Paleo vs. Keto Diets Explained
Low-carb diets come in many different forms, with different rules to follow. All offer a variety of similar benefits: weight loss, blood sugar stabilization, mood regulation, and even a decreased risk of cancer and cognitive decline.
The ketogenic diet and the Paleo diet are among the most popular low-carb meal plans in practice today. They both focus on clean eating and reducing your intake of carbohydrates; however, they arrive at this approach for different reasons.
While the effects of these diets can look very similar, the practice of each is different. When it comes to choosing Paleo vs. keto, there is a lot to consider. One may be a better fit for your lifestyle, your preferences, and your goals. Let's dive into the key differences between the two diets and what you should consider when choosing one over the other.
What is the Ketogenic Diet?
The keto diet eschews carbs to guide the body towards ketosis; that is, encouraging it to use fat for fuel instead of sugar. In ketosis, the body breaks down fat into ketones. The ketones then become the primary source of fuel throughout the body. This diet has been effective in treating obesity, epilepsy, and diabetes, and has been shown to decrease the progression of a number of neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. In one study, more than half the participants on a ketogenic diet reversed their metabolic syndrome; in another study, a keto plan was found to help slow tumor growth in cancer patients. The keto diet for women has also been shown to result in significant weight loss.
The keto diet focuses on fats – like coconut oil, avocado, butter, nuts, and olives – and disallows grains, fruit, and legumes. The emphasis is on reducing carbohydrate intake to less than ten percent of daily calories and replacing these calories with fat.
Foods to eat on the keto diet
On a keto plan, you can expect to eat high-fat, moderate-protein, low-carb foods. This means:
- Animal proteins, like beef, pork, bacon, chicken, turkey, and fatty fish
- Dairy foods, like milk, cream, butter, and cheese
- Nuts and seeds
- Oils, including olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil
- Low-carb plant foods, like avocado, green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, onions, peppers, and fresh herbs
A balanced keto meal plan might include dishes like sun-dried tomato, rosemary, and goat cheese frittata muffins; bacon, macadamia, and avocado salad; and creamy cilantro chicken skillet.
Foods to avoid on the keto diet
Because ketosis only occurs when the body is depleted of carbohydrates, the keto diet does not allow:
- Grains or starches of any kind, whole or processed (this includes baked goods, cereals, rice, quinoa, and pasta)
- Beans and legumes
- Fruit, except for small portions of low-sugar berries or citrus
- Root vegetables, tubers, and high-carb vegetables, like potatoes and carrots
- Sugars and sweet foods, including soda, juice, ice cream, and candy
- Sweeteners, including honey, maple syrup, and agave
- Refined and hydrogenated oils
What is the Paleolithic Diet?
Many people ask, ‘what is the Paleo diet and what is it good for?’ The Paleo diet, also known as the Caveman Diet, cuts out carbs from grains and sugar, as well as all processed foods, with the intention of eating as closely as possible to the way one’s ancestors ate. There was no agrarian system for growing grains in the Paleolithic era, and adherents of the Paleo diet assert that humans have not evolved enough since then to handle the digestion and processing grains require. The theory is that consuming grains invites “modern” diseases like cancer, neurodegeneration, and diabetes; while cutting out carbs on a Paleo diet can lead to weight loss and decreased insulin resistance.
Foods to eat on the Paleo diet
Paleo’s emphasis is on removing carbohydrates from sources that are not available in the wild, as well as dairy, another food not commonly consumed by our ancestors. When following the paleo diet, a variety of whole, unprocessed foods are available to you:
- Animal proteins, including beef, poultry, pork, game meats, fish, and seafood
- Vegetables, including tubers like sweet potatoes
- Nuts and seeds
- Healthy fats and oils, with a focus on minimally processed plant-based oils like coconut, olive, and avocado oils
- Fresh herbs and most spices
- Natural sweeteners like maple syrup and honey
A Paleo meal plan might include dishes like spice-rubbed chicken with avocado salsa and roasted turkey sausage with tomato and peppers.
Foods to avoid on the Paleo diet
Avoiding highly processed, sweetened, grain-based and dairy-based foods is the focus of the Paleo diet. This means cutting out:
- Sugar and artificial sweeteners, plus the foods that contain them; including baked goods, candy, soda, and even sauces like ketchup and barbecue sauce
- Grains of all kinds, including breads, pasta, cereals, rice, quinoa, and corn
- Dairy, including milk, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream
- Soybean oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, and safflower oil
- Trans fats and hydrogenated oils, like those found in margarine
Paleo vs. Keto: Compared
On a basic level, especially when comparing allowed and forbidden foods, Paleo and keto look quite similar. While they do share some elements, there are some important differences that may make one of these diets more appropriate for your needs and preferences.
Similarities between Paleo and keto
Both Paleo and keto diets are great guides to clean eating. Their menus are built around minimally processed, whole foods which means avoiding highly processed foods, sugar, and certain types of oils.
Both plans incorporate animal protein. Paleo is more specific with the sourcing, emphasizing free-range and wild-caught meats and fish. Keto is less specific about where animal proteins come from but prioritizes fattier cuts of meat and fish.
When it comes to carbohydrates, both plans avoid legumes and grains but include carbohydrates in moderation. The Paleo diet fuels your body using protein and fat; while the Keto diet fuels your body with fat, which in turn is metabolized into ketones. As a result, both plans can lead to weight loss.
There is a high-fat component to both diets. Foods like nuts, seeds, avocado, and healthy oils are prominent. In keto, this is to maintain ketosis; in Paleo, it has more to do with maintaining satiety and how these fats would have provided valuable nutrition eons ago.
Differences between Paleo and keto
The biggest difference when it comes to Paleo versus keto is the variety of foods permitted on each: Paleo is more flexible, focusing on simplifying the types of foods consumed, while the rules of keto are quite rigid.
On a keto plan, the main objective is to limit carbs to keep the body in ketosis. This means cutting out a large swatch of plant foods, including many vegetables and fruits. It is important to ensure balanced nutrition from other sources when these nutrient-rich foods are cut out.
Paleo allows most vegetables and fruits, as the focus is on the quality and relative wholeness of the food, rather than the carbohydrate content.
The keto diet is less concerned with the source of fats, and more focused on the volume of fat coming into the body. This means that dairy and some oils that are not allowed on a Paleo meal plan are permitted on the ketogenic diet.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Keto
As with any diet, keto offers both benefits and drawbacks. Knowing the pros and cons can help you determine if it’s the right fit for you.
Benefits of keto
- The keto diet has been found to be an effective tool to achieve rapid weight loss.
- High-fat foods that other diets restrict are allowed on keto.
- Going keto may support diabetes prevention, help control certain diseases, and offer health benefits such as a reduction in blood sugar levels.
Drawbacks of keto
- The strict nature of the keto diet makes it difficult to sustain over time.
- Nutrient deficiency may occur due to restrictions on certain foods that provide nutrients and calories. Some people may experience the “keto flu” as a result which includes brain fog, feeling tired, and constipation.
- Consuming higher amounts of saturated fat on the keto diet may negatively impact your heart health.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Paleo
It’s also important to understand the positives and negatives of the Paleo diet.
Benefits of Paleo
- By eating only whole foods, processed foods are removed from your diet and no longer a concern.
- Consuming healthy fats can have a positive impact on your cardiovascular health and may also lower your risk for type 2 diabetes.
- Many people experience sustained weight loss as well as improved glucose tolerance.
Drawbacks of Paleo
- Paleo’s focus on high-quality whole foods means there is a potential for this diet to be expensive.
- The lack of dairy products can lead to low calcium levels and cause low bone and tooth density.
- Eliminating whole grains means less fiber intake and this can have a negative impact on gut health.
The most important factors to consider when comparing Paleo versus keto are your health goals and whether one of these diets may be a better fit for your lifestyle. If you’re looking to lose weight, address a metabolic condition, or reduce your risk of certain diseases, either diet could be a good fit. However, your activity level, how much time you have to food shop and prepare meals, and any pre-existing health conditions might limit which of these plans will work for you. It is important to consult a doctor or registered dietitian before making a major dietary change, especially if you have a pre-existing health condition.
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