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In recent years, both the paleo and keto diets have come out of seemingly nowhere to become national dietary movements here in the U.S. With also sorts of different blog articles, social media posts, and youtube videos focused on paleo and keto-related topics, you've likely already come across something.
But there is also a lot of misinformation out there about these two diets which can make determining which approach is right for you more troublesome. That's why in this article, we’ll be covering all the basics on each diet to help you figure out which dieting strategy is most optimal for your lifestyle needs.
What is the Paleo Diet?
When it comes to changing your lifestyle and improving your health, research shows that there may be certain advantages in turning to the diets of our great ancestors -- the paleo diet is all about mimicking these nutritional habits.
Paleo-enthusiasts will tell you that when your body is attuned to this sort of lifestyle, your health will ultimately improve. After all, back in ancient times, there were no convenience stores offering a plethora of processed foods and there certainly wasn’t the 40% obesity rate which our country is currently suffering from.(1)
What’s On the Menu?
In today's day and age, the modern paleo diet is centrally oriented around ‘unprocessed’ foods -- during the paleolithic period, people only consumed natural foods that were available in the area in which they lived; there were no man-made foods that could be artificially manufactured and distributed across the globe.
People following the modern paleo diet can feast on things like unprocessed meats like chicken, beef, and pork, veggies, like broccoli, asparagus, spinach, and tomatoes, as well as, seeds, nuts, and healthy oils.
Basically, anything created on an assembly line is not on the paleo menu. No processed grains like pasta, no empty sugars, and no dairy. Nothing except the resources your ancestors could hunt and gather.
What is the Keto Diet?
If you are looking to really eliminate carbs, or drastically lose weight, the keto diet is likely for you. From a layperson’s perspective, many people know keto as the approach where you can eat bacon. However, the science behind keto is actually quite complex.
The dogma of keto is that carbohydrates -- your body’s main fuel source -- should be avoided at all costs. Keto dieters will argue that your body does better when it is burning fat, not glucose.
Ketosis is the body’s back up process through which it can produce energy. When you are not taking in any calories and there isn't enough glucose in your blood -- glucose is your body's main energy source -- your body turns to burning fat --ketones -- for energy(2)
Carbs also spike your blood sugar, whereas fat does not. This is why keto can be beneficial for those suffering from blood sugar issues, like type 2 diabetes. In a nutshell, the keto diet is all about eating more healthy fats and proteins and avoiding carbs at all costs.
Keto Vs The Atkins Diet
If you’re interested in the keto diet, you may have also heard of the Atkins diet, or at least of the more general term ‘low-carb diet’. The biggest difference between these approaches is the varying amounts of carbs.
A Strict keto diet is usually under 50 grams of carbs, per day. In total, only 5% of your daily calories should come from carbs. Low-carb diets can have far more carbs, and Atkins does not focus as much on food quality, nor do they focus on staying in ketosis.
Atkins usually recommends cycles, where you dip into ketosis for a day, then consume a large amount of carbs the next. Keto dieters consume proteins (not battered and fried, of course) like pork, chicken, eggs, beef, etc. If you’re following the keto diet, about 20-30% of your daily calories should come from meat.
Since fat is your main source of energy, those on the keto diet are always on the hunt for “good” fats. The most common sources are avocado oil, coconut oil, and olive oil. You’ll want at least 150-175 grams of fat per day - or 70% of your total calories.
Keto diets also should include fruits and veggies low on the carb scale. This includes cruciferous veggies like cauliflower, leafy greens, and berries. Fruits are typically high in sugar though, so you’ll want to stick to dark berries high in antioxidants.
You can also add an avocado (super high in beneficial fats!) with your daily egg. In summary, keto means lots of natural fats and proteins, and little to no carbohydrates.
What Are the Similarities Between the Paleo and Keto Diets?
Keto and paleo cross over in many important areas. For starters, both paleo and keto are built on a similar scientific and philosophical foundation -- you eat closer to how your cavemen ancestors ate with both diets.
With paleo, the concept is that our body is genetically geared towards what the early humans consumed. In terms of our evolutionary biology, concepts like farming and large-scale food production are essentially still brand new. Interestingly, our bodies are not as good at breaking down starches, which are a central component of the modern American diet.
In other words, our bodies are still genetically geared to a diet that that is millions of years old. For keto, the principle is largely the same – but with one added twist. Cavemen eating the paleo diet often went without food during famines and harsh winters.
To survive, their bodies used ketones -- basically, the energy converted from fat -- to endure long stretches without food. Keto reverts your body back to this natural state, as the energy created from these fatty acids is great for our brain and bodies. (3)
So, both approaches rely on the notion that we should turn away from highly-processed foods and back towards the natural diets of our ancestors. Due to this shared philosophy, both diets unsurprisingly share a lot of the same foods -- both approaches are oriented around natural, whole foods like nuts, meats, and seeds that can be found in the wild.
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Both diets are geared away from anything processed, so battered meats fried in oil are off the table. Additionally, both diets discourage refined sugar, since our ancestors did not have the ability to add high-fructose corn syrup to their meals.
On top of that, both paleo and keto also center themselves around the consumption of healthy fats, as the oils from fruits and nuts are good sources of sustainable energy.
A meal plan within both diets may actually look pretty similar. No matter which approach you choose, you’ll be eating foods like salmon and avocado, grilled pork and salad, vegetables, and high-quality steaks. Both diets include potential snacks like dark berries, carrots, and nuts as well. And of course, both avoid grains, starches, and sugar.
Additionally, both the paleo and keto diets have been shown to be effective for weight loss. In addition to containing whole foods that are more satiating, both diets also push a person to avoid the sort of empty calories that can cause large amounts of weight gain -- particularly things like white bread, starchy potatoes, and sugary sodas.
What Are the Differences?
There are some small, but significant, differences between the keto and paleo diet. The biggest is dairy. Keto allows for some milk products, while paleo does not. With keto, you can incorporate full-fat, organically sourced dairy products in your diet -- this includes foods like cheese, yogurt, butter, and heavy cream.
This can potentially allow for a greater diversity of meals and snacks, however, the keto diet only allows for a minimal amount of carbs, so you’ll have to keep your dairy consumption in check.
Additionally, as opposed to keto, paleo doesn’t have you counting calories. The standard keto diet, on the other hand, measures your macronutrient intake and tracks where your calories come from -- i.e. you’ll be evaluating how many of your daily calories are coming from protein, carbs, and fat.
Factors that can determine how many macronutrients you can consume on a keto diet include gender, weight, age, and activity level. With the keto diet, 70% of your calories should come from healthy fats, 5% from carbs, and the rest from protein.
The paleo diet is far less strict in terms of calorie-counting; you simply don’t have to monitor your calories or macros if you don’t want to. The biggest factor with paleo is simply eating the right kinds of foods.
Other Variables to Consider
On top of the main differences between the two, there are also some other variables to consider if you’re trying to decide whether to follow a keto or a paleo diet plan.
Research into the long-term effects of both diets is ongoing. While paleo promotes heart health and decreases the risk of diabetes, there is some scientific evidence that a strict paleo diet may hurt your gut health.(4)
Additionally, a paleo diet is lacking in iodine -- an essential micronutrient commonly found in dairy products. Should you follow a paleo diet, it is important to both consult a health professional, and consider taking dietary supplements.
In terms of the keto diet, you run the risk of coming down with the “keto flu” early on in your keto journey. This “flu” is a host of symptoms, usually involving headaches, brain fog, a lack of energy, constipation, and difficulty sleeping.
The keto flu can occur as your body adjusts to a drastically different diet. Not much is known about what specifically triggers the keto flu but dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and carb withdrawal all are likely culprits. The keto flu usually fades within a few days of appearing, but it’s something to keep in mind if your thinking about going keto.
Long-term viability should always be taken into account when picking a diet. You’ll want to pick an approach that’s realistic and you can stick to. In general, paleo is less restrictive than keto, since you don’t have to count calories or macros, which may make it easier for some people to adhere to.
On the other hand, paleo is also known to be quite expensive and time-consuming. It can be costly to purchase and prepare paleo-friendly items, especially over the long-term. While the same can be said about keto to some extent, there are some low-cost keto-friendly options like dairy products which can help offset the budget.
Ultimately, both keto and paleo are great for weight loss. Your body gets the right kind of energy, and plenty of protein, while avoiding the pitfalls of empty calories and excess sugar.
Both diets also work because the underlying metabolic mechanism is hormonal rebalancing. Your satiety and hunger hormones -- leptin and ghrelin -- are far better balanced when following a keto or paleo diet – especially when compared to the standard high-carb fare of the western diet.
The paleo and keto diet are both great dietary approaches. They eliminate sugar, recommend healthy fats, and advocate eating clean sources of protein.
If you’re looking to lose weight, both approaches work well, however, if you love carbs, you may want to go with the paleo diet, as it allows for more carbs in your daily eating routine.
Keto, by contrast, is very strict when it comes to carbs. Both diets eliminate grains, but keto allows for some dairy consumption, while keto does not.
- “Trends in Obesity and Severe Obesity Prevalence in US Youth and Adults by Sex and Age, 2007-2008 to 2015-2016” Hales, C.M., Frayer, C.D., Carroll, M.D. JAMA. Apr. 2018.
- “Nutritional Ketosis and Mitohormesis: Potential Implications for Mitochondrial Function and Human Health” Miller, V.J., Villamena, F.A., Volek,J.S. Journal of Nutritional Metabolism. Feb. 2018.
- “A Ketogenic Diet Improves Cognition and Has Biochemical Effects in Prefrontal Cortex That Are Dissociable From Hippocampus” Hernandez, A.B., Hernandez, C.M., Campos, K., Truckerbrod, L., Federico, Q., Moon, B., McQuail, J.A., Mauer, A.P., Bizon, J.L., Burker, S.N. Fronteirs in Aging Neuroscience. Dec. 2018.
- “Long-term Paleolithic diet is associated with lower resistant starch intake, different gut microbiota composition and increased serum TMAO concentrations.” Genoni, A., Christophersen, C.T., Lo, J., Coghlan, M., Boyce, M.C., Bird, A.R., Lyons-Wall, P., Devine, A. European Journal of Nutrition. Jul. 2019.