Low-carbohydrate diets are inescapable these days. There’s a good chance at least one person in any given social circle is on Whole30 or trying out paleo. But what these all have in common, besides a lack of starchy grains, is a root in a highly restrictive diet known today as simply “keto” (pronounced “KEE-toe”).
The basic premise of the keto, or ketogenic, diet is that, by replacing carbohydrates with fat, you’ll trick your body into a starvation mode called ketosis. In ketosis, the liver breaks down fat into molecules called ketone bodies, which can then be used for energy instead of glucose from carbohydrates. In order to reach ketosis, one must eat a diet that is approximately 70 to 75 percent fat, plus a little protein and even fewer carbs.
If you read this and think you’re having Atkins diet deja vu, you’re not wrong. The keto diet was, in fact, a precursor to Atkins, as well as other low-carbohydrate diets. Modern keto dieters have also adopted one of the Atkins diet’s premises, that of “net carbs,” as a measurement tool. Net carbs are carbohydrates minus indigestible nutrients, such as fiber and sugar alcohols. Along with fat and protein, these are also one of three “macros” (short for “macronutrients”) typically listed with all keto recipes.
Keto has its roots in medicine: The diet was originally developed in the 1920s as a treatment for childhood epilepsy, as elevated ketone bodies in the brain reduce the occurrence of seizures. This therapeutic keto diet is severely restrictive in both protein and carbohydrates, requiring around a 4-1 ratio of fat to combined carbs and protein. And its precursor was even more restrictive — fasting, which also promotes ketosis, was an early treatment for the disease.
Interest in dietary treatments for epilepsy waned after the advent of anti-convulsant medications but experienced a rebirth in the mid-1990s after a “Dateline NBC” episode and subsequent TV movie about Charlie Abrahams, the son of a Hollywood producer, who found success treating his uncontrollable epilepsy with the keto diet. It is now even more popular today, and the keto diet is being studied as a treatment for other neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and autism.
Today, you’ll find both strong proponents and detractors of the diet. Some say keto is highly effective as a weight loss tool and is useful for Type 2 diabetics needing to control their glycemic index. Detractors say the high-fat content of keto-friendly meals can be dangerous for long-term heart health and that the side effects of a long-term keto diet have not yet been given enough study.
Regardless, trying out a few keto recipes can be a fun way to experiment in the kitchen. Vegetables, like cauliflower, can be transformed into dead ringers for Southern classics like cheese grits, and other meat-focused dishes, such as the Lao salad larb, are keto-friendly all on their own.
Keto Pork Larb Lettuce Cups
Larb is a Lao salad made from ground meat, aromatics and herbs, and is easily adapted to meet keto diet parameters. Simply dial back on some of those aromatics, to keep carbohydrate counts in check, and substitute an appropriate keto sweetener for traditional palm sugar. Serve the larb family-style, with toppings and lettuce cups on the side for a light lunch or dinner.
Keto Shrimp and Cauliflower Grits
This classic Southern breakfast — or, really, anytime — is easier to adapt to a keto diet than you may think. Shrimp bathed in a rich, buttery sauce? Perfect for keto. Grits? Maybe not, but finely ground cauliflower makes a fine substitute, especially when butter and cheddar cheese are folded in. Cook the shrimp in butter and bone broth — either store-bought or homemade will work — flavored with a touch of garlic and scallions.
Keto Portobello Mushroom Pizza
A keto diet requires some creativity when trying to re-create classic comfort foods. Portobello mushrooms are a perfect replacement for dishes in which bread is used, like this pizza. Top with low-carb veggies, full-fat ricotta and grated Parmesan cheese.
Recipe from “The Essential Vegetarian Keto Cookbook” © 2018 by Penguin Random House LLC. Published by Rodale Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Used with permission.
Keto Chocolate Chip-Almond Cookies
Dessert can be tricky on the keto diet. But if you can’t imagine a Sunday dinner without a bite of something sweet, consider these chocolate chip cookies. Made primarily from almond butter, these flourless treats bring all the flavor and texture of Toll House with a fraction of the carbohydrates. As with any dessert, serving size is key to keeping calories in check, so this recipe makes a big batch of cookies that are on the daintier side. These cookies were developed using granular Swerve sweetener, which is made from erythritol, a sugar alcohol that boasts zero-net carbs. It does, however, leave a cooling, minty aftertaste on the tongue, so if you’re not a fan, you can try substituting a different granulated sweetener, such as a stevia or monkfruit blend.
- Keto is the shortened word for “ketogenic diet.” A keto diet contains meals with high levels of fat, moderate levels of protein and very low levels of carbohydrates.
- When following a strict keto diet, the body will begin to use fat as a source of energy instead of carbohydrates, and enter a state known as ketosis.
- The keto diet was originally developed as a treatment for the seizure disorder epilepsy. There have been a few additional studies done on the keto diet and its benefits for other neurological disorders, but none have been proved as definitive.
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