Max Carmody, MSc
A standard low carb diet tends to be healthier than a keto diet. Some of the reasons for this are that a keto diet is much higher than a low carb diet in unhealthy saturated fats, the keto diet is more extreme about carb consumption so nutrient deficiencies are more likely, and the “keto flu” tends to be worse than short term symptoms from a standard low carb diet.
What are Carbs?
Carbs are short for “Carbohydrates”. Carbohydrates are a type of macronutrient, the others which are protein and fat. Macronutrients are the nutrients that we need in larger quantities that provide us with energy. Carbohydrates are made up of sugars, starches, and fibers. They are found in grains, fruits, vegetables, and milk products. Your body turns carbs into glucose to provide you with the energy to function. There are different types of carbs. Simple carbs are digested quickly and send bursts of glucose into the bloodstream immediately. Complex carbs are digested more slowly and provide more steady glucose into the bloodstream.
A low carb diet is essentially eating fewer carbs. Typically, on a low carb diet you eat under 130 grams of carbs. Because you are not eating carbs, you are making it up with other things like protein and fat. There is not one single type of low carb diet, but rather many low carb diets. Foods that you typically avoid include things like “bread, pasta, whole and refined grains, potatoes and other starchy vegetables, sugar, sweets (including cookies, ice cream, candy and soda), milk, and high carb fruits like apples, grapes, and bananas”.
A keto diet is a specific type of low carb diet. Keto diets are extremely low carb, and are usually high fat. On a keto diet you eat under 50 grams of carbs a day, and sometimes as low as 20 grams of carbs a day. When you reduce carbs by this much, it puts your body into a state called ketosis. When you are in ketosis, your body becomes incredibly efficient at burning fat. A standard keto diet is made up of 70% fat, 20% protein, and only 10% carbs.
Differences between Low Carb and Keto Diet
One of the biggest differences between a standard low carb diet, and a keto diet, is the amount of fat consumed. On a standard low carb diet, sometimes more fat than usual is consumed to make up for reducing carbs. But it is usually not as high as 70% of daily nutrition. Some keto diets even advocate consuming as much as 90% of their diet from fat. Another major difference, is that keto diets typically advise eating far fewer carbs than a standard low carb diet. Regular low carb diets can advise eating as much as 100 or even 130 grams of carbs a day. Keto diets however, are always under 50, because that is a requirement for going into ketosis. If you would like to read more about the healthiest way to do a low carb diet, you can find an article on the topic here that I wrote.
The keto diet is a far more restrictive way of eating than a standard low carb diet. A keto diet specifically means that the body has switched into ketosis and is using fat instead of glucose for fuel. A low carb diet however simply limits the amount of carbs consumed, especially simple carbs. Going low carb may help to regulate blood sugar, but it doesn’t produce ketosis, therefore the body will first use the glucose stored as energy, then will move onto fat for fuel.
Saturated fat is a fatty acid which don’t have double bonds between their chains of carbons, this allows more hydrogen to be attached to the carbon atoms, so they are “saturated” with hydrogens. This makes them solid at room temperature (unlike unsaturated fats which are liquid at room temperature) Keto diets typically involve eating high levels of saturated fat. Most “ketogenic diets allow foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol, such as fatty cuts of meat, processed meats, lard, butter, cream, and cheese, as well as sources of unsaturated fats, including nuts, seeds, avocados, plant oils, and oily fish. A keto diet usually involves eating way more than the recommended levels of daily saturated fat.
Eating too much saturated fat can lead to heart disease and other issues. It can cause cholesterols to build up in your arteries. Saturated fats raise your LDL cholesterol, which is considered to be the bad cholesterol. A high amount of LDL cholesterol increases your risk for heart disease and stroke. In one study, researchers found that a 5% higher intake of the longer chain dietary saturated fatty acids, i.e. saturated fat, was associated with an 25% increased risk of coronary heart disease during between 24 and 29 years of follow up.
So what’s healthier, low carb or keto?
Right off the bat, it appears that overconsumption of saturated fats is a pretty major issue with keto, compared to standard low carb. Too much saturated fat is bad for you, and a keto diet includes too much saturated fat, whereas a standard low carb diet does not tend to. We discussed earlier how Keto diets increase your bad LDL cholesterol. Normal low carb diets, on the other hand, can actually lower your bad LDL cholesterol.
A keto diet is more extreme than a standard low diet. On a standard low carb diet, especially if you are eating on the higher range, say around 100 grams of carbs a day, allows for you to consume more healthy carbs. Whole grains are actually very good for you, and contain lots of really good vitamins and nutrients. On a keto diet you basically cannot have any of these at all, whereas on a standard low carb diet you can get more healthy nutrients from whole grains.
There is something called the “keto flu”. This is a group of symptoms that can appear between 2 to 7 days after starting a keto diet. Some of the symptoms are foggy brain, headache, fatigue, irritability, difficulty sleeping, nausea, and constipation. You can get similar symptoms on a standard low carb diet as well, but they tend not to be as bad, or happen as often. This is not necessarily a long term health risk, the keto flu usually doesn’t last for long, but if you are more likely to be experiencing symptoms like this, than that is a mark against the keto diet.
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