The impression most people get about the ketogenic diet is that it says a lot of no. No carbs, no sweets, no fun. The truth is, because of this impression, most people don’t stick with the diet for long. A person can only tolerate so much salmon with braised leeks, the thinking goes. Eventually you’re going to need a dang brownie, right?
This, though, is one of the main misconceptions about the keto diet. It’s goal isn’t to deprive eaters (or to refuse them brownies), but to redirect their tastes toward foods that are healthier both now and over the long haul. The diet’s designers never intended to make people feel as though they’re constantly going without. In fact, once you break the chains carbs have you in (whether you know it or not), you’ll find you don’t miss sweets in the traditional sense at all.
However, if you’re not there yet, the idea of giving up sweet treats might seem about as appealing as spending a weekend with Hannibal Lecter. Instead of freaking out, let’s take a look at what keto really has to say about sweets, and what that means for you.
What Is the Goal of the Ketogenic Diet?
The goal of the ketogenic diet is to give our bodies foods that actually help it thrive. When you count on carbs for energy, you’re constantly at the mercy of the glucose supply in your blood. It makes you spike, crash and crave – all. the. time. This in turn leads to aggravation, poor sleep, restlessness, sluggish metabolism, illness and more.
The ketogenic diet says there’s a better way. Instead of burning glucose for the energy needed to run your body’s metabolic processes, it transitions you to burning ketones (hence the name). Ketones come from fatty acids, which most people have floating around in abundance. Even lean people have a significant fatty acid supply, especially when they incorporate high levels of healthy fats, as prescribed by the ketogenic diet.
This leads to a better mood, more mental clarity, a stabler metabolism, better sleep, increased energy and more. But it also has one other outcome … leaving its adherents feeling occasionally deprived of the fun treats others get to enjoy.
What Does Keto Have to Say About Sweets?
This begs the question: Does keto really say you can’t eat sweets? Or is it just our interpretation of what constitutes a sweet that is getting in the way?
The short answer is that keto does not forbid sweets in general. What it does do is prohibit many of the ingredients in traditional desserts. You can’t have a pound cake, for instance, because it contains sugar and flour. You can’t have fro-yo because it contains skim milk and fake-y sweeteners.
When you’re craving dessert, therefore, it pays to step back and consider why we really eat sweets in the first place, and what a better approach might look like.
Just Why Do We Want Sweets, Anyway?
The goal of the ketogenic diet is to give the body what it actually needs, not to give the brain what it wants, but that often conflicts with what your lizard brain is telling you. Although we now have all sorts of modern developments like penicillin and horsepower and iPods, our brains are still limited by an evolutionary progression that essentially ended back in caveman times. Our brain’s take on food: If it looks good, eat it. Don’t ask questions, because it may not be there tomorrow.
Great strategy in an Ice Age winter. Very poor strategy in the land of plenty, which is why obesity is such a problem in the United States as well as across the globe.
Nevertheless, even if you internalize the fact that your brain may send you incorrect messages, it’s hard to ignore that little (or loud) voice. The truth is, though, if your brain is screaming “I need a donut!” then there are likely other factors at play. The main ones are:
- You’re actually hungry
- You feel low-energy
- You want that little something “extra” after a big meal
- You feel like treating ourselves
Let’s look at these one by one.
What to Do About Your Cravings for Sweets
First up: You feel hungry, so you start fantasizing about the Starbucks counter case. Tempting, but not a good strategy, since you’ll just get hungry again about an hour after eating whatever you choose. Luckily, this situation is pretty easy to fix: You should eat protein-rich food that fills you up and gives you the fat-based energy on which keto relies.
Low-energy? Probably the same thing: You need protein, fat and low-carb veggies.
The little something “extra” is a bit more complicated. Biologically speaking, eating something sweet and satisfying like fruit or a bowl of ice cream does activate a “we’re done now!” signal that kills your food urge after a meal. However, within a few hours, those same carbs come back to bite you with the spike-crash-crave cycle we discussed above.
You’re better off eating something that feels decadent but is in fact still healthy and filling: think rich peanut butter, unsweetened chocolate or a full-fat cheese such as brie or camembert.
Lastly, and perhaps most difficult to address, we sometimes just feel like treating ourselves. It’s not always easy to watch the rest of the world put away cinnamon rolls, chocolate cake and giant iced lattes without feeling a bit jealous. How can you get the same feeling of spoiling yourself without relying on carbs?
Spoil Yourself the Right Way: Choose Sweet But Carb-Free Ingredients
If it’s just plain time to treat yourself, you’ve got to do it right. Perhaps you’ve hit the 2-p.m. crash that we all face – which is less common on keto but still an unavoidable fact of your body’s natural circadian rhythm. Maybe you want something to tide you over between a virtuous lunch and a protein-and-veggie-rich dinner. Perhaps you’re going to a friend’s house for dinner, and you know they’ll be making their fave cheesecake. Time to stick a little something for you in the ol’ purse!
Now, what should that something be?
Start by choosing the right ingredients. There exist many natural foods that have a sweet flavor but don’t actually contain any sugar and are very low in carbohydrates. A few of our go-to “sweet” ingredients include:
- Almond butter and peanut butter, which take on a deliciously creamy and almost syrupy quality when ground into a paste
- Coconut flakes, which are super-high in protein, but taste like they’ve been sweetened – and even better, act as a sweetener when you add them to recipes
- Creamed coconut, which is blended meat and so sweet you’d think it had buckets of sugar in it
- Coconut oil, which has a different flavor than the ground or flaked meat, closer to the rich flavor of sweet cream butter (Getting the impression coconut is your go-to? Well, it is.)
- Bacon, which when cooked slowly will caramelize naturally into a thick, sticky sweet coating
- Caramelized onions, which produce the same coating as bacon, especially when cooked in coconut oil or bacon grease
- Butter, which contains natural sugars but the high amounts of fat mean they break down slowly and don’t become a vast influx of glucose
- Stevia, an out-and-out sweetener that is made naturally from the leaf of a plant and contains no sugars or calories
Any snack you make from these ingredients will perform two services: make you full while at the same time satisfying your urge for something naughty.
Keto Says Yes: Eat Sweet Ingredients on Their Own
Many of the ingredients above are delicious eaten on their own, and therefore perfect for popping when you need a pick-me-up. These include most nuts, which get sweeter as you chew them and release their fats, as well as coconut. If you can get the latter fresh, it is pure heaven (seriously, no cake can compete with that).
Or you might grab a small bowl of water chestnuts, whose sweet crunch is hard to mimic with any amount of fancy French desserts. Spoonfuls of almond butter and creamed coconut often do the trick, as do a few strips of bacon or a pile of caramelized onions (if you’re willing to do the work, of course).
While it’s important not to eat to excess, the ketogenic diet doesn’t place the same calorie restrictions on your body, because it’s all good food that won’t get stored as fat. More importantly, your body doesn’t let you binge on such foods in the same way as carbs. You will get sick long before you can eat 4,000 calories of onions the way you can with a box of 7-11 donuts. (No? Just me?)
The truth is, though, no amount of nut-popping can replace a true treat made from multiple ingredients.
Combine Those Ingredients Into Keto-Approved Snacks
Combining individual whole foods into rich, satisfying, healthy snacks is totally keto-approved. For one thing, you can stretch the more expensive ingredients (creamed coconut or grass-fed butter, say) with more affordable options (coconut flour and peanut butter), and make large batches to keep you fueled all week long.
More to the point, when you actually make something, it feels like more of a treat. Munching on a spoonful of almond butter doesn’t do much to “include” you while your friends celebrate with a strawberry-champagne cake. On the other hand, ketogenic snacks such as sugar detox cookies or almond butter cups do feel like a splurge.
At the end of the day, sweets are a state of mind. The ketogenic diet holds that sugar and carbohydrates are bad for you and should be avoided, but sweets? You deserve them, just like any other guy or gal or inter-gendered person, and now you know the right way to get them. To your health, my friend!
About the Author Nate Arnold
I started this website because it was hard to find trustworthy, evidence-based information about the ketogenic diet. Information that was published and peer reviewed by respected scientific journals. After years of research, I'm sure you'll achieve great results in a healthy way following my advice. I do my best to translate scientific research jargon into plain English. Remember, it's always a good idea to consult a doctor before starting a new diet!