Keto and Atkins tend to get lumped into the same low-carb, “alternative” diet category. You’ll notice that many packaged foods catering to a low-carb audience typically give a shoutout to both!
And while both keto and paleo get back to basics on how the human body processes energy, removing many processed and refined foods from the modern diet, the two lifestyles also differ in important ways.
Where do Keto and Paleo overlap, and where do the two diets diverge? Knowing the similarities and differences can help you make an informed choice about which diet is the right fit for your goals and lifestyle.
Key Features of a Ketogenic Diet
The ketogenic diet revolves around drastically reducing your carbohydrate intake, with the purpose of transitioning your body to a state of nutritional ketosis. Why? The body has two options for fuel to drive energy production: glucose (from carbohydrates and sugar) or fat, which is metabolized with the help of ketones that are produced in the liver when glucose isn’t available.
In modern society, most people’s bodies are in glucose mode. Sugar and refined carbohydrates are an instant energy boost--despite their drawbacks of raising our insulin levels, wreaking havoc on our guts, causing our energy levels to skyrocket then crash, and making us gain weight.
When you reduce your carbohydrate intake, your body makes a paradigm shift to using fat molecules for energy, instead of sugar. Through a steady diet of high fat, moderate protein, and very low levels of carbohydrates (typically between 20 and 50 grams per day), the body becomes “fat adapted.” The benefits of a ketogenic diet include significant weight loss, reduced inflammation, improved insulin sensitivity, benefits for many conditions including PCOS, epilepsy, and Alzheimer’s, improved mental clarity, and higher endurance during exercise.
Ketogenic diets focus on macronutrients to maintain the proper levels of fat, protein, and carbs for keeping the body in ketosis, or fat-burning mode. Most people who follow a ketogenic diet maintain 65-75% fat, and 15-20% protein, and 5-10% carbohydrates. While a ketogenic diet ideally revolves around whole, unprocessed food, it is possible to eat a ketogenic diet that includes processed meats and packaged foods.
Key Features of a Paleo Diet
There’s a reason the paleo diet is often called the “caveman diet.” This diet focuses on a return to food sources our ancestors ate, by reducing our dependence on processed foods, foods that contain artificial sweeteners, toxins, trans fats, and chemicals, and increasing the amount of whole, nutrient-dense foods in the diet. Paleo also cuts out dairy, wheat, and legumes.
Paleo revolves around fresh fruits and vegetables, seafood and meats, healthy fats like avocado, nuts, berries, and seeds. This diet rebalancing cuts out trans fats, which some studies have linked to neurodegenerative diseases; gluten, which can irritate the digestive tract; and dairy, which can cause inflammatory problems for some people.
While a paleo diet does cut down on carbohydrates simply by shifting away from many processed and refined foods, low carb isn’t a major focus of the diet, and you’re unlikely to enter and stay in deep ketosis.
It’s also important to note that the paleo diet emphasizes the importance of exercise, getting enough quality sleep, removing sources of significant stress from your life, and finding mental clarity through meditation and practices like yoga.
Keto Vs. Paleo: Key Differences
The biggest differences between keto and paleo revolve around macronutrients versus nutrient density, carbohydrate levels, fat consumption, and a holistic versus body-centric focus:
Macronutrients Vs. Nutrient Density
Keto places its primary focus on macronutrients--in other words, the balance between fat, protein, and carbohydrates in your diet. The right balance will allow your body to make the shift from using glycogen for energy, to using consumed and stored fat for energy. Paleo, on the other hand, focuses less on percentages of macronutrients and more on whole, nutrient-dense foods that are free from chemicals, irritants to the gut, and processed ingredients.
Ketosis Vs. Low Carb
Most--but not all--paleo diets are lower in carbohydrates than the typical American diet. However, a paleo diet that includes a lot of natural sweeteners like honey and agave, or root vegetables like sweet potatoes, may contain a significant amount of carbohydrates. Keto, on the other hand, restricts carbs to 5-10% of the diet, which typically shakes out to 20-50 grams per day. These low levels of carbohydrates force the body to make the leap to using fat for energy instead of glycogen supplies.
Level of Fat Consumption
While the paleo diet doesn’t discourage fat consumption--especially unprocessed, non-trans fats like avocados and nuts--the diet doesn’t advocate for high fat content. Keto, on the other hand, encourages fat intake close to 70%, to maintain a deep state of ketosis, in which the body uses fat instead of sugar for energy. And while many people fear that by eating a lot of fat, they’ll gain a lot of fat, the opposite is true. With very little sugar intake, the body’s insulin levels drop significantly--resulting in very little stored fat.
Holistic Vs. Body-Centric Focus
The paleo diet tends to be a bit more holistic than keto, focusing on mental wellness and stress reduction, exercise routines, the quality of the food that’s consumed, and eliminating potentially harmful chemicals from the diet. Keto tends is typically more focused on the body, with benefits that include weight loss, reduced inflammation, improved endurance, and improved cholesterol levels. However, that’s not to say that keto doesn’t have many mental benefits as well: making the switch from sugar to fat as an energy source has plenty of neurological benefits, including improved mental clarity, focus, and protection from neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
So, Which Is Better--Keto or Paleo?
It’s impossible to place a blue ribbon on either keto or paleo. Both diets accomplish different goals and appeal to different demographics. However, by evaluating the tenets of each diet, it is possible to determine which diet is right for your lifestyle.
It’s also possible to combine the two diets harmoniously, if you’re interested in the health benefits of both keto and paleo. Many individuals have found that this “best of both worlds” approach helps them enjoy the health benefits of ketosis like weight loss and endurance, while also incorporating the holistic paleo lifestyle by reducing stress, adopting a meditation or yoga practice, focusing your diet on whole, nutrient-dense foods, and eliminating dairy and artificial sweeteners.
A keto-paleo lifestyle will steer clear of high-carb vegetables, natural sweeteners like honey and agave, all artificial sweeteners, dairy, soy, and high-carb fruits like bananas and papaya. The staples of a keto-paleo diet will revolve around healthy, natural fats like avocado, ghee, duck fat, coconut oil, extra-virgin olive oil, and many nuts; a moderate amount of unprocessed protein sources including organ meats, seafood, and nuts; nutrient-dense, low-carb fruits and vegetables like spinach, broccoli, strawberries, and blueberries; and natural sweeteners like stevia.
Both keto and paleo offer significant health benefits, and both diets offer plenty of options for delicious meals! No matter which diet you choose, making an informed decision and sticking to your goals will lead to positive, healthful results!