I’m not a Navy Seal or NFL player, and luckily I do not have any health restrictions requiring me to eat a low carbohydrate diet. I work in a regular tech job in San Francisco and am interested in optimizing my energy and health while enjoying what I eat.
I first heard about the Ketogenic lifestyle via the Tim Ferris podcast episode with Dom D’Agostino. Although I was initially overwhelmed at all of the information in the podcast and wrote it off out of convenience, the continued references I heared over the next few weeks piqued my interest. I was on a sabbatical at work figured I could spare an afternoon researching the original podcast and became immersed in additional videos by doctors, researchers, and the r/keto forum for the next 3 days.
Most of the well known examples of the “Keto” lifestyle can be found by applications in research for cancer or seizures at Johns Hopkins, the Department of Defense for Navy Seals, and professional sports within the NFL or NBA, Lebron James being the most notable player who’s gone Keto.
I don’t like calling it a diet, because that implies it is something you try for a few weeks in order to get ready for beach season. The reason I’m interested in testing this was in order to see if it is a sustainable lifestyle.
Promises of the Keto Lifestyle
- More energy and thus higher mental and physical performance — the brain uses glucose as the primary fuel source on a typical diet, but when the body is in a state of Ketosis it can adjust to using ketones, which are produced when the body burns fat for energy.
- Less hunger during the day, feeling less hungry before meals and more satisfied afterwards.
- Leaner body mass, less water weight, lower body fat percentage.
- 70–80% of calories come from fat
- 10–20% of calories come from protein
- 5–15% of calories come from carbs (generally from non-starchy vegetables, low sugar fruits as berries, nuts, and other small sources)
The concept is that all grains and sugars (yes, even complex carbs like brown rice), eventually turn into glucose (sugar) in the body, which the body uses as its main source of energy. When the body does not have enough glucose to process, the body goes into a state called Ketosis, in which stored fat is used as the primary energy source.
What A Typical Day Looks Like
Breakfast — Usually I’m not terribly hungry during the work week so I skip or have something small. When I do have a full breakfast I have as many eggs as I need to feel full (2–4) cooked in butter (free range eggs and grass-fed butter are preferred) with bacon and Avocado. If I’m not doing scrambled eggs, I love putting two eggs in each side of a cut Avocado and baking them at 400º for 10–15 minutes. As an extra add mozzarella and spices on top.
Lunch — A fatty type of meat like beef, sausage or fish like Salmon, Tuna, Sardines in olive oil with a big leafy greens salad (spinach, spring mix), my choice of cheese, dry seasonings, and olive oil.
Dinner — If I had meat for lunch I try to mix it up for dinner with fish and vice-versa. For the side I do cheesy broccoli with cheese and butter on top which is melted in and takes 3 minutes if done by microwave. In total dinner for 1 can take 12 minutes with 2–5 minutes prep-time and 7 minutes to cook the salmon or steak with broccoli.
- Nuts that are high in fat and low in carbs such as Almonds, Walnuts, and Pecans. Plain or if I have the time I like to toast some Walnuts or Almonds for 4 min on each side at 350º with a combination of butter, salt, cinnamon, cacao, stevia, and erythritol.
- Cheese in moderation
- Hard boiled eggs
- Seaweed slices
- Dark chocolate, anything as low as 63% cacao if I’m cheating a bit to 81% cacao which is going to be significantly plainer in taste. You can get squares or sometimes you can find chocolate chip pieces that are great for making your own trail mix.
- Broccoli with a tablespoon or two of peanut butter to dip it in
- 1–3 Strawberries (1g of carbs per medium sized berry)
- 25 Blueberries (5g of carbs)
What this translates to is lots of dark green veggies, fatty meats and fishes, snacking on fatty nuts, and lots of eggs.
Most people’s first assumption is that being Paleo is the same thing which is NOT the case.
The primary difference is that Paleo permits (and even encourages) eating of starchy vegetables such as potatoes and yams, whereas these foods are not permitted when eating the Keto (since they are comprised mostly of carbohydrates). The Ketogenic diet emphasis is on fatty meats (while discouraging the consumption of lean meat), though the Paleo diet does not at all discourage fatty meat.
On Keto the types of meats one eats changes to fattier types and the amount of vegetables eaten increases in most cases versus one’s previous eating habits. Instead of turkey and chicken, red meats in addition to fish are chosen. This was a tasty transition for me as I have been in the habit of avoiding non-lean meats. Also, it is important to make sure you look at the types of meat you’re purchasing in order to avoid preservatives with sulfates and other funky chemicals you don’t recognize.
Here is the most useful method I learned in order to determine if a food is Keto friendly that you are unsure of. Look at both net carbs (net carbs = total carbs - fiber) and what the percentage of calories are from fat (% of fat = calories from fat / total calories). You want ~25g of carbs in a day so plan accordingly. In order to calculate the the number of calories from fat multiply # of grams of fat * 9 because there are 9 calories in each gram of fat. The goal is at least 70% calories of that food should come from fat in addition to the low net carbs, though some foods with less than 70% fat can be consumed if countered with a higher fat food earlier or later in the day.
First 30 Days
I started on February 3rd 2016.
Weight — Starting off I’ve lost 3–3.5 lbs the first 5 days overall. This is mostly water weight.
Energy — Before my meals I’m more tired, but after meals less sluggish.
Sleep — After my snack of a cup of Broccoli, some Cauliflower, and 0.5 ounces of peanut butter I noticed my eyes get hit like a rush of melatonin is flowing through my head. I used to have a Kashi bar and edamame which account for an entire day of carbs on the Keto plan which might be why I was not as tired before bed if my body was working harder to process the glucose.
Ketone Levels — Using a Ketone Test Strip I’m closer to the 1.5 reading on the 0.5 mml and 1.5 mml scale which means I am in light nutritional Ketosis. It takes 2–7 days depending on diet and exercise to get into Ketosis so I seem on pace at this point. The optimal range is 1.5 mml — 3 mml. (Note: Ketone testing strips are cheap, but are not a terribly accurate method of testing because they measure the amount of ketones your body is getting rid of.)
Weight — Still down 3–3.5 lbs lost overall
Ketone Levels — In the 1.5–4 mml scale closer to 4 mml. This is encouraging, but I’m still using Ketone testing strips.
Buying Groceries — I recently discovered that Costco has pretty much all of the same fresh organic foods as Whole Foods with significantly lower prices. For around ~$145 I was able to get enough food for 14 — 20 days which works out to $7.25 — $10.4 per day. Here is what a sample grocery list looks like.
Traveling — I went on a few hour hike with friends to Cataract falls north of San Francisco. The snack situation was not hard to plan. I brought sautéed olives, walnuts, pumpkin seeds and after our hike we had a delicious surf n’ turf with salmon, steak topped with lobster, and a bacon broccoli medley. This was a good stress-test for hiking / traveling in general because it helped me realize that it is fairly easily to pack plenty of high fat food. Also, these foods are highly accessible wherever you travel around the world.
Weight — 4 — 4.5lbs lost overall
Comfort Foods — After all I am only mortal, and this week I’m craving food such as pizza and chocolate chip cookies. The good news is if DIY I can have such comfort foods fairly easily.
I followed this Cauliflower pizza recipe with a few modifications. The result was delicious. I learned on the 2nd batch that if I glazed the dough in olive oil it would bake a stronger crust.
2 cup Cauliflower | ¼ cups Parmesan Cheese | ¼ cups Mozzarella Cheese | ¼ teaspoons Kosher Salt | ½ teaspoons Dried Basil | ½ teaspoons Dried Oregano | ½ teaspoons Garlic Powder Red Pepper Flakes (optional) | 1 Tablespoon Almond Meal (optional) | 2 eggs
For desserts I’m a huge fan of the almond meal chocolate chip cookies with some mods from the recipe.
1.25 cups blanched almond flour | 1/4 tsp baking soda | 1/8 cup coconut oil + 1/8 cup butter | 1/8 cup Stevia + 1/8 cup Erythritol | 1 tsp vanilla extract | 1 tbsp cacao powder | 1/2 cup dark chocolate chips or cacao nibs | 1 egg or 1 tbsp ground chia mixed with 3 tbsp water (sit in fridge for 15 min) | 1/4 tsp salt sprinkled on top of each cookie
If that doesn’t do it for you then you can go for the big kahuna, the FAT BOMB. These are essentially frozen versions of Resse’s Peanut Butter Cups.
Weight — 6 — 6.5lbs lost overall
Ketone Level s— 1.9 mml. Optimal Ketosis! This means my body has fully adjusted to processing fat as energy. I upgraded to a Precision Xtra Blood Glucose and Ketone Monitor off Amazon to get an accurate reading. The meter is only $25 but the testing strips are quite pricey at ~$1 / strip. I plan to take a reading ~1 time per month. No need to do this too often. I’ve heard of some people becoming obsessed with their readings such as famous tech investor and builder of internet things Kevin Rose, who admits to taking several readings a day.
Doctor’s Visit | 2/29 — I was very interested to have my yearly physical and discuss Ketosis with my general practitioner. We talked about the importance of fiber and micronutrients from grains.
My doc advocated that “humans are not meant to be in a state of Ketosis and advised a balanced diet of a small portion of grains no bigger than a size of a fist for meals. He also stressed too much protein can put a lot of work on your kidneys.”
Unfortunately most General Practitioners do not have the bandwidth to be experts in every discipline of health such as nutrition, so the above advice is quite off from the reality of what Keto is.
My meat intake for lunch and dinner is essentially the same. It’s just a different type of meat / more fish / more veggies. There is no uncontroversial evidence that the optimal diet is a comparatively even split of carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Sure, it makes for a pretty pie chart. Regardless, a diet that’s only 10–20% protein is in-line or less than what most people consume.
What I realized is that Keto is more about what one’s not having (grains / wheats) then about eating a very specific type of food. Also, I’ve made sure to prioritize micronutrients and fiber with vegetables and Avocados.
- Sustainability/maintainability — Overall, the lifestyle is highly maintainable. It’s May 25th, almost 4 months after I ran this 30 day experiment and I’m still eating high fat foods. I like that I don’t have to think about portions within reason and after the initial learning phase can just eat without too much thought.
- Eating out/traveling — Most dietary guidelines are okay in theory, but require you to make severe sacrifices when eating out with friends or traveling. I’ve experimented with Pescetarianism for a summer and found following the Ketogenic lifestyle more flexible for going out to eat with friends or traveling since there is almost always a delicious meat, fish, or veggie option.
- Health — Weight: At the end of the 30 days I lost ~6.5 lbs. In the last month I’ve gained back a lot of the weight. There are a few variables, I’ve switched jobs, moved to a new city, and am also getting a consistent lower body workout biking up one of the biggest set of hills in San Francisco everyday so I’m not sure how much is due to lower body muscle gain vs. non-muscle gain. Energy: I still continue to be able to wake up a bit earlier with the same bedtime, think clearly between meals without getting hangry, and not crash after meals. Metrics: Although my doctors advice was well intentioned, but mis-informed, I would like to have a full work-up of my blood to compare my cholesterol, LDL particle size and other metrics to my pre-Ketogenic numbers. This is purely for my curiosity, as I have solid cholesterol numbers originally, feel great, and don’t have a true necessity to get this done.
4. Cheat Day — I’m flirting with the idea of a cheat day— Tim Ferris is a big proponent of a cheat day. He chooses Saturday, or as he coins it Faturday. Everyone’s body adapts into Ketosis at different rates. I have a confession to make…On the night of Saturday, the 26th of March after imbibing in a few drinks I inhaled a slice of cheese pizza in the Inner Richmond. On Monday I took my Ketone levels out of curiosity and they were 0.8 mml which means my body was beginning to get back into Ketosis already. If a cheat day is done properly you eat what you want for a full waking cycle, so no staying up the night before waiting for a cheat day.
I’m going take it a bit slower and start with one cheat meal, perhaps Friday nights before diving into a full waking cycle.
Update : Body Fat and Alcohol — 6/19/16
Body Fat Percentage: This past week I had my muscle-to-fat ratio measured in order to get a baseline of my body fat percentage which is a better indicator of progress. So far I’ve just been measuring how far into ketosis I am and my weight.
The test showed 14.5% body fat. I used BodySpec for the full-body x-ray scan called a Dexa Scan. According to BodySpec professional athletes range from 9% — 15% body fat. Dexa Scans are more accurate than off the shelf solutions and BodySpec makes it more accessible than the float tests found in labs by offering the scans in a food truck like fashion floating around San Francisco for $45 per scan. Check out my full results including a breakdown of muscle and fat mass on a granular level, how many calories I can consume with varying levels of exercise, bone density, and more.
Alcohol: I’ve also discovered a tasty beverage with no sugar that I made this weekend. A co-worker and myself have coined a working title Tequilime Pie.
Add the following:
- Club Soda
- Egg white
- Lime Juice
- Vanilla Extract
Shake it in any closed container, I used a mason jar with a lid to build.
- Pour excluding the ice
- Add sliced cucumber
Podcasts & YouTube Channels
- Primal Edge Health YouTube channel
- Primal Edge podcast (FYI — I like the PocketCasts podcast app)
- Tim Ferris podcast episode with Dom D’Agostino, Researcher
- Joe Rogan Experience podcast episode with Mark Sisson, Fitness Auther
Obesity Code by Jason Fung — Really great explanations of the carbohydrate-insulin model. Also extremely well referenced (~200+ studies) and only references human studies, many of which are clinical trials not epidemiological studies.