Cheddar Bay biscuits were off limits, of course.
I broke into a breathy trot in the CVS, searching for the urine sticks that would tell me if I was producing ketones, a chemical your liver makes when you are starving. I hadn't started keto yet, but I already felt weak just thinking about eating differently, because I am a dramatic and frantic person. I secured the test and headed to the Times Square Red Lobster, where I would begin my grand experiment: I would try the ketogenic diet for three days, eating exclusively food from Red Lobster. Why? To better understand the controversial diet phenomenon in the only way I could bear: by eating chain restaurant shellfish. Maybe the extreme carb restriction would feel fun and painless if I were eating food from a place that holds great sentimental value for me and many other Americans, including Beyoncé. Maybe three days on Red Lobster keto would be the kickstart I needed to get active this year, or even just wean myself off night bread.
I'd never taken the time to learn what keto was—or determine if it's pronounced "KEE-to" or "KEH-to" or "Beto"—until I opened an email from a Red Lobster publicist promoting the restaurant’s keto and Whole30 menu offerings. I had to bite. I Googled "keto," and the results were sobering. I ate orange Airheads as I read the articles, actually drooling.
“Unlike other low-carb diets, which focus on protein, a keto plan centers on fat, which supplies as much as 90% of daily calories,” reads an article on Harvard Health. “And it's not the type of diet to try as an experiment.” (Tight, so I'll do it as an experiment, I thought, as broken as ever.) The protein- and fat-rich diet hinges on the extreme restriction of carbohydrates—on most plans, you can have no more than 50 milligrams of carbs a day, which is about the size of a medium banana. As nutritionist Julie Upton outlined for Health, "[Y]our meals and snacks are focused on fats like oils, avocado, butter, and bacon—and carbs are limited to a minimal amount equal to what you’d get in an apple or two per day. You can enjoy a moderate amount of protein—about 3 ounces at three meals per day—like beef, pork, poultry, seafood, and eggs. Because fat is almost unlimited, you can enjoy fat-rich choices like butter, bacon, ribs, greasy burgers, and oily fish."
The general idea is to betray your body into achieving a state of “ketosis,” which forces your metabolism to switch from relying on glucose to using “ketone bodies,” a type of fuel your liver produces only if you’re in ketosis. (A quick pee test will reveal this to you.) People can lose a lot of weight on the diet, quite quickly, but “only short-term results have been studied, and the results have been mixed," dietitian Kathy McManus told Harvard Health. "We don't know if it works in the long term, nor whether it's safe.”
Looking to feel something, anything, I decided to try keto for three days eating exclusively Red Lobster. It was for research, and I figured it would be pretty easy. There was a substantial amount of dishes I could eat on the diet, which the publicist listed for me: Classic Maine Lobster Tail Wood-Grilled Lobster Tail, Live Maine Lobster, Wild-Caught Snow Crab legs, Steamed North Pacific King Crab legs, Rock Tail dinner (no rice), Garlic Shrimp Scampi, Wood-Grilled Shrimp skewer (no rice), Salmon New Orleans, Wild-Caught Flounder, Wood-Grilled Tilapia, Wood-Grilled Sirloin (no mash), Wood-Grilled Filet (no mash), Wood-Grilled NY Strip (no mash), Caesar Salad (no croutons), Grilled Sirloin and Red Shrimp (no rice), Wood-Grilled Lobster, Shrimp, and Salmon (no rice), Blackened Catfish, Wood-Grilled Chicken and Shrimp (skewer) (no rice), and Wood-Grilled Chicken and Shrimp (scampi) (no rice)!!
Unfortunately, Cheddar Bay biscuits would be absolutely off-limits. I know, insane. Looking back, I think some part of me wanted to prove to myself that I was strong enough to sit at a table with biscuits and merely observe them, without engaging. (I've been workshopping this approach to self-sabotaging thoughts.) Another part of me thinks I was just bored and looking for trouble.
When I arrived for my first dinner, I was excited to begin. I had just done the urine test in the New England-affected Red Lobster bathroom to confirm that my body was producing no ketones—that, hopefully, would change shortly. After sitting down with a friend, I pushed the warm, fragrant biscuits towards her, encouraging her to enjoy ("It's fine!!! Eat as many as you want!!! I won't be mad!! I'm beyond good over here!!!!"), and I began with a cheese-drenched Caesar salad, no croutons. Yum! Super fatty salad starring nondescript iceburg is a treat I rarely enjoy. Everything was fine. I finished the salad before my friend even began, which seemed to prove I had already kicked into scarcity/starvation mode. If only I knew that scarcity wouldn't be the problem with keto ... but rather ... too much.
My main course was a massive plate of salmon, lobster, and shrimp that glistened in butter, and that’s when I really understood that this diet was insane, and if you did it slightly wrong, say incorporated a piece of Cheddar Bay biscuit, you could wreak havoc on your body. I suppose doing it correctly wreaks havoc on your body. Coworkers warned me of flu-like symptoms. What? How does everyone know what this is? When did this happen, and how did I miss it?
"At Red Lobster, we’re proud to offer a wide variety of dishes and helpful tools – like the nutrition calculator, interactive menu and Allergy Wizard – that allow our guests to choose the right option for their dietary needs," stated a representative in an email. "With the popularity of the keto diet on the rise, we want to ensure our guests are aware that we have a variety of keto-compliant menu offerings that allow them to dine with us while sticking to their food and nutrition goals."
The dinner was a treat; I love the occasional RL blow-out feast, and butter and seafood. I brought the leftover salmon and green beans home to save for lunch the next day, as all of my meals needed to be Red Lobster per my deranged self-imposed rules. I wanted dessert really badly. Even just a slice of orange, a nutrient. But it was only my first day, and I couldn't cave yet. I chugged a can of grapefruit LaCroix and went to sleep.
The next morning, I opened the fridge, just to peer inside longingly, and was assulted by the garlicky smell of Red Lobster leftovers. The idea of eating it for breakfast repulsed me, so I allowed myself two eggs with two tablespoons butter, which only had 1.2 grams of carbohydrates, well under my daily allowance. It tasted fine! I downed black coffee, grabbed my garlic seafood leftovers, and commuted to work, displeasing many people on the L train; luckily it was so crowded that no one could trace the smell back to me.
That morning at work, I continued to crave fruit. I couldn't really have it. I could theoretically have a slice or two of orange or apple, I guess, but I didn't trust myself to stop once I started. I had jerky as a snack, and then salmon and green beans for lunch. I felt unwell, tired, upset. I realized that no good could come from a situation where you want fruit and can't have it—no matter the branding, that could never be "healthy." It was dehumanizing. I also wanted Airheads.
I spent most of the day dreading dinner and Googling keto parameters, things like, "can you drink water on keto," "how many carbs in a single flavor blast goldfish," "how many carbs tequila," "can you get skurvy in a single day," "keto constipation," and "is butter a carb." I felt emotionally and physically sick.
That night, I trecked uptown to the Red Lobster with another friend, hoping to see the day through. I started with the Caesar again, and for my main had the lovely grilled lobster tail and steak, plus broccoli and green beans. I can't imagine a scenario where lobster is not a treat for me, but this one approached that. I wanted a biscuit so badly, even just a bite; it's all I could think or talk about. Variety really is the spice of life! They were really right about that.
I'd never done anything that felt so unnatural and so punishing. Even in my younger days of dieting, when I adopted disordered eating habits to enact some semblance of control over my life, I'd had space for Cheezits, and ice cream, albeit carefully portioned. It upset me to be participating in a project so brazenly about weight loss, after finally reaching an era of my life where my size doesn't actively nag at me. I don't judge anyone who does keto, or who has benefited from keto, though it concerns me. It concerns me, personally, because it disrupted the tenuous balance I maintain between health and joy, wellness and freedom, strength and softness. No amount of curiosity was worth disrupting the inner equilibria that allow me to function.
One of the ways you can tell you’re in ketosis, besides the urine test, is developing something called "keto breath," where your mouth tastes unpleasant and stale and a little like nail polish. To me, it tasted like the final gasp of a long-dying person, or what I imagined that would taste like.
After dinner, I went to my friend's karaoke birthday party, where I treated myself to a tequila soda—around 5 carbs, per Google. I took my test in the graffiti-covered bathroom and peed on the stick; I was producing a small amount of ketones. I was in ketosis. I had done it. But what was "it"? What had I learned after two days?
For one, keto is really hard. For two, it is not for me.
The next morning I woke up and methodically ate a box of Fruit by the Foot. I couldn't go through with the rest of the experiment, which had felt a bit like a "Scared Straight" program. I left the house to find oranges.