What Is the Difference Between Low-Carb vs. Keto?

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Written by Brenda Peralta, Registered Dietitian and medically reviewed by Abby Courtenay

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Are you choosing between a low-carb diet vs. keto? While they have very similar approaches, keto and reduced carb are two completely different eating styles. Even though they both limit your carbohydrate consumption, they can help different types of people with various benefits.

A distinction to understand is that while all keto diets are very low in carbs, not all low-carb diets are keto. So, which one is better?

In this article, I will explore the similarities, differences, benefits, side effects, foods permitted (and not permitted), and costs of each type of eating style. By the end, you'll better be able to see if low-carb is better than keto for you!

 

What is considered low carb?

A low or reduced-carbohydrate diet describes an eating pattern where you decrease your carb intake. It focuses on eliminating (or restricting) grains, starches, and sweeteners. 

A regular carbohydrate intake ranges from 50-60% of the total calories. A low-carb diet could be between 10 and 40% of your total calories from carbs. 

Since you decrease the carb consumption significantly, you need to increase the other macros. Proteins and especially healthy fats are increased to compensate for the decrease in carbs. 

So, if a low-carbohydrate diet means decreasing your carb intake, does that mean that you consume no carbs at all for keto?

No, you cannot eliminate carbs 100%. Your body still needs some carbs to function properly. 

On a keto diet, you still have some carbohydrates, but you eat a very low amount: just 5 to 10% of your calories from carbs. 

You also eat moderate amounts of protein to support your muscle mass. A large protein intake could kick you out of ketosis. Fats are the main macronutrient since they will be your main energy source. 

 

Is keto low carb? Similarities between the two eating styles

Weight loss

One of the primary reasons people do a keto diet or a low-carbohydrate one is weight loss. Both of them have several studies backing up their claims. 

The recommended weight loss speed is no more than 1% of body weight per week. Greater than this amount could mean losing water or muscle mass.

Diabetes and other chronic illnesses 

Either one of these eating styles can have promising results in decreasing glucose levels. With the help of a doctor or health professional, they can be implemented in people with diabetes unless they are insulin-dependent. If they are insulin-dependent, a reduced carbohydrate diet is less risky than a ketogenic one. 

Decrease risk of heart disease

Besides having positive effects on diabetes, these eating stays may also decrease your risk of heart disease. If you eat the right types of foods, such as avoiding saturated fat and highly processed meats, you could lower your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and triglycerides. 

Constant blood work is encouraged when following these ways of eating to ensure that everything is right on track. 

 

Differences between keto and low carb 

Macronutrients 

One of the most significant differences is the macronutrient composition. 

For a keto diet, you have a carb consumption of 5-10%, representing having less than 50 grams of net carbs per day. 

On the other hand, you have a larger carbohydrate intake going from 10-40% of your calories coming from carbs on a reduced-carb diet. This means eating around 50-130 grams of net carbs per day. 

The protein is also controlled in a keto diet since large quantities can get you out of ketosis, while on a low-carbohydrate diet, you can have a larger protein intake. 

Ketosis

The main goal of the keto diet is to enter ketosis to get into fat-burning mode. 

Ketosis is not the goal with a low-carbohydrate diet. Your body still has enough glucose from carbs to use as the primary energy source.

 

Benefits of low carb and keto

There are several benefits of following a low-carbohydrate and a ketogenic diet. Since they both decrease the carbohydrate intake, here is a list of the most common benefits you might get from either one: 

  • Weight loss
  • Reduced cholesterol levels
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Reduction in blood glucose levels 
  • Increased energy
  • Fewer cravings 
  • Emphasis on more natural foods

One of the advantages of a reduced-carbohydrate diet compared to a ketogenic one is that it might be easier to follow since the carbs are not as strictly limited. This allows people to find more options when eating out and not feel so restricted. 

For people not ready to do a keto diet, decreasing carbs gradually can be a good way of transitioning. 

 

Low-carb diet and keto side effects

The side effects are proportional to the carb consumption. The lower the carbs, the more likely you will get a side effect. The following is a list of side effects you can get, primarily from a ketogenic diet: 

  • Keto flu. You can get headaches, nausea, foggy brain, or reduced energy levels during the first weeks. 
  • Constipation. Since carbs are reduced (where most of the fiber comes from in our diet), you can end up having constipation. To reduce this side effect, make sure that you are eating enough veggies throughout the day. 
  • Nutrition deficiencies. You are more likely to get a nutritional deficiency while doing keto than in a reduced-carb diet. If you are not careful with your eating choices (not having enough whole foods), you might get nutritional deficiencies from either eating style. 

 

Keto vs. low-carb foods

Another of the most significant differences between these ways of eating is the foods that you can or cannot eat.

Keto foods can be eaten in a reduced-carbohydrate plan, but it doesn’t always apply the other way around. On keto, you also have to be more careful about your serving size.

In the following table, you can compare the foods permitted (✓) and not permitted (X) in each eating style. Remember that it also depends on your total carbohydrate consumption during the day, and what your personal macros are.
 

FOOD KETO LOW CARBOHYDRATE
Beans and legumes In moderation In moderation
Condiments and sauces ✓ 
(low carbohydrate)
✓ 
(low carbohydrate)
Dairy ✓ 
(low carbohydrate)
✓ 
(sugar free)
Sugar-free drinks
Sugar-sweetened beverages X X
Alcoholic drinks
(low carbohydrate)

(low carbohydrate)
Eggs
Fish and seafood
Fruits In moderation In moderation
Grains and starches In moderation In moderation
Herbs and spices
Meat and poultry
Nuts and seeds
Oils and fats
Processed foods  ✓
(low carbohydrate)
 ✓
(low carbohydrate)
Sugar-free sweeteners
Natural sweeteners X X
White and brown sugars X X
Starchy vegetables In moderation In moderation
Non-starchy vegetables


As you can see, they have very similar foods, it all comes down to the number of carbs you can eat per day. This varies from person to person, depending on how low you want to go in terms of carbohydrates. 

For keto, you need to track your daily macro amounts to ensure you enter ketosis. For a reduced carb plan, the amount you choose to eat is more flexible since ketosis is not necessarily the goal.

If you are wondering whether a food is keto-friendly, you can go to the following link to search for all those foods you can include in this type of eating plan. 

 

Keto vs low-carbohydrate diet costs

Both of them will have higher costs compared to a high-carb since carbs are typically cheaper. 

However, reduced-carb eating plans might have the advantage over keto since you can include more grains or starches in your meals. This means that it could be cheaper than a keto diet up to a certain point. 

To keep your grocery bill down, shop at local markets, buy products that are in season, and save time and money by meal prepping for the whole week ahead of time. 

 

Keto vs low carb: which one is healthier?

It all comes down to the one you can do in the long term. Sustainable results are better when it comes to eating patterns. For example, if you feel more energized with a ketogenic eating plan, this is the healthiest option for you. 

On the other hand, if you get a lot of side effects that cause a strain on your lifestyle, then it is healthier to do a reduced-carbohydrate diet. 

Regardless of what you decide, it’s important to include high-fiber products to fight constipation (like non-starchy veggies), choose unsaturated fats over saturated, and have a good lean protein consumption.

Additionally, lead an active lifestyle by doing 150 minutes of exercise per week and constantly moving throughout the day. 

 

Low carb vs keto results: the bottom line

Either option provides several health benefits that you can take advantage of. Keto may give accelerated weight loss in the first few months, but most diets level out at around 1 year. For those who have a hard time eliminating carbs, an excellent way to get ready for keto is to first do a reduced-carbohydrate option. Then, you can slowly decrease your daily carb consumption until you are able to enter ketosis. 

As long as you consume lots of colorful veggies, healthy fats, lean protein, and drink plenty of water, either is a great choice.