This is most common misinterpretation I hear from people who have either sort of heard of the ketogenic diet or sort of tried going ketogenic without doing enough homework: they’re stoked about being able to eat bacon all day. Sure bacon can have a place in a ketogenic lifestyle — and it is a lifestyle, not simply another diet — but bacon doesn’t have to factor in at all, and sometimes it can’t. Case in point: my vegetarian ketoist daughter.
First let’s talk about how entering into and sticking with a ketogenic diet becomes a lifestyle before we get into the specifics of bacon versus bacon-free options.
Begin your process with doing your homework. There are many excellent books out there explaining the history and theory behind the ketogenic diet as well as offering recipes for savories and sweets. I will generate a separate list of my favorites, but please know that the books that will work for you may differ depending on your own background, reading preferences, learning style, and goals. The important thing is to know full well exactly what you’re getting yourself into. And why.
Be that label-reading person everyone has to reach around at the grocery store
Expect to get into the habit of reading every single label of every single thing you will potentially put into your mouth — or decide to put back on the shelf and walk away without lament.
Expect to lament certain foods. What I missed most, to my great surprise, was not those Baby Ruth bars or chocolate chip cookies, but fresh fruit. Many fresh fruits are carb-dense, even after you’ve subtracted the fiber grams (separate post on keto math coming up), and dried fruits even more so. So they’re not very keto-friendly. Depending on how many carbs per day you can eat and still stay in ketosis (see carb budgeting section below), you should be able to swing half a banana and 20 -30 blueberries in said day. Yes, you will be counting individual blueberries or at least measuring them with a measuring cup.
The act of eating purposefully
Because you are spending the time and effort counting out blueberries before you eat them, and because you know that’s how many you are allotted for the day, you will want to savor each one. Learn to take small bites of your carb sources, and keep the bites in your mouth for a long time. Pay attention to the specifics within flavors and the variations of textures. Thoroughly enjoy your food. Also enjoy and acknowledge the fact that this food — proteins, fats, and carbs alike — is fuel for your body, your machine, and that’s why you’re eating it. Your reason for eating is to optimize your machine’s performance. Take note of that simplicity. This will soon turn into a feeling of great power.
The power of choice
Expect to feel pretty powerful on a lot of days and pretty plain on others. Life goes on just the same while you’re in ketosis, but you will perceive things differently, plan differently, choose differently. At a kids’ pizza party, you’ll eat the cheese and toppings off your slice with a fork (a cardinal sin for the native New Yorker I am, trust me) and leave the entire crust on your plate. Yes, you will have a sad-looking triangle of bare pizza crust left on your plate. Leave it there. This was actually my very first public challenge and choice of solution one week into going ketogenic. Being in LA and with no fellow New Yorkers in sight, my behavior was deemed acceptable, perhaps slightly interesting even, and the earth continued to revolve.
Malls are tricky but not impossible. (Special note: I hate malls, and I hate shopping, but I end up at the nearby mall with the boys two or three times a month, bleh.) Expect to become friends with a few variations of mall salads, but be careful of hidden carbs in the choices at typical mall eateries: walnuts sprinkled on top, good, cranberries less good; Caesar dressing generally good, honey mustard generally not; don’t eat the croutons, they’re a waste of carbs!
Wasting vs saving carbs
If you have never been able to stick to a budget, you will learn to now, except this will be a carb budget. Here’s how to figure out your carb budget:
Getting into ketosis
The most efficient way to get into ketosis is to simply limit your daily carb intake to 20 grams. With this carb limit, within one or two days, maybe three, your body should deplete its internal storage supply of glucose and glycogen (storage strings of glucose) and start using the 20 grams of carbs, lots of fats, and decent amounts of proteins that you eat, as well as start tapping into your stored fat. All of this will result in the production of the breakdown products called ketones that are peed out in the urine and are measured by pee sticks, properly called ketone urine test strips. I entered ketosis in a day.
Now, taking in only 20 grams of carbs, especially at first, will seem daunting — one 6-inch banana is already 23 grams of carbs, and a measured half cup of rice or pasta is 20 grams of carbs. You will probably freak out and wonder why you ever decided to try this and how you will ever manage to stick to it.
The theory behind the math
Stick to it! Here comes the budgeting part; it’s like a game. Most sources and strict ketoists recommend waiting until you’ve been in ketosis for a month to six weeks before you start playing with how many carbs you can eat before your body kicks out of ketosis. I started playing in my second week. I’m a crazy scientist that way.
Stating the biochemistry simply, there is some number of grams of carbs that your unique body can metabolize (use up for energy) quickly enough that it will continue to metabolize fats and proteins, which means it will still be producing ketones and peeing those out onto your sticks. But at some point, there is a threshold number of carbs for your body at which it can’t quite finish up using all of the carbs, and your body will store the excess as glycogen. Now the body has replenished its carb store upon which it can — and will — draw.
I always say to my anatomy and physiology classes, “The body is smart, smarter than we are. It will always, always proceed in the most efficient way it has built in.” The body is built to use up carbs first. If your body is withdrawing from its glycogen stores, it is not metabolizing fats or proteins and not producing ketones. So nothing shows on the pee sticks: you’ve been kicked out of ketosis.
Never fear, you can easily get back into ketosis simply by cutting back down on your carbs.
Playing to find your carb budget
So, do you see how you can play to find your budget? Here we go:
If you’re eating 20 grams of carbs per day and consistently in ketosis, you can one day try, let’s say 25 grams, and see if you’re still in ketosis when you pee on the stick the next morning (I always checked first thing in the morning to see the effect of the previous day). You probably had to plan carefully to decide what you were going to eat to add on those 5 precious grams of carbs. That’s good and an important part of the process!
If you were still in ketosis at 25 grams of carbs, one day try 30 grams. Those should have been some well-planned 5 additional grams of carbs again. Check for ketones the next morning. If you’re still in ketosis at 30 grams, try 35 grams. Most people can go up to about 40 grams of carbs and stay in ketosis; some people, about 50 grams. This is a very individualized experiment that you will be conducting.
Aha, this game was actually a somewhat controlled experiment on yourself! For me, the moment I made this realization was the moment my lifetime of emo eating dissolved. If emo eating is an issue for you, I cannot emphasize enough how vital this process is to your emotional well-being. Truly, this was a turning point for my life.
The game of ketogenic life
The game really begins once you know your carb limit. For me it was 40 grams. That’s quite specific. That’s the neat thing about the ketogenic lifestyle — and it becomes a lifestyle instead of a diet once you experience the above-mentioned mind shift — you can be very deliberate in your choices. When you can be that specific about your parameters, you can deliberately play quite a bit within those parameters.
Real-life example: Once I knew I could stay in ketosis as long as I ate under 40 grams of carbs per day, and once I knew that a half cup serving of Haagen Dazs vanilla ice cream was 20 grams of carbs, and that vanilla Swiss almond (my favorite Haagen Dazs flavor) was 24 grams of carbs, well…
If I knew I were going to have a Haagen Dazs treat AT THE MALL late in the day, I planned out my carbs accordingly for the first part of the day. Ahead of time, I subtracted the 24 grams of vanilla Swiss almond carbs from my 40 gram budget, and I made sure that I ate only 16 grams of carbs or less heading into the Haagen Dazs kiosk.
In this way, for my ketogenic lifestyle, I worked in carby foods at special occasions and dark chocolate with red wine on Westworld and Handmaid’s Tale nights. The key was to have read all those labels, keep strict track of my serving sizes, and keep the carby foods special.
Again, I will post separately on additional aspects of keto math. For now, I share with you Part 1 of my bits of advice if you are considering going ketogenic or if you’re just starting out:
read a lot to prepare;
20 g carbs per day to efficiently enter into ketosis;
pee sticks AKA ketone test strips to test for ketones in your urine;
experiment to find your body’s carbs-for-ketosis upper limit;
budget your carbs to enjoy treats;
fully realize you’re fueling a machine to dissolve emo eating.
A midlife oasis from the vantage point of this Quinquagen.