What’s the difference between low-carb and Keto? Aren’t they the same?
In a sense, yes. A Keto diet is a type of low-carb diet.
In another sense, no. Not all low-carb diets are sufficiently low-carb enough to be Keto.
It’s like geometry. A square (Keto) is always a rectangle (low-carb diet), but a rectangle isn’t always a square.
Don’t worry, that’s the last flashback to middle school math for today. We’ll spend the rest of our time covering the health considerations of low-carb vs. Keto.
What Is Low-Carb?
Low-carb means low-carbohydrate. The label generally refers to a low-carb diet or a specific low-carb food.
How low in carbohydrates must a diet be to qualify? That depends on who you talk to.
Some researchers consider any carb intake below 40% of total calories to be “low-carbohydrate.”[*] That may be lower than the average American consumes, but it’s nowhere near Keto territory.
For simplicity, let’s turn to NIH StatPearls. They define a low-carb diet as any diet in which fewer than 26% of your calories come from carbohydrates.[*] The remaining calories come from fat and protein.
On a low-carb diet, the main rule isn’t a mystery: keep carbs low. This means limiting carbohydrate-rich foods like grains, anything with refined sugar or refined flour (sugary beverages, juices, cookies, cakes, pasta, pizza, crackers, etc.), potatoes, root vegetables, and many fruits.
Your calories come instead from low-carb, high-fat, and high-protein foods like meat, fish, eggs, nuts, dairy, protein powders, healthy fats, and low-carb veggies. You can have some carbs, but not too many.
What Is Keto?
Keto is short for the Keto diet, which itself is short for the ketogenic diet. Why is the diet called ketogenic? Because when you eat it, you produce molecules called ketones to fuel your brain and body.[*]
This metabolic state is called ketosis, and it’s defined by fat burning and ketone production. We’ll cover Keto health benefits in a moment.
Carb restriction and increasing consumption of healthy fats is the key to ketosis. On Keto, you consume 55-75% of your calories from fat, 15-35% from protein, and fewer than 10% from carbs.
Keeping carbs low keeps the hormone insulin low, which helps you access body fat. Once that fat is released into circulation, it can be burned for energy.[*]
The Keto food list is similar to the low-carb food list (meat, fish, eggs, healthy fats, etc.), but the rules are more stringent. Let’s take a look at that now.
Low-Carb vs. Keto Differences
The operative difference between low-carb and Keto? Macro rules.
A low-carb diet entails limiting carbs to 26% of calories. Beyond that, you’re free to improvise.
For instance, you could eat a low-carb, low-fat, high-protein diet. It probably won’t promote ketosis, but you’d still qualify for the low-carb fan club.
Keto is more restrictive. Because it limits daily carbs to 10% of calories, it’s considered a very-low-carb diet, not just a low-carb diet.
The other Keto macros are more flexible, but not infinitely flexible. For example, if you consume 5% of your calories from carbs, 10% from fat, and 85% from protein, that’s not a Ketogenic diet. Protein is crucial for muscular and hormonal health, but excessive protein intakes without fat or carbs could:
- Kick you out of ketosis (protein raises insulin levels more than fat)[*]
- Be detrimental to kidney health[*]
- Sap energy levels (fat and carbs are more easily converted to ATP)[*]
Ready to learn about low-carb health benefits now?
Low-Carb Diet vs. Keto Benefits
Low-carb diets (including Keto) are most popularly known as a weight loss intervention.
One reason they work? When you cut out carbs, you eradicate non-filling, addictive foods like soda, cookies, and candy. Less overeating often results in easier weight loss.
In a 2020 review from the journal Nutrients, researchers analyzed 38 studies on low-carb and low-fat diets.[*] They found that low-carb diets were better for weight loss and triglyceride reduction, but low-fat diets were better for reducing LDL cholesterol.
Keto is the most researched kind of low-carb diet, and weight loss is probably the most researched Keto benefit.[*][*][*]
On Keto, people tend to consume fewer calories, feel less hungry, burn more body fat, and expend more energy.[*][*][*][*] That’s a good formula for weight loss.
Other potential ketosis benefits include:
- Enhanced cognition[*]
- More steady energy
- Fat loss (especially belly fat)[*]
- Lower inflammation[*]
- Reduced diabetes risk
- Potential therapy for cancer and Alzheimer’s[*][*]
These benefits, remember, apply specifically to the Keto diet.
How To Decide Which Diet Makes Sense
Whether you choose low-carb, very-low-carb or another diet will depend on your goals, preferences, and tastes.
If your goal is weight loss, any low-carb iteration may be useful. It doesn’t have to be Keto. But if you’re looking for the specific benefits commonly associated with ketosis—mental acuity, hunger suppression, etc.—you’ll want to follow a Keto diet.
The issue with Keto tends to be compliance. Low-carb diets are more flexible. You can have a few pieces of fruit and not worry about it.
If you want to keep a moderate amount of carbs in your healthy lifestyle, consider a low-carb Paleo diet. Paleo disallows sugar, vegetable oils, and grains (our ancestors skipped these foods too!) but still permits carby foods like yams and potatoes.
5 Tips to Start a Low-Carb Diet
Ready to go low-carb? Mind these tips.
#1: Track net carbs
To calculate net carbs, subtract fiber and sugar alcohols from total carbs. (Fiber and sugar alcohols have negligible calories or glycemic impact). Net carbs are the only carbs that count on a low-carb or Keto diet. Use the Carb Manager app to help you keep track of these macros.
#2: Take electrolytes
Because they suppress insulin, low-carb diets increase urinary losses of sodium and potassium.[*] To replace what’s lost, salt your food and consider taking electrolyte supplements.
#3: Consider going Keto
Willing to cut carbs out of your life? The benefits may be worth it. Give Keto a month or two and see how you feel.
#4: Learn to appreciate low-carb foods
Explore the culinary possibilities of the low-carb universe. Bake, blend, sizzle, and saute. Your taste buds don’t need carbs to be happy.
#5: Get Carb Manager
The Carb Manager app isn’t just a macro tracker, but also a supportive community, accountability coach, and fount of nutritional wisdom. It’s designed for one purpose: to ease and enhance your low-carb journey.
Sue1974 2 months ago
I’m keto and have lost weight, maintained and have lots of energy.
Nick R a year ago
I'm very low carb but also medium fat and high protein.
Lviets 7 months ago
Hi, Nick, I'm headed in that direction and am having trouble trying to get enough to eat while getting 40% protein, and less fat. My base blood sugar rose 10 - 20 points, and I'm having to get that down again, too. I thought it would be easy to do high protein/low carb. I'm not hungry enough to eat 3 meals and it's common to eat just 700-800 kcal per day. What are good protein foods to eat that have few fats?