There’s this joke about vegans: „How do you know someone is a vegan?“ – „Coz they tell you!“ There aren’t any jokes about people on keto yet. Their life is pretty tough already.
Jokes aside. I joined a study from the faculty of psychology and physical performance institute of the University of Hamburg. This study aimed at two things – so I was told:
1: to examine the effects of a ketogenic diet among ambitious runners (non-pros, just „normal“ people), who basically don’t follow a strict diet/calorie intake.
2: to find out how a ketogenic diet would effect the runners‘ cognitive capabilities.
Why did I join? Good question…I found myself asking myself that not only once over the course of the 4 weeks. But then I always remembered that I have been a bit lazy due to some issues with my foot and hamstrings earlier this year, my food-training-balance was very off and last but not least I felt the study would be a great way to get back into some kind of routine and better food awareness. Plus, I enjoy testing out new stuff, supporting science, learning something new about all the scientific part of running, eating and rethinking my old and new habits. So I was all in for this keto experiment.
In all honesty though, I really had no clue, what I would get myself into. I knew very very VERY little about the ketogenic diet and how I could fuel for my endurance training. And even the information I got from the scientists before I started my four weeks as well as my online research wouldn’t be sufficient as to prepare me for the actual experience – the actual suffering (spoiler alert).
All I knew was:
- you eat very little carbs
- you eat a lot of fat
A few months ago, when I traveled around Jamaica I met a chic from California who was doing this keto thing. It was the first time I had actually heard about the ketogenic diet. My new friend loved it and enjoyed that she could eat all the meats of the world for any meal. Great for her, I thought. It just won’t work for me: No meat since 2001. Plus, I just love some cake or ice cream now and then.
So when I heard about the study I was skeptical, obviously. Was it doable on a vegetarian diet? How would it be just plant-based (=vegan)? I was considering doing it vegan, after having gone back to vegetarian last year in June, but with the limitations of certain ingredients and the probability of consuming too many proteins, which the liver can transform into sugar at some level which then would contradict the effects of keto, I eventually committed to the vegetarian version, which would allow me to consume eggs and dairy products, like cheese for some more fatty variation.
Before I dive into my personal experience with my ups and downs over the course of 4 weeks including some challenges due to a business trip, a spontaneous half marathon plus the results after the experiment and overall conclusion, here are the parameters of the study:
- duration: 4 weeks
- ø share of main nutrients per day: 10% carbohydrates, 20% protein, 70% fat
- max 50g carbohydrates per day (no „regular“ carbs like potato, rice, pasta, bread – basically no grains allowed)
- no (!) sugar (and nothing that contains sugar, e.g. jam, juice, junk food, even most fruits…)
- weekly running: minimum 20-30km
- weekly urinal test to check ketogenic status
- ideally tracking of daily food & drink consumption in order to control share of core nutrients (I used the app „Life Sum“)
- Overall: all participants of the study had to be in good physical shape & healthy,
- Before: 2 pre-running tests (1x blood lactate testing on treadmill, 1x 45 minutes low impact run on treadmill) and 1 cognitive test (took place before the low impact run) as well as body composition check (weight, height, BMI, body fat)
- Last day of keto: 1 running test (1×45 minutes low impact run on treadmill) and 1 cognitive test (again before the low impact run) as well as body composition check (weight, height, BMI, body fat)
Sounds like fun, right?
###Here we go###
Am I already in a bad mood because of the lack of sugar or am I just fantasizing too much? I already sensitized my closest co-workers that I would cut out all sugars and snacks soon in the hopes they wouldn’t bother offering me anything or just quit asking why I wouldn’t at least try a bite of some homemade cake.
Am I feeling more tired because of the lack of carbs or am I actually even more energized because I sleep better? I certainly fall asleep early and wake up easily with a ready to get started mood – EVERY SINGLE DAY. It’s not that bad actually.
Food shopping takes longer. I can’t automatically browse through the fruit and veggie section and put stuff in my cart – nope. I have to evaluate everything for keto compatibility. And Sunday evening becomes my meal prep time. I like it though coz I get to try out new recipes, spend quality time in the kitchen and really enjoy the process of cooking.
By the way, cooking takes longer, too. I weigh everything. I mean EVERYTHING. I write down all the grams per ingredients on post its and also weigh the final portion that I eat or take with me in my lunch box. Because I also track EVERYTHING. The app „life sum“ very quickly becomes my most used app on my phone – I probably open it more times a day than I check Instagram. The app helps to document the daily intake of carbs, proteins and fat, and hence it helps to stay on the keto path.
Training feels weird. I’m unsure if it’s because of the keto thing or because I’m just slowly starting to train again more seriously. My muscles seem overwhelmed.
Going super low carb isn’t actually the hardest part. 50g of carbs per day is doable most of the time – cutting out all sugary ingredients turns out to be the key. I’m starting to miss a sweet snack now and then way less often and I’m fine nibbling on cucumbers or nuts if I can’t curb my appetite.
Meal prep is still fun and I don’t eat the same every day. Then I learn that I need to do a business trip for one and a half days. My head starts to spin and I feel I’m letting myself and the science project team down: „This is impossible“, is what I’m worried about. What makes this whole trip so difficult – at least from my perspective – is the fact that I’m meeting a client for the first time. I don’t want to make it about me and my personal food dilemma that I got myself into – voluntarily. It’s a god damn business trip to make business and support the client in using our product the best way possible. So, there I am in my self chosen dilemma. Life is tough. I know.
Fast forward two days later: I survived. Not only did I get to meet a new client who’s actually quite nice, but I managed this whole encounter on a keto diet without having to tell anyone and making a big fuss out of it (writing all of this seems a bit ironic now). How did I survive/manage? Well meal prep again was key: I packed some homemade keto bread, hard boiled eggs, lots of nuts, and cucumber to snack on the train ride and to have some in case lunch and dinner would turn out disastrous. But neither did. Lunch was fine with a salad from the bistro and dinner was even more fine because we went to a tapas place. I couldn’t have asked for more oil on any of my veggie tapas.
I’m also able to go for a short morning run and the low temperatures make me go slightly faster. It feels doable, but somewhat challenging, probably because it’s so early….at least that’s what I’m telling myself.
By now weighing my meals has become a habit, tracking is the most normal thing in the world. Planning and preparing my food for days at the office including snacks that I might need also before training (whether it is running, swimming or strength stuff in the gym) is part of my normal routine, now. Just like brushing my teeth before going to bed.
I’m somehow adjusting to the feeling in my legs and I’m finally able to go for „longer“ runs again of 15km. I also realize that a run without any stops is lot more enjoyable and pleasant for my legs. During week one and two they felt so heavy and every run felt like I was stuck in someone else’s body.
Only few more days to go, is what keeps me going and to not cheat, even though I will run the half marathon in Berlin rather spontaneously – 5 days before my last keto day. Now, I won’t go for a PB, because I haven’t trained for it. But joining my crew and the BTG crews for a running weekend basically anywhere in the world means: lots of confetti, lots of beer, lots of fun.
To my surprise, the run is going quite well. It’s an easy pace for me, I could got a bit faster, but I’m staying with my friends. The gel I packed to use in case I might feel I really really need extra energy stays unopened. All I really need throughout the entire run is: lots of water and my brain to shut up. My legs and lungs just feel alright.
Just like with racing, this keto experiment turns out to be very similar: when you’re so close to the finish line, quitting seems just stupid. So I’m staying strong.
And then the final day has come. I’ve pictured myself stopping at a bakery after the final tests and buying a big loaf of bread – with a crunchy crust and a soft middle. How I would spread butter on it, a pinch of salt and pepper. Then I would also eat an apple. And maybe dip it in peanut butter. That is all I wanted, so I thought. No fancy Ben & Jerries yet, not a bag of chips or gummy bears. Just a simple slice of bread – or two, or three…or how many my stomach would allow.
Before that, however, I still have to endure the final tests. The cognitive test is actually quite fun again. But I dread running on a treadmill. It’s close to a punishment for me. I get why people say they hate running – if it’s on a treadmill, I feel you. Always go outside and breathe fresh air, feel the street and natural surfaces below your feet. Be one with nature. To my surprise, the 45 minutes are going by a lot easier than the first time. I manage to distract myself by thinking about work, this blog post and my first non-keto-food. Every 10-15 minutes, a blood sample is retrieved to measure my lactate. And then… it’s over. I’m a bit sweaty. Most of all: I successfully completed 4 weeks of keto. In a blink of an eye it’s all passé. I can’t help but actually smile a bit, when I exit the faculty and walk towards my bike.
My first non-keto-meal however was not as romantic as I had pictured it. As it was after 9pm when I finally got to shop some food, there was no chance of getting some fresh bread from the bakery. But I was happy with what I got and went straight to eating once I got home. No picture/video documentation available for a reason 😉
Conclusion and the question of questions: Would I do it again?
The four weeks have shown me that a sugar free diet does a lot of good things not only in terms of numbers for your BMI (-2%), weight (-3,5kg), body fat (-4%), and heart rate (slightly lower compared to the pre-study test during the 45 minute treadmill run). I slept a whole lot better, I did not feel like needing a nap every afternoon, instead I was able to power through with my work until end of business day. I am truly convinced this side effect was caused by the (drastic) shortage and eventual abandonment of sugar and not in fact for the increased consumption of fat.
Eating so much fatty foods was a challenge – especially after training. Eating a piece of cheese really doesn’t do anything for me after a training session. All meals tasted good though, obviously as fat carries flavor. I missed my regular protein shakes as a quick snack after a run, I also missed a simple apple, and I also missed the energy in my legs for the most part of the month when running. The amount of cheese, avocado and egg I consumed over the course of 4 weeks really bothered me. A lot of times I questioned the keto diet from an ecological perspective. But maybe that’s something to discuss separately.
I’m surprised though that I was able to train after all – maybe not as hard as I would have wanted to, but I still had energy. The first runs after having gone back to rather normal eating, almost felt like flying. No one needs to worry that I might break any major world records in any endurance sport now that I finally eat pasta again. I might still have a hard time getting to my 2018 level, but I certainly can see and feel the effects of a balanced amount of carbs every day that is slightly higher than 50 Grams and is still balanced. There you have it: Balance really is the magic word!
For me personally the keto diet is not my preferred choice of eating identity. I’d rather cut down the sugar then overdose on (healthy) fats.