What’s the Difference Between Eating Low Carb, Paleo, and Keto?

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Low carb, paleo, keto…if it seems like everyone but you is off bread lately, it’s probably because they’re on one of these diets. And while the diets themselves aren’t exactly new, it certainly seems like a lot of people are suddenly cutting back to some degree or another on the macronutrient that has long been human beings’ primary source of energy.

While for some of us this idea is, tbh, flummoxing in and of itself (you can pry my bread and bananas from my cold, dead hands, thank you) it’s also confusing to even differentiate between all these popular diets. What is paleo versus keto? How low is low carb?

We’ve got answers.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of paleo versus keto versus low carb, though, it’s important to put this carb-slashing into the context of what the evidence tells us about diets in general. There is no best diet for everyone (or even most everyone), and while most diets can result in short-term weight loss they also tend to fail in the long term. If weight loss is your goal, you should know that weight is determined by a multitude of factors beyond diet—many of which are out of your control—and it is not the only measure of health. For all of these reasons and more, it’s definitely advisable to first consult a doctor or work with an R.D. if you decide to begin a diet like low carb, paleo, or keto. It’s especially important to check in with a health-care provider before starting any diet if you have a history of disordered eating or any health conditions.

With all that said, if you’re just curious about what each one of these diets entails, we’ve got some helpful information. Here, we lay it all out: Where these diets come from, what they’re based on, how they’re similar to one another, and, most important, what you actually eat on them.

What eating low carb actually means

Low carb is a flexible, generic term that can describe any pattern of eating where you consume a fewer-than-average number of carbohydrates, New York–based dietitian Samantha Cassetty, M.S., R.D., tells SELF.

What’s average? It depends on who you ask. But as a baseline we can work off the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines, which sets the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) for each of the macros (carbs, fat, and protein). The AMDR represents the range of intake of a given macro that is associated with a decreased risk of chronic disease and sufficient intake of essential nutrients. Anything outside of the AMDR and you may begin to potentially increase your risk of chronic disease or nutrient insufficiency, per the Dietary Guidelines.

For carbs, that target range is 45 to 65 percent of your total caloric intake. (So someone eating 2,000 calories a day would get 900 to 1,300 of their calories from carbs. Carbs contain 4 calories per gram, so that comes out to 225 to 325 grams.)
Then “when you get less than 45 percent of your energy from carbohydrates, that’s where we generally start to classify diets as low carb,” Jennifer Bruning, M.S., R.D.N., L.D.N., national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics (AND), tells SELF.

Beyond that, low carb is not really a prescriptive diet. There’s a lot of leeway in how you reach that under 45 percent mark. “A low-carb diet can drastically reduce carbs and can be very restrictive, or it can be more moderate and inclusive of different foods,” Cassetty explains. Technically a person getting 10 percent of their calories from carbs and a person getting 40 percent of their calories from carbs are both technically eating low carb. There are also no foods expressly included or omitted, meaning you could stick to only low-carb foods or incorporate moderate portions of high-carb foods, like bread or potatoes. (However, it is likely that your diet will naturally include more protein and fat to compensate for the reduction in carbs.) So ultimately the degree to which you curb your carb intake and how you get there is up to you.

Under this umbrella are many specific diets that qualify as low carb, each offering different road maps. For instance, the Atkins diet was one of the earliest branded low-carb diets to make its way into the mainstream back in the ‘90s. More recently, paleo and keto have become wildly popular. While they both are low-carb diets, that’s pretty much where their similarities end, Bruning says. Here’s the deal with each of them.

The idea behind paleo

“Paleo is meant to be a modern day approximation for the way our ancestors ate during the paleolithic area,” Bruning says, “roughly 10,000 years ago before the advent of agriculture when we were hunter-gatherers.”

The basic idea is that human beings are essentially genetically the same as our ancestors during that period. And based on anthropological and scientific study of that era, the humans living then did not experience the prevalence of the chronic diseases that we do today, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, Jen explains. Paleo advocates believe that this lack of disease is in large part because of the vastly different way they lived, including the way they ate and exercised.

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