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

May 12, 2021
Photo Credit: Nadine Greef

Reducing your carbohydrate intake to lose weight and improve health isn’t a new idea, nor is it one without its merits — particularly for people with diabetes. But not all low-carb diets are created equal. Here, we take a look at the keto diet vs. other low-carb diets. What’s the difference and is one is right for you?

What Is the Keto Diet?

The keto diet is a type of low-carb, high-fat diet that aims to send your body into ketosis, a metabolic state in which your body produces ketones (also called ketone bodies). Ketones are an alternative fuel source for your body. Normally, your body relies on glucose for fuel; when it doesn’t have enough carbohydrates, it makes ketones by breaking down fats.

Advocates of the keto diet believe that this metabolic state allows your body to run at an optimal level. And keto has proven effective at helping patients with epilepsy, seizures, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and obesity.

But other low-carb diets may also help with many of the same medical conditions, including diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and obesity. And some low-carb diets are known to reduce markers of chronic disease, such as high blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood triglycerides.

So, keto vs. low-carb: what’s the difference?

Keto vs. Low-Carb: What’s the Difference?

The main difference between the keto diet and other low-carb diets is one of degree. The keto diet allows for less than 50 grams of carbs per day — because that’s the point at which most people enter ketosis.

There’s no set definition for how many carbs you can consume on a low-carb diet. It might be 50 grams, or it might be 150 grams. And that can make a big difference in terms of what you can and can’t eat.

With 150 grams of carbs, for instance, you can still eat some fruits, starchy vegetables, beans, and legumes; whereas the 50 grams allowed on the keto diet doesn’t leave room for much else besides non-starchy vegetables.

Keto vs. Low-Carb: Weight Loss

Studies show that both low-carb and keto diets can aid in weight loss, although that weight loss may be the result of overall calorie reduction, not just carbohydrate reduction.

The keto diet is known to spur rapid weight loss in the first couple of weeks, but that doesn’t come without a cost. Many keto dieters go through the “keto flu,” a condition that feels much like the real flu (complete with nausea, fatigue, and headaches) as your body adjusts to the state of ketosis. Studies also show that weight loss often peaks after a few months and is likely to come back if ketosis isn’t sustained.

Because of the higher carb allowance for other low-carb diets, they are often more sustainable than keto. This can make it easier to keep the weight off long-term.

Keto vs. Low-Carb: Fitness Performance

There’s not much peer-reviewed research looking at keto versus low-carb as the two diets pertain to fitness performance. Most athletes eat a high-carb diet because carbohydrates are the predominant source of fuel for your body, and your body can turn stored carbohydrates (glycogen) into energy quicker than it can turn fat into energy.

The standard nutritional guidelines for exercise involve eating a high-carb meal or snack before and after a workout. However, as long as you give yourself a few weeks to adapt to a keto or low-carb diet, your body will probably perform just fine (provided you eat enough calories overall).

So, Is the Keto Diet Healthy?

The keto diet has proven health benefits and is effective way to lose weight in a short period of time. But high-fat diets — when they consist of harmful fats — are associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, high triglycerides, and blood vessel diseases. If you have a medical condition that might be exacerbated by keto, such as high cholesterol or atherosclerosis, definitely talk to your doctor before starting the keto diet.

The keto diet also presents the risk for nutrient deficiencies from lack of food groups, like fruits and starchy vegetables. Lack of fiber can also cause digestive discomfort.

If you choose to go keto, fill your plates with as many non-starchy vegetables as possible and stick to lean sources of protein and healthy fats for the best results. And know that you can always start with a less restrictive low-carb diet.

Just be aware that for some, the restrictive eating habits associated with any low-carb diet can complicate your relationship with cravings and send you into yo-yo dieting mode. Only careful consideration and thoughtful approach can help you determine the benefits for you.

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