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The Difference Between Keto and Low Carb

Remember in second grade when you were learning about shapes and your teacher told you “a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle is not always a square?” Do you remember how much your brain hurt trying to figure out what your teacher meant?

Well, here’s another mind number: a ketogenic (keto) diet is low carb, but low carb is not always ketogenic. Mind boggled?

The Key Difference Between Low Carb and Keto

Low carb diets are all about lowering or removing carbohydrate consumption. The ultimate form of low carb is keto. 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. Staying away from our beloved carbs is hard. It takes a lot of commitment to turn away from those foods. Adding ketosis on top of that can be especially difficult. 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.


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 is the worst for the body. 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. Our bodies really don’t need more than that.

Protein, like carbohydrates, raises blood sugar levels. Protein does not raise blood sugar nearly as much as carbs though. This second macro is good for our health but must not be over used. Too much protein can raise blood sugar levels too high.


Fat is the best 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. (L., 2018)

Low Carb: Why It does not Always Work

The low carb dieter’s goal is to utilize fat as an energy source. Low carb dieters lower the amount 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 (Eenfeldt, 2018). The suggested percentage of macros is 40% protein, 20-30% carbs, and 30-40% fat (B., 2018). This varies according to which diet one is participating in.

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 a compensation for carbs. Although, the low carb diet emphasises 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 over indulge 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 (B., 2018). 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 a several instances: fasting, after prolonged exercise, starvation, and in a ketogenic diet (What are Ketones).

Benefits of Ketosis

Ketosis benefits people many ailments, such as:

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

Ketosis benefits the body in several ways as well .

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

Ketone Fuel vs Carb Fuel

Carb or sugar fuel create 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 (What is a Ketogenic Diet. 2018)

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 in it. Your body will tell you if it is ketosis (What is a Ketogenic Diet, 2018). You will experience:

  • Increased Urine
  • Dry Mouth
  • Bad Breath
  • Reduced Hunger
  • Increased Energy
  • Perform Ketone 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 (Gustin, 2018)

Side Effects: They’re Temporary!

If you have been or are discouraged by the side effects of a keto diet, don’t be. All the side effects are 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 are offset with 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!

Learn More About the Benefits of Keto

Want to learn more about what the keto diet can do for your health and wellness goals? 
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Eenfeldt, A., Dr. (2018, June 12). How Low Carb is Low Carb? – A Simple Visual Guide – Diet Doctor. Retrieved July 12, 2018, from

Gustin, A. (2018, May 18). Low Carb vs Keto: Why Ketosis is Different from A Low Carb Diet. Retrieved July 10, 2018, from

Gustin, A. (2018, May 14). A Detailed Guide on How to Test Your Ketone Levels. Retrieved July 12, 2018, from

B. (2018, March 15). KETO DIET VS LOW CARB AND MY 6 WEEK RESULTS. Retrieved July 10, 2018, from

Miller, K. (2018, March 15). So...What is the Keto Diet Exactly? Retrieved July 10, 2018, from

L. (2018, June 22). What are Macros in Diet and Nutrition. Retrieved July 10, 2018, from

Perfect Keto. (n.d.). Ketosis Side Effects. Retrieved July 19, 2018, from

What Are Ketones? (n.d.). Retrieved July 12, 2018, from

What is the Ketogenic Diet? A Comprehensive Beginner's Guide. (2018, April 14). Retrieved July 10, 2018, from

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  • 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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