Going against the (whole)grain: how high-fat 'keto diet' boosted one Hongkonger's health

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 February, 2015, 11:52am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 February, 2015, 12:16pm

Making healthy changes in our lives is difficult, and radical transformations are rare. This month we are profiling a trio of Hongkongers who have embraced change and emerged as different people, from the inside out.

We could all take steps to improve our health, but how far would you go? Stefanie Hemshall has gone all the way, making a radical lifestyle change by adopting a ketogenic diet.

It's a diet that flies in the face of traditional nutrition - high in fat, moderate in protein and low in carbohydrates - forcing the body to burn fat, not carbohydrates, for fuel.

The process is said to cause the bodies to produces ketones, which reduces inflammation in the body, as well as promising improved immunity and health.

Proponents of the diet say it can be used as medical nutrition therapy for the treatment of severe epilepsy in children, as a way to slow down the growth of cancer tumours, and to delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

"When I first heard about this way of eating I thought, 'No way. I'm not sick, I'm not going to change.' I'm German, I like to start my day with wholegrain heavy German bread," says Hemshall, 46, who heads local sports store chain Escapade.

"I thought, if I was really ill I might consider it. And at that point, I was healthy. Or at least I considered myself healthy."

Hemshall had long suffered from bloating, psoriasis-like blotches (known as lichen planus, an autoimmune disease) and dandruff, among other seemingly insignificant aches and complaints. She now believes they were linked to the poor state of her gut health.

"I started to think about all the small things that I had got used to, and realised that's how ill health starts," she says. "I have also read a lot about the connection between the gut and dementia and brain fog."

Eighty to 90 per cent of our overall immunity lies in our guts, so an unhealthy gut, caused by a diet high in processed foods and sugars, may lead to disease, says Hemshall.

A switch to a paleo-style diet in 2014 did nothing to ease her complaints, so Hemshall committed to a "keto diet" from the start of the new year.

"I eat very restrictively, no sugar and no fruit. No alcohol, pulses and no grains - which means not only no bread, but no rice, lentils or oats," she says. Her diet mainly consists of quality, organic, pasture-raised meats, fish and eggs as well as quality fats and oils. She also has leafy vegetables and cauliflower, celery, zucchini and lettuce, but no starchy vegetables.

"I am not doing this for weight loss," she says, "and the idea is not to do it forever, but to heal my gut. When it's healed I will begin to introduce certain foods and see how it goes."

It's been quite a journey so far and what has surprised me most has been other people's reactions: some people can be real food bullies. We've been told for so long that certain things are good for us, and it's difficult for many of us to accept the complete opposite - for example, that certain fats are actually good for you.

These days, everyone is a glucose burner, getting energy from sugars and other starches, making them a slave to sugar highs and lows and all the mood swings associated with that.

For million of years we ate a ketogenic-like diet for most of the year - high in fats and with moderate proteins - where we relied on our own fat stores for fuel. That is the reason why we have fat stores, and not glucose stores.

I love food and I love eating. When I'm at a party or with friends and when there is food all around me, it can be a challenge. But most of the time it's not. I used to question how long I would eat this way, but honestly it's not that hard.

I have been surprised by the abundance of food I can still eat. Fillet steak with herb butter and vegetables, for example. I also drink lots of bone broth, which is one of the most healing drinks we can take. I feel that when you eat something you know is good for you, you enjoy it much more.

I have more energy and strength. I walk four kilometres five days a week, and do yoga twice a week. In yoga, I find I can hold difficult poses for longer.

There are a lot of unexplained illnesses these days. I think so much of it is linked to our diet and our guts. I think we are sitting on a time bomb by eating all these things we weren't designed to be eating.

I do believe eating a diet without processed food, and low in sugars and carbohydrates is the only way. It seems to me that everyone will go back to this way of eating soon enough, but it will take time.

It means educating yourself, changing your life, and the lives of your family. Food is very social too. It can take a lot of courage to change.