Getting lean on the Ketogenic diet
25. August 2015 (updated: 19. February 2020)
Update: This article is quite old and I’ve recently switched to a carnivorous diet. I will do a thorough writeup on this at a later point in time.
In the past, I have experimented with a lot of different things, trying to increase my productivity levels. Giving up coffee, waking up early, trying a polyphasic sleep rhythm and even microdosing certain chemical components to increase focus.
I still think that getting base rituals going and then improving on them is still one of the best productivity hacks I have come across so far. But no matter how good your ritual is, if your energy levels are low you won’t get far with accomplishing much.
Coding away at a desk all day, eating but not moving will have a impact on your health in the long run – it certainly had on mine.
After being slim and fit througout my entire youth, I started gaining a lot of weight when I started my apprenticeship as a Programmer around the age of 19.
This continued until I hit the 90kg (198.2 lbs) mark about 4 years ago and I knew something had to change. So I started to experiment with various different diets, none of which really worked. For a short time the slow carb diet (which was made famous by Tim Ferriss, the author of the 4 Hour Workweek) seemed to have a positive impact. I lost some weight but like so many other low carb diets before, my energy levels were less than optimal.
Most of the time I wasn’t able to focus on work because my body would constantly start craving for food. The result? I started snacking on nuts during the day to keep my energy levels even and in the end I gained all the lost weight back.
Somewhen in February I discovered Bulletproof Coffee along with the Bulletprooof Diet and was able to loose around 6 Kilos within a short period of time.
The curious thing about the whole Bulletproof thing was that I ate less than on the slow carb diet but at the same time didn’t feel tired or hungry during most of the day. At first I thought it was because of the magic mixture of coconut oil and butter combined with freshly roasted coffee.
I did some research on why this was happening and stumbled upon something called the Ketogenic diet (also formerly known as the Atkins diet).
Disclaimer: I don’t want to endorse Bulletproof Coffee here. I respect Dave Asprey and without him I probably wouldn’t be where I am today (diet wise). But do yourself a favour and instead of buying his stuff online just support your local coffee roaster by buying wet-processed & freshly roasted coffee beans and use plain coconut oil with butter. It works perfectly and you don’t have to buy into the whole marketing.
The Ketogenic diet in a nutshell
I try to make this introduction as short as possible. The science is definitely not 100% accurate. But here’s what I understood about the ketogenic diet:
There are 3 macro nutrients: Carbohydrates, Fat and Protein. To keep your weight you need a basic energy intake per day coming from these 3 categories. Nutritional “experts” tell us that 60% of those should come from Carbohydrates, 35% from protein and 5% from fat. These percentages translate into the food pyramid that we’re all familiar with today.
Turns out that the science behind the food pyramid is all based on a big fat lie. For further details on why I recommend reading this Book.
For most of us carbohydrates are the main source of energy. Be it the pancakes for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, an apple as a quick snack, or our beloved pizza for dinner. We feel alert and full of energy after eating these foods but sonner than later the crash comes and we’re on the lookout for our next carbohydrate fix.
“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”
– Nassim Nicholas Taleb
The carbohydrates that you consume will get converted to glucose (read: sugar) which your body then will use as an energy source. But the body can only proccess a certain amount of glucose at the time and will turn the excess glucose into fat for later use in dire times.
But in a modern, developed society those dire times seldomly come and turn into an obesity statistic instead.
The brain needs a constant source of energy to function or otherwise the body will fall into a coma.
And now you’re probably thinking: “Hold on a second – so you’re saying that if I don’t eat regularly I will fall into a coma? That doesn’t make any sense. What about the people that are fasting? They don’t tip over after not eating for a few days and fall into a coma!”
That’s correct – it turns out that the body has a way to tap into those fat-reserves and use the excess-fat as a substitute energy source.
So how does our body do that?
To keep the body going our liver starts to break down the excess fat and produces Ketones. And as it turns out these Ketones can be used as an energy source for our brain and muscles instead of glucose!
The clue is that those Ketones only get produced when glucose is in short supply. This occurs mostly overnight and during dieting or fasting. And short supply means less than 20g of carbohydrates per day.
And the brilliant thing about this energy is that it’s a constant and even stream. And that beer belly or the extra fat on your hips is a perfect energy source to tap into.
The most important success factor for a diet is if it is simple or complex. And for the Ketogenic diet there is only one rule.
Stay below eating 20g of carbohydrates every day.
After examining the theory behind Ketone production and fat usage as an energy source it suddenly makes sense why a lot of “low carbohydrate” diets fail.
They usually aim around consuming less than 200g - 300g of carbohydrates per day. That’s not enough glucose for your body to be productive and also too much for it to start producing Ketones.
But what if we only eat 20g of carbohydrates per day? Wouldn’t there be a deficit?
In short: The body doesn’t need carbohydrates at all. Yep, you read that right: Zero, nada, none whatsoever. Even if you’re an ultra runner you don’t need carbohydrates. Just make sure that you get most of your calorie intake from fat (80%) and protein (15%) and you’re good to go.
Disclaimer number 2: I’m not a nutritional expert. Everything that I’ve just written down here is my knowledge after reading two books about the subject. I can guarantee you that this diet won’t work for everyone. When it comes to loosing weight (and basically anything else in life) there is no silver bullet. If it doesn’t work dont mope around – pick yourself up, experiment with other things, research and adapt. Only you have the power to change yourself, nobody can do it for you.
So here’s a short list of things that have improved for me after living a Ketogenic lifestyle for 6 months:
1) I lost around 20 kg (44lbs) in total and regained my physical fitness.
2) I sleep better than ever and haven’t suffered from my occasional insomnia for a long time.
3) I used to have regular acid reflux burning in my stomach – not anymore.
4) I feel more alert during the day and don’t suffer from “brain fog” anymore.
5) I eat healthier and don’t have any cravings for sweet things / bread anymore.
6) I am and feel more concentrated when I code or write.
7) My energy levels stay constant the whole day even if I’m skipping meals.
And I was able to accomplish all of this with one simple habit change: Giving up carbohydrates.
Don’t get the wrong impression – staying below 20g of carbs every day is hard. The inital adoption phase was hard. And it was hard giving up pizza, pasta and my beloved cereal.
But in the end you have to ask yourself: Is your best health and productivity worth trading in for that slice of pizza?
Update: I recommend checking out this great article on the Ketogenic diet.
P.S. If you have any further questions feel free to follow and ask me on twitter.