Whether it’s getting more protein, losing weight, or boosting lean muscle mass, there are many reasons why people choose low-carb diets like the Paleolithic (paleo) and ketogenic (keto) diets. If your goal is to decrease carbohydrates and sugar while increasing healthy fat and protein intake, you may be considering paleo or keto. Curious about the differences between these popular diets?
Both paleo and ketogenic diets aim to boost healthy eating habits. However, they each have different rules, restrictions, and philosophies. Whether you’re new to these diets or you just need a refresher, here’s what you should know about keto vs. paleo — and how each low-carb regimen can work for you.
Paleo vs. Keto
The ketogenic diet and the paleo diet have a number of things in common. For one, both diets drastically reduce carbohydrate intake. This includes most grains and starches, including wheat, barley, rice, and potatoes. At the same time, both diets call for an increase in high-quality whole foods, like veggies and greens.
Legumes are also restricted on both the keto and paleo diet — this includes beans and peanuts. Both keto and paleo restrict highly processed foods, as well as those containing refined sugars. This means that most diet foods, like processed protein bars or low-fat sodas, are off the table.
So what can followers of paleo and keto enjoy? The main components of both these diets are healthy foods like meat, fish, eggs, non-starchy vegetables, leafy greens, and healthy oils from nuts and seeds, though some restrictions apply.
For example, ketogenic diet followers don’t eat starchy vegetables or root vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots, or parsnips. And while paleo allows for nearly all fruits in moderation, ketogenic followers eliminate all fruits except small portions of berries. Keto also places an emphasis on butter, cream, and unprocessed cheese. This is one of the key differences when exploring keto vs. paleo: Dairy is prolific in the keto diet while paleo followers are strict about avoiding it.
Weight loss is the primary benefit of both these diets, especially for those who struggle with weight gain or diabetes. As explained by Harvard endocrinologist and author Dr. David Ludwig, carb restriction stabilizes blood sugar levels and reduces insulin, which is a core driver of weight gain.
“By lowering insulin levels, fewer calories from the meal may get stored in fat cells, leaving more to fuel metabolism and feed the brain. As a result, you may feel fuller longer after eating,” Ludwig says.
Ludwig also found that low-carb diets help people burn more calories and lose more weight than following a low-fat diet alone. In contrast to the high-carb diets that are common in the western world, low-carb diet plans work to restore the body to its natural state.
What Is the Paleo Diet?
The paleo diet refers to the Paleolithic era when early humans got their dinner by foraging for wild plants and stalking giant mammoths. This was long before cooking and agriculture transformed the way we eat. It refers to the time when cavemen only had access to food they could find in the great outdoors. Processed foods, dairy products, and refined sugars were nonexistent.
Cavemen and early hunter-gatherers also relied heavily on an array of wild plants and vegetables. (Their plant-focused diet may have contributed to their survival.) Like paleobiologist Amanda Henry explains, hunting for meat wasn’t the only way Paleolithic humans found nutrients.
In fact, different cultures from around the world ate a rainbow of food groups from the earth depending on where they lived and what was accessible nearby. Today, people who want to accurately reflect the diets of early humans must eat not only grass-fed meat but also a wide variety of nuts, seeds, veggies, and fruit. Maple syrup and natural sweeteners like stevia are also accepted on the paleo diet, as these can be found in nature.
Health Benefits of the Paleo Diet
Following a paleo meal plan has many benefits, including accelerated weight loss, decreased waist circumference, reduced blood pressure, and improved cholesterol. Paleolithic eating habits may also support relief from certain conditions, such as epilepsy and cognitive decline. People who suffer from anxiety, brain fog, and other mental illnesses may also stand to gain from starting a caveman diet. Proponents of the diet have also said that it helps with type 2 diabetes.
Nutritional psychologist Georgia Ede explains that she’s seen significant improvements in patients’ mental health outcomes after they switched to a paleo-style diet. Achieving mental clarity and reducing anxiety are common side effects of making paleo-inspired food choices.
There are many reasons why paleo diets play a role in mental health. On one hand, paleo diets eliminate gluten, which can cause inflammatory reactions in certain people. Gluten intolerances have also been linked in schizophrenia, autism, and bipolar disorder, Ede says.
Paleo diets may also improve mental health because they’re low in refined carbohydrates, which can drive up inflammation, oxidative stress, and hormonal imbalance — all conditions that destabilize the activity of mood-regulating neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and GABA.
The paleo diet also emphasizes an active lifestyle, much like our ancestors would have had while foraging for food. Exercising daily and staying properly hydrated are two key lifestyle components of the paleo diet that can greatly improve long-term health. The best way to work out on the paleo diet is to get off the treadmill and get out into the great outdoors. Rather than pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion, the paleo diet stresses a healthy balance between training and recovery.
What Is the Ketogenic Diet?
The ketogenic diet is focused on accelerating ketosis, which is when there aren’t enough carbs in the body for energizing the cells. This high-fat diet causes the body to produce ketones, which encourage the body to rely on fat stores for energy instead of carbs. In addition to making you more energized, ketosis can improve mood and reduce hunger symptoms to keep you fuller for longer.
The keto diet depends on healthy fats to induce this process, so it’s important to up your intake of foods like grass-fed butter, ghee, flax seeds, fatty fish, eggs, and whole-fat yogurt. It’s also important to add avocado oil, coconut oil, and olive oil to your diet.
The high-fat keto diet has strict rules for carb intake, capping the limit at 50 grams of carbohydrates per day. Breaking this down, you’ll want 60-75% of your calories to come from fat and 15-30% of your calories from protein.
One word of caution is that the keto diet eliminates grains and most fruits, which may cause a reduction in folic acid. Since this is an important nutrient for cell generation and recovery, it would be smart to add a multivitamin with folic acid to your diet.
Also be aware that, when first switching to keto, it may take about a week for your body to adjust. The body likely won’t go into ketosis for 3-4 days, during which you may feel tired and sluggish. Carb withdrawal can also cause mental fog, headaches, and cramps — a combination that’s often referred to as the keto flu. Getting over this hump, however, is key to kicking your body into ketosis and reaping its full benefits.
Health Benefits of The Ketogenic Diet
Low-carb diets like keto are effective at targeting reductions in visceral fat, which lodges around the organs. Reducing visceral fat is important because it’s associated with inflammation and insulin resistance.
It’s clear that the keto diet can help you lose weight, but can it help with other health challenges? The low-carb, high-fat keto diet has been proven to support a reduction in seizures in people with certain types of epilepsy. Specifically, keto diets have been used for years to help children with disorders like Lennox-Gastaut syndrome or Rett syndrome, both of which cause seizures.
Some people have claimed that the diet can help reduce acne, improve heart health, and regulate hormone imbalances, though more evidence is needed to support such claims. Regardless, switching to keto may help people live longer, healthier lives. Since the fat-burning nature of the keto diet will likely lead to weight loss, it can support overall health by reducing obesity-related ailments like diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers in individuals who were previously overweight.
How to Choose Between Keto vs. Paleo
Both the keto and paleo diets may reduce weight loss and obesity-related diseases. And while both these diets follow a low-carb meal plan, they each have their own set of science-backed philosophies.
The keto diet emphasizes healthy fat intake with foods like grass-fed and full-fat dairy, nuts, eggs, and lean meats to induce a state of ketosis, which burns fat and boosts energy. Paleo also supports the consumption of healthy fats, but allows for all fruits, vegetables, and meats while restricting dairy products. If you’re interested in losing weight and pursuing a healthier overall diet, here’s the bottom line: both keto and paleo may provide the results you’re looking for.