Holiday Eating: Considerations for Keto and Primal Types

‘Tis the season… for wondering “Seriously, what the heck am I going eat this holiday??”

I’m guessing that most Mark’s Daily Apple readers can relate to the angst that comes with trying to be a “healthy person” during the holiday season. Are you going to indulge? How much? How will you feel physically and mentally if you do? How will other people behave if you don’t?

Particularly if you’re somewhat new to a Primal lifestyle, it can be hard to figure out what will be best for you—and keto comes with a whole additional set of considerations. Compared to a more general Primal way of eating, keto requires stricter adherence to carbohydrate limitation. Moreover, it is possible to measure your ketone levels and tell objectively whether you have crossed the line (not that you have to do so). If ketosis is your goal, there is no chalking up that chocolate pecan pie to the 80/20 principle and being on your merry way.

Luckily though, it’s actually quite easy to stick to Primal and keto during the holidays if your brain doesn’t get in the way. In my experience, the struggle is largely mental—saying no to foods that don’t serve your goals and resisting social pressure—not a lack of delicious, healthy options. Of course, it’s up to you whether, and to what degree you are going to stay Primal/keto.

To Indulge or Not: A Few Considerations

It’s important to remember that there’s a huge range of options between 100% compliant and “I ate 2 whole pies by myself.” Just because you dip your toe in the water doesn’t mean you have to dive all the way in.

Many of us can probably indulge a little and be totally fine. To me, this is the spirit of metabolic flexibility. It means that your body can use different fuel substrates for energy. And…if and when you eat foods that are out of the norm, it’s not a big deal. In other words, your body can handle what you throw at it—within reason. That doesn’t mean you can necessarily stay in ketosis, but unless you have a medical need, there’s no rule that says you have to stay in ketosis all the time even if you consider yourself a “keto person.”

There’s a difference between “can” and “should.” Even if you can indulge without obvious negative consequences, whether you should really comes down to your health and your personal goals. You have to figure it out for yourself, and you might not know exactly where your line is until you’ve crossed it. It’s up to you whether you want to test it and find out.

While I’m a big fan of self-experimentation, there are people who are probably better off being mostly—or totally—compliant through the holidays:

  • if you’re still dealing with Type 2 diabetes,
  • if your gut health is suboptimal,
  • if you have recently switched to Primal or started a Keto Reset,
  • if you’re in the middle of an AIP or FODMAP elimination diet.

In these scenarios, indulging even a little will set you back more than it would if you were further along in the process (I can’t quantify how much). Also, if getting away from sugar and carb-dependency was a tough road for you, you might not want to risk it.

Primal and Keto Options Abound

Although a lot of the focus is on treats, the truth is that much of the traditional fare is Primal- and keto-friendly.  I bet you can find something you feel good about eating at almost any meal or party even if your family is as standard as the Standard American Diet gets. Of course, you can always bring your own food to a gathering (bring enough to share—it’s the holidays after all), or you could host and serve whatever you darn well please. Be sure to check out our Primal/keto Thanksgiving recipe roundup post for ideas.

This holiday, skip the dinner rolls and opt for:

  • Meat (Lots of meat—sugary-glazed ham being your last choice)
  • Salad (Ideally, use your own dressing and skip the croutons.)
  • Cooked Vegetables (e.g. broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, squash, etc.)
  • Sweet Potatoes (not the marshmallow casserole obviously) for Primal, limit on keto
  • Raw Veggies with Dip or Pâté
  • Deviled Eggs
  • Shrimp Cocktail
  • Salami or Other Charcuterie and Cheese
  • Baked Brie (bonus points if it’s wrapped in prosciutto, avoid sugary toppings)
  • Olives
  • Mixed Nuts

Then there are the traditional holiday foods that aren’t Primal/keto-friendly in their most common forms but which can be adapted fairly easily:

  • Mashed Potatoes – Potatoes are a borderline food for Primal eaters and a mostly-no for keto folks (who wants a tiny serving?), but cauliflower, turnips, rutabaga, or parsnips all make decent substitutes. Throw some butter, sour cream, chives, horseradish, cheese, or bacon (or all of the above!) on there, and you can hardly tell the difference. (The secret with cauliflower is to squeeze out the excess liquid after cooking but before mashing.)
  • Gravy (Thicken with arrowroot powder or gelatin instead of cornstarch or flour.)
  • Green Bean Casserole (Avoid the canned soup and fried onions—you can make both with healthy ingredients if you want; check out the recipe in The Keto Reset Diet book).
  • Cranberry Sauce (Check out this recipe and use your sweetener of choice; I like mine tangy.)
  • Stuffing (see the recipe here)

A word of advice: Try your recipes ahead of time! Thankgiving afternoon is not the time to discover that the keto gravy recipe you found online really makes gravy jello instead.

But what about dessert??

The best option is to help yourself to another serving of turkey and homemade cranberry sauce, but what if you really want dessert? There are TONS of blogs devoted to paleo/Primal/keto desserts made with honey, maple syrup, stevia, erythritol, monk fruit, and so on. Let’s not kid ourselves, however: these are still treats.

If you’re comfortable with paleo-fied pumpkin pie with a grain-free crust and real whipped cream, or cheesecake made with a keto-friendly sweetener, go for it. Dark chocolate and berries with whipped cream are always an option, or baked fruit with fresh flaked coconut. Or eat the “real” dessert if that’s what you choose, but do it mindfully and in an amount that you won’t regret when you’re finished.

DBS—Don’t Be Surprised

I know I harp on this point, but I really think it’s important to have a game plan when you know you’ll be facing temptation or have conflicting desires (e.g., stay Primal/keto but also eat the crescent rolls). Decide what you want, establish boundaries for yourself (even if they’re somewhat flexible), and prepare for foreseeable obstacles. Consider the following:

  • What is your intention in terms of staying compliant (or not)?
  • How are you willing to compromise if you find yourself in a situation where there aren’t any great options? (Salads with questionable dressing? Vegetables cooked in cream sauce if you usually avoid dairy? Not at all?)
  • What will you say to pushy/nosy/disrespectful relatives and coworkers? (You don’t owe anyone an explanation, but “That makes me feel poorly, and I want to enjoy the evening with you,” usually works pretty well.)
  • Are you going to imbibe?
  • What can you do to manage stress during the holidays instead of turning to food?

If you are feeling conflicted, allow yourself to sit with those feelings. They’re totally normal, especially if you’re fairly new to this. Once you’ve been at it for a while, you’ll have a better sense of the personal lines you don’t want to cross. If you make a choice that you wish you hadn’t, the great thing is you’ll get a do-over at the next meal.

Lastly, don’t allow food to carry too much importance during this season. Instead, crank up the music, put on your coziest footie pajamas, and enjoy all the non-food related things there are to love about this time of year!

What’s your plan this holiday? Will you be eating keto at Thanksgiving or taking a looser approach? What are your favorite low-carb holiday recipes? Thanks for reading, everyone.

TAGS:  Keto, keto-popular

About the Author

Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior writer and community manager for Primal Nutrition, a certified Primal Health Coach, and the co-author of three keto cookbooks.

As a writer for Mark’s Daily Apple and the leader of the thriving Keto Reset and Primal Endurance communities, Lindsay’s job is to help people learn the whats, whys, and hows of leading a health-focused life. Before joining the Primal team, she earned her master’s and Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also worked as a researcher and instructor.

Lindsay lives in Northern California with her husband and two sports-obsessed sons. In her free time, she enjoys ultra running, triathlon, camping, and game nights. Follow along on Instagram @theusefuldish as Lindsay attempts to juggle work, family, and endurance training, all while maintaining a healthy balance and, most of all, having fun in life. For more info, visit

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16 thoughts on “Holiday Eating: Considerations for Keto and Primal Types”

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  1. Thanks for the reminder. I will stay 80/20. Yes, I will have mashed potatoes, with butter, if they are there. I have told the hostess not to make gluten-free stuffing, gravy, etc. for me, which she usually would do. I don’t need those carbs. Yes, I plan to have pumpkin pie with whipped cream if it is there.

    1. Me too, Harry, regarding 80/20. I don’t do keto so I will eat a little of everything. It takes some will power not to dive into the leftovers the next day and the day after, but life is short. I’m going to enjoy myself on Thanksgiving and consider it my 20 percent.

      Regarding sweet potatoes, I like the garnet kind. The skins are a dark reddish brown. I bake them until tender, then remove the skins and mash them with butter, a little salt and pepper, and heavy cream. They are delicious and naturally sweet enough without adding sugar or topping them with candy.

  2. Our tribe does a 5-day (water only) fast leading up to Thanksgiving. It’s how we honor the struggle of our ancestors and it’s how we prime our bodies to take on the endless barrage of all things that resemble primal fare. When you’ve fasted for 5-days, a simple salt lick is more delicious than any non-primal plate which makes eating a Primal Thanksgiving/Holiday intuitive and even more enjoyable!

  3. My contribution to the extended family’s meal is deviled eggs served as an appetizer so I don’t arrive at the table too hungry. Then I don’t put any more food on my plate than I would for any other meal with my focus being lots of turkey. My husband makes his mother’s pumpkin pie. I eat the filling but leave the crust. I think I am the only one who leaves the table not groaning.

  4. I’ve been doing this for a while and used to be very strict but now that I’m very aware of what’ll put me over the edge and what I can deal with, I’ll loosen up a bit. It helps that I really love keto/primal foods so I don’t feel like I’m depriving myself.

  5. I always purchase my own second turkey so that the family can do whatever (deep-fry in questionable oil) with theirs. Also gives me plenty of extra and I can purchase a smaller, better quality bird for myself.

    Ps rutabagas mashed with bacon (and the fat) is a thanksgiving staple in my house since before I was born. It’s a great side that has no gluten, dairy, sugar, etc. I’d be happy at thanksgiving with just turkey, rutabagas, and geeen beans! (And some homemade cranberry sauce.)

  6. Holidays are a time to indulge in my opinion. Life’s too short to not enjoy the wonderful food. I will eat whatever I’d like and enjoy some wonderful IPA’s, wine, and bourbon. I’ll get back on the horse the Monday after thanksgiving. I’m committed most of time to a healthy lifestyle, but Thanksgiving, I’m going for it!!!

  7. We usually have Christmas dinner with son, d/inlaw and her family who don’t eat anything remotely close to Primal. To make it harder two family members are vegetarian. In previous years have just gone with the flow but have health issues now so have to be more careful. Will probably take nuts, olives, small keto bread rolls, my homemade pate and seed crackers, a large salad and a strawberry pie. That should give us healthy options and food that we can share with our family.

  8. I’ve always been picky as hell at family gatherings and my family knows it, I’ve only ever eaten the chicken/turkey/ham and nothing else, I have never even tried pie because it just didn’t look good to me and I was a close minded person when it came to food (before I quit eating gluten), so it’s not really an issue for me.
    I’ll just eat a plate full of meat like I always do, and same for my toddlers, maybe bring fruit too for them.

  9. It said ‘stuffing, see below,’ but I don’t see any further reference to stuffing……

  10. This was such a GOOD article! I’ve been doing low carb for about 6 months fairly consistent now. I had quite a bit of anxiety leading up to Thanksgiving until I decided to take things into my own hands (the rest of my family still eats the SAD diet). I decided to make keto bread for my own stuffing, deviled eggs with bacon & jalapeños, a keto desert (to help churn my desire for the full blown sugar versions) & simple veggie dishes: steamed green beans (instead of the traditional green bean casserole), roasted Brussel sprouts with butternut squash (instead of covered with marshmallows, sugar, or syrup etc). And I chose to indulge in a small amount of potatoes (it’s REAL food that God made, so I’m OK with that) and gravy. I have yet to find a suitable gravy thickner that works for me. But this year it was all about balance for me. I indulged a little, I made adjustments where I could & enjoyed the meal along with my company.

  11. It is indeed a Thanksgiving approach for differentiating between Primal and Keto options for upcoming holidays. One could easily get rid of sugar and low Carb-dependency when such advice are properly adapted.