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Low Carb vs Keto Diets: What’s the difference? Which is better?

Louise Hendon | June 23
Keto vs Low Carb Diets #keto #article

A Keto diet actually is a low carb diet! But when it comes to Keto vs low carb, how exactly are they different? Which diet is better for your health? And what’s the important thing both diets often get wrong?

This article will answer all those questions, as well as others you didn’t know you had! Carry on reading to find out more…

A Quick Summary:

There’s One Big Similarity Between Keto and Low Carb:

Both diets are low in carbohydrates:

Whether you’re following a Keto or a low carb diet, you’ll find yourself eating far fewer carbohydrates than you would on the Standard American Diet (SAD).

Watch this video for another quick overview of low carb vs. Keto:

There are 3 Main Differences Between Keto and Low Carb:

1. Keto focuses on your ketone levels. A low carb diet focuses on limiting carbs.

  • Keto aims to raise your ketone levels. It is designed to put your body into a fat-burning mode called nutritional ketosis, which has lots of health benefits, like weight loss.
  • While folks on a low carb diet may achieve nutritional ketosis, that’s not really the focus of the diet. Its only purpose is to limit your carb intake. And that’s also why low carb dieting doesn’t involve measuring your ketone levels.

Dr. Jason Fung, M.D., describes one benefit of placing the focus on ketone production. “Ketogenic is an ultra low-carb diet, which causes production of ketones. Ketones are produced when the body runs out of sugars (carbs). The blood glucose is saved for the brain, and the body converts fatty acids into ketones. These can cross the blood brain barrier to fuel the brain.”

2. Keto focuses on other macronutrients as well. A low-carb diet doesn’t tell you how much protein or fat to eat.

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Brigid Titgemeier, RDN, LD, says that it’s important to strictly measure macronutrients when following a ketogenic plan. “Part of the difficulty in going keto is needing to meticulously track carbohydrates, fat and protein intake. Very few people are able to reach ketosis and stay there without tracking macro intake.”

  • When you’re on a low carb diet the focus is only on carbohydrate intake – how much protein or fat you eat is up to you. This isn’t always a good thing, especially if you’re trying to lose weight.
  • Keto has very specific guidelines to follow when it comes to your macronutrient intake (protein, fat and carbohydrate).

3. Keto is generally higher in fat than a low carb diet.

  • On Keto your fat intake is high.  Fat helps you reach nutritional ketosis, and feel fuller for longer after eating.
  • A low carb diet just focuses on lowering carbohydrate intake. It doesn’t provide any recommendations for how much/little fat to eat.  Folks on a low carb diet usually make up their calorie deficit with protein rather than fat.

Certified Nutritionist Carole Freeman, CN, describes Keto as, “a very low-carb, moderate protein, high-fat way of eating.”  She adds, “Metabolically, a keto diet shifts your body away from relying on a constant supply of dietary carbohydrates, to burning fat for fuel. This gives you a constant, steady supply of energy, for both your body and brain.”

Keto vs Low carb Diets: What’s the difference? Which is better?

Bottom Line:

The Ketogenic Diet and a low carb diet are not the same. Keto is designed specifically to put your body into nutritional ketosis, while low carb diets are not. The two diets also differ in how much protein and fat they recommend.

As you can see, there are some distinct differences between these two diets. But there’s one aspect both of them could be missing…

The Missing Ingredient: FOOD QUALITY

The quality of your food matters. It matters a lot. From reducing toxins to increasing nutrients, eating higher quality food can make a healthy diet even healthier.

That’s why any diet – whether it’s Keto, Paleo, low carb, or something else – should be about more than just eating the right amount of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. It should be about eating high-quality food, too.

We’ll explain how to incorporate food quality into diet toward the end of this article.

Bottom Line:

Food quality MATTERS. Although neither the Ketogenic Diet nor low carb diets require high food quality, it’s still something you need to pay attention to.

What is the Ketogenic Diet?

The Ketogenic Diet is very low in carbohydrates, moderate in protein and high in fat. It has individually-defined macronutrient ratios. Your daily calorie intake will be in the neighborhood of 65%-75% fat, 20-30% protein and about 5% carbohydrate (which is under 25g of carbs per day). Our online calculator will help you determine exactly how much to eat, in calories and in grams of carbs, protein, and fat.

By following a Keto diet, you’ll start burning your own body fat as fuel. When you eat very little carbohydrate, the body turns to stored fat for energy. Ketones are produced as an additional fuel source, putting the body into a fat-burning mode called nutritional ketosis.

Keto vs Low carb Diets: What’s the difference? Which is better?

But hang on a minute…

  • What are ketones anyway? They’re one of the compounds your body creates when it breaks down fat. Certain cells in the body can’t use fat for energy unless your liver has turned the fat into ketones first. You can also get ketones through specially-formulated supplements like Keto Upgrade.
  • How do you get into nutritional ketosis? By reducing carbs, keeping protein in the moderate range, and eating enough fat, you’ll have less glucose available for the body to use. So it will switch to using fat and ketones for energy.
  • How can you be certain you’re in nutritional ketosis? You can track your ketone levels with urine test strips or a testing device. The strips are inexpensive and widely available, but a ketone meter will show you precisely if your ketone levels are in the right range.

Bottom Line:

A Ketogenic Diet increases the amount of fat you burn by reducing the number of carbohydrates you eat and following your individual macros.

Keto May Have Considerable Health Benefits…

While it’s still unclear what causes the health benefits of Keto (Is it the lower carb intake? Is it the higher fat intake? Or is it the higher ketone levels?), it is clear that something special is going on…

Lots of health benefits have been reported with Keto, both in scientific studies and also anecdotally in blogs and forums. They include:

Losing weight:

Improving your blood profile:

Treating diseases:

Other benefits:

  • Improving fat-burning for athletes (1)
  • Sharpening mental focus and eliminating brain fog (2)
  • Stabilizing your mood (3)

As if those aren’t enough, Keto is also being investigated as a treatment for many other diseases, including cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease. (4)(5)

Keto vs Low-carb Diets: What’s the difference? Which is better?

You can read about the health benefits of Keto in more detail by having a look at our article on the scientifically-backed benefits of ketosis.

Bottom Line:

The Ketogenic Diet has scientifically-proven health benefits, including: weight loss, improving your blood profile, increasing mental focus, treating diseases, and many more.

What Exactly Is a Low Carb Diet?

There’s no precise definition of a low carb diet. After all, “low” is a pretty vague term! As a rough benchmark, you’ll probably consume around 75-150g of carbs per day – but it could be more or less! And your protein/fat intake is largely up to you. 

As a result, there are lots of different ways to interpret a low carb diet. And that’s why folks see different results – there’s a big difference between eating 75g of carbs per day and eating 150g!

Following a low carb diet won’t put you into a sustained state of nutritional ketosis. That’s because your carb intake is higher than on Keto (75-150g versus under 25g).

Your body might temporarily go into ketosis after a tough workout or after fasting overnight. But you’ll come out of ketosis as soon as you eat again. So you won’t see the same health benefits on low carb that you get on Keto.

Keto vs Low-carb Diets: What’s the difference? Which is better?

Low Carb vs Keto: Which Diet Is Better For You?

The best diet for you depends on what you’re looking to achieve.

If you’re looking for weight-loss…

Both diets can be great for weight-loss, but Keto just might have the edge.

Keto won’t slow your metabolism down like other diets. (6) And you’ll also feel less hungry, even if you’re eating fewer calories because Keto suppresses your appetite. (7) What a great combination for weight loss!

If you want to stabilize your energy levels and/or blood sugar…

Again, either diet could be a good option here – that’s because the key to stable energy and blood sugar levels is cutting out sugar and lowering carbs. Which both diets do!

A Keto Diet has been proven to help folks control their blood sugar levels. (8) And having stable blood sugar means you don’t experience energy highs followed by crashes. So your energy levels stay steady throughout the day.

A low carb diet can also help you balance your blood sugar. And you might find your energy levels improve simply by reducing carbs significantly (without going Keto). But if you still find yourself struggling to get through the day, switching from to Keto could help.

If you want to fight inflammation…

To reduce inflammation in your body, follow a Keto Diet.

A Keto diet can help decrease inflammation, according to scientific research. (9) This could potentially be related to a type of ketone body called beta-hydroxybutyrate. (10)

But if you’re struggling with inflammation caused by an autoimmune disease, your best bet could be following an AIP diet.

If you want a more relaxed diet…

There are two good options here – one is following a low carb diet and the other is following an adapted version of the Keto diet.

A low carb diet doesn’t give you any strict guidelines to follow. You don’t have to watch/measure your carb intake every day. You can eat as much/little protein and fat as you choose. And you can carry on eating higher-carb veggies, like sweet potatoes and butternut squash. Which might be a better fit for your body and lifestyle!

Keto vs Low-carb Diets: What’s the difference? Which is better?

The Keto Diet can also be adapted to suit your needs – you have total flexibility to decide how you’ll get your body into ketosis and how long you’ll keep it there. There are a couple of different versions of the Keto Diet you could try…

  • There’s the Standard Keto Diet (which we all know and love)
  • Then there are the Cyclical and Targeted Keto Diets (both used by athletes, these involve specific timing of carb intake).
  • There are higher-protein versions of Keto (macros include 30-35% protein and less fat).
  • You can also create your own – some people love going into nutritional ketosis for a few weeks and then going back to Paleo for a few months before going into ketosis again.

Bottom Line:

The right diet for you depends on your end goals (weight loss, stabilizing your energy levels, decreasing inflammation, etc.). But always remember – the best one for you is one you can actually stick to!

The Big Thing Which Both Diets Get WRONG

There’s something crucial which neither diet mentions…

Food quality is really important.

Registered Dietitian Ali Miller, RD, LD, says, “The type of keto we practice with clients is VERY different than doing “keto” at the fast food drive through with no-bun bacon cheeseburgers!”

And whether you’re low carb or Keto and you spend your days munching on processed low carb treats, without ever touching a vegetable – you’re going to have health problems!

Following an unhealthy low carb or Keto diet will be harmful for your body in the long run. You need to make sure your diet is full of high-quality foods.

What counts as high-quality food?

Answer: Natural whole foods which are nutrient-dense and low in toxins.

1) Nutrient dense foods:

Foods like those listed below have more vitamins/minerals per calorie than most other foods.

  • “Super-foods” like kale, bone broth and berries
  • Organ meats like beef liver, kidneys, or sweetbreads
  • Shellfish like oysters and clams

2) Healthy Fats:

Eating the right kind of fat is especially important for folks on Keto! These are all good fats to eat:

  • Coconut oil
  • Ghee
  • Olive oil
  • Avocado oil

Keto vs Low-carb Diets: What’s the difference? Which is better?

3) Low-toxin foods:

Making sure your food doesn’t contain unnecessary toxins is more simple than you think!

  • Buy fruit/veg which is GMO-free and organically grown.
  • Stick to wild-caught fish (not farmed).
  • Choose organic grass-fed beef (not grain-fed).

Bottom Line:

Whether you’re on Keto or the low carb diet, food quality matters! Eat plenty of nutrient dense and low-toxin foods.

Not sure if you can manage that? As long as you make sure to avoid the foods in the next section, you’ll still be doing your body a big favor.

Which foods should you avoid no matter what diet you’re on?

There are some foods you should just never put into your body – they’re harmful to your health and could cause inflammation.

Artificial sweeteners are scientifically proven to be bad for your body

  • Aspartame, one of the most popular sweeteners used today, can cause cancer. (11)
  • Our advice? Avoid all artificial sweeteners if you can.
  • If you do need to sweeten your food, the healthiest choice is pure stevia.

Hydrogenated vegetable oils are something else you need to avoid

  • They contain harmful trans-fats and trace amounts of chemicals used to extract the oil.
  • These substances increase your risk of health problems like heart disease. (12)
  • And that also includes so-called “healthy” omega 6 vegetable oils like canola and sunflower.  Dr. Mark Hyman, M.D. says, “Omega 6 fats not only fuel your body’s inflammatory pathways, but also reduce availability of anti-inflammatory omega 3 fats in your tissues, resulting in more inflammation.”

Anything overly processed is also unhealthy

  • Steer clear of processed low carb snack foods and protein bars.
  • They contain bad-for-you artificial chemicals like flavorings and preservatives.
  • A good rule of thumb? If your ancestors wouldn’t recognize it as food, you shouldn’t eat it either!

Dairy products

  • It’s true that dairy is low in carbs, high in fats, and often very nutritious – but it can also be highly inflammatory for many people.
  • That’s why we highly recommend you cut out all dairy, at least for 60 days.

Keto vs Low-carb Diets: What’s the difference? Which is better?

Bottom Line:

No matter what diet you’re on, avoid artificial sweeteners, hydrogenated vegetable oils, and anything overly processed.

Feeling ready to give Keto a try?

You can check out our tips on getting started with Keto and sign up to download our free Keto diet food list.

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Please pin the image below so that you and others can quickly and easily refer to the list and find out the similarities and differences between these two popular diets.

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Louise Hendon

Louise holds a Bachelors and Masters in Natural Sciences from Cambridge University (UK). She attended Columbia University for her JD and practiced law at Debevoise & Plimpton before co-founding Louise's Foods, Paleo Living Magazine, Nourishing Brands, & CoBionic. Louise has considerable research experience but enjoys creating products and articles that help move people just a little bit closer toward a healthy life they love. You can find her on Facebook or LinkedIn.