Low-Carb vs. Keto: How Do They Measure Up?
Atkins, paleo, Mediterranean, Whole30, and finally, keto — the latest low-carb diet fads could easily give you whiplash (with just a pinch of deja vu).
While the ketogenic diet — often referred to as “keto” — may seem like a repurposed version of its low-carb predecessors, there are a few key differences. Though both the ketogenic diet and a low-carbohydrate diet restrict carbohydrate intake (farewell pasta, bread, and fries), the keto diet encourages increasing your fat intake to compensate.
Below, we will compare and contrast keto vs. low-carb diets. Plus, we investigate the pros and cons of each and which might be right for you.
Please note: This post is meant for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. Before beginning any new diet, you should speak to your healthcare provider or registered dietitian.
Low-Carb vs. Keto: Where the Two Diets Overlap
Confused by the difference between keto and other low-carb diets? You’re not alone. There is plenty of overlap between the two, including:
1. Both Restrict Carbs, Not Calories
Both low-carb and keto diets restrict carb intake, to varying degrees. A key distinction is that the ketogenic diet is a very-low-carb diet, often prescribing a daily net carb intake of 30 grams or less.
The term “low-carb” is inherently vague since 100 to 150 grams of carbohydrates could be considered “low” for a large, muscular, highly active individual.
So, whether you are on a low-carb diet or keto, you will reduce your carb intake, but not necessarily calories. In fact, neither traditional low-carb diets nor keto advocate for restricting your calorie intake. (Though, most people use a low-carb or keto diet for weight loss and end up eating fewer calories.)
Instead, both focus on counting macros (macronutrients, or fat, carbs, and protein) rather than calories to keep your carb allotment under a certain number of grams per day. Those on low-carb and keto diets typically remove the following foods:
- Grains: Including quinoa, rice, wheat, and whole-grain bread
- Starchy vegetables: Including sweet potatoes, butternut squash, cassava, and plantains
- Fruits: Including apples, oranges, pineapple, and watermelon
- Sugar: Including soda, candy, and traditional desserts
2. Both Will Help You Lose Weight (at Least in the Short-Term)
Both diets come tied to lose-weight-fast promises (don't they all?). But in this case, solid research backs them up.
In a review by the Official Publication of the College of Family Physicians in Canada, the ketogenic diet was shown to cause 2 kg (roughly 4.4 pounds) more weight loss than low-fat diets in a handful of randomized clinical trials.
The Archives of Internal Medicine reported similar findings for low-carb diets. After six months, participants following a low-carb diet showed significantly greater weight loss than those following a low-fat diet.
This brings us to yet another similarity: In both studies, the results were not significant after a period of 5-6 months. In other words, both keto and low-carb diets are infamous "plateau" diets, where individuals experience significant initial success followed by a tapered-off period.
It’s also important to note that the calorie content of low-carb and low-fat diets were not matched in several studies. The researchers note that keto and low-carb diets may support weight loss by simply helping people control their energy intake.
3. Both Are Connected to a Number of Health Benefits
Weight loss aside, both the keto diet and other low-carb diets may confer numerous health benefits.
As described by StatPearls, low-carb and ketogenic diets have been shown to improve blood sugar levels, triglycerides, HDL cholesterol levels, and high blood pressure, all biomarkers of heart disease. In addition, both diets appear to reduce the risk of obesity and improve insulin levels, thereby decreasing the risk of developing type-2 diabetes.
4. Both Come With a ‘Withdrawal’ Period
It doesn't matter whether you start keto or another low-carb diet — it is a big change for your body and you may not feel the best at first.
While both diets give carbs a bad rap, carbs typically power your body for daily living and athletic performance. Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose in the body, which is the predominant fuel source for your cells.
Naturally, when you strip carbs away, all that energy disappears and your body needs to find a new fuel source. This is why keto compromises with a high-fat intake. Eventually, your body enters a state of ketosis (more on this later).
On keto (which is typically more restrictive than other low-carb diets), the “sugar withdrawal” during the initial period of your body becoming “fat-adapted” is called "keto flu." The symptoms of keto flu often include lethargy, low energy levels, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and brain fog. The nickname aside, don't be surprised if you experience these initial, negative side effects on a regular, low-carb diet.
Low-Carb vs. Keto: Where the Two Diets Differ
The keto diet is a very-low-carb diet. In other words, all keto diets are low-carb, but not all low-carb diets are keto. Make sense?
Here are a few distinguishing characteristics between the two.
1. The Keto Diet Is a High-Fat Diet
While low-carb vs. keto overlap with one macronutrient (carbs), they differ greatly in another: fat.
On the keto diet, the majority of your calories will come from fat. In fact, most keto dieters agree that 70-75% of your calories should come from fat, 20-30% from protein, and 5-10% from carbs. Other low-carb diets make no such recommendation.
A keto meal plan is filled with healthy fats, including olive oil, avocados, meat, cheese, and coconut.
2. The Goal of the Keto Diet Is to Enter Ketosis
The goal of the keto diet is to enter the fat-burning metabolic state known as ketosis. In ketosis, your body burns more fat for energy — rather than glucose — and this leads to an increase in blood ketones.
To enter a ketogenic state, an individual must aggressively restrict their carbohydrate intake while increasing their fat intake. This starves your body of glycogen (glucose stored in your muscles) and forces it to look for an alternative energy source.
This is when your body starts breaking down its own body fat for energy, typically resulting in fat and weight loss. In the liver, your body transforms its fatty acids into ketone bodies. These are then sent to your bloodstream and used for energy.
3. Low-Carb Diets Don't Restrict Protein Intake
Keto is referred to as a moderate protein diet, accounting for roughly 20-30%, of your total calories for the day. This is because your body can break down amino acids from protein into glucose, while keto revolves around your body running on ketones and fats.
But on other low-carb diets, like the Atkins diet, high protein intake is actually encouraged.
Low-Carb vs. Keto: Which Is Best for Your Overall Health?
The main differences between keto and other low-carb diets come down to macros.
While both restrict carb intake, the keto diet recommends a lower carb intake than other low-carb diets, recommending just 30-50 grams of carbs per day (compared to 100-150 grams of carbs on other low-carb diets). In addition, keto is a moderate-protein, high-fat diet, while other low-carb diets may be high in protein and low in fat.
Because of the macronutrient breakdown, many people find the keto diet too restrictive and therefore difficult to maintain. In addition, many keto dieters turn to "keto desserts," bacon, cheese, and other processed foods, forgetting that keto was meant to be built on lean meats, leafy green veggies, nuts, and seeds, and low-sugar fruits (like berries).
For these reasons, many people will prefer a low-carb diet over keto. Keep in mind that cutting out entire food groups may not be easy for you to sustain over time and could cause mineral or nutrient deficiencies.
In addition, refusing to account for daily calories can cause weight gain in the long run. This is why dietitians warn that fad diets can cause you to regain weight or develop orthorexia, an obsessive fixation on healthy eating.
If you struggle to keep strict diet rules or find you gain weight when you don’t restrict calories, keto or another low-carb diet may not be right for you.
Low-Carb vs. Keto: The Verdict
The keto diet is a low-carb diet, but a low-carb diet is not necessarily keto.
While both diets can spark fat loss, reduce blood sugar levels, and improve insulin resistance, the keto diet is meant to put you in a weight-loss-inducing state of ketosis. To do this, individuals must strictly limit carb intake while eating an extremely high amount of fat.
For some people, the keto diet is not sustainable for the long term. Therefore, if you want a diet that is more sustainable and less restrictive, you may want to try another low-carb diet.
If you’re on a low-carb or keto diet, we recommend taking Transparent Labs ProteinSeries Collagen Hydrolysate. With just 50 calories, 10 grams of protein, and less than 2 grams of carbs, it helps your muscles recover post-workout without messing up your macros.