Bonus: My skin cleared up, my mood brightened, and I barely needed coffee. Barely.
Of all the places to seek life-changing nutrition advice, I never thought the barber shop would be where I found it. But one day last January, after a couple years of saying to myself, “today’s the day I make a change,” my barber schooled me on something called keto.
Normally, I take things he says with a grain of salt unless they’re about hair or owning a business, but this guy could literally be on the cover of Men’s Health. He’s 6 feet tall, conventionally attractive, and his arms are about five pull-ups away from tearing through his t-shirt. If anyone else had implied that I was looking rough, I would’ve walked out in a fit of rage, but I decided to hear him out.
I should clarify that I was out of shape, but my case wasn’t that severe. I hadn’t exercised in a few years and basically ate whatever I wanted and however much of it, but I was only about 30 to 40 pounds overweight.
My barber went on to explain that this diet, paired with an appropriate exercise routine, allowed him to completely transform his body in less than a year, and all he ate was fatty foods. Once he showed me his “before” picture, I was sold. It was time to actually make a change.
Short for ketogenic, keto is a high-fat, moderate protein, low-carb diet that forces your metabolism into what’s called a state of ketosis. There’s a much more scientific explanation to that, but it basically means that instead of burning carbohydrates (mainly glucose, or sugars), your body switches to burning fat as a primary source for energy.
Keto isn’t necessarily about counting calories, though the basic idea of eating less in order to lose weight still applies. This is more of a calculated way to rewire your metabolism so that it burns fat more efficiently over time, using very specific levels of each macronutrient (fats, carbs, and proteins) to achieve that constant state. After all, chances are you’re not really as interested in losing weight as you are in losing fat.
In order to enter ketosis, you need to reduce your carb intake to almost nothing while increasing your fat intake to almost 70 to 75 percent of your diet. It takes a week of this, more or less, before your body actually enters keto — and you’ll know once it does, because you’ll lose a surprising amount of water weight in the first 2 to 3 weeks. I lost almost 10 pounds in the first month.
With an average mid-to-high-carb diet, your body burns carbs first, then moves on to other things like fat. Most of the time, your metabolism spends a huge chunk of its energy burning through the carbs. By the time it gets to the fat, it’s got little juice left. That excess fat then gets stored and is a lot harder to burn. So by making sure your metabolism doesn’t have enough carbs to burn, it eventually switches to fat, and your body essentially becomes a 24/7 fat-burning machine.
Pretty awesome, right?
All of this is useless if you don’t accompany it with a high-intensity strength training regimen. After all, your body needs muscle to burn fat. I recommend an 80/20 strength-training-to-cardio ratio.
To give you an idea of what that looks like, at the peak of my keto journey, I was weight training for an hour every morning (with one or two rest days per week) and doing about 30 minutes of high-intensity cardio twice a week. I emphasize “high-intensity” because the higher your heart rate, the more fat you’re burning. Good cardio exercises include sprinting intervals, spin classes like Soulcycle, and good old-fashioned swimming. Bad (or less efficient) cardio activities include long-distance running or anything that maintains a moderate heart rate.
Now here’s where things get tricky: Ketosis is a pretty fragile state, and it’s not the same for everyone. You have to figure out the exact cocktail of macronutrients you need to hit every day. There are a few tools online that should help — I used the ruled.me Ketogenic Calculator. These calculators take a number of things into account like age, height, activity level, and your own personal goals. The most important thing to remember is that you want your carb intake to be no more than 5 percent of your total caloric intake. Based on what I’ve read, 20g is a safe daily carb threshold to shoot for. The other thing to remember is that you have to hit a relatively small protein window every day. Eat too little or too much protein, and you risk kicking your body out of ketosis.
You’re probably wondering how I kept track of all of this on a daily basis. Fortunately, like any millennial, I turned to a smartphone app for help. There are a few of them out there, but my favorite one is Lose It! It lets you search a user-generated database of almost every food and drink known to the internet, log what you ate, and it breaks down everything from caloric intake to macronutrients to exercise.
One of the most helpful things I used during keto was a food scale. Since this diet requires you to know every ingredient going into your body and exactly how much of it, dining out wasn’t really much of an option. Therefore, you have to be prepared to cook everything. To make it easy, I did most of my cooking on the weekend and saved leftovers for during the week. With each meal, I’d weigh out the ingredients and log them in the app. That way, I could accurately track exactly how many carbs, fats, and proteins I was taking in.
For me, an average day in meals usually included some sort of variation of bacon and eggs in the morning (substituting bacon with avocado from time to time), a fatty salad or some lamb over lettuce from the halal cart for lunch (or even a bunless burger), and weekend leftovers for dinner. If I had the energy after work, I’d occasionally make pork chops or a steak.
If you haven’t already figured it out by now, arguably the biggest downside of this diet is that you don’t get cheat days. If you cheat (miss your protein window or eat too many carbs, for example), you have to start all over again. Keto only works as a constant state; It’s more of a lifestyle change than a diet. Another bummer is that since you’re taking in a lot of fat and not a lot of fiber, constipation can be a problem. This can be alleviated by taking fiber supplements like Metamucil or psyllium husk.
The good news is once you’re in ketosis, you’ll notice a lot of changes — and not just in appearance. When I was on keto, my skin cleared up, my mood brightened, and I found the energy I was getting from fat to be cleaner and a lot more reliable. I woke up feeling clear headed and had enough energy to sustain me throughout the day. I rarely even needed coffee!
LIFE AFTER KETO
After 5 to 6 months of full-on keto, I hit my target weight (160), and decided to ease myself out of it. To start, I basically continued eating according to the diet’s guidelines, but stopped logging and tracking my food, choosing to use my own judgment rather than have the diet dictate my life. Then, little by little, I re-introduced some carbs back into my system, like fruits and some vegetables. I still eat a lot of fatty food and try to stay away from grainy carbs like rice, bread, and pasta. To be honest, I don’t know if those will ever be a regular part of my diet again. You really don’t notice all the negative effects of sugars and carbs until you quit them completely.
There’s a common misconception that fat is the primary cause of obesity, which explains society’s obsession with low-fat products (yogurt, milk, desserts, etc.). But that claim is being proven wrong every day. I’m no nutritionist, but from what I’ve learned, fat is definitely not the boogeyman I grew up conditioned to believe. The issue is most of our fat is hidden behind a lot of carbs, which make it really hard for some metabolically challenged people like myself to burn it efficiently.
It’s been about 7 months since my body was last in ketosis, and I’m happy to say I’ve maintained a healthy lifestyle and have still been able to lose even more fat just by working out and knowing what I’m eating. One great benefit from this diet is that it cuts your portion sizes. If, like me, one of your problems is portion control, nothing will train your body to eat less like filling it with meat, cheese, and butter for a few months. That alone will help you keep the weight off after keto (as long as you don’t go straight for the carton of ice cream).
My weight now fluctuates between 155 and 160 pounds (down from 207 last February) and has been that way since last June. I look better, I feel better, and any time I feel myself slipping into old habits, I like to get back into it for a few weeks just to re-center myself. That or I head to the barber shop for more advice and moral support.