Keto Diet Vs Low Carb

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Low Carb vs. Keto Dieting: What's the Difference?

 Low Carb vs. Keto Dieting: What's the Difference?

A low-carbohydrate diet? Isn't that just a fancy way of saying "keto?" No. No, not at all.

Do you recall learning in elementary school that "all humans are mammals, but not all mammals are human?"

That's also how you should think about low-carb diets:

  • Ketogenic diets are all low-carb diets.
  • However, not all low-carbohydrate diets are ketogenic.
  • (And, yes, there are many different types of keto diets.)

The Difference Between Low-Carb and Keto Diets

The term "low-carb" refers to a general approach to dieting in which carbohydrates are consumed in moderation. Ketogenic eating, on the other hand, imposes even stricter restrictions on the amount and type of carbs you can consume. That is why the medical community often refers to keto as a "very-low carb" diet rather than simply "low carb."

The first thing to understand about low-carbohydrate diets is that there is no precise definition. Nutritionists, dietitians, and doctors typically define four broad levels of carbohydrate consumption based on the ratios of the three macronutrients in a diet (carbs, fat and protein). Here's a rundown of the most commonly used definitions.

  • Carbohydrates account for 45 percent or more of total calories.

  • Carbohydrates account for 26-44 percent of total calories.

  • Carbohydrates account for 25% or less of total calories in a low-carb diet.

  • Very low-carb: carbohydrates account for 10% or less of total calories.

In simpler terms, a low-carb diet would have fewer than 130 grams of carbohydrates per day, and a very-low carb diet would have 20-50 grams per day. The general keto recommendation is at the low end of the scale, at 20 grams.

How does that fit in with a typical diet? Because dietary carbohydrates are an important energy source for the brain, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a carb intake of 45-65 percent of total daily calories. In addition, according to a large government survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the average American currently gets about half of their calories from carbohydrates (the number has been trending down slowly for the last 20 years). Needless to say, this is far from the 5-10% recommended for keto eating.

It may be more helpful to compare typical American diets to the 20-130 grams of carbs in very-low carb and low-carb diets. According to the non-profit National Academy of Medicine, men typically consume 200-330 grams of carbohydrates per day, while women consume 180-230 grams. It's easy to see why low-carb eating necessitates significant dietary changes.

Even those figures don't tell the whole story, because not all carbs are created equal. According to the JAMA survey, the majority of carbs consumed by Americans – accounting for 42 percent of daily calories – are "low-quality" carbohydrates derived from refined grains or sugar-sweetened foods. Furthermore, studies have repeatedly shown that low-quality carbs are associated with increased health risks, particularly the diabetes type 2

Low-carb diets not only limit total carbohydrate consumption, but also encourage people to drastically reduce the amount of low-quality carbs in their diet. Keto diets go even further, outright prohibiting them.

Only you (and your doctor) can decide whether keto's severe carbohydrate restrictions are necessary – and whether you'd be able to stick to them. It's also difficult to choose between the two dietary approaches.

Some doctors recommend keto's strict carbohydrate limits for their severely obese or diabetic patients, while others recommend a lower-carb diet that is easier to follow for general weight loss or overall health benefits. However, there is no definitive research comparing low-carb vs. ketogenic diets for weight loss, despite anecdotal reports indicating that keto dieters are likely to lose more weight, faster, in the short term.

However, there has been a lot of research done on the medical and health benefits that these diets may provide.

Why Should You Consider a Low-Carb or Keto Diet?

Let's start with a general overview of the advantages of low-carbohydrate diets. Following that, we'll go over keto-specific benefits.

The Advantages of a Low-Carb Diet

In the short term, low-carb diets have been shown to be more effective weight-loss tools than low-fat diets or low-calorie eating plans (meaning a maximum of six months).

Low-carbohydrate diet patients have lower triglyceride levels, higher HDL ("good" cholesterol) levels, and lower LDL ("bad" cholesterol) levels, possibly due to increased consumption of healthy fats as a replacement for carbohydrates. Low triglyceride and cholesterol levels have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease. 

Consuming fewer carbohydrates has been shown to lower blood sugar and insulin levels, lowering the risk of a variety of medical issues such as heart disease, kidney disease, and nerve problems, not to mention obesity and diabetes.

Low-carb diets have been shown to be effective in the treatment of high blood pressure, allowing many patients to take fewer prescription medications.

It's important to remember that there are numerous low-carb diets to choose from. They range from the paleo and Atkins diets to the South Beach and low-carb Mediterranean diets, to name a few. Each offers a different set of carbohydrate consumption guidelines. In general, the fewer carbohydrates you consume, the greater the improvements in each of the health metrics discussed above.

Additional Advantages of a Ketogenic Diet

Keto, as a very low carb diet, provides all of the benefits listed above. Indeed, many of them are even more impressive, such as increased weight loss and lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels. However, because it adheres to the strictest carbohydrate and macronutrient rules, it is able to provide additional benefits.

The reason is simple, despite the fact that it may appear complicated at first.

As previously stated, the body normally runs on the energy produced by the breakdown of dietary carbohydrates. When the body has very few carbs to work with, it must find another "power source," so it breaks down stored fat to produce molecules known as ketones (short for ketone bodies). When the body uses ketones for energy instead of carbs, it is said to be in a ketogenic state. Being in ketosis is another term for it.

The body can function normally on ketones, so once you've passed the adjustment period known as the keto flu (which produces side effects similar to the symptoms of the regular flu), you won't notice much of a difference – except that you'll start losing weight quickly as body fat is burned for energy. As long as ketone levels are high and consistent, the body remains in ketosis, and fat burning and weight loss continue.

According to research, when the body is in a state of ketosis, additional medical benefits may occur.

Ketosis has been shown to cause metabolic changes that reduce insulin resistance far beyond the effect of a standard low-carb diet. Insulin resistance is one of the most common causes of type 2 diabetes.

In the 1920s, a form of the keto diet was used for medical purposes for the first time. It was discovered to be an effective substitute for intermittent fasting, a treatment used for certain types of childhood epilepsy that did not respond to conventional therapies. It was discontinued as an epilepsy treatment for much of the twentieth century, but it is now being used successfully in some cases of both childhood and adult epilepsy.

Keto's success in treating epilepsy prompted researchers to investigate the diet's efficacy in treating other neurological diseases. It has shown great promise in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and some types of brain tumors so far.

It's never easy to choose between diets. It's even more difficult to compare keto vs. low-carbohydrate diets, which have fewer restrictions, until you understand what you can and can't eat on each diet plan. We happen to have some of those particulars right here.

Ketogenic and Low-Carb Diets: What You Can and Can't Eat

All low-carbohydrate diets, including keto, have the same overarching goal: to change your eating habits by eliminating most high-carb foods.

The average American diet is high in carbohydrates, grains, sugar, and processed foods. All of them are high in carbs but have little nutritional value, and avoiding them is a key tenet of low-carb eating.

They are not, however, the only food groups with targets on their backs. Many fruits and starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, are also prohibited on the majority of low-carb diets, as are sugar-laden prepared salad dressings and sauces.

There are also some surprising – and restrictive – guidelines for very-low carb diets like keto. As a result, we'll start with what you should and shouldn't eat on a keto meal plan. This makes it easier to discuss other low-carb diets, as they allow you to eat foods that are prohibited on the keto diet.

What the Ketogenic Diet Is Like

It's more delicious than you might think.

No, most people find it difficult to give up pizza and soda (both of which are prohibited), cake and ice cream (both of which are prohibited), or chips and dip (both of which are prohibited) (well, some dips are OK). However, there are a plethora of acceptable, delicious keto foods that are low in carbohydrates and can turn eating into an adventure rather than an ordeal.

There are various kinds of keto diets. Most people, however, adhere to the standard keto recommendations, which state that carbs should account for about 5% of your diet, proteins should account for 20%, and healthy fats should account for 75% of your diet. Most people should consume about 20 net carbs (carbohydrates minus dietary fiber, if you're looking at nutrition guides) per day. Let's take a look at what that looks like and what you should put on your shopping list.


Almost any type of meat, fish, seafood, or poultry is considered "good" as long as it is not breaded or prepared with added sugar or fillers. Look for fattier cuts of meat and fish high in Omega-3 fatty acids; they're the healthiest way to increase your fat and protein intake. Eggs, as well as many nuts and seeds, such as pecans, Brazil nuts, and flaxseed, are high in protein.


Here's where we start to see some unexpected limitations. Trans fats, margarine, and processed vegetable oils such as corn and safflower oil are all considered unhealthy fats (unless labeled "high oleic"). Extra-virgin olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil, on the other hand, are both healthy and delicious. And, as you're probably aware, butter is always a keto-friendly option when used in moderation. Ghee and lard are also acceptable.


On a keto diet, the right dairy products are excellent sources of fat. Heavy cream, sour cream, cream cheese, Greek yogurt, and even full-fat milk (never low-fat or skim) are all acceptable on keto, but only in moderation because they significantly increase calorie intake. Hard cheeses, such as romano and parmesan, have the fewest carbs and make excellent diet additions, but semi-soft cheeses, such as Swiss, and soft cheeses, such as mozzarella, can also be used.

Fruit and vegetables

This is where things start to get tricky. Most vegetables grown above ground are low in carbs, whereas those grown below ground are usually starchy and high in carbs. Leafy greens, cucumbers, cauliflower, tomatoes, and broccoli are permitted, but potatoes (and sweet potatoes), artichokes, and legumes such as beans are not. Unfortunately, most fruit is high in carbs, leaving only berries, star fruit, and the occasional peach or piece of watermelon on the "good" list.


Unfortunately, there isn't much to see here. You're probably expecting to hear that no wheat-based foods are permitted, and you'd be correct. However, whole-grain foods that are permitted on many low- or high-fat diets, as well as corn, buckwheat, and oats, are prohibited. If you crave pasta, tortillas, or other starchy foods, you'll have to make substitutes from vegetables (zucchini noodles, for example, are delicious) or buy them pre-made in a supermarket's keto diet section.

Spices and condiments

The store-bought condiments and dressings you're used to eating are almost certainly off the list, as almost all of them contain added sugar. That doesn't mean you can't make your own substitutes at home, and they're even better when made with olive or coconut oil. Mustard and mayonnaise with no added sugar are usually fine, as is salsa, but avoid low-fat versions. Spices from nature? Take a chance. They'll liven up your keto cooking. We don't have to tell you that sugar isn't allowed, even in cooking, but Stevia or sugar alcohols are acceptable substitutes.


Water. That's not all you can drink, but whether it's sparkling or flat, you'll be drinking a lot of it, along with unsweetened tea and coffee. For variety, nut milk is preferable to dairy milk, bone broth is acceptable, and small amounts of wine and spirits (no sweet mixers) are acceptable.

Is that it?

No, not quite. The popularity of keto dieting has resulted in an increase in the number of keto products available in supermarkets, making it possible to find acceptable substitutes for many "banned foods." If you want to eat out, many restaurants have keto-friendly options on their menus.

What a Low-Carbohydrate Diet Is Like

A keto diet plan is very similar to a low-carb eating plan. However, the foods you can eat – and how much of them you can eat – are determined by the specific low-carb diet you intend to follow. A quick recap:

Standard low-carb: You can eat up to 50 grams of net carbs per day, as opposed to the 20 allowed on keto. (This is for a low-carb weight loss diet; many maintenance diets allow up to 100 net grams per day.) On this diet, you should still avoid problematic processed and fast foods, but because you won't be in ketosis, you have more leeway in terms of a larger variety of fruits, a little more milk, and a few potatoes, rice, or quinoa here and there.

The first week of the standard Atkins diet (the "induction phase") is nearly identical to the keto diet. After that, gradually incorporate more carbohydrates, such as high-carb fruits, starchy vegetables, and whole grains.

Paleo diet: The basic paleo diet excludes dairy, as well as grains, processed foods, and sugar. That means starchy vegetables, high-carb fruits, and anything else available to cavemen is also available to you. Low-carb paleo is similar to keto in that it forbids almost all of those food options – but neither paleo version imposes a strict limit on the number of carbs you can consume.

Low-carb Mediterranean diet: Like its higher-carb cousin, the low-carb Mediterranean diet focuses on nutrient-rich foods popular in Greece, Italy, and the rest of the Mediterranean region. Again, there is no strict limit on the number of net carbs you can consume, but you are encouraged to avoid refined white starches in favor of healthy brown rice, whole grains, beans, and quinoa. One to two servings of fruit and dairy products are permitted per day, but you must still avoid the sugar and junk foods that are the bane of any low-carb diet.

What Should You Do?

Speak with your doctor as a good first step. She can assist you in determining the best diet for you based on your lifestyle, health, and medical situations.

If losing weight and body fat quickly is your primary goal, keto will get you there faster. It's also thought to be the best option for type 2 diabetics and people suffering from some of the other medical conditions we've discussed.

If you prefer slower weight loss for more variety in your diet, you might be better off following one of the low-carb diets and sticking to the diet's principles for maintenance once you've reached your "goal weight."

A low-carb or keto diet isn't the end of the world in either case. There are a plethora of flavorful foods to choose from.

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