Why Some People Find The 'Keto Diet' Simply Unbearable (And Totally Not Worth It)

Photo: Azamat Zhanisov on Unsplash
What Is The Ketogenic Diet? Why Side Effects Of Ketosis Cause Keto Flu
Self, Health And Wellness

I've been on a diet since I was a teenager.

Sometimes, it’s the latest and trendiest — like the keto diet I tried recently, or maybe Atkins or Paleo or Slim Fast or South Beach Diet I tried in the past.

Other times, it’s been something of my own devising, like the summer I subsisted on little more than Diet Coke and Granny Smith apples (which I do not recommend).

Each time I've kept thinking that if I could just shed a few pounds, I'd feel so much better — not only in my clothes, but in my soul.

But when trying to eat according to a ketogenic meal plan, I quickly learned that I was not going to feel better on this diet (and ended it fast enough to avoid a full-blown "keto flu").

The keto diet side effects I experienced were bad, especially the keto-related irritability — which isn't talked about enough.

What is the keto diet?

Think of keto as a ramped-up version of the high-protein, low-carb Atkins Diet. The idea is that by starving your body of carbohydrates, you go into a metabolic state known as “ketosis,” where your body starts to burn fat instead of the sugar it usually gets from carbs.

According to one popular keto diet website, that means eating less than 50 net grams of carbs a day (though 20 to 30 net grams is considered deal). This is equivalent to eating one medium apple per day.

RELATED: Should I Be On The Keto Diet? Here's What You Should Know Before You Try It

Ketosis, as defined by WebMD, "is a normal metabolic process, something your body does to keep working. When it doesn't have enough carbohydrates from food for your cells to burn for energy, it burns fat instead. As part of this process, it makes ketones.

"If you're healthy and eating a balanced diet, your body controls how much fat it burns, and you don't normally make or use ketones. But when you cut way back on your calories or carbs, your body will switch to ketosis for energy."

On the keto diet, I was hungry all the time. But like so many other women, I thought it would be worth it.

I felt sure that if I lost a bit of weight, I'd swan around without a care in the world, nary a self-conscious thought. I’d ooze newfound confidence, self-esteem and charisma. I’d be a funnier, prettier version of myself. For the first time ever, I'd wear skinny jeans and shorts that are actually short!

This thinking was nonsense, of course, yet that didn’t stop me from dreaming skinny dreams.

In this respect, I'm not at all unique.

It’s said that half of all American women are on a diet at any given time, and many of us are perennial dieters. Deprivation is the mainstay of our existence, from the time we have our first period to the time we have our last — and maybe even after.

It is the language in which we are fluent, the creed to which we are devout.

We may lapse, but we get back on the wagon time and time again, never relinquishing our faith that a better, thinner existence is waiting for us on the other side.

I know that I am more than the size of my jeans.

I should know better than to let a billion-dollar industry poke holes in my self-esteem. I should just eat and drink and be merry, because I am not at all merry when I am on a diet.

And I was certainly not merry when side effects of the ketogenic diet kicked in.

RELATED: Everything You Can And Can't Eat On The Keto Diet

In general, entering ketosis is safe. However, WebMD cautions that high levels of ketones in the body can lead to dehydration, and can even change the chemical make-up of your blood.

One case study published in the Journal of Investigative Medicine explains that, "in face of stress, the harmless 'dietary ketosis' can lead to profound acid-base disturbances due to massive overproduction of ketone bodies that overwhelms the acid buffer system of the body."

After beginning a keto diet, signs your body is in a state of "full" ketosis include bad, fruity-smelling breath and urine, as well as a cluster of symptoms referred to as keto flu, which include: "brain fog, headache, chills, sore throat, digestive issues, dizziness, insomnia, irritability, and more."

Registered Dietitian and Counselor Audrey Tait says these symptoms are a natural byproduct of going keto.

"Brain fog happens when the body does not get enough of the right kind of carbohydrates," Tait explains. "The best sources of carbohydrates are whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and milk. The carbohydrates get broken down in the body into glucose. This glucose is used for energy to do work and energy for the brain."

Once the initial fog subsides, ketosis is said to actually improve brain clarity and overall energy levels, but I never made it to that point.

In addition to being used for weight loss, the ketogenic diet is believed by many to offer health benefits for people with certain medical conditions, including type 2 diabetes and epilepsy.

One article from Harvard Medical School explains as follows:

"We have solid evidence showing that a ketogenic diet reduces seizures in children, sometimes as effectively as medication. Because of these neuroprotective effects, questions have been raised about the possible benefits for other brain disorders such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, sleep disorders, autism, and even brain cancer. However, there are no human studies to support recommending ketosis to treat these conditions ...

"A ketogenic diet also has been shown to improve blood sugar control for patients with type 2 diabetes, at least in the short term ... However, there is no long-term research analyzing its effects over time on diabetes and high cholesterol."

RELATED: What Happened When I Tried The Keto Diet

As I quickly discovered, the ketogenic diet is not for wimps. It is an extreme and notoriously difficult diet to follow.

Being on a restrictive keto diet for a long time could potentially mess with your metabolism, not to mention your cholesterol levels, since you essentially gorge on fat all day long.

A keto diet may also come with a host of unpleasant, even dangerous medical issues, including:

  • constipation
  • hypoglycemia
  • vitamin deficiencies
  • kidney stones
  • balance issues
  • loss of bone density
  • headaches
  • lightheadedness
  • menstrual irregularities
  • dehydration

As mentioned above, I’ve tried other high-fat, low-carb diets in the past, and they were predictably hellish-but-doable.

This time (maybe because I’m over 40 and 20 pounds heavier) was different.

From day one, keto turned me into a monster.

My irritability was intolerable. When I wasn't frantically Googling how to make keto "bread" (using fairy dust and a dozen eggs) and racking up my grocery bill with obscure ingredients like xanthan gum and psyllium husk, I paced the kitchen like a Bengal tiger.

Whoever dared come too near risked getting mauled to within an inch of their life.

Needless to say, my family was terrified. Even the dog gave me a wide berth.

Across the dining room table, my husband shot my son a look of solidarity, as if to say, "Don’t worry, kid, we will get through this dark time together. Your mother will come back to us ... Like she always does. In the meantime, we must exercise great caution. We must be strong and stick together."

It’s no exaggeration to say that my hunger consumed me.

I foraged cupboards, looking for anything I was allowed to have. It wasn’t long before rich slabs of brie and rashers of bacon lost their luster and I learned that the rich buttery goodness of butter is only at its best when it is slathered on something other than thin air.

Although some report feeling satiated on a keto diet, I felt the complete opposite. When I wasn’t eating, I was dreaming about eating. I had trouble thinking of anything else.

Tait confirms that experiencing this kind of extreme irritability is not uncommon.

But the worst part of the ketogenic diet wasn’t even the carb withdrawal.

After the first week of torture, I'd dropped a measly 2 pounds. A of couple days later, I bounced back to my starting weight. A few days on, I was down 4 pounds.

By the end of the second week ... right back where I started.

It felt like that bastard scale was playing me.

RELATED: Details About The Rumored Smelly Side Effect Of The Keto Diet

Although most people manage to lose weight quickly on keto, I was not most people.

Maybe I was eating too much protein or too many veggies — who knows? But one thing had become abundantly clear: I’d never feel happy on keto.

In addition to being hungry all the time on the ketogenic diet, I had no energy to exercise.

Although the feeling of running on empty is supposed to pass after a while, I wouldn’t know, because I never made it that far. I lasted just over two weeks.

All told, I lost not a single pound ... or maybe I lost a couple. By the time I quit, it didn’t matter.

That final night, I celebrated the end of keto with a generous glass of Riesling and promptly kissed those theoretical lost pounds goodbye.

If only I could eat what I should, when I should — they call that “intuitive eating”.

But food is never just food, is it?

It is a missile. It is a grail. It’s those damn skinny jeans.

My mother, who dislikes cooking intensely, once wished for a pill humans could take to avoid meal prep. At first the thought depressed the hell out of me because what’s a life without food? Without all the smells and textures, the smorgasbord of tastes and the ritual of eating together ...

But after all the years I’ve spent obsessing about food, I must admit that pill is looking more appealing. I wish someone would hurry up and invent it already.

In the meantime, I will hold out for the next faddish diet and pray that it’s kinder than keto.

RELATED: What The Keto Flu Really Is — And How You Can Survive It

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Julie M. Green is a Toronto-based writer and visual artist with an abiding love for bulldogs, vanilla lattes and 80s alternative. She goes by 'mom' to an amazing kiddo on the autism spectrum. Find her on Twitter for more.