What Cooking on a Keto Diet Really Looks Like

Potato chips are off-limits, but zucchini chips may satisfy your cravings. (Getty Images)

Whether you’re planning to go keto or otherwise totally cut out sugar and carbs, deciding what to eat and cook can get mighty limiting. And while I typically don’t endorse such restrictive plans due to their lack of diversity and many nutrients, I know many people try them – and, as a nutritionist and cookbook author, I’m here to help. Here’s an idea of what you will (and won’t) be eating on a keto (or similar) diet, and how to use those few ingredients wisely:

What foods have carbs?

These are the foods you’ll likely be eliminating or extremely limiting on a diet like the keto. You’ll probably need to download an app to calculate your carbs, since even trace amounts in some foods can add up.

  • Legumes: Beans, peas and lentils all have a good amount of carbohydrates. Tofu also falls into this category, but has fewer carbs. Peanuts and peanut butter are technically carbs, too.
  • Milk and dairy: Low-fat and nonfat milk have a milk sugar called lactose. Full-fat dairy and full-fat cheese have much less of this sugar and are encouraged on many of these plans.
  • Vegetables: Starchy vegetables like potatoes, corn and yams have carbs, while leafy green vegetables (like kale and spinach), zucchini, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower are pretty low-carb and can be included in small amounts on most of these diets.
  • Grains: All grains, including flours made from grains, are carbohydrate-rich and are eliminated on this type of diet.
  • Fruit: Made from fructose, a type of sugar, fruit is usually eliminated on this type of diet. Lemons and limes are much lower in sugar and can be included. Berries like blueberries, strawberries and blackberries are allowed in small amounts on keto.
  • Nuts and seeds: Some nuts have more carbs than others. Almonds, pecans and sunflower seeds – and any products made from them – are lower in carbs.
  • Added sugar: Honey, brown sugar, agave and all other versions of added sugar are off the table (literally!).
  • Sugar substitutes: Many are made from a sugar alcohol (like erythritol), stevia or monk fruit, which have small amounts of sugar and can add up if you use too much.

What foods don’t have sugar or carbs?

Here’s what you’ll be left eating and cooking with:

  • Proteins: Meat (like beef, veal and lamb), poultry, fish and shellfish have no carbs.
  • Eggs: Whether from a chicken or ostrich, eggs are a go on these types of diets.
  • Fats: Olives and any oils including avocado and coconut oil (a favorite for keto followers) do not have carbs. It should be noted that fresh avocado and coconut products do have small amounts of carbs.
  • Full-fat dairy: Heavy whipping cream, full-fat cheese, buttermilk, full-fat Greek yogurt, full-fat cream cheese and ricotta contain fewer carbs than their low-fat and nonfat counterparts.

What dishes can I make on a super low-carb diet?

Here are some ideas for how to make the most of those ingredients that get the green light:

  • Salads: While salads may be replacing your sandwiches, you can’t just eat as much salad as you want. Although cabbage and lettuce aren’t high in carbs, more vegetables equals more carbs, so you’ll still need to measure and limit your salads’ sizes.
  • Pasta and rice replacements: If you miss foods like spaghetti and meatballs, try a pasta substitute by using a spiralizer to make zucchini or squash noodles. Spaghetti squash can also act as a pasta substitute and cauliflower rice can be paired with stir-fries or other dishes that go with rice.
  • Breakfast pastries: Traditional pancakes, waffles and muffins are off the menu, but you can get the goodness of some of these baked goods by using a few substitutes. Try baking with almond flour (sometimes in combination with coconut flour); you’ll just need an extra egg and/or baking powder to get your muffin or pancake to be fluffier. For the sugar, there are several erythritol-based sugars that you can add to baked goodies, which work beautifully. Monk fruit is also really easy to use. Both, however, can up the sugar, so they do need to be used carefully. Using almond or sunflower butter in the batter also helps with mouthfeel.
  • Stews: Meat will be the main ingredient in your stew, while tomatoes in the base will be limited. For example, try using a 14-ounce can of diced tomatoes and a limited amount of lower-carb veggies, but avoid or extremely limit your potatoes, sweet potatoes and carrots, since they come with a hefty carb tag.
  • Bread substitutes: Portobello mushroom caps are a nice substitute for bread in dishes like pizza, while zucchini or cucumber rounds can be used as “bread” or “crackers” for finger foods.

Take a step back and think if you can adjust your entire lifestyle to cooking this way. Can you live calculating your food on a daily basis? Can you follow this type of diet around family and friends who do not eat this way? What will you do when you go out to eat? Will you be able to maintain this for a long time? Examining your new life in the kitchen may give you a whole new perspective of these diets and whether they’re really right for you.

Toby Amidor, Contributor

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, has contributed to U.S. News since 2013, discussing nutrition trends,…  Read moreToby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, has contributed to U.S. News since 2013, discussing nutrition trends, food safety and healthy cooking. She is a Wall Street Journal best-selling cookbook author of “Smart Meal Prep for Beginners,” “The Easy 5-Ingredient Healthy Cookbook,” “The Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook” and “The Greek Yogurt Kitchen.” Toby is also a founding contributor to FoodNetwork.com’s Healthy Eats blog, has an “Ask the Expert” column in Today’s Dietitian Magazine and contributes to national publications including Shape.com, MensJournal.com and SparkPeople.com. She has also appeared on the Dr. Oz Show and Coffee With America, and has been quoted in hundreds of national publications including FoxNews.com, Greatist, Cooking Light, NBC News, Reader’s Digest and many more. For 10 years, Toby taught at a culinary school in New York City, and she is currently an adjunct professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and Hunter School of Urban Public Health, where she teaches food service management. In 2018, Toby received the coveted Media Excellence Award from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Her blog has also been ranked as a best healthy living blog by Healthline for numerous years. In her spare time, she can be found playing competitive tennis through the U.S. Tennis Association. Follow Toby and her cutting-edge nutrition information on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram, and connect with her on Linkedin.

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