The Difference Between Keto and Low Carb

Jul 26, 2018 14:53:00PM

Low carb diets have existed for years under many different names: Atkins, South Beach, and Whole30 just to name a few. Keto is another low carb diet that is increasing in popularity. But keto and low carb are not synonymous.

The Key Difference Between Low Carb and Keto

Low carb diets, as you would assume, are about lowering or removing carbohydrate consumption. The keto diet also involves eating fewer carbs, but keto differs from low carb because it induces a metabolic state known as ketosis. Yet, lowering carb consumption may not put everyone into ketosis.

Ketosis is a natural process the body begins to help us survive when carb intake is low. When carbs are lowered glucose is lowered. Glucose is the preferred fuel source for the body. Until recently, fat has historically been the body’s primary fuel source. A keto diet, like low carb, focuses on burning fat for body fuel instead of carbohydrates.

Getting into the ketosis state can be difficult. Carbs are everywhere and, let's face it, often in the foods we love the most. Some have found achieving ketosis particularly arduous, while others reach ketosis easily. Why? Simply, ketosis is a natural process. Everyone is naturally different.

Some people can eat more carbs and be in ketosis, while others have to nearly remove carbs from their diet to achieve the same result. For many, understanding the often subtle differences between low carb and ketogenic diets may help them reach ketosis.

What are macros?

To understand the difference between the diets, one must know the macros. The macros are essential to our body’s fuel. They are the three energy sources for our bodies: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.


Of the three fuel sources, carbohydrates can be the worst for the body because carbs raise blood sugar levels. Constant high blood sugar levels can lead to diabetes, difficulty concentrating, bloating, and other symptoms. Raising blood sugar levels is not necessarily bad as long as the levels are kept low.

Any excess carbs will become fat. When carbs are the main source of fuel, fat is hard to burn. Even if exercise is a big part of your daily routine, getting the body to use fat for energy is difficult. There is a simple way to get your body to use fat for fuel cut carbs from your grocery list. Easy!

Going cold turkey on carbs when it is a big part of your diet may cause carb cravings. When beginning any low carb diet, especially keto, go slow. Start with transferring your carbs to slow-burning carbs. Slow-burning carbs will help you feel full longer. They also will not spike your blood sugar levels as much. Make sure you lessen your carb intake. With slow-burning carbs, it is easy to still consume the same amount of carbs. The goal is to lessen carb consumption gradually. This gradual process will help the body to not crave carbs when you reach keto level. Again, everyone’s body is different. Use this process to figure out the unique blend of the macros your body needs.


Protein is an essential macro for the repair of muscle tissue and the health of connective tissue. A sufficient serving of protein is one or two fistful sizes. 

The Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) for protein is 50 grams per day.


Fat is a great macro for you since it does not raise blood sugar levels. Fat makes you feel full longer and it will lessen the temptation to snack. Fat will keep you feeling good throughout the day because your energy levels will be consistent.

Even if you are not doing a low carb diet or keto, finding a balance of these macros for your body will make you feel better. Most people find that high-fat, low carb diets make them feel better. 

Low Carb: Why it doesn't always work

The low carb dieter’s goal is to utilize fat as an energy source. Low carb dieters lower the number of carbs they eat significantly. Low carb has different levels of commitment. There is a liberal diet: 50-100 grams per day. Moderate diet: 20-50 grams per day. Ketogenic diet: under 20 grams per day. The suggested percentage of macros is 40% protein, 20-30% carbs, and 30-40% fat. This varies according to what diet you're on and specifically how your body metabolizes food.

Low carb diets emphasis protein. Low carb diets suggest protein either be a bigger part of the diet or equal to fat. This emphasis on protein is a bad idea. Protein, like carbs, raises blood sugar levels. If too much protein is consumed and not burned, it can turn into carbohydrates. Proteins are still necessary for any diet, but low carb dieters should not rely on protein as compensation for carbs. Although the low carb diet emphasizes protein, a low carb dieter would be mistaken in thinking they can eat all the protein they want. Low carb diets are about using fat for fuel. If you overindulge in protein, you will be missing out on the benefits of a low carb diet.

The trick with any diet is to find your balance. For some people, a liberal diet will make them feel great. For others, a liberal diet will make them feel terrible. You can tell if your balance is off with several signs your body will give you (Gustin, 2018).

  • Low energy and fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Hormonal disruptions
  • Hunger pangs
  • Weight gain
  • Lessened physical performance

These are signs your body is still primarily using carbs for energy and not getting enough of them. If you are experiencing these symptoms, adjust your macro proportions. You are either consuming too many carbs or too much protein. When adjusting your macro proportions, always add more to fat, rather than protein. Finding the balance of the macros for your body is key.

Ketogenic Diet: The Ultimate Low Carb Diet

The ketogenic diet is about entering the metabolic state of ketosis. Fat is used to produce ketones that fuel the body. The recommended proportions of the macros are 25% protein, 5% carbs, and 70% fat. The protein and carb intakes are significantly lower in keto than in low carb. Lowering the intakes of carbs to this level forces the body to use fat for energy.

Remember, removing carbs to this level should be done in steps. Removing carbs to keto level in one go would make staying in keto very difficult. Your body will crave carbs. Working up to a keto diet will help your body adjust to using an alternate energy source.

Another common mistake is to lower calorie consumption considerably at the same time as lowering carb intake. Lowering carbs will lower calorie intake, but do not go overboard. Taking away too many calories will result in the body not having enough fuel.

How Ketosis Works within the Body

When the body is breaking down fat for energy, a byproduct called ketones is created. Ketones are produced when glycogen levels are drained. Blood sugar and insulin levels are lowered. The body looks for other energy sources. Triggering the body to use fat instead of carbs for energy can occur in several instances: fasting, after prolonged exercise, starvation, and in a ketogenic diet.

Benefits of Ketosis

Ketosis has been known to benefit people with many ailments, such as:

  • Epilepsy
  • Type 1 and 2 diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Parkinson’s 
  • Chronic inflammation
  • High blood sugar
  • Obesity
  • Heart disease
  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
  • Fatty Liver disease
  • Cancer
  • Migraines (Gustin, 2018)

Ketosis also benefits the body with 

  • Better brain function
  • Decreased inflammation
  • Increase in energy (Gustin, 2018)

Ketone Fuel vs Carb Fuel

Carb or sugar fuel creates reactive oxygen species. These species can cause damage to cells. They cause inflammation and cell death when they accumulate. Reactive oxygen species are also known to impair brain function. The impairment is caused by plaque build-up in the brain.

Ketone fuel is a more efficient energy source. Ketones not only protect neurons in the brain, they reduce reactive oxygen build-up. Ketones help to improve many of the body’s functions that protect and improve cell health.

How to Reach Ketosis and How to Know When You Have

Besides lowering carb consumption, a ketogenic dieter need to change other aspects of their diet to reach ketosis.

Restrict Protein. Lowering protein consumption will help the body turn to fat for energy. The amount of protein one should consume depends on the amount of physical energy one exerts. A body-builder, for example, will need more protein.

Stop Worrying about Fat. We have always been told to avoid fat. We have been told that eating fat will make us, well, fat. However, on the ketogenic/low carb diet-fat is your friend!

Drink Water. Drink at least a gallon a day. Water will help to flush out toxins you do not need. During the first few days of ketosis, a keto dieter will use the bathroom more. This is a result of the body burning through stored glucose and producing less sodium because insulin levels are lower. Drinking more water will keep you hydrated. Also, add a little more sodium to your diet. The increased sodium will help the body retain water.

Stop Snacking. This is a tough one. Just grabbing something off the shelf is so tempting. But snacking causes insulin spikes. Even on low carb or keto, insulin increases every time we eat. On these diets, the insulin rise will not be dramatic, but it still occurs. Reducing the number of times insulin increases per day will make entering ketosis easier.

Start Fasting. Fasting is another way to induce ketosis. Fasting is a way to cleanse the body. It will help reduce glycogen levels, so the body will naturally look for other fuel sources.

Exercise. Simply add a 20 to 30-minute workout to your day. This will help your body work through the food energy you have supplied it. Once the food energy has been used, the body will turn to fat. Just a simple walk around the block should do it!

Another difficult aspect of ketosis is knowing if you're in it. Your body will tell you if it is ketosis. You may experience:

  • Increased Urine
  • Dry Mouth
  • Bad Breath
  • Reduced Hunger
  • Increased Energy

Perform Keto Tests. Ketone tests will measure the number of ketones in your body. There are three methods used to test ketone levels.

Urine Strips. Urine strips test the acetoacetate in your body. Acetoacetate is the main ketone your body produces. Any excess acetoacetate will enter the urine. Ketones do not store as fat if there is any excess. They simply leave your body.

Breath Test. This tests for acetone. Acetone is another form of a ketone. Acetone is produced as a side product to acetoacetate creation. Acetone is produced during gas exchange in the lungs. This tool for this test is reusable, whereas the urine test is not.

Blood Test. This test works similarly to checking glucose levels. You prick your finger and put a drop of blood on a strip. A machine will tell you your beta-hydroxybutyrate, or BHB, levels. BHB is another ketone.

Side Effects: They’re Temporary!

If you have been or are discouraged by the side effects of a keto diet, don’t be. The side effects are almost always temporary. If they have not been temporary, make sure you are testing your ketone levels and following all the steps of reaching ketosis. Generally, the side effects will not affect you long if you are not actually in ketosis. You will know you are not on ketosis if you are fatigued all the time. Common side effects include:

  • Cramps
  • Constipation
  • Heart Palpitations
  • Reduced Physical Performance

These side effects occur during the first few weeks. All can be offset by drinking a lot of water and increasing sodium consumption. Increasing sodium will aid in water retention.

Less common side effects include:

  • Hair Loss
  • Increased Cholesterol
  • Gallstones
  • Indigestion
  • Keto Rash

All these side effects, again, are only temporary (What is a Ketogenic Diet, 2018). They can be offset by being generally healthy: getting enough sleep, drinking lots of water, taking vitamins, etc. It is common for cholesterol to rise during weight loss. Cholesterol will lower as the weight loss normalizes.

Mothers who are on a keto diet and breastfeeding may need to increase their carb consumption. The carbohydrate increase may help the mother produce enough nutrients for her and the baby.

When going on a keto diet, it is wise to talk with your doctor beforehand. Your doctor will help guide you through the diet if you have any health issues or are breastfeeding. For most people, however, a ketogenic diet is a very healthy and natural way to reduce weight and improve health. Your body will thank you!

New to the keto diet? Try some of our keto recipes.

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Ingrid Davis

Protein consumption does NOT raise blood sugar levels. There is some gluconeogenesis after protein consumption, but according to the glucose produced is not enough to raise blood sugar levels.


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