This whole keto diet experiment started as a joke. I'm a fitness professional, I've written a whole book (Diet Right for Your Personality Type) about healthy eating, and I have a clear understanding of and belief system for how I think people should eat, and how I think they can find success—whether that's weight loss, strength gain, and so on. And the basis of that is clear: One size does not fit all.
But my buddy, powerlifter Mark Bell, kept trying to convince me to do the keto diet. I kind of wanted to give him the middle finger, and say, "whatever, Mark!" But as a fitness pro, I felt like my personal testimony was important: I couldn't speak intelligently about this diet (either in support of or against it) without trying it myself. So, I decided to give the keto diet a try. It was basically a dare—nothing super serious.
Then, something very unexpected happened: I went to take a "Day 1" photo, and my immediate reaction was, "What?! That's not me." There's been a lot of stress in my life over the last six months: a move, a new job, a breakup, health concerns. I've had a lot going on, and I don't think I realized how much I was subliminally turning to very unhealthy habits to cope: drinking more, eating comfort food. I was making fun pasta dishes four nights a week, and not a small serving. I was loading my plate, putting on a rerun of The Office to make me feel better, and—let's just call it what it is—eating my feelings. To make it worse, I had a hectic schedule and was training in the gym less and less.
So I saw those before photos, and it was a kick in the teeth. Like, "Wait, this is not my body." I posted the picture and it went viral.
Some people were gracious, saying, "Oh Jen, you still look beautiful" and "I would kill to look like that." But I felt it was important to share that this is exactly where it—weight gain—starts. You're in a good place, and suddenly you're up a few pounds. In my case, my weight wasn't actually that high, but I was losing muscle and gaining that bloated, distended belly, and I didn't realize it. That distended belly and loss of muscle mass turns into a soft tummy and then a 10-pound gain, and then it's 15 to 20 pounds. Before you know it, you're 50 pounds heavier and wondering, "how did I get here?" and it's really hard to get back. (And by the way, once you hit 50 pounds, it turns into 150 really easily. That's how slippery the slope gets.) It's not that I think I'm fat—but it's knowing my body and knowing that something was wrong.
After I saw those photos, I decided to take keto really seriously. Yeah, I wanted to understand the keto diet, but I also really wanted to get a grip on my life.
Starting the Keto Diet
The first morning, I woke up and went to work at Daily Blast Live, and there were some of the best cinnamon rolls in town. That's like one of my favorite foods ever.
I could've just said, "I'll start at noon!" but I didn't. I woke up that morning and committed: I was going to stay on the keto diet for 17 days, until the end of the Shape Goal-Crushing Challenge.
That first day, I already felt better because, mentally, I knew I was doing something to take care of my body. I had a new purpose in my day and it kept me feeling very connected to a better Jen. My work ethic, my whole outlook changed. So even though, physically, Day 1 brought some headaches, grogginess, and digestion issues, I already felt better.
By Day 4, my digestion figured itself out and my headaches went away. I had consistent energy, I was sleeping great, my body felt clean as a whistle. I never felt a crash or cravings. For the rest of the keto challenge, I was excited about sticking to it and getting creative with my keto meals. I made my own meat sauce to put on spaghetti squash, I whipped up a really fun vegetable chicken stew with bone broth. I liked how keto was forcing me to think outside the box with food. Not to mention, I was only eating protein, healthy fats, and vegetables—and I felt really, really good.
Confession: I got some green grapes at the market on my first day, and I had seven or eight of them each day as a little treat. No, they're not totally keto, but it was natural sugar, and I knew I needed a little something, because that something is what kept me on track the rest of the time. And I've gotta tell you—a grape never tasted so good.
One night I went out and had some martinis (basically the closest thing to a keto cocktail). When I got home, I was hanging with my dog Hank, and remembered that I had some roasted cauliflower in the fridge. Normally, after a night out, I'd head to my go-to pizza place a block away. Instead, I heated up some cauliflower and it was so good. I woke up feeling great, versus bloated.
Vegetables became my main snack. It's so easy to overdo it with the healthy fats (I found myself constantly reaching for nuts and avocado). Instead, I went to Trader Joe's and stocked up on all their pre-cut veggies: carrots, snap peas, jicama, baby zucchini, celery, red peppers. I had to switch to a bigger purse to carry all my snacks.
I also started drinking my coffee black or having this keto coffee with protein, collagen, and cacao butter, and it's better than Starbucks. (Check out Jen's keto coffee recipe these other low-carb keto drinks.)
My Keto Takeaways
I was shocked with how fast my body responded in those 17 days. I can't tell you for sure that I was in ketogenesis, so I can't give keto the credit, because I don't think I actually hit that point. Ketogenesis takes a long time to achieve. (Here's the science behind the keto diet and how it helps you burn fat.) I do think I cut a lot of bullshit out of my nutrition and rewarded my body with vegetables and quality meats and quality fats.
I also don't think I realized how much I needed the boundaries. Discipline is one of the hardest parts of going keto, but it was also one of the greatest assets of the diet. There are no question marks. I knew what was allowed, and I liked that clear boundary. I felt really grateful to know exactly where I stood with my food and my fuel.
My training schedule got more consistent too; I also started doing yoga and working one body part each day while weightlifting. I went from working out once or twice a week to four solid workouts each week.
I'll definitely keep the vegetable snacks and avoid added sugar as much as possible. The way I look at food has changed. I used to order a turkey sub with extra mayo for lunch without thinking twice. I thought: "I'm fit, I can handle it." And, frankly, that's what we all think… and then we buy a bigger pair of pants and a looser shirt, and we don't realize that we're just not paying attention to our bodies.
That being said, if I go to Chicago, I'm going to have a slice of pizza. I'll limit added sugar to unique occasions. I'll probably add in a bit of starch after my workouts, but other than that, I've really adopted a lot from the keto diet.
Trying the keto diet has allowed me to pay greater attention to what I'm eating and how I'm feeling. And it's also pushed me to be more creative in the kitchen. It feels good to pull out healthy ingredients from the fridge and have more confidence making different foods. Now, I'm excited to try new things.
There's no end to getting fit or being healthy. It's an ebb and flow. I know that this is not the last time I'm going to have a hard time. The way I have moved through this experience, though, is evidence that whatever hardship comes, I'm going to get through it.
Should You Try Keto?
It's a great tool for immediate weight management, and, like I said, will help you cut a lot of B.S. from your diet. (Just read what happened when one Shape editor went keto.)
But I'll stand by what I said in the beginning: One size does not fit all. You need to do what works for your body. I really don't like to advocate nutritional programs that aren't sustainable for your life. Some people can live in that extreme, but I'm not built for that, so I chose not to. If you feel like you could do it, go for it, and listen to how your body responds. You need to do what works for your body and your personality type. (Also check out this keto meal plan for beginners to see if you're up for it.)
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This article originally appeared on Shape.com