Keto and low carb are both popular diet types. They’re promoted as ways to improve health and to lose weight.
The two approaches are very similar to one another but they have some distinct differences too.
In this post, we take a look at keto vs low carb to show you what the differences truly are.
We also consider the strengths and weaknesses of each style, along with the current research.
With this information, you can work out which style suits you best.
Low Carb Diets
The average American consumes somewhere from 200 to 300 carbs per day (1), with some people consuming much more than that. A low carb diet is simply any decrease in that amount.
Most discussions on low carb focus on eating somewhere between 20 and 100 net carbs per day.
Net carbs are simply the number of digestible carbs in food. This figure can normally be calculated by subtracting fiber from the total carb count. The site Authority Nutrition offers more detail on the concept and why you make this calculation.
A low carb diet aims to decrease carb intake and increase fat intake. This is based on the idea that fat isn’t actually bad for health. In fact, carbs may be more damaging than we assume.
The traditional low fat and high carb diet also tends to favor sugary and processed foods. That’s never going to be great for health. Low carb diets turn that idea on its head – and there are many success stories for the idea.
You can learn more about low carb diets in our guide to Understanding Low Carb Diets.
Strengths of Low Carb
- There are multiple variations, so you can find a style that suits your needs.
- Low carb is often easier to follow than low fat. Many of the foods tend to be enjoyable and more satisfying. This makes it easier to stick within the diet parameters and you’re less likely to be hungry.
- Relies on high-quality nutrient-dense foods.
- You automatically avoid many foods that contribute to weight gain and poor health.
- There are significant health benefits.
- It’s a different approach to conventional diets. This may be significant for anyone who struggles with weight loss.
Weaknesses of Low Carb
- You end up cutting down (or out) popular foods. Options like bread and pasta are all high in carbs, as are most processed foods. Getting rid of these may be healthy but the process is still challenging.
- Modern society focuses on high carb foods. Because of this, decreasing carb intake takes time and planning.
- You can still overeat. Many people lose weight on low carb without counting calories or worrying about portion sizes. But, low carb foods are often energy dense, so you need to be careful.
- Low carb does require some monitoring. You need some awareness of your carb intake for the approach to work. The degree of monitoring depends on the specific type of low carb diet that you’re following.
- The potential benefits aren’t as strong as keto.
Studies show that low carb is at least as good, if not better than conventional diets for weight loss. Authority Nutrition offers a detailed summary of this research.
One such study found that people on a low carb diet lost significantly more weight and fat, while also improving their cholesterol levels (2). A recent systematic review also confirmed this perspective, showing that low carb diets tend to promote greater weight loss outcomes (3).
Low carb diets may also offer other benefits.
- Despite the high fat content, low carb diets don’t increase heart disease risk (4,5,6). They may even improve some risk factors (7), an outcome shown in a recent review of research (8).
- Can decrease insulin levels, which indirectly promotes weight loss (9,10,11).
- May improve metabolism, partly through increasing protein intake and subsequently muscle mass (12,13,14).
- Low carb may also decrease inflammation. This is partly because you’re cutting down on foods that promote inflammation and increasing intake of some that may fight it (15,16). However, not all research agrees (17).
There’s no doubt that low carb diets promote weight loss and possibly other health outcomes. If nothing else, they’re an alternative way to lose weight. For many people, this is reason enough to try them out.
And, as Time Magazine points out, there is little evidence that fat is harmful anyway. That idea that it is mostly comes from old research, including studies that were biased or made assumptions. This reinforces that idea that low carb can be healthy even though you’re increasing fat intake.
Getting Started with Low Carb
A low carb diet can be as simple as prioritizing high fat foods and decreasing carb intake as you go. But, you get more benefits by having a specific goal.
For example, you might start off aiming for less than 100 grams of net carbs per day. That goal isn’t so difficult, even if you’re new to low carb. Over time, you might decrease carb intake further, until you find a level that works well for you and offers the most benefits.
You could also turn to a low carb book or website and use that as a guide. The site Ditch the Carbs is one example. You can find detailed information there, along with many recipes and articles.
Such sources can teach you how to enjoy low carb and how to make the most of it. You’ll often find information about what meals are filling and how to prepare low carb versions of regular meals.
If you’re interested in learning more, the following posts highlight different aspects of the low carb diet.
The Ketosis Diet
A keto diet is one specific type of low carb diet. You’ll sometimes hear it called a very low carb diet as well or a nutritional ketosis diet. The key feature is that you’re consuming hardly any carbs. The exact amount varies, but most people take in around 25 to 30 grams of net carbs per day.
The goal is to decrease your carb intake enough that you enter into a state called ketosis. In ketosis, your body uses fat as a source of fuel, rather than glucose. In doing so, you produce ketone bodies, which have many implications for health.
The biggest challenge of keto is your carb intake.
You’re consuming a very low number of carbs per day. Doing this effectively takes planning and dedication. But, despite the issues, many people are able to stick with the diet consistently. This has been shown in research (18) and through the experience of many keto advocates.
Following ketosis typically involves tracking your macronutrient intake (macros, for short) and monitoring your outcomes. The sites ruled.me and KetoDiet Blog both offer keto calculators that help you determine the right balance of macros for you.
On average, a keto diet involves getting around 75% of your calories from fat, 20% from protein and 5% from carbs (19). Exact ratios vary but this is a good starting point.
The various signs of being in ketosis can help you monitor progress and you can also rely on ketosis testing strips, which offer more precise information. You can find more details about the process in our Understanding the Ketosis Diet guide.
Strengths of Keto
Most of the strengths and disadvantages of low carb diets also apply to keto. But, there are also specific differences to consider.
- Keto is popular – and there is plenty of support out there. Many sites are dedicated to keto. There are also plenty of cookbooks and countless high-quality guides.
- You get good food. Keto gives you the chance to eat foods you’d normally avoid for weight loss, particularly those that are high in fat. This means ingredients like red meat, eggs, cheese, avocados and bacon are not only allowed but encouraged. There are also many recipes for keto desserts, fat bombs, lunches and snacks.
- The food choices make the diet feel less restrictive and more enjoyable.
- The style is very different than most other diets. For some people, this makes it easier to follow.
- There is flexibility. For example, some people pair intermittent fasting with keto, while others may follow a vegetarian or even a vegan keto diet. The latter styles are more challenging but ruled.me has a great guide on the topic.
- People often find that they have more energy and greater weight loss when in ketosis.
Weaknesses of Keto
- You need to dramatically change your food intake, cutting out many foods and ingredients entirely.
- Keto is a strict diet. You have to consistently keep your carb intake very low. Many people find this difficult, especially as modern food is often carb-rich.
- Keto can be difficult socially. Eating out becomes harder and many people are critical of the concept.
- You need to know exactly how many carbs you’re taking in each day, which requires tracking the carb content in everything you eat. Many people record fat and protein intake as well.
- The initial transition is difficult. Many people experience keto flu symptoms, which can include headaches, nausea, fatigue and mental fog.
- There is a risk of nutrient deficiency. Following keto involves cutting out a range of food groups and limiting others. You can avoid deficiency by planning carefully but you need to put the time into doing so.
- Dehydration is common. You need to consume sufficient water and electrolytes to prevent this from happening.
- There are keto side effects too, including bad breath, low energy and digestion challenges. Most go away over time but they can be frustrating.
- Some people experience long-term side effects, including poor sleep quality, low energy and hormone imbalances. For people in this situation, keto may not be the best choice.
Keto was first used for health back in the 1920s, as a way to treat seizures in patients with epilepsy (20). Since then, we’ve learned much more about the approach and the benefits that it offers. Some of these include the following:
- Helps treat epilepsy and reduce seizure frequency. This effect has been confirmed in many different studies (21,22,23)
- Can promote weight loss and decreased blood sugar levels (24,25)
- Helps improve outcomes for patients with type 2 diabetes (26)
- Keto may help fight brain cancer too, as cancer cells need glucose. However, there are complexities with this approach and current evidence is limited (27,28,29)
Keto is also a low carb diet. So, most of the benefits found for low carb diets should also apply to ketosis as well.
Getting Started with Keto
You could follow a low carb diet without guidance but the same isn’t true for keto. For one thing, it’s easy to mess things up. Many beginners make mistakes that decrease their chances of success. The site Keto Dash highlights 10 of these and there are others as well.
There are various books on the topic but it’s normally best to begin with a keto-focused blog. For example, KetoDiet App offers detailed guides, diet plans and an online keto calculator. The site ruled.me follows a similar approach and includes a comprehensive beginner’s guide, along with resources and an active forum where you can ask questions.
You can also find out more about keto by checking out the various posts below.
Keto vs Low Carb: Which is Better?
The basic difference between keto and low carb is simple – your carb intake is lower on keto.
Most people would also say, without hesitation, that keto is the more powerful approach. There is more potential for benefits and your weight loss is likely to be greater as well.
After all, ketosis is a fat burning mechanism. That aspect alone should promote significant weight loss. Many people also see amazing results through keto.
But, this is only true if you can follow keto effectively. Remember, any dietary change is difficult (30). People often struggle more with dramatic changes.
- Low carb is like a regular diet, in that you can choose how strictly you follow it. For example, you might have cheat days from time-to-time and you may choose your food based on personal preference.
- The same isn’t entirely true for keto. Here, your key aim is to get your body into ketosis and then stay there. Going over your carbs, even by a little, risks kicking you out of ketosis.
This difference means that many people find ketosis more difficult, especially in the long-term. And, of course, ketosis does come with more side effects.
- If you can follow keto and your body responds well, then keto is the more powerful option for staying healthy and losing weight.
- But, if you find that you struggle sticking to it or find that you have low energy and simply don’t feel good, low carb could be a better choice.
Experiences of individuals reinforce this too. For example, Low Carb Dietitian talks about a reader who eats between 50 to 70 grams of carbs per day and does well, while lower carb consumption makes it difficult for her to function.
As always, the simplest answer is to listen to your body. At the end of the day, there is no single best diet. There are many differences between people, including variations in metabolism (31). Such differences can influence what approach works best for you.
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