When it comes to choosing the perfect weight-loss diet, two of the more popular strategies around today are keto and paleo.
These two dietary approaches share a lot of similarities, but they are also quite different.
Both diets are concerned with the influence that marketing and manufacturing have had on our food supply, and therefore, attempt to get their users back to basics, but the nutritional outlook that each diet takes is not the same.
Where keto is concerned with the state of ketosis, and becoming fat adapted, the kaleo folks are more focused on eating a nutrient-dense diet that is as similar to what our ancient ancestors ate as possible.
This helpful guide will help you sort out the differences and similarities between the two approaches.
Which is better for weight loss, however, keto or paleo, depends on your age, current health condition, degree of insulin sensitivity, and even your food preferences.
If you aren’t happy with the type of food you’re eating, you won’t stick with your food plan long enough to ditch the weight.
Here is how these two weight-loss strategies stack up against each other:
What is the Keto Diet?
Originally coined Nutritional Ketosis by Dr. Stephen Phinney, the most popular Keto Diet today is often referred to as Low-Carb High-Fat (LCHF) because maintenance is high in fat.
During the weight-loss phase, the greater majority of fat being used is from your body fat and not your diet, so on paper, the keto diet doesn’t look all that high in fat.
The emphasis is on getting into an optimal degree of ketosis, and thereby, going into a state called fat adaption.
To enter an optimal state of ketosis, most dieters must drastically reduce their carbohydrate intake and tailor their ingestion of proteins and dietary fats to reach a certain blood ketone level.
When measured with a blood ketone monitor, the optimal level of ketones in the bloodstream are 1 to 3 mmol/L.
Ketones are incompletely burned fragments left over from the fat burning process.
When carbs are low, the liver uses triglycerides to convert its stored glycogen into glucose to keep your blood sugar level from falling too low.
Ketones are a waxy substance that the brain can use for energy when glucose is in short supply, so the liver doesn’t just shuttle those ketones off to the kidneys for disposal.
It dumps them into the bloodstream for use by the body and brain.
Initially, the entire body can use these ketones, but as carbohydrate deprivation continues, as it does on a keto diet, the muscles will go insulin resistant to save the glucose in the bloodstream for the brain and will begin to burn fatty acids instead.
The muscles will only burn ketones when activity is high, ketones are in rich supply, and those ketones are not needed for the brain. This is why endurance athletes tend to have higher ketone levels than dieters.
The brain cannot directly burn fatty acids for fuel.
It needs about 120 to 130 grams of glucose per day, so the liver can’t just pull out your fat stores and give them to the brain when glucose is limited.
While the brain can get up to 80 percent of its needs from ketones, the brain also needs alternative sources of glucose for that remaining 20 percent.
Keto was originally designed for endurance athletes. It was not created to be a weight-loss diet.
A glucose metabolism works best when carbohydrate stores are full, but endurance sports can drain your glycogen, the storage form of carbohydrate, fairly quickly.
Even though the muscles can hold quite a bit of glycogen themselves, using ketones for energy instead of glucose is a much better alternative for athletes.
What Does Keto Diet Do To Your Body?
Since Dr. Phinney’s Keto Diet wasn’t originally designed for weight loss, there has been a lot of confusion as to just how much healthy fat is required to reach the optimal state of ketosis, during the weight loss phases, and how that optimal state plays into weight loss.
The ultimate aim of a ketogenic diet is to reach the state of fat adaption.
The aim isn’t to be preoccupied with the state of ketosis, even optimal ketosis, because nutritional ketosis is driven by carbohydrate restriction and has nothing to do with the fat you eat.
Dr. Phinney has repeated said that fat adaption is where it’s at.
That’s the goal.
Those on keto do not need to be overly concerned with staying in optimal ketosis because the body will fluctuate throughout the day.
Fat adaption is when the body can easily burn fats for fuel instead of glucose.
In Dr. Phinney’s professional opinion, when you deprive the body of carbohydrates long enough, the body will begin to prefer to burn fats over glucose.
This condition is vital to an endurance athlete, but can be very useful for those who want to trim themselves down to a healthy weight, and stay there, so Dr. Phinney also designed a weight-loss diet called Keto.
Dr. Phinney’s weight-loss diet trims your carbs back to 20- to 45-net carbs per day, depending on where you are in the weight-loss process. Phase 1 contains fewer carbs than Phase 2 or 3.
Protein is set at 15 to 25 percent of your “maintenance” calories for ideal weight, so it stays there throughout the entire dieting process.
The amount of protein you eat doesn’t change, even after you enter maintenance, Phase 4.
Dietary fat is used to control your calorie deficit.
At pre-maintenance, Phase 3, you begin to increase the fat content of your diet, rather than raise your carbohydrate intake, like you do on Atkins.
This allows you to coast into a low-carb high-fat diet by the time you reach goal weight.
What is the Paleo Diet?
In general, the paleo diet is a sugar-free, grain-free, dairy-free, vegetable oil-free, legume-free, and processed foods-free diet designed to heal the gut and reverse the inflammation so prevalent in today’s society.
Unlike the keto diet, the paleo diet doesn’t come with macronutrient restrictions, nor advice.
It assumes that if you select your foods from the appropriate list, you’ll be able to reverse insulin resistance and inflammation naturally.
Originally created by Loren Cordain, Ph.D., author of The Paleo Diet, it offers nutritional advice and expects you to control your carbs and calories yourself.
This diet does not claim to be a magic bullet to help you shed pounds.
Instead, it travels back in time to when paleolithic man hunted wild animals and fished for food, while gathering whatever else was available locally, such as wild fruits and vegetables.
Paleolithic man has been labeled hunter-gatherers by the media, but diets during this time period of over 12,000 years ago were quite diverse.
More diverse than the author of this diet realized when he first did his own research into these ancient societies.
In fact, modern archaeological evidence has uncovered the fact that these Stone-Age societies of 2.5 million to 12,000 years ago did consume grains, such as oats, millet, wild wheat, and perhaps, acorns.
Even so, the original principles of the paleo diet, based on the study of 200 paleolithic societies thriving during that time period, hinge on the idea that optimal health requires us to eat similarly to what our ancestors ate.
What Does Paleo Diet Do To Your Body?
Today, we farm and raise domesticated livestock and even manufacture food, but the author of the paleo diet believes this was a step back in our natural progression.
Deviating from what nature intended us to eat has resulted in a world filled with disease and ill health.
Above all things, the Paleo Diet teaches that we need to eat what we were designed to eat.
And that wild plants and wild animals is what we have the genetics to digest. Today’s staples of:
- processed foods
- cereal grains
- dairy products
- fatty meat
- refined sugars
- salty foods
…are doing more harm than good.
These foods are responsible for not only the obesity epidemic, but also adversely affecting our health.
The paleo diet encourages you to return to the diet that you have been genetically programmed to follow.
Granted, the food we have today isn’t really what our ancestors ate, so the diet tries to imitate these foods as closely as possible. Roughly, the Paleo diet advocates:
- 19-35% protein
- 22-40% carbohydrate
- 28-47% fats
This is more carbs and less fat than what a ketogenic maintenance diet recommends. It’s also more carbs than what a typical keto diet contains.
Originally, the author tried to distance himself from other low-carb diets, calling them just a fad.
But today’s paleo dieter isn’t so quick to turn their nose up at the huge consumption of fatty meats, salty processed foods, and dairy products that the low-carb crowd tends to eat because weight loss always requires some degree of carbohydrate restriction.
In addition, the original paleo diet has morphed into various forms of paleo, with many varieties accepting grass-fed butter, Stevia, and a few processed necessities to make the diet more livable.
While the creator of the paleo diet doesn’t believe that long-term health benefits should be exchanged for weight loss, reality in the lives of the actual dieters is quite different.
Those seeking to reach a healthy weight have found they must alter the original diet to achieve their goals.
Keto vs Paleo: What’s Best?
What you can eat is where the big differences are between keto and paleo.
While food categories are similar, there are similarities and differences in what is allowed within each food group.
For example, keto allows high-fat dairy products, while most paleo plans do not accept any dairy products except for grass-fed butter and a little heavy cream.
While keto is a nutrient-dense diet, one that focuses on healthy whole foods, the same as paleo, there isn’t any restrictions on what you can actually eat, other than sugar and other natural sweeteners.
The fact that you are limited to 20-net carbs per day during Phase 1 will severely curtail most of the processed foods and carbohydrates you’d otherwise eat.
Even at 35- to 45-net carbs, you are still going to spend most of your carbohydrate budget on healthy foods that fill you up, especially since most people who go on Keto are seriously trying to lose weight.
On the other hand, paleo has no such restriction on carbohydrates and only offers dietary percentages as a rough estimate of what a typical Paleo dieter might eat.
Those doing paleo are free to eat from the allowable list of acceptable foods and lower their carbohydrates to a level that is comfortable for them.
With that in mind, here are the various categories of foods that both programs recommend, and the details regarding what you can and can’t eat.
This information will enable you to make an informed decision as to which diet plan is best for you:
Meat and Eggs on Keto and Paleo Diet
Both keto and paleo recommend that you eat a moderate amount of meat, fish, shellfish, and eggs.
Protein supplies the essential amino acids that the body needs to repair damaged protein structures and supplies growth materials for your hair, nails, skin, muscle tissues, and organs.
The keto diet limits protein to 15 to 25 percent of the calories you would eat at maintenance.
It encourages you to eat lots of fatty meats, wild-caught fish, and plenty of eggs. These foods come with no restriction on processed meats like bacon or sausage.
Keto just recommends that you keep a close eye on the carbs you’re eating that way. Grass fed meats and pastured eggs are encouraged, but they are not mandatory.
On the other hand, paleo recommends that you consume a moderate amount of pasture-raised lean meats, including organ meats, since wild meat is much leaner than supermarket varieties.
It also recommends that you limit the amount of eggs you eat each week because they were not plentiful to a hunter-gatherer. For the same reason, wild-caught fish and shellfish should also be eaten with care.
Some paleo plans make pastured animals mandatory, while others allow supermarket meats if you include extra added fats in your diet.
Dairy Products on Keto and Paleo Diet
For both diets, dairy is a separate category from meats.
Dairy products supply additional essential amino acids and calcium, while making it possible for vegetarians to do a ketogenic diet comfortably.
This diet recommends that you eat an ample supply of full-fat dairy products, including hard or fresh cheeses, sour cream, yogurt, and butter.
Grass-fed varieties are recommended, but not mandatory. It’s certainly possible to do a dairy-free ketogenic diet, especially if you’re sensitive to dairy.
Since ancient man didn’t raise cows or other animals for milking, and dairy products tend to be inflammatory, the original paleo diet did not allow dairy products at all.
Many paleo dieters today opt to include grass-fed butter in their meals, and a few also include heavy cream.
The reasoning is that butter and heavy cream contain only minute amounts of lactose, the sugar in milk, and are therefore, not inflammatory.
For the same reason, some paleo dieters also include fermented dairy products, such as yogurt, because the process of turning milk or cream into yogurt consumes the lactose.
Healthy Fats and Oils on Keto and Paleo Diet
Healthy fats and oils are recommended by both plans, even though ancient man had no way to press these oils.
The idea behind the paleo inclusion or exclusion of fats has to do with keeping a healthy balance of omega-3 fats to omega-6.
Foods high in omega-3, which are anti-inflammatory compounds, are encouraged to try and offset the high omega-6 prevalence in today’s food supply.
While this is discussed within ketogenic circles, the ratio between omega-3 to omega-6 isn’t as important as it is for those doing Paleo.
Keto recommends you use a generous amount of fats in your diet, depending on your calorie requirements, but leans toward using more saturated fats found in meats and coconut oil, than in vegetable oils.
Oils should be cold-pressed, healthy fats like olive oil, flaxseed, and nut oils, when possible, and always used sparingly, even at maintenance.
There are no restrictions on mayonnaise or salad dressings, other than to avoid the sugar that these products often contain.
Avocados, nuts, flaxmeal, and olives are encouraged.
No vegetable oils are allowed at all. Healthy fats include olive oil, coconut oil, beef fat, real lard, nut oils, flaxseeds, and foods like avocado and olives.
Avoid partially-hydrogenated and fully-hydrogenated fat products, which includes processed mayonnaise and salad dressings.
Vegetables and Salads on Keto and Paleo Diet
Both plans encourage the heavy use of vegetables and fresh salads, which make up the bulk of the diet, but the type of vegetables and plants allowed, as well as the volume, differ between the two plans.
Please note that corn is not a vegetable. Corn is a grain.
Since keto is a very low-carb diet, low-glycemic vegetables are the foundation vegetables used, and starchy vegetables are reserved for the pre-maintenance and maintenance phases of the diet.
Starchy vegetables include peas, carrots, and winter squashes.
Phase 1 begins at 20-net carbs, which is about 35 total carbs.
Measured out, this comes to about 6 cups of salad fixings and cooked vegetables, depending on your actual vegetable choices.
Root vegetables are not allowed until you are almost at goal weight.
Includes root vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, and starchier vegetables, such winter squash, in addition to salads and fibrous low-carb vegetables.
Organic varieties of produce are recommended whenever possible to avoid the pesticides that are so frequently used today.
Fruits on Keto and Paleo Diet
Fruit can set off cravings for sugary foods, so it should be handled with care.
Both diets allow all types of nuts, but Keto warns that they can easily cause weight-loss stalls due to their high calorie count. It’s easy to overeat nuts, so make sure that you measure them out.
Very few fruits are allowed during the weight loss phases of the diet, due to the amount of fructose they contain, which can trigger cravings.
Best fruits are antioxidant-rich berries, cherries, and other low-glycemic fruits.
Fruits today are sweeter and less fibrous than they were in ancient societies, but they still allowed on Paleo. Fruits are sometimes used as a natural sweetener.
Cereal Grains and Legumes on Keto and Paleo Diet
While as a general rule, cereals and other grains like wheat are considered off limits on keto, many low-carb products use the protein portion of wheat and starches, making them acceptable on keto under certain conditions.
Soybean flour is allowed, as are black soy beans, and soy-based products.
All of them are low in carbs. However, the general recommendation on keto is to use low-carb products very sparingly.
In general, they should not be used in the first phase of the diet, and are best kept for pre-maintenance, but most dieters do not hold themselves to that level of restriction.
Low-carb tortillas, flat breads, baking mixes, and other products are often found on ketogenic diets, due to their low-carb count.
Legumes, such as regular beans, are reserved for pre-maintenance, while some dieters do use peanut butter in limited amounts.
Paleo considers all processed foods off limits, including low-carb products, but some Paleo dieters do use a select variety of whole-foods products.
These products are specifically designed to fit paleo dieters.
Today, you can find paleo-friendly wraps, tortillas, breads, protein powders, and other diet foods marketed to those doing paleo.
But legumes are never allowed, including soy, lentils, and tofu. Paleo dieters use almond butter instead of peanut butter.
Sugar Substitutes on Keto and Paleo Diet
Sugar substitutes are used sparingly in coffee, tea, and occasional treats like sugar-free ice cream or homemade baked goods.
While Stevia is recommended, other sugar alternatives like sucralose or sugar alcohols are certainly allowed.
Original diet called for no sugar substitutes, but today, many paleo dieters use Stevia or a small bit of Erythritol, a sugar alcohol that doesn’t raise blood sugar or insulin.
Guidelines for the keto Diet and paleo Diet will vary from group to group, depending on their general beliefs about health and nutrition.
In general, both diets advocate for a nutrient-dense, whole foods approach to dieting, but Paleo also includes limiting salt, as well as sugar and other natural sweeteners.
If limiting your carbohydrates, salt should not be limited or you’re likely to suffer from the symptoms of unbalanced electrolytes, which some call the Keto Flu.
Both keto and paleo Diets are very restrictive and can be difficult to follow if you are used to eating a lot of processed foods.
However, both approaches can be backed into slowly, by making one change at a time, if you find that a more comfortable way to change your lifestyle.
While paleo originally confined itself to only foods that could be hunted or gathered, today’s paleo dieters take a lot more liberties with their meals.
Same goes for those on ketogenic diets. Dr. Phinney has set ideas about what to include or avoid, but both diets can be tweaked to fit your tastes, insulin sensitivity, and other health conditions.