I’ve been asked what I think about the ketogenic diet more times in the last 6 months than any other question. Okay, well maybe second to what’s the best kind of peanut butter. Regardless…. Keto is taking over the minds of desperate dieters with its promise of rapid weight loss and curing diabetes. It’s also being recommended to patients by misinformed doctors who are lacking in sufficient nutrition education.1 Below you will find my thoughts.
The ketogenic diet was first researched as a treatment for children with epileptic seizures to lessen or control the seizures. Since then, it’s also been studied in relation to starving out brain cancer. There’s decent science to support that. But, for those who don’t have epileptic seizures or neuroblastoma, it’s a great way to get in the fast lane for a heart attack. It’s also a good idea for diabetics looking to make themselves appear not to have diabetes while allowing the disease to get worse on a cellular level. It’s perfect for anyone who wants to lose weight fast in an unhealthy way.
A ketogenic diet is a high fat, ultra-low carbohydrate diet that forces your body to start burning fat for fuel instead of carbohydrates. The natural evolution of the human body is such that the preferred fuel is glucose from carbohydrates. Our brains, muscles and organs all run smoothly on carbohydrates. When you severely restrict your carbohydrate intake, your body thinks you’re starving and turns to an alternate fuel source: fat. Fat gets broken down into acidic ketones which then become fuel for your brain, muscles, etc. The result is rapid weight loss, less hunger and lower blood sugar (since you’re not eating any carbohydrates, obviously).
Neat trick, right?
The problem I see with this diet is that there are very few healthy sources of fat out there. Avocados, nuts and olives are a few that come to mind. Most other concentrated fat sources come from animals. For example, heavy cream, butter, bacon, cheese. To mention the obvious, eating this high amount of saturated fat (and cholesterol) is strongly linked to clogged arteries and the number one killer of Americans: heart disease.2, 3 Secondly, what most people don’t know is that eating too much fat results in diabetes.5 Saturated fat is a primary cause of insulin resistance. We can’t keep blaming the carbohydrates without looking at the whole story. Saturated fat can build up inside our muscle cells and prevent insulin from functioning correctly, leading to high blood sugar and eventually diabetes.4
Thirdly, it’s a well-known fact that toxins accumulate in fat cells. As we ingest the concentrated fat of other animals we can be sure that we’re taking in a multitude more pollutants than if we were to eat lower on the food chain. For example, there’s a certain amount of pollution in the world that gathers in the air, falls in the rain, gets absorbed into the soil and has a baseline presence in grass and plants. As a cow eats that grass all day, toxins concentrate in its fat cells. As we either eat the fatty part of the cow or the dairy fat the cow produces, we then consume all the toxins from all the grass that the cow has ever eaten. Way more than if we’d just eaten the grass (or lettuce/kale) directly. The relationship between toxins and fat cells is even stronger for birds and fish. In following a ketogenic diet and aiming for such a high fat intake, we inevitably increase the amount of pollutants and chemicals we’re consuming.
Lastly, it’s hard to eat that much fat without also eating more animal protein. Most keto-ers are looking for super fatty cuts of steak, pork, etc. This comes with the risks inherent in eating a high animal protein diet: heart disease, kidney disease, cancer, diabetes, kidney stones, gallstones, early death and higher rates of all-cause mortality to name a few. 6, 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13 For this reason, it’s my opinion that recommending this diet to anyone who is not a brain cancer patient, a young child with epilepsy or anyone who is not fully informed of these risks is completely irresponsible, at best .
And though media coverage may have led us to believe that the dangers of saturated fat are unwarranted, it’s worth looking a little more closely at the science. The study that’s best known for making the cover of Time Magazine in 2014 with the subtitle Eat Butter has been widely criticized for mistakenly combining studies that cancelled each other out and led to faulty conclusions. Other poorly-designed studies have attempted to paint cholesterol in a less-damaging light as well. These studies are deeply flawed and are simply serving the interests of the food industry. 14
Interestingly enough, there’s a small group of people out there who have success on a plant-based keto diet. They eat a lot of avocados, olives, nuts, seeds and oil. They do not eat beans, whole grains, fruits or starchy vegetables. If one can do this while keeping saturated fat (coconut and other tropical oils) low, this would be the way to do it.
However, the health benefits of eating whole grains, beans, fruits and starchy vegetables are undeniable. A meta-analysis combining seven major studies revealed that those who ate at least 2.5 servings of whole grains per day had a 21% decreased risk of heart disease compared with those who ate less than 2 servings a week.15 Eating just 20 grams (7 ounces or a half can) of beans each day decreases one’s risk of death by 8%. 16 And eating just one serving of fruit per day can cut a person’s risk of heart disease by 27% and decrease their overall risk of death by 32%.17 For diabetics, decreasing fruit intake is not associated with better blood sugar control.18 No one ever got diabetes from eating too much fruit. With such staggering benefits from even the smallest amount of these healthy carbohydrates, imagine the health you could achieve if your diet was composed of mostly fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes.
To those who say that carbohydrates are the problem, I say carbohydrates are the solution. Yes, cocoa puffs and white bread are not good for us. But if we take a step back and look at whole unprocessed foods, we find lentils, split peas, garbanzo beans, black beans, pinto beans, soy beans, quinoa, brown rice, steel cut oats, barley, corn, sweet potatoes, blueberries, raspberries, and apples. The list goes on.
Instead of looking for a fast way to lose weight or hopping on the next diet hack that all your co-workers are raving about, have a little patience. It’s not worth tricking your body into thinking you’re starving and need to burn fat for fuel. This is a survival mechanism, a last resort. It’s not the way our metabolism is supposed to function for months and years on end. We’re surrounded by beautiful, natural, colorful and healthy foods that grow on trees and in the ground and that our bodies are already adapted to using for fuel. We should eat those. Why not aim to lose weight slowly and in a healthy way that will allow us to maintain a healthy weight for years to come?
And instead of classifying our diet by macronutrients and looking at ratios and percentages, why don’t we just talk about food? What do the longest-living, healthiest populations eat? Minimally processed plant foods.18 That is what we should all be eating right now. So rather than vilifying one macronutrient, lets teach people about real foods, the benefits of getting enough fiber and how to eat the way our bodies have adapted to over thousands of years. The bottom line: love your body, don’t play tricks on it, and your body will love you back.
July and August 2017
Highlight #5: The Family and Dog
Dad and the younger sibs came to hike with me for 6 days. Lena and Jeremy both agreed to cary some of my extra gear, and Dad brought along 4 different varieties of sunscreen for us to choose from daily. We were treated to abundant meals of potatoes and wine each evening at local chalets. Sienna kept good pace, unfazed by the thousands of meters of elevation change, and she never missed an opportunity to lie down and take a nap.
Not to mention, we climbed some of the steepest, highest and most terrifying trail. As straight up as you can get without needing ropes and harnesses. When all you can do is take one step at a time, try to keep hold of the dog, the rope that's drilled into the side of the mountain and DON"T look down. Trusting that the accumulation of steps will eventually lead you to the top of the mountain. And then you get to do it all again in reverse on the downhill side.
Highlight #6: The Final Stretch
When it's time for the family to leave, I'm ready to hike fast for the last few days of this trip. The passes, with the exception of one, are smaller and less terrifying/dramatic. I find myself once again having the cable car versus hiking discussion with myself. But really, I find no reason to take the cable car when hiking is so much fun. In fact, I end up finishing my day of hiking by 3 pm two days in a row. With the rain and the steepness and with hiking at a slower pace and now finally hiking at a faster pace, it's hard for me to estimate when I'll end up where. And the whole hike-until-it's-dark-and-then-set-up-camp strategy that works so well on the PCT does not work here. I'm too nervous to take the chance of hiking until dark and then ending up in someone's cow field, or on the side of a cliff, or worst of all in a town (most likely) and sleeping on a picnic table all by myself wondering what ill-intentioned person might be watching me and making a plan. I'm a scaredy cat. So I book myself some cozy lodges and spend the evenings eating my dehydrated food, FaceTiming with Mud and watching iTunes TV on my phone.
By the end, I find what I'm looking for: that part of you that eventually breaks open if you hike far enough. And suddenly nothing matters and everything matters at the same time. And you're alone but connected to everything.
The last day is the most fun and rewarding. I get to hike until dark because I have no choice but to finish today. I walk on roads and then veer off to get lost in some cow fields as I descend into the loneliest valley in Switzerland. And there I stop for lunch where there is no shade. A woman walks by and offers me some cheese to go with my soup as I'm hiding under my sun-brella. I actually have a successful conversation with her in French! It's been weeks since I was able to have a conversation with a stranger as everyone I met spoke the wrong language - Swiss-German. Now that I've crossed into the French-speaking zone it is much easier to communicate.
Though the afternoon is hot, humid and discouraging, the trail eventually brings me to a ridge where I see Lac Leman - my final destination! I celebrate with a melted chocolate bar and continue onward. Up and down a ridge until I reach a cafe. From here it's only a 3 hour walk downhill to the lake. Dad and the younger sibs are on their way to meet me. My dad tells me there's a shortcut that's steep but "not so bad", according to his memory. He seems to think I should take this route since it's already late in the day. I've seen it on my map. I can tell by the squiggly lines that it is a very, very steep downhill. This does not appeal to me at all. Once I arrive at the junction I read all the signs in french. "Very Steep Trail". "Hike at Your Own Risk". "Trail Not Maintained". Everything short of "Turn around Bug, don't do it!"
I've hiked enough in my life to know that short cuts are not always worthwhile. So I turn around and go the other way. Sorry, Dad.
In my final hours of hiking on a very gentle, well maintained, downhill grade, I am elated. Not because the hike is ending, but because there is nothing left to worry about and nothing to do but walk. Not even a cow to get in my way. It feels like I'm floating for hours until I see Sienna running towards me, followed by Lena, Jeremy and Dad.
Lena walks with me for the last 3 miles through a canyon/forest/city park that is beautiful and mysterious and eventually starts to smell like pee. And then we know we're in the big city of Montreux.
300 kilometers and 16 passes later, I made it through the rain, the steep rocky passes, the lonely valleys and crowded towns, and celebrate with some bubbly grape juice on the shores of Lac Leman.
July and August 2017
Highlight #3: Cows
Cows! Cows rule the mountains in Switzerland.
I cross a gate on a slanted incline to see a cow on the trail. And another behind her. And then four more and two babies behind them. There is no way around. They are on the trail with no sign of getting off. Ugh! I mean, cows are generally peaceful creatures but they are BIG and I'd rather not be too close to them. I continue to search for a walk around as they all stare at me, chewing flowers. I talk to them, saying that I just want to walk by and what's the best way to do that? That I'm vegan and I'm on their side. Alas, the only way is right past them. So I muster up all my courage and walk past. A few of them groan and one doesn't let me pass but walks ahead for a second. Then steps off the trail.
I'd been holding my breath the whole time and finally release it. Cows don't give a f*@#.
Highlight #4: SUN!
When you've been hiking in the Alps for 5 days and you haven't seen any mountains except the one under your feet and then the clouds break... WOW! They were there the whole time, just silently being majestic behind the clouds with no one seeing them.
I'm hiking again by 6 am, ready to climb the next pass and feeling very pleased with my decision not to take the cable car up. There's always a cable car in Switzerland, I'm starting to realize. Always the decision: to hike or to ride? Luckily I'm a morning person and the cable cars usually don't start running until late (9 am!). So hiking it is.
The weather is finally better today and I'm feeling strong. Climbing mountains is fun! I enjoy myself all the way up, feeling like my hiker self again. I even stop for my traditional mid-morning granola and mocha break.
At the top of the pass there is a cable car station but also a restaurant with free wifi and coffee! That's exciting for a while so I'm extra caffeinated when I leave. Then it's just a walk down and across some ridges and cow fields. After a while I stop for lunch and dry out my things.
It's super hot and humid. Also crowded. Also cow poop everywhere. So even though the sun is out today, the afternoon wares on me. By the time 3 pm comes, I'm exhausted and dehydrated and hungry. So what do I do? I take the cable car!
Down down down with spoon-fulls of peanut butter in my mouth. No shame.
July and August 2017
Highlight #1: it rained for 5 days straight. So, I got to spend the first part of my hike asking myself, again and again, why do I choose to do hard things?
Thoughts from day 2: It doesn't rain for every second of the day, but I am wet and cold for every second of the day. I'm cheerful in the morning, unfazed by the drizzles. It's a nice path along the river and then a road along the river and then a path again for a long time. Finally I start climbing steeply, feeling like I must be making progress. It rains harder as I go higher and I have to put my gloves on to keep my hands from freezing. Then a river crossing on a thin log with cows watching. I make it across and climb a bit and see this is not the right way... so I have to go back down and across again, still being watched by cows. And up some more. Then I get shocked by an electric fence that I've climbed through quite clumsily. After more climbing I see that the rain has perhaps turned into snow and the wind blows precipitation into my face causing sharp prickles on my cheek.
My toes have been numb for a while now but my hands start to lose feeling as well. I'm so close to the top when I notice I'm having trouble walking straight. I stop and then stumble again. Altitude? Low blood sugar? This has never happened before. I think my foot is landing in one spot and really it lands 3 inches to the left. I sit down next to a rock in the sideways snow/rain and force myself to eat a bar, then drink some water and then put on more layers. If I stop for more than these few minutes I know I'll become hypothermic. With my fleece sweater and hat now on my body I put on my pack and struggle to clip the waste belt. It takes 4 tries with no feeling in my fingers. I walk and walk and remind myself to slow down so as not to fall over. But I want to move faster to keep warm. But in the end I do it slowly and as soon as I'm over the pass the snow stops. I fumble my downward steps and see that the sun is almost visible behind the clouds. It won't come out though, it's just a tease.
Then comes the excruciating and wonderful pain of the feeling returning to my fingers.
Highlight #2: Sheep
Thoughts from day 3:
It's called the Alpine PASS route - which means I'm to climb at least one pass per day. But not today. No way I'm going back up there! I choose a road walk instead to avoid another snowy pass. But it turns out there are paths the whole way so it's actually quite lovely. I have to double check the maps to make sure this is the way. Oh, Switzerland. You make even a rainy road walk into something beautiful.
So I just walk the paths that follow the river. For some reason I can't stop thinking about how fast the river is moving with all this rain and the story of the woman who just recently died in a Sierra river due to being swept away. I keep imagining myself in the river and what would I do!? At one point I start to imagine my dog in the river, floating helplessly in the rush of white water. And then I have to stop. This is awful. I ban myself from looking at the river and just focus on my feet. And the cows. Why do we have minds that force is to think terrible thoughts over and over again? As if thinking it will somehow prepare me for when it actually happens. But I'd rather it just not actually happen. And it's possible that we manifest our own reality so I better stop with the terrifying river scenarios and think positive thoughts. This is what happens when one walks alone.
Soon the rain has tapered down and I'm hot. I find a spot just inside some trees where there are sheep but no humans. There I stop to change my pants to lighter ones. But the sheep just prances right up to me and despite me explaining that I'm just here to change my pants she keeps approaching. I'm worried she may try to take some of my things strewn about on the damp grass, thinking they are edible. For a moment she stops and stares at me with that peculiar long fluffy face. I realize I have never truly looked a sheep in the eyes until today. How strange and adorable her face is! She refrains from steeling my things and walks past me. Then turns around to report back to her herd.
I feel bad now. I should have been more friendly to the sheep while I had the chance.
As the winter finds us in a cozy old house tucked in the southeast corner of Washington, I've recently hung up my hiker hat to wear my dietitian hat. Luckily, the dietitian hat allows me to stay inside and when it's 3 degrees outside but feels like negative 2; I appreciate that. Plus, I get to be part of an awesome new lifestyle program in Walla Walla.
Since one of my life goals is to get everyone I meet to eat more chickpeas, I thought I might share one of my favorite meals with you to help accomplish that. This recipe is one of the easiest and most delicious -- we eat it at least once a week.
The roasted chickpeas are clearly the best part about the dish, but sitting them on top of brown rice and next to fresh, colorful vegetables makes them even more awesome. For some reason there always seems to be red cabbage, kale and carrots in my fridge, so those are the veggies I've listed. But of course, you may choose any others you'd like. Last night, for example, I ditched the carrots for bell pepper, as you can see below.
Roasted Chickpea Bowl
Prep Time: 10 Minutes, Cook Time: 45 min, Serves 3
Pro Tip: Make a double batch of chickpeas and save some to use in salads or just as a snack.
We left the Grand Enchantment Trail looking to trade in endless crossings of the Gila for something a little more rocky and red. Not that New Mexico wasn't great, but Utah is great too. So when our friend from the PCT, Bloody Mary, invited us to hike a section of the Hayduke trail with her, we couldn't refuse.
The Hayduke is an 800-mile route that one follows through all the most amazing places in Southern Utah: from Arches National Park to Zion. Sometimes it's a road walk, sometimes it's a cow-trail, and sometimes it's a cross-country walk from one canyon to another. Sometimes it's scrambling down rocky cliffs and passing packs from one person to so you can leap across a ravine. The Hayduke is many different things, but one is for sure: it's impossible to describe. Pictures can sometimes, maybe do it justice, but probably not... and it's a struggle to find the right words.
All I know is that I'll be going back.
For some much better pictures of this epic trail, check out Bloody Mary's instagram!
We find that the mesa is a most wonderful place once we get up there. It's a flat, straight and peaceful reprieve from yesterday's drama. I use the morning to listen to music and relax even though my legs still have to move. I'm all out of food except for three bars, which means that my pack is extra light and walking is almost effortless.
At the junction we have to choose between going down to a trail that requires fording the Gila several times (translation: wet feet and potential dense, overgrown terrain) or staying high to follow a horse trail. We stay high.
When the trail fizzles out I keep walking in the general direction of it, checking the GPS to see if I'm on track. When it reappears I don't see Mud's footprints in the dirt and wonder if he's still ahead. Maybe he got lost? Not likely... so I trek on and enjoy putting the trail puzzle together all by myself.
I wander out of the wilderness to a horse corral and a road. There's Mud, waiting. He thinks I'm going too slow today. Maybe I am, but I've been having fun.
We attempt to hitch the three miles from the Gila Visitor Center to Doc Campbell's store but cars are sparse and no one stops. So we continue on, feet pounding the pavement on the windy road. Mud goes ahead and I watch him get smaller and smaller until finally he disappears around a curve. Now it's just me.
When I get to the store Mud has already claimed a picnic table out front. I go inside and am bummed to find they don't even have a decent iced tea. They do have fresh picked apples, so that kind of makes up for it. Sitting back down at the table outside, a wave of exhaustion runs over me. I didn't realize how tired I was. That might explain why the past couple days have been so hard.
Mud and I wander down the street, past a pen of goats and over a dirt road to a hot springs retreat that holds promise of a bed and showers. We arrive to find the place empty except for the owner, who offers us a large straw-bail-adobe-hogan-house-yurt.
It's better than we could've ever dreamed up. Our very own adobe cabin and our very own hot springs! Someday we'll have a place just like this, but in Washington. It's shaded and quiet and we don't see another person the whole time we're there. We spend the rest of the day soaking in the springs, eating toast with chocolate and reading books. If it weren't for the fact that we didn't have any fresh food, we may have never left. We both fall asleep just after sunset and I don't move an inch until the sun returns, trickling light in from behind the curtains.
There's nothing like a good climb in the morning to get your blood flowing. I always dread it at first, but before I know it I'm completely awake, and it was totally painless.
We leave the grassy creek bed to walk up on a plateau. It's a straight, flat path all the way to the next trailhead. A flock of wild turkeys cross the path about fifty feet ahead of me. First one, then another and another. They all disappear by the time I reach their spot.
By mid morning we're trekking along another creek bed through more tall grass. But this grass is more characteristic of the desert, leaving various forms of prickly things attached to our shoes and clothing. The most annoying are the ones that insert themselves head first into the mesh of my
shoes. Only the wispy little tails remain within view while their sharp ends poke my toes. I try to ignore the pain but have to stop frequently to remove them.
The best part of the day is short lived and quickly turns into the worst part. We find a cross country path along a dry wash. It's wide and easy to walk with rock walls towering beside us. I make the mistake of believing this is how things will be - cheerfully taking pictures and cruising along on the gravel.
Then this wash joins another wash. The new one has a running stream and is thick with willows. Our maps say to follow the stream until we cross the Gila river about four miles away, but there is no clear path. Only a faint line in the brush where it's been pushed aside a little - this is the trail.
It takes us a while to figure this out and even longer to accept that this is our path for the foreseeable future. Mud charges ahead and I don't see him for two hours. Meanwhile, the trail crosses the creek every two minutes or so. No rocks to hop on this time. I splash through, my feet sinking into the mud on the shores and releasing sulfurous gasses. When I'm not crossing the creek, I barrel through the jungle. If my legs weren't torn up before, they sure are now. I come to welcome the burning pain on my shins as a sign of progress.
I can't stop to care - we have to get through this by dark.
The jungle walk is almost over when I see Mud waiting for me amidst the tall grass. We decide to camp soon before the climb up to the mesa. We're both tired and grumpy. When finally we've set up our tent on top of the prickly terrain, I fall asleep listening to music on my headphones, promising myself that tomorrow will bring a more welcoming trail.
One canyon leads to another this morning until eventually the trail twists us up through golden oak trees and aspens rattling in the wind. We're still on the CDT, so it's a game of up and down, but mostly up, with a trail that's mostly easy to follow. We often get views of the distant mountains all painted in fall colors.
Right before lunch we see the return of the thorn-laden, overgrown trail. I'm wearing my old, worn down hiking pants which are too thin to stand up to these thickets. They rip right away in two places. This bums me out way more than expected. I've been through so much with these pants! I change into shorts before my pants get ripped more than I can repair.
My legs get scratched all afternoon but I am unfazed on account of how great the views are. The trail is rough but I'm just dazzled by the beauty of it all. Finally we start our descent, leaving the CDT and ending up on the wrong trail. Luckily, this one leads where we wanna go, too.
We follow diamond creek all the way down. It's more water than we've seen this whole time. The trail crosses the creek about forty times in three miles, usually just easy rock-hops. But this doesn't stop me from slipping and getting my feet wet. After spending a few hours navigating the tall grasses of creek side meadows, we stop to camp just before the next climb.
Our legs are weary from all the up and down today. Gila hot springs is our next stop and we're ready for a good soak. So tonight, we fall asleep dreaming about hot springs.
I wake up in a pretty good mood because we've slept at an empty campground of sorts and there happens to be a privy there. It doesn't smell bad and it's fully stocked with toilet paper. So I feel like we've really found luxury. That is, until we notice that neither of our sawyer water filters are functioning correctly. Either they're clogged up from the cow water or they froze overnight.
Luckily we're right next to a paved road. And luckily I have an extra filter in our bounce bucket, sitting at the post office just 20 miles away. It only takes 45 minutes for the first car to show up going the right direction. But he stops right away and takes us all the way to Winston. We enjoy conversation with Bo, the driver, who has taken some days off to just camp and run through the mountains.
Winston is probably the most charming of trail towns, as New Mexico goes. There is one store and a post office. Nothing else. The old lady at the post office forwards our bucket for free once we've gotten what we need out of it and the cashier woman tells me how to get cell reception.
"There's a post out there. If you walk about five steps away from it there's a black rock. Face south." And stick one leg in the air and tilt your head slightly to the left. "That's where you'll find service." She says.
The hitch back is an easy one and we're back on the trail by noon. It's a well-graded and easy-to-follow path through a pine forest. It feels like such a treat until I get used to it. Then I put headphones in and just cruise for most of the afternoon. For a moment I forget where I am. I could be anywhere, just one foot after the other, making miles.
The evening finds us walking a forest road and turning off into another canyon where we set up camp just as the sun goes down. My stove glows blue and pink against the night as I boil water for dinner. I fall asleep happy, feeling like I've found my hiker-self again.
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