Writing about food for a living, as I’ve been doing for the better part of the past 10 years, makes each day at the office a gauntlet of temptation. On any given day, doughnuts might arrive from Krispy Kreme for breakfast, some fried chicken from Popeye’s could show up around lunchtime and any assortment of goodies could make their way to our desks throughout the day, especially around the holidays.
That’s why I knew that starting, and maintaining, the keto diet would be a serious challenge. Cutting out carbs and sweets meant saying “no” to a lot of those tasty treats that circulate through the office as well as adopting a whole new way of eating. But two months, 25 pounds and one holiday season later, I think it’s safe to say that if I can do it, anyone can.
If you’re unfamiliar with the keto diet, here’s a quick primer: By strictly limiting carbohydrate intake (usually to no more than 20 or 30 carbs per day) and increasing fat intake, you put your body into what’s called ketosis. During ketosis, your body no longer burns glucose (which is what carbs are broken down into) for energy, but instead burns fat. Obviously the details of ketosis are a lot more complicated than this, but that’s the gist of it.
Starting the keto diet comes with a big learning curve. So much of the standard American diet revolves around carbs that many of us don’t even realize how carb-laden certain things are, and holiday foods in particular are especially carby (hello, mashed potatoes, stuffing and mac and cheese all sharing a plate). Sure, bread, pasta, potatoes, rice, beans and sweets are loaded with carbs, but it was a bit of a shock to learn that a can of Campbell’s tomato soup contains 45 carbs, for example, or that a slice of apple pie contains 51 carbs and that Trader Joe’s cauliflower pizza crust — which sounds like it should be low-carb — contains 17 carbs per slice (of which there are six). Cocktails and beer are also out of the equation.
On the other hand, it’s been refreshing to learn how many foods contain few or no carbs. Meat is essentially carb-free, as are eggs, many cheeses and lots of vegetables. Some vegetables are higher in carbs than others (including carrots, corn, peas, butternut squash and sweet potatoes), but the vast majority are keto-friendly. There are also plenty of keto-friendly snacks, including Whisps and Moon Cheese (which are made out of cheese that’s baked or dehydrated until it gets hard and crunchy), nuts (in moderation), seaweed snacks, meat sticks, plain yogurt, Mini Babybels and pork rinds. New products like Crepini’s Egg Thins, which are essentially carb-free crepes, and Unbuns, buns that are made with almond flour and contain only 5 net carbs, are also changing the low-carb landscape.
After deciding to take the plunge, my wife and I got into ketosis within a week (some experience a general malaise called “keto flu” as the body adapts, but that didn’t happen to us) and quickly got into a rhythm. Planning meals in advance has really helped: During the weekend, we’ll prep for the week ahead by making egg muffins (eggs and a variety of add-ins baked in muffin tins) and chia pudding (chia seeds and unsweetened almond milk, sweetened with stevia) mixed with yogurt for breakfast, and by shopping for lots of meats, seafood, veggies and salad greens for lunch and dinner. I also whip up a big batch of mustard vinaigrette with avocado or olive oil, which goes great on everything from salad to pork tenderloin, and we’ve begun experimenting with spice blends, like berbere, tandoor masala and herbes de Provence to keep things interesting.
Going out to eat can be a challenge, but it’s surprisingly easy to find keto-friendly foods at restaurants if you know what to avoid. Non-breaded Buffalo wings are (mercifully) very low-carb, and just about every restaurant serves a burger (which can go bunless), steak and chicken or fish of some sort. It was also nice to learn that distilled spirits are essentially carb-free, which means that mixed drinks like vodka soda get the thumbs-up, as do hard seltzers like Truly and White Claw (which contain on average just 2 carbs per can). Wine is also surprisingly low in carbs; most only contain 2 or 3 per glass.
The holidays are bound to be difficult for dieters, and this was no exception. The impending traditionally carb-heavy season hung over our heads as we started the diet, but with some advance planning, it proved to not be nearly as challenging as it could have been. For Thanksgiving, for example, we got in touch with the host a couple weeks in advance and let them know the situation (just as anyone with any dietary restrictions should do), and so in lieu of mashed potatoes and stuffing, we loaded our plates with turkey, roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon, prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, roasted curry-spiced cauliflower and a tricolor salad with toasted pecans and goat cheese. Instead of gravy, we topped the turkey with some reserved pan juices from the roasting.
Since starting the diet, we’ve definitely noticed some changes. Not only have we both lost a significant amount of weight and inches, we’re both sleeping deeper and are generally more alert. And because our bodies are fueled by fat instead of carbs, we’re no longer experiencing the dreaded “carb crash” at work.
Obviously, the keto diet isn’t for everybody, and I’m not claiming to be an expert on all of its ins and outs. It’s more of a lifestyle than a diet, which means that if we go back to eating as many carbs as we used to, we’ll begin metabolizing glucose for energy instead of fat again and we’ll most likely gain all the weight back. And we know that once we get to our ideal weight, maintaining it will be another challenge unto itself. But we’re taking it one day at a time, learning as we go, and knowing that if we can make it through the Holidays, we can make it through anything.