The keto diet has gained more and more traction as a popular lifestyle choice. And for many, it's been totally life-changing. But what exactly is keto?
The keto diet is designed around your body being in a ketogenic state. From there, the body burns carbs and then starts burning fat. But it definitely takes a few steps to get there before you may start seeing any change.
Curious if the keto diet is right for you? Read on for details from one real bride-to-be's journey, along with expert tips.
Deciding to Go Keto
I've always joked that I have two stomachs—one for normal daily sustenance and separate storage for desserts. No matter how full my main tummy becomes, there is always room for baked goods, ice cream, cheesecake, or any other ooey-gooey, sticky-sweet offering I find. Thus, when my editors tasked me with trying the keto diet craze, both of my stomachs lurched. How could a glucose worshipper like me survive on a ketogenic diet that meant no sugar and virtually no carbs—especially as a bride-to-be with numerous upcoming bridal showers, cake tastings, and festive gatherings?
That's when we realized two things: First, finding out what happens when you go on the keto diet for two weeks and then eat a ton of cake would make for an excellent (and highly relatable) story, and second, I was going to need support.
Drumroll for Molly Devine, RD LDN, the founder of Eat Your Keto, advisor to KetoLogic, and a serious cheese lover. ("Cheese is, like, my main source of nutrition," she told me right before I declared us BFFs.) Devine would be my keto guide for 14 days before I headed home to Georgia for cake-eating at a bridal shower and three wedding cake tastings.
Meet the Expert
But before we could kick things off, I had three main questions for her:
- What do I eat?
- Is two weeks enough time to reach the coveted 'ketosis' state, and what does that feel like?
- How bad am I going to feel when I eat all that cake?
Read my keto-diary below for all of Devine's answers, my results, and what you can likely expect both trying keto and breaking it in an epic, wedding cake-related fashion.
What Is the Ketogenic Diet?
Every time I try explaining keto to someone, I feel like Cady Heron telling Regina George about Kalteen bars. ("It burns carbs! It just burns up all your carbs!") But really, that's kind of what's happening. A ketone is an organic byproduct that's produced when the body breaks down fat for energy, instead of its normal go-to fuel of glycogen (which comes from carbs, more specifically sugar/glucose). To get your body in a ketogenic state, it truly does have to burn up all your carbs, and then it starts burning up all your fat.
"I like to say that we're constantly walking around with a built-in picnic basket for our bodies," says Devine. She explains that most of us have two days' worth of stored glucose. (Given my sweet tooth, I assumed I had closer to a week's worth.) According to Devine, once that storage is depleted, your body is either going to burn fat that you eat, or it's going to burn fat that you want to get rid of.
What Can I Eat on Keto?
While Devine conceded that two weeks probably wasn't a long enough time to make me completely keto-adapted, if I was committed to eating 120-130 grams of fat, 20-25 grams of carbs, and 55-65 grams of protein a day, I would see some results.
I calculated my macros (fats, carbs, and protein) in the My Fitness Pal app (KetoLogic's carb counter is another option) and waited for "the keto flu" (headaches and nausea as a result of carb-withdrawals) to hit me, but it never did. I felt GREAT.
Tracking my macros felt like a game: I was determined to hit my fat goals. (How weirdly refreshing to have "fat goals" instead of "skinny goals.") My first few days I ate too much protein, which Devine had warned me was a common problem. "Historically people think low carb equals protein load," she says. "Boot camp trainers love this mentality, but our bodies actually convert excess protein into glucose. Make sure that a majority of your calories are coming from fat sources and you're not just pulling carbs out of your diet."
By day three, I balanced my macros and I couldn't believe what my "diet food" looked like.
Keto-Friendly Meal Examples:
- Egg scramble with bacon, cheddar, jalapeño cream cheese, and scallions
- Beef burger (no bun!) stuffed with cheddar and covered in sautéed mushrooms, onions, lettuce, tomato, red onion, pickles, and garlic aioli with grilled asparagus on the side
- Cobb salad with romaine, grilled chicken, hard-boiled egg, tomato, feta, avocado, and bacon with tex-ranch dressing. (I ate this for lunch one day and couldn't even eat dinner. "I'm so uncomfortably full from my salad" is lame to say out loud, but it was my truth.)
- Pork carnitas over a bed of lettuce with guacamole, cheese, and sour cream
- Buffalo chicken casserole with cream cheese, pepper jack, heavy cream, and ranch
I was convinced I couldn't possibly get away with eating like this, but every morning this keto voodoo woke me up feeling less bloated and more energized than the previous day.
"The coolest thing about eating keto is that you really can eat until you're full—until satiety," Devine says. "Starving yourself is what leads to binging and poor yo-yo relationships that so many women have with food." And when the stress of wedding planning makes you even more likely to long for the comfort of Ben & Jerry's on your couch, it's much easier to say no when you're not extremely hungry from dieting.
Are There Side Effects to a Keto Diet?
It should be noted that I did become incomprehensibly thirsty, and used the ladies' room—I'm not kidding—10 times a day. I asked for so many water refills at restaurants, more than one waiter must've assumed it was an attempt at flirting. Devine explained that my body was breaking down those glycogen stores, and my kidneys were excreting electrolytes, thus my fervent thirst. She recommended KetoLogic's BHB powder (you add to a glass of water once or twice a day) and salting my foods because in avoiding processed foods, I was intaking less sodium.
And diet soft drinks (which are allowed) now tasted extremely sweet.
How Will Keto Make Me Feel?
By the end of week two I was waking up at 6 a.m. on a Tuesday with the energy of 9:30 p.m. on a Saturday night. I felt like I'd reached a novice-form of ketosis. Devine says that how long it takes people to reach ketosis obviously varies from person to person based on their previous carb intake and body build (more muscles usually mean more glucose storage to get rid of), but by "four days to a week" you should feel like it's starting to work.
Remember that every person's body is different. Be patient as you're working to reach ketosis. The timing will depend on multiple factors, and it's not the same for everybody.
How Do I Incorporate Keto Into My Social Life?
As a bride, you're constantly attending carb-heavy celebrations, and that weekend my fiancé and I had planned drinks with friends to commemorate sending out our save the dates. Of course, the question came up as to whether I could drink on keto, and if so, what should I order?
I was relieved to hear that alcohol itself is carb-free and keto-friendly and that Devine herself is a fellow wine enthusiast. Of course, beer or super-sugary mixed drinks that are high in carbohydrates are no-nos. "If it tastes sweet, there's probably sugar in it," says Devine. Instead, opt for dry red or white wines, a spirit straight-up or on the rocks, or a mixed drink that's nothing more than alcohol and water or diet soda.
But, be warned: you may get drunk more quickly. Your liver is busy converting fat into ketones, so dousing it in alcohol may disrupt your weight loss and your tolerance. Plus, since fatty foods are more filling than carbs, you may have less food in your stomach, which also affects your liquor-holding. "Still, in moderation, low-carb alcoholic beverages fit in for sure," says Devine, who defines "moderation" as one to two drinks for women and two to three for men as often as every day, though she doesn't recommend it during your first two-week transition phase. I felt a happy buzz after two rum and Diet Cokes.
What Will It Feel Like If I Abruptly Stop Keto?
I'd decided during my four days in Georgia, I'd deprive myself of nothing. My first carbs after two weeks of keto were bits of apple in a salad from Panera. They tasted like candy pieces.
Here are other things I ate over the next four days that were definitely not keto:
- A total of 10 pieces of cake (caramel, Italian cream, churro, strawberry, cookie dough, cookies 'n cream)
- Fried chicken tacos with rice and beans and corn salsa
- Glazed apple fritter
- Burger (with the bun!) and fried green tomatoes
- Loaded tater tots with cheese and bacon
- S'mores ice cream
The night after I reintroduced carbs into my diet, I woke up at 4 a.m. to a pulsating stomach and a pounding headache.
"I describe it as 'a carb hangover,'" Devine told me. "Your body feels bloated and gross—just like if you'd had too much alcohol."
That feeling endured for our entire stint in the South. As I continued to stuff my face with all the carbs I thought I wanted, I only felt more sluggish and less satisfied. At one point, my fiancé said to me, "Are you okay? You seem really quiet and tired." I responded, "I think it's the damn bread." (Sorry, Oprah.)
How Do You Cure the Carb Hangover?
When I'd asked Devine if there was anything I could do preemptively to make my carb hangover less crappy, she responded, "It's more of a clean-up after situation."
Step one? Exercise! "If you're going to ingest the glucose, your body is going to use it as fuel, but get rid of it as fast as you can," Devine says. "HIIT exercise or cardio or even weightlifting is really good to burn through carbohydrates."
Then, you could try intermittent fasting, which is waiting 14 to 16 hours before your next meal. "This isn't a binge and restrict-type mentality," Devine explains. "It's more like, 'Hey, I'm going to have cake today, so I won't have any carbs in my dinner, and I'll wait until noon the next day to eat my first meal that's super high in fat.' You're letting your body burn through everything that's left so you can then get back to fat for fuel."
If you're returning from a particularly heinous carb bender like I was, you're going to want to get back to the basics of the beginning, where your only carbs are coming from non-starchy veggies, but Devine reiterates that you shouldn't be afraid of throwing fat at your body even if it's still using glucose.
When I returned to NYC and keto-eating, I did feel a bit like I was back at square one, but Devine says that if you've lived in the keto world for months and eased your body into that keto-adapted state that burns fat on impulse, it's easier to transition back.
"You can go out with friends and have beer and pizza," she says. "You're going to feel like crap because of the carbs, but you can go into ketosis pretty simply just by cutting them back out. You don't have to go through the whole training transition period that you go through initially."
Five Keto Diet Takeaways
Meal Prep Can Be Fun
A pleasant side effect of going keto was that I went grocery shopping frequently. (Yes, frugality!) Let me tell you how much more enjoyable it was to scoop out the above-mentioned cheesy, buffalo chicken goodness into a mason jar, as opposed to throwing a bunch of raw veggies in a Tupperware. It was, for lack of a better word, "fun" in a way that I never imagined associating with a "diet." I became excited to eat my packed lunch when it was a dish you'd normally serve to grown men at a tailgating party. Once I got used to meal prepping my comfort foods—cheese, bacon, and avocado—I became more likely to add in spinach and eggs and other more traditional "healthy" options too.
If you're new to the idea of meal-prepping, don't let it send you into overwhelm. If you're not used to prepping multiple days out at a time, just start small. Prep for two or three days ahead to gently dive in.
Yes, You'll Lose Some Weight
After four weeks—keeping in mind the majority of one was spent in carb heaven/hell—I lost 8 lbs. Devine explained much of it was probably water weight, but if you stay in keto, you will keep it off. My favorite part of this diet was not counting calories. I've been obsessed with tallying "the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water through 1°C" for the past 10 years, and while one could argue that calculating macros isn't all that different, it felt different. I can't explain it.
Plus, Devine noted that "even if you don't hit your gram goals in a day, it's more important that you're looking at the overall percentage. If you only ate one meal one day, but its 60 grams of fat ended up being 90 percent of your core intake, that's on track."
Space Sweet Stuff Out
Oh, scheduling four days straight of non-stop sugar rushing probably wasn't a good idea? Hindstomach is 20/20, I guess. When I think about how happy I was eating that salad with delicious apple slices versus how miserable I was forcing that last-day apple fritter into my mouth because #FOMO, I'm reflecting on a lesson learned.
When you're getting married, it may seem like you have a million events, but try your best to keep to your keto as much as possible. Devine says two weeks to a month between "cheat days" would be ideal, but she understands it's not always a reality.
"If we're thinking about it in these bridal terms—if push came to shove, you could probably get away with one cake tasting a week," says Devine. "It's not preferable, but I understand people are like, 'We're on a timeline here.' It just means the next day you pick back up." (And obviously the intensity of your "cheating"—going from 20 grams to 50 grams versus 20 grams to 250 grams—comes into play here.)
You also don't want to live cheat day to cheat day because now you've turned yourself into a caged animal only allowed out to play at certain times, and that's not a healthy way to live. "I firmly believe in the keto lifestyle, not diet," says Devine.
Focus on the cans rather than the can'ts. "Your eating choices should be about making you feel awesome—upped energy, mental clarity," says Devine. "If you can quit your highly, highly, highly addictive relationship with sugar, you'll be able to look at candy bars and know they taste yummy, but won't need to eat them. That's a pretty cool place to be in with your relationship with food and self-control."
It's Easy to Eliminate Extras
Once I started customizing smoothies and menu orders to be keto-compliant, I realized how much of the agaves and coconut sugars and croutons of the world were unnecessary for a delicious meal.
Devine warns against "keto hacks" like using artificial sweeteners because the point of keto is to change your tastebuds. "Once you pull added sugar out of things, you won't believe how sweet the stuff you were eating actually was," she says. "And as you do this long-term, sugar cravings will subside."
We Should Stop Judging People for What They Eat
Something I found extremely interesting while on keto was how uncomfortable we are as women when someone threatens what we understand about "healthy-eating." I witnessed horrified looks from well-meaning friends as I slathered globs of chipotle mayo across hunks of red meat and swore to them I was on a "diet." Mayonnaise was a "bad" food choice. How could I be eating that and expect to lose weight when I couldn't partake in any of their "good" choices like carrots and hummus?
"Women—brides—are deathly afraid of fats," says Devine. "We've been told our entire lives that fat is going to make us fat, and most women actually find it really hard to get their fats high enough to be effective on a ketogenic diet."
I myself had my mind blown when I was going to bed full of guacamole and waking up with a flat stomach. I didn't want keto to work because I missed carbs, but I couldn't deny my energy or the scale.
Tips for Enjoying a Keto Lifestyle
If you're hoping to adopt keto as an overall lifestyle, Devine has a few tips for you: First, know that you don't have to meticulously track your macros every day. "It's more important to understand what your plate should look like," she says. "As long as you're keeping serving sizes and ratios of fats to proteins to carbs in check, you don't have to count every little thing."
She also encourages you to figure out your individual carb tolerance. "You know when you're in ketosis," she says. "Your body can gauge those things. And if you do become keto-adaptive, you might be able to tolerate more grams of carbs without throwing your system out of whack. Keto should be a holistic approach," she says.
If you've decided to adopt a keto lifestyle, remember, it's important to listen to your body. According to Devine, you'll know when you're thriving, and it's important to pay attention to what it was that brought you into that zone you want to be in.
A month of Keto introduced me to my own biases when it came to understanding what a balanced diet really looked like, and it taught me that we have no basis to assume whether what someone's eating is "good" or "bad" when we haven't seen their whole picture. I doubt I'll do strict keto again, but I will be eating fewer carbs and more healthy fats and remaining aware of what makes my body feel at its best.
I'm ready to continue my balancing act in the months leading up to my reception and beyond, ensuring that in my diet—and especially on my wedding day — there's plenty of room in my stomachs for cake.