience forced me to try some new foods (shirataki noodles, 90% dark chocolate) and lower carb recipes (cauliflower rice, lettuce wraps, low carb pancakes), which have their time and place.
I also got to discover a new bakeshop! The only keto bakeshop in the city – Butternut Baking Co. – offers a variety of low carb and keto friendly baked goods. We tried the raspberry keto pop-tarts and they were better than the real thing.
Appreciation for Variety
As you can tell form what my day of eating looked like, variety was a major challenge on this diet. Keto aside, it made me realize how fortunate we are to have so many foods to purchase and enjoy right at our fingertips.
Before starting the keto experiment, I was used to feeling good on my usual diet which consists primarily of plant-based proteins (tofu, legumes, nuts), lots of vegetables, and some fruit, eggs, yogurt and fish. I do not normally consume many sweets, so cutting them out completely did not make much of a difference for me.
Therefore, I can’t say I felt radically different or “better”, while being on the ketogenic diet. If anything, I felt worse because I was missing the colour and variety I was used to. Further, my performance in the gym had decreased, and I felt an overall “blah” I couldn’t shake. When I added carbs back in (some fruit, sweet potato), I felt a huge shift in my energy levels and my overall mood became instantly brighter.
Who might benefit from the keto diet?
In-case you didn’t already know, the most well-supported use of the ketogenic diet is not weight loss, it is for children with treatment resistant epilepsy.
In terms of weight loss, there is good evidence to show that following the keto diet can help one to lose weight without a radical decrease in calories or increase in exercise. However the sustainability of weight loss is unclear.
The keto diet may help to reduce markers of metabolic syndrome (cholesterol, blood sugar, triglycerides) but whether these changes are sustained once one transitions off the diet is not clear. For an in-depth look at the keto diet for blood sugar management issues (pre-diabetes, diabetes), read my previous article.
In terms of exercise, most studies have shown that keto-adapted athletes generally show no differences in performance to their carb-adapted counterparts. However, in terms of-aerobic exercise, particularly ultra-endurance runners, this diet type may provide some metabolic advantages during competition.
The keto diet hasn’t been studied extensively in a variety of population groups, and so at this time we can’t really say if it is safe to continue long term. It can offer a short-term solution for weight loss, but whether the weight loss is sustainable or the diet causes any metabolic changes (blood sugar tolerance, lowered metabolic rate, etc.) in the long term is not clear.
For athletes in particular, the risks may include blood sugar issues, compromised immunity, reduced performance, digestive issues, and hormonal disturbances (eg. missed periods for females).
Like any diet however, it can be done properly or improperly. You can eat unlimited cheese, eggs and bacon all day; or you can make sure you are getting in as many vegetable servings and nutrients within that 30 g carb limit. With careful planning, one can reduce the chance of risk or any nutrient deficiencies, and so I strongly believe it should be done with support of a trained health professional such as a Registered Dietitian.
If there is one thing I take away from this experiment, it is that it has confirmed my personal philosophy on nutrition. Eat the foods that make you feel your best and perform well, and emphasize variety as much as possible. However, I still believe in different diets for different people, and some individuals may benefit from following a ketogenic diet plan for various reasons. To ensure that they are successful in meeting their health and fitness goals while following this type of restrictive diet, enlisting the guidance of a dietitian should be their first line of support.
Was there something I said that sparked your interest? Comment below and let’s get a conversation going.