11 essential foods for the ketogenic diet

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cheese eggs and milk on table

At the beginning of March I decided to get serious about losing the 40-ish pounds I’ve gained in the past three years, and after conferring with my posse, I landed on the ketogenic diet.  Initially developed as a treatment for epilepsy, the keto diet lowers carb intake to the point where your body burns fat instead of carbohydrates as its fundamental energy source. Because it involves eating a lot of high-fat, satiating foods like avocados, bacon and cheese, keto makes it relatively easy to reduce caloric intake without feeling hungry, which is why it’s become a popular way to lose weight.

Ten weeks  into keto, I’ve lost 30 of my 40 pounds with my low carb pre workouts, so lots of people have asked me for details on how exactly this keto thing has worked for me. Keto is its own cult with a ton of advice (much of mutually contradictory) so I am not going to map out my particular version of the keto religion. What I do want to share are the particular eating habits and foods that have made the process a bit easier for me; those who really want the play-by-play can find eight weeks’ worth of food logs (yes, i’ve logged every single bite) plus a few of my key recipes here.

To make sense of my food logs and my recommendations below, there are a few things you need to know about my approach to keto:

  • I calculated my macros (the balance of carbs/protein/fat in my diet) and my total caloric allowance with the calculator on Ruled.me
  • I’ve stuck to a limit of 20g of net carbs a day: that means total carbs minus fiber. While I don’t worry too much about hitting 21 or 21.5 carbs, I’ve had very few days where I’ve gone significantly over my limit. In the long run I hope to up my daily carbs but for now I’m sticking to the 20-carb cap, since that guarantees I stay in ketosis (aka fat-burning mode) and helps my body adjust to this new way of functioning. In another month or so I’ll start experimenting with adding some more carbs to my diet in the form of additional fruit and veggies.
  • I set myself a significant calorie deficit goal — 25% — which means I typically eat between 1250 and 1350 calories a day. But thanks to all the fat I am eating I am rarely hungry and never feel deprived. (And no, I’m not some bird-like eater: before keto I was eating tons of pizza, popcorn and Ben & Jerry’s, often on the same evening. No mystery where those 40 pounds came from!)
  • I increased my calories and protein for a little while in early April, when our whole family got the flu and I was having trouble getting well again. Once I bumped up my protein (on a doctor’s advice) I started feeling better quite quickly.
  • Exercise has not been a big part of my weight loss regime, but I have made an effort to be more active because my daily life of working from home is extremely sedentary. I now try to fit in an hour-long walk three or four times a week. But that’s the extent of my exercise.
  • I am a night owl and an evening snacker, so I try to save calories for the evening — usually by making either breakfast or lunch a very light meal.
  • While I found keto because I was looking for a weight loss option, I chose it partly because I’ve long observed that wheat and sugar have a major effect on my mental health. Sure enough, I have mostly felt fantastic on keto (once I got over the initial “keto flu“), so I’ve used my emotional and physical well-being as a cue for when I need to tinker with my food intake.
  • Yes, I am supplementing: I take magnesium, vitamin D, omega 3s and probiotics every day, and try to remember to swallow a teaspoon of salt here and there.

I will not pretend that the keto diet is easy: for the first month I was on keto, figuring out what to eat and how to cook it felt like a full-time job. But keto got a lot easier once I figured out my go-to snacks, meals and treats. Here’s what you can reliably find in my kitchen:

    1. Cacao nibs. These crunchy little nibs have become my go-to snack when I want a little something. They taste chocolatey but are much crunchier and lower calorie. One bag lasts me ages, so I only just tried a new kind — these nibs from Prana, which are SO much better than the previous brand I had. (The pieces are larger and have a nicer texture.)  It’s worth trying a few brands to find yours.
    2. Epic’s chicken sriracha bars. These chicken bars have replaced Kind bars as the snack I keep in my backpack in case I get hungry out in the world and can’t find a keto-friendly lunch or snack. Would I eat them if I were not on keto? No, I would not. But they are tasty enough, and at 100 calories. 15 grams of protein and 1 gram of carbs, they are a very efficient almost-meal.
    3. Montezuma 100% Absolute Black Dark Chocolate with Cocoa Nibs. I buy these unsweetened chocolate bars at Trader Joe’s, where at $2.99 they are both much cheaper and much tastier than the 100% chocolate bars I’ve found at fancy chocolate stores and Whole Foods. A little bite (4 grams) satisfies me — but what really makes it feel like a treat is if I dip that square of chocolate in a little peanut butter.
    4. Trader Giotto’s Oven-Baked Cheese Bites. Another Trader Joe’s staple, these crunchy all-cheese snacks are high in fat and calories but low in carbs, so they are a delicious snack on days when I haven’t yet eaten a ton of calories.
    5. Bacon and prosciutto. Don’t tell the rabbi, but I am eating a crazy amount of pork in this new life. Once or twice a week, I cook up either a big load of bacon (in the microwave) or a bunch of prosciutto (in the toaster oven). Then I stick the delicious crispy porky goodness in a ziploc bag in the fridge, where it’s available to crumble on salads or scrambled eggs.
    6. Roasted vegetables. Once or twice a week I roast a big whack of vegetables in the oven and then put each type of vegetable in its own container in the fridge. That makes it easy for me to whip up a meal out of some meat and whatever veggies I have going: usually I’ve got a container of broccoli (unless my kid eats it all), a container of roasted fennel (amazing as a condiment or salad enhancement) and maybe some green beans or asparagus. (Keto is so low carb that I’ve occasionally surpassed my carb limits by eating too much cauliflower or broccoli, so it pays to know which veggies are lowest in carbs, and to measure your veggie intake.)  To roast the veggies I just drizzle with some olive oil, salt and pepper — or in the case of the broccoli, Montreal steak spice or Tajin seasoning.
    7. Spinach and arugula. We always have a big, pre-washed box of each of these in our fridge. I throw about two cups of one or the other into my morning eggs every day, or use them as the base for a salad, or wilt a little arugula as the base of whatever I’m having for dinner.
    8. Instant Pot boiled or poached eggs. Dinner got a lot easier onceI learned how to use our Instant Pot to poach eggs, or even easier, to boil eggs, If I haven’t got a better plan, I make a quick dinner by wilting some arugula in a wok (I like it better when it’s slightly cooked) and then topping it with a couple of soft-boiled (and peeled!) eggs, a little chunk of gooey burrata cheese, some crispy prosciutto, a few slices of roasted fennel, some black olives and whatever other goodies spring to hand. Delicious, quick and satisfying.
    9. Trader Joe’s Gochujang almonds. In my first month of keto I got completely addicted to macademia nuts: every time I passed through the kitchen I’d eat two or three of those delicious babies. Then I finally realized that a single macademia nut has 20 calories and 2 grams of fat, so I moved the macademia nuts off the convenient shelf and into a big jar that I have to dig for. Now my go-to are these delicious low-carb flavored almonds from Trader Joe’s almonds, which I package up into 100-calorie bags so that I can keep a dose in my purse.
    10. Whipped cream. Thanks to keto, I now have a whipped cream jar. Every two or three nights I whip some unsweetened cream. My bedtime snack is a half-cup of raspberries (if I’ve had a low-carb day, there might even be room for some blueberries, too) topped with a half-cup of whipped cream (or a quarter cup, if I’m close to my calorie limit) with a sprinkling of toasted slivered almonds for texture. No, it is not the same as the two scoops of B&J New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream that I formerly consumed at that hour. But honestly, it may be even more satisfying.
    11. McDonalds salt packets. Whenever I take the kids to McDonalds, I take a few of their little salt packets. I keep these in my purse so that if I’m feeling lousy (in a keto flu-y kinda way) I can knock back a salt pack and a drink of water. Ten minutes later, I feel right as rain.

Keto is not for everybody. It can actually be dangerous for some people, and many folks — myself included — feel sick when their body is first transitioning from burning carbs to burning fat. But if you’re intrigued, I hope these foods (and my food log) can help make it easier for you to give it a try.

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