What is the Ketogenic Diet, anyway?
When I first found myself on this journey, I had never in my life heard of the ketogenic diet. After reading a little about it, It seemed very simple: eat a lot of fat, moderate protein, and as few carbs as possible. The fact is, it really is that simple. Follow those basic principles and sooner or later you will find yourself in a state of ketosis, in which you are fueling your body primarily with fat instead of carbohydrates. Burning fat for fuel produces ketone bodies that help prevent the build up of glutamate in the brain that wreaks havoc on the brains of many of us migraine sufferers.
Depending on what source you seek for information about the ketogenic diet, a different answer to specific carbohydrate/protein/fat ratio may be given. Also, different sources list different limits to the total grams of carbs allowed per day. I think the bottom line is that everyone is different and will metabolize differently. I started my experiment by trying to stay under 30 grams of carbs per day and replacing the carbs I would normally eat with fat.
Here’s the problem. What can I eat? I know fat, but how? I mean, am I supposed to just open mouth, insert butter? I love guacamole! Avacados are loaded with healthy fat, so yay! Wait. No chips, you say? Bummer.
My clumsy start
After reading all I could about going keto, I picked one Saturday morning to get started. I decided to get a supercharged start with a “bulletproof coffee.” Many of you reading this will know what that is, but for the rest of you, it is coffee blended with one tablespoon of coconut oil and two tablespoons of butter. I downed my heavenly fatty coffee in about 15 minutes. One hour later, I was at a child’s birthday party bent over with stomach cramps. My body was not prepared for that much fat on an empty stomach.
Another problem was that my pantry was not prepared. I literally had nothing that I could eat. After the first week I had lost 3 pounds because I didn’t have any convenient calorie/fat dense foods. There’s actually nothing wrong with using your own body fat as fuel to feed your brain and body ketones, and for many people weight loss will be a welcome side effect of the ketogenic diet. For me, I needed to figure out a way to eat a lot more keto compliant calories per day.
Despite my slight bumps in the road, I found myself very quickly in a state of ketosis. How do you know if you are in ketosis? The answer just might be my “inner science nerd’s” favorite part of this whole journey. There are several ways to test for ketosis: blood, breath, and urine. Urine testing is all I’ve tried so far, honestly because it is so easy and cheap. The problem is that it will not always give you as accurate of a reading. If you have had any diuretics like alcohol or coffee, the ketones will be very diluted and the test may show very low levels of ketones. On the other hand, if you are very dehydrated, the test result will be very high ketones. Despite its shortcomings, I find the urine test to be very helpful and easy. The brand name test strip kit is Ketostix, but I have found that Walgreens sells a store brand in a value pack.
Finding my way
I started experimenting in the kitchen and came up with some great recipes and meal ideas that I could live on and actually enjoy! I went to Costco and stocked up on giant bags of nuts and healthy oils like avacado oil. It became second nature to remove carbs from meals and replace them with healthy fats. I’m pretty sure that I gained all of my 3 pounds back on a sugar free cream cheese walnut dip that I created. So yummy!
A little later, I slowly started adding more and more carbs back into my diet every day to test my limits. What I found is that I can have up to around 40 grams of carbs per day, and as much as 75 grams of carbs as long as I am also supplementing with MCT oil or exogenous ketones. MCT stands for Medium Chain Triglycerides. Medium Chain Triglycerides are very ketogenic, meaning they go directly to your liver to immediately produce ketones. Supplementing with exogenous ketones is a little different in that you are literally feeding your body ketones rather than asking your body to produce ketones based upon what you are eating. I like to cheat on the diet more on the weekends, so I will just increase the amount of supplements on those days.
As a point of reference, there are approximately 13 – 15 grams of carbs in one slice of sandwich bread or one flour tortilla. There are 25 grams in one slice of Pizza Hut medium hand tossed pizza. One banana has a whopping 27 grams of carbohydrates! Sadly, I haven’t had much fruit since I started my diet. I do eat lower glycemic berries and all sorts of vegetables. Some starchy veggies like carrots have more carbs, but I don’t compulsively count them in my daily total. I usually try to keep my obvious carbs like grains and potatoes to less then 20 grams per day to give myself padding for all of the hidden carbs in “non-carb-obvious” foods.
I have been following a ketogenic diet now for about 3 months. I had some cheat days, but I’ve mostly stuck to it very well. I have had a few migraines in the past 3 months, but compared to the almost daily headaches I was suffering, it has been an enormous improvement! The best part is that I haven’t had to take nearly as many of the horrible triptans to make the headaches go away. The few headaches I did get were much shorter in duration and almost all went away without prescription medication.
Other than my migraines greatly improving, I also noticed that my brain fog that I’ve experienced for the past 7 years has mostly lifted, and stopped having daily 1:30 pm carb crashes. All in all, I feel like my whole body and brain simply runs better. I compare it to different types of fuel for our cars. I think my body was made to run on premium instead of unleaded and I’ve finally found my premium fuel.