The ketogenic (keto) diet is a popular ultra-low-carb diet.
In its most simple form, following this diet means you must all but eliminate every form of carbohydrate and eat fat in its place.
The body uses that fat for energy, and when the supplies run low, it then draws from your body’s fat stores for necessary energy. That leads to weight loss.
The ideal ratio of macronutrients on the keto diet is 75 percent fat, 20 percent protein, and 5 percent (or just 20 grams) of carbs.
The emphasis for the carbs you do eat? High-fiber plant options like Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and broccoli.
Bread? Bye-bye. Bagels? No chance. Muffins? You’ll have to miss them.
That was, until the popularity of the diet — and the abundance of keto-friendly ingredients like almond flour and no-sugar-added chocolate — led to creative keto eaters and cooks finding ways to substitute their beloved carb-rich foods for versions that had fewer carbs and still fit their keto goals.
Indeed, today, if you search for keto snacks, you’ll be hit with a barrage of listings for keto-friendly bars, breads, cookies, and more. The market is flooded with them, and they show few signs of stopping.
But in a diet that’s designed to eliminate most carbs and most forms of sugar, is there room for artificial substitutes that mimic the foods you perhaps miss?
Yes and no, say the experts. Here’s why.
One of the biggest hurdles of any diet, and especially the keto diet, is a deprivation mentality. If you believe you can’t have something, you may find yourself craving it even more.
Keto “cheat” foods, proponents argue, may help you satisfy those longings while not blowing your carb budget.
“These foods can also help people benefit from nutritional ketosis for a longer period of time without feeling deprived of the foods they are used to eating,” she added.
That seems like a win.
But not so fast, says Maucere. You have to be attentive to what you’re eating, beyond just the net carbs you’re consuming.
“That said, the quality of the ingredients used to make these foods does matter. Just like with non-keto food products, you’ll want to look at the ingredients list to make sure the food you want to eat is made with real food ingredients,” she said. “If what you find in the ingredients list is a long list of chemicals and additives, steer clear.”
“Studies have shown that eating highly-processed foods increases your rates of obesity, cancer, food addiction, depression, chronic inflammation, poor digestion, asthma, and allergy symptoms,” he said.
“Since a ketogenic diet — when done properly — can actually help alleviate many of these ailments, it’s counterintuitive to eat products with ingredients that can have harmful effects on your health.”
In particular, Gustin points out, keto “cheat” foods rely heavily on artificial sweeteners.
Most forms of sugar are rich sources of carbs. Artificial sweetener options have virtually no carbs, which makes them technically keto-friendly, but they don’t always get the thumbs up from doctors and nutritionists.
“One of the biggest offenders is artificial sweeteners, which, in addition to contributing to the problems I mentioned, may also raise your blood sugar levels and blood pressure, increasing anxiety and causing GI upset,” Gustin said.
Gustin explains that even if you stay in ketosis, you’re not ingesting healthy ingredients.
“All you’re doing is giving your body chemicals instead of nutrient-dense food, causing you to miss out on some of the bigger picture benefits the ketogenic diet can provide,” he concludes.
When a keto curious eater first makes the decision to drop the carbs, the impact to their food choices is immediate: Cut out sugar, starches, pasta, and grains. Limit vegetables. Focus on fat.
What those limitations often do, with the guidance of keto experts, is put people in a position to inspect the quality of the food they’re eating to ensure they’re getting the most bang for their bite.
“In my mind, one of the biggest advantages to a ketogenic diet is that it forces a person to become more intentional about their food choices and often leads to a greater understanding of food and their relationship to food,” said Robert Santos-Prowse, a clinical dietitian and author of “The Ketogenic Mediterranean Diet” and “The Cyclical Ketogenic Diet.”
“I’m concerned that the availability of low-quality convenience foods that fit in a ketogenic diet will eliminate some of that benefit and leave people no better off than before they adopted a ketogenic diet. Low-carbohydrate junk is still junk,” he said.
Maucere said there are simple recipes for keto-friendly comfort foods without chemicals that can satisfy a person’s carb craving.
“A good example of a real food, keto-friendly swap would be ‘keto biscuits’ made with almond flour, butter, cheese, eggs, cream, salt, and pepper,” she said.
If you make the foods yourself, you see the ingredients and you can feel certain they’re not mysterious. Then, at the end, you can feel even better sneaking in what certainly feels like a “cheat” food.
If the occasional keto bagel helps you avoid noshing on a real flour-filled bagel, which will certainly pull you out of ketosis, the benefit may be positive.
If that’s what you have every day for breakfast — instead of, for example, a sausage-and-egg hash or egg-stuffed bell pepper rings — then you may not see the benefits.
“Just because something is keto-friendly does not make it healthy in the long run,” said Shana Minei Spence, MS, RDN, CDN, founder of The Nutrition Tea. “Always check the labels first before falling into the trap of buying a product because of marketing.”