Introduction

Only if you had been marooned on a desert island, or perhaps blasted into outer space, could you claim to have not heard about the Keto diet over the past few months. Ironically, should either of these situations actually apply to you, then you probably would be – by virtue of starving to death – in ketosis already!

Fad dieting can be dangerous, I found this out the hard way when I lost weight on the Atkins diet and ended up in a urologist’s office having my kidneys scanned. So, I personally took a lot of convincing to try the Keto diet for weight loss. As Michael Jackson would say, I started with the man in the mirror. And what I saw I didn’t like. You see, I had spent the entirety of 2017 working out in my home gymnasium, and yes – for sure – I had the muscles to prove its effectiveness. My lifts had vastly improved from deadlifting 80kg on a good day to easily lifting 140kg for 15 reps. From a 16kg kettlebell to an enormous cannonball-like 32kg solid iron kettle, the same size as used by the Russian military. All that was fine; what was missing was the weight loss to go with it.

Weight is a funny thing. As a married and settled man, who works on a computer, commutes by train 20% of the day and sits at home in the evening, I knew that the effort levels I would need to reach in the gym to lose weight. They would be basically impossible. I would simply continue to bulk. Instead, I set out to focus my efforts on losing some kilograms through a new diet.

It is often said that losing weight is a simple case of calories in and calories out. The media is, however, full of celebrity methods for seemingly circumnavigating this “rule”. I looked through the latest methods of the fad diets that infest the internet. They range from the sublime to the ridiculous. I recall one, which was aptly named, “the bananas diet,” being particularly, well, bent. I was reading a forum where an “expert” in this diet was chastising someone for their question regarding what to have for breakfast as they were already eating 7 bananas in the morning and wondered why they were not losing any weight.

“Ha-ha, dude!” He wrote, “7 bananas are far too FEW for breakfast!”

Truly the mind boggles as to what is happening to these people… perhaps even this is how a new species is born; split off into a genetic niche? Is this how the panda became purely a bamboo eater? Chased into the snow-covered mountains by the giant – now extinct – bears of ancient times? I can see them now, rolling back with their feet in the air, crying in laughter because some idiot can only manage 7 bamboo shoots before lunch! And presto, you’re stuck with it and can never eat anything else again.

Actually, I may have theoretically tried that with pizza before, so perhaps not?

Regardless, one diet started to reappear more often in my searches, mainly because it was the purview of a group of people I had come to respect in terms of high performance. No, not the Kardashian’s, I am talking of CrossFit addicts. There is truly no group more obsessed with physical performance and diet. If they were doing Keto, then I knew it would be at least worth looking at.

What I found when I investigated it was that the diet had initially been created as a medical treatment for all sorts of conditions. The one you hear most often mentioned is epilepsy; but, I can also report that one of my friends has been put on the diet for narcolepsy and is so enamoured that he is “Keto for life”. I was a little more sceptical. How could a diet enable me to have bacon and fried eggs for breakfast and promote weight loss?

I knew that this would require planning.

Keto Breakfast

Keto diet breakfast

Starting the diet

The first thing I decided was to ask Cesca if she would like to do this diet as well. With both of us recording our progress, we could support and encourage each other, and – as she makes the food during the week – with Cesca involved it would be able to easier plan the meals.

Indeed, planning is a large part of succeeding on the Keto diet as we shall see.

The second decision was to also stop drinking alcohol during the diet. This is for two reasons: firstly, I always stop drinking for January through March, every year. Second, many drinks have carbs in them. Lots of carbs. And carbs are out.

The final upfront decision I took was to go and speak to my doctor. In fact, I did a lot more than this. My company offers people of my grade a full medical every two years. It’s part of my package. So, I booked one for after two weeks on the diet. This included blood work and a whole hour with a doctor.

So, armed with a couple of keto diet kindle books, I began.

The first thing I did was order some supplies. The Keto diet involves eating with the following breakdown in macro’s:

4% carbs
15% protein
81% fat

Which is almost the exact reverse of the normal carbohydrate diets we are all used to? So, in order to track this, I needed a really good phone app to help. I chose to go for the paid version of Lifesum, which has a plan for “Ketogenic Strict”. I could then spread out my carb allowance throughout the day. We shall go much further into food below.

The next thing I needed was a way of measuring my ketosis levels. For this, I purchased some urine strips from Amazon. Although they are not designed for dieters, as the instructions make clear. In fact, they say that if the strip turned purple call an ambulance! Now, you may have heard many strange things about Ketosis. This is because, for some portions of the population, ketosis is a deadly condition. Namely, these strips were designed for diabetics. I had an interesting conversation recently with two veterinary surgeons, who laughed nervously when I mentioned being in ketosis as for they, this is normally a sign of a very serious life-threatening condition in an animal.

Why would anyone put themselves purposely into this state?

Keto stick

Ketone measuring stick

Keto stick

Progress

The science of keto

Normally (on a +100g carbs a day diet), the carbohydrates contained in food are converted into glucose, which is then transported around the body and is particularly important in fuelling brain-function. Before sending excess energy to fat cells, your liver and muscles will store carbs in a mechanism called glycogen. However, if there is little carbohydrate in the diet, the liver converts fat into fatty acids and ketone bodies. Ketone bodies are produced mainly in the mitochondria of liver cells, and synthesis can occur in response to an unavailability of blood glucose, such as during fasting. The ketone bodies pass into the brain and replace glucose as an energy source. An elevated level of ketone bodies in the blood is known as ketosis.

The result is a drop in insulin and what is called “leptin-induced satiety”.

That is, you feel full and have very little hunger.

So, in reality you lose fat on a ketogenic diet the same way you do on other diets: you burn more calories than you consume.

The next thing I purchased to prepare was Keto friendly foods and ingredients. Lots of high-quality meats, tons of vegetables, “keto” flour (which is made from almonds), American measuring cups (most keto recipes are in American measurements), MCT oil (which you add to coffee) very good vitamin tablets and Himalayan Pink Salt.

Pink salt?

Yes, this pink salt, which you use just like normal salt, is full of magnesium and potassium, which you will be very short of on the keto diet (unlike on the bananas diet, eh?).

Keto stick

Drink lots of this

Keto stick

Black coffee is OK!

All of these items were to head off what is known as the Keto Flu.

When you first go on a keto diet your body has to switch to using fats for energy. This is difficult. Indeed, I can attest to several side effects I ran into immediately:

  1. Headaches.
  2. Limb aches. Cesca got pains in her arms at the joints. Me? I got knee pains when squatting with weights.
  3. Dizziness. While “transitioning” it is very likely that you will “use up” all the carbs in your body. This is like being exhausted and has the possibility of making you dizzy. Indeed, at one point, I made the rookie mistake of working out during the transition. Do not do this. I had to lie down the rest of the afternoon. Another part of this side effect is that you will find it harder to “think”. This can, for obvious reasons, cause problems at work. I certainly found this the case for me and I had to think very hard to be able to cope.
  4. Thirst. You get a lot of water from your food. You will need to drink at least, AT LEAST, double your usual amounts. This is partial because you will be peeing out may of the fats being released into your body.
  5. Constipation. However, for me, this was not an issue.

How long these effects last is up to your physiology; but, you can help with the following:

  1. Drink water. I drank water with electrolytes added.
  2. Take your vitamins. I also took a pro-biotic.
  3. Eat more salt. Pink salt everything you can.
  4. Do not eat outside your macro’s. Any carbs in over the macro % will reset this period.

Eventually, 3 days for me, you transition and your energy levels come back to somewhere like normal. You can tell when this happens as you suddenly lose a lot of your appetite. This is because your body is eating fats, and they are energy dense.

Welcome to ketosis!

For the first month, I tracked all my food religiously. Every morsel. This meant scanning everything into the app on my phone, planning and measuring every meal and stopping when the system said to.

As a rough rule of thumb, and this is by far the hardest part of keto, you can only have a food that has less than 6g of carbs in any one meal. Now, technically, you could save up and have your 20g of carbs all at once; but, that is almost impossible because almost everything has a little carbohydrate in it. This proves extremely difficult when out and about or at work. As, sure, you can find foods with either high fats or low carbs, but not at the same time. It isn’t good enough to eat a just low carb food, you need to also eat high fats. So, 95% of what is out there in stores for lunch is off the menu. Another problem is not overdoing the protein. Too much of that and you start to affect your kidneys. Yes, quite a pickle.

I found myself having salads; but, nothing from a root vegetable, with lashings of dressing and I really mean lashings of dressing. My fridge was stocked high with Ceaser salad dressing, the original high fat one, not a “diet” one with lots of sugar. My other staple food was eggs. Boiled eggs for preference, on the go. Finally, sashimi is ok in a pinch. I honestly regret having not planned to make all my lunches.

Visiting the doctor

After a week of this, I must admit to being bored of the food. I wasn’t hungry in the slightest. Keto kills your appetite; but, I was, well, suffering some kind of ennui. It wasn’t until I managed to return to working out that I felt “better” and started to gain the keto energy I had read so much about.

At the end of the second week, I went to the health check. Firstly, the phlebotomist took a large amount of blood.

“Please don’t worry if you see high ketones,” I told him. “I’m on the keto diet”

“Oh really?” He said, “so am I!”

I took a longer look at him and immediately could see he was a CrossFit person.

“Wow, cool, so you know then?”

“Oh yes,” he assured me, too cool for school – definitely a CrossFit person, “I have been on it for ages, lose loads of weight”.

“Oh, right. Great. How do you manage the 20g of carbs per day?”

“20g!” He said, shocked, “that’s hardly any. I am on a much lighter version than that. You must be hardcore keto?”

“Well,” I said happy to have impressed him, “One tries, you know…”

While the bloods were being spun up, I spoke to the doctor. She was also supportive of the experiment as in general my health was good. Then the blood results came up on her screen.

“Hmmm,” she said.

This is never a good sign I thought.

“Your cholesterol is high for your age and you have a lot of acid in your urine.”

“Those are both known side effects of the diet,” I pointed out.

She turned to look at me, “Yes, Basho, but you must understand that no one knows what being on this diet long term is like. The evidence is not clear if it is healthy long term.”

“I see,” I said, “so, can I do it?”

“For two months only, Basho, OK?”

“OK”

“And for the acid, drink lots of lemon juice.”

So, with the permission slip from the doc, I carried on.

Being keto is a little like being vegan, and I don’t mean just in terms of talking everyone’s ears off about it. I mean in terms of it somewhat coming to define your life. All meals are keto meals and all events are considered from the “keto perspective”. I went to see Chris Rock on tour at the O2; but, could hardly find a thing to eat the entire time. Indeed, I ended up eating bacon crispy strips from M&S and drinking water. Moreover, many invites were turned down and friends disappointed, as I was not happy to go down the pub all night on water only. Not because they might laugh, that’s what mates are for; laughing with, it’s because I might stray and drink the bar dry, leading to failure on the diet and another transition to look forward to.

I felt like a monk.

And then the upside kicked in and I started to lose weight, and losing weight is addictive. You start to enjoy looking in the mirror, old clothes fit again, and new ones are looser. Your belt moves up a notch, then another. Should you be lucky enough to have a lover, well – there are benefits for you both there and indeed that side of things made up for a lot of the missed nights out with “nights in”.

Bonus!

Moreover, you don’t crave foods. I was amazed to find this an upside to the flatness of keto foods. No crashing, no ups and downs of mood. It becomes very even. I realised just how much a victim we all are to our emotions in eating. How I had been driven to snack by energy drops, and how much we like to eat heartily in celebration. I also realised just how much sugar was in everything. It’s crazy just how addicted we all are to that product and how the food manufacturers take advantage of this.

Working out on keto

Soon my energy was back to levels where I could work out. Now, I have always used technology to track my workouts and have a well-developed routine for evening limits. After all, I have work in the morning and going too hard could mean an injury. So, I know my energy very well. In my subjective estimation, I was running at 90% of normal while on keto. And this is interesting because I have come to perhaps think that this 90% is actually 100% of normal; but, that I dose myself up over this limit with carbs and caffeine. Usually, before working out I take a pre-workout and perhaps that final 10% is accounted for there. Nevertheless, I was lifting slightly less, going slightly easier on the heavy bag and running shorter before hitting my calories target for the workout. My workout rules are simple:

Light workout: 300 – 400 Kcal burned. A light workout will not include much weights. Maybe some kettlebell swings. It will mostly be cardio, bike and plyometrics.

Medium workout: 400 – 600 Kcal burned. This workout is almost all martial arts, TRX and kettles before lifting for about 30 reps of various types. This is my usual evening workout.

Heavy workout: 600 – 800 Kcal burned. This is a lifting focused workout with cardio to warm up. I am currently pyramiding up to 140kg and then back down to 50kg on the bar. Mixing different lifts, particularly the military press, deadlift, squat (wide), bent over row and snatch. I also do a cardio bike finisher to bust out a hard stop.

Very Heavy workout: 800+ Kcal burned. These are reserved for weekends or days where I won’t work the next day. They need to be carefully managed against a specific target or training goal. Last summer I did a 1500Kcal workout with a friend and took 2 weeks off after through exhaustion.

In order to track all this, I wear a top of the range heart rate monitor and track to either my phone or a wrist monitor.

When on keto, not only was I slightly weaker; but, I was also hitting these range limits a lot quicker. In other words, my body was working harder. Of course, for losing weight, this is great; but, for performance, this is not so good. Fat is a very smooth energy source, people in keto can run “steady state” for ages as there is no “carb wall” to hit – you hit it in the transition – however, I wouldn’t like to have entered a fighting tournament on keto. I used to compete at international level in Taekwondo and Karate, and I am not sure if I could have sustained the pace of combat, which is a hyper high effort (akin to multiple Tabata rounds back to back), as “gassing” is very easy. Still, I am sure that if I had to fight to save my life, I could once through the transition – I found no problems in breaking boards and hitting the bag hard and my ability to enter “the stream” was not hindered.

If you have heart problems or have not worked out for a while, then trying to improve performance on keto could theoretically be dangerous and, for god’s sake, don’t lift anything over your head during the transition. Dying under one’s own weights is a thing.

Workout logs since January

Cooking on keto

As you are so limited with keto and quickly bored of salad, you will find some solace in making food that is a simulacrum of “normal” food. Cesca, the kids and I had great fun over multiple events making all sorts of keto specials.

A few of my favourites were:

Keto mash. This is cauliflower, blitzed and steamed. With the addition of cream. Yes, double cream is welcomed on keto. Blimey. It is delicious.

Keto rice. This is broccoli blitzed a little and steamed as rice. Lovely with curry.

Keto pancakes. Made with almond flour.

Keto nachos. This incredible recipe is to melt almond flour with shredded mozzarella cheese in the microwave, roll out as a dough, shape the triangles with the knife and bake for 10 minutes. Works great with the right baking paper.

Keto pizza. This recipe is similar to the above, but mixing the mozzarella with blitzed, boiled and strained cauliflower. Incredibly, this worked well with a little practice.

Keto brownies. Made with avocados and surprisingly they work as well.

The children and I had a great time preparing three of these dishes for Mothering Sunday, here in the UK.

Keto stick

Keto rice

Keto stick

Keto mash

Keto stick

Keto nachos!

Keto food can be fun!