I’m Technically Failing at the Keto Diet — and I’m 100% OK With It

A mother’s greatest challenge is not brain cancer, but Keto.

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Food Network Kitchen’s Keto Tuna Salad cups, as seen on Food Network.

Get the Recipe: Keto Tuna Salad Cups

Photo by: KATE MATHIS

KATE MATHIS

Get the Recipe: Keto Tuna Salad Cups

When I finally pulled myself together days after being given a year to live because of a very aggressive brain cancer diagnosis, I wanted to fight by changing my diet. I didn’t know if it would help, but it was a way to claim some agency in a world which, I had realized with crushing clarity, was entirely out of my control at the age of 32. As a cookbook author and lifelong food-lover, food was a natural outlet for finding a solution to my diagnosis. I went on a restrictive anti-inflammatory diet, inundated with buzzwords like “gluten-free” and “Paleo,” which I scoffed at early on in my career. I ruthlessly cut out old friends like sugar, coffee and chocolate. To my (and my doctors’) pleasant surprise, it worked. After surviving my first year while eating this clean diet, a member of my care team strongly suggested I transition to the trendiest diet out there: Keto. (There are studies linking the diet to glioblastoma survivors.)

And though I had survived a year past when the doctors said I wouldn’t, it’s been my attempt to “go Keto” that’s proven to be my hardest challenge yet. Full disclosure: I’m not reaching ketosis — and probably won’t ever — and my doctors aren't worried about it either. And even though I may not be 100% Keto, here's how I make the diet work for me.

I Got My Family Involved

When I told my husband I would be giving Keto a try, he shrugged and told me he was sure I would make it taste great. This — combined with sitting down to the table, making yummy noises, then clearing the table to happily do the dishes — is the extent of my wonderful husband’s relationship to food in our house. He’s a selfless supporter: He finds the most exciting restaurants I can eat in for date night, he is always excited to see what I make for dinner and he exclaims at the table how lucky we all are to have such nice meals.

My husband and I have two little boys, both enthusiastic eaters and lovers of food. I vowed that, however my cancer battle manifested through food, they would continue to love food through my choices. That, regardless of how long I am given to live, the years they sit around our table and I have the joy of cooking for them, these dinners together are my legacy. Calculating my carb intake, eating a lonely piece of string cheese and guzzling a smoothie while everyone else ate a plated dinner was not an option. Family dinners are protected in our house: They are glowing part of the very life I am fighting for. We have established family traditions like gorging together on a platter of in-season fruit after dinner, which means I accept a B+ Keto GPA and, in so doing, necessarily exclude myself from reaching actual ketosis.

We Try to Eat Familiar Foods

My boys love cauliflower rice, zucchini noodles and cauliflower pizza, because they are tasty and resemble traditionally decadent dishes. Pasta and pizza nights are fun in our house, like everyone else’s, and they don’t know the difference. (Yet.) As a parent, I am thrilled with these dinner options because they put vegetables at the center of the plate, which gives our boys plenty of varied opportunities to remain in love with them! And as a cook, I love that I can give them a balanced meal that orbits vegetables and protein from often one dish — a new definition of a “one pot” dinner.

Togetherness Is More Important Than Perfection

The only version of meal modification I feel comfortable with is done at the table. (Like I said before, I’m not up for eating string cheese alone.) I set out bowls of toasted fresh breadcrumbs for my boys to sprinkle on their zucchini noodles, and we still gobble a platter of fruit at the end of the meal. Even if I choose to refrain, I’m right there with them, juicy fingers and all. In order to make these choices work for us, I require the permission to fail. I understand this is decidedly off-menu on the Keto diet, but the priorities at my family table are at once joyful, healthful and memorable — not perfection.

Perhaps, even more than important than the dishes themselves, however, is how we eat them: together. Now, more than two years from my diagnosis, I know that living and eating well are synonymous in my house, and both are possible on a modified Keto diet. And if the experience of eating together as a family — a cornerstone of my will to live, it turns out — deters me from pure Keto success, then a failure I shall be.

I hope to be a failure for a very long time.

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