DOG QUEST: Canine Emotional Support

When I’m feeling very low, generally my instinct is to curl up in a cave constructed largely of doonas (eiderdowns or “comforters” for those of you not in Oz), pillows and cats, and go to sleep, on the theory that I’ll usually feel at least a bit better when I wake up. Usually, this is true.

So, bed is a safe place.

Every now and again I feel conflicted about this. I feel as though the only thing that could be more comforting than being curled up in bed next to snoring Husband and attention-demanding middle-aged cat (Jabba), and comatose elderly cat (Lestat), would be if Amos was asleep on the floor next to the bed and I could pat him.

We’ll leave aside reality for the moment. Reality would involve acknowledging that, in such a situation, Amos would steal my socks and refuse to give them back, and intermittently fart clouds of noxious gases into the bedroom, and wake us up from time to time by very loudly licking his penis (this results in quite the obnoxious slurping noise). Reality would involve acknowledging that he would probably eat the cat food, and the cats would be yowling and hissing in distress, and hiding under the bed, if not actively pissing on things in their outrage (this last one is more Jabba than Lestat. Lestat has more dignity than to piss on things in outrage).

I grew up with rottweilers. I took them entirely for granted, and it wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I encountered another rottie and was reminded that there was perhaps nothing in this world that was as comforting to me as leaning my head on a broad, black, muscled, furry dog back. Nothing makes one feel quite as safe as snuggling up next to a large dog that is very fond of you.

When I cry, Amos gets worried. He expresses this worry by sitting politely in front of me, licking my face obsessively, and nibbling on my ear. He follows me around when I am sad or sick, and he lets me hug him and flop all over him, when most of the time he can be a bit precious about his personal space. It’s hard not to anthropomorphise at times like this, but dogs do recognise distress. Howling and crying are things he seems to understand.

And sometimes I feel that no-one will offer you such wholehearted, uncomplicated emotional support as a dog will.

"Draw me like one of your French girls."

“Draw me like one of your French girls.”

I am my own filter: Kate’s Social Media Rant

I know they get clicks – that they are, in fact, the quintessential click-bait – but I am so fucking tired of those articles about what you should or should not do on social media.

“Five things you do on Facebook that you should stop doing!” could also be translated as, “Are you insecure about whether your online ‘friends’ are actually friends or whether they are judging you for oversharing or bragging? Click here and give us money and we’ll probably make you feel worse!”

So here’s my take on it, click-bait or otherwise (aside: were I to write anything that could even remotely be described as “click-bait” I would be delighted).

One of the things that is listed as an internet no-no is usually “having a whinge”.

Having a whinge

I think that having a whinge is one of the most important things we can do, socially and psychologically, and I suspect I may be in the minority on that. I have limits on what I think is appropriate, and I’ll express those when asked, but for the vast majority of the time I only apply those limits to myself.

If you read my Facebook, you might be very surprised that I apply any limits to myself, since my Facebook feed runs the gamut from the political (rare), the scientific (moderate), the cute (frequent) and the intensely banal (embarrassingly frequent), but we’ll get back to this.

People like to complain about complainers (the irony of this is often lost on them; I often find that sort of complaining far, far more irritating than the original sook), and they often like to say it is for the following reason:

“People should do something about their problems instead of just complaining about it.”

Now, this might genuinely be their motivation – I can’t read minds – but, cynical beast that I am, jaded by my day to day internet addiction and experiencing the death of a thousand cuts ill-considered internet comments, I honestly think that it’s more that they are made uncomfortable, or personally annoyed.

“I hate reading about someone’s [crappy day/experiences with bigotry/deaths in the family/personal suffering] because it interrupts my preferred flow of [political discussion/musical discoveries/cute cat pictures] and sometimes it makes me bummed.”

There’s nothing invalid about that response. It’s pretty normal.

So back to that first rationalisation: if it’s genuine – if this dichotomy of talkers vs. doers is why an anti-whinger is having trouble with their sulky Facebook or Twitter feed – I have a piece of very exciting news.

It’s a bombshell. Stand back.

These two categories are not mutually exclusive.

You can both whinge about a problem while contributing to solving it. I like to think I do this from time to time. I’m an expressive sort of person (I like to say that I am nothing if not verbose, and honestly perhaps that should be the subtitle of this blog…). I think in narratives, and arguments, and conversations and rants. I do not, alas, think in pithy one-liners. These posts would be much shorter if I did.

This applies to everything from intensely banal personal problems (i.e., my frustration with the current state of our carport and the paved areas in our yard) to much more significant political stances (i.e., my frustration with the current Australian government, my frustration with the endemic sexism, racism and other assorted bigotries in our society, my frustration with the wanton destruction of fragile marine ecosystems…).

I don’t fool myself that expressing my frustration with any of these things will solve the problem, but I am not so busy expressing my frustration that it will stop me from trying to do anything about it (although admittedly my political activism is largely about online conversation and discussion, and I have only changed one or two minds to date, but I count those as successes; also donations. Not as good as volunteering time, but still something).

To return to the banal: I can complain about the state of my carport and also clean it up. I can complain about endemic sexism and also call people on it when it occurs and have that conversation. I can complain about some ill health problems and also address them medically.

Now, sometimes it’s not the case. Sometimes there’s nothing I can do about a situation, or nothing I am willing to do for various reasons ranging from laziness to fear to lack of resources; and I may whinge anyway.

Good Lord, Kate, says the anti-whinger, why are you doing that? That’s self indulgent and only pisses people off.

I do it for a few reasons, and in no particular order, they are as follows:

  1. I am, as stated above, expressive by nature. I find nothing so satisfying as accurately and precisely delineating my thoughts and feelings on an issue, no matter how insignificant. It’s as though it ticks a little box in my brain. I have successfully described and outlined a problem. Dopamine reward!
  2. This is more an extension of (1), but venting feels good. It’s not entirely supported as a positive act; psychologically it is better to vent productively (i.e., outlining a problem, why you feel that way, possible solutions if any), but sometimes it’s good to just let it rip (I would argue, though, that you should always choose your audience with care when you do this. Never forget that the internet is forever).
  3. Sometimes it makes a good story. When shit happens, and especially when it gets ridiculous, there’s a part of my brain that says, “This will make a great anecdote later.” I am happy to whinge and try, if I can find the energy and the narrative, to make it as entertaining as I possibly can. I see it as a challenge, and it also helps me deal with the problem.
  4. Because I bloody well can.

Now that we’ve dealt with whingeing, and how I think that it’s perfectly appropriate 99.9% of the time for someone to have a sook in their own feed, everything else falls into the category of miscellaneous.

You can’t please everyone; don’t try

If you’ve consulted one or many of those “what you shouldn’t post on Facebook of Twitter” articles, you will have spotted a pattern – or rather, you will have spotted a lack of a pattern.

Variously, apparently, you should not:

  1. post about fitness (this includes everything from “I ran a marathon” to “gym killed me today”)
  2. post about nutrition (self-explanatory)
  3. post about medical stuff (oh noes! Oversharing! How dare you mention that you are in overwhelming pain all the time and you’re feeling a bit bummed and would like a little emotional support!)
  4. post about politics (that just makes people angry!)
  5. post about religion (I can channel myself here. People posting about their religion makes me want to stab myself in the eye, but since that would be unproductive, I take the radical step of minding my own business)
  6. post about their relationship (because who cares how much you love your snoogy woogums?)
  7. post about their children (because who cares about your sprogs?)
  8. post about their pets (HAHAHAHAHAHAHA I’m sorry I can’t comment on this one even a little)
  9. post about their failures (this comes under “whingeing”, I believe)
  10. post about their successes (because you’re showing off – or humble-bragging – or rubbing it in)

And one might reasonably wonder – after reading all this – what one can post about without upsetting the Buzzfeed authorship. Relatively few people seem to complain about people posting science or music or art, but then those can push political buttons.

And this self-righteous superior malarkey basically ends up in one place:

“I have things that I prefer to see in my feed, and these are obviously universal because everyone reacts the same way to these things that I do. I am the quintessential Internet Human and there is no variation around this mean.”

Twit.

I’m sorry (spoiler: I’m not sorry), but hell, it’s not hard to step back and think that maybe what you want to see and what I want to see and what other people want to see might vary just a tad.

I like to see posts about my friends’ kids, not just for the cute factor, but for the reality factor (these posts are not always overwhelmingly positive), and because I’m quite genuinely interested in what’s happening in my friends’ lives. Also, I like the kids.

I like to see posts about pets, for very similar reasons.

I like to see posts about medical things, about fitness, about nutrition. I like to see posts about politics.

I’m ambivalent about relationship posts. It’s not my thing – in many cases, unless carefully worded, such posts can come back to bite you very hard in the backside, and maybe you’re into that, but they make me squirm a little. Still, it’s absolutely your call. I do occasionally post about my relationship, but only when I find it very entertaining (given the nature of my relationship with Husband, it is usually pretty entertaining, at least for me).

I really hate religion posts (with the exception of very thoughtful pro-atheism posts, because I agree with many of those, and who doesn’t like a nice echo chamber?), but if you want to post about religion, go nuts. It’s your call, your feed; they’re your thoughts and your feelings, and if you want to use social media to share them, if you find that empowering or even just fun, then please do it. Don’t worry about people like me who are driven nuts by it. We’ll get over ourselves and move on. You can’t please everyone and it’s not worth trying.

What I really love to see? I love to see posts about friends’ successes. I want to hear about your promotion, your new job, your grant, your new best time in a 5K run, your new sculpture, your market stall, your paper, your novel. The idea that posting about good things in your life is “bragging” is just about one of those most vile things I can think of. Are some people having a brag and being a bit superior? Well, probably. Whatever. That’s not my problem. If you really don’t want to see good things happening to your friends, I think you might have some other problems you want to deal with, and I’m not being passive-aggressive: I mean there’s some insecurity and some anxiety happening, and it’s worth having a think about it. Sometimes it is hard to see someone succeed where we have failed, even if we love them; sometimes it can be stupendously hard; but most of us see that we can’t make it their problem. It’s our problem, and we deal with it. There’s no need to take off their shine.

Social media is a place where a bunch of different people raised in different ways – in different countries, towns, religions, and under different social rules and regimes – come together. When they do come together, they bring their baggage with them – their personal rules and preferences on what is, and is not, appropriate – and they often presume that their rules are universal.

People post about what they care about. They post about their passions. Sometimes they admittedly just post about what they had for dinner (I can take or leave that one; it’s similar to my banal “Oh God I’m in the lab and I haven’t had coffee, which end of the pipette goes where?” sort of posts). They post about what’s on their mind, and the thing about social media is that you can use it how you like. You can use it to promote things you are passionate about; you can use it to stay in touch with friends; you can use it to tell anecdotes about your day; and none of these things are mutually exclusive.

Here is how it works: social media is about things going outward from the writer, not inward towards the reader; or, to put it another way, the focus is on expression, not consumption, of material.

Do you have a responsibility to entertain people? Of course not. A social media feed is not a journalism feed. It’s not a magazine, or a novel, or a newspaper. People who write in those contexts, who write professionally, are subject to a wide swathe of ethical responsibilities. Social media is not a professional context: it’s just a bunch of people spewing whatever comes into their head at odd moments, and that has turned out to be enormously popular and enormously effective and incredibly annoying in a variety of ways.

But – my own opinion – you also do have an implied responsibility not to ruin it for everybody else, by which I mean: don’t show up self-righteously to tell people how boring their posts are, or how they’re using social media “wrong”, and while I won’t generally tell people what to post or what not to post, I have very little patience with meta-whingeing: whingeing about other people whingeing (although if you’re of a recursive mindset, my own stance is meta-meta-whingeing; DUDE, MIND BLOWN).

And in my own, excessively verbose way, I’ll get to the point:

Be your own filter. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. I scroll past “God is good!” You can scroll past “Look at my adorable children,” or “i hate my ex [sic]”. If you want to argue about the merits of a political position, that’s your call (I do and have done so, depending on the issue and how much I feel like I can be bothered getting stuck into it). If someone consistently posts a bunch of tripe that drives you mad, you can filter or unfriend them. That’s a power that you have.

I mean, you could just show up on posts you don’t like and tell people that their thoughts, interests and feelings are of no interest to you or anyone else and they should shut up, but that’s kind of an arse move, and it makes you the problem.

This Keto Life: All Up In Your Science (Confirmation Bias)

Scientists are not immune to confirmation bias – no one is. That is, to a large extent, why we have peer review: because otherwise we could publish any old shit that we thought was convincing and not ever have anyone point out “Yes, but you would find that convincing. Have you thought instead that your data could mean something quite different?” or even “Yes, but you failed to account for this confounding factor,” or “Your analysis includes several underlying assumptions that are not met, and thus it is invalid.”

I am reading a few more books about the ketogenic diet (and yes, I am seeking out criticisms online to see if they are valid for me. I already did this before I decided to go low-carb, but I continue to do it. I think it’s important to stay on top of these arguments).

It’s become clear to me that nutrition is a minefield of confirmation bias, much of which is dangerously close to woo, and that if I’d read the wrong books first, I would not necessarily be convinced.

The first books that I read and found convincing were, firstly, The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living and The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance by Drs Phinney and Volek. Here are the reasons I found their work convincing:

  • they are qualified researchers with expertise in the field about which they are writing (you wouldn’t think that would be hard to find, but I’ll say more about this below)
  • they go into exhaustive detail about the studies they have done, how they set them up, and how they have drawn the conclusions they did
  • they go into similarly exhaustive detail when they critique other studies (which they do in a calm and consistent fashion)
  • they let you follow the dots

Now, the first of these books does get a bit technical – only slightly, but it might be enough to scramble one’s head a bit. This is because the initial intended audience included healthcare providers. There are a couple of chapters, particularly regarding saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats and the mobilisation of these in muscle tissues and muscle membranes that I am going to have to re-read, because that information did not stay in my head.

Before I read these books, I read a few posts from the blog of Dr Peter Attia, who likewise goes into clear and precise detail about a number of key concepts. He writes as I like scientists to write: he provides a few basic definitions, diagrams where appropriate, and proceeds from there.

In the last couple of days, I downloaded Keto Clarity and Cholesterol Clarity by Jimmy Moore. I’d read a few posts on his blog, and they seemed to make reasonable sense, but were a bit more simplified. The books were reasonably cheap and I like the word “clarity” in the titles. I thought they might be a good shortcut to get my head around some important metabolic concepts.

And I hate to say it – no disrespect to the man intended – but I have not found these books (I have not finished the latter, to be fair) nearly as convincing.

Moore does a good job of making it clear that his experience is only his experience, and you should not over-extrapolate from it; I like that. He describes his personal experiments as “n=1”, and I like that too. He also says things like, “At this point, you may be wondering why the hell you should listen to anything I have to say, as I have no qualifications. That’s excellent! You should question people! My job is to convince you!”

I really like that. I think it’s a good position to have, and since Moore has no qualifications in science or nutrition other than researching heavily (like I have no qualifications in nutrition apart from that sort of researh), it’s a very responsible position. What he has done is tried to get a large body of research and a large body of opinions from other experts and distill it down into more digestible (ha, see what I did there?) material for the layperson.

I think he has done a reasonably good job, but for two problems.

Firstly, I do not like his choice of experts.

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of them do tick the box for me. His co-author, Dr Eric Westman, mostly explains things well (although he has a couple of metaphors which are just plain silly and trying a bit too hard to communicate to the common folk, what is the word on the street, yo). There are a large number of medical doctors, qualified nutritionists and biomedical researchers in his arsenal of consulted experts. There are cardiologists. There are lipidologists. There are diabetes specialists. These are the people you want to back you up when you make the case for a ketogenic lifestyle or the role of cholesterol (or lack thereof) in heart disease.

However, there are also food bloggers. There are personal trainers (I trust a qualified personal trainer to understand anatomy and sports science and how I should move in order to maximise efficient muscle development, flexibility, coordination and aerobic efficiency barring medical hurdles. That is about as far as it goes).

There are- and I honestly find this quite damning- people who are highly qualified academics in computer science or astrophysics. These people are no more qualified than I am to offer advice (which is one reason I mostly restrict these posts to my own experience and any advice I give has been heavily, heavily validated elsewhere, i.e., salt), except that they may have spent longer doing their own amateur research. I was entirely dismayed to see in the list the name of a person who has been associated with the worst kind of sneakily published, pay-to-publish-in-an-inappropriate-journal junk science listed as an expert (by pure coincedence, I’d read a write-up of this junk science the very day before I bought the book. I stared at the photo in the bio in genuine horror).

As scientists, are they well equipped to deal with the primary literature? Yes, of course, better than most people. That’s the value of scientific training (to a lesser extent, research training in general teaches you to evaluate claims and evidence). Are they probably, in many cases, correct in what they are saying? Yes, mostly, in the context I’d give them the benefit of doubt. Are they people whose blogs I would read and find interesting? Perhaps. Blogging expertise is a low bar (I posit myself as Exhibit A); anyone can have an opinion and make an argument, but to do that well is a skill I admire.

But are they people who should be being quoted by a health blogger in his book as experts in the field? No, they are not; and I think that by including them as experts in his book Moore makes a terrible error in judgment, reducing the credibility of his case and his own credibility by association.

Perhaps he is playing a numbers game. He has clearly met all these people and respects them highly, and is thinking, “Wow, all these intelligent and respectable people are in my corner here, I should list them all and quote them all!” but in my opinion he would have done better to thin the herd, cut a good number of his “Moment of Clarity” quotes and not been so determined to quote all his mates (to be fair, it was his first book).

The second problem I have with his book is a big one: in spite of his apparent determination to do so, he does not always back up his claims.

This doesn’t make me want to drop keto, because I’ve already read Phinney and Volek and Attia, and they make many of the same claims and they do back them up with references and well-designed studies; but if Moore was the first book I had read, I would doubt some of the claims he makes. He backs some of them up well, but others he just leaves sitting there or – and this ties in with my first nitpick – he relies on his stable of experts to back them up for him.

Which would be fine if all his experts were experts, but some, as I said, are not necessarily deserving of the title.

I have been convinced that the ketogenic diet is one that leads to a healthier metabolic situation for people who are either insulin resistant or heading in that direction. The evidence is very good that a monitored ketogenic diet is extremely helpful for Type 2 Diabetes, and that it maybe be helpful for Type 1 Diabetics; however, in the latter case it must be medically monitored. Type 1 Diabetics are the only effective risk group for ketoacidosis – i.e., where blood ketones get too high, in the order of 10mM or so. Nutritional ketosis shouldn’t get much past 5mM for most people because we will produce insulin to reduce it when it gets too high, but deliberately provoking ketosis in a system that does not produce insulin can be a wee bit problematic.

I have been effectively convinced that the ketogenic diet, by swapping one’s fuel specialisation from sugar-burning to fat-burning, increases one’s energy levels after adaptation, because we can store a twenty times more fat than we can glycogen. I’m finally feeling fully adapted, and it is amazing how awake and functional I am all day (as long as I avoid sugars). It’s unprecedented for me.

I have also been convinced that the ketogenic diet will reduce inflammation (as expressed by C-reactive protein) and improve lipid profiles. I haven’t been convinced by personal experience because I can’t test those myself; rather I have been convinced by a number of extensive studies, literature reviews and meta-analyses that have been published in reputable journals. Inflammation is important to me because my body is prone to sit around having an inflammatory response for no good reason, and then I end up having an HS flare (hidradenitis suppurativa, which I’ve mentioned before. Don’t Google it, please, it’s pretty gross). Inflammation is also implicated in a couple of other minor conditions to which my body is prone – and, I think not coincidentally, those conditions are correlated with Type 2 Diabetes and insulin resistance, suggesting that if perhaps you react badly to certain glucose situations, you end up with a lot of inflammation happening, and there might be shared causes there. I am therefore hoping that a ketogenic diet really is anti-inflammatory, and while I don’t expect my HS to disappear entirely, I am hoping that the incidence of attacks will decline. I did notice that attacks declined significantly after I quit eating wheat regularly in 2009 (my own “n=1” observation).

My plan of attack here is to get a thorough lipid profile (and inflammation blood work) done when I have been doing keto for six months.

Why am I listing all these things?

Because I have not been convinced that the ketogenic diet is anti-carcinogenic. The only people making this claim are people who are not actually qualified experts in health – those people usually know better than to make wild anti-carcinogenic claims. The people making these claims are also the people making claims about the “paleo” diet (more on that another time, I promise, but a quick summary on my view is that people can choose whatever labels they want, and if that makes them happy, fine, but it doesn’t make it scientifically accurate), and the evils of processed foods (which can be evil, sure, but are not necessarily carcinogenic. That is a big damn claim and you need to back that up).

People who have terminal cancer are in many cases desperate and upset, which makes perfect sense. It’s hard for most people to hold onto rationality and skepticism under these circumstances. Many do so, but it’s not necessarily easy. I feel that it is grossly unethical to promote a particular way of eating that focuses on that desperation without any evidence to back it up. Promote it because of the documented positive effects on inflammation, heart health and metabolic processes – that’s fine. A cancer sufferer might find that makes them feel better for other reasons, and the improved health (if they are a person who will benefit from keto; not everybody will) might turn the tide; but honestly, keto-adaptation in a cancer patient is also going to make a very sick person feel even worse (at least temporarily), and whether it’s worth it or not will vary from person to person.

That claim really rubbed me the wrong way.

In summary, confirmation bias is a sneaky thing. It’s not that I don’t want to believe these claims, but the minute any lifestyle change is purported to solve everything, cure everything, change everything, I get skeptical. I can’t help it. It sounds like snake oil. There is no magic cure for everything because life is complicated, and biology is complicated. Frankly, if I hadn’t seen these studies for myself, I’d be thinking even the well-supported claims made concerning the keto diet were a bit dodgy, just because there are so many of them.

Wanting to believe something is very, very dangerous, and this is why I will keep reading criticisms of keto as well as defenses and explanations.

Morning Coffee Feminism: It’s my name

On the way back from gym, I parked the car at the top of the driveway and got out to collect the mail. Water bill – no problem – misdirected mail – uh huh – and what’s this?

On the front of the envelope, I see this arrangement of details:

[Husband’s name] and Kate [Husband’s surname]

[address]

A wave of frustration hits me. I open the envelope and find out it’s a Christmas message from our estate agent. Since they are the agency that sold us our house, they should have an excessive amount of detail concerning our identities (and, at one point, our financial situation).

Just in case you aren’t aware or haven’t picked up on this, I did not change my name when I got married. I saw no reason to do so. It is my name. I feel very strongly that marriage did not change my identity and so there was no reason to change the label. Other people feel differently, and that is perfectly fine. Some women – and men – like to change their names so their family feels like more of a unit, and that is entirely fair. Some women find the change of name romantic, or enjoy the tradition for whatever reason, and that’s their choice. Some don’t like it, but give in to social pressure, thinking they would like to have the same surname as their child (although there is no legal requirement that a child’s surname match its father’s). That last one is, I think, a real problem; not the idea that someone would cave to social pressure, but that the social pressure exists in the first place.

Changing my name seemed like a lot of work for no real reward, and involved the sacrifice of my own name, of which I am very fond and to which I am quite attached.

If a telemarketing company calls and I answer the phone and they refer to me as “Mrs [husband’s surname]”, I hang up. Sometimes I will do them the courtesy of informing them that this is not my name, and maybe they should do their goddamn research next time, and you know what? Even if it were my name, I prefer “Ms” (whether I am married is really not the business of a telemarketer) or “Dr” (because I freaking earned it).

I can’t say this strongly enough. It’s my goddamn name.

I did not keep the agency’s little fridge magnet calendar or their brochure. They went into the appropriate disposal receptacles before I even backed down the driveway.

Yet, these people actually have the information about me, and my name. My name is on the loan documents, the applications, and queries. It’s all over it; and yet they were too lazy to check. I don’t care how many of these things they send out; getting someone’s name right is actually quite important.

You might think I’m overreacting, but identity, particularly an identity you have chosen, is important. I didn’t choose my name, but I chose to hold onto it.

If this happened to men – if someone assumed, just per social tradition, that they had changed to their wife’s surname – that would be considered insulting (or humorous, or both). If it happened to women who got married and went to all the trouble of changing their name (or the few men who do this also), it would be once again considered insulting, and no doubt frustrating considering the amount of detail-changing involved.

I publish papers under that name. Should I ever get a novel out, I’ll publish that under that name also. I apply for jobs and grants under that name. That’s the name I have on ResearchGate, on Facebook, on LinkedIn (alright, I haven’t updated that last one in a very long time).

It is my name.

It is not a whim. It is not a minor thing.

I am not “Mrs Husband”, for fuck’s sake. I could have chosen to be, but I specifically chose not to.

I think I will be calling the estate agent. They will probably think I’m overreacting, but that’s not their call either.

This Keto Life: How do I food?

Since the original post explaining why I’ve gone keto, I’ve had a couple of people asking what I actually do eat under this delicious regime. Let’s take today (or, actually, a day last week, which is when I started writing this, and I haven’t decided what I’m having for dinner yet, so we can deal with this teensy temporal fold).

Breakfast

First I get some creamy, fatty Greek yoghurt (I like Jalna). Then I grab some thickened cream (I like Bulla; it’s high fat and they don’t use carbohydrate based thickeners). I make a 50/50 mix of this and stir it together (about 2 tbsp of each, if anyone’s curious).

Then I grab me some nuts (mmhm). I have a nut mix which is equal parts almonds, walnuts, and macadamias with a moderate amount of brazil nuts added. I add a good dose of seed mix (pepitas and sunflower kernels) and some moist coconut flakes. Shake it all together, and you have my breakfast nut mix. I add a small handful (about 40-50g, or a ¼ cup) to my yoghurt/cream mix.

Then I sprinkle some cinnamon on top – probably about ½ to ¼ teaspoon – and hey presto, creamy nutty cinnamony deliciousness for breakfast.

In total: about 11g carbs (in the quantities at which I make it) and, for those who care, about 490 kcal.

Lunch

Today, I made scrambled eggs. Two eggs, about a tablespoon and a half of cream, whisked together before cooking and scrambling in 8g of organic butter. Then I add about 35g of grated cheese and generous amounts of salt to the scrambled eggs. Then I eat it. Then I scrub out the pan, because egg sets like concrete. I find this very filling, but if I am not in line to meet my protein minimum, I may add some bacon.

In total (sans bacon): about 2.9g carbs, and 463 kcal. You might not want 35g of grated cheese. That’s your call.

Dinner

We made coconut chicken last night, and we still have some leftovers. This is a dish we traditionally served on rice, but I’m happy to eat it out of a bowl kind of like a spicy soup (note: this is because I’ve been adding too much coconut milk. I want to cut that back and make more of a dry sauce). It contains coconut milk, chicken (obviously), lemongrass, paprika, tumeric, soy sauce, ginger, capsicum and mushrooms.

In total: 14.1g carbs, and 392 kcal.

Other stuff

If I knock back my cup of chicken stock, that’s about 3.6g carbs, and 26 kcal, although more relevant in that case is the 1,000 mg of sodium I’m getting out of it.

If I hit one of my mini protein bars (om nom nom), that’s 3.1g carbs, 98 kcal.

On a day like this, with my protein bar, I’ll wind up at about 36.1g carbs (30.2g net carbs), 110g fat, 74.5g protein and about 1475 kcal. That’s not enough calories given how active I am, even though it would be entirely possible for me to feel reasonably fed on that amount (at the moment, since I’m in the early stages of keto, I hit satiety fairly quickly. This is because my body is still adjusting to digesting fat. When it gets more used to it, I’ll need a bit more food to feel full – although still less than I would on a carby diet, because fat is a satisfying thing to eat).

So I might eat a fat bomb to get a bit more energy. Or have a piece of cheese. Or any number of things that can increase my fats and proteins, and thus my calories, without increasing my carbs. When you are first starting out on keto, it is – oddly enough – very easy to under-eat, and that can make one feel a bit crappy, since you do in fact need food to live.

For other snacks, I might grab a handful of low carb nut mix. Nu-Vit makes a good one. 1-2g carbs, so it’s not all the time, just when I’m out and about and peckish (the bag lives in my handbag). I don’t need these so much any more; appetite tends to settle as you finish out the induction process, but at the start it’s very good to have low carb options to hand so you don’t crack.

Other quick go-to options

Roo steak, pumpkin fries, aioli

This is obviously a perfectly reasonable option in Australia, but difficult elsewhere. A 150g kangaroo steak will sort out a significant proportion of daily protein requirements (about 32g, so a third of my needs) for most people, and it’s also rich, tasty and lean. While fats are not bad as such on a ketogenic diet and should be a primary source of calories, I actually really detest the taste and texture of fatty meat (except perhaps bacon), so roo really works for me. Try to flatten the steaks a bit (they’re tricky to cook if they’re too thick), rub them with macadamia oil, salt and pepper and let them sit for about ten minutes. Then whack them in the pan, maybe about three minutes each side on a high heat. It’s important not to overcook roo; it’s a bit unforgiving. You want it to be sort of medium rare to rare.

Pumpkin fries: carbs in pumpkins vary. I just recently discovered that the Japanese pumpkin is a bit higher in carbs than most (that’s the one we get at the supermarket, since it’s the organic one), so I’ll be swapping back to a more generic variety (which should be about 6g carbs per 100g). About 150g of pumpkin, chopped into fries, seasoned with paprika, coated with macadamia oil and left in the oven for about forty minutes is a delicious side.

We serve up the roo and the fries with a tablespoon or two of pesto aioli. This is a very cruisy meal. About 466kcal, 12.6g carbs. The macadamia oil is very calorically dense, just as a side note.

Thai pumpkin soup with chicken

Our local supermarket is a Maxi Foods, which is enormous, and has a wide variety of things – usually including a lot of local produce options and crafty things, as well as all the organic and fair trade options you could want. I am still amazed at the odd hippy-friendly and keto-friendly things I can find there.

They have a pre-made Thai pumpkin soup which is about 4.2g carbs per serving, and is delicious. I get some roast chicken pieces from the deli, casually shred them and add about 100g to a serving of this soup and it is a quick and tasty light lunch or dinner.

214kcal, 4.2g carbs. It’s a bit on the light side, energetically, so it’s the kind of thing I prefer to eat when I’m not exercising much that day, or if I’ve done more snacking than usual. If I haven’t been snacking, I probably will snack to supplement it.

Those are really just our very quick options. Sometimes I make garlic butter mushrooms as a side instead of pumpkin fries. Sometimes Husband makes what he calls “povo parma” where you put cheddar cheese and bacon on a chicken breast and fry it through in macadamia oil. Sometimes I just pick random delicious looking recipes off the internet and see what I can put together. Recent successes include low carb stromboli,  a jalapeno and cheese chicken dish, and a “pizza toppings casserole”.

There are heaps of possibilities out there, even though at first the elimination of rice, pasta and bread seems crippling from a dietary perspective – I was concerned, but it’s actually not so hard. There is a bit more effort here and there. I’ve found a recipe for low-carb tortillas so fingers crossed there might be tacos in my life soon. It’s a bit more fun, as far as I’m concerned, since there’s some problem solving. My pantry now has almond meal, coconut flour, linseed meal, and a whole variety of delightful things to make life more interesting, and my fridge is never empty of eggs, cream or cheese.

So I am not lost for food and I am actually enjoying kitchen time (which is almost unheard of prior to this). I do supplement, and the reason I do this is because at the absence of fruit leads to possible vitamin deficiencies: a lot of people eat very widely of veggies to work around this. The veggies I eat on keto are pumpkin, bok choy (in stir fries, mostly, thinking they would go well in my taco/wrap plans), capsicum and mushrooms for the most part. These are great but I probably don’t get enough of them, based on my MFP tracking, so I take a multivitamin.

The science is pretty clear that vitamins do more harm than good in the absence of a dietary deficiency, but since I appear to have a dietary deficiency (which I had before keto), I’m comfortable taking them. I also take calcium and vitamin D because I’m a redhead and I catch fire when I go outside, so I wear bucketloads of sunscreen. On top of that, there’s fish oil (that’s a more complex post I will write sometime), and fibre supplementation (that can be an issue on keto unless you eat lots of veggies, so a lot of ketoers head straight for the psyllium husk).

Do you have to take supplements on keto? Of course not; you can manage it entirely within the bounds of keto, but it takes a lot of planning and I’m not quite at that level yet. I’m also not a fan of salads, which makes it harder.

Anyway, that’s the how behind the why.

POSTSCRIPT: After publishing this, I just realised I left out a crucial problem: coffee! The amount of milk in a cappucino contains a fair number of carbs, particularly if you’re knocking back four cappucinos a day. There are a few ways to deal with this: switch to long macchiatos, or black/espresso coffee, or add cream instead of milk (when I do this I add some cinnamon on top). But it is something you have to factor in – sadly sugars are still counted as carbs even if it’s lactose instead of glucose or fructose.

DOG QUEST: Rescue dog ten month review, and what do you do with a reactive dog?

(spoiler: you give her cuddles)

It’s now been about ten months since we adopted Abby-dog, so I’ve decided it’s time to reflect on how it’s all going. This is a long post. There’s a lot to be said.

Two dogs

I always kind of wanted to have two dogs, but the main impetus behind the decision was the fact that Amos was bored during the long periods of time we couldn’t spend playing with him, walking him or training him. We had puzzle toys that could keep him occupied when he was inside with us (the treat ball!), but there was nothing that could really be used outside (we live on a property with a distinct slope, post-and-wire fencing, and a creek at the bottom on the other side of the fence. Anything that rolls has a high probability of ending up in the creek).

That is, to be honest, often the life of a dog. When their people aren’t around, they get bored. It’s a bit easier for dogs in their twilight years who are happy to sleep all day, but for younger dogs it’s a near-universal cross to bear.

This is the reason that many people get a second dog. “They can keep each other company,” we say happily, but some people go further and decide that for this reason, two dogs will be less work than one.

No. No, no and hell no. Two dogs are, in many ways, more than twice as much work as one dog. This shouldn’t really surprise anyone. Two dogs may love to play and leap and bound and entertain one another while their owners are away, but when you get home, you are the big attraction.

Suddenly, when you’re training two dogs, you have to deal with dogs that get in each others’ way when a command is given. You have two dogs to feed – and you need to keep them from interfering with one another (read: keep Abby from eating all Amos’s food. All hail the crate). You have two dogs who need veterinary care (who may infect or accidentally injure one another). You have two dogs to get into the car to go to training, and you have to have two handlers to deal with them once you get there (i.e., both Husband and I have to be in good condition for training). You have two dogs who wrestle inside (vale standing lamp, we miss you). You have two dogs who can’t be trusted with the treat ball because, if the other dog is around, the dog who has the treat ball will get ridiculously possessive (the treat ball is a solo toy only). You have two dogs to accommodate if you want to go on holiday, which is much harder than just the one, especially if one of your dogs is reactive (see below).

And, at least for a while, you have two dogs at very different stages of socialisation and training, which is more complex to manage than you might think.

I refuse to walk two dogs at a time: Abby is dog reactive, and the one time I tried it, she reacted to a small dog tied up outside the supermarket, and started pulling. That’s not so bad – she’s not as muscled as Amos and doesn’t really know how to use what she’s got – but then Amos decided that if Abby was acting up, there must be a good reason, and he should defend us all. Amos is very stocky, and knows exactly how to use what he’s got, so even with all the feet-planting in the world, I found myself being dragged inexorably by 75 kgs (165 lbs) of combined dog weight, and if a nice older man hadn’t consented to hold Abby for a minute (apparently he’d always had rotties, so he was quite charmed by their puppy antics) while I looped Amos to a pole, I would have gone A over T. Worse, I was terrified that one of them would run onto the road.

The whole situation was ill-considered and unsafe. They’d both been behaving so well on lead that I’d been lulled into a false sense of security. Never again, dear readers. Never again.

I honestly don’t know how so many people make it look so easy. I see a woman pushing a pram uphill with not one but two golden retrievers and I think, “That woman must be a genius. Or an Amazon. Or a WIZARD. Or those golden retrievers are angel dogs.” Then I look a bit closer, and one dog is trotting along happily and the other is getting relatively frequent corrections.

So, how’s it actually going with two dogs?

Surprisingly… not bad.

We’ve got them into a good routine. Oddly enough, I think Amos has been the one who has had to make the most difficult adjustments, and he has worked out a system for coping with some of the Abby-inspired irregularities (he is Clever). For example, when I go to let them in, I generally make them sit. Amos, who has been sitting before he comes inside for his whole life, would sit, and then get bowled over by Abby, who would sit. And then get excited. And bounce. And push in front of him. And sit again. And then get excited… So Amos has learned that when I open the back door, and wait expectantly, it’s best to back off. He backs away and waits politely next to the water bucket while I get Abby into a sit, let her in, wipe her off, and release her. Then he comes forward for his sit. I try not to give a command these days, because he can’t actually do what he’s told under those circumstances, and it’s not fair. If I wait long enough, Abby sits, and Amos backs away.

That’s great, because it means I can concentrate on Abby’s behaviour without interfering with Amos’s training – and if he didn’t have a good foundation before we got her, it would be quite the headache. Correcting one would be confusing for the other (that sometimes still happens, but Amos seems to respond to body language – eye contact, etc. – and works out when I’m scolding Abby and not him).

Abby usually trains with Husband and I train with Amos (although I did get to train with Abby once weekend because Amos was unwell, and Husband was wearing ugg boots… long story… and Abby is just super-cute when training. She dials everything up to 11). When I take Amos for a run, Husband walks Abby and concentrates on her basic loose-lead walking and heeling.

We’ve learned that both dogs are happier if they get a little bit of solo time with us.

So two dogs is much more work, but it’s very rewarding, and it’s working.

Abby on the left, doing her "Princess Flathead" impression, and Amos looking worried on the right.

Two dogs, no waiting! Abby on the left, doing her “Princess Flathead” impression, and Amos looking worried on the right.

Abby herself

Abby herself is a fascinating study in how a good nature can overcome crappy beginnings. In spite of the neglect she originally experienced, she still adores people, adores physical contact, and desperately wants to play all the time. Amos loves to play, but even when he was Abby’s age, he didn’t want to play as much as she does. If she’s not curled up on the couch next to you, snuggling with desperate needy canine love, she’s fetching various dog toys from around the house and bringing them to you, or trying to baff Amos in the face with them to make him play with her.

She is, unsurprisingly for a rescue pup, very food motivated.

She is mostly very sociable with humans, with two exceptions:

  1. anyone wearing a high visibility vest (fluorescent orange or yellow). We don’t know why this is, but it doesn’t matter how tall or short someone is, or whether they are male or female, or any other characteristic – she seems to get honestly frightened when she sees them, and there is growling and barking, and hackles. My plan is to try and get hold of such an item so that I can slowly desensitise her by wearing it, but so far all I have is Husband’s cycling rain-jacket which is not the right shape, so I’m not sure it will work.
  1. Big guys. It doesn’t matter how a guy is big – he could be big in a buff, muscular, gymster sort of way, or he could be big in a tall, roundish, tubby sort of way – Abby does not discriminate in these matters. She doesn’t react with terror in the same way she reacts to high-vis vests, but she will take longer to warm up to such a person. She will back away. She might even bark. She’ll come back and sniff shoes, desperate for attention. Then she’ll remember OH NO THIS GUY IS HUGE and back away again, her tail between her legs. She’ll spend a lot of time in a little crouch, licking shoes and hands, with the tail down, before eventually she calms down and starts leaning on their legs. It can take a few encounters before she gets used to a Big Guy™, but now there are at least two we know of where she will immediately start sucking up to them the way she sucks up to everyone else.

In terms of Abby’s murky beginnings, there is one other behavioural quirk that causes problems, and it causes far more problems than the above two issues.

She is dog reactive.

Note: she is not fear defensive or aggressive. She is reactive. This is a very different thing, and I get very cross when people accuse my dog of being aggressive when she is throwing a tanty. Is she jumping around like an idiot and nearly pulling me over on lead? Yes. Is she barking and whining like a complete nutter? Yes.

Are her hackles up? Is she snarling? No.

Abby was not properly socialised with other dogs as a puppy; this is very clear. When she is off lead, all she wants to do with other dogs is sniff and play. She absolutely does not get a clue when another dog doesn’t want to play; she’ll keep trying, and get herself in trouble unless we take her our of the situation. Amos was the same at her age until he learned what I like to call “dog manners”, so I have hope that at least this part of her brain will re-wire as she grows up.

The problem is that she has had limited exposure to free play with dogs other than Amos and Lenny, so when a dog gets in her face (in some way we haven’t worked out yet), or steps on her tail, she cracks it. She snaps at them, and snarls, and loses her shit. She doesn’t bite or do damage, she just throws a tantrum. Would she do damage if she really lost her temper? It’s possible. She has the equipment.

Generally speaking, she won’t start a fight; but if another dog (usually a smaller dog) looks at her, and decides to growl to warn her off because she’s too big to play with, she takes this as an attack.

I think the difference is confidence, and experience. Amos has been snarled and growled at (again, nearly always by smaller dogs who look scared by him), and he just stands there, blinking, and eventually just sighs and turns away. He copes. He doesn’t feel threatened by the warn-offs, just – apparently – kind of bummed out. Sometimes he gets an alert look, a guard-stance, and gets between me and the other dog, but it’s a very calm maneuver, like an experienced bodyguard saying, “Just move along, mate. Don’t cause any more trouble, eh?”

Abby seems to feel genuinely threatened. Which is ironic, and makes it very sad that you can’t explain things to dogs, because it’s usually the other dog who felt threatened first.

This, however, is beside the point, because it’s not the usual state of affairs. The usual state of affairs is that the other dog isn’t scared of Abby, but is interested, and wants to sniff and lick and do the things that dogs do, and if Abby is off-lead (which is very rare around other dogs), she is delighted to participate (up until she feels threatened by another dog).

In the usual state of affairs, though, she is on lead. And she can’t participate. She can’t sniff and lick and play and roll about with the other dog, which is what she would love to do, and she gets frustrated, and her brain disappears into some sort of weird toddler tantrum, and she cracks it, and I think the toddler tantrum really is a good comparison, because there’s no aggression in it, no malice, just intense, poorly managed frustration. She jumps, she barks, she whines, she makes a huge goddamn fuss, and to people who don’t know dogs (or who – sigh – think that they do, but really don’t), it looks like she is winding up for an attack.

She is not. She honestly wants to play, or at least investigate. Does it mean she wouldn’t crack it later at the dog if they crossed some invisible line? No, sadly, it doesn’t mean that. As I said, she easily feels threatened by other dogs, and we haven’t worked out what her trigger is (I think going anywhere near her tail-tip – crooked and deformed as it is – might be part of it. It seems a bit more fragile and sore and sensitive than Amos’s more standard pointy tail tip). She has happily played for hours with Amos and Lenny without cracking it, though (she cracked it at Lenny once; he – understandably – cracked it first, because these two big rottweilers were charging around in his yard, stealing his bones; but all was forgiven in about thirty seconds and she kept trying to lick him and suck up… poor little Lenny), and apparently at the kennel she was fine with free play with other dogs most of the time. They couldn’t find her trigger either. And yet she has, to all reports, never bitten, never done any damage; it’s all an explosive tornado of snapping and snarling and “get away get away get away!”

I feel I need to add here (in case any meatspace visitors are made nervous by these revelations) that Abby has never, ever reacted to humans the way she does to dogs. I can wiggle the tail, poke her in the eye (not that I do it for fun, mind you), syringe her ears, take her food away, and all her favourite toys, and accidentally step on her foot, and the most she’ll do is give you sad-puppy-eyes, and maybe yelp. When friends come to visit, she is equally tolerant of them. Even when she is scared of the Big Guys™, the most that happens is a little growly whine. While she has not been well socialised with humans, she clearly has much more experience with them than with other dogs. Where humans are concerned, she is ridiculously sweet-natured. She just wants to cuddle and lick and play, all day. She has no invisible line when it comes to human interactions – only when it comes to other dogs.

As you can imagine, this causes some problems.

What can be done with the dog-reactive dog?

Firstly, neutral socialisation training.

Our training company is a big proponent of neutral socialisation. There is no free-form, off-lead doggy play. Dogs are not allowed or encouraged to interact with one another. This is a good thing; you don’t want your dog to get stupidly excited when they see another dog if you’re out for a walk. You don’t want them thinking, “I know what other dogs are for! They are for playing!” You want them to be thinking, “Oh, another dog. Seems nice enough. Whatever.” The minute your dog starts getting super excited about other dogs, they switch off, and they stop paying attention to you.

They must always pay attention to you when you ask it.

This might sound terribly narcissistic, but as I’ve explained previously, dogs live in a human world, full of dangers for them, and the way that they navigate it safely is by listening to their humans. You need to be able to call a dog away from a busy highway, a poisonous snake, or even vulnerable native wildlife (because I do not want to be the person whose dog killed the ringtail possum. Brushtail possums, I can live with, but not ringtails). These are high level distractions, and in all honesty I’m not working at that level yet with my dogs, but we’ll get there.

We took Amos to a dog park when he was a puppy, and I honestly regret that. He is getting better at resisting distraction, and now I can actually see that he is dividing his attention between me and the other dog (which is an acceptable compromise; of course, I want him to be aware of his environment!), but it has taken time and maturity to get past his learned response of “Other dog! PLAY!” I also now know that it is amazingly risky to take a puppy to a dog park. If they get attacked, that leads to trauma, and then you can end up with a fear-defensive dog, through no fault of their own. There’s often no reason to expect an attack, either. It is so easy for these things to go wrong.

But people love the dog parks, and for the most part, their dogs look so very happy that it’s difficult to let go of the idea. Is the only answer really to never let your dog play with other dogs?

Of course not! That would be very sad for everybody!

I think the idea of “puppy play dates” is a good one. You have a known, familiar, safe dog that comes to visit (or you go to them), and that is how your dog can get fun dog-on-dog interactions, and learn dog manners (very important!), in a controlled and safe environment, without them learning that every dog they meet out in the wider world is a potential friend (or enemy). In this sense I think Lenny has been very good in helping Abby learn that she has to be gentle when playing, because if she is not gentle, he either snarls at her, or high tails it off the property (he’s a kelpie. She’s not catching up with him until he is good and ready to deal with her, and to his vast credit, he usually gives her another chance. Occasionally he is just overwhelmed and done for the day, and that is quite fair. Our dogs are very intense).

Amos is not good at teaching “be gentle”. He has no inclination to be gentle with Abby and the reverse is also true. They play rough.

But back to training: the great thing about a dog training school that practices neutral socialisation is that your dog learns to be around other dogs without losing their mind. This is very hard for Abby, and sometimes she has to be taken a bit away from the main group to find her working distance (i.e., where she can be close enough to the other dogs to benefit from the exposure but far enough that she doesn’t melt her brain), but the more we go, the better she gets (lately we have not gone to training much, due to an outbreak of kennel cough in our household that I would prefer not to spread around. Apparently the vaccine is not perfect). If our timetable worked for it, I would take her twice a week just for that alone.

What else can be done?

Desensitisation. I am a big fan of desensitisation, i.e., where you expose your dog very gently and lightly to the stimulus that causes the reaction, and then you get them to look at you – pay attention to you – and you give them treats. The more they look at you, and not the stimulus, the more treats and praise they get (or playing. For some dogs, a quick game of tug is better than a treat. This will never be true for Abby). It can take some time to find the right working distance – not too close, and not too far – but it’s worth it. Desensitisation helps if it is applied consistently and frequently. I’ve used it with Amos to get him more comfortable with horses, teeth cleaning and claw clipping (that last one has not been super effective, but probably because I don’t do it very much. It is just so traumatic for everybody!).

The usual disclaimers apply: I am not an animal behaviourist or a qualified dog trainer, and while I have seen this tactic work on genuinely traumatised dogs, perhaps it doesn’t work for all of them. It cannot hurt, however.

Do not give them treats or rewards if they are staring at the other dog. They must be paying attention to you for this to work. The only exclusion would be if the other dog is making a fuss and throwing a tanty, and your dog is keeping an eye on them, but has deliberately chosen not to respond. Then they get a reward. I have definitely rewarded Amos for this, especially when his body language indicates that he wants to react and make a fuss, but he is restraining himself even while the other dog is carrying on as though the world is ending. Deliberate impulse control is hard for dogs, but it is such an important skill to learn, and should be praised and rewarded whenever it manifests.

Other than neutral socialisation and desensitisation (and to be honest, the former is a subcategory of the latter), I am not entirely sure what is to be done for the reactive dog. Consult a professional trainer, for sure. We’ve asked ours, and this is how they’ve responded.

The other thing to note is that these are not magical solutions. Rewiring a dog’s instinctive response – however they acquired that instinct, through genuine trauma or simply poor socialisation – is a slow process. It takes time, patience, and consistency. We’re good with the first two but haven’t always been great with that last one.

Conclusion

In summary, Abby’s reactivity is an issue for us. It makes it more stressful to take her for a walk, to take her to dog friendly cafes, and to take her to even the most tolerant of kennels (they are happy to take care of her, but not during busy periods, i.e., over Xmas. We’re having to leave her with a different place over the break; they’re also good but the environment is not nearly as nice, and they won’t have time to monitor her, so she won’t get the controlled socialisation she would get at the other place; she’ll only have play time with Amos, and that’s it).

Do I regret getting her?

Not for a second. I am not sure I have ever met a dog that was so extraordinarily sweet-natured towards humans, so desperate and determined to form bonds and be loved, and even though this is an expression of separation anxiety, it is a bit heart-melting. She is a genuine darling.

She is very clever (Rotties usually are); she’s a problem solver and a quick learner and she has, dare I say it, street smarts (that have made life a bit more complicated in terms of keeping her contained, I confess, but it’s impressive what she can figure out).

The time we spend with our dogs is varied. There’s inside cuddle-time; there’s outside be-followed-around-and-“helped” yard work time (Abby is very helpful, especially if Husband is carting around pieces of bark for a burn-off… dangling pieces of bark…); there’s go-to-a-café-time (and sometimes she is fine, particularly at our favourite café where the owners are her personal friends. I think that makes her feel a bit safer, so she will watch another dog and whine a bit, but usually won’t make a fuss there); there’s training-time, there’s tug rope time, and there’s walking-time. The dog reactivity issue makes up a very small percentage of the time we spend with Abby.

I still look at her from time to time and think, “I can’t believe someone didn’t want her. I can’t believe they didn’t love her enough to take care of her. She’s just so extraordinarily lovable.” It’s inconceivable to me that anyone would neglect a dog so much (she was so thin when we met her! And that was after our awesome foster carer had been carefully feeding her up!), but what is truly staggering is how well Abby’s nature has overcome it. A few hiccups here and there are nothing compared to what neglect and abuse can do to a dog’s ability to trust and feel safe.

Nothing, it turns out, can keep our girl down.

This Keto Life: early days and explanations

I recently decided that I was tired of feeling sick after eating breakfast. Breakfast was a low G.I. (glycaemic index, for those of you not down with the lingo) fruit free, wheat free, nutty muesli. It was delicious. It was also topped with low fat vanilla yoghurt.

For most people, these would probably be reasonably healthy options. Not so for the Kate. For someone who is not technically insulin resistant (numbers leaned that way, last time they were tested, but weren’t over the line) or diabetic, I have a ridiculous response to sugar.

My breakfast choices have become more and more lean. First, no fructose. Okay, well, that cuts out wheat and a lot of grains, and anything with dried fruits… Then, low G.I. Well, that cuts out a lot of sugary cereal… anything with honey (also a fructose issue)… uhm…

And I stayed on my nutty muesli for a while before I started to feel sick again.

It’s what happens when, after waking up in the morning, ravenously hungry and tanking on low blood sugar, I feed myself a whackload of carbohydrates, and then I get an insulin spike and an eventual sugar crash. The definition of “whackload” is, of course, relative, but it turns out that for me, it’s a pretty low number relative to what a lot of people experience.

And I just cracked. The blood sugar fluctuations, the insulin spikes, all of it; I don’t eat much wheat, I focus on low G.I. carbohydrates where I can (for the most part. The occasional pizza binge was just a fact of life), and still there’s the blood sugar tanking anxiety, frustration as I struggle to find something I can eat that’s not full of wheat or some other source of fructose, something that won’t set off my weird sensory triggers (some textures and smells; notably salad) and make me panic and/or throw up.

That’s it. I was tired of feeling ill after eating.

So I have gone low carb, or more specifically, low carb-high fat (LCHF), the ketogenic diet wherein you go through a potentially upsetting induction process as you train your body to metabolise fats by denying it carbs. I did extensive research and reading on the subject (my god, I know more about nutrition and metabolic biochemistry than I ever have in my entire life, what nutrients different organs absorb and in what different forms they absorb them, and I am now reasonably convinced that livers are basically wizards), and I eased in, at first.

I started cutting a few things here and there. Dropped to about 100g carbs/day. Realised that it wasn’t actually that hard, so I dropped a little further, and now I’m below 50g, which is the mark at which my body should start swapping to ketosis (the production of fat-containing ketone bodies to power the brain and muscles as opposed to using sugars), and have been for about two weeks. A lot of people recommend going below 20g/day for induction, just to fast track the process, but I don’t feel the need to fast-track it. It will happen as it happens, and below 50g/day should be plenty low enough to get the ball rolling.

I’ve been lucky. Prior to this, I wasn’t eating a hugely sugary diet overall (in spite of the occasional cake or pizza, which is now sadly off the menu lest it interrupt the induction of ketosis), and most of my carb sources were relatively slow-release, which means that I haven’t suffered through the dread “keto-flu”, where people feel really quite sick for a few days as they adjust and as various gut flora die off to be replaced by different gut flora.

I’ve been a little tired. Had some headaches. It was recommended I increase my electrolytes (insulin tells your kidneys to hang on to sodium and various salts, and when the insulin levels in your body fall, you flush out a bunch of salts, so you want to stay on top of sodium, potassium and magnesium in particular), and I did, and bam, headache gone, in under 20 minutes.

That’s it. That is really all that happened in my initial keto transition (usually keto-flu is the first 3-4 days). I’m now just hanging in for full keto-adaptation as my body upregulates the production of ketosis-related enzymes and downregulates all my carb-digesting enzymes.

Now, as far as the insulin/sugar issues go: this has worked a fucking treat. It has been amazing. I am not ravenous in the morning. I do not feel sick after eating. My energy lasts longer.

But wait, there’s more.

I sleep better. This is apparently a mixed bag; apparently a lot of people sleep worse when they start keto. I’m wondering if they were big bread or pasta eaters prior to this, and the disruption to their usual metabolic process is the problem and hopefully it will settle. But a lot of other people report sleep improvements, and so far, I sleep like a goddamn log. Even when Amos wakes me up with his insistent barking demands to be allowed outside to eat possums and secure the perimeter, I wake up, tell him to settle, and then after a few minutes I conk out again.

(side note because I can’t let it alone: you don’t yell at a dog for barking, by the way. It’s not because I think it’s “mean”, it’s not because I’m being “soft”, it’s just because it simply doesn’t work. They just think you’re barking back and you can have a lovely conversation. A loud conversation.)

I have more energy. It’s true that this only lasts until I put a certain amount of stress on my body (more on that below), but I am more alert and clear headed than I have been in a long time. I feel awake rather than constantly fuzzy and foggy and frustrated.

I am more calm. Things that previously would have upset me… just don’t. It’s not that things don’t bother me, they do, I just don’t get excessively anxious or panicky or furious about it. I can be angry in a calm way if I need to, which is great, because excessive emotion in a non-calm way has, historically speaking, made me feel sick (probably adrenaline related, and losing all my blood sugar). Things that frustrate me are merely frustrating, not the end of the world. I am not giving myself nearly so many “chill out and get some perspective” pep talks.

My digestion is significantly improved, concerning which I shall not go into any more detail and we can all be very thankful.

We (as a household) are cooking more, because preparing food without carbs means less restaurant visits and take away (for the most part. Tapas works well!), and as a consequence I am actually eating more vegetables, believe it or not. I am seeing kitchen time as a problem solving exercise (i.e., how can I get nutrients x, y and z without eating carbs or anything I really don’t like), instead of opening the box of triggery food anxieties.

I no longer feel bloated.

Low carb high fat means exactly that, so while I am not eating sugar, or bread, or pasta, or rice, or cake, or biscuits – I am eating lots of very fatty foods. Energy’s got to come from somewhere, and you can’t get it all from protein (excess protein is converted into glucose anyway, so it defeats the purpose, really). So: butter, cream, bacon, cheese, eggs, macadamia oil, nuts…

Best. Diet. Ever.

And just in case anyone is not up with the fact that fat does not in and of itself make you fat, I am in fact losing weight. And still gaining muscle.

There are downsides!

While I’m adapting – i.e., still upregulating all the various chemical bits and bobs necessary to induce and sustain a high level of ketosis – I don’t have as much ready access to energy as I did when my bloodstream was flooded with carbs. Entirely to my surprise, I managed to put my weights up at gym, but I cannot run. I really can’t. I just finished Couch to 5K, and have been used to running continuously for 25-30 minutes – now I can manage about a minute.

You can sustain high level athletic performance if you are fully keto-adapted, but only if you’re very consistent about it, and only if you get enough salt (see below).

But Kate, isn’t fat really bad for you?

No.

Look, if you’re eating a diet that has bucketloads of carbs and fats, then yes, fat is going to get shunted into storage (what I prefer to think of as insulation; your mileage may vary), but that seems to be about it (although there is more nuance to be found on what fat cells actually do and what hormones they secrete).

This is because of the insulin spike associated with carbohydrate/sugar consumption (just in case anyone is not aware: sugars are carbs. They are simple carbs, and perhaps what all other carbs aspire to be. Carbs get broken down into sugars in your body). Insulin is there to tell your body to absorb all the blood sugar, to try and keep it all in normal range rather than sitting way up high, because consistently high blood sugar is genuinely toxic. This is more important than absorbing fats and converting those to energy, so insulin shuts down that process. You have to use up the excess blood glucose first, then you can start burning fat (except that if your body is not adapted to using fats, this is not an efficient process).

Simple summary: if insulin is high, fats will not be mobilised for energy.

The mobilisation of fats for energy by the liver results in the formation of ketone bodies (basically a useful way of repackaging fat so that it is easier for organs and muscles – particularly the brain – to use). If you have enough of these hanging out in your bloodstream for easy use, you will have plenty of energy to function, and above a certain level you will be able to maintain all sorts of athletic pursuits just as if you had carbs hanging about in there instead.

But in order to keep ketone levels high enough, you can’t interrupt the process by eating carbs – if you do, up comes the insulin, the ketosis screeches to a halt, and you have to (1) consume the energy provided by the carbs and (2) wait for the insulin to subside before ketosis kicks in again (although if you are fully adapted this is a lot quicker than it is at the start).

But I thought ketones were poisonous! Isn’t ketosis, you know, that bad thing?

No, that’s ketoacidosis. Not the same thing. That’s when your ketones get insanely high (nutritional ketosis should get you to a maximum of about 5 mM in your blood, although individual maxima will vary; ketoacidosis has you at about 20mM). It’s a risk for people with type I diabetes. Keto might not be for them, or at least, it needs to be more carefully managed.

You absolutely cannot do exercise without carbs or sugar.

You absolutely can, but there are important caveats. I’m reading a couple of books on these issues at the moment, and so I will soon know more (I like knowing things!). At this point the caveats are primarily:

  • do not interrupt ketosis. You need your ketone levels to be high enough for your body to have ready access to energy if you’re going to do marvellous things like cycle long distances or lift heavy weights.
  • Eat a moderate amount of protein. You want enough to maintain lean muscle mass, but not so much that your liver starts using it to make glucose (and it will), because – see above – that will interrupt ketosis.
  • SALT

What do you mean, salt?

I mean salt. Specifically, sodium (although the magnesium and potassium are very important as well). Most people are all about getting less sodium in their diet, and that makes good sense for the most part – unless you are restricting carbohydrates. If you are restricting carbohydrates, you are probably eating more whole foods and less processed things (for the most part) and this means you are consuming less salt. You’ll need about 3-5 grams per day, but only if you are restricting carbs.

This is because, among its many other magical talents, insulin changes the way your kidneys process water and salts. You flush salts a lot faster on a ketogenic diet, and believe it or not, your muscles need sufficient sodium to function. Without sufficient electrolytes, you will experience the fatigue and the cramping and the headaches and discomfort that a lot of people experience on the ketogenic diet – and which is the main reason for many people, including more physically active people, abandoning it. Depending on how you manage your diet, you should be getting enough magnesium and potassium from elsewhere, but it’s worth chugging some extra of those as well (don’t overdo it) if you’re not sure.

I only recently came to this realisation, and since I have started ramping up the sodium intake, I am feeling miles better. The most common suggestion for getting enough sodium does involve drinking broth.

This would be fine if I actually had any inclination to make broth. The backup plan for people like me is to drink “boullion”, a.k.a., “stock”.

This means that I actually heat up a mug of chicken stock in the microwave and drink it.

Isn’t that gross?

Actually, yes. I’m waiting on a better solution that doesn’t involve just pouring sodium chloride on my hand and licking it, because that is even more gross. Vegetable stock is actually undrinkable (I tried, thinking it might be better, because I prefer it when I used to make risotto). I have actually done shots of salt water. This is stupendously gross but at least it’s quick, and then I can just drink a gallon of water to get over it. My concern is that saltwater can be quite caustic and I’m not sure if this will damage my throat.

All the same, it has definitely led to improvements in how my body functions on a keto diet.

Edit: I recently made the discovery that some stock is more drinkable than others. I was trying to drink Campbell’s “Real” Stock, and it was pretty gross, even though that’s the brand I prefer to actually cook with. Then I swapped to Continental, and it basically tastes like Cup-a-Soup, and if you add cream, it tastes like Cup-a-Soup Cream of Chicken, so… basically like my childhood. This is much, much better.

But you need carbs. For, like, life.

Nooooo, I don’t. Admittedly, most people don’t recommend you go zero carb. Not only is it extremely difficult to maintain for some people (i.e., me. Most of the things I eat on a low carb diet have a negligible carb content, but they would add up if my budget for the day was zero!), but it’s good to have a little bit of a buffer there.

To be fair: while your muscles and organs are not very picky about what sort of energy they use, your brain is limited to two sources: glucose, and ketones, and it still needs to get at least a little bit of its energy from glucose even if you are getting happy results on your ketone-o-meter. Fortunately, your liver to the rescue: your liver is perfectly capable of making glucose from protein via gluconeogenesis, and this will be plenty to supply half the brain’s energy needs.

(this is one reason that I think livers are basically wizards that live under your ribcage. They do magic)

I still think this is a bad idea. People have been telling me I need lots of healthy whole grains my whole life.

And the fact is, for a lot of people, the “healthy whole grains” model is probably okay. It may be stressing your body out a little bit more, but if you are reasonably sensitive to insulin and thus able to tolerate carbohydrates well, then I very much doubt even the most enthusiastic low-carb dietitian would tell you to change what is working for you. This is not something I am likely to get evangelical about; it’s only something I’d even suggest if someone is worried about their blood sugar cycle and energy levels relating to that, and even then only if they actually want to talk about it (food discussions can be a bit triggery, I am no different).

However, a lot of people don’t have a good response to insulin; there seem to be a lot of people who, like me, feel sick after breakfast, and who spend their day chasing their own tails as their blood sugar cycles up – and down – and up – and down, decades before it gets bad enough to cause Type II diabetes (which it will often do); and for those people, restricting carbs, ditching the “healthy whole grains”, and ramping up the fats instead, is a much better idea, especially if you either supplement fibre, or eat fibrous low-starch veggies (there are lots of veggies on a keto diet when done properly).

Look at it this way: low-carb and ketogenic diets are extremely – and increasingly – popular, in spite of the fact that it’s a very difficult transition to make at first.

Most people feel quite sick at the start, and they have lowered energy following that for at least two weeks (I’m in the latter part of this period); they can’t eat a lot of the things they have been used to eating their whole lives, and I’m not just talking about cakes and biscuits and popcorn. No bread, no pasta, no rice; no healthsome muesli; no pastry, sweet or savoury; no sugar in the coffee; a dramatic reduction in milk (contains sugars in the form of galactose); no chickpea batter (my Indian meal selections have been drastically reduced); no lentils; and some things are surprisingly high in carbohydrate content that you might not expect (always check the nutritional information on the packet).

That is a very high barrier to entry for most people; so why are so many people picking it up?

Well, for starters, it does lead to very rapid weight loss (and no, it’s not all water weight, that’s just the first week, and as long as you are getting enough salt and protein you shouldn’t lose muscle mass either), and that’s compelling for a lot of people – but there are other actual health benefits worth mentioning (other than not feeling sick after eating which, as we’ve seen, is my primary motivation).

Their serum triglycerides usually go down.

Their body fat percentage almost always goes way down.

Their low density level cholesterol (LDL) usually goes down. It is worth mentioning, though, that a minority of people experience a temporary increase in LDL – this is usually linked to weight loss, but if not, it is readily repaired by swapping out some of the saturated fats for monounsaturated fats (i.e., out with the butter – noooo! – in with the macadamia oil – om nom).

Their HDL – the “good” high density cholesterol level – goes up (see all the links above).

They stop craving food in cycles (the onset of hunger, I’ve noticed, is a lot softer on keto than on a regular diet).

Fasting insulin and blood glucose obviously go down (see all the links above, I got sick of Google Scholar, but there are heaps of others if you have a look).

People maintain keto because, once they are fully adapted, they feel better. Quality of life on sustained keto is pretty good. I’ve only been doing this for two weeks and my track record on diet alteration is not good and I am still vowing I will never go back, just because it is so nice to not feel slightly ill all the time.

It’s not for everyone. If nothing else, a lot of people will balk at the amount of salt and fat they have to work into their diets after decades of being told those things are bad for them, and as I said, there are people who are very insulin sensitive (that’s a good thing) who will not see any need or reason to try it out. There are also people for whom the social pressure to eat grains will be too much – I am trying to get my head around the fact that going to the movies is no longer inextricably linked with popcorn (I love popcorn, I’m not even kidding), and on an emotional level that has been surprisingly difficult!

And yet I don’t think I can trade this clear headedness, this sense of satiety, this extraordinary get-up-and-go that I have – I can’t trade it in for a bucket of popcorn, or a really good pizza. It’s not worth it.

So I’ll be sticking to it for a while. Watch this space.