Low Carb vs. Keto Diet: What’s the Difference?

 

Our team at Konscious Keto spent hours diving into the details... Atkins, South Beach, Paleo, Whole30, Zero Carb, and Keto: the landscape of low-carb diet protocols is vast and varied. 

The common denominator, each plan disavows the consumption of carbs to shed unwanted pounds and obtain improved overall health—but are they indeed all the same?

The diets we'll cover share similarities and are all low-carb, but those on the list of noted plans that fall under the category of a ketogenic diet provide additional health benefits.

Low Carb Diet vs. the Ketogenic Diet – The Differences

While all low carb diets advise a reduction in the consumption of refined sugars and carbohydrates, where the mentioned plans vary is generally the restriction level of carbs and the allotment of fat and protein macros in the program.

Apart from its distinct therapeutic, hormonal, and metabolic health benefits, the ketogenic diet is also unique from other low-carb diets because it emphasizes not only on the reduction of carbs but also the significant increase of healthy fats in the diet—a hallmark of the century-old protocol.

Although all low-carb programs are known to produce particularly useful results with weight loss, a ketogenic diet is set apart because it also offers followers of the lifestyle the boost of nutritional ketosis—a metabolic state that is shown to facilitate accelerated fat loss, heightened mental acuity, and overall increased energy.

Furthermore, unlike some of the other dietary plans mentioned, a ketogenic diet is particularly satiating because of its increased fat content, coupled with a moderate but adequate set intake of protein.

Those on a ketogenic diet often find themselves enjoying the best of all worlds: ketosis thanks to reduced carbs, suppressed appetite due to increased ketones and ketosis, and enhanced muscle development and recovery thanks to a diet rich in fortifying and repairing proteins.

For those interested in how to know whether you're on a low-carb versus a low-carb-ketogenic diet: a significant indicator that you're on a ketogenic diet as opposed to another low-carb diet is whether your eating plan is producing a ketone reading of at least .5 mmol/L—a distinct marker of being in a fat-burning state of metabolic ketosis.

A Typical Low-Carb Diet

Interestingly enough, aside from a ketogenic diet which has absolute thresholds to define compliance (for example, a standard ketogenic diet advises limiting net carbs to less than 20 net grams a day), there's a vast and broad definition in health circles regarding what limit of carbs constitutes a general low-carb protocol.

Despite the ambiguity with carb parameters outside of keto, the one point that appears universal with low-carb, and more specifically keto, diets is the limiting or elimination of processed foods—even if they're low-carb and sugar-free.

Most low-carb protocols suggest a diet rich in lean meats, fish, nuts, seeds, and dairy, and exclude foods high on the glycemic index, like bread, rice, and potatoes—and no matter your chosen iteration of a low-carb lifestyle, we'd have to agree on this point.

A typical low-carb diet suggests followers consume lower amounts of carbs, high protein, and moderate healthy fats—a bit of a departure from a ketogenic diet.

Although the parameters to define all diets that trend toward the lower end of the glycemic scale—aside from the ketogenic diet—are unclear, those looking to live a low-carb lifestyle will generally make an effort to reduce or remove grains, high-sugar processed foods, potatoes, and sugary drinks from the diet.

The Atkins Diet

Similar to a ketogenic diet, those on Atkins are encouraged to reduce carbs. However, this program differs a bit from a ketogenic diet because it promotes consuming higher amounts of protein than the standard ketogenic diet.

The standard Atkins diet (also referred to as the Atkins 20) is typically executed in four phases:

  1. Phase 1 – Transition: Eat less than 20 grams of carbs per day for two weeks—something very reminiscent of the induction process to a strict ketogenic diet.
  2. Phase 2 – Balancing: As you start to lose weight and are seeing positive results, slowly add more nuts, low-carb vegetables, and fruits—bringing total net carbs to between 25 and 50 grams per day.
  3. Phase 3 – Fine-tuning: As you approach your goal weight, add more carbs into your daily meal plan until weight loss becomes slower. Some raise their carb ceiling to 50 - 80 grams as they test the limits of the maximum carbs they can consume, without gaining weight during this phase.
  4. Phase 4 – Maintenance: Eat as many healthy carbs as your body can tolerate, without gaining back the weight you lost, once you’ve reached your goal. Folks in this phase generally eat up to about 100 grams of net carbs a day.

The Atkins diet is well established and shown to help facilitate weight loss, but it is different from the ketogenic diet in some ways, here's how:

Unlimited protein intake: there's no macro cap on protein on Atkins, while keto limits protein to about 20 percent of your daily caloric intake.

Keto encourages sustaining an ongoing state of metabolic ketosis, while this is only the case on Atkins during phases one and maybe part of two, after which point carbs are reintroduced into the diet to the point that wouldn't support nutritional ketosis.

Eco-Atkins

This is a plant-based iteration of the Atkins diet that follows the same carb restriction of the original plan, without the animal products.

This version of Atkins encourages the primary consumption of fat and protein, respectively, and tends to rely on foods like tofu, seitan, nuts, seeds, and plant-based oils to compose ones' daily meal plan.

Vegan and low-carb may seem incongruent since a vegan, plant-based diet by its nature is comprised of more starches, even if low-glycemic, and this version of a low-carb diet does permit for higher carb intake for this reason.

Despite being a touch higher in carb macros than the traditional Atkins diet, the Eco-Atkins diet still caps carbs much lower than the standard vegan diet, so it is progress, even if not low-carb-diet perfection.

A Low-Carb, Paleo Diet

A paleo diet encourages its followers to return to a more primal style of eating and requires the elimination of all agricultural and processed foods like wheat, grain, flour, bread, potatoes, rice, refined sugar, and legumes. 

This encourages followers of the program to instead gravitate toward foods widely available during the Paleolithic, pre-agricultural era, instead.

You may notice that the foods featured on a paleo diet are strikingly similar to those promoted on a ketogenic diet, save dairy which is a no-no on the paleo dietary plan, and you'd be right - they are very similar!

The paleo diet and its derivatives (r.e., the primal blueprint, and the perfect health diet), along with the ketogenic diet, all promote the intake of significantly lower carbs than that often consumed on a Standard American Diet (SAD) and have been shown to facilitate weight loss.

Some research indicates that eating a paleo-style diet also contributes to similar health benefits as a ketogenic diet (e.g., reduced risk of heart disease, balanced blood sugar, and glucose regulation, etc.), making it a viable dietary option.

A Scandinavian Low Carb, High-Fat Diet (LCHF)

Swedish sensibility led the thought-makers of the region to embrace healthy fat and champion the low-carb, high-fat dietary mantle long before Western culture caught wind of the highly-effective eating protocol.

The Scandinavian version of the low-carb, high-fat diet is mostly a reflection of keto at its best.

Similar in many ways to the standard ketogenic diet done well, this version also focuses on grass-fed meats and organic dairy; fatty fish, nuts, seeds, and low-glycemic fruits and vegetables.

The following foods are staples on a Scandinavian Low Carb, High-Fat Diet (LCHF):

  • Plant-based fats: coconut, grapeseed, avocado, and olive oil
  • Pasture-raised, cage-free eggs
  • Grass-fed beef, pasture-raised poultry, and other fatty meats
  • Fish and seafood (mackerel, sardines, salmon)
  • Nuts and seeds (macadamia nuts and pecans; chia and hemp seeds)
  • Full-fat dairy products (heavy cream, hard cheeses, cream cheese)
  • Berries and other low-glycemic fruits (blackberries, blueberries, avocado)
  • Low-carb veggies (Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, kale, collards, spinach)
As is the case on any version of the ketogenic diet, you'll want to avoid the following foods on this plan:
  • Processed or packaged food/drinks with added sugar
  • High-glycemic fruits and starchy veggies
  • Grains
  • Juices
  • Sugar and its derivatives (sucrose, fructose, dextrose)

This version of the ketogenic diet offers a great variety of food options and is an excellent approach to follow for anyone looking to release excess body fat without the struggle experienced on fat-restrictive plans.

The Carnivore Diet (Zero Carb Diet)

If you thought the ketogenic diet was strict and exclusive, hold on tight. The carnivore diet is probably the most restrictive of all the noted low-carb dietary protocols and requires what its name indicates—total elimination of carbs and sugar from the diet.

Many in the low-carb community are on board with the physiological truth that we do not need to consume exogenous carbs in the forms of french fries and buttered baguettes because our bodies produce sufficient glucose for our function and survival, but a meat-only diet still causes some to pause.

Advocates of this eating style assert that the self-protective mechanisms in plants like fruits and veggies, make them difficult on the human digestive system and a sub-par source from which to derive our vitamins and minerals—instead opting to get all nutrition through animal sources.

There is no substantial research on the benefits of eating a carnivore diet long-term, and most published studies advocate for the consumption of vegetation and fruit to some degree, to round out a healthy dietary program - something advised against on this extreme diet.

This approach to low-carb living may be useful to boost fat loss or break through a plateau but may prove too restrictive for some in the long-term. The good news is there are no hard-and-fast rules about how long to do this or any other low-carb protocol; do what works best for you!

The Low-Carb Mediterranean Diet

Freshly caught and seared fish, bright greens sautéed in olive oil and garlic, and a brimming and colorful bowl of salad dressed with vinegar and a touch more light oil, the Mediterranean diet remains as popular as it is delicious.

This diet focuses on consuming foods known to be eaten by those in the Mediterranean region of the world during the 20th century, primarily: seafood, extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds, and dark leafy greens.

Although both a Mediterranean diet and a ketogenic diet are very similar in their low-carb prescription, a Mediterranean diet advises to gravitate toward plant-based fats like extra virgin olive oil over animal-based fats like butter; and the preference on this plan is a fatty filet of salmon over a marble-rich slab of rib eye steak.

This eating protocol is said to have significant health benefits to keep your heart healthy, a definite cause for consideration to at least borrow from this protocol, even if using partial aspects of it, in the context of eating a ketogenic diet.

Tim Ferriss’ Slow Carb Diet

The Slow Carb diet was established in 2010 by entrepreneur and author, Tim Ferriss, who published the plan in his best-selling book “The 4-Hour Body.”

The diet follows these five cut-and-dry rules:

  • Rule #1: Avoid processed foods, pasta, bread, and anything made with refined flour
  • Rule #2: Eat a set of the same healthy meals repeatedly, keep it simple
  • Rule #3: Don’t drink calories (save a couple of glasses of red wine each night, if desired)
  • Rule #4: Eliminate fruit and ditch the fructose, sucrose, and glucose
  • Rule #5: Have a cheat day where you can eat whatever you like

The majority of calories on the slow carb diet will come from:

  • Proteins: grass-fed beef, poultry, pork, fish, seafood and lactose-free plain whey powder.
  • Legumes: beans, lentils, and chickpeas.
  • Low-glycemic vegetables: dark leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, asparagus, and other non-starchy veggies.
  • Fats: nuts, dairy-free creamer, macadamia oil, olive oil, and grapeseed oil
  • Spices: salt, garlic salt, and herbs

With limited amounts of the following:

  • Cottage cheese: the only dairy product allowed on the plan
  • Red wine: The only drink with calories allowed

Although there has been no research done on this diet, anecdotal evidence seems to promise similar weight loss and health improvements as other low-carb diets.

This diet may be a good option for those who don’t want to give up carb-rich foods entirely but want to reduce carbs and sugar in their diet.

Whole30 Diet

All low-carb diets are arguably an elimination diet, but the Whole30 diet, a program created in 2009 by sports nutritionists, Dallas Hartwig, and Melissa Hartwig, is a diet that looks to eliminate problematic and reaction-causing foods from the diet, in addition to promoting weight loss.

The program focuses on eating health-producing, anti-inflammatory foods and eliminating foods that may cause adverse reactions. 

The 30-day protocol is used to determine which foods are causing issues and which are best to eat to promote optimal health.

Getting started on this plan is relatively simple. You'll commit to exclusively eating plan-approved, low-carb whole foods, and avoid foods in the banned categories that contain potentially harmful ingredients.

The foods you can eat on this diet include:

  • Proteins: meat, poultry, seafood, and pasture-raised eggs
  • Low carb veggies: kale, spinach, tomatoes, peppers
  • Low-glycemic fruits: berries, kiwi, lemon
  • Natural fats: ghee, olive oil, coconut oil, or avocado oil
  • Specific legumes like green beans, sugar snap peas, and snow peas
  • Vinegar
  • Herbs and spices

The foods that you should avoid entirely for 30 days are:

  • Added sugar, real or artificial: no honey, agave nectar, maple syrup, or other added sugars
  • Grains: corn, rye, wheat, barley, oats, rice, millet, bulgur, sprouted grains, all gluten-free cereals, bran, germ, and starch
  • Legumes: all beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas, peanuts, peanut butter and all forms of soy
  • Dairy: cow, goat or sheep byproducts such as milk, cheese, kefir, cream, yogurt, sour cream, ice cream or frozen yogurt
  • Alcohol
  • Carrageenan, MSG or sulfites
  • Baked cakes and junk food

Once the body is void of problematic foods, you can start to reintroduce eliminated foods slowly, one at a time, to see if they produce any problematic effects, after the 30-day cleansing window.

Monitor your energy levels and mood as you start adding eliminated foods back into your diet. If you experience any adverse reaction as you reintroduce foods, eliminate that food from your diet completely.

Concrete research is still required to determine the full health benefits of this dietary plan, but preliminary feedback shows positive results that the diet is helpful to facilitate weight loss and allow folks to identify and eliminate problematic foods which may be wreaking havoc in the body.

The Ketogenic Diet

It's difficult to go any length of time during the day without hearing the mention of this wildly-popular, century-old diet.

The ketogenic diet is focused on reducing carbohydrates and sugars low enough to initiate nutritional ketosis—a natural fat-burning state in the body—and people can't seem to get enough!

Those following a standard ketogenic diet seek to keep net carbs below 20 net grams of carbs a day to deplete glycogen stores which causes the body to source a new form of fuel—fat.

With the drastic reduction of carbs, the dietary protocol suggests an increased consumption of healthy fats and a moderate daily intake of fatty and lean protein. 

The recommended macronutrient composition of 70% fat, 15% protein, and 5% carbs are ideal for maintaining ketosis and facilitating increased ketone production to support overall health, and optimal brain function as well.

Furthermore, ketones (a.k.a. ketone bodies) are water-soluble elements that can fuel the majority of cells in the body, including most of the brain’s cells.

When in ketosis for extended periods, ketones will eventually supply up to half of the body’s basal energy requirements and 70% of the brain’s energy needs!

Still, some wonder whether removing dietary carbs is harmful as it creates a macronutrient imbalance of sorts.

The glucose that is required by the brain and body will be produced by the liver via a process called gluconeogenesis, so there's no physiological need to eat carbs and sugars!

A conventional ketogenic diet, referred to as a “standard” ketogenic diet or (SKD), is an excellent option for many looking to go low-carb.

However, other variations of the diet  involve strategically timing the consumption of carbs to fuel high-intensity exercise as follows:

  1. Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD) – Add small amounts of carbs around high-intensity workouts only.
  2. Cyclical Ketogenic Diet (CKD) – Eat a ketogenic diet on most days of the week but then transition to a high-carb diet for 1–2 days a week.

Which Low-Carb Diet is Best for You?

The low-carb plan best for you is determined by some factors including activity level and health-related goals. The breakdown of low-carb plans should help to clarify the best option for you.

Low-carb diets exist on a vast spectrum, and each low-carb diet mentioned can be adjusted without limit.

The keto diet, for example, can also be tweaked into a vegetarian, vegan, or dairy-free diet that all contain different foods on the menu and still equally promote metabolic ketosis.

This means you can read up on the different elements of all the low-carb diets noted and then tailor a plan that works best for your needs and goals.

Start with reducing or omitting refined sugars, carbs, grains, and starch, and then widdle the list of food options from there until you find a roster that's ideal for you.

Could Keto Give a Slight Fat Loss Advantage?

The significant advantage a ketogenic diet offers about fat loss is that it causes appetite suppression, leading us to eat less without even trying.

Also, the high-fat and moderate protein content advised on a standard ketogenic diet greatly help with satiety, which keeps us feeling fuller, for longer.

Low-Carb vs. Keto Diet – Long-Term Health and Longevity

While low-carb diets appear to have some level of benefit in support of fat loss, a ketogenic diet or other low-carb protocols that trigger ketosis will provide the most comprehensive benefits.

Low-carb diets appear to offer some of the health benefits of a ketogenic diet (as in regulated glucose levels, reduced risk of heart disease, etc.), but the ketogenic diet is ideal for gaining the maximum benefits of living low-carb:

  • Accelerated fat loss,
  • Increased energy,
  • Improved physical performance and stamina,
  • And enhanced mental cognition and sharpness.

A ketogenic lifestyle can also be quite flexible and allow for periods of more or less carbohydrate consumption while still helping us remain in a metabolic range to reap the total benefits of nutritional ketosis.

Feel free to loosen the carb ceiling a bit on days of celebration like birthdays or during a dream cruise, and knowing that you are in full control of your relationship with food—you can return immediately to your set keto plan—no punishment.

Also, adding a strawberry meal replacement to your routine, like our Keto Shake, with clean ingredients like grass-fed whey, is another simple trick to ensuring you maintain or return to a state of ketosis when your days are less than picture perfect.

It's definitely worth taking the time to determine which version of a ketogenic diet works well for you as the protocol is known to help reduce the risk and effects of the following:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Type 1 diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood sugar levels
  • Heart disease
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome
  • Fatty liver disease
  • Acne

Furthermore, keto diets have been found to help individuals who have:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Epilepsy
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Gout
  • Cancer

There are many disease-fighting benefits related to eating a ketogenic diet, particularly related to hormonal, metabolic, and cognitive health.

Just be sure to monitor health biomarkers to ensure you're getting enough nutrition, and in the ideal amounts, to promote optimal health.

If you're looking to embark on your keto journey and need some tips and tricks to get started, check out our comprehensive guide on how to start losing weight today on keto, with ease.

Low-Carb vs. Keto – Which One is Easier to Follow

This is a matter of having a candid conversation with yourself and determining what level of restriction is viable for you long-term.

For many, a ketogenic protocol becomes such a seamless part of life that people eat intuitively and no longer obsess over planning meals and counting calories while others find the plan hard due to excessive travel or a packed social calendar that makes it more challenging to control food options.

With this being said, keep in mind that it is possible to operate along a broad spectrum which can make the program work well for your needs and your current lifestyle.

You need not entirely conform to keto; there's an element of the dietary style for everyone, which you'd be wise to leverage to determine a sustainable and enjoyable plan to support your specific health goals.

Here are some strategies that can make your results easier to achieve and sustain on a low-carb, high-fat diet:

  • Try combining different carb limits intermittently (e.g., cyclical keto or carb-timing protocols) every few weeks or months to keep your body energized.
  • Remove all processed and unhealthy foods from your house and never repurchase them—find keto-friendly alternatives.
  • Stock your pantry and refrigerator with healthy food options to increase your chances of staying on track.
  • Get moving during the week. Increase your activity levels throughout the day (brisk walks, light stretching, bike rides through your neighborhood).

Keto can be flexible, so don't feel married to one version of the lifestyle forever; let the lifestyle grow and adapt to your everchanging needs.

Non-Keto, Low Carb Diets vs. the Keto Diet – Which One is Better

The question of which low-carb diet is better can return a biased answer depending on whom you ask, their goals, and their lifestyle needs.  

Some may feel that a ketogenic diet is effortless to follow once fat-adapted and determine it a tremendous long-term lifestyle for this reason.

Others may decide that they enjoy eating a bit more carbs and still feel well, along with still being able to reduce body fat since they're eating much fewer carbs than most on a Standard American Diet.

Rather than looking at the conversation as a binary, 'either-or' proposition, consider the perspective of using the low-carb lifestyle and the dietary iterations on it in a manner that's fluid and supports your needs and lifestyle as they evolve.

Consider this, during pregnancy, and during post-pregnancy, it is advisable to eat more carbs and calories to support the optimal health of mom and baby on keto.

Bodybuilders and athletes are best served using a high-protein or cyclical version of the keto diet to support muscle growth and recovery, and those using the ketogenic diet in a therapeutic protocol will likely require the strictest elimination of refined sugars and carbs—the plan can be adjusted to fit virtually every need.

Get a handle on the basics of the lifestyle, track what is or isn't working within your low-carb journey, and adjust your intake guidelines as you go, making sure to enjoy the learning and growing process along the way.  

Sources

  1. Kumada, T. (2011). Modified Atkins Diet and Low Glycemic Index Treatment for Medication-Resistant Epilepsy: Current Trends in Ketogenic Diet. Journal of Neurology & Neurophysiology, S2(01). doi:10.4172/2155-9562.s2-007
  2. Moon, M. A. (2008). Mediterranean, Low-Carb Diets Found as Effective as AHA Diet. Family Practice News,38(15), 34. doi:10.1016/s0300-7073(08)70994-0
  3. Slomski, A. (2019). Low-Carb Diets Help Maintain Weight Loss. Jama,321(4), 335. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.22031
  4. Trial finds low carb diets reduce weight more than low-fat diets in the short term, but have more minor adverse effects. (2004). Evidence-based cardiovascular Medicine, 8(4), 374-375. doi:10.1016/j.ebcm.2004.09.003
  5. Vasudeva, S. (2018). Ketogenic: Beneficial impacts on childhood obesity and metabolic syndrome. Journal of Obesity & Weight Loss Therapy,08. doi:10.4172/2165-7904-c1-056

 

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