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 blood monitoring device and various test strips so I could check the level of ketones and glucose circulating my body.
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.
It meant 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. The idea of eating a ton of my favourite fatty foods apparently without putting on a ton of weight to match it was very attractive to me. I'm one of those people who is always hungry and always eating. In fact, typing this right now is making me hungry.
Body image aside though, there were reported physiological benefits like sustained energy, mental clarity, and upgraded mitochondrial health.
If you've never heard of the ketogenic high-fat low-carb way of eating before, it has actually been around for decades and is known to be 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.
There are other reasons the ketogenic diet has become a talking point for those in health circles, including studies that suggest the diet could help reduce the growth of cancer tumours in mice, which raises questions about its potential for humans - although there's no evidence at this point.
Before going keto, I’d absorbed page after page of information on it. I listened to podcasts and watched YouTube videos until I 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 if needed.
Did I enjoy it?
I loved it.
I gorged on fatty grass-fed meats, oily fish, cheeses, olives and green vegetables. I covered nearly everything I ate with my favourite fats: olive oil, coconut oil, grass-fed butter, MCT oil or thick cream. I often ate these fats neat off a spoon too.
When you hear people say being in ketosis is just eating a “high fat diet” - you need to realise that doesn’t mean you can eat ice cream and donuts. That's not the kind of fat you want! Those foods are also high in sugar.
Ketosis was all about scrapping the sugar and replacing with good, 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.
If I fancied a snack between meals, I ate things like: MCT or extra-virgin coconut oil mixed with unflavoured protein or collagen powders, a fat chunky slice of pure grass-fed butter, spare fatty meats leftover from dinner (or breakfast), or a load of olives dressed in olive oil.
There were lots of avocados too - also drizzled in good fats.
I even tailored my wedding day meal to fit with my high-fat lifestyle. Instead of eating our wedding cake - I tucked into a large bowl of pure full-fat thick clotted cream. Just on its own.
This might sound like miserable carb-deprivation to you, but I enjoyed it. I haven’t eaten cake since the 1990s when a hypnotherapist, as well as a nutritionist, helped me conquer a suspected sugar addiction. I've never craved it since. True story (more on this coming up.)
As for birthday celebrations during my keto phase - my mum would present me with a plate of full-fat rich cheeses (complete with birthday candles).
Ketogenic living was high-fat heaven for me
You might assume that I put on lots of weight during this period of full-fat gluttony. But, no - I didn’t gain significant amounts of fat. Not in my four years of nomming high fat foods and very few carbs. However, I don't believe I lost any weight either. Not until the run up to my wedding in 2017 when I sporadically kept an eye on daily calories and decided to stick within 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’d say that might happen to a lot of ketonians, but not me. My appetite has always been on the large side.
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 taste) of my super high fat foods.
It’s probably worth you knowing a bit about the wider reasons behind my decision to enter this fat-fuelled state.
I’ll keep this as brief as possible.
I’d had years of dealing with the negative affects of fluctuating blood sugar levels.
Ketosis, I’d discovered, was a way of maintaining a steady release of energy without the erratic highs and lows. This is what I longed for.
As a child, I was hyperactive - perhaps linked to my insane love of sweets.
As a teen, I was hooked on eating sugary foods and drinks that would often lead to unstable blood glucose levels. When my blood sugar dropped, a foggy-headed feeling would sometimes morph into anxiety and panic attacks (I was told later it was likely because my body released adrenalin to compensate for the lack of glucose).
I became a patient at the Institute of Optimum Nutrition where I was taught how sugar behaved in my body and why it was important to eat foods that released energy more slowly.
I can honestly say that I haven’t eaten sweets, ice cream, donuts or cake since 1998. I guess education and hypnotherapy make a powerful combination!
In my late teens and 20s, I experienced secondary amenorrhea and was soon diagnosed with polycystic ovaries (PCO). I would rarely have periods when not taking the birth control that was prescribed to help regulate my hormones. 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.
By my 20s, I had begun my career as a TV news journalist and presenter for Sky and would regularly film out and about on location. It meant I sometimes would go for several hours at a time without eating anything.
If you can last that long without the lightheaded symptoms of low blood sugar then that’s great! For me though, 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 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 felt like my energy was better sustained while I was fuelled by high fat foods. I could go for longer without desperately craving my next meal. I’d say I was also probably a slightly happier person because of this and could focus on my work better.
There are other reported benefits to being ketogenic that take place inside your body, ones you can't see. I 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 evidence of this. I only mention it because I don’t remember getting ill in my keto years.
As a loosely related side note for you, I found this about high fat diets being beneficial for helping mice get over bacterial infections.
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 amounts of vegetables I used to eat. Don’t get me wrong - I ate greens while maintaining ketosis, but vegetables still contain carbs, particularly colourful ones, so if I ate too many then I’d risk getting kicked out of ketosis.
I missed tomatoes and other fruits (too carby to maintain ketosis in the amounts that I wanted to eat them), and also 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 treatment 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?
Maybe. 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 that I had consumed.
After four years, I stopped
In 2017, I decided to quit ketosis and revert to my old low-sugar, moderate fat, fairly Mediterranean way of eating.
I’d begun seeing a second doctor who also wanted me to re-introduce some starchy carbs to my diet for female hormonal health benefits.
This time I wasn’t too fussed and actually felt like mixing things up again.
I went home, ate some carbs to kick my body out of ketosis and returned to my pre-keto way of living.
I’ve still got a major love of fats, especially olive oil - although these days it’s more about drizzling it on my food 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 major ones.
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).
Update added January 2019: Since stopping my keto diet, I haven’t had a single natural menstrual period in a year and four months. My periods had been scant to begin with, but during my keto years they had started to get slightly more frequent (I’d have between two to eight periods per year during ketosis.)
However, there’s no way of telling if re-introducing more carbs to my diet led to the loss of my periods. This would be completely at odds with the theory held by my own doctor that women do better with carbs. My loss of periods may have been caused by that small amount of fat-loss I experienced since quitting keto, or even factors like my age and stress. I can’t say for sure.
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), and I heard one of the Kardashians also went keto, although I hope that doesn’t mean every teenage girl begins experimenting with it.
Since coming out of ketosis and starting my #HealthHackers series, in which I've been lucky enough to interview some awesome figures from the health and wellness 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, dairy free or ketogenic lifestyle makes you feel amazing and perform at your best - good for you!
For me - I feel like I need a diverse range of foods to keep my gut microbiome happy along with plenty of good healthy fats and low-glyceamic foods - without necessarily being in ketosis. But I’ll be remaining mindful of how my diet potentially impacts my hormones going forwards.
It’s also nice not to have to pee on test strips any more.