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Paleo vs. Keto Diet: Which one is the best?

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Over the past few weeks, several of my CrossFit friends have asked me if I was on the Keto diet. I usually respond with explaining that I’m on a Keto-influenced Paleo diet. That gave me the idea of writing an article comparing the Paleo vs. Keto diet and busting some of the myths surrounding both diets.

As the scientific knowledge advance, more and more information is made available on the internet, and there are more options for us to choose if we want to live a healthier life. For the last years, Keto and Paleo diets have been the focus of the attention of many dieters who want to achieve faster weight loss or healthier living. They are both quite similar to each other, but if we take a closer look, we will realize each one of them has their purpose and application. So, which one is the best for you, according to your goals?

An introduction to the Ketogenic diet

Macro Nutrients in the Keto Diet

Macro Nutrients in the Keto Diet

The Keto diet is a very low-carb diet, and the goal is reducing your carbohydrates to the absolute minimum. The Keto diet relies on a metabolic pathway called ketosis, which is an alternative way of finding energy by your organism. We usually use carbohydrates as the raw material to create energy, but when we reduce our carbs to the minimum and enter ketosis, the body starts making energy from fat. Thus, the Keto diet focuses on achieving a rapid weight-loss by hijacking our metabolism into burning more fat than usual (1).

In the Keto diet, you need to take out most sources of carbohydrates, reducing them to around 5% of your daily intake. At the same time, you will increase your fat intake to 75%, always favoring healthy fats (unsaturated fats from olive oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds) over unhealthy fats coming from fried foods and fast food. The Keto diet was initially developed to prevent seizures (2), but recent studies show it’s also beneficial in type 2 diabetes and to promote accelerated weight loss (3).

Types of Keto Diets

There are various types of the Keto diet, and they differ in their macronutrient makeup. Some of the more popular varieties are listed below:

  • Cyclical Ketogenic Diet (CDK): This form of keto diets is designed primarily for bodybuilders. It involves a weekly rotation of your carb intake. You could go on a low-carb keto diet for four days and then ingest a relatively high amount of carb for the next three days.
  • Standard Ketogenic Diet (SDK): SDK is usually practiced by those who are looking to lose some pounds of body weight but are less active. The meal is structured in such a way that it contains 75% fat, 20% protein, and only 5% carb. This reduces their daily carb intake to about 20 to 50 grams.
  • Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD): This type of keto diet is recommended for those who are involved in high-intensity activities. Athletes on the TKD take a high amount of carbs (usually within the range of 25 to 50 gram) just before a workout with the aim of burning the excess calories during exercise.
  • High-Protein Ketogenic Diet: Like the SKD, it involves rotating your carb intake on a weekly basis, but in this case, the ratio of protein is slightly higher (35%) with carbs maintaining its 5% value and fat intake reduced to about 60%.

What you need to know about Paleo Diet

The Paleo Diet

The Paleo Diet

The principle of the Paleo Diet is that there’s absolutely no way you can picture hunter-gatherers in the Paleolithic era with abdominal obesity and metabolic issues. They needed to do quite a lot of physical activity to find food and shelter, and they didn’t die from starvation or suffered from low energy levels either. Thus, the diet these people held was according to what our organism needs, nothing more, nothing less.

The Paleo Diet includes foods with high protein content, low carbohydrates, and enough fiber. It is mainly focused on fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. It allows meat, seafood, and eggs but eliminates processed and refined foods as well as grains, legumes, and dairy. The Paleo Diet is lower in carbohydrates and higher in Omega-3 fatty acids, which ultimately causes weight reduction, improves insulin sensitivity and diabetes, and lowers your cardiovascular risk (4).

Paleo vs. Keto: Similarities & Differences

How does Ketosis work?

How does Ketosis work?

Both Paleo and Keto diets are low-carb diets that encourage eating plenty of vegetables and animal protein. They do not allow refined sugar and many processed foods, rule out grains and legumes and increase the intake of healthy fats from coconut oil, avocado, olive oil, nuts, and seeds. They aim at achieving weight loss and preventing cardiovascular and metabolic problems through a low-calorie diet with nutrient-dense foods.

However, these diets have significant differences, not only in the foods they allow and restrict but also in their application and sustainability. The first difference between one another is dairy because the Keto diet allows milk, cheese, yogurt, and other milk derivatives while the Paleo diet does not. At the same time, Paleo diets allow for a few additional sources of carbohydrates like fruits, natural sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup, and starchy vegetables as in beets and (sweet) potatoes. Conversely, the Keto diet takes out all of this as a source of carbohydrates and only allows for stevia and monk fruit because they provide no additional carbs.

The most significant difference between these two approaches is that Keto diets aim at burning fats through ketosis by reducing carbohydrate intake to the minimum. This means that, if you choose the Keto diet, you will need to abide by the specific proportion of macronutrients your body needs to enter ketosis (75% of fats, 20% of proteins and 5% of carbohydrates). You might also need to test for ketosis because that’s the metabolic goal of this diet. On the other hand, the Paleo diet does not require keeping a strict proportion of macronutrients, and it is easier to follow and sustain for a longer time.

Myths or Facts: Keto and Paleo on trial

Myths of the Paleo and Keto diets

Myth or Fact?

Fact: The Keto flu

Maybe you have read about something called the Keto flu, which is a side effect of Keto diets. While it is not necessarily happening to you, Keto flu is a fact. Your transition into ketosis might be uncomfortable, and you could start feeling digestive problems, fatigue, and brain fog for a while. This can last for a few weeks or might not even happen at all; it depends on your organism. So, Keto flu is a FACT you should know about Keto diets before starting them, and you could feel better by taking enough water and high-potassium vegetables.

Myth: You shouldn’t exercise while on the Keto Diet

Neither Paleo nor Keto has negatively influenced my workout performance

Neither Paleo nor Keto has negatively influenced my workout performance

In sports and physical activity, carbohydrates are fundamental to protect proteins from degradation during bouts of exercise. Since Keto diets are very restrictive in their carbohydrate proportion, is it advisable to exercise? If you think exercising during ketosis makes you lose muscle mass, you should know that is a MYTH. Studies with Keto diets have found it is still possible to build muscle during ketosis and perform strength training without losing muscle mass. But if that’s your aim, be smart. Don’t start your exercise session while you suffer from the Keto flu, and eat enough proteins beforehand. Using BCAA supplements as a pre-workout would be fantastic, as long as you read there are no additional carbs on the label (5).

Fact: You can keep Keto diets for a long time

Some people claim they have been in Keto diets for a very long time; others say it’s not possible, and you should cycle in and out of ketosis. However, keeping Keto diets for a long time is possible (although it might be quite difficult to sustain). It is a FACT proven with sound science, and there are scientific studies about individuals keeping Keto for up to 10 years (6). The most common approach about Keto diets is using them for an accelerated weight-loss for a short while, and then moving on to a less restrictive diet. But that doesn’t mean you will have problems if you keep this diet for a longer time.

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Fact: Paleo diet and low calcium

Paleo diets restrict milk and all types of dairy, which is one of the most reliable ways to get calcium. It is a FACT that some people might experience low calcium levels if they are not careful. However, many studies show that broccoli, kale, and many other vegetables are reliable sources of calcium, with high absorbability (7). So, if you consume high-calcium vegetables daily and have around 10 minutes of sunshine every day, there’s no reason why you should suffer from calcium deficiency.

Myth: Paleo diet and renal disease

Another claim about the Paleo diet is that you consume way too much protein, and it might affect your kidneys. This is one of the biggest MYTHS about the Paleo diet, and it is the easiest to bust if we look at the facts. First off, the most critical foods in Paleo diets are vegetables, which are not exceptionally high in proteins. And even if you gorge on fish, eggs, and other protein sources, there’s no reason to think this will affect your kidneys. Protein restriction is only advisable when people already have kidney disease and studies show there’s no evidence that high protein diets might be detrimental to kidney function in healthy individuals (8).

Myth: Eggs in Paleo diet

Eggs with avocado

My favorite breakfast: Eggs with avocado

Some people might be still concerned about consuming too many eggs every day. For many years, eggs were thought to increase cholesterol levels because they contain high amounts of dietary cholesterol. However, in recent years many different studies have shown that dietary sources of cholesterol do not necessarily increase your blood lipids. Being afraid of eggs and throwing the egg yolk is one of the worst nutritional faux-pas.

What’s more, recent studies about egg consumption show that consuming them daily reduces your cardiovascular risk (9), and the World Health Organization clearly states that “if intake of dairy fat and meat are controlled, there is no need to restrict egg yolk intake severely (10).”

Myth: The Paleo diet consists mostly of red meat

Red meat and the Paleo Diet

Red meat and the Paleo Diet

When we started with the Paleo diet, we ate mostly meat and vegetables because that’s what we thought the Paleo diet was all about. It’s a perception that the Paleo diet doesn’t seem to be able to shake off.

The premise of the Paleo diet suggests animal protein to make up of 19-35% of your daily calories, but it doesn’t specify for that protein to come from bacon, hamburgers and corn-fed beef. More importantly, the majority of your calories (34-45%) should come from non-starchy fresh fruit and vegetables.

Fact: The Paleo Diet is expensive

Unfortunately, eating healthy in the United States can be costly, and that includes the Paleo diet. Just compare the prices of grass-fed local meat vs. grain-fed meat of unknown origin. My wife makes most dishes from scratch, including sauces, nut-based pancakes, meatballs, etc. That too is more expensive than buying ready-to-eat/cook products that might contain unhealthy ingredients. So yeah, Paleo is costly, but we consider it an investment in our health.

Paleo vs. Ketogenic Diet: Which one is better?

So, after going through the basics of Keto and Paleo diets, comparing them and clearing out some myths and facts, the question remains. Which one is better? The answer depends on what you’re looking for.

The Keto diet is fantastic if you are looking for a faster way to lose weight, and especially if you’re trying to control your blood sugar, suffer from insulin resistance, polycystic ovary syndrome, seizures, and other health problems. In these cases, the Keto diet will not only reduce your weight but also improve your underlying condition.

On the other hand, you might want to go for a Paleo diet if you need a more straightforward approach, or if you live a busy life and don’t have much time to count your macronutrients. You can sustain the Paleo diet more easily, and it will help you learn the art of healthy eating, but you need to know you won’t see results as fast as in the Keto diet.

In both cases, getting started may become a challenge, especially if you’re surrounded by non-dieters who want to take you back to your previous eating pattern. So, always remember this might be the start of a new journey, and the results will always depend on you.

Editor’s Note

My family and I have been on the Paleo diet since the beginning of 2016, and we have turned Paleo into a lifestyle rather than leveraging it as a temporary diet. While maintaining our dietary lifestyle isn’t a daily struggle, we still have to occasionally defend or explain our food choices in front of friends, family, and even strangers. On the bright side, we have noticed that quite a few people around us have changed their dietary habits for the better.

I take cues from the Keto diet by trying to reduce the number of carbohydrates I consume to a minimum. On some but not all days, I’m in ketosis, and it’s not a struggle for me. I don’t do that because I have an underlying condition or because I’m trying to lose weight. Instead, I try to limit the intake of the only macronutrient the human body does not need to survive: carbohydrates.

What’s your take on Paleo vs. Keto? Have you tried either diet or are thinking about trying it? If so, let me know by leaving a comment below!

About the Author Michael Kummer

I was born and raised in Austria. I speak German, English, and Spanish. Since moving to the U.S., I have lived and worked in Alpharetta, GA. In my twenties, I was a professional 100m sprinter. These days I do mostly CrossFit. I'm a technologist and Apple fan. I love science and don't believe anything unless there is proof. I follow the Paleo diet and intermittently fast every day. I'm married and have two trilingual kids. My goal with this blog is to share what I learn so that you can spend time on something else.

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  • Lee says:

    Been following keto for around 2 months. Finding it very easy to stick to, but miss bread(s). Bodyfat has been slowly coming down, and feel constantly energised both for heavy weight sessions and for longer cardio sessions (10k+ runs). It was tough between days 3-7 though.