What’s the Difference Between Keto and Low-Carb?

low carb vs keto

If you follow diet and health trends, you already know that low-carb and keto diets are having somewhat of a moment. Google searches for both diets have soared in the past two years, and interest in this way of eating. 

Because both diets limit carbohydrates, you may be wondering if there’s any real difference between the two. 

In this article, Sofia Norton from Kiss my Keto explains what each diet is and what where their differences lie.

What’s a Low-Carb Diet?

Diets that limit carbohydrates — such as those found in sugar, grains, starchy vegetables, and fruit — can all be considered low-carb. There are many different types of low-carb diets, and the ketogenic (keto) diet is just one of them. Other diets labeled low-carb are the Atkins diet and paleo. 

Still, there’s no standardized definition of how many carbohydrates constitute “low-carb.” The American Family Physician defines low-carb diets as those that limit carbs to 20-60g per day or less than 20% of the recommended daily intake. On the other hand, a review article in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that carb intake that causes metabolic changes, such as that of 50-150g per day, is low-carb. 

When someone follows a low-carb diet, they usually restrict foods that are high in this macronutrient such as bread, pasta, rice, and potatoes. Conversely, they replace those carbs with high-fat and high-protein foods like meat, eggs, dairy, avocados, nuts, and seeds.

Replacing carbs with high-fat and protein-rich foods has many possible health benefits:

  • Reduced blood glucose and insulin
  • Lower triglycerides
  • Weight loss
  • Visceral fat loss
  • PCOS reversal
  • Reduced cancer risk

These benefits come mainly from the body switching from carb and glucose metabolism to fat oxidation. However, other metabolic changes that take place when you quit carbs can play a role here. 

What About the Keto Diet?

The ketogenic diet, popularly called keto, is defined as a very-low-carb diet. Some also call it the “ultimate” low-carb diet because it limits carbs to a strict 20-50g per day or to a maximum of 10% of your daily calories. 

Besides limiting carbs, keto also limits protein to 25% of your daily calories, while fat makes up to 80% of your daily calories on this diet. 

The goal of keto is to induce a metabolic state called ketosis in which the body burns fat to make molecules called ketones. Ketones then serve as your body’s backup fuel to glucose. 

What makes keto so appealing to a lot of people is that it can lead to easy and sustained weight loss when done right. 

Here’s why keto seems to work so well for weight loss:

  • Ketosis causes the body to burn more fat: from food and from fat stores
  • Ketosis reduces appetite, making you eat less
  • It improves mitochondrial functioning, which can also enhance calorie burning
  • It spares muscles, which increases your resting metabolic rate (RMR)

There’s also plenty of research showing that keto diets can sometimes work better than traditional diets for weight loss. 

However, keto was not originally designed as a weight-loss diet. It was actually developed by Mayo Clinic researchers in the 1920s as a treatment for drug-resistant childhood epilepsy. Researchers noticed that a diet low in carbs and high in fat causes ketosis just like fasting, which was traditionally used as an epilepsy remedy. 

How exactly ketosis reduces seizures remains a mystery one hundred years later. What we do know is that ketosis and ketones help normalize brain functioning and even provide other health benefits such as:

  • Improved glycemic control
  • Improved blood lipids
  • Greater energy levels
  • Better mood
  • Reduced cancer risk

On the other hand, the keto diet may pose problems for some people. For example, people taking medication to treat diabetes can experience hypoglycemia and even ketoacidosis if they don’t adjust their medication. Pregnant and breastfeeding women may also be at risk of ketoacidosis. Those with fat-metabolism disorders are also not likely to benefit from this diet. 

What Are Their Main Differences?

The main difference between the keto diet and other low-carb diets is ketosis. While other low-carb diets don’t necessarily produce ketosis, ketosis is the main effect and purpose of keto. 

Another difference between keto and low-carb diets is how each makes up for the lack of carbohydrates. The keto diet compensates with loads of fat, sometimes up to 80%. Other low-carb diets will suggest higher protein intake or moderate intake of carb-rich foods. 

And while low-carb and keto diets can both lead to weight-loss, the keto diet may have a slightly greater advantage here simply due to its extreme nature. But for both diets to cause weight loss, calorie intake needs to be below what you’re currently burning. 

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