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Paleo vs Keto: Which is the right diet choice for you?

With so many popular diets dominating health and fitness conversations, it can be hard to keep them all straight – let alone decide what’s worth your time and commitment. And both the Paleo Diet (aka the so-called “Caveman Diet”) and the Ketogenic Diet have proved they aren’t going away anytime soon. So what should you know about them?

At a high level, the differences are pretty clear. The keto diet is often favored by athletes who have the time and means to adopt it for their training. The paleo diet, on the other hand, is more of a lifestyle trend with a philosophy behind it – similar in nature to a plant-based diet (though quite opposed in what proponents choose to eat).

But when you start drilling down into the details, you’ll find plenty of more subtle distinctions between keto and paleo. There’s also scientific research to consider before you try either approach, and you shouldn’t adopt any diet plan or weight loss strategy without understanding all of the risks and benefits. So what is the difference between keto and paleo? And which one is better for weight loss? Let’s start with some background.

What is the Paleo Diet?

The Paleolithic diet is based on foods supposedly accessible to Stone Age humans, which means lots of meat, fish, and plenty of non-starchy vegetables and fruit. It also means no grains, starchy vegetables, refined sugar, or dairy. Processed foods also get the boot, so prepare to do a lot of your own cooking.

The diet is based on the assumption that we’re seeing a widespread increase in chronic disease because our bodies haven’t adapted to the foods made accessible to us by agricultural advances beginning 10,000 years ago. 

Not all meat is considered paleo-friendly. Heavily processed meats, like deli slices and most sausages, are off-limits in this diet. Instead, proponents eat grass-fed beef, nitrate-free bacon, and free-range chicken. 

Most common cooking oils and margarine are also out because they require a lot of processing. And while most nuts and seeds are fine, peanuts are a legume and should be avoided. 

On top of that, many “healthy” junk foods are loaded with artificial sweeteners you’ll want to avoid. A paleo meal plan should be filled with fruits and vegetables to keep you full throughout the day. Specialized packaged foods can also fill in some of the cracks, but they’re hard to shop for and will make your diet a lot more expensive. 

Even if you don’t buy the claims of paleo advocates, it’s doubtless true that heavily processed fast foods and snacks have a ton of unhealthy fats, added sugars, excess sodium, and other preservatives. These additives can be hard on your body and lead to health issues that lower the quality of your life while shortening it.

Of course, plenty of anthropologists are quick to point out that many of our Stone Age ancestors didn’t follow one particular diet – they ate whatever they could find. In fact, much of the science around the paleo diet craze is based on faulty assumptions about both prehistoric humans and modern-day people

The historical reality is much more complex than just a change in diet. Every aspect of our lifestyle is different since the agricultural revolution, and people today generally live a lot longer than our ancestors. And while a healthy diet and exercise do reduce the risk of chronic disease, you don’t have to eat like a caveman to see those benefits. 

Many people do lose weight and feel better by eliminating these foods from their diet. But in the long term, it carries the risk of multiple nutrient deficiencies, and it’s imperative to follow your doctor’s advice before taking on any new diet. 

What is the Keto Diet?

The ketogenic diet is a high-fat, low-carb diet that forces your body into a metabolic state called ketosis. When your blood sugar levels remain low, your liver produces ketones to turn fatty acids into fuel for your brain. It was originally conceived as a replacement for fasting to treat pediatric epilepsy, and is still sometimes used for drug-resistant forms of epilepsy.

The basic keto diet has many variants. Some athletes use a keto-cycle diet, where they consume a higher level of carbohydrates on certain days. But the traditional keto diet requires you to consume a specific macronutrient ratio:

  • Fat: 55-60%
  • Protein: 30-35%
  • Carbohydrates: 5-10%

For example, if you’re eating 2,000 calories a day, the keto diet would require you to get 1,200 calories from fat, 600 protein-based calories, and no more than 200 calories from carbohydrate intake.

So what makes this diet worth trying? There is plenty of evidence that supports a high-fat diet as an effective way to burn visceral fat. In a study on military personnel, those who followed a keto diet during training lost more weight and developed a better body composition than those who followed a standard diet.

A Keto diet is considered safe in the short term for most people. But if you have diabetes or high blood pressure, it may disrupt your current intervention plans. If you are pregnant, the consequences may outweigh the benefits. And no matter who you are, you should discuss the safest way to implement any new diet changes with your doctor! 

Note that many healthcare practitioners don’t recommend sticking with the keto diet long term. It can cause complications that lead to emergency room visits, such as dehydration, hypoglycemia, and lowered potassium levels. It can also affect your bone health, leading to a higher risk of fractures. And while the studies do show promising short-term results, more research is needed to fully understand the long-term effects of the diet. 

Both paleo and keto require lots of meal prep and planning. But between the two of them, the paleo diet is the easier choice for people strapped for time. It’s also more flexible, and because of that may be a bit easier to stick to. The diet also comes with an exercise philosophy that emphasises short, intense workouts to help you destress and maintain your new lifestyle. 

Some people do prefer the structure of keto. You might find all that extra planning and math keeps you focused on your goals and helps you avoid unhealthy snacking. And because the keto diet is better for endurance workouts, your gym time will be longer. The higher stamina (and associated mental boost) may help you stick with keto longer. 

Ultimately, as with any diet comparison, there’s no right answer. Choosing which one is best for you will involve a lot of contemplation and plenty of unique, personal considerations.

Why not both? Eating a Paleo-Keto Diet

There are many people who adopt both diets at once – and in practice, this isn’t much different than a standard keto diet. On its own, the paleo diet isn’t necessarily a low-carb diet because of the inclusion of fruits. By eliminating dairy products and heavily-processed oils, you can easily adapt a keto diet into one that follows the paleo guidelines. Be on the lookout for snacks advertised as “keto-friendly.” Some of them contain artificial sweeteners, which aren’t considered paleo.

Both diets are generally high in protein and saturated fats, which can be hard on your kidneys and heart, and may increase your risk of cancer. And no matter how long you plan to stick with it, be sure to drink lots of water to help your body deal with this diet.

Since most of your calories will come from fat, you’ll need to eat high quality, healthy fats, like avocado, coconut, coconut oil, olive oil, and nuts. Remember, your carb intake is going to be very limited. If you get hungry on the go, you need to have plenty of snacks on-hand to keep you from straying. You’ll need to be equally mindful of the amount of protein you consume so that you can maintain ketosis. Low-carb vegetables are perfect for this, so get ready to stock up.

Taken together, the keto-paleo diet is highly restrictive. It will require tons of planning and meal prep using scales and measuring cups, and you’ll need to consult the nutrition labels and carb-counting apps to get it right. Many people get disheartened by all the work that’s involved, and eating may start to feel like a chore. 

What can you drink on Paleo Keto Diet?

You’re going to need to stay focused on hydration throughout this diet. And while a good deal of your daily hydration can come from food, your body needs all the help it can get if you want to avoid kidney stones. 

Technically, the only paleo drink is water. Juices, even if they add vegetables, have too many carbs. And since the process of making juices removes the fiber, it doesn’t work for a low-carbohydrate diet (or anyone trying to avoid big sugar spikes). If you’re going to eat any fruits, like watermelon or berries, you can mix them with your water for some added flavor. 

Sodas and energy drinks, even the diet ones, will need to be eliminated while following this diet. If you need something bubbly to sparkle up your day, go for sparkling water. It is just as effective as regular water for keeping you hydrated. 

Milk and many dairy alternatives are not paleo- or keto-friendly, but even some of the strictest paleo adherents allow themselves black coffee or tea. Caffeine is an excellent workout aid, so if you’re going to hit the gym, it may help you maximize the benefits of your diet. Just skip the dairy and sweeteners and you’ll be fine.

Some keto diets allow for vodka or whiskey drinks since most distilled spirits don’t have any carbs in them. And while alcohol doesn’t have a direct effect on ketosis, it may slow your progress. Your body treats alcohol like a toxin and will work to metabolize it first before it turns to your body fat stores for energy.

Choosing a plan that’s right for you

If you’re considering the keto or paleo diet to meet your weight loss or fitness goals, you may have some success. But remember, there are no magic bullets for weight loss. Looking for quick results can keep you motivated in the short term, but as soon as you hit a plateau, you’ll likely give up and the progress will be lost. And the more this happens, the harder it will be to pick up again. 

Does this sound familiar? If you’re a chronic yo-yo dieter, it may be time to reevaluate your approach. After all, diets eventually end. Where do they leave you when they do? Do they ask you to give up things that bring you joy for short-term results? Do they encourage unhealthy goals in the amount of time you spend at the gym or the amount of weight you’re trying to lose each week

At Noom, questions like these make us skeptical of any diet. Instead, we take the sacrifice out of weight loss and focus on a personalized eating and fitness plan that’s built for you, so you can keep the foods you love and still have time to do the things you enjoy. Along the way, we’ll provide the coaching you need to stay excited and motivated. We believe your journey to better health should place as much importance on your mental and emotional wellbeing as it does on your weight. Learn more about working with Noom.