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I tried the ketogenic diet for 30 days. Here's what happened

When patients kept asking this dietitian about the ketogenic diet, she tried it for a month to see how she would feel.
by Kristin Kirkpatrick / / Source: TODAY Contributor

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As a dietitian, my patients ask about a wide variety of diets. One plan has dominated the inquiries lately: the ketogenic diet. Since I’ve never put a patient on a diet I haven’t tried myself, I knew I needed to experience it personally. I dove in for 30 days with two carb-loving feet — and a combination of trepidation and motivation.

Here’s how it went:

Saying goodbye to carbs and making fat a way of life

The ketogenic diet allows about 70 to 80 percent fat, about 5 percent carbohydrates (which equates to about 25 digestible, or net carbs, which are calculated by subtracting fiber from total carbohydrates), and moderate amounts of protein.

Kristin Kirkpatrick
I’ve never put a patient on a diet I haven’t tried myself, so I knew I needed to experience the ketogenic diet personally. Courtesy of Kristin Kirkpatrick

I recently wrote about a cancer specialist who not only adheres to the diet himself, but also feels it’s the right plan for the prevention, and perhaps even treatment of disease. I detailed his keto dietary practices in an earlier article.

Hard start

During week one, it was the drastic cut of carbohydrates that left me really hungry.

I soon realized keeping carbohydrates under 25 net carbs meant eating no “traditional” carbs at all. My tiny amount was being filled from non-carbohydrate sources, like:

  • tree nuts — 2 grams for ½ cup of macadamia nuts
  • vegetables —4 grams for a cup of broccoli
  • my daily snack of pure coconut chips, 5 grams for a 1-ounce serving

Breakfast consisted of eggs, but not too many egg whites since that would increase my protein too much. I snacked a lot on dried cheese — particularly useful when traveling — and nuts. Lunch comprised of salads with lots of dressing and avocado.

Dinner was often wild salmon with broccoli, kale, or spinach — usually roasted to factor in any missing fat I needed for the day. As for dessert, forget about it, unless I was up for a tablespoon of olive oil as a midnight snack. I did find a few no-added-sugar coconut bars I liked, but in general, it was best to skip any after-dinner eats.

Salad with nuts
Lunches were lots of salads with nuts. This diet forced me to try new and innovative ways to experiment with various oils and vinegar since leafy greens were a staple. I spent hours in my local olive oil store.Courtesy of Kristin Kirkpatrick

The ‘Keto Flu’

Consistent with the books I read, the keto “flu” hit as my body got adjusted to the lack of a constant glucose supply, and transitioned into burning fat instead. During this time, I was tired, had crazy sugar cravings and was generally mean to my poor husband. At one point, during a heated discussion about dog food, he suggested, in a very loving and compassionate manner, that perhaps I eat a piece of bread.

It was a rough start. And then, it wasn’t.

The cloud lifted.

I went from irritable and “hangry” to feeling great. A quick check of my urine using my ketone at-home stick kit revealed I was on my way down the ketosis highway and I was euphoric.

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Challenges

Before I started the diet, I thought my greatest challenge would be getting the recommended amount of fat, while taking in so little carbs. I was wrong. Those two macronutrients became the easiest to manage.

Instead, keeping my protein under control proved to be the greatest threat to knocking me out of ketosis. I soon realized why every keto book I read had multiple uses and recipes for coconut oil, egg yolks, and bacon. These foods were high in fat, but relatively moderate in protein.

This continues to be a challenge for me and most likely would have taken more than 30 days to figure out. I also had a nasty bout of constipation as my body transitioned away from the whole grain and bean-based fiber that kept me regular. I had to really up the ante with the non-starchy vegetables to get what I needed.

Cauliflower pizza with cheese and veggies
Cauliflower pizza with cheese and veggies. I made cauliflower crust pizza all the time. It allowed me to feel like I wasn’t depriving myself on a Friday night.Courtesy of Kristin Kirkpatrick

Perhaps my greatest challenge was eating while traveling. On a business trip, I found myself at an event with a plated dinner that I could not eat due to its mound of quinoa sitting under a protein source I was allergic to. I left starving and binged on pecans and tofu jerky back at my hotel room. I realized success in sticking to this diet would always be made easier the more control I had of my environment.

Just as the holidays can derail even the healthiest diets, a lack of planning in a ketogenic diet could be the kiss of death. Finally, I read about the bad breath often accompanied with ketosis. I didn’t feel this impacted me. If it did, no one told me!

Triumphs

My diet officially started just before Halloween — a holiday that's traditionally free reign for me to steal candy from my own children’s loot. Four candy-laden parties led up to the actual trick-or-treating, each of them abundant with carbohydrate sources. I had none of it. It felt both amazing and empowering. Even during the tough few days, I realized I could give up all sugar and be just fine. Perhaps this was one of the greatest results of trying the diet.

Cheese muffins make with butter and a little bit of almond flour
These cheese muffins made with butter and a little bit of almond flour were a great snack and my kids were obsessed with them, too. They felt so indulgent and kept me full for a long time.Courtesy of Kristin Kirkpatrick

The other surprising impact was my complete lack of hunger. I knew fat fills you up. However, I was surprised after the initial shock subsided that my hunger went along with it. What I had been preaching to my patients for the past two decades was, in fact, the truth: It’s not the calories that matter, it’s the type. My daily calorie consumption during my 30 days was at an all-time high. It makes sense, since gram for gram, calories from fat are more than double that of carbohydrates or protein. Despite this, I lost weight. I felt better in my clothing. I also felt that my belly, which I struggle with, had deflated. (Some experts advise against the ketogenic diet for weight loss.)

Green beans and onions as a side to salmon
Green beans and onions provided a hint of sweet and satisfaction next to my salmon protein source at dinner. Courtesy of Kristin Kirkpatrick

Here’s the best way to start the diet

If the ketogenic diet is one you feel you are a good candidate for, then don’t wait, start today! Start by planning out meals that follow the macronutrient breakdown detailed in this article. You can use an app that tracks your snacks and meals. I also found ketogenic recipe books to be very helpful.

Breakfast: a protein smoothie or eggs with a side of avocado

Lunch: a big salad, or zucchini noodles with pesto and grilled salmon

Dinner: hearty mushroom soup made with veggies and cream, butter, or bone broth to satisfy and fill you up. Or grass fed beef or an abundance of roasted vegetables

Snacks: nuts, jerky, or coconut chips with no added sugar

Kristin Kirkpatrick
Towards the end of my 30 days, I realized I had felt the best I had in years. It’s hard to stop a diet that makes you feel so good.Courtesy of Kristin Kirkpatrick

Next steps

I’ll stay on parts of the diet, but not all of it. I’ve continued to keep my carbohydrates on the low end, but I’m not as restrictive about eliminating all of them. I’ve allowed myself more leeway with protein, bringing back some baked chicken from time to time. I’ve continued to keep my fat intake higher. I choose mainly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated versions.

Towards the end of my 30 days, I realized I had felt the best I had in years. It’s hard to stop a diet that makes you feel so good. While restrictive and not for everyone, I came to the conclusion the ketogenic diet could be the perfect plan for the right person.

You just have to get through that first week.

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, R.D., is the manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Cleveland, Ohio. Follow her on Twitter @KristinKirkpat.

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