Keto vs low carb, are there differences and if so, what are they? Should I eat a keto diet? Should I eat a low carb diet? What’s the difference? What are the pros and cons of each one? In this article you’ll learn the differences between the two diets, the pros and cons of each, and which may be better for you given your unique situation.
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What’s the difference between keto and low carb diet?
Important notice: Please consult your doctor to understand your health condition and what is the right diet for you. The information in this article is for informational use only and does not constitute medical or health advice. That information and consultancy should come from your doctor.
The first time I heard about Keto and ketosis many many years ago, I was on the Low Carb Cruise many years back.
Several low carb experts started talking about the value of eating healthy fat. They further explained that if you eat more healthy fats and reduce your carbohydrate intake, your body will go into nutritional ketosis.
My interest was piqued. I started researching Keto more and more. I got so interested in Keto that I talked with everyone I could find that had expertise in the keto diet.
However, one question that a lot of low carb diet people ask me is whether Keto is different from Atkins diet or low carb at all?
Having tried Atkins, Paleo, AIP, and Keto, I feel like I’m in a unique position to answer this question. That’s what I’ll try to do in this article.
An oversimplified explanation of the differences is that on the ketogenic diet, one consumes 50 or less carbohydrates per day or less. On a low carb diet, the carbohydrate intake range per day is between 50 and 100 carbs per day. Both diets have you consume fats and higher does of protein. There are many rebranded diets that do this like the Paleo diet and the South Beach diet. Both diets consists of consuming high amounts of healthy fat, protein, and low carbohydrate intake.
What is Keto?
It’s a low carb, high fat diet that can help put your body into nutritional ketosis. When you’re in nutritional ketosis, your body uses ketones (made from the breakdown of stored fat) as its primary energy source instead of glucose.
The ketogenic diet isn’t new. In fact, “keto” came out in the 19th century to treat diabetes. It was also used to treat various diseases such as epilepsy and Alzheimer’s. In the 1970’s the Atkins diet craze came out promoting weight loss. Fast forward to modern day and the ketogenic diet is mostly used for fat loss.
As we mentioned above, the keto diet is where your daily carbohydrate intake is 50 grams or less according to the Harvard School of Health. The reason that you do this is that your body normally runs off of glucose (sugar) from your diet. By reducing your carb intake and putting your body into nutritional ketosis, your body burns fat as your primary source of energy..
Being in nutritional ketosis can help you lose weight, clear brain fog, regulate your blood sugar levels better, and potentially even prevent/heal various health conditions says the National Library of Medicine.
How does keto work
In a nutshell, keto is when you reduce your carb intake and your body gets into ketosis. Our bodies normally run off of glucose or sugar from our diet. When you don’t give your body glucose from carbohydrates, your body still uses glucose for energy. Your brain needs about 120 grams of glucose per day. Your brain can’t store glucose like our muscles. When deprived of carbs and therefore glucose, the body tells the liver to give up it’s glucose stores. After your body burns all the stored glucose from the liver and other tissues, it drops the level of insulin in your bloodstream and starts to use fat as the main source of energy. It does this by converting fat into ketones. This is one reason the keto diet is often used to help with a condition known as “fatty liver disease”. According to the National Library of Medicine, it is an effective treatment for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. NAFLD is where your liver has too much fat stored. This is different from liver damage from alcohol use.
What are ketones?
Ketones are produced by the liver by using fat. Nutritional ketosis is where you’ve put your body into this state purposefully. If you are healthy, your body will produce and burn the ketones and they won’t build up. However, there is a potential to have too much of a good thing. Ketoacidosis is a state where your bloodstream has too many ketones and it makes your blood acidic. This is serious medical condition according to Medlineplus. Ketoacidosis is often a complication of diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Organization, diabetic ketoacidosis is a life threatening condition. Please consult their article Diabetes & DKA (Ketoacidosis) for more information.
Here’s the scientific explanation from the National Library of Medicine article :
Ketogenesis, the production of ketones for fuel, is a normal, physiologic process that occurs via hepatic beta-oxidation of free fatty acids in the mitochondria of liver cells. Energy stored as fat in adipose tissue is liberated to acetyl-CoA and converted to ketones. Extra-hepatic tissues are able to undergo ketolysis and convert ketones back to acetyl-CoA which enters the TCA cycle and is used by the mitochondria to generate ATP for energy.National Library of Medicine article: Nutritional Ketosis for Weight Management and Reversal of Metabolic Syndrome
What are the symptoms of ketosis?
How do you know you’ve put your body into ketosis? Oddly the first time I did it, I fasted for 20 hours because I was having my blood drawn for my annual physical. Well, stuff happens and my draw got pushed way back. I still couldn’t eat because I was supposed to be in a fasted state. When the results came back, my doctor asks, why are you in ketosis? I explained that I had fasted for 20 hours accidentally and that’s why there were ketones in my blood. Thankfully you don’t have to get a blood test to see if you are in ketosis.
According to Medical News Today, some of the symptoms of ketosis are:
- Weight loss (yay !)
- Muscle Cramps, muscle spasms
- Weakness and fatigue
- Stomach problems
- Sleep problems
- Bad breath
- Better focus and concentration
- More Ketones (which can be tested with home test kits)
These symptoms have been called the “Keto flu”. When I did it for the first time, I definitely noticed the fatigue and the doctor noticed the increased level of ketones. But other than that, I thankfully didn’t have any of the other symptoms. And one quick meal and I was fine. Which is something to note, one slip of the tongue with something sweet and you can knock yourself out of ketosis.
Pros and Cons of a keto diet
Pros of keto:
- Good for weight loss.
- Can help with NAFLD.
- Can help with other conditions such as diabetes and epilepsy
Cons of keto:
- Symptoms can be challenging to deal with
- Ketoacidosis can be life threatening
- Takes discipline to stay in ketosis
What is a Low carb diet?
A low carb diet doesn’t have fancy scientific explanations. It’s simply a low carbohydrate diet to help with weight loss. It’s not a quick weight loss plan. By reducing the amount of calories and reducing the amount of refined carbohydrates your body will use what it has stored. The human body is remarkably good at storing fat. The reason for this is when humans were hunters, it would often be a long time between kills for food. So the human body got good at this feast and fast mode. After the feast, the body stores what it doesn’t use right away as fat.
As mentioned above, the total carbs per day on a low carbohydrate diet is between 20 and 100 grams depending on who you talk to. The less the better and when you add exercise to a low carb diet with a reduce total caloric intake, you lose weight.
According to a research study published by Harvard, they found that people lost more weight on a low carb diet than a low fat diet. Further, a low carb diet was found to reduce the level of Triglycerides (which is a fat carrying particle in your bloodstream) and increased the level of HDL Cholesterol which can help protect your heart. The research paper continues on and explains that test subjects were also less likely to develop type 2 diabetes. Unfortunately anything of a good thing can turn bad if taken to the extreme. A person on a low carb diet could put themselves into a long term state of ketosis which can be dangerous as noted above.
What to eat on a low carb diet?
Carbohydrates come in two types, simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are food that your body can digest quickly. Like refined sugar. If you drink a Coke, it has the equivalent of 12 packets of sugar. Your body can’t use all of that so it stores the rest. Not to mention your blood glucose level spikes from all the sugar and then your liver compensates and raises your insulin levels. Complex carbohydrates are foods that are take longer to digest and usually have fiber in them. Examples of these are whole grains, beans, and vegetables.
What is the difference in carbs and net carbs?
According to Medical News Today, net carbs are the carbohydrates that your body can digest that turns into fuel subtracting out that which your body doesn’t convert to glucose. These are the starches, sugar alcohols, and dietary fiber. Carbs are the total. The definition of net carbs is useful for this discussion as it’s the digestible carbohydrates that you should track to lose weight.
So what are the things that don’t count in a net carb? Dietary fiber is something that our body can’t fully digest. This is why fiber helps with bowel movements. Sugar alcohols are naturally occuring sugars that come from plants in the form of fruits and berries. According to Yale New Haven Health, sugar alcohols have less calories than refined sugar and don’t require insulin to be metabolized. As such, they don’t spike your blood sugar levels either. Starches are complex carbohydrates that release their glucose slowly as opposed to a simple carbohydrate which spikes your blood sugar level.
Pros and Cons of a low carb diet
Pros of Low Carb:
- Helps with weight loss
- Can help prevent diabetes
- Can help protect the heart
- Is less restrictive than keto
- Can be sustained for a long period
Cons of low carb:
- Limits food choices (like some fruits)
- Can be unhealthy if taken too far
- May cause constipation if too little fiber is consumed
Keto vs Low Carb: 3 Differences
Now that we know the definitions of keto and low carb, let’s dig into the differences. Surprisingly they are both very similar.
Having started off as a low carb dieter in my early 20s, I can tell you that my basic diet on Keto isn’t that different from what I ate on a low carb diet.
However, there are 3 main differences that I think are helpful to understand. I want to tell you about #3 because it’s a really huge distinction between the two.
1. The goals are different:
Low carb wasn’t designed to put people into nutritional ketosis although many of you might actually be in ketosis when you’re eating a low carb diet. Low carb was mainly designed to restrict your carb intake. Keto on the other hand was designed to put you into nutritional ketosis. It just happens that in order to get into nutritional ketosis, you decrease your carb intake and increase your fat intake.
2. The macros can be different:
Because a low carb diet focuses on reducing carbs, it’s often easy to forget about fats and proteins. So some people on a low carb diet end up on a super high protein diet instead. Keto tries to balance the macros a bit more. There’s a lot more emphasis on eating healthy fat and not overdoing it on the protein intake.
3. The focus on food quality can also be different:
Not everyone on Keto cares about food quality similar to people on low carb. But for me, food quality is highly important. It’s not just about macronutrients. I want to be aware of the micronutrients (which are those essential vitamins and minerals that are critical to our short-term and long-term health) that I’m consuming. (You can get a full Keto food list here.)
Can you do low carb and not keto?
I did and although I may be dropping into ketosis during my 18 hour fasts, it’s only for a short time. As you think about your diet, I invite you to think more carefully about exactly what low carb foods you’re eating and not fall into the trap of only caring about the carb count. Remember that the nutrients that you are getting from your food is key. The quality of the fats and proteins you are consuming are also important to consider. Like ground turkey instead of ground beef. Reducing the amount of saturated fat and choosing healthy fats instead. Like using olive oil instead of margarine.
Definitive guide to low carb vs keto is it right for you?
Whatever you choose to call your diet or lifestyle doesn’t really matter. In the end, making sure you’re eating food that works for your body and gets you the results you want is the important thing.
Now that you understand what keto and low carb diets are, the pros, and the cons, which is right for you? As mentioned above, that is an in-depth discussion with your doctor. That said, which should you propose? In the keto vs low carb debate, here are my personal perspectives.
- I’ve had a high fasted blood sugar for some 25 years. When I decided to go low carb and cut out wine dramatically, it dropped for the first time. Even better, my A1C dropped below 5 (if your A1C level from your blood test is 5.7 -6.4, you are prediabetic. 6.4 and above, you are a diabetic). This is good because many of my family have diabetes. For me, this is one of the most important reasons for going low carb.
- Really reducing my alcohol consumption has been huge. About 15 years ago I had a bad egg over easy. It put me down hard for 2 days. After that, I couldn’t eat eggs and became lactose intolerant. By having very little to no wine, cleaning up my diet, and doing the occasional intermittent fast (more on this below), I can eat eggs and am not lactose intolerant ! Not sure what cured my gut but I’m super happy. Haven’t been brave enough to try an egg over easy yet, but I imagine I may try them again.
- I eat more vegetables. For a while on low carb, I avoided almost all vegetables and fruits because they have carbs. But vegetables have a ton of nutritional value as well as prebiotics to help my gut flora flourish. So, I add in lots of arugula, kale, spinach as well as some berries into my Keto diet.
- I cut out processed low carb foods. For a while, I started buying low carb salad dressings, drinking diet sodas, and snacking on low carb bars filled fake sugars. Yes, those foods are convenient, but they weren’t good for my long-term health. And they didn’t help with weight loss either.
- Every week, I try to do a 6-18 intermittent fast once or twice. This is where I eat for a 6 hour window and then don’t eat for 18 hours. I eat breakfast and lunch getting all my daily nutritional needs during this eating window. I usually don’t eat much dinner so I would snack on nuts or have a hard boiled egg in the evening. Before low carb I used to eat chips, cookies, and well, crap. I just skip the snacks and go to sleep. It was tough in the beginning as my tummy didn’t like going to bed “empty”. But after a few weeks, I didn’t even notice I wasn’t snacking. Snacking while watching TV was definitely sabotaging my weight loss goals. I have a sweet tooth like you won’t believe. So going low carb really helped me cut out the unhealthy snacking habit I had.
- The amount of exercise I do has increased. While on a low carb diet, I have tons of energy and have directed it into exercising 5 times per week. This is a huge increase from no times per week.
- Saving at the grocery store. I’ve found that I can now shop at those big warehouse stores and buy in bulk which has really helped with the grocery budget. Like I’ll buy 24 eggs for about what a dozen would cost at the grocery store. I also find I don’t eat out as much because it’s harder to stay low carb while eating out and that has really helped the budget. Sadly everything else costs more these days, but every little bit helps right?
In summary, keto vs low carb isn’t the most important question, but what are your goals, what special things about you and your body will help you and your doctor decide what’s the best approach for you. If keto can help with certain health conditions you have, great ! For me, I found a combination of things worked best. Not being too extreme nor being overly restrictive has allowed me to lose weight, get healthier, and enjoy different foods. Hopefully your journey will be a positive one too.