Low Carb Diet Review: Keto vs Low Carb (Paleo, Atkins, Whole30, and More)

When the keto diet comes up in conversation, you likely automatically think it's a low-carb diet. While it's true that keto requires low-carb eating, it's also a lot more than that. To be successful on the keto diet, you have to take all of your macronutrients into consideration: carbohydrates, protein, fat, and calories. The main difference between the ketogenic diet and the typical low-carb diet like the Atkins diet or South Beach diet is the fat content. 

Low Carb Diet Foods

While most low-carb diets use reducing total carb intake as the main focus of the diet, the keto diet adds the goal of replacing the calories from carbohydrates with healthy fat calories, specifically. The goal is to change how your body burns fuel. Additionally, the vast majority of information you'll find on the keto diet doesn't mention calories as much as the other three main macros, but if you're trying to lose weight, that detail does matter. Let's review the key aspects of the keto diet and other low-carb diets to help you figure out which diet is best for you. 

A Review of the Ketogenic Diet

The keto diet was developed at the Mayo Clinic in the 1920s. Initially intended as a treatment for severe epilepsy, over the course of its study, researchers discovered the many health benefits of the keto diet. The metabolic changes that your body undergoes while in a state of ketosis have the potential to reduce your risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and even some neurodegenerative diseases and cancers.

The main hallmark of the keto diet is the ratio of macronutrients: 

  • High fat: 70-80% of daily calories
  • Moderate protein: 20-25% of daily calories
  • Low carbohydrate: 5-10% of daily calories

This ratio not only dramatically cuts carbohydrates (the body and brain's main fuel source), but it replaces those calories mainly with healthy fats, making the keto diet a high-fat diet, in addition to a low-carb diet. Overdoing protein intake on the keto diet will reduce its benefits, so that moderate protein level is also a distinguishing characteristic. This eating strategy is designed to starve the body of glycogen and replace it as a fuel source with ketone bodies. 

Ketone bodies (also simply called ketones) are the byproduct of fat breakdown that the body uses for energy during periods of fasting or ketosis. When your body is in a state of ketosis, it has run out of glycogen stores and has to make a shift to burning ketones for fuel. This process kicks your body's fat loss into overdrive, resulting in the dramatic weight loss you see in those on the keto diet. 

If done too quickly, you could experience a side-effect called the keto flu. While it's only temporary, the effects can be somewhat unpleasant: headache, muscle soreness, fatigue, irritability, and brain fog. These symptoms should not last more than a week and are mostly likely to occur during the transition phase of the diet. Once you've transitioned your energy source from glycogen to ketones, these symptoms should subside.

Keto Diet for Weight Loss

As we mentioned previously, there are many health benefits of switching to the keto diet. Weight loss is just one of them, but it's among the most popular reasons to make the switch for a lot of people. It's important to realize that, in order to lose weight, you still need to be in an overall calorie deficit. If your body needs 2000 calories to maintain your current weight, switching to 2000 calories of the keto diet will only get you part of the way to your goal weight. 

In the short term, you'll lose water weight right away due to the cut in carbohydrate intake. And you'll probably lose a few more pounds after that, due to the positive change in your metabolic state and the stabilization of your blood sugar. But without a deficit in calorie intake, you won't get all the way there.

Understanding a healthy balance of your macros, in combination with the right calorie deficit, is a lot more likely to get you the results you're looking for. Here's a calculator to help you find the right balance to fit your goals. Luckily, fat is very filling, so it's possible – likely even – that you won't be overly hungry when shifting to a slight calorie deficit on this diet. 

It's also important to realize that if you're an active person, your body composition will very likely change as your body shifts into fat-burning mode. In other words, if you're lifting weights and doing physically demanding activities, you could be losing body fat and gaining muscle – a great thing for your health and physique that might not reflect on the scale. 

The number on the scale isn't everything. 

What's most important is how you feel in your body, and it's possible that you'll lose more inches than pounds if you're super active on the keto diet. Additionally, if you feel weak or extra tired while working out on the keto diet, you might consider adjusting the amount of carbs you eat before a workout to accommodate your activity level. 

Low-Carb Diets: Atkins

The Atkins diet is one of the most popular low-carbohydrate diets available. The folks at Atkins have made some updates over the years to try and remedy some of the problematic aspects of the original version, including adding more low-carb vegetables to their recommendations and considering "net carbs" rather than "total carbs" in their macro requirements. Net carbs are total grams of carbs minus grams of fiber. That's because fiber doesn't have an effect on your blood sugar levels, so it shouldn't count toward your carb intake. The concept of net carbs applies to the keto diet as well. 

The rest of the main tenants of the new Atkins diet remain the same as when the diet was invented by Dr. Atkins in 1972. The goal of the diet is rapid weight loss. Atkins is a phased diet that emphasizes a dramatic reduction in carbohydrates in the first phases and slowly adds them back in over time. It doesn't put an emphasis on how to divide up the other macros, however.

In other words, it's technically possible to follow the low-carb requirement of the Atkins diet while still eating low-fat and/or high-protein. While weight loss is possible on this diet, it doesn't put you into ketosis, so the results might not be as dramatic. It's also possible to follow this diet while eating nutrient-poor foods like processed meats, cheeses, and low-carb snacks. Without taking nutrition into consideration, you can run the risk of developing nutrient deficiencies. 

Other Low-Carb Diets

Other low-carb diets either play around with the macro proportions or put an emphasis on certain foods rather than specific proportions. A number of these diets are either a hybrid of keto and Atkins or a variation of Atkins that puts more of an emphasis on nutrition. The goals for all low-carb diets are roughly the same: 

  1. Balance blood sugar and stabilize insulin levels
  2. Promote weight loss

These goals are accomplished in a number of ways, based on the diet you're examining. While it would follow that an additional goal for each of these diets is to improve overall health, if not done mindfully, they don't always accomplish this goal. Here are some of the most well-known low-carb diet options:

  1. South Beach Diet: a phased approach designed to focus on healthier low-carb options and also emphasizes high-protein intake. Combining the principles of Atkins with the healthy qualities of the Mediterranean diet, this diet is often referred to as "healthy Atkins," due to its emphasis on nutrient-dense veggies and lean proteins.
  2. Zone Diet: designed as a low-glycemic diet plan with slightly higher carb recommendations than the others. All carbs are whole foods and low-glycemic.
  3. Bulletproof Diet: a more lax version of keto that focuses on high-fat foods and includes Bulletproof-branded products.
  4. Slow-Carb Diet: a regimented plan that focuses on eating specific foods every day, avoiding white/overly processed carbs, and building in a weekly cheat day.
  5. Paleo Diet: focuses on foods eaten by our prehistoric ancestors, including all whole foods, but avoiding grains, legumes, and dairy. The allowance for starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and natural sweeteners like maple syrup can easily take this diet out of the low-carb category if not done thoughtfully. 
  6. Dukan Diet: a phased approach focused on high-protein, low-carb, and low-fat foods. The first phase of this diet (lasting a few days only) is made up entirely of protein, to the exclusion of all other macros. Non-starchy vegetables from a specific list are then added in, and over time, starchy foods are brought back in.
  7. Whole 30 Diet: placing an emphasis on unprocessed, low-glycemic, whole foods, this diet combines the principles of a number of low-carb diets and creates one of the strictest plans available. No sugar or sweets of any kind, no dairy, alcohol, legumes, grains, or any filler ingredients, this diet is meant to be done in its strictest form for 30 days, and then allows for a re-integration period in order to prevent weight gain. 

While this is not a comprehensive list of all low-carb diet options available, these are the most well-known and popular meal plans. Each diet promises weight loss, some more rapid than others. Some have a phased approach, while others are designed to be more of a lifestyle change. 

Keto vs Low-Carb

Now that you've had a chance to review the main tenants of the various low-carb diet options out there, it's up to you to decide which approach is best for you. There are pros and cons to every plan. 

Going the aggressive keto route puts you at risk of temporarily feeling keto flu symptoms. However, the vast health benefits of this diet, which go far beyond sustained weight loss, are also worth considering when making your decision. 

Other non-keto low-carb options put less of an emphasis on the high-fat component of the keto plan, which often precludes the benefits of ketosis. While it's possible to lose weight on these other plans, the health benefits aren't quite the same, due to the less dramatic metabolic shift. 

Additionally, the high-fat component of the keto plan helps keep you fuller on fewer calories, which means you're more likely to stick to the plan long-term. The phased approaches and non-specific macros of many of the other non-keto low-carb plans leave room for potentially regaining the weight over time. 

Ultimately, the most important things to consider are safety and adherence. Make sure you talk to your medical provider before embarking on any dramatic changes in your diet, and when you do, choose the one you think you're most likely to stick with.


Author: Toni Sicola

Published:  August 26, 2019

Toni is a wellness professional with a Master's in Integrative Health, is passionate about spreading health, happiness, and personal fulfillment to as many people as possible. She has a professional background in health and wellness, dietary supplements, and nutrition, and embarks every day to live a well, balanced, happy life.

Hungry for more?

Read Our Beginner's Guide to Keto, or Our Beginner's Guide to Paleo or try our delicious keto-friendly nut butters.


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