Keep Calm and Keto On

I thought about starting this off with a story about myself in the third person, or some other trite nonsense, but let’s be honest here: no one is going to read this apart from me and possibly two other people who already know.

Once upon a time, I wrote a blog post about being a bit big. That was 2010. I was 182lbs. By 2018, my weight had crept up to 215lbs. I wasn’t eating any differently. I was just slowly gaining weight. I thought I was okay, this is just genetics. I was wrong.

So what happened? 

In February 2018 I watched this video on YouTube. It's hella long, and I don't even know what prompted me to start watching it, but I did, and it terrified me. I'm not usually the kind of person to take notice about [insert foodstuff here] being bad, but in this case there was no quackery, no product-pushing. Just a scientist talking about his work. I stopped all sugar immediately, then I got into some serious research. I watched more videos. I read some books. I got even more scared. 

I learned a few things. 

  • I’ve been lied to, all my life. 
  • Calorie restriction does not work because our bodies fight against starvation. 
  • Exercising to burn off calories as a means to lose weight is complete fucking nonsense.
  • The whole fat-is-bad paradigm is the result of WWII (seriously) and a lot of really shitty science done in the 1960s/1970s.
  • The biochemistry of weight loss is actually so trivial that a layperson can understand it, and it’s been known for decades. 

I wish I were making this up. I’m honestly not. Let me explain.

The question everyone asks is, how do I lose weight? And the answer is always eat less, exercise more. (We’ll get to why it’s bullshit in a minute.) This is kind of starting on the wrong foot - you need to ask what makes us get fat? You’ll be told a whole bunch of random theories that boil down to the idea that we eat too much and move too little. But if you go just a little deeper, you can ask what makes fat cells store fat, what’s the actual mechanism that causes fat to accumulate? That's the real question, because the answer is insulin and cortisol. 

Not eating all the food. Not sitting on the couch. High insulin levels mean you will get fat regardless of what you eat, because that is what insulin does. It’s the primary driver of fat storage. Cortisol is just along for the ride. Turns our that our hormones are really just that powerful, go figure. Anyway... 

There’s a lot of history and science involved but in a nutshell, carbohydrates spike your blood sugar and therefore your insulin levels. Stress spikes your cortisol. And sugar is in a whole class of evil all on its own, because fructose can’t be metabolized the same way as other carbs and it causes a whole host of horrible diseases, not the least of which is Type 2 diabetes, and it seems to be the driving factor behind the obesity crisis worldwide. The diet of most western countries is full of processed carbs and added sugar, and might as well be tailor-made to cause people to get fat. Eating less and exercising more - semi-starvation, basically - is all but guaranteed to wreck your metabolism, can't be maintained long-term, and definitely doesn't work because the body doesn't want to starve and die.

I mean, you can imagine that I was pretty pissed off once I learned all this, seeing as it's contrary to everything I've ever been told about weight loss. All the times I bought low fat yogurt, for example, thinking I was taking the "healthy" option? They were all loaded with sugar. I was told to exercise more to burn off the calories, and that was a complete waste of time because exercise makes you hungrier. The entire concept of calories-in-calories-out is a mess because it makes one fatal assumption: that the system is a simple one. Eat less calories than you need in a day, it says, and you'll lose weight. What it doesn't tell you is that how many calories you need in a day changes depending on what and how much you eat.

The outputs affect the inputs.

So what happens is this: your basal metabolic rate is how much you need to live, every day. It's stuff like generating heat, digesting food, repairing cells, all that good stuff. Let's say that's 1600 calories. So drop that to 1400 calories in order to lose weight, right? No. The body adjusts to match calories in, because it can't keep burning 1600 calories a day when it's not getting 1600 calories a day. The body wants to survive. That's why semi-starvation diets kinda work, for a while, and then they plateau and stop. Meanwhile, you feel like shit because you are literally starving yourself.

The thing to note here is that the body doesn't use fat to make up the difference, because - and this is a goddamn revelation - calorie restriction is not the direct mechanism that causes fat to be released from fat cells. The thing that DOES cause it is... low insulin levels.

That's it. That's all it is. The science has been known for a while now. High insulin = fat storage. Low insulin = fat release.

The summary of all of this is the key to unlocking weight loss. It's the reason every non-calorie-restriction diet you've ever heard of actually works, regardless of whether it's vegan, paleo, vegetarian, juicing, whatever. If the diet can get your insulin levels down, and keep them down consistently, then you will lose weight. There's no more magic to it than that.

With all this in mind, I started a ketogenic diet overnight and I've been on it ever since.

The truth is, I was sick.

I'd been having issues with my blood sugar for a while. No matter what I did or what I ate, my blood sugar was spiking and crashing very badly during the day, usually an hour or two after lunch. I had all the signs of pre-diabetes. This all scared the hell out of me because my grandfather died from complications from Type 2 diabetes. A ketogenic diet, in case you don't know, is one that is very low in carbs and very high in fat, and it's known for a lot of things, but anecdotally it's incredibly good at controlling or even reversing Type 2 diabetes. The principle is simple: drop your carbs to nothing, and your blood sugar will never spike, and never crash. Insulin remains low. Eventually, your body becomes adapted to it after a few days of flu-like symptoms, but you never drop your calories. You don't need to restrict yourself. You just eat when you're hungry.

I've been told that it's a great achievement, to make such a radical change in my diet and stick to it, but to be honest, I never thought about it that much. I just didn't want to be sick. I didn't want to get worse. I was terrified that I'd develop diabetes. I still don't think about it. It's just how I eat these days.

I've been on a keto diet for about six months now. I track what I eat every day. I have not had another blood sugar crash. The costochondritis that has plagued me since my early twenties is gone. I get fewer migraines, and my triggers are less sensitive. My endurance, strength and flexibility have all improved. I'm in better health now than I ever thought I could be.

I've lost almost 70lbs. Literally a third of my body weight, gone virtually overnight, and it was effortless from my perspective. I lost 30lbs in a month and a half and didn't even notice. I'm still losing weight. (For anyone who's worried about weight loss this rapid: it's since slowed down as I approach what's considered a normal weight for my height, and bear in mind I've been breastfeeding since December. I've had blood work done. My GP is in the loop. I'm fine.) Point being: I didn't even know how much I had to lose, until I lost it.

Doing this has changed my life.

I don't say this lightly, but it has. It has changed how I view my body, my relationship with food, my confidence. It has transformed me to the point where I sometimes feel like I'm living in another body. I know that sounds pretty crazy, and to be honest, I feel a bit crazy sometimes, but I went from being a size 16 to a size 8. It changed my face, my hands. All I can tell you is that it messes with your head.

The thing is, it's forced me to admit that I wasn't being honest, before. I wasn't happy with my body. I knew I was overweight. But nothing seemed to be able to change that, so it was better to accept myself as I was and be defiant about it. The alternative was a lot of self-loathing and destruction, and I was not going down that road. Now, though, I have to own up to it. I like being a size 8 a lot more than being a size 16. All the horrible body issues and social attitudes that I thought I'd conquered, and it turns out I was lying to myself. It's made me feel like a fraud.

So... what now?

Nothing, really. I will never again fear what I eat, nor feel guilty for what I eat. I could spend a whole weekend binging on cake and icecream, and it doesn't matter. I can just go back to my usual diet on Monday morning, safe in the knowledge that I know how weight is gained and lost. I can bake delicious muffins and cakes using keto-friendly recipes, and eat as much as I want, and never once go hungry. I can have a giant steak if I feel like it.

There's no trick to it, no secret. Reduce insulin levels, lose weight. The biochemistry is the same for every healthy human being, and it's just a matter of how you get there. Keto suits me well, but some people prefer paleo, others prefer intermittent fasting. On the off chance that this is read by more than a couple of people: if you're trying to lose weight, then start with the video above. Google a few names: Gary Taubes, Dr. Jason Fung, Dr. David Ludwig. Read their books. Figure out your angle. Exercise because it makes you happy and keeps you healthy. You've been lied to just like I was.

I'll just be over here, keeping calm and keto-ing on.

Claire Ryan