The ketogenic diet, better known as the keto diet, is a popular style of eating that restricts carbohydrates — but it's by no means your average low-carb diet. While low-carb and keto diets overlap in a few key ways, from their potential health benefits to the foods they discourage, they vary significantly.
We spoke with Pamela Nisevich Bede, a registered dietitian for ZonePerfect and medical manager for Abbott's scientific and medical affairs team, about low-carb and keto diets. Here are the insights she shared, as well as some tips to consider if you're looking to try either of these diets.
What Is a Low-Carb Diet?
Carbohydrates, proteins and fats are known as macronutrients — they provide calories for the body and are needed in larger amounts than micronutrients, which are primarily vitamins and minerals. Many eating plans, including keto and low-carb, involve emphasizing or restricting certain macronutrients.
"Technically, any eating style recommending less than 45% of calories from carbs can be considered low carb," Nisevich Bede began, "but many research studies home in on approximately 10% to 25% of calories coming from carbs."
A low-carb eating plan replaces the calories you'd normally get from carbs with protein-rich foods and certain fats. While the exact distribution of calories varies from plan to plan and person to person, an example of a low-carb macronutrient breakdown might include 10% to 25% of calories from carbs, 40% to 50% from protein, and 30% to 40% from fats. The emphasis on protein provides you with energy and supports appetite control and muscle health.
"Some of the protein in the diet may be used to make glucose for energy," she explained. "If you're on a lower-calorie plan, watch out for signs of fatigue or muscle soreness."
How Is the Keto Diet Different From Other Low-Carb Diets?
While Nisevich Bede noted that people tend to use the terms interchangeably, the keto diet is very different than traditional low-carb diets in terms of its macronutrient breakdown. It requires you to get 5% to 10% of your calories from carbs, 15% to 30% from protein, and at least 70% to 80% from fat — that's nearly twice as much fat and half as many carbs as what typical low-carb diets recommend.
"A ketogenic diet highly restricts carbohydrate intake, and it's purposely high in fat," she explained, "while a low-carb diet focuses on moderate protein and moderate fat." The keto diet outlined here is for the general consumer and is not therapeutic, she continued, with the ultimate goal being to promote ketosis — a natural metabolic process in which the body burns fat for fuel. Ketosis begins once the body's glycogen stores are depleted.
How to Decide Which Eating Style Is Right for You
Before recommending either diet to a client, Nisevich Bede considers their individual health status and lifestyle and nutrition habits. "Any diet change takes work," she explained, but because typical low-carb diets offer more variety than a keto diet, such as plan might be easier to follow for a longer period of time.
If a client needs to lose a significant amount of weight, she suggests they consider the keto diet. But first, she challenges them to think about the high-fat foods that are consistent with a ketogenic diet, and whether they like those foods enough to eat them for a long period of time. "If you don't, you're not going to adhere to the plan," Nisevich Bede said.
She also noted that it can be difficult to build muscle while following a ketogenic diet because of its low protein intake, as compared to other low-carb diets. If you are pregnant, lactating or have complex health conditions, keto is probably not suitable for your nutrition needs, she continued. "Anyone considering a change should talk to a doctor or registered dietitian before embarking on a restrictive diet."
A ketogenic diet highly restricts carbohydrate intake, and it's purposely high in fat, explained, while a low-carb diet focuses on moderate protein and moderate fat.
Pam Bede, MS, RD, Medical Manager at Abbott
Tips for Trying a Low-Carb or Keto Diet
Staying on track with a new diet can be challenging. Here are some tips that may help you adhere to a low-carb or keto diet.
1. Have a plan in place. "Our world of on-the-go and convenience foods offers a plethora of high carb options but isn’t always supportive of either of these diets," said Nisevich Bede. She recommends setting time aside for meal planning and prepping to ensure your plate stays within the recommended macros.
2. Be patient. It takes three to five weeks to transition to the ketogenic state, she explained, and you probably won't feel great during this time. Give your body time to adjust, understanding that this new approach to eating will be difficult. Once you get used to the lower intake of carbs, your appetite will decrease.
3. Track your food. For at least the first two weeks of a new diet, use an app to track your food and macronutrient intake. "To do it right, you have to pay attention to what and how much goes into your body," said Nisevich Bede.
4. Consider a supplement. With a low-carb or keto eating plan, you might miss out on fiber and certain micronutrients. Talk to your healthcare provider about adding a fiber supplement and multivitamin to your daily routine.
5. Choose the right foods. "Prioritize nutrient-dense leafy greens, high quality proteins, and sufficient electrolytes and fluids. Eat more unsaturated sources of fat from plants, nuts, and seeds and less saturated fat from animal sources when possible. " Even with its emphasis on fats, she said the keto diet still promotes significant fat loss.
6. Include convenient options. When it comes to foods that are naturally low in carbs, the options are a bit slim. To stick to your macros, include packaged options like ZonePerfect Keto® shakes which are designed to support your keto goals with the right macros. For a high protein option, consider grabbing a ZonePerfect Carb Wise® protein shake, with 30 grams of protein and 4 grams of carbs.
If followed correctly, both low-carb and keto diets can move you towards your health and wellness goals. However, understanding the distinctions between the two is essential to choose the right plan for your nutrition needs.
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