We have been running our Aussie Low Carb Community facebook group for over 2 years and a common question from people that are new to low carb and keto is “what is the difference?”. Keto vs low carb seems to be one of the biggest arguments and disagreements within the low carb community.
In order to address the differences between keto and low carb we will need to offer you what we see as our definitions of what is keto and what is low carb.
What is Low Carb?
There is many varying opinions when it comes to what a low carb diet is. The general thought is a low carb diet is one that is deliberately lower carb than a standard American or Australian diet. Many consider a diet low carb if it consists of under 100g of carbs per day.
Sometimes there can be some confusion around low carb and keto. If you are eating under 20 grams of carbs a day and in ketosis, you are also, by default, living a low carb lifestyle. if you are eating a low carb lifestyle, you may be in ketosis, but that is not a definite. Low carb is the boarder term and the keto lifestyle comes under that.
Most people will achieve a low carb diet or way of eating by removing the main carbohydrate from their plate. This would usually be the bread, rice, pasta and starchy vegetables like potato and sweet potato.
Just by removing these foods from your diet, you are going to be eating a much lower carbohydrate than you once were. You will also need to focus on removing all the sugary foods from your diet. This can be a little trickier, as sugar is in everything.
You will need to start to learn how to read nutritional labels. You will quickly learn all the different types and terms for sugar that get used by food manufacturers.
Often, you will find a low carb way of eating is much easier when you focus on whole foods and eliminating many of the processed foods you may have been eating before.
What is Keto?
Keto is a stricter version of low carb, where you are focusing on getting your body into a state of ketosis by restricting carbohydrates to around 20 grams a day.
Keto is when you eat in a particular way that forces your body into ketosis. What is ketosis you might be asking? Well ketosis is when your body is producing ketones and uses fat as it’s fuel instead of glucose. It also allows the liver to turn fat into ketones which is energy for the brain. That is why many people that have adopted a keto lifestyle will say their brain is so much clearer.
What do you need to do to be in ketosis? The general opinion is that most people will be in ketosis if they consume less than 20g of carbs a day. This can vary between person to person. Some people will have a higher carb tolerance than others. The only way to know the carb amount that would work for you is to test.
You can test your ketones in a number of different ways. The most accurate being blood ketone testing. You can find a good blood ketone tester here. It is generally considered that you are in ketosis if you measure ketones higher than 0.5. During our 3.5 years living a ketogenic lifetstyle, we have discovered for some people, measuring any ketones can mean you are in ketosis.
Another thing we have learned, is that a higher reading does not equate to a better reading. There is no evidence to suggest the higher your ketones are the faster you will lose weight, for example.
When you start considering a ketogenic diet and research what’s involved, you will start to hear about macros. Macros are macronutrients and include carbohydrates, protein and fat. Some people living a keto lifestyle like to track their macros. This involves recording your food intake in a tracker like Cronometer. If you would like to learn more about tracking your macros check out our video here.
It is very common amongst the keto community to hear a comment that a particular food is not keto. It needs to be noted that a food cannot be keto or not. Keto is a state that your body is in. There are definitely foods that you can consume that will kick you out of ketosis, but that does not make that food not keto. This can be an extremely individual thing, so you have to find out what foods work best for you to maintain ketosis.
What are the benefits of low carb?
Low carb may be an easier transition from a standard American or Australian diet. Working on removing the carbs like pasta, bread, rice and sugar from your diet, can feel like a much easier transition than trying to restrict carbs to under 20 grams per day.
Low carb allows a bit more flexibility. As it is less restrictive than a keto lifestyle, some feel they prefer a low carb lifestyle as it offers them a bit more flexibility in the fruits and vegetables they can consume.
Low carb can also be a little easier to implement when you have a family. It can make meal time a little easier as you can serve a similar meal to the whole family. Some families will adopt a lifestyle where the low carbers of the family eat the meat and veg portion of the meal and leave of the carbs they are serving for the rest of the family.
When adopting a low carb lifestyle, there is much less meed to track your carbs or your macros, again allowing that little bit more flexibility and ease. Tracking can be a bit of a pain, so low carb can make it easier in that regard.
What are the disadvantages of low carb?
When choosing a more low carb based diet over a keto diet one of the disadvantages is you may not experience that mental clarity and energy that you can experience when you are in ketosis.
For us, when we are in ketosis, we are much less hungry and we are much more in tune with our hunger signals. You can feel less hungry as you restrict your carbs more and obtain a state of ketosis.
You may even end up in a state that some refer to as low carb purgatory. Where you are restricting carbs, but not gaining the benefits of ketosis, where you might feel a bit more hungry and not achieve the mental clarity.
Another thing that can easily happen when choosing a low carb lifestyle over a ketogenic lifestyle is carb creep. If you are not tracking or measuring your carbs, it can be really easy for the carbs to creep up even without you knowing. I know, personally, when I am in maintenance, I can eat a more low carb approach, but when I do, I have noticed that the carbs creep in so quickly. As I don’t track my carbs, I found a keto approach allows me to be stricter with my carbs and the carb creep doesn’t happen. As I do measure my ketones, I know I am in ketosis and the carb creep doesn’t happen.
What can contribute to carb creep really quickly is all the low carb substitutes. If you start incorporating foods like low carb bread, low carb pasta and low carb treats, the carb creep can happen without you even realising. We see these replacement food as a treat, we may eat them once or twice a month. You don’t want to use replace your carbs with the low carb substitutes.
What are the benefits of keto?
The mental clarity and energy that you can feel when your body is in a state of ketosis is pretty amazing. You won’t believe it until you experience it. It can take a while for your body to experience it and can be the reason why people feel a keto lifestyle doesn’t work for them. If you can keep going and experience this feeling, it is highly motivating. It becomes a feeling you don’t want to give up.
Appetite sepression is another great benefit from keto. You feel less hunger when your body is producing ketones and running on fat. This can be a real benefit when trying to lose weight.
What are the disadvantages of Keto?
A keto lifestyle can feel a lot more restrictive. It can feel a little bit more challenging in some social situations, like eating out and visiting friends and family.
The keto flu can be a common side effect when you begin a keto lifestyle. A lot of people can experience the feeling of fatigue, sugar cravings, nausea, constipation, headaches and generally feeling a bit unwell. This may be because your body is detoxing from some the foods it is used to receiving like sugar and/or it may be a lack of electrolytes. To learn more about electorlytes and a keto diet check out this article.
Another very common side effect can be keto breath. I know when I have high ketones, I can have terrible keto breath. This is generally considered to be acetone on your breath. I do find the longer I am in ketosis, this tends to subside.
I will also often experience keto dreams. When I am in a state of ketosis, I will often experience very vivid and weird dreams. This is something that doesn’t bother me much, but I find it a very strange side effect of being in ketosis.
What are the main differences between keto and low carb?
The main difference between the two are the amount of carbs you can consume to obtain a state of ketosis. The really important thing to point out is there are many more similarities between the two than differences. Both groups are aiming for a similar goal, which is usually an improvement in their health.
As a general rule a ketogenic lifestyle would require you to restrict carbs to around 20 grams per day and a low carb lifestyle can be up to about 100 grams a day. As stated above, if you are keto, you are low carb. If you are low carb, you may also be in ketosis, but it’s not a definite.
Our thoughts on Keto vs Low Carb
We have noticed in our time living a keto lifestyle, that labels are really important to many people. It gives people a sense of community and belonging. Like they are part of the keto or low carb club. Whilst I love the keto community, I feel some people can take the label a bit too seriously. There can at times, be a sense of one person feeling they keto better than others because they feel their way works so well for them, that it must be the right way.
Our key message is always you need to find what works for you. What works awesome for you, may not work as well for someone else. Keto works amazingly for some people and low carb works amazingly for others. If you can make the key focus in everything you do about finding what works the best for you, then you have won the biggest battle of them all.
It’s also really important to understand that it really shouldn’t be about keto vs low carb. Remember we are really much more similar with our focus than what our differences are. We all are aiming to achieve optimal health for ourselves.
Another thing we have noticed as we become more experienced with keto and low carb is that it doesn’t have to be so cut and dry for a lot of people. In our time living this lifestyle we have definitely been keto for parts of the journey and low carb for others. This allows us to maintain this lifestyle long term.
Please feel free to let us know in the comments below, what your low carb or ketogenic journey has been? What has worked best for you? What are some of the things you have learnt about the best keto and low carb approach for you. We are always interested to hear what works for different people.