The keto diet: Its highs and lows plus 5 recipes

My friends Mike and Robin have been on the keto diet for a couple of years. They lost a ton of weight, and they look fit and trim — better than I’ve ever seen them, and I’ve known them more than 30 years.

Their results are not unusual. The keto diet often leads to rapid weight loss.

The trick lies in keeping it off. Mike and Robin have done it well, but a lot of people can’t. And therein lies a problem, according to Jennifer McDaniel, a registered dietitian and the owner of McDaniel Nutrition Therapy in St. Louis.

“While you might gain benefits in the short term just like any other restrictive diet, most people — like, 90% of the people — have trouble staying on it. When they lose the weight and they can’t maintain the weight that they attained, that’s just another failed diet,” she said.

The keto diet is a high-fat, low-carbohydrates diet — “it’s like the Atkins diet on steroids,” McDaniel said. People on the diet strive to consume 70% to 80% of their calories through fats, as little as 5% through carbohydrates and the rest through protein.

This helps us lose weight because it forces our bodies to burn fat for energy instead of its preferred fuel, carbohydrates.

McDaniel recommends that her clients not go on the keto diet. The diet changes the microbiome in their bodies (the bacteria, fungi and more that live inside us). It is difficult for people on the diet to consume enough fiber, which can lead to constipation and other gastrointestinal nastiness. And because carbohydrates hold onto water, people on the diet are often dehydrated, she said.

And yet, as Mike and Robin and thousands of others can attest, it works. So I decided to try a few recipes to see how they tasted.

The rules of the keto diet are highly restrictive, which can make cooking difficult. You need to avoid fruit, sugars, grains, beans and legumes, rice, potatoes, candy and juice.

Ingredients to be encouraged include meat, fatty fish, eggs, butter and cream, cheese, nuts and seeds, certain oils (olive, avocado, coconut) and low-carb vegetables — most green vegetables, tomatoes, onions, peppers and the like.

It’s a lot to take in, so I began with a simple and entirely wonderful dish of Citrus-Marinated Olives. These are a marvelous treat, combining the heady earthiness of olives with bright notes of orange and lemon. Though the flavors are disparate, they work surprisingly well together.

Another winner was Keto Egg Cups, a dish that concisely presents everything that is good about keto cooking: Little cups made from prosciutto hold eggs mixed with cream, spinach, roasted red peppers and mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses.

Two entrees came next. First, I took a recipe for Instant-Pot Keto Mediterranean Chicken and made it a recipe for Keto Mediterranean Chicken Without an Instant Pot. It only took about five minutes longer than the Instant-Pot version, and it was deeply satisfying.

The other entree, Keto Breaded Chicken Cutlets, isn’t bad — but I’d only make it again if I were on the keto diet. The chicken is dredged through almond flour before frying, which gives it a duller flavor than wheat flour.

Keto Mediterranean Chicken

Adapted from a recipe by the Food Network; yield: 4 servings

1 tablespoon olive oil

8 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs

Salt and pepper

3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1 cup pitted kalamata olives

2 tablespoons capers

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano

1 cup whole-milk Greek yogurt

1/4 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped

2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped

1 teaspoon lemon zest

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Heat oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Liberally sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper and cook half of the pieces, skin-side down, until the skin is deeply browned, 6 to 8 minutes. Flip and cook until the other side is deeply browned, 4 to 6 minutes. Transfer to a plate and repeat with remaining pieces of chicken.

Pour out all but 1 tablespoon of the fat (if on the keto diet, keep all the fat in the pot). Return pot to heat and add garlic; cook until golden brown, about 1 minute. Add the olives, capers, vinegar, oregano and 1/2 cup water; stir to combine and to scrape up any browned bits at the bottom of the pot. Return chicken pieces to pot and stir to mix.

Cover and cook at a simmer until chicken is done, about 30 minutes. Remove the chicken and boil the sauce to reduce it by half.

Meanwhile, mix the yogurt, parsley, mint, lemon zest and lemon juice, plus a large pinch of salt and pepper. Stir to combine. Taste and season with more salt and pepper, if needed.

Serve the chicken with its sauce, and the yogurt sauce on the side.

Keto Egg Cups

Recipe from the Food Network; yield: 3 servings

1 tablespoon butter, see note

6 large, thin slices of prosciutto

1/3 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

1/4 cup grated Parmesan

1/4 cup packed baby spinach leaves, chopped

1/4 cup roasted red peppers, chopped

6 large eggs

1/4 cup heavy cream

Salt and pepper

Note: To make this recipe even more keto-friendly, instead of greasing the muffin tin with 1 tablespoon of butter, melt 2 tablespoons and brush the tin with it. It will pool in the bottom of each cup, but that is OK.

Position an oven rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees.

Grease the cups of a muffin tin with the 1 tablespoon of butter (or brush with 2 tablespoons of melted butter). Line each cup with a slice of prosciutto, folding and overlapping so that the entire surface of the cup is covered and no metal is peeking through. Divide the mozzarella evenly among the cups. Repeat with the Parmesan, spinach and roasted red peppers.

Whisk the eggs and cream in a large measuring cup or small pitcher; add some salt and a few grinds of pepper. Pour the egg mixture in each cup, making sure not to overfill.

Bake until the eggs are set and wobble only slightly, 10 to 12 minutes (the eggs will continue to cook after they come out). Let cool 5 minutes, then use a thin knife or offset spatula, if necessary, to loosen the prosciutto from the edges of each cup. Transfer to a plate for serving.

Citrus-Marinated Olives

Recipe by Valerie Bertinelli via Food Network; yield: 4 to 6 servings

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

2 sprigs fresh thyme

1 garlic clove, thinly sliced

1 strip lemon zest, removed with a vegetable peeler

1 strip orange zest, removed with a vegetable peeler

Salt and pepper

1 cup Castelvetrano olives

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon orange juice

Heat the olive oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the red pepper flakes, thyme, garlic, lemon zest, orange zest, salt and pepper to taste and cook, stirring occasionally, until garlic is pale golden, about 2 minutes. Stir in olives and cook until just warm, 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice and orange juice. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Keto Breaded Chicken Cutlets

Recipe from the Food Network; yield: 4 servings

1 1/2 pounds thinly sliced raw chicken breast

Salt

2 cups almond flour

3 large eggs

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 1/2 teaspoons paprika

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

Ghee (clarified butter, see note) or avocado oil, for frying

Lemon wedges, for serving

Note: To clarify butter, gently melt butter over medium-low heat. Carefully skim foam off top. Pour carefully into a container, stopping before any of the white solids on the bottom of the pan pour out. Store in an airtight container for up to 9 months or in a refrigerator for up to 1 year.

If any of the chicken slices are thicker than 1/4 inch, pound them out one at a time between 2 sheets of plastic wrap or waxed paper with a meat mallet to a thickness of 1/4 inch.

Sprinkle chicken all over with salt and just enough of the almond flour to lightly coat both sides.

Beat the eggs in a wide, shallow bowl. In another wide, shallow bowl, mix the remaining almond flour with the Parmesan, paprika and garlic powder.

Dip chicken in the eggs to coat. Let the excess drip off, then coat thoroughly in the almond flour mixture. Place on a plate and repeat with the remaining chicken.

Heat 1/4 inch of ghee or avocado oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add half the chicken and cook until golden on one side, about 3 minutes. Flip and cook until golden on the other side, another 3 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate and repeat with the remaining chicken, adding more ghee or oil of needed. Serve with lemon wedges.

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