I didn’t eat carbs for the last 30 days and no, I’m not dead.
Your brain needs a constant stream of fuel just like that bus in Speed needed Neo’s foot. This is just about the most important thing happening in your body right now which is why your body is setup with a backup plan and a backup backup plan just in case Plan A fails. Plan A is probably what you’ve been doing your whole life: wait for the hunger signal, eat food, wait for the hunger signal, eat food, rinse and repeat. Of course now with everyone’s busy schedules the cycle has become wait for an opportunity to eat food, eat food, or even worse, wait for this arbitrary time I’ve set to eat food even though I have no appetite, eat food. Plan A is essentially waiting for a brain equivalent of a “low fuel” flashing light, stopping at the pump and mainlining glucose directly to your brain. Now, the pump should automatically stop when full but for some people this mechanism is faulty and the excess fuel overflows into the trunk weighing down the car. I could go on about how people with a working pump love to feel superior over people with a faulty pump but that’s another rant for another day so let’s just move on with our analogy. If this biological vehicle can’t get any fuel it will resort to Plan B, which is cutting out chunks of the tires (muscles) and using that as fuel. Obviously this is terrible in the long run but it’s only a quick fix until Plan C is ready. Plan C is like taking all that excess fuel that was overflowing from before and funneling it into the engine. With enough time on Plan C, your body will never need to stop at the pump for fuel, will be lighter and, eventually, faster. Plan C is ketosis; it’s what I’ve been trying to achieve for the last 30 days and I finally did it by cutting out Plan A and avoiding Plan B.
Advantages over the other fuel shuttling strategies are numerous, but it begs the question: why doesn’t everyone just go with Plan C? Well, the other thing your vehicle/body needs is constant oil changes/nutrients to make sure everything is working properly. Unfortunately, most gas stations in this hypothetical world offer free oil changes so you might as well just stick to Plan A for convenience sake. In other words, the modern world is built around Plan A. Yes, a bowl of cereal and OJ has a bunch of sugar in it but the fact is it does provided you with a lot of the nutrients you need throughout the day. If someone were to attempt Ketosis only by replacing their carb meals with butter, without taking into account vitamin and mineral intake, they are just going to feel terrible. Even in my previous bacon experiments I was conscious of this which is why I had a vitamin shake every day. The point is, it’s inconvenient to constantly be in ketosis and requires quite a bit of forethought. Luckily, I recently fell upon some free time so I thought I’d give it a shot and show you guys what’s it’s like to be on Plan C so you don’t have to.
If this is the first time you’re reading this blog I’ll try to summarize the diet so you don’t have to comb through previous posts.
I really only had one goal: Lose weight and maintain energy using limited will power. To ensure this I employed the following hacks:
Even before the diet I was half-way fat adapted, an unfortunate side effect being that I’m now very sensitive to glucose and get tired after eating carbs. So by avoiding carbs I’m basically avoiding the itus (though I learned later that high protein meals also give me the itus, albeit not to the full extent). Another common side effect I avoided with low carb meals is the instant cravings you get when you come down from a sugar high. In fact now after being in ketosis for a month “cravings” and even “hunger” are foreign concepts to me.
This was done to enhance my cognition and focus. Before starting this diet I was already having a can of salmon a day and I saw a direct correlation between salmon intake and the vividness of my dreams. Curiously, on keto, even though I had just as much salmon my dreams stopped being memorable. Even more strange is that the vividness came back a couple of days ago when I started having carbs again, suggesting the crazy dreams and even perhaps all the cognition benefits have to do with the combination of fish oil and carbs and not just the fish oil itself.
I really hated this but I tried to do this everyday to improve my alertness and perhaps accelerate fat loss. It did get better the more I did it, however, due to my skin adapting to retain heat more efficiently. Easiest for me was the cold showers after exercise. It absolute didn’t bother me at all, I didn’t want to jump out immediately and it had the additional benefit of reducing muscle soreness. From now on cold showers after a workout to me are a no-brainier.
Take a Nap
This is probably the greatest hack of all because it really does double your productivity. I wouldn’t dare start any creative or focus driven activity without a 20 min nap first. As mentioned in a previous post, a power nap has nothing to do with making you less tired and everything to do with clearing the gunk in your head so you can think clearly. This is why you don’t need to be tired at all to benefit from a power nap, even if you are completely awake with your eyes shut.
Stay in the Goldilocks Protein Zone
Now this took some initial tweaking to get right. Too much protein and your body will just use it as brain fuel instead of your fat, too little and your body will start using your muscles as brain fuel instead of fat. I have a feeling that too much protein was my problem the first week which is what kept me from being in ketosis as you’ll see in an upcoming chart.
I really feel this is THE major factor determining if you wake up groggy or not. If you typically have a hard time getting out of bed try taking two multi-vitamins before you go to sleep. If you wake up refreshed then you’re likely deficient in a nutrient and you’ll have to use trial and error to figure out what it is. It’s hard to know what you’re deficient in if you don’t look it up. For example, most people think that since a banana has potassium, eating a banana a day is covering their potassium deficiency but actually you need about 10 bananas to get your recommended potassium intake. Instead of 10 bananas I went with potassium chloride powder which basically tastes like the saltiest salt you can imagine. This contributed to probably my most hated activity in this entire diet: dissolving a tsp of this stuff in a shot glass and throwing it back. Terribly putrid and horribly disgusting and what worse, I just realized a couple days ago I could have just added some lime juice and stevia and made a nice refreshing drink out of it.
To keep me from cheating on the diet and make me think twice about what I ate every day I made sure to track every gram of protein, fat, and carb that went into my body. I also got to make this cool graph with the values:
The blue vertical lines represent each Sunday that passed and the faint grey vertical lines represent days I played basketball. The Net Calories already includes the calories lost from basketball and you can see I actually went negative in the last two weeks on those days. You can see the first week took some getting used to but I eventually got my fats, carbs, and protein down as the month went on. If you’d like to know exactly what I ate every meal this month I’m adding my tracking spreadsheet at the end this post.
Ah, the classic before/after pics. In order to avoid confirmation bias I took the best worst possible shots for each. Basically this just meant pushing out and sucking in my gut. Comparing maximum and minimum values in two data sets is far more interesting and informative than comparing two normal values, where “normal” is defined by an optimistic experimenter. Humans generally like good things to happen, which is great for a personal outlook on life but terrible for objective science. Now that I’ve done this I can say that without a doubt good things did in fact happen, as is most evident to me in the face and side profile pictures. Scraggly beard and unkempt hair aside, my face does look a lot healthier in the After picture. I actually noticed my face getting slimmer early on, near the end of the first week. This makes sense because it was probably due to the initial loss in water weight that is common with low carb diets. I’ve even read that water retention is an inflammatory response from eating wheat which is just inherently inflammatory. So it’s not like you lose a bunch of water when you go low carb, you just become normal and when you eat carbs you puff up because your body’s response to inflammation from wheat is to retain water. In the first side profile it seems that the part of my gut that is reduced is the section right below my chest which happens to be right where my stomach is located. So is it possible that I didn’t lose any weight and my stomach just shrank from a lower food intake? Well that’s actually a very tough question to answer because there are a lot of variables at play but I had a sense this was going to be an issue so I was prepared. First, a quick primer on abdominal anatomy:
If I were to slice you horizontally in half around where your stomach is, this is what a portion of the birds-eye view would look like, albeit not to scale and not as colorful. I used the stomach as an example but this is generally what it looks like for your other organs as well. These four parts contribute to your overall gut diameter.
Above is an example of the classic beer drinkers gut: high visceral to subcutaneous fat ratio. Whenever you’ve read an article about the horrors of belly fat they were probably talking about Visceral Fat, not it’s relatively harmless but ugly cousin Subcutaneous Fat.
This picture is an example what a sumo wrestlers stomach is like. Believe it or not, they’re much healthier than your average North American at the same weight and size, primarily because of the fact that their overall visceral fat is lower. The low visceral fat may be due to their diet, which includes a lot of fish, their genetics, or their workout regimen but no one knows for sure.
In my case several things could be happening. I’ve always felt I’m more like the last picture because growing up I used to look more like a Michelin Tire Man than a balloon. Then I lost weight everywhere except my abdomen which is pretty common due the lack of blood flow in that area. After that I drank a lot of beer and that’s how I got to where I was a month ago. You can see from the graphic that stomach size actually makes a difference too. In previous fasting experiments I have noticed my literally stomach shrinking. Sidenote: a shrinking stomach also helps with appetite control because you’ll get a “full” signal with less food. And while we’re on the subject, a “full” signal means you’ll lose appetite in what you’re eating, not the pain of your stomach about to burst. Believe me, I’ve experienced both and it was mind blowing when I fixed my hunger signaling hormones and experienced the former for the first time.
To figure out which of these three sections contributed to waist reduction I thought of a method to compare estimated cross-sectional area. If you’re interested in how the hell I came up with this please see this post.
Admittedly, its a fairly crude method but apparently good enough for the British Journal of Sports Medicine (I swear I came up with the idea first), but of course, they’re using far more accurate instruments. The problem with this method however, is that it can only tell you how much subcutaneous fat was lost and so by deduction it can only tell you how visceral AND organ size was lost not either individually. Looks like the question of much my stomach shrinking contributed to my waist reduction is still up in the air.
This graph shows my weight measurements I took twice a day and belly circumference measurements I took every morning. The first vertical line is for Sunday Jan 3rd and the following blue vertical lines represent the following Sundays. The light grey vertical lines represent days where I had played basketball. Evening weight measurements on this day were taken after basketball, not before. The darker lines represent average values for the previous week and as you can see, a near perfect linear decline unfolds. The lowest weight I reached was 164.6 lb, a whole 12 lbs since I started the month 176.6 lb. Now it’s important to note that before the Christmas holidays I was actually 172lb so actually about a third of what I lost this month was just the amount I gained over a few Christmas dinners and New Year’s Eve partying. I was losing 2.5lbs consistently every week despite attempts to accelerate and near the end I actually seemed to hit a plateau of sorts. I didn’t do anything radically different that week and if anything, exercised more than the other weeks. Perhaps I had just reached a maximum threshold of visceral fat loss and my body was taking it’s sweet time getting to the subcutaneous fat? I’m not sure. My belly circumference was reducing as well, albeit a little more sporadically. From the ultrasound measurements from before, the fat layer thickness in front of my belly shrank from 6cm to 5.5cm over the month. So assuming I lose 0.5cm every month, I can extrapolate that I could theoretically have a 6-pack in 11 months’ time. Of course this would be assuming a linear trend when in reality it’s much, much harder. Typically people with more to lose, lose a lot more. The circumference decline suggests that I would lose 4cm every month. If I can make the outrageous assumption that abdominal cross-section is a perfect circle and use the average thickness from my ultrasound measurements I can estimate using simple math that my belly circumference without any subcutaneous fat is 74cm. Extrapolating the circumference decline, this goal could be achieved in under 8 months, although it’s completely unlikely for the same reasons.
But was the weight loss just due to the calorie deficit?
I’m glad you asked. I was also curious about this so I decided to track my overall calorie deficit by assuming my daily calorie expenditure was 2000 cal (according to this site it’s about 1980 with a 20% but I rounded it up to be generous). A much touted fact in nutrition circles is that it takes a 3500cal deficit to drop 1lb of fat. As it turns out, it’s not that bad a prediction.
I only started counting the deficit from the first Sunday night which is why the total weight lost in the end was only about 9lb. Note the predicted data takes into account the three times I played basketball. I lost a lot more weight than predicted which could mean one of two things: 1. The keto diet increased my fat burning rate so I lost more than expected than just being on a low calorie diet. Or 2. The additional weight lost was all muscle.
But how much muscle was lost?
This is a very difficult question to answer. I did a full body workout at the beginning of the month and then tried to recreate it a couple days ago. I even made sure to carb load the night before to ensure I had the same glycogen reserves available (If you were wondering, this involved a glass of wine, various snacks, pizza, a DQ blizzard and was heavenly). This is how I fared the second time around:
Although I was initially surprised that I was able to pull the same weights on the deadlift I then realized they were both done first, meaning I had the most energy for these. It’s also possible that I didn’t max out the first deadlifts so it was easy to do it again, even if there was muscle loss. The same could be said for the calf raises. Everything else, however, was definitely hard, requiring me to reduce the weights by 10-20lb to complete the reps. This only tells me that muscle was in fact lost but not not by how much.The question “How much muscle was lost?” and the subsequent more important question “How much fat was lost?” is still a mystery.
I pricked myself twice a day (four times for the first couple weeks) to get these measurements so I really hope you spend some time looking at this graph I made. I only had enough blood ketone measuring strips for the first couple weeks, which is ok because I only wanted to document how long it would take to get into ketosis. Ketosis officially starts when your blood ketones are above 0.5 mmol/l and you can see by the graph it only happened a couple times in the first week. I still don’t know what happened that Wednesday night. I was at 1.3 mmol/l, had a little bit of squash soup, went to sleep and woke up to a ketone blood level of 0.2 mmol/l. Perhaps the squash soup (not homemade) had some sugar in it but was that enough to keep me out of ketosis for the rest of the week? Perhaps the first week of ketosis is very finicky and unforgiving and if you cheat during this week you’ll have to start from scratch. I wouldn’t see my blood ketones go above 1 mmol/l till Tuesday the following week but after that every measurement was above 0.5 mmol/l. The spikes correspond to evening measurements which probably means I was actually measuring the ketones made from my lunch rather than my own body fat. In fact morning fasted ketone measurements are probably the only important ones when determining how much fat you’re losing. Comparatively, the blood sugar measurements were much more stable, even refusing to go above 5.0mmol/l in the last couple weeks. I should note that for the first half of the first week I was using expired blood sugar test strips so there could be a lot of error involved with those measurements. The low dips in the third and fourth week were taken after basketball. It’s quite strange that dip in the third week was far greater than the dip in the last week considering the basketball played that last week was not only longer but far more intense. Could it be that after the first dangerously low blood sugar incident in week 3 my body was prepared for week 4 meaning it was better prepared to convert my muscle to glucose in case something similar occurred? I’ll put a link to the raw data at the end of this post If anyone wants to take a look at these values more closely to figure out what happened.
If you’re still on the fence about low carb diets you should at least view it as the ultimate hack to get rid of hunger and cravings during your regular low calorie diet. Some people stuff their face with low calorie meals because they think that the amount of food they need to eat is constant. To further avoid dreaded cravings they’ll drink a bunch of water or worse take appetite suppressing diet pills. Why bother? Just go low carb. Yes it sucks at first but once you get over the hump you’ll find that your hunger signaling hormones will start to work as they’re supposed to and the worst aspect of dieting, the cravings, will be a non-issue.
I believe I’m better suited to this diet than most because I have already been on and off low carb diets for about four years now. That being said the diet was surprisingly easy. The worst part for me actually was writing the blog update every week. I absolutely hate writing with a deadline. Second worst part was not having drinks with my friends which is something I used to do twice a week. Not that I’m an alcoholic but just barely socializing at all all month was kind of a bummer. Of course this was self-imposed in order to reduce the temptation to cheat but I’m just glad it’s over.
So did I achieve what I wanted to achieve? Truthfully, it’s hard to say. Aesthetically? Yes, absolutely, but I’m not convinced that all my belly reduction wasn’t just stomach shrinkage and all my weight loss wasn’t just muscle loss. It get’s confusing because there’s a few variables at play here. If your brain doesn’t have the glucose it needs it will do one of six things:
1. Send a hunger/craving signal to force you to supply more food
2. Conserve the limited supply it has and ramp down your metabolic burn rate making you tired
3. Synthesize glucose out of the protein you just ate
4. Synthesize glucose out of your muscles
5. Make Ketones out of the fat you just ate
6. Make ketones out of your own body fat
You can see why this can get tricky. I really only want item #6 to happen but it gets very tough to control all the other variables at the same time. #1 can be controlled with will power and in time it will disappear, #3 can be avoided by limiting your protein intake, #4 can be avoided by having enough protein and #5 can be avoided by increasing your calorie deficit. But this is where the problem lies. The more you try to deal with item #5 the worse #2 gets and I have no idea how make both work together. Caffiene can keep #2 from occurring but only to a certain extent and too much caffeine will only make you more tired in the long run. Weight loss science is complicated. Don’t believe anyone who says we’ve figured all out. Especially since we only recently discovered that we may be just mere slaves to our gut bacteria who actually control what we eat to benefit themselves. The future is exciting! I can’t wait till we finally figure out how the body works and I won’t have to do all these n=1 experiments.
So what now? I’m going to try to continue with a less strict version of the diet by including a cheat day and adding a couple more exercise days. Perhaps I’ll do a followup post at the end of this month… or the next… or whenever I have the will to write another blog post again.
If you’d like to see the raw data where I tracked what I ate, all my macros and all data for all the graphs then go here. Feel free to save a copy if you want to use it as a template. The included macro calculator I built and contributed to over the last 4 years is worth the copy alone.
If you’d like to know more about what I did and what I was trying to achieve check out the recent Joe Rogan podcast with Mark Sisson, a man much smarter than I am explaining my whole diet far better than I could. Here’s the Youtube link and here’s the download link. Yes, it’s 3 hours long but it could easily be finished in a couple days during your commute to work. Don’t worry, the whole talk is fairly dumbed down for the layman.
That’s it, thanks everyone for putting up with my rants!