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Diets

Low-Carb vs. Keto: Similar Diets With Key Differences

Keto and the low carb diet are similar, in that both diets limit carbohydrate intake; however there are a few key differences.

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When you hear “low-carb diet,” you probably think of keto. However, the Low-Carb Diet is actually its own special diet plan. Keto not only calls for low amounts of carbohydrates, but also includes large amounts of fat and moderate amounts of protein daily, with a goal to stay in the state of ketosis. Compared vs. keto, a low-carb diet restricts carbohydrates and requires a high protein intake.

“Both diets restrict carbohydrate intake, however the ketogenic diet is overall much more restrictive than a low carbohydrate diet in that it calls for a high intake of dietary fat in addition to a severe restriction of carbohydrate intake, Lena Bakovic, MS, RDN, CNSC tells Woman’s World.

People who have diabetes which is not optimally controlled may in fact benefit from following a low carbohydrate diet for the long term, which in turn will help with blood sugar management and ultimately may aid the prevention of complications arising from uncontrolled diabetes such as neuropathy, nephropathy, and retinopathy.

Lena Bakovic
Man checking heart rate while working out
Both diets result in rapid weight loss — but which diet is better?milorad kravic/Getty Images

Keto vs. Low-Carb Diet Compared

Diet FeaturesThe Keto DietThe Low-Carb Diet
Permitted FoodsUp to 80% of daily calories should come from fats (dairy, olive oil, red meat, nuts) about 15-20% from protein (lean meats, fish, tofu) and 5-10% of calories or about 50 grams from carbohydrates; low-carb vegetables such as leafy greensUp to 50% percent of calories from protein (lean meats, fish, tofu,); 30-40% of calories from fat (red meat, olive oil, nuts); and 20% of daily calories or up to 150 grams from carbohydrates; low carb vegetables such as leafy greens
Food RestrictionsRefined sugars; refined carbohydrates; alcohol; starchy fruits and vegetables; legumes; anything “low-fat;” any sweetenersRefined sugars; most refined carbohydrates; most starchy fruits and vegetables; legumes; alcohol; anything “low-fat;” limited dairy; any sweeteners
Short-Term EffectivenessInitial weight loss is quick (up to 15 pounds in two weeks) but dieters may experience ‘keto flu’ symptoms Rapid initial weight loss (mostly water weight and glycogen storages); initial keto flu-like symptoms possible
Long-Term EffectivenessRestrictiveness makes it hard to stick with long-term; can help aid in lowering BMI, diabetes and blood pressure; long-term health effects largely unknown, but high fat intake can impact cardiovascular healthWhile initial weight loss may help BMI, diabetes and blood pressure long-term, high-fat diet may lead to cardiovascular issues and cancer; may not be useful for long-term weight loss
How It Makes Dieters FeelAt the start, keto flu (headache, dizziness, moodiness, indigestion) is unpleasant; after symptoms clear, many report boosted energy and clarity; many also report feeling full during the daySimilar symptoms to keto flu may occur (headache, fatigue, constipation, dizziness, etc.)
Cost Per Year$2,444, as per FinderSimilar to keto, but prices may vary
Cheat DaysNot recommendedNot recommended
AvailabilityHealthier foods/high quality fats may be more expensive and harder to find, particularly in food desertsHealthier foods/high quality fats may be more expensive and harder to find, particularly in food deserts
Calories Per Day1,500 to 1,800 for women; 1,800 to 2,200 for menVaries per person

Keto Prioritizes Eating Mostly Fats and Few Carbs

Veggie skewers on a grill
Low-carb vegetables and proteins are a staple of keto eating.Irina Grigorii / 500px/Getty Images

Keto is one of the more popular low-carbohydrate diets. It has gained tremendous amounts of media attention over the last decade for its “quick” short-term results and “tasty” permitted foods. A number of celebrities including Al Roker and Kourtney Kardashian have hopped aboard the keto train. LeBron James even tried it, according to a roundup from Everyday Health, because he wanted to “test his mental fortitude.” 

The Goal: Ketosis

By lowering your daily carbohydrate intake to about 50 grams per day, the human body goes into a state called “ketosis.” In a breakdown of the diet, WebMD defines ketosis as the state in which the body starts burning fat storages for energy, instead of carbohydrate storages. This is what will supposedly result in weight loss.

That Said, Weight Loss Often Happens Quickly

Aside from being encouraged to eat butter and red meat galore, dieters often praise keto for its unusually “fast results.” In a weight loss timeline, Parade estimates that dieters could lose up to two pounds per week on keto, which could get them 25 pounds down in 12 weeks. In turn, that weight loss (if sustained), can lower BMI, blood pressure, and other health risks.

Keto May Help To Manage Epilepsy

Weight management isn’t the only thing keto is used for. In some cases, the diet will be prescribed to children with epilepsy to manage symptoms: “There is evidence of some efficacy of the ketogenic diet in the management of epileptic seizures for individuals who do not receive relief from seizures with conventional anti-seizure medications,” Lena Bakovic explains. “In these individuals, following the ketogenic diet is usually closely monitored within a clinical setting.”

The Keto Flu Often Deters Many From Continuing Long-Term

Older woman experiencing headache
The keto flu is a short-term effect of the diet, resulting in headaches, fatigue, indigestion and more.Johnce/Getty Images

The first few days of on keto often gives dieters symptoms of what has been coined as the “keto flu.” The lack of carbohydrates can trigger headaches, nausea, constipation, fatigue, and other unpleasant symptoms. But after a few days once the body is accustomed to being in ketosis, the symptoms generally disappear.

Keto Offers Short-Term Weight Loss, but There May Be Long-Term Physical Drawbacks

Although the short-term weight loss on keto is great, there are some not-so-great drawbacks. An article on the risks of keto from UChicago Medicine warns long-term dieters of possible long-term risks including low blood pressure, heart disease, kidney stones and nutrient deficiencies.

“As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), I see very few clinical indications for a ketogenic diet, which is intended to induce ketosis in the body, whereby the body begins utilizing fat for energy as opposed to carbohydrates for energy (our bodies’ otherwise primary fuel source),” Bakovic explains. “Although weight loss is an outcome of strictly following a ketogenic dietary pattern, this lifestyle is not sustainable for most over the long term.”

The Low-Carb Diet Lowers Carb Intake, but Prioritizes Protein Over Fat

A pile of raw steaks
Protein is more important than fat on the low-carb diet.RASimon/Getty Images

Instead of prioritizing fat like the keto diet, the low-carb diet focuses on protein intake. And, despite the name, it allows for more carbohydrates. A comparison piece from Abbott Nutrition explains that on the low-carb diet, dieters should be getting most of their calories (40 to 50%) from protein; 30 to 40% from fats; and 10 to 25% from carbohydrates. Supposedly, the protein will help people develop muscle and feel satiated.

Many Short-Term Effects of the Low-Carb Diet Overlap With Keto

Healthline lists the benefits of a low-carb diet, with many benefits that overlap with keto. In addition to feeling full, low-carb dieters will often experience rapid weight loss — thanks to a loss of water weight. It’s also been known to lower insulin levels, lower blood pressure and raise HDL or “good cholesterol” levels.

Flu-Like Symptoms at the Start Are Common

Unfortunately, similar to keto, many will feel “flu-like” symptoms in the beginning as a result of ditching carbohydrates. In addition to bad breath, many experience headaches, constipation, nausea, fatigue and other highly unpleasant ailments.

Long-Term, the Results of the Low-Carb Diet Are Questionable

Man gets in-home care
You should check in with your doctor before starting either a Keto or Low-Carb diet. Nitat Termmee/Getty Images

In addition to the fact that sticking to such a restrictive diet isn’t feasible, the long-term effects of the low-carb diet aren’t necessarily positive. While the initial weight loss may have been positive, spending months or years on the diet may be dangerous. A study from the National Library of Medicine hypothesizes that long-term low-carb dieters can experience heart arrhythmias, cardiovascular issues, kidney damage, osteoporosis and even cancer.

As With Any Restrictive Diet, There Are Mental Health Drawbacks of Both

Restrictive diets such as keto or low-carb put dieters at risk of developing disordered eating habits. Both have “quick” results and restrict food groups, which can encourage people to continue restricting. And with plateaus that follow those short-term results, according to a study in the journal Qualitative Health Research, many often gain weight the weight back and lose it again, making for a vicious yo-yo cycle.

Both Keto and Low-Carb Are Expensive

Woman buys lettuce at the grocery store
Shopping seasonally is one way to save money while shopping for a low-carb diet.ivanastar/Getty Images

The keto and low-carb diets will both rack up more than the average American diet. In a cost breakdown, TODAY estimates that most low-carb diets will cost a single person between $90 and $100 per week, in comparison to about $59 per week on the average American diet. This is because high-end proteins, dairy, nuts and other healthy foods cost more than carb-heavy diets with processed and packaged foods.

Budgeting on Both Is Possible

Even though both keto and low-carb are pricey, there are ways to save. Buying frozen and canned vegetables over fresh, opting for seasonal and local produce, and going for cheaper proteins (such as eggs or canned fish) in lieu of high-end cuts of beef will save quite a bit of money.

Both Keto And Low-Carb Diets Are Pretty Restrictive

Keto and low-carb are both major undertakings, as they eliminate entire food groups from the human diet. Although there isn’t one that’s better, low-carb is less restrictive while keto gives quicker results. Both, however, have iffy long-term impacts, and people should consult an expert before trying either diet for themselves.

What is better for weight loss: Keto or the low-carb diet?

The short-term results for keto are greater, meaning one can lose more weight in the first few weeks. However, it’s more difficult to stick to, which means dieters are more likely to stick to the low-carb diet long-term.

Are there long-term risks of keto?

There are many long-term risks of keto, including: cardiovascular issues, kidney damage, liver damage and nutritional deficiencies.

Which diet is less restrictive: Keto or the low-carb diet?

The low-carb diet is less restrictive than keto. It allows dieters to eat more carbohydrates (up to 150 grams as opposed to only 50 grams), and it doesn’t have a caloric restriction.

Does keto allow for any carbohydrates?

Keto allows for 50 grams of carbohydrates per day. That’s equal to about a cup of brown rice.

What are some low-carb diet breakfast ideas?

Low-carb diet breakfast ideas include: a mint-chip breakfast smoothie, cauli-cheddar biscuits and cloud bread.

What are some keto breakfast ideas?

Keto-friendly breakfast ideas include: smoked salmon roll-ups, keto pudding and turbo keto cookies.

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