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Keto vs. Atkins: What’s the Difference Between These Low-Carb Diets?

By Fitoru | 15 July 2019
keto salmon and green vegetables.

You know that carbohydrates have a tendency to pack on the pounds and that the simple sugars in carbs can wreak havoc with your blood sugar levels, so you’re looking for a new low-carb diet. We’re here to help! Let’s quickly review several different low-carb diet options, and then zero in on the top two contenders: keto vs. Atkins. Find out what makes each one unique, and then choose the one you like best.

What Are the Most Popular Low-Carb Diets?

When it comes to lowering your carb intake, there are a few ways to go about it. You have to replace the calories you usually get from carbs with something else, and there are often some lifestyle philosophies and other dietary restrictions at play with most people. Here are a few of the low-carb diets you can choose from.

1. The Low-Carb, High-Fat Diet (LCHF)

This is the nuts-and-bolts standard low-carb diet and a great way to transition into a keto diet due to its emphasis on healthy fat intake (though keto has stricter ratios). Any diet that recommends at least 50% of your calories come from fat and no more than 30% of your calories come from carbs falls into this category.

LCHF diets focus on healthy fats like those contained in nuts, protein from lean meat, fish, and eggs, and other nutrients from vegetables, dairy products, and berries. Carbohydrate intake under the LCHF diet could range anywhere from 20-100 grams of carbs per day and still qualify.

2. The Low-Carb Paleo Diet

The paleo diet is a popular one, maybe because of its unique premise: just eat the kinds of food that were natural to humans before we learned how to farm! That means eating whole foods available during the Paleolithic era, including fruits, vegetables, tubers, seeds, nuts, meats, fish, and eggs. The foods that are out: grain-based foods (goodbye carbs) like bread, processed foods, dairy, sugar, and legumes.

The idea is that we should return to eating the natural foods we were evolved to eat, instead of eating what we can concoct in this post-agricultural and -industrial world. It sounds quaint, but it’s pretty powerful considering a diet free from processed foods and refined sugar can lead to weight loss, reduced risk of heart disease, and improved blood sugar levels.

3. The Low-Carb Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet is another popular, heart-healthy diet, favored especially among nutritionists and health care professionals. The premise is to eat the foods natural to Mediterranean countries around the turn of the 20th century. That includes good amounts of olive oil, fish, dairy products like cheese, fruits, vegetables, and even some wine (in healthy moderation). 

What this diet reduces is red meat, replaces refined vegetable oils with extra virgin olive oil, and for the low-carb version, encourages whole grains in moderate-to-limited amounts. Scientific studies have found that the Mediterranean diet can help prevent type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even breast cancer

Low-Carb, Not Zero-Carb

Some people attempt to eliminate all carbohydrates from their diet. This is what’s known as a zero-carb diet, and it involves eliminating whole food groups in favor of only eating animal foods like meat, poultry, eggs, fish, and dairy products such as lard or butter. 

There are no recent studies that validate this as a safe form of dieting, as it does not make room for any fiber or vitamins from fruits and vegetables. In fact, a low-fiber diet is only called for in limited times for patients with bowel disorders like IBS, ulcerative colitis, or Crohn’s disease. Only one study from 1930 claims that a pair of men eating a zero-carb diet maintained proper health, and it is not generally recommended today.

Keto vs. Atkins: What’s the Difference?

Now on to the two biggest players in low-carb diets: the ketogenic diet and the Atkins diet. Both of these diet plans call for low amounts of carbs in your diet and roundly discourage “junk” foods like sugary cakes, artificially sweetened drinks, and processed snacks. They are also both focused on healthy weight-loss strategies and mark success by how efficiently you can shed body weight. Below are the details of each, followed by the difference between the two.

Keto vs. Atkins diets: which is better?

The Atkins Diet

Atkins, just like keto, is a high-fat, moderate-protein, low-carb diet. Invented by Dr. Robert Atkins in the 1970s, it has gone through many different evolutions in the intervening decades (including a vegan version—see below). 

The original Atkins plan, now known as Atkins 20, is still the most widely used, and is separated into 4 phases based on the net carbs you should be consuming each day. 

  • Phase 1: You’re allowed to eat between 20-25 grams of net carbs each day until you are within 15 pounds of your ideal goal weight. This phase may take a long while depending on how much weight you’re hoping to lose.
  • Phase 2: You can allow more carbs during this phase, up to 50 grams of net carbs per day, until you are 5 pounds closer to your goal weight.
  • Phase 3: More carbs than ever are allowed in Phase 3, between 50 and 80 grams each day, this time until you have achieved your ultimate goal weight. Stay in Phase 3 until you have maintained that weight loss for at least a month.
  • Phase 4: In this final phase you can up your carb intake one more time, eating 80-100 grams of carbs each day for as long as your weight stays within healthy parameters. If you gain back any weight, start the Atkins diet from Phase 1 all over again, and it should return you to your ideal goal weight the same way it did the first time.

The Atkins diet starts with a dramatic cut in carbs and slowly increases your carb-load back up to a maintenance level. Most Americans eat way more carbs than any diet recommends, often consuming up to 50% of their daily calories via carbohydrate-rich foods. The Atkins diet attempts to teach moderation by starting with minimal carbs and allowing you to increase your carb-eating habits safely.

The Eco-Atkins Diet

The Eco-Atkins diet is a vegan version of the original, replacing animal proteins with plant foods like soy, gluten, nuts, seeds, and plant oils. Because protein intake comes from foods like beans and legumes, the Eco-Atkins diet is somewhat higher in carbs, with a ratio of about 45% calories from fat intake, 30% calories from protein, and 25% calories from carbs. 

However, Eco-Atkins is still lower in carbs than the usual vegan diet practiced without Atkins, and thus can encourage healthy weight loss and decrease risk factors for heart disease. 

The Keto Diet

Keto, aka the ketogenic diet, is a minimal-carb, moderate-protein, high-fat diet. Originally invented as an epilepsy treatment for children, it’s been found to work effectively for adults who want to lose weight quickly and safely

The ketogenic diet is a low-carb diet that retrains your body to source its fuel from fat, including your body’s existing fat stores. 

  • Energy molecules: The fuel that comes from carbs is glucose, a fast acting simple sugar; the fuel coming from fat sources are ketone bodies, which are harder for your body to access (which helps burn more calories).
  • Exogenous ketones: Endogenic ketones are made inside your body when it burns fat; exogenous ketones can be consumed from outside the body (via products like MCT or coconut oil) to help you move quickly past early “keto flusymptoms.
  • A state of ketosis: Once your body has succeeded in this metabolic changeover it burns fat rapidly, and you continue to eat low-carb to maintain this state of ketosis indefinitely (you can monitor your ketone levels with ketone test strips).

To maintain ketosis, most people restrict their carb intake to between 20-50 grams per day. In terms of macronutrients you’d get 5% of your daily calories from carbs, 20% from protein, and 75% from healthy fats.

Keto and Atkins: Comparison

Here are the similarities and disparities between keto and Atkins.

The Similarities

While these diets are both low carb, there are a few more subtle similarities, mostly in their health benefits.

The Disparities

The phases in Atkins are the differentiating factor, and there are pros and cons to each diet program.

  • Atkins’ fat-burning induction phase window is short-term, while the keto diet keeps you in ketosis indefinitely.
  • Atkins allows for more calories from protein, which may be important for those building muscle, but it also allows for more carbs in later phases, which can lead to regaining unwanted weight.
  • The minimization of carbs on keto means better blood sugar protection, but it can also be difficult to maintain the more restrictive keto-friendly eating plan (especially if you’re going for a vegan keto diet).

Which Low-Carbohydrate Diet Is Better?

At the end of the day you have to ask yourself: what is your ultimate goal? If your first priority is to lose weight safely and keep it off, you’re probably looking for keto. If you want to lose some weight and then return to more varied meal plans at the risk of the weight returning, the Atkins diet is less restrictive. Rest assured a low-carb approach to dieting is a better way of eating that can improve your overall health and well-being.

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