Last Year, I Tried a Mostly-Kinda-Keto Diet — and It Totally Worked
I’ve been through a few rounds of New Year’s resolutions in my life, and have experienced it all: the hype, the hope, the abject failure. In several recent years, I hadn’t even bothered to try at all. But in 2021, I had a big resolution win. Here’s how it happened:
I had been eating fairly healthily and maintaining my weight at a steady and acceptable-to-me number. Growing up, my mom was a yo-yo dieter, so I saw the unhealthy consequences and futility of that. As a result, I’m not a dieter at all, and I’m a big eater. I’ve always been fairly physically active, doing hula hoop, dance, yoga, and biking. I live in Manhattan, so there’s always been a lot of walking and subway stairs embedded into my everyday life. Then came the pandemic.
I spent most of the lockdown alone in my apartment with a couple of sweet cats who hung out in my lap more often than usual. I did a little exercise: I started taking ballet classes with Tiler Peck of NYC Ballet on Instagram Live once I discovered them, but mostly, I did a whole lot of couch sitting and not much walking.
Along with many of you, I watched all the streaming TV there was while baking and consuming the required banana bread, which morphed into chocolate chip banana bread, which later led to chocolate chip cookies. I got deeply into making pancakes — and not just for breakfast. Over the 14 months of isolation, anxiety, and weird circadian rhythms, I gained 20 unhealthy pounds.
For me, the most important issue wasn’t the number on the scale, it was the accompanying feelings of bloat, fatigue, heartburn, brain fog, and straight-up sugar addiction. (I had awful cravings.) I already knew from experience that grains and sugars were not my friends, but during pandemic times, I truly hit the “eff it” switch.
Becoming fully vaccinated was the game changer: I was no longer trapped in my apartment alone. Aside from visiting my mom, my first foray out was to a wedding, so of course there was cake — and a cute gift bag of adorable cookies.
The next day, after I ate those cookies, I felt the full effect of a sugar hangover and knew I had to make a change. At the time, keto was only something I had vaguely heard of, so I did a deep dive on YouTube. I had questions:
- Why does every keto video feature a really ripped guy into gym gains and intermittent fasting?
- As a woman who does not exactly qualify as “ripped,” is there anything useful in this diet for me?
- What if I don’t want to do the accompanying intermittent fasting, weight lifting, etc. — can anything good come from a non-extreme version of keto?
- What even is keto?
Keto (very) basics
Keto is an eating plan that sharply reduces the amount of sugars and carbs you ingest while increasing vegetables, fats, and proteins. It’s supposed to make you feel better than the way you feel when loading up on carbs at every meal. I had already come up against the negative effects and addictive qualities of sugar on my health, so this rang true for me.
I found the science around keto compelling, and it felt right for my body. While there’s a lot more to it, my point is not to be an expert about keto, just to tell you about my successful — and somewhat haphazard — resolution experience. Should you want more info, there are a ton of videos by very fit, cut men explaining it on YouTube. If you’re into that. Otherwise, you know, there’s books.
I decided to make the change, but keep it as small as possible, with plenty of outs built in so I wouldn’t have another “failure” to beat myself up about. You know what I mean.
My rules of the game
“Dude,” I said to myself, “Don’t worry about the long run. Do a hard-ass week or two (max) to reset. Then renegotiate the terms.” And by “renegotiate” I meant “find a way to make it effective for my health and well-being but still half-assed enough to allow for pleasure.” That’s the crux of why half-assing is a key component of long-term success: it’s not extreme so there’s no snap-back!
My preparations couldn’t have been simpler: I gathered the flours, sugars, pasta, and rice into a nice grouping on my dining table. I gave away whatever was unopened, and trashed the opened items. I went shopping to make sure I had greens, berries, avocados, butter, eggs, tons of vegetables, a rotisserie chicken, and a little aged sheep cheese.
I self-agreed to do the following for a week:
-No added sugars (that included maple syrup, honey, molasses, barley malt, and the 50-something other names that sugar legally hides behind — concentrated fruit juice, anyone?)
-Very reduced fruit intake — basically only berries, which are comparatively low-sugar
-No starchy veggies (such as potatoes, winter squashes, etc.)
-Very reduced cheese/yogurt/dairy
It turns out that within those restrictions, I was able to make a very satisfying eating plan for myself. And what’s more, I felt better. This was the reset I craved. I noticed effects like:
-Sugar high and crash: gone
-Brain fog: gone
-Satiety: through the roof! After a delicious and large breakfast, I could often go all the way to dinner without being hungry. This became useful once my schedule got a little crazy with work.
First week eating plan
Breakfast: Eggs (scrambled, over-easy, or omelette). My omelette was filled with half an avocado plus some goat or sheep cheese, and chopped dried hot red pepper. It’s delicious. I wanted to eat more greens than usual, so I added a generous bowl of undressed mixed greens to breakfast. (The virtue signaling to myself from this was very effective.) Cold brew with hemp seed creamer and coffee ice cubes until the weather reaches the 40s. I’d sometimes pair this meal with strawberries due to their low sugar content.
Lunch: Kale ceviche. Here’s the recipe: Tear the kale, rinse, and spin in a salad spinner. Make the vinaigrette (¼ cup fresh lime juice, ¼ cup olive oil, salt, and a couple teaspoons of thyme). Pour over the kale and massage into every leaf (both sides). The citric acid “cooks” the kale, which is why I’m allowing myself to call it “ceviche”… but yes, it’s really just massaged kale. It pairs well with half a sliced avocado and sauerkraut.
Dinner: ¼ of a rotisserie chicken with side vegetables like sautéed eggplant, steamed string beans, or whatever else I had in the house (as long as it was a vegetable).
Adding back goodies
Now it was time to figure out what to add back, and I made things (temporarily) a little weird. I looked up keto baking and found a great recipe for lemon poppy seed muffins made with almond flour. Ooooh, baked goods. But the sweetener was something called erythritol, and when I googled it it seemed a little controversial, so first, I tried making them with no added sweetener except for the lemon juice. They were (barely) edible but certainly not pleasurable. So I bought a monk fruit sugar and erythritol blend, and tried it. I used 1 ½ tablespoons for six muffins — that worked, and no side effects of any kind.
I also played around with almond flour pancake recipes and fine-tuned a couple of good ones. But the thing that makes my adaptations to a regular keto eating regimen really half-assed is my specifically non-keto seasonal additions: Fruits in the summer and squashes in the winter. Hey, I am not going to do a summer without ever tasting a peach or a delicious watermelon. And winter without a kabocha squash is not gonna happen.
In order to accommodate these must-haves, I have been and continue to be willing to give up all grains and pseudo grains (quinoa, kasha, wild rice); all legumes; and all sweeteners in the sugar family, still including maple syrup, honey, and molasses.
Since I became empress of almond flour, I enjoy a keto baked good at least two or three times a week. No heartburn, bloat, or brain fog. As I mentioned, I’m a big eater, but regardless, I’ve already lost 16 of those 20 extra pounds. I’m in no hurry: Weight loss dieting sucks and I don’t believe in it. I want an eating plan I can stick to and enjoy. I even order Chinese food once every couple of weeks or so. Hold the rice, and hold the fried noodles for the hot & sour soup.
I’m only rigorous about the no grains/legumes/sugar thing and also about making sure I eat green vegetables for at least two meals, if not three — and other vegetables too. The more, the merrier! I eat chicken, a little fish, eggs, goat or sheep cheese, nuts and seeds, fruits in moderation, coffee, and that’s about it. I don’t get bored, and if I do, I figure out a new dish.
This was the eating plan I personally found effective, but I think I learned some insights this year that can apply to everyone. If you want a New Year’s resolution you can not just live with but thrive with, these are the three pillars you need to follow:
- You have to really want to change. If you’re only half-in, you’re not going to succeed.
- You have to make it feasible. If you’re a perfectionist, you might decide to trash it.
- You have to make it fun. I’m genuinely enjoying my journey, and I wish you the same.
Good food brings people together. So do good emails.