I've been giving this post a lot of thought lately and honestly, I can't remember exactly how I stumbled on keto. I live in South Africa and banting is a big thing here and has been for a while. Banting is Tim Noakes' version of the Low Carb High Fat diet. So I wasn't totally unaware of this way of eating but I was very against it. I bought into the rhetoric that fat will kill you, carbs are fuel and complex carbohydrates are absolutely necessary for life to continue. Yup. Hook, line and sinker. At least until I started testing my blood sugar after eating "healthy foods".
I would also like to pause here to say, I am not a doctor or a dietician. This is not medical advice, and everyone responds differently to carbohydrates. So, if you feel strongly that people need complex carbs to be healthy… you should probably stop reading now.
Part 1: What is keto?
After I was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes, I did not want to admit to myself that my body was not able to process carbs the same way others could. I did a lot of "life is unfairing” but no matter how often I yelled that, it did not change the facts that eating carbs made me sick. My body simply can't process carbs the same way a healthy body can. My blood sugar was spiking after eating things like fruit, oats, whole grains, lentils etc. I was even getting spikes from avocado. I am very carbohydrate sensitive. So, I did some research and found a Facebook page that helped diabetics control their blood sugar without medication simply by removing carbs from their diet. Then I realised that this had a name: Keto.
Keto is the short name for the Ketogenic Diet. Eating a ketogenic diet puts your body in a state of ketosis, which is the state in which you burn fat for fuel. I am not going to try and explain the science behind this (there is science!) but, I will provide a list of links at the bottom of this post. Basically your body switches from being carb fueled to being fat fueled. And for people who aren't able to process carbohydrates very well, this is a more ideal state. To achieve nutritional ketosis you need to keep your daily carbohydrate (NET) intake under 25g. Some people can stay in ketosis at a slightly higher number but until you learn how to figure this out, 25g and below is the recommended number.
Keto is a low carb, high fat and moderate protein diet. This does not mean however that you need to go eat your coconut oil with a spoon (I mean you can if you want to, but gross). The "high fat" part of keto is comparative to the "low carb" part. I think that before I did this I was eating more saturated fat than I am now, and I add butter to pretty much everything.
Once you switch from carbs as your main fuel source to fat, your body will adapt to the new way of eating and eventually you become "fat adapted". This can take anywhere from 6 week to 6 months. It's also completely subjective and very vague, there's no one way that everyone experiences nutritional ketosis. Some people can handle more carbs and get the energy boost very quickly and some people do much better on almost zero carb diets. My keto journey was very much about learning to know my own body because, after years of silencing it with sugar I had no idea how to read any of its signals when I started eating correctly. Hunger signals were completely new to me, and understanding what was it was like to actually feel full, not stuffed, was a wonderful new world.
My personal experience with starting keto was rapid weight loss (water weight) in the first month, then after I had lost my first 8kg it slowed down a lot. Suddenly I retained a LOT less water than I usually did. I started noticing other things that improved/changed as well. My diabetes was obviously the first and most noticeable change, but there were was more:
- I have a ganglion in my left wrist, I used to wear a wrist brace constantly for almost two years because it was painful to move my hand, after a few months of keto the inflammation in my wrist is gone and the bump is no longer obvious at all. I have no pain unless I do something stupid with my wrist.
- My eyesight started getting worse. This one amuses my optometrist greatly, but as my blood sugar started improving my eyesight got progressively worse. I have no concrete answer to why this was but we (my doctor and I) have a suspicion that it has to do with swelling and blood sugar. I just got stronger glasses, it wasn’t the end of the world.
- I stopped getting my chronic ear infections. In 2012, I had surgery near my ear canal and the surgeon nicked my eustachian tube. I went from never having a single day of sinus issues to antibiotics every 3 months and blood in all my tissues (you're welcome). This hasn't completely vanished, keto is impressive but it's not magic. As I write this I am sitting with blocked ears and a sinus headache but it has improved by about 90%. In the last 13 months, I have not had to take a single course of antibiotics for a sinus infection. It may have been dumb luck, but I feel that improving my blood sugar levels and reducing my inflammation has played a big part in a lot of other health related issues.
- I was also diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome on the same day as my diabetes and I was told my ovaries were basically useless and I would never have kids. Now, I can't say for sure what the actual improvements have been but after I switched doctors my new doctor told me that if I hadn't brought in my scans and blood tests she wouldn't have believe that I have PCOS. She says there are no more physical signs and generally my body seems to be much better behaved. My hormone levels went from "post menopausal" to "perfectly normal".
- My iron levels have also improved. I've never been able to donate blood because my iron has always been a problem for me. In the first 3 months of keto, my levels went from 9 to 13.
After three months of keto I experienced the famed "adaption". I don't know if that's when it happened or that's just when I noticed it, but one day I woke up and realised that I had more energy than I had ever had before in my entire life. Existing was no longer completely exhausting, naps were a luxury but not a requirement. This doesn't happen for everyone, if you never have this 'moment' it doesn’t mean anything other than maybe you just had more energy than me to begin with. Everyone reacts differently to keto, it is definitely not a one size fits all.
For more infromation on the keto diet, have a look at the links below:
- Keto FAQ
- Keto Science Subreddit
- Joe Rogan Experience #904 - Gary Taubes
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: Low-carbohydrate high-fat article
- The Food Revolution
- Fat Head
- That Sugar Film
- Diabetes treatment by low carb / ketogenic diets, history and future