When you decide to get fit, diet is one of the central pillars of that healthy new life. Along with increasing and optimizing your exercise, the right diet can help you drop weight, increase your energy, and improve your overall health. But which diet is right for you? Atkins, paleo, keto, Whole30, FODMAP…it can be rather dizzying at first. So, this article focuses on the distinctions between paleo vs. keto in the hopes that it helps you decide which one is right for you.
So what is the paleo diet? Paleo, or “the caveman diet,” is based on eating only the foods humans were evolutionarily designed to eat: foods that were more-or-less available in the Paleolithic era, when humans were hunter-gatherers instead of farmer-shoppers. By eating these whole foods, you remove unnatural additives from your diet and side-step the damaging effects of the processing and refining techniques that strip nutrients out of otherwise healthy foods.
If it sounds good and relatively easy, remember that with the paleo diet you’re eliminating grains and dairy, along with foods like legumes and processed sugar. What you’re encouraged to eat instead includes:
When shopping, ask yourself whether you could find or hunt this food, or if it was brought about by farming practices, and you’ll usually make a safe choice.
Beyond eating those main staples of the human diet, which include all the protein, fiber, and nutrients we need, another aspect of paleo includes removing your money from certain farming practices. Your food choices have an environmental impact, so paleo advocates purchasing grass-fed meat and free-range poultry. Like choosing a vegan lifestyle, paleo has a philosophical component that may be important to you on top of the dietary benefits.
Originally developed medicinally to help children with epilepsy, the ketogenic diet changes your metabolism so that instead of burning sugar for energy (glucose), you burn fat (ketone bodies). You need to eat more healthy fats and far fewer carbs to train your body to switch its energy source, and once you reach a state of ketosis, you’ll be in a new metabolic state that involves safe yet rapid body fat loss (including the most dangerous fat stores deep within your body, known as “visceral fat” which surrounds your vital organs).
The keto diet entails lowering your carbohydrate intake dramatically to about 5% of your daily calories. Moderate protein intake should come in around 20%, and healthy fats at 75%.
The carbs in breads, certain fruits, and foods like sweet potatoes provide your body with easy-to-access sugar, so to force your body to spend the energy it takes to burn fat, you have to restrict carbs and sugars and instead focus on high-quality fats, non-starchy vegetables, and healthy meats and protein.
The health benefits of the keto diet include lowering your risk for type 2 diabetes, obesity, and metabolic syndrome, plus boosting your mental energy (ketones can cross the blood-brain barrier). The potential side effects stop after the first week or so when you get beyond the so-called “keto flu” (and taking exogenous ketones can help speed that up).
Foods that are keto friendly include:
To reach the macronutrient levels of healthy fats, those on keto often make their morning coffee with coconut or MCT oil, whip up a batch of keto fat bombs, or blend together high-fat smoothies full of leafy greens and keto salts.
It’s important to keep a tight grip on meal plans and food groups with keto, because just a little too much sugar and the body will want to revert to the easier source of energy, which could then mean having to go through keto flu to reach ketosis once again.
These two popular diets actually have a ton in common, including some of their main features, which we’ll discuss here.
Each of these diets focuses on getting nutrients from whole-food sources instead of overly processed foods and refined ingredients. Foods like a piece of meat, whole vegetables (like uncut carrots), or a handful of nuts belong comfortably in diet plans for both paleo and keto. These foods have very little room to be altered or chemically treated (assuming you’re buying from trusted sources). By eliminating processed foods, oils, and sweeteners, both diets can help improve your health.
While keto concentrates more heavily on getting the majority of your calories from healthy fats, neither diet shies away from the fats in fish, nuts, and avocados, foods that can actually help your cholesterol levels. The two types of cholesterol are HDL (“good”) and LDL (“bad”), and by increasing the good kind, you can help clear out the bad.
Both of these diets understand the role that healthy fats play in human functioning. By focusing on good fats, you’re more likely to improve your cholesterol and fatty acid ratios and cut out the damage done by saturated and trans fats that lurk in processed food.
There are plenty of natural sugar alternatives like sucralose, stevia and, erythritol for those trying to detox from sugar, and both keto and paleo happily get you started down that path. Sugar is addictive, detrimental to your health, and one of the leading causes of type 2 diabetes. While there are a few more options for natural sugars with paleo (honey and maple syrup would kick a keto dieter out of ketosis), both diets emphasis quitting refined sugar as much as possible.
While the ketogenic diet does allow for a person’s 5% of carbs to come from anywhere, it emphasizes that those carb calories should really count for nutrient content and may be better sourced from starchier vegetables and fruit instead of beans or grains.
On the paleo side, all grains and legumes are banned because they were most likely not a part of the early human diet, and while legumes and grains are nowhere near as destructive to human health as processed sugar, they can nevertheless cause digestive discomfort and increased intestinal gas.
While grains and legumes can contribute valuable fiber and protein in many instances, their carbohydrate content is unwelcome on paleo and keto, and the human body can easily get those nutrients from other natural sources.
Both paleo and keto can help you lose weight and protect your blood sugar levels from dangerous spikes. Scientific data confirms that in the short-term both diets lead to significant weight loss, while the long-term effects depend largely on the individual’s ability to maintain their chosen diet.
The key differences in the paleo vs. keto debate will ultimately determine which diet is right for you according to your preferences and your lifestyle. Here are the major differences to consider.
Before choosing between paleo and keto, which do you love most: carbs or dairy? That might answer the question right away, because a low-carb diet like keto is high in dairy fats, while paleo eliminates almost all dairy (outside of grass-fed butter and ghee), and has way more room for carbs.
Paleo restricts certain carbs like grains, but there is no caution against the amount of carbs found in vegetables and fruits. However on keto, a carb from any source must be guarded against. That includes most fruits and legumes, some sweeteners and high-carb veggies, and grains as well. If you don’t want to have to curb your carb intake that minutely, paleo may be best for you.
However, if you love dairy products like cheese, cream, and butter, the keto diet may be your best bet. Maybe you don’t miss carbs so much if it means you can eat cheese by the mouthful. While keto does steer people away from some dairy like regular ice cream (due to its low fat-to-carb balance), it emphasizes other types of dairy to a degree that no other diet can match. If you have a weakness for rich dairy products, you may really enjoy eating a keto diet, which would go a long way towards sustaining it.
While the keto diet doesn’t come with any underlying philosophy, the paleo diet does, and may appeal to those who desire a more holistic wellness approach.
The keto diet is truly just a diet. The ketone energy provided by a keto diet may be even better for you than glucose energy considering the amount of metabolic disorders diagnosed every year, and increased ketone levels could be important for the brain, as ketones are the one source of energy that can waltz directly into the brain without transport substances.
The paleo diet, on the other hand, actively encourages mindfulness, not only as it pertains to your diet, but also as it pertains to your activity and purchasing choices. Yoga and meditation are emphasized to help reduce stress in between short, intense bouts of exercise (like HIIT routines). In general, the paleo diet helps to cultivate an awareness of where your food comes from and its impact on the environment.
Most people would agree that it’s easier to find paleo-friendly foods and meals, especially if you’re eating out. For some people, that means paleo is an easier diet to maintain long term, making it the healthier option.
However, some people flourish with fewer food choices and utilize practices like intermittent fasting and weekly meal prep to remove the guesswork from eating and to lose the weight fast. At the end of the day, you have to draw your own bottom line on what matters most when it comes to dieting.
Whether you choose keto’s high-fat diet to lose weight, or paleo’s ancient method to inform your modern life, know that both diet protocols provide a low-carbohydrate, sugar-elimination framework that can help protect against diabetes, heart disease, and other metabolic issues going forward.