Cauliflower-crust pizzas, bunless burgers and pork rinds galore: Growing number of restaurants cater to keto

More restaurants and fast-food chains in Calgary are catering to the explosion in people on low-carb high-fat diets — offering innovations like cauliflower-crust pizzas, bunless burgers and paninis with buns made from almond flour.

You may have heard about the ketogenic or "keto" diet in passing among friends, neighbours or colleagues in the past year. It's just one version of a low-carb high-fat (LCHF) diet, which tries to ditch the sugar and refined carbohydrates of processed food in favour of whole foods, higher natural fat and moderate protein.

LCHF items used to be scarce on menus. If you were lucky, you'd find chicken wings with a sugar-free sauce, grilled shrimp or a steak.

But now even fast-food chains like Wendy's, Burger King and Five Guys offer LCHF-friendly options like bunless burgers. And mainstream chains like Pizza 73 and Boston Pizza have joined local joints like Gallagher's Pub and Eatery and Double Zero Pizza to offer 'za with crusts made from cauliflower or other lower carb options instead of wheat flour.

Calgary even has a new restaurant that says everything on the menu is low carb and keto friendly — the Cafe Wisk, which opened a few months ago on Inglewood's main drag, 9th Avenue S.E.

Natalie Valleau/CBC

The cafe's owners, Jordan Castrillon and Evan Dunn, were inspired to open the restaurant because, even though the popularity of the low-carb lifestyle has grown throughout social media, popular culture and scientific and medical literature, there's still a gap within the food industry.

Their menu includes paninis made with a "vessel" of almond flour that can come stuffed with cheeses, tomatoes and basil; ground beef, red pepper and red onion; or ham with rosemary glaze. They've also got a variety of soups heavy on the bone broth — for example, zesty tuna and zucchini chowder — and "Leanbacks," fat-packed desserts of chocolate and hazelnut or vanilla buttercream, for example.

"When I first started, I cut out sugar completely like all the sweets and the bread," said Castrillon. "It was something that I really missed, so I wanted to show people that you can do low-carb, sugar-free, grain-free, and it still can taste just as good — if not better."

Castrillon says he's noticed people getting creative with the diet by learning how to make keto-friendly pasta and chocolate, which he says can taste just like their carb and sugar counterparts.

"It is a movement that is going to change the food industry completely," said Castrillon, who met Dunn while they were in the Canadian Armed Forces as medical technicians and discovered a mutual interest in LCHF diets.

They turned to Facebook groups like Keto Calgary and Calgary Keto as a way to reach out to the city's LCHF community, to market the cafe and fine-tune the menu. Some members of the groups even became his "food tasters" while planning for the cafe.

Customers drive from hours away

Since opening on Nov. 25, Castrillon says the response from the public has been amazing with customers travelling from as far as Red Deer to visit.

"They're very happy that it's finally an option that exists…. The last month has been absolutely amazing, like the support from the community, just even in Inglewood, and also the keto community."

Brandon Keats/Third Wheel Marketing

Customer Manley Sansregret had travelled in from Chestermere to try the cafe.

"You get to enjoy the food. You just don't use the carbs," Sansregret said. "It's fantastic and I feel better mentally and I have more energy."

He says he's taken full advantage of the LCHF community in Calgary since starting keto, finding a network of people to go to dinner with through the Facebook groups. Their go-to is Gallagher's Pub in Thorncliffe.

Gallagher's separate keto menu grows 'huge'

Gallagher's offers a complete keto menu in addition to its regular menu — and it's extensive, with keto takes on many pub favourites.

Chris Norgaard, who co-owns Gallagher's with his father, says they started offering keto specials in January 2018 to see how people would respond. After the popularity grew, their first official keto menu came out in October 2018 and later listed the macronutrient information for each dish.

Natalie Valleau/CBC

"We were just trying it out because myself and my sister were both on keto and likewise there were no keto menus in Calgary," said Norgaard, who has now been on the keto diet for two years.

"It started picking up the pace and … we update our menu and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Now it's huge, it's double-sided, and people are loving it."

Customers 'giddy' with choice

He says keto customers range from those who just started to customers who have been on the diet for five to 10 years.

"They get all giddy and they're like, 'Oh, my God, I can't believe I can just pick an item and not have to ask 'What's on it' or 'Can you exclude the sauce' and 'Can I get no bun,'" he said.

Chris Norgaard

Gallagher's keto appetizers range from items like Pork Belly Bites with sugar-free BBQ sauce to lettuce-wrapped chicken or beef tacos to chicken wings to "Chicharron Nachos" (fried pork rinds based with cheese, onion, bell peppers and jalapenos served with poblano avocado ranch sauce or sour cream).

When it comes to entrees, one of Gallagher's specialties is the "Deluxe Chaffle Burger" — a low-carb waffle made of cheese and egg stuffed with a handmade beef patty, jack cheese, bacon, avocado, lettuce and thick-cut bacon.

Chris Norgaard

The pub's also known for its keto pizzas, with crusts made from a blend of cheese, egg and seasoning.

Keto-friendly sides include Caesar or house salad, sauteed veggies or cilantro lime riced cauliflower.

CNF's 'Keto Klub' offers guest speakers

Community Natural Foods, a Calgary-based grocery chain that's been around since 1977, takes things even further.

It not only holds a "keto cafe" buffet every Tuesday from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.  at its downtown location at 1304 10 Ave. S.W., offering a variety of dinner items such as cauliflower rice, zucchini noodles and keto desserts.

Chris Norgaard

It also hosts a "Keto Klub" every second Tuesday with the buffet followed by guest speakers on a variety of LCHF-related topics. Upcoming sessions include talks about keto and cholesterol on Jan. 28, exercising on keto on Feb. 11 and on keto and intermittent fasting on Feb. 25.

"Being a health food store, we always want to make sure with any diet that you're doing it in the most healthy way possible, so being able to be knowledgeable on keto and the healthy way to do it is important to us," said Kelsey Williams, a content specialist with Community Natural Foods.

Williams says the club started after customers kept coming in to ask about keto-friendly foods and has ran for more than a year.

Allan Hussey

"With it being a trending diet, there were a lot of people not knowing where to start. We thought this was an opportunity to teach a bunch of people a new and exciting diet," she said.

"I think it's great having an expert on keto that can answer all your questions right off the bat. You're in a grocery store so you can get your question answered and then head right into the aisle and find the products you're looking for."

A medical perspective

In Canada, the LCHF diet has been championed by advocates such as the Canadian Clinicians for Therapeutic Nutrition.

The group — made up of several thousand physicians and health professionals across the country — strongly believes LCHF diets help both weight loss and the treatment of diseases related to obesity, such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, fatty liver and metabolic syndrome.

They say there's a growing amount of scientific studies to back that up, whereas there's little evidence to support some planks of mainstream nutritional advice of the past few decades. The Canada Food Guide, they point out, still heavily promotes whole grains and limits saturated fats.

Allan Hussey

Dr. Michelle Klassen, a member of Canadian Clinicians for Therapeutic Nutrition, is a family physician with a special interest in cognitive therapy and obesity. She does individual appointments but also runs a free support group for patients eating LCHF out of her office at Rocky Mountain Health in the northwest Calgary neighbourhood of Parkdale.

Klassen says she thinks the whole gluten-free movement has morphed in some ways into keto because of people with celiac disease.

"There is a whole bunch of people who are gluten-sensitive who have really requested other things that don't include starches and so a lot of restaurants … have that knowledge from the necessary gluten-free food preparation and it has morphed into this," said Klassen.

"The food that you eat on both diets is actually not that different."

She says the LCHF diet may not work for everyone, but points out that no lifestyle intervention does. She says that her clinic has seen 40 to 60 per cent of people have success using a low-carb diet.

"From a weight-loss point of view, most people who have been eating a standard Canadian diet. If we put them on a moderate low-carb diet — which is 50 grams of net carbohydrates a day — they lose weight," Klassen said.

She says not all doctors are knowledgeable about the LCHF diet or convinced of its merit. A director of practitioners who say they're knowledgeable about the LCHF lifestyle can be found on the Canadian Clinicians for Therapeutic Nutrition website. 

It's important that anyone who has a chronic disease such as Type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure and is on medication consult a knowledgeable physician before changing to a LCHF diet.

Type 2 diabetics, for example, may have to significantly lower insulin doses and test their blood sugar often when they're no longer eating the refined carbohydrates that boost blood sugar.

  • If you're eating low-carb, high-fat and have a favourite restaurant or dish in Calgary, share it in the comments below. Likewise, if you offer LCHF-friendly food at a restaurant: spread the word.