Sometimes you've gotta take one for the team, I tell myself. I stare at my grocery cart of cheese, oil, and bacon and can’t help but wonder what I’m getting myself into. I’ve just decided to try the ketogenic diet—not out of genuine enthusiasm, but out of curiosity and a thirst for knowledge. After all, I’ve been getting so many questions about it that I want to make sure I have the knowledge and experience to provide thorough, educated answers. So, I’m using myself as a guinea pig so I can offer better support for my nutrition clients.
Today’s post is all about what I learned from doing the ketogenic diet for six weeks—and if I’d recommend it to others.
First Thing’s First: What is the Ketogenic Diet?
Simply put, the ketogenic diet involves eating a ton of fat, moderate amounts of protein, and very few carbs, a.k.a. 20 - 50g per day. (FYI: one banana has 27g of carbohydrates, meaning you’d go over your limit if you just had one.)
The (very basic) science behind the diet is that when you severely limit your carbohydrate intake, your body starts producing ketone bodies, which become your body’s main source of energy rather than glucose. Over time, your body transitions to burning fat for fuel, which is precisely why so many people experience drastic weight loss on the diet.
WEEKS 1 - 2
This diet feels completely backwards. With every bite of cheese and sip of whipping cream, I can’t help but feel a deep sense of paranoia that I’m going to gain alllllllllll the weight. Plus, it just feels glutinous to casually be eating bacon and eggs on a Tuesday morning, but that’s the diet!
While the luxurious food is a pleasant surprise, the label-reading isn’t. When you only have 20g of carbs to work with, you have to be hyper-vigilant about where those are coming from. And it turns out that carbs. are. everywhere. Jerky, bacon, cheese, and a ton of other fatty foods contain trace amount of carbs. Normally this might not matter, but it’s a super big deal on keto. Plus, different brands of the same thing strangely contain varying amounts of carbs, so my first few trips to the grocery store take forever.
I’m finally adjusting to reading labels and know which brands are “zero”—that is, which brands and foods contain 0g of carbohydrates. Nonetheless, I’m still shocked at the amount of fat I need to eat and have learned the hard way that if I don’t consume enough, I feel lethargic, weak, and downright terrible. This is when I discover “fat bombs”—yummy high-fat treats to help solve this problem. Fat bombs are my new best friend, and I’m particularly thrilled that eating high-fat peanut butter & chocolate treats are part of my new “diet.”
I’m learning that you have to be very diligent about whether or not you’re in ketosis, so measuring ketone levels is a must. Though there are various ways to do this, the most affordable and convenient option is to pee on these little strips that tell you your ketone levels. (You buy these at Shoppers Drug Mart or Walmart from the pharmacist behind the counter.) While feel like a closeted drug user every time I pee on one, there’s something strangely validating about receiving confirmation that my body is, in fact, in ketosis.
While eating out on keto is sometimes super easy, other times it’s a real pain in the neck. I’m constantly asking waiters the ingredients of different dishes and even have to worry about things like if balsamic vinegar is in a salad dressing, as it contains carbs. Going to a friend’s house for dinner also means kindly requesting that she not make the lasagna she was going to since pasta is an absolute no-no on the diet. She kindly does some research and makes some chicken and asparagus, though she has to limit the amount of onions and garlic she uses for the dish given that even vegetables contain carbohydrates. I really don’t like being “that person” whose diet inconveniences others.
I’ve also noticed that my workouts are suffering. I can’t seem to run as long on the treadmill and my body feels a lot weaker during weight training. This is a bit of a downer considering that going to the gym is a big stress reliever for me, but now it just feels like a struggle.
At this point, I’ve lost some weight on the diet and decide that taking one day off won’t kill me. I have a high-carb day, which makes me feel absolutely terrible afterwards. Plus, the 3 - 4 days thereafter are spent trying to get back into ketosis. Ugh.
WEEKS 5 - 6
I’ve noticed myself falling into some not-so-great habits. The fat bombs are so darn tasty that I’m popping them like candy, though I assure myself that I need the fat and that they’re “zero,” a.k.a. inconsequential (false). Plus, the food is so delicious that I’m eating way more than I need to and I’m gaining a noticeable amount of weight. Additionally, I’m experiencing stomach pains that are so painful I can barely stand up straight.
I consult with a fellow nutritionist about the stomach pains and they can’t seem to figure out what's going on either. As for the weight gain, they suggest that I start monitoring my calories and macronutrients to make sure I’m not consuming too many calories per day (which I 100% am). Between the stomach pains, weight gains, and a strong dislike for tracking what I eat, I decide that the time has come to stop the ketogenic diet.
PROS (from personal experience)
The diet is absolutely delicious thanks to the butter, cheese, and fat you get to eat.
Depending on the restaurant, eating out can be super simple given that you can order things like chicken Caesar salads without going over your carb intake.
This diet holds you accountable. Because you want/need to stay in ketosis, eating carbs and junk doesn’t even feel like an option unless you want to feel like crap and spend the next few days getting back into ketosis, which just isn’t worth it.
I experienced a TREMENDOUS improvement in my skin on this diet, which was shocking given that I’m someone who has been on Accutane twice for acne.
I felt really satisfied after most meals due to how delicious and filling they were.
My cravings for sweets drastically subsided on this diet, which was amazing and unexpected. This is another way that this diet holds you accountable—because you just don’t really have the desire to eat junk food as much.
PROS for the General Population
Many people experience a shocking amount of weight loss on the diet very quickly. As a result, they often feel encouraged and validated for the hard work they’ve put in, which gives them the motivation they need to continue on the ketogenic diet. This is different than other diets that might take longer to work, which can cause people to prematurely give up and resort to old habits.
People who are used to putting anything and everything into their bodies have to pay attention to food labels, and therefore start noticing how much sugar, carbs, fat, and protein are in common food items. Being able to read a food label—and being generally more conscious of what we put into our bodies—are useful skills regardless of the diet we’re on.
I found that things tasted so delicious on this diet that portion control became very difficult, actually. While I started out feeling full and satiated after meals, I eventually started eating too many fat bombs, too big of portions, etc. As a result, I gained a lot of weight on the diet simply because I was continually putting myself into a caloric surplus.
While eating out is easy on the ketogenic diet in some cases, it’s a real pain in the neck in others. You have to avoid anything with sauces, ask for modifications to be made, check in on what ingredients are used, and more. And if you’re at a dinner party or someone’s house where you don’t have the option of order something else, you’ll likely leave feeling absolutely starving.
There is a very unhealthy way to do the ketogenic diet. I’ve noticed that many people will rely on processed meats like jerky, hot dogs, and other foods as a way of consuming enough fat, but these foods are often loaded with additives, chemicals, and other stuff that just isn’t good for us. As such, it’s typically better to do this diet in a way that incorporates real, whole foods like avocados, healthy oils, high-quality cheese, etc., but many people don’t do this.
My workouts on the ketogenic diet were simply never as good as the ones I did off keto, which I attribute to my depleted glycogen levels.
I really didn’t like excluding food groups for the sake of a diet. I’m someone who lives by the motto of “everything in moderation,” and only being able to eat 20g or less of carbs made it impossible to live by this. While I could eat a ton of delicious, fatty foods, I had to cut out things that I very much enjoy like fruit, yogurt, granola, nut butters and much, much more. What particularly bothered me about this was that these are healthy foods. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with an apple, and yet this diet had me programmed to think that fruit was the devil. For this reason alone, I couldn’t see myself doing this diet long-term.
REALLY BIG cons...
I’ve noticed that practically every single person that does the ketogenic diet for a long enough period of time becomes super carb-phobic… I’m talking absolutely 100% obsessed with never consuming a carbohydrate. While I completely understand the need to count carbs on this diet given its very principle, I feel like this causes people to develop an incredibly unhealthy relationship with food. I’ve watched people scrape the smallest amount of sauce off of a piece of meat because they’re worried about the carbs it contains. I’ve seen people freak out about 1/2 teaspoon of breadcrumbs because “they don’t want to go over their carb limit.” But the saddest part is that people start seeing real, whole foods that are perfectly healthy as the DEVIL because of carbohydrates, forgetting that these foods contain wonderful vitamins, minerals, and other useful nutrients that our bodies really love. And let’s get one thing straight: people do not become fat because they’ve eaten too many apples; 9 times out of 10, people gain weight from eating too much sugar, too many processed foods, too much fat, too much alcohol, and being in too much of a caloric surplus for too long. To say that carbs make us fat is far too simplistic and inaccurate.
Secondly, when you go keto, you sort of have to live and breathe it. You have to meticulously read labels so you don’t go over your carb limit or the diet will simply not work. You have to make fat bombs or find other creative ways to get fat into your diet or, again, the diet will simply not be as effective. However, this typically translates into people who are just always. talking. about. keto. This is great if you are also doing keto as it creates a wonderful sense of community. But if you aren’t, it becomes pretty annoying to constantly hear people talk about how carbs are the anti-Christ.
The Bottom Line
Critiques aside, I think the ketogenic diet is absolutely fantastic for two main groups of people:
People who are very overweight. Since the ketogenic diet catalyzes rapid weight loss, people are typically motivated to continue eating cleaner, and what they eat on keto might be a lot healthier than what they were eating beforehand. As I mentioned previously, these people also typically learn some important skills that have long-term benefits like being able to read a food label and generally being more conscious about what they’re putting into their body.
People who really like rich, fatty foods and have a hard time holding themselves accountable on other diets. I’ve seen many people have great success on this diet mainly because they love the foods they’re able to eat and feel less of a desire to eat junk food. As a result, they’re able to keep themselves in a caloric deficit over a longer period of time, which encourages weight loss.
And this is what leads me to my final point: whether you’re keto, paleo, vegan, low-fat, low-carb, WHATEVER—if you’re experiencing weight loss, it’s because you’ve been consistently putting yourself in a caloric deficit. In other words, you aren’t losing weight on keto because you’ve finally realized that carbs are the devil, it’s because you’ve been in a caloric deficit for a long enough period of time that you’ve lost weight. My philosophy, then, is this: if going on the ketogenic diet is what you need to stay within this caloric deficit, then that’s the diet for you. If being vegan helps you consistently eat cleaner, then that’s the diet for you. But do know that there are right and wrong ways to do a lot of diets (including keto) and that there are many other ways to lose weight that involve eating all of the food groups… even carbs.