I hate diets. I’ve always hated them. But I’m also not a “well-balanced” person where I eat all the right foods and exercise the right amount.
No. Historically, I’ve been of the belief that if you workout/run enough, you can eat whatever you damn well want. And historically, my body was somewhat okay with that. I say somewhat because let’s be real with the fact that I’ve never had a “cut” body physique, but this methodology has helped me stay within my comfort zone – hovering around the 25-26% BMI level.
Well ladies and gents – my body is NOT holding on to that belief system anymore. I’m sure a part of it is just age – I can’t keep eating crap like I did in my 20s and expect things to just magically work out. But a part of it is SURELY because my body has gone through some pretty big changes in the last year.
Trust me, I TRIED to keep up this belief system. I did this the first half of the year. Starting in January, I got my butt back in the gym and started training for a half marathon that would take place in June. My lofty expectation was that by training for a half marathon, I would easily lose the 16+ pounds I had put on during treatment.
To be honest, only some of that can be attributed to the drugs…most of it was the fact that I eat a TON when I’m nauseated and apple crisp was my best friend. No shame in that! You do what you need to do to get through it! Anyway, back to the matter at hand.
As I re-entered life outside treatment, working out and getting in shape were things I knew I could control and work towards. So I did what I always do – committed to working out 3-5 days a week, focusing on building my running endurance, and rewarding myself with carby deliciousness.
After the half marathon in June (which, we’ll get to in a minute), I weighed in to see my results…and the good news was that I had lost 6 lbs and gained a lot more muscle. The bad news was, I was nowhere where I thought I should be after training that hard for a half marathon.
All of my knowledge from the past failed me. Well, not completely, but it wasn’t working as well as it used to. If I couldn’t shed that weight training for a REALLY big event…then what could I do to shed the weight?
So yes, the obvious answer was, “Duh – look at what you’re eating!”
So I did. In late July and August, I started tracking everything I was eating and focusing on making simple changes that I knew were better – i.e. less processed food, more foods cooked at home, whole foods – fruits, vegetables, grains, etc. and then also focusing on creating a calorie deficit – more calories out than in each day.
These guidelines were a good starting point, and they helped me drop a couple more pounds, but it didn’t feel like something I could maintain long term. I was always waiting for that next meal or snack and felt hungry constantly. Also, I was still trying to run a couple days a week and was now lifting weights once a week (so I could focus on being tone, not just flabby and thin).
It was near the end of this where I was getting frustrated and started doing more research around macros. I had read a couple guidelines posted for what I should focus on for my body weight, activity level and goals, but I didn’t really know much more about it. For example, in the FitBit app, it was saying I should aim for 40% carbs, 30% fat, 30% protein. And the fitbit app was great in the beginning because that’s where I was tracking all my food (and activities) and it would automatically calculate my percentages for me based on the foods I put in. For a couple weeks – I focused on hitting these ratios – that meant bringing my carbs down significantly, and with that I lost another pound or two.
But I wanted to learn more about macros because I had read quite a few more articles around why it’s important to focus on the right macro ratios for your body. But what was appropriate? Should I focus on macros that would allow me to run faster? Or focus on macros that would help me shed those pounds?
In all this confusion, I decided to take the matter to my brother – who had recently gone on his own nutritional journey. He’s always been the healthy, athletic type (he even played for Purdue in college!), so I knew he’d be able to help me sort this out.
It was him who introduced me to the idea of a “Ketogenic diet” – and with the words “diet”, my guard was immediately up. I didnt want a trendy, fad diet. I wanted a long term plan to follow. But I listened.
I’m not going to go into all the details of the ketogenic diet – I’ll save that for the next post – but in a nutshell, it’s a diet that brings your body into a state of “ketosis” – where instead of your body burning carbs for energy, it burns fat. So it’s literally a fat-burning diet…WHEN you’re in ketosis. Getting to that state? Well, that takes some work, which again, I’ll get to in another post.
So I’ll skip to the point – I did some more research on Keto and the big premise was SUPER low carb, high fat, moderate protein. Like, if I put even a teaspoon of sugar in my coffee – that’s it. That’s my daily carb allotment. So, it’s definitely NOT an easy change.
But, I’d started to see some results after cutting my carbs back so I thought, I’ll give it a try. No, I wasn’t going full on keto, but I would strive to cut my carbs back even more. For my body, it was recommended that I have no more than 24g of carbs a day. I decided to compromise at 50g of carbs (roughly 15 – 20% carbs for the day vs the 40% I was currently at).
I was able to fully commit to this for the entire month of September. The first two weeks I lost 5 pounds. I was SHOCKED (I know some of it was water weight). But then it plateaued there. The next three weeks I weighed in at the same weight each time.
I thought…maybe keto wasn’t for me. But also, I wasn’t really doing keto. I was doing my version…”keto light” because it was too hard to figure out how to eliminate even more carbs than I already had. On the plus side, though, with the high fat content, I was NEVER hungry. There were days where I would only have 1400 calories and think “How am I not hungry? This is amazing!”
So even when I wasn’t full on doing Keto, there were benefits. But there were also drawbacks. My runs had gotten increasingly harder. My temperature was rising. My blood pressure was up. And I’d started feeling pain in my neck and back similar to when I was first diagnosed with cancer (okay, not that severe, but like the beginning of what I felt then). I, at first, did not relate these symptoms to Keto. My 9 month checkup with my oncologist was coming up, and I had a long list of 20 reasons why I thought the cancer was back.
However, after laying everything out for them – they had a very different view. It likely wasn’t cancer – but a combination of anxiety and diet changes. The anxiety – they had ways for me to deal with that. The diet, though? Their conclusion was that I needed more carbs if I was going to continue to run and lift weights as much as I was.
It made sense.
So that day, I started eating a lot more carbs. And you know what happened? I actually lost one more pound, my runs got better, and the pain in my back and neck went away. But those were all short term benefits.
After a couple weeks of eating healthier carbs and not trying to be too hard on myself, the weight crept back. I was up 3 pounds and felt hungry all the time. But at least my runs were going well!
The other bad thing that happened? My neuropathy returned. Now, I don’t think I’ve touched on this too much, other than in my post about the half marathon, but I have some lingering nerve damage (neuropathy) in my hands and feet from some of the chemo drugs I had to take. During everyday life – it’s not that noticeable. I mean, I notice it in the form of my hands, arms and feet falling asleep if I stay in position too long, but it’s more of an inconvenience. The everyday part is something I can live with. What really grinds my gears is how it impacts my running. If i’m running 3-5 miles, it’s fine. If I run over 5 miles, it feels like I’m running with a rock in my shoe…and then it progresses to feeling like I’m running on glass. So for the half marathon, that was the biggest issue. I had the stamina for the race. I had the energy for it. But my feet were in constant pain after about mile 6. I didn’t get the time I wanted, and it was the first time I thought, “Maybe I shouldn’t do long distance races anymore.” Which was a very sad thought.
Fast forward to September.
What I realized is that I’ve been feeling that subtle neuropathy pain every day since I stopped chemo…except for in the last month. The month that I went “keto light”. Which then made me wonder, could there be a connection between going low carb and improving circulation/neuropathy? As it turns out – there is. A lot of diabetics who have peripheral neuropathy (which, I don’t have diabetes, but my neuropathy symptoms are similar to theirs) go on a low carb or ketogenic diet in order to improve and/or diminish their neuropathy symptoms.
Again, it made sense. Sugar is an inflammatory. Carbs are basically forms of sugar. The lower carb you go, the less you’ll have to deal with inflammatories. Also, it should be noted, that a lot of people dealing with cancer are told to go on a ketogenic diet because, again, cancer feeds off sugar, so by eliminating that you could improve how your body fights cancer (but I’m not a doctor, and please don’t do this unless a doctor tells you to!)
You still with me? I know. It’s a lot.
So now I was at a crossroads. Clearly their were benefits to keto and going low carb…but at the same time, there were also negatives that I experienced that I wasn’t excited to go back to (again, noting that I never went FULL ketosis). I continued to look for other options.
I started with trying to eliminate all added sugars, and just allowing sugars that were naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables that I loved. The result – I lost a tiny bit of weight and I felt better, but my neuropathy was the same as it had always been.
Then I did the above, but I started taking supplements that were recommended for neuropathy. After two weeks – I felt good overall, but nothing had changed with my neuropathy…and I was starting to get a lot of acne (I don’t know why this happens to me with supplements, but I saw this coming).
So I started looking into the keto diet again. What was the process like? How long would it take my body to go into ketosis? Is it something I could maintain long term? Would I see a change in my neuropathy? All questions that needed answers.
I knew my neuropathy would likely get better, but what about my other symptoms? Would I have to make a choice between neuropathy and back/neck pains that made continually question whether or not I had cancer? It was a lot to process.
But as I continued to research, I read up on this thing called the “keto flu”…basically when you lower your carbs and you are trying to get to ketosis, your body is on the struggle train. It is holding onto those carbs for dear life and is trying to figure out how to make energy with so few – and also trying to figure out what other reserves it can use for energy. For a person going through this – it can be awful. It can feel like you have the flu. Your energy is low, you have headaches and body pains and you’re craving sugar BIG time. This is also your body’s way of trying to trick you back into the carb-alicious life. “You can’t survive like this! Turn back!” And many people do! They’ve fallen for the trick. The ones that persevere, though, will get their body into ketosis and all of a sudden their body will understand that they can use the fat stores and balance will be restored. Their energy will return, they won’t be craving sugar, and all of those body aches and pains will go away.
I thought about all of this. In my quest to lower carbs, but not at keto, was I actually trying maintain in that “keto flu” space? Because that would explain all of the body aches and terrible runs I’d had. If I would have just pushed through and gone to full keto – would all of those negatives go away? Including the neuropathy? Signs point to yes. But I still can’t be for sure because as I’m writing this, I’m on day 4 of going keto again and it’s too early to tell (I’m definitely not in ketosis yet).
So now – my mission is different from when I started out at the beginning of this year. First of all – I’m in my “comfort zone” so if i don’t lose anymore weight it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Would I mind if I lost some more weight and got more fit? Absolutely not, but that’s not the mission anymore. The mission has now become – how to eat healthier AND reduce my neuropathy symptoms. If I can manage my neuropathy, I might just be able to run long distances again.
So that is the hope. Full keto. Low carb/high fat/moderate protein. Manageable neuropathy. Once again – a long distance runner.
All of that will, hopefully, lead to a happy and healthy Jamie.
This was part 1 of “Going Keto” because there is SO much more to tell about this journey. The next posts on this will focus on how to get started/plan for keto, keto hacks, and what to expect if you go down this path.