For the last few months, I’ve been trying to keep my carbs low to stay healthy and lean. I was recently talking with Zach (my trainer and the site’s health & wellness guru) about the differences between a low carb diet (like I’ve been practicing) and the keto diet that I’ve heard a lot about. I thought it would be helpful for him to share those differences with you, so I asked him to give us a little insight into both.
You’ve probably heard of the keto (or ketogenic) diet recently. It has blown up in popularity over the last few years with celebrities and athletes praising it as a great way to stay lean and healthy without starving yourself. I’ve had a lot of people ask me if keto is basically just a low carb diet. The short answer is yes, but it differs from your traditional low carb lifestyle in that it’s EXTREMELY low carb and emphasizes high fat.
To help you make a decision on whether keto or a low carb diet might be right for you, I’ve broken down the differences and benefits of each.
The Keto Diet
A ketogenic diet keeps your carb intake so low that your body is forced into a state called ketosis. That means that you are in a metabolic state in which your body burns fat as it’s main energy source instead of carbs.
People on a keto diet will typically eat under 50 grams of carbs per day, most of those coming from vegetables and some berries. That means that most of your calories (60-80%) will come from fat. It’s important on a keto diet to make sure you’re eating healthy fat sources like fish, avocado, and nuts. A keto diet also involves moderate amounts of protein as too much can kick you out of ketosis.
It’s important on a keto diet to stick to it completely, especially at the beginning. It can take a week or two into starting the diet to get into a state of ketosis. As your body adjusts, you’ll crave carbs and can feel sluggish, often referred to as the keto flu. If you can get through that time without falling off the wagon then you’ll start to see the benefits.
So what are those benefits of the keto diet? Most people get onto a keto diet to maintain a healthy weight. Although being in ketosis means your body is burning fat for energy, it won’t necessarily burn body fat. You’ll still use the fat you eat first which means if you eat too many calories your body won’t tap into fat stores and you can gain weight. Where the ketogenic diet comes in handy is that it can make it much harder to overeat. Ketones (what your body creates when in ketosis) are a hunger suppressor so you’ll feel full with less calories. Keto can also boost your metabolism causing you to burn more calories throughout the day.
Another great reason to try keto is to boost your energy levels and stabilize blood sugar. The problem with carbs is that after a boost of energy you crash when your blood sugar drops. Our bodies are capable of storing and using fat for energy more efficiently than carbs. By switching to fat for energy your blood sugar and insulin levels won’t spike and therefore won’t crash. Keto can help you keep steady energy levels throughout the day.
Low Carb Diet
Low carb diets have been around for a while, but there’s no strict definition. While keto is low carb, not all low carb diets are keto. Atkins is one of the most popular low carb diets, along with the Mediterranean Diet or Paleo. Most low carb diets involve eating anywhere between 70g and 150g of carbs per day, but really anything lower than what you’ve been eating could be considered low carb.
For many, a low carb diet is better than keto because it’s less restrictive. You can still have some sweet treats, and a cheat day won’t have as much of a negative effect as it will with keto. You may dip into mild states of ketosis, but the goal isn’t full ketosis. For anyone looking to be healthy, but gain muscle or strength a low carb diet can be helpful. You can time your carb intake around a workout and are able to eat more protein, which might make it easier to put on muscle.
My Favorite Keto & Low Carb Cookbooks
LOW CARB BENEFITS
So why would you try a low carb diet? If you want to be lean and healthy, but also love high intensity workouts then low carb might be right for you. Some people find that they need more carbs to get through their workouts. Having some high quality carbs (like fruit, berries, or juice) can give you the boost you need to achieve a high level of performance. Also, being able to pack in the protein after your workout can help you recover from an intense workout and keep performing at a high level.
Low carb can also be better for someone wanting a more flexible diet. As I mentioned, having a cheat day on keto can knock you out of ketosis and throw you way off track. With low carb, a cheat day isn’t as big a deal. It also gives you more flexibility in what foods you can eat. Even starchy vegetables like sweet potato and butternut squash contain too many carbs for keto, but for a low carb diet they’re fine. For many people (like myself) this flexibility usually means more sustainability and long term success.
Low carb can also have many of the same benefits on energy levels and stable blood sugar as keto. By timing your carbs correctly, you can get your blood sugar to rise when you need it and control it when you don’t.
So which one is better?
Both. Neither. There is no right answer. There’s a lot of crossover in the benefits of keto and low carb. The only real way to know is to experiment and find what works for you. My suggestion is if you’re someone who currently eats lots of carbs, try low carb and see how it feels. If you can sustain that and want a little more, then switch to keto. Making too big of a jump can be difficult. Ease into it and you’ll make your life a lot easier. Maybe keto is for you or maybe neither of these work. The only way to know is to try it. Let me know if you have any questions on either below and I’ll be monitoring the comments to answer any questions.