I was in ketosis for years & here’s what I learnt
I used to test my blood and urine most days.
In my bathroom, I kept a monitoring device and batches of test strips - some that you pee on, others you dab with a drop of your blood - so I could check the level of ketones and glucose circulating in my body at any given moment.
A certain level of ketones in a reading confirmed that my strange new eating regime was working and I was in a metabolic state of ketosis. I say “strange” because very few people I knew had heard of a ketogenic diet when I started experimenting with it in 2013.
I was eating a heck of a lot of fat and very little carbohydrate. As a result, my body was using those fats for energy instead of the glucose that would usually have come from eating carbs.
I’d decided to ‘go keto’ for a number of reasons. Curiosity, for one. But also, hearing that I could consistently eat all of my favourite fatty foods to satiety - apparently without putting on a ton of weight. I'm one of those people who is pretty much always hungry and nomming large portions. In fact, even typing this right now is making me hungry.
I had learned of the reported benefits of a ketogenic high-fat low-carb diet, such as mental clarity and upgraded mitochondrial health. And, with a job in TV as a news journalist and presenter - frequently filming on location with little time to eat - I wanted a way to sustain my energy for longer periods. I’d heard that being in a state of ketosis would help with this.
This way of eating has actually been around for decades and is known as a management tool for seizures in children with epilepsy.
It’s also been found to significantly reduce weight in obese patients while lowering triglycerides, LDL cholesterol and blood glucose, and increasing the level of HDL (that’s the good) cholesterol.
While other studies suggest the diet could help reduce the growth of cancer tumours in mice, which raises questions about its potential for humans trying to fight the disease.
Before going keto, I’d absorbed a wealth of information on it and felt I’d got my head around the basics.
This article isn’t a recommendation for you to try a ketogenic diet, it’s merely a piece about my experiences. If you choose to go down that route - make sure you read the science and let a nutritionist or a keto doctor know what you plan to do so they can advise on how to keep the diet nutrient-dense and with adequate fibre.
Did I enjoy it?
I loved it.
I gorged on fatty grass-fed meats, oily fish, cheeses, olives and green leafy vegetables. I covered nearly everything I ate with my favourite fats: olive oil, coconut oil, grass-fed butter and MCT oil. I would eat thick cream neat off the spoon (by the bowl full). Sometimes, a snack would simply be a stick of solid butter. There were lots of avocados too - also drizzled in good fats.
When you hear people say being in ketosis is simply eating “high fat foods,” be sure to understand that doesn’t mean you can eat calorific ice cream and donuts. That's not the kind of fat you want. Those kinds of foods are high in sugar too.
Ketosis is all about scrapping the sugar and replacing it with healthy fats not hydrogenated or trans fats and refined processed vegetable oils.
Carbohydrates like bread, pasta, rice, oats and potatoes are out. The carb factor diminishes ketone bodies in the blood and you are therefore thrown out of the state of ketosis.
I even tailored my wedding day meal to fit with my high-fat lifestyle. Instead of eating our stunning wedding cake - I tucked into a large bowl of pure full-fat clotted cream. Just on its own. But to be frank, I would opt for cream over cake any day.
As for birthday celebrations during my keto phase - I remember my mum presenting me with a plate of full-fat cheeses (complete with birthday candles) one year.
All of this might sound like utterly miserable carb-deprivation, but I enjoyed it. I didn’t actually find it hard. It’s important to point out here that, separately from my keto endeavours, I haven’t eaten sweets or cakes since 1998. I was aged 14 when a nutritionist, as well as a hypnotherapist, helped me to quit eating so much sugar. I've never craved those foods since. True story. More on this coming up.
Ketogenic living was high-fat heaven for me
You might be thinking that I must have gained lots of weight during this four-year period of full-fat gluttony. But, no - I didn’t gain significant amounts of fat. However, I don't believe I lost any weight either. I didn’t need to.
There was a period ahead of my wedding day in 2017 when I sporadically kept an eye on daily calories and decided to limit myself to the UK recommended range of 2000 per day. Then, I believe, I saw some very minor weight-loss.
There’s a theory that ketosis makes you feel fuller, therefore you naturally eat less. I believe that might well be true for a lot of ketonians, but not me. My appetite has always been big, no matter what kind of foods I’m consuming.
Near the beginning of my keto journey, I got in touch with an experienced doctor who was knowledgeable about a ketogenic lifestyle. I became a patient of hers. She encouraged me to introduce some carb cycling as she felt women fared better from a hormonal point of view if they included some starches in their diet.
For a while, I followed my doctor’s advice and added a carb 're-feed' day once or twice a week. But I didn’t enjoy it so didn’t keep it up for long. I much preferred the feeling (and tastes) of my super high fat foods.
Why keto specifically?
Here’s a bit more on the wider reasons behind my decision to enter this fat-fuelled state.
I’ll keep this as brief as possible.
I’d experienced years of dealing with the negative effects of fluctuating blood sugar levels (‘hangry’ moods, food cravings, and feeling a strong ‘need’ to eat every three hours or so).
Ketosis, I’d discovered, was a way of maintaining a steady release of energy without the glucose level highs and lows. This is what I longed for. You see, sugary foods and I don’t have a happy history…
As a child, I was hyperactive. My family will tell you this was linked to my insane love of sweets.
As a teen, I developed horrid anxiety - about all kinds of things. I was miserable and felt totally isolated. The anxiety seemed to come out of nowhere. At the same time, I was - like most teens - eating a lot of sugary foods and drinks. Sometimes, the only thing that made me feel better during a panic attack was a can of something fizzy and sugary.
It was a health practitioner and hypnotherapist friend of my mum’s who pointed out one day that my anxiety might have been linked to my blood glucose levels. It seemed to make sense when she explained further. The theory was that when my blood sugar level dropped sometime after a meal, my body would release cortisol (stress hormone), making me feel jittery and exacerbating any anxiety.
A teacher at school told my parents to take me to the Institute of Optimum Nutrition where I became a patient and was taught how sugar behaved in my body and why it was important to eat foods that released energy more slowly.
I was encouraged to eat protein and slow-releasing carbs regularly throughout the day to maintain blood-sugar balance and told I must stop eating sugary foods and drinks - or risk ending up with T2 diabetes.
In my then 14-year-old head, I believed this would stop all of the anxiety. I thought it was THE solution to end my panic attacks for good, so I was determined to scrap sugar immediately. I haven’t eaten sweets, ice cream, donuts or cake for more than 20 years now. I guess education plus a hypnotherapy session make a powerful combination at that young age!
In my late teens and 20s, I experienced secondary amenorrhea and was diagnosed with polycystic ovaries (PCO). I would rarely have periods when not taking the birth control that was prescribed to regulate my hormones. I discovered PCO is a condition linked to higher levels of circulating insulin. This became another reason for me to be mindful of not overeating foods that were too high in carbohydrate or natural sugars.
By my 20s, I had begun my career as a TV news journalist and presenter and would regularly film out and about on location. It meant I would go for several hours at a time without eating anything because I was simply too busy.
If you find you can last that long without the lightheaded symptoms of low blood sugar then that’s great! For me though, in pre-keto days, I couldn’t even think straight at the 3.5 hour mark, let alone deliver a decent piece-to-camera.
Entering a state of ketosis, I'd heard, would alter how my body used food for fuel so that I could enjoy longer lasting, more balanced energy levels - and therefore go for longer without having to pull out my Tupperwares all the time.
I was pleased to discover - it seemed to work.
I made mistakes
Looking back, the first couple of years of my ketosis experiment were full of trial and error, and I now realise I often ate way too much protein.
It turns out, when you eat more protein than you actually need, your body starts to treat it like sugar and you can still get blood glucose spikes.
Keto experts have written more about this process, called gluconeogenesis. Here’s an example if you want to read more.
The final two years of my keto living were better measured and slightly more scientific. In this phase, I had started doing regular urine and blood tests to check I was actually in ketosis at any given moment.
I also felt part of the growing keto community on social media, which helped support my seemingly odd lifestyle choice.
The good, the bad & the ugly
Over time, it did seem like my energy was better sustained while I was in ketosis. I could go for longer without desperately craving my next meal. This effect appears to have continued even though, at the time of writing, I am no longer on a keto diet. It’s as though I somehow re-trained my metabolism to handle longer gaps between meals. This probably makes me a happier person as I’m able to get on with other things and focus on my work more without stressing too much about when/where my next meal will happen.
There are some reported benefits to being ketogenic that take place inside your body, ones you can't see. I obviously liked the idea that I was potentially boosting my mitochondrial function and lowering inflammation.
My immune system appeared to be more resilient too. I have no actual biological evidence of this. I only mention it because I don’t remember getting ill during my keto years.
However, my physical fitness saw no significant gains despite my love of working out. I just seemed to plateau, although there’s no real way of knowing if this was because of ketosis. Maybe I got too comfortable with my usual gym routines.
One thing I missed majorly were the huge plates of vegetables I used to eat alongside my protein. Don’t get me wrong - I ate plenty of greens while maintaining ketosis, but vegetables still contain carbs, more so in colourful veg (e.g. tomatoes, aubergines and bell peppers), so if I ate too many of those then I’d risk getting kicked out of ketosis.
I also missed being able to eat larger quantities of plain, natural yogurt. There are more carbs than you think in yogurt.
Coincidentally, for about three of my four years in ketosis, I dealt with a stubborn and upsetting skin condition.
It was an irritating, burning, inflamed and dry skin rash across may face called perioral dermatitis. It got so painful sometimes that I would cry about it at weekends when I wasn’t at work and felt I could hide indoors without make-up on.
None of the doctors or consultants I visited had been able to help me cure it.
And then I tried a gut-health-boosting probiotic kefir drink over a period of months and the rash vanished. It’s never returned. Read the full details of what happened here.
There’s growing evidence in the scientific community of a gut-skin connection and it's believed one of the keys to good gut health is to eat a varied diet, as you can hear in #healthHackers® episode 2 with Professor Tim Spector.
If there’s not enough diversity in your diet then your gut can suffer leading to negative knock-on effects.
Could my limited keto diet have damaged my gut diversity leading to a chronic skin issue? Opinions differ depending on which health expert or doctor I speak to about it. But any suspected gut problem may also have been caused (or exacerbated) by years of hormonal birth control, antibiotic use, stress, synthetic cosmetic chemicals and food pesticides.
After four years, I stopped
In 2017, I decided to quit ketosis and revert to my previous way of eating. I’d begun seeing a second doctor who suggested it might benefit my hormones to stop carb-restriction. It didn’t, but now that I’m out of ketosis - I prefer it.
I’ve still got a major love of fats, especially olive oil - although these days it’s more about drizzling it on my food rather than drowning it in oil.
Cheese is my vice. I can easily devour an entire packet in one go. And then another.
In terms of notable negative side-effects from switching back to my non-keto way of eating - well, initially I didn’t notice any.
At first, I was convinced my memory wasn’t as sharp (mental clarity is one of the reported benefits of being in ketosis), but I could have imagined this effect.
I also unintentionally lost a small amount of weight (roughly a kilo) after quitting keto.
Maybe something had become ingrained during my keto years but I still have zero desire to eat breads, pasta and potatoes so you could argue my current diet remains low-ish in carbs, despite my now eating at least triple the grams of carbs I did when I was keto (a loose estimate, I’ve not counted to any degree of accuracy). A keen keto supporter might argue that the reason significant negatives haven’t surfaced since I quit ketosis is because I’m still likely not eating the amount of grains and starches that a typical non-keto person eats.
The keto craze
There’s a growing trend of people now trying out the diet, with rumours of increased mental clarity (Google ‘Silicon Valley CEOs and keto’ to read more on that), as well as celebrities and a whole host of convenience foods aimed at the keto market.
Since coming out of ketosis and starting my #healthHackers series, in which I've been lucky enough to interview some awesome figures in the health space, I’ve learnt that no dietary method is ever perfect. New evidence is always emerging, showing us our mistakes and presenting new ideas. Sometimes you just have to see what works for you.
If a vegan, carnivorous, dairy-free, macrobiotic or ketogenic lifestyle makes you feel amazing and perform at your best - good for you!
For me - I feel better eating a slightly more diverse range of foods to keep my gut microbiome happy along with plenty of good healthy fats - without necessarily being in ketosis.
It’s also nice not to have to pee on test strips any more.