Welcome to the fourth installment of the Fad Diet Diaries: a series of experiments, where I willingly put myself through diets that range from challenging to questionable to downright abhorred by the medical community and then record my experience so that other people can learn from my mistakes. Both my doctor and my metabolism are thrilled.
While in the past I’ve tested out crash cleanses, obscure 90s fad diets, and completely arbitrary food challenges, set by people at GQ, this round of dieting was a truly unique experience. Why? Because it was kind of healthy.
For the past two weeks I have been living the ketogenic lifestyle, which I’ve been describing to people as Atkins on Crisco. It entails cutting out essentially all carbs and sugars and sustaining yourself on a diet of high-fat foods. If this sounds like a dream to you, it’s because it kind of is. For instance, if you’ve ever found yourself in bed at 10pm on a Thursday night, wishing you had a bowl of sour cream and carnitas in front of you, you’ll want to keep reading.
The purpose of this diet is to put yourself into a metabolic state called ketosis, which is a natural process that your body initiates when carb intake is low. Essentially, instead of burning carbs for energy, your body is burning fats. You are quite literally eating fats to burn and lose weight, and it sounds fake until you suddenly fit into a pair of pants you haven’t been able to wear since junior year of college.
This website will explain the scientific side of this better than I will ever be able to and serves as a really great introduction for people who are looking to dive into a keto lifestyle.
While keto is more of a lifestyle than a fad diet, I’ve decided it falls into the realm of this series, because people won’t stop talking about it. Originally promoted as a way to help regulate epilepsy and diabetes, keto is receiving a seal of approval from fitness fanatics, professional athletes, and people who just really like high-maintenance diets. On the other end of the spectrum, you have your usual skeptics and assorted doctors who really wish that people would stop creating fad diets so that their patients will stop coming in quoting Dr. Oz. This sounded like an argument that I wanted to drop myself directly into the middle of.
The diet breakout looks something like this: 70% fat, 25% protein, and 5% carbs. You can get your own specific macros calculated on any number of online keto calculators, which make you do inhumane things like try and figure out your body fat percentage. My requirements were 1,531 calories a day, 119g of fat, 95g of protein, and a mere 20g of carbs.
For reference, there are 48g of carbs in one bagel. Half a bagel would max out my entire carb intake for one day and likely destroy any ketosis that I had established. I know most of you likely just checked out, but stay with me here.
And the thing is, the allowed 20g of carbs aren’t fun carbs like bread or apple cider donuts that a girl in your office had shipped fresh from New York on day two of your diet. They’re hidden carbs that live in foods you thought were safe, like arugula and mushrooms. What I began to refer to as “sleeper carbs” were nearly my downfall and the cause of one of the most dread-filled Sunday nights of my entire life. Don’t worry, we’ll get there.
In order to ensure that you’ve reached ketosis, you get to pee on these little strips that tell you if your body is expelling high levels of ketones with a color scale that quite easily allows you to mistake one level for another, and will have you sitting and examining a strip of paper, covered in your own urine, for longer than you’d like to admit it. Accept this as your new normal.
The test strips are a bit controversial in that they don’t work for everyone, and for some, are less of a measure of your level of ketone creation and more of a litmus test for simply whether you’re in ketosis or not. If you’re a die-hard follower and want the truest measurement, the best route is a blood test, for which you can buy a handy gadget and perform at home. My needle-phobic ass will stick to examining my own pee, thanks.
Other things that will become your new normal: consuming 100+ grams of fat a day, drinking butter, having meltdowns at 8:30pm when you realize you’re still 60 grams of fat short of your daily goal, being that asshole at a restaurant who orders deconstructed burgers with every imaginable sauce removed, and in a moment of weakness, spending $30 on the most pretentious ingredients you can find at your nearest New Seasons, so you can splurge on a keto-safe cookie dough concoction that you’re really going to hate yourself for eating.
The hardest part of this diet wasn’t necessarily following it, but getting into the mindset that not only is it okay to be eating fats, but that you have to do it to keep yourself going.
I, like most women, have grown up in a body-shaming, lady-hating, diet-purporting society that has conditioned me to avoid fats like my life depended on it. In fact, we’ve been taught that our lives do actually depend on it, lest we fall victim to such horrors as high blood pressure, bad cholesterol, or, God forbid, being bigger than a size 6.
But I just spent the last two weeks indulging in eggs fried in butter, bacon, cream cheese, and all the avocado my heart desired, and guess what? I lost nine pounds, went down an entire pant size, and suffered what can only be described as an existential crisis, when I realized that I don’t know how the fuck food or my body works.
If this sounds equal parts enjoyable, eye-opening, and entirely overwhelming, that’s because it was. I know I’ve painted the whole experience as a dream come true, but there were considerable downsides as well. For one, in order to live as true to the lifestyle as possible, I committed to tracking my macros to ensure I was meeting my daily requirements (spoiler alert: I rarely did). This entailed painstakingly measuring out—or in my case, wildly estimating—the exact amount of each individual ingredient I was consuming and putting it into an app that would tell me whether or not I was failing.
Is failing the right word to use, considering I still lost weight and reaped the benefits of a keto diet? Probably not, but that’s certainly what it felt like. While the food was enjoyable, and I’m pleasantly surprised by the end results, a diet shouldn’t make me feel the way that AP Tests and the SAT did; I shouldn’t be having stress dreams about eating an entire cake and immediately throwing my body out of ketosis.
A regular diet is stressful in its own right, but one that makes you meticulously track everything you put into your mouth is a giant undertaking. There were times that I just opted not to eat, because the thought of recording a meal sounded exhausting.
Other negative side effects that one could experience include: muscle cramps due to lack of magnesium (check), sudden drop-offs in energy while your body adapts to this new reality (check), the keto flu—a period of during the induction phase where one might suffer flu-like symptoms due to a lack of electrolytes (thankfully avoided), and zero tolerance for any bullshit from anyone (potentially just me).
What was shocking was how quickly I adapted to this new way of life. Unlike most of my diets where each day brought a new hurdle, either physical or emotional, the reality of keto set in quickly. The second half of the journey moved along smoothly, and I didn’t even find myself wishing for it to end, but that first week was a whirlwind of discovery.
This first day was exciting in the way these experiments always are in the beginning. I’m out here trying something entirely new and haven’t stooped to the point of hating myself for it yet. Everything is still a novelty, and I haven’t had to embarrass myself at a restaurant by asking for the sugar content of the house Bloody Mary Mix. Everything was bright and shiny.
I learned a couple things really quickly, both through the way I felt and the sage wisdom of my keto coach, a friend who willingly lives like this as an actual preference and not just so she can publish a bunch of jokes about it online. Some people are just enlightened, I guess.
The first lesson: Bodies in ketosis require almost double the amount of water as normal, because your liver is doing a lot more work than usual. This was rough to hear, considering that, on a good day, I drink about half as much water as an adult human should. In light of this news, I downloaded an app to remind me to drink water, because I’m the kind of person that needs technology to remind her to meet the baseline requirements for survival. All in all, things were off to a good start.
On day two, I discovered butter coffee, which is exactly what it sounds like: a tablespoon of grass-fed butter and sixteen ounces of black coffee, thrown into a blender. What comes out tastes more like a latte than anything else, and drinking it for the first time felt like what I would imagine it’s like to live life in all caps. I don’t think I’ll ever again reach the level of euphoria that I experienced that first buttery morning, but I’ll dream of it for the rest of my days, chasing that butter coffee dragon.
To be clear, there’s a method behind the madness of drinking a tablespoon of butter first thing every morning. First and foremost, as previously mentioned, I had a hard time squeezing all recommended 119g of fat into my diet, so starting out my day with a steaming cup of butter was actually really helpful. Beyond that, your body takes longer to metabolize fats, which means butter coffee is supposed to keep you energized longer, rather than offering a spike of caffeine in the morning and dropping off by lunch. I found this to be true, because I no longer required my usually mandatory 2pm cup of coffee to make it through the work day.
If a 7am butter coffee was the high of day two, then you could say the low was a mere 12.5 hours later, when I found myself sitting on my patio in the dark, eating rotisserie chicken directly out of the bag, an event spurned by the fact that I had finally checked my macros for the day, and found I was insufficient in just about everything but carbs, which I’d already maxed out at 20g.
It was at this point that I realized that this diet had a definite learning curve, something that I really wasn’t accustomed to. Rather than depriving myself and accepting the suffering, I needed to plan my entire day around meeting dietary requirements that I couldn’t really even fathom. Luckily, there are hundreds of forums, Facebook groups, and Pinterest pages dedicated to this very idea. Did I check any of those? Absolutely not, but it probably would have been a good idea.
Day three was when the reality of what macro tracking meant really set in. I am but a simple American, who barely has a grasp on our standard system of measurement, let alone the metric one. Keto does not care about my mathematical inadequacies. This diet is out here asking me to estimate the number of grams of salmon I’m consuming in a single day.
“Idk, like a handful of spinach” isn’t an option on my tracking app, and my kitchen is sorely lacking in basic measurement tools, which left me frequently Googling conversion calculators and trying to rationalize amounts of food by comparing them to items that had their weights listed. In short, it was a fucking train wreck.
After the great rotisserie chicken debacle of the night before, I vowed to never fall victim to macro deficiency again and grabbed a pack of bacon on the way home from work. The second major hurdle of this diet was the fact that I had to spend a substantial amount of time cooking every night. Although it’s been covered in every installment of this series, it probably bears importance in repeating that I am not a cook by any stretch of the word, and any meal that takes more than 15 minutes to prepare just seems exorbitant.
And yet, I found myself that night spending 45 minutes frying up an entire pack of bacon. Should it take that long to cook bacon? Probably not. But things like logic and cook times have never applied to me, and they weren’t about to start this week.
My next lesson was in sleeper carbs and the fact that even if you’re positive you haven’t touched a single carbohydrate all day, you can still rack up about 12g too many of them. The culprit? Vegetables, whom I’d always considered to be a safe and reliable friend, were secretly carrying carbs and betraying any trust established between us. Et tu, arugula?
Day four was a turning point, one of the first times I thought to myself, “Maybe this should be something I just do all the time.” What could possibly drive me to consider a lifetime without carbs and sugar? It’s simple really: natural energy, something this body hasn’t experienced since the tender age of 12.
On this momentous day, I woke up on my very first alarm. To some, this is just a mundane requirement of being an adult and making it to work on time, but for me? Unheard of. I am a five alarm girl, set at five-minute intervals for optimal suffering. I usually drag my lifeless body out of bed about 10 minutes after that fifth alarm and proceed to caveman around the house until I’ve deemed myself presentable enough to wander into work and directly to the coffee machine.
But on day four, I sprang out of bed at a chill 6:40am with a sizable craving for butter coffee and the drive to get out of the house as soon as humanly possible.
Improved energy is, in fact, a side effect of this diet. Fat is the body’s largest and most efficient source of energy, and you’ve just about doubled your intake of it. The result is that you aren’t spending time working through heavy carbs anymore, just burning through these high-energy molecules, which are making you feel truly awake for the first time in your cursed life.
In my case, it was also making me second-guess a lot of things that I had never questioned before. For instance, I am now almost 99% sure that I’ve spent my entire life mistaking the signs of dehydration for anything but that. On my way to work that morning, I thought, “Hm, I’d really love another cup of coffee,” and then stopped myself, because that wasn’t actually what I wanted at all. I was thirsty and finally recognizing it for what it was. Natural selection is truly slacking in my case.
You might be asking yourself how I’ve made it a full 25 years without being able to tell if my body was in need of water or not, and I’m here to tell you that I have no idea. But now that I’m drinking 2.5 liters of water a day, I’ve finally begun to understand what a baseline craving for hydration feels like. Let me tell you, it’s wild.
I had made it to Friday and had done pretty well for myself, so on day five, I decided it was time for a treat: professional butter coffee. It’s actually called Bulletproof Coffee, and it’s basically butter coffee with the addition of MCT oil, a naturally occurring oil that is supposed to boost energy and burn fat like crazy.
Was it weird at first? For sure. I had grown accustomed to my butter lattes, and this was less of a soothing morning ritual and more so on par with what I would expect it’s like to do angel dust for the first time. I didn’t really know how to process it until I was about a third of the way through and my body took over. Suddenly, I needed to drink the rest of it, and it needed to happen as quickly as humanly possible.
It was like I had transcended mundane things like taste buds in favor of becoming omnipotent. I could see new colors. Conversations around me slowed down. I got more work done on that single day than I had all week, and it was all due to this $6 oily, buttery, bitter concoction that I will never stop thinking about. I was riding on an absolute high, ready to adopt a keto diet for life, until suddenly I wasn’t.
There was a flurry of reasons for that abrupt turn of events that all culminated in one thing: alcohol. Naturally.
Maybe it was the Bulletproof coffee, or my intense focus, but I didn’t drink nearly as much water as I should have on Friday. Realizing this around 4pm was the first red flag that put me off-kilter. A work happy hour led to a birthday party, which led to a bar, which led to another bar, which ultimately led to me standing in front of a Mediterranean food cart at 2am trying to rack up the 1,000 calories I was supposed to have consumed throughout the day, while explaining to a confused, bemused, but accommodating Middle Eastern man what exactly ketogenic diets entail.
All week I had been shaping my plans and schedule so specifically around this diet, but day five was the first day that life intervened. Sometimes, you’re going to be out and about and won’t be able to find a high-fat, moderate protein meal that adheres exactly to your needs. Sometimes you’re going to fall off the wagon, because you’ve had a shitty day and you need to. Sometimes you’re going to accidentally get super drunk on a Friday, because you would have been racked with FOMO if you hadn’t gone to the cool rooftop happy hour.
And all of that is okay! You can have those off days, as long you wake up the next morning and rededicate yourself to your goals.
Let me tell you, that is exactly what I did.
I don’t know how to explain the way I felt Saturday morning. I woke up… energized?
The three tequila Diet Cokes (it pains me to write that) and two vodka sodas I consumed the night before? Gone.
Any exhaustion that may have stemmed from the fact that I went to bed at 3am and woke up naturally at 8am? Gone.
A sudden need to grocery shop, clean my room, do the dishes, buy a wall calendar to map out the rest of these diets, and just generally get my life together ARRIVED.
Here I was, making the most of a Saturday morning, planning for my week ahead and feeling slightly guilty for consuming alcohol. It wasn’t even the “I blacked out and embarrassed myself” guilt but a completely foreign “I didn’t really need to drink alcohol at all last night” kind. It was during those abundantly productive hours that I first questioned whether this diet was turning me into a functional adult. Or at the very least, someone who could pass for one. I bought a relaxing nighttime tea, for God’s sake. What next? Learning how to make sous vide eggs?
All the serenity of Saturday was completely spent by the time Sunday rolled around. I was coming up on one week of this diet, and the only thing I really felt was stressed out. Well, skinny and stressed out. I had yet to figure out a solution to sleeper carbs and was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, trying to reconcile this newfound, entirely one-sided feud with vegetables that I was harboring.
I hadn’t experienced a Sunday night woe like this since high school, at which point I consulted my keto coach who encouraged me to throw caution to the wind and indulge in a meal consisting solely of eggs, butter and meat. Decadent doesn’t begin to describe the way I felt.
Sunday night was a true breakthrough in both keto and probably just my adult life: I had finally allowed myself to eat something that a past me would have deemed wildly unacceptable. I’d dismantled the mental block that told me a meal wasn’t complete if it wasn’t 50% green and leafy. I wasn’t “treating myself” or “having a cheat meal.” I was eating fucking dinner, and it was glorious and liberating, and I was evolving my relation with food.
From that moment forward, I was a new person. I no longer shied away from the high-fat foods, that I was supposed to be embracing. I committed to drinking water, not just for the diet, but also for myself. I slowly began to relax my meal planning, allowing myself to eat out and not slave over tracking nuances. I ate a shit ton of bacon. And come the two-week mark, I’d lost nine pounds.
Every diet in this series has taught me something about myself: that I am capable of superhuman levels of self-control when I need to be, that I can eat an inhumane amount of ice cream and still kind of function, and that I can accomplish just about anything that I set my mind to, even if my body is begging me not to.
But this is the first diet to show me that maybe my regular habits aren’t all that much better than the ones I force upon myself, for the sake of these articles. Eating healthy is all well and good, but not if you’re punishing yourself after a moment of weakness. Hell, maybe they shouldn’t be called moments of weakness, but moments where I really wanted a muffin, and so I ate a goddamn muffin.
Does this mean I’m fully committed to a keto lifestyle from here on out? Not necessarily. Lazy keto, a diet that still follows ketogenic rules but doesn’t force you to track your macros or panic over vegetable carbs, seems more up my alley and is something I could see myself adopting between diet ventures. But I’m also acutely aware that fall is here and with it the great love of my life: kettle corn. I won’t deprive myself of that, and I also won’t gorge myself with it. I’ll enjoy a responsible amount and determinedly not feel bad about it.
In the end, the ultimate irony is that a high-fat, indulgent diet has brought a sense of balance to my life that I hadn’t realized I was missing. Somehow, on this never-ending quest to test every possible limit my body possesses, I’ve managed to stumble upon something worthwhile.
No promises that it will ever happen again, but I’m pretty happy with myself in the meantime.