“Why are you on a diet?” my date asked me as I passed on the bread and rice.
“I’m not on a weight loss diet,” I explained. “I eat a ketogenic diet: high fat, medium protein and low carb. I did lose weight eating this way, but now I’m maintaining.” He looked at me sideways. He was quite fit himself, but didn’t follow any particular diet. I wonder now if his look was more than skeptical; maybe he thought I had a problem. This judgment may or may not have anything to do with the fact that he didn’t ask me on a second date.
A different date said, “You do so much exercise and you’re like 80 pounds soaking wet. You should eat whatever you want.” Again, because I skipped the bread at dinner.
For the record, I don’t weigh 80 pounds. If I did, I’d be mostly dead. I’m about 5’4” (on a tall day) and around 114 pounds. I didn’t bother correcting him. This assertion came from a man who appeared to weigh some 80 pounds more than the description of “fit and toned” on his online profile. I’d venture to say his sense of weight was somewhat…off.
“I eat pretty much whatever, and as much as I want, just low carb,” I find myself telling people, in defense of my diet. “And I’m not always so strict—I ‘cheat’ once in a while, with, say, a good margarita or flourless chocolate cake, for instance. Something worth it.”
It’s true: I don’t count calories, and I eat when I’m hungry. But full disclosure, I often don’t eat in the morning, thereby prolonging the nighttime fast. Lots of people on ketogenic diets (like mine) report doing this without ill effect. I do know it sounds bad in a culture that admonishes us to eat breakfast. But then I usually eat a full brunch of eggs, spinach, cheese, and bacon. That doesn’t feel even vaguely like dieting. Unless you count lack of toast. But really, who needs toast?
I often explain—why, since I lost the weight, do I so often feel pressed to explain my eating habits?— that I don’t plan to be on the ketogenic diet forever. Right now, however, I feel good, and I like what I see in the mirror. I would go so far as to say I’m at my ideal weight. How many people can honestly say that? And yet, why do I find myself defensive?
And why are certain friends and doctors concerned? “Don’t lose any more weight,” they say. Or sometimes, “You’re getting too thin.” “Start eating carbs,” some add.
When I went into the ER many months ago because I had a precipitous drop in blood pressure resulting from one of my medications, the attending PA wrote “Anorexia Nervosa” on my chart as a diagnosis, above “medication interaction.” The PA and his nurse both lectured me on my chosen diet, calling it and my desire to be thin both unhealthy. “I don’t worry about what I eat,” said the PA, as if I should use him as a role model, but I couldn’t help scoff as his large beer gut hung toward the rails of my bed.
I’m within the range of healthy weight according to the BMI chart—if you want to go by the mostly useless gauge used by doctors and nutritionists. Sure my diet may seem…or be… strict, but I am not trying to lose any more weight, and I am, in fact, maintaining. If I had a problem, wouldn’t I still be trying to get thinner and/or continuing to lose weight?
Perhaps my diet seems problematic because people are uncomfortable with its flagrant disregard of the Food Pyramid. Is it the big-Agra inspired low-fat, high grain diet that makes people question my dietary choices? For a long long time I obsessively followed a low fat diet. No one complained then, however, about my compulsive fat gram counting as an unhealthy attitude towards food; they probably ignored it since I never got particularly thin eating that way.
I now live in Opposite World from the girl who ate a bagel every single day of college along with coffee with skim milk. Not to mention countless servings of lowfat frozen yogurt. My new diet also a starkly contrasts my carb-heavy, low fat vegetarian days. I feel healthier now than I did on a low fat diet. That makes sense: low fat, high carb has been debunked as a healthy way to eat as it causes blood sugar and insulin levels to rise and drop throughout the day, potentially contributing to the development of type II diabetes and/or obesity. Yet it is still a popular diet—just look at all the low fat, carbohydrate rich foods on grocery shelves. Inexplicably, it is still a diet recommended by doctors.
On the side of science, it is true that there is currently no good evidence (lack of studies) on the long term effects of a ketogenic diet. On the other hand, there is evidence that shows positive effects on healthy healthy and obese adults including cholesterol ratios and blood glucose levels (Urbain et al 2017) and maintaining lean muscle mass (Rauch et al 2014).) And, in my case, too, all my numbers are excellent. An interesting side note: there are many studies on short term ketogenic diets as they were developed to control epilepsy nearly a century ago and have since been found to aid in treatment of cancer.)
Many people , especially at the gym, have told me I look extremely healthy. Walking out of the locker room, one of the trainers told me I was looking really good—tiny and strong, she said. “Diet and exercise,” I said, giving my usual glib answer and a smile. Flattering, of course, although I prefer the term compact to tiny. Quite a number of people who have noticed my new shape ask me how I did it, and ask for my advice. I don’t know how many people have reduced their carbs after talking to me about my diet. Not that I am a diet evangelist; I don’t tell people how to eat. I only explain how I eat and why and the outcome—and only if they ask.
Yet other times I find myself defending my diet and my body. I wonder if people feel free to comment unasked on men’s bodies and eating habits, or if this judgement reserved for women. As I write this, I imagine readers might want to see a photo to judge my weight for themselves. But I am not writing before and after photo spread to convince anyone to “Try this diet for yourself! Look what it did for me!” I want to delve into the psychology behind the experience.
Sometimes, I ask myself, have I indeed turned tiny? And, how do I feel about that? When I went through a period of being more sedentary due to a back injury and was eating my sorrows through gallons of ice cream, I got up to my maximum, size 8 and felt awful about myself. On the ketogenic diet I’ve gotten down to size zero. In certain clothes, I wear a “00,” a size that at first alarmed me, and then seemed like a badge of pride.
I don’t see myself as very thin, I told one of my doctors, and in response, he related this experiment to me: People wearing reality goggles which showed a cliff in front of the feet refused to walk forward. Even though they knew very well that the goggles were just showing a 3D picture and the floor below was as sound as ever, they couldn’t move. That’s how real an image can feel. He says when I look in the mirror I’ve got my virtual reality goggles on, and I don’t see how thin I actually am.
If I don’t see an accurate picture in the mirror, I’d like to point out that if dating profiles are any indication, a lot of men are wearing virtual reality goggles which produce the opposite effect. I feel mortifyingly superficial to mention it. But something about expending my own effort to stay fit makes me less attracted to men who appear not to take care of their bodies.
However mismatched my view might be with reality, I am generally happy with my weight and I believe that counts for something. I even have corroborating evidence that I do not look unhealthfully thin: my friends and even my dad says I look quite healthy, my face is not at all gaunt nor is my body too skinny. And they would tell me the truth. Still, on this topic I notice I have become, at times, defensive.
Can I blame myself for wanting to be thin? The compliments I regularly receive at this size and popular culture surrounding me add to my resolve to stay this weight. Clothing, despite the average American’s size, is designed for thin people. I revel in the way my new clothes fit. I feel the stirrings of vanity about my weight, especially since I’m on the dating scene again. It’s hard to stop doing what worked to get me here.
Should I add back carb-y vegetables, fruits and perhaps whole grains? I do plan to change my diet in those ways. Just not today.
Rauch, J. T., Silva, J. E., Lowery, R. P., McCleary, S. A., Shields, K. A., Ormes, J. A., …Wilson, J. M. (2014). The effects of ketogenic dieting on skeletal muscle and fat mass. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11(9008).
Urbain, P., Strom, L., Morawski, L., Wehrle, A., Deibert, P., & Bertz, H. (2017). Impact of a 6-week non-energy-restricted ketogenic diet on physical fitness, body composition and biochemical parameters in healthy adults. Nutrition & Metabolism, 141-11. doi:10.1186/s12986-017-0175-5