I'm a carb monster. I see bread, I eat it - even if it's someone else's.
Now imagine how I felt when a relative proposed I follow keto - naam toh suna hi ho ga?
Let me rewind: in September last year my collarbone surgery led to two months of bed rest. I was advised to avoid all forms of exercise till the bone formed, at best I could control my food intake as a means of weight management.
For someone like me, who loves exercise and food with the same intensity, this was a nightmare.
Post surgery a relative came to visit with a MASSIVE chocolate cake and asked what I was eating to heal and recover. "Oh, stocking up on lots of protein, some complex carbs and lots of fruit and yogurt," I replied with a confident hand wave.
He shook his head and said, "Keto." In that moment I was Jon Snow and I knew absolutely nothing. That was the beginning of my keto journey... after I stuffed my face with cake, obviously.
So what is the ketogenic diet?
Keeping it super simple: Keto is a low-carb, high-fat diet with a moderate intake of protein.
When on low carbs, the body goes into a metabolic state called ketosis which forces the body to function on (and burn) fats instead of its primary energy source, carbs. The body produces ketones in the liver to use as fuel as carbs are not available to breakdown into glucose, therefore utilising the stored fat in the body - making the body shed fat.
It takes the body roughly two days to a week to go into ketosis.
When I Googled keto, my heart stopped and I did a Bollywood-style 'nahiiiii'.
I couldn't eat my favourite foods (scratch
grains, fruit, sugar), and I immediately thought: "Is it even healthy to completely omit carbohydrates from your diet?"
I'd soon find out.
Letting go of an essential food group had me worried. But since I couldn't workout for the next two months, I figured, what better way to give up processed sugars than go cold turkey? Killing two birds with one stone. Also, hello? A diet which gives me a free pass to load up on cheese, butter and peanut butter, I'm in!
I began working on my keto meal plan with help from websites and came up with a basic structure. To keep my metabolism up I made sure I was eating every three hours (four meals a day in small portions).
Breakfast: two scrambled eggs fried in desi ghee, topped with desi makhan and cheese. Green tea.
Mid-day snack: a bowl of yogurt/ a small green apple with peanut butter. (I know apples aren't keto-compliant, but this website said if I really wanted to eat one, I could... and I'm goin' with it.)
Lunch: two kebabs/ Xander's Bresaola salad/ Evergreen's Pumpkin Ricotta soup/ assorted vegetables cooked in desi ghee/ yogurt with spinach.
Afternoon snack: nuts/ carrots and cucumbers with cottage cheese/peanut butter and green tea.
Dinner: repeat of lunch.
Let the hunger games begin!
Disclaimer: I didn't follow keto to the T. I wasn't counting macro-nutrients (calorie count of food intake), I was simply careful about what was on my plate and tried to keep up with the diet as best as I could.
For the next two months I was that annoying friend who keeps throwing 'keto' around like it automatically fit me into the ranks of royalty, 'Mein keto, aur ap?'
Bear with me.
It was a real challenge keeping my hands off sugar.
Dessert (read: sugar) is a must-have post-meal, it's something I've always lived by, courtesy my father. But this diet wouldn't even let me eat fruit, let alone sugary desserts.
I'd walk mindlessly into the kitchen and open the fridge every few minutes to gape at the Forbidden Fruit in wonder and sorrow.
But I thought, 'This too shall pass.' And stuck to the diet.
Those seven days were painful. My mind would only think of food I couldn't eat and I noticed my energy levels waning, I was sleeping a lot more during the day. I felt lethargic, which was a little troubling, but then again I was bed-ridden so I couldn't do much either.
On the other hand, Nusrat Hidayatullah of the 42 Day Challenge, who has done keto thrice now for a three to six month period, said she truly enjoys following the keto diet. She told me, "People are really miserable for the first week. I had elevated energy levels [on the diet] and I loved it. The clarity my mind got. I eventually didn't crave sugar and I enjoyed that way of living because I could have lots and lots of saturated fat, it gave me a break form my regular structure. I will keep doing it."
Wish I could say the same...
My body was getting accustomed to keto food. I had survived the worst. If I could stay away from sugar for a whole week, I could do this and I refused to back down.
Bonus, my sweet tooth was behaving, my mood swings were gone and I wasn't as hyperactive as I used to be when I was consuming sugar - this was by far the best feeling!
My energy levels were also up in comparison to the week prior (phew!), and I was beginning to warm up to keto. The idea of following through with the diet didn't make me want to scream with agony.
As certified nutritionist Zoha Matin tells me, keto helps cut down added sugar, however, she warns that people with diabetes are more susceptible to diabetic ketoacidosis when on keto.
An excess production of keto acids could be harmful as it disturbs the acid/base balance in the body - however, this applies to everyone, not just people dealing with diabetes.
Diabetic ketoacidosis is a life-threatening complication in which "when cells in the body are unable to get the sugar (glucose) they need for energy, they burn the stored fat - which sees an increase in ketone build up in the blood, making it more acidic."
I was in my element. I was avoiding non-keto foods effortlessly. I saw bread and I didn't eat it! Success!
In fact, I didn't want to eat anything non-keto; my mind steered clear of other foods and I lost all my sugar cravings. Just the thought of sugar made me gag. Keto sorcery, I tell you.
Cravings aside, I observed that my body was responding in kind to all the non-carby foods; my stomach went flat, from 26 inches to 24. I was pretty much shrinking and I went down a dress size, easy.
However, Zoha's words would soon put things in perspective. "My biggest concern is that although people can follow keto short term to lose weight but they will gain it back. They need to watch their vitamin and dairy intake, and take mineral supplements," she told me.
Everything was going fairly stable and by that I mean boring.
I was still careful about my food intake, but I wondered how long I could keep this up. I wanted to follow the diet for at least two months, but now I was getting tired of the low-carb policy.
Forget sugar, I wanted to eat regular food. I wanted to share the same food my family and friends ate, especially when going out to eat. (There were only a couple of places offering a keto menu.)
I also noticed I was gaining inches everywhere, my stomach was no longer as flat as it was early on into the diet. The satisfaction level was just not the same anymore.
I was slowly beginning to lose interest in keto. I was getting weary of it. Maybe I needed to change my diet plan? Maybe I needed a bit of experimentation?
According to Zoha, I gained weight because I wasn't counting my macros and caloric intake, so I wasn't following through as required. The amount of yogurt I was consuming on the diet was possibly taking me above the carb limit. I was unaware that it is a source of carbohydrates, though not high in calories. Yikes.
It got difficult, I'm not going to lie. I started whining to myself when I saw bread. I wanted to eat it but couldn't.
My cravings (and laziness) got to me and I was ordering from Xander's and Evergreen almost everyday, making keto heavy on the pocket.
Gradually, my interest in the diet began to fade and I wasn't as eager to follow it. I cracked under pressure.
I'd break off a piece of bread here, pinch off a piece of mithai there and not feel guilty or bothered. I was slowly letting go of the diet without realising it. I thought to myself, 'It's just a pinch, I'm still on keto. Itnay sey kuch nahi hota.'
Denial works wonders. But what I didn't realise and refused to come to terms with was that I could no longer keep up with the diet. I was done.
Why was I doing this to myself when I wasn't feeling it, I wondered.
And that's when the big question hit me: Do I really want to continue with keto?
... and I found myself saying, no.
Personally, I would never make this diet a lifestyle - I don't feel it's sustainable. Although staying off sugar was the most rewarding part of the diet... and the flat stomach, I'm not going to lie!
Zoha explained that keto is a diet most dietitians including herself, won't necessarily recommend, because "we don't believe in a restrictive diet, we believe in an adaptive diet you can sustain for the rest of your life."
And though people follow it to lose weight, the nutritionist says "studies show that sedentary people who followed a moderate carb diet vs people who followed a low carb diet can still lose the exact same weight with caloric control."
However, Nusrat believes sustainability is all about willpower. "Sustainability is a personal thing. It's not very challenging to follow these diets. The challenge people will feel is withdrawal from carbohydrates, that's something you'll have to put up with. Keto is basic and simple to follow. The fact that you can't have a cheat meal and no sugar is what pulls people down."
My main concern was not eating carbs at all, and because I lead a very active lifestyle, this was an immediate red flag. Zoha agrees. She says, athletes would not recommend keto as they're always loading up on carbs; performance-wise keto is not the best diet to follow.
Nusrat though, says that "80% of the way you work and feel is based on what you eat. Keto is very, very effective even without a workout, but if you do workout especially in the morning on an empty stomach, a morning workout it'll push you further into the ketogenic state, because you're in the ketogenic diet. As long as you have enough caloric intake throughout the day, nothing more than the regular deficit in your body, because you're eradicating a complete energy source."
Her advice to those looking to go low-carb: be really careful about the right supplements, vegetable and dairy intake. See a dietitian and see what works for you. This diet can cause deficiencies as it's highly restrictive. I wish people are following it in a healthy way and counting their caloric intake.
For me, keto was supposed to help maintain my weight, did it help? No, I lost weight and then gained more back. Was I feeling particularly energetic during those two months? Not really. My energy levels were low-ish and mood, stable. Did I find it easy to prepare keto meals? Nope. It was problematic looking for keto compliant ingredients. And then it just got annoying.
While it isn't something I'd swear by, there are some trainers who do believe that Keto works wonders. Nusrat is one of them. She followed through with her diet and she absolutely loved it, "As the days rolled on I began to notice some remarkable changes within my mood and energy levels. The improvement in my physical functionality – well, that was just cherry picking! All systems go and I threw in some INTERMITTENT FASTING!"
If anyone asks me: been there, done that, not doing it again. If it works for you and others, great, but it's not something I would ever go back to.
Sorry keto, it's not you, it's me.