The fall of carbs and rise of keto throughout the past few years has seemingly everyone opting for cauliflower pizza crust and swapping their usual Chipotle burrito for the new Keto Bowl.
However, today’s popular low-carb and keto diet trends have many a health-conscious eater confused. Are low-carb and keto diets basically the same thing? Is one approach a better option for certain people? Here, doctors and dietitians break down what makes low-carb and keto unique—and which might be best for you.
What Qualifies As A Low-Carb Diet?
Back in the 1960s, the Atkins Diet catapulted low-carbohydrate eating into the mainstream.
Today, low-carb diets exist on a spectrum, giving people the ability to take a flexible approach. “In general [a low-carb diet is] categorized by carbohydrate intake below 45 percent of your daily calories,” explains dietitian Olivia Brant, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D.
For someone who eats a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s anything below 900 calories (or 225 grams) from carbohydrates per day. Many low-carb eaters, though, keep their intake around closer to 20 percent of their daily calories. (That’s about 400 calories or 100 grams of carbs per day).
While some people use low-carb eating as a shorter-term strategy for supporting weight loss (think just a few weeks of eating this way), others make it a long-term lifestyle change to support various aspects of health.
The Pros Of Low-Carb Diets
Many nutrition experts agree that low-carb diets can be helpful for those looking to lose weight and looking to improve certain health markers. “The benefits of the low-carb diet include weight loss, reduced cardiovascular health risks, improved cholesterol, and lower blood sugar,” says dietitian Jeanette Kimszal, R.D.N., N.L.C.
According to Brant, controlling carbohydrate intake can be especially beneficial for people with type 2 diabetes who need to closely manage their blood sugar.
One key factor in making low-carb eating weight loss friendly, though, is to avoid substantially increasing fat and protein intake, Brant adds. After all, regardless of what macros you eat or don’t eat, you need a caloric deficit (a.k.a. to consume fewer calories than you use) to lose weight.
The Potential Cons of Low-Carb Diets
Like any diet, though, low-carb is not without its potential drawbacks. “Low-carb diets lead to decreased blood glucose availability,” warns Brant. In some people, this can contribute to irritability, fatigue, and trouble focusing. Some people may find this more restrictive way of eating difficult to sustain for long periods of time.
Also, reducing carb intake alone doesn’t make your diet healthy—or justify eating lots of processed high-fat and high-protein foods.
Then What’s A Keto Diet, Exactly?
The ketogenic diet first popped up in the 1920s, when it was used as a therapy for epilepsy. Fast forward to almost a century later, and a slew of new books, noteworthy fans (including Megan Fox and Tim Tebow), and social media buzz have brought keto back into the spotlight.
Basically, keto works by shifting your body from using glucose (sugar) for fuel to using ketones (chemicals produced by breaking down fats).
“Ketones are compounds produced from fatty acids that are able to cross the blood-brain barrier and be used by the brain as fuel,” explains Dr. David Jockers, D.N.M., D.C., M.S., author of The Keto Metabolic Breakthrough. Ketones are also believed to have anti-inflammatory effects throughout the brain and body.
Keto takes low-carb to the extreme, and involves eliminating virtually all carbs from your diet. It also requires that you radically increase your fat intake.
According to Jockers, the general macronutrient breakdown of a keto diet looks like:
- 65 to 80 percent of calories from fat
- 15 to 30 percent of calories from protein
- 5 to 10 percent of calories from carbohydrates
The Pros Of A Keto Diet
If you love indulgent, high-fat foods like avocados and macadamia nuts, you may find yourself drawn to the keto diet. “Keto allows people to indulge in highly palatable foods,” says Lyndsay Hall, R.D., dietitian at JM Nutrition.
Many people report that keto helps them boost their energy, eliminate cravings, enhance focus, decrease inflammation, and drop fat. According to Hall, eliminating sugar also helps you avoid various consequences (like increased risk of chronic health issues) linked to excess consumption.
Research also suggests that keto has noteworthy benefits for certain populations, like children with certain seizure disorders, notes dietitian Leah Forristall, R.D., L.D.N. Of course, in these circumstances, keto is used under the supervision of a team of health professionals.
The Potential Cons Of A Keto Diet
Despite promising research on its short-term effects, many experts question the long-term implications of keto. “There [is] limited research on the long-term effects (think five-to-10-plus years down the road),” says Kimszal.
Plus, different people (with different health concerns) may react to the diet differently. “Ketogenic diets may also have mixed outcomes in different genotypes,” Kimszal says. “One study of mice showed that some responded well to the diet. Others, though, wound up with obesity, high cholesterol, and fatty livers.”
“Since ketosis can strain the adrenals, it may be problematic for people under high stress,” Kimszal adds. For that reason, always check with your doctor before trying keto—especially if you have any thyroid, autoimmune, or adrenal issues.
Another thing to consider: Since keto is so high in fat, it’s crucial to eat high-quality fats. “When choosing oils, opt for expeller- or cold-pressed virgin or extra-virgin oils,” says Kimszal. Refined seed oils like canola, soybean, corn, and sunflower oil, can weaken cell membranes and spur inflammation.
Key Similarities And Differences Between Low-Carb And Keto
While many iterations of low-carb eating exist, being truly keto involves sticking to its very specific requirements.
Low-carb diets are more flexible and don’t involve increasing fat intake to a specific level, as keto does, says Forristall.
However, since both low-carb and keto may restrict certain foods (like grains and starchy vegetables), dieters should be wary of potential nutritional shortfalls.
Eating keto or low-carb “may prevent you from getting adequate fiber from fruits, starches, grains, and legumes,” says dietitian Amanda A. Kostro Miller, R.D., L.D.N. “People on [these diets] long-term may risk developing deficiencies in vitamins A, C, K, and folate.”
Should You Try Keto Or Low-Carb?
As research on keto continues to develop, many experts recommend consulting with a dietitian before giving it a try.
According to Jockers, though, “people who are overweight, have type 2 diabetes, suffer from seizures, or are dealing with cognitive issues tend to benefit most.” Since men are less sensitive to low blood sugar levels than women, they also tend to see more success on keto.
That said, if you struggle with keto’s restrictive rules or have other health conditions, low-carb may be more accessible—and sustainable.
“A low-carb diet that removes sugars and grains can be very beneficial for individuals with digestive issues, autoimmune conditions, and women with certain hormonal imbalances,” says Jockers.
Ultimately, though, the best way to determine whether keto or low-carb (and how low-carb) is best for you is to talk through your medical history, goals, and lifestyle with a dietitian.
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