Two dietary strategies that have gained quite a bit of popularity over the past several years are the paleolithic (paleo) diet and the ketogenic diet.
While these two strategies often end up looking pretty similar, there are differences, and each one may or may not be appropriate for you, depending on your goals.
In this post, we’re going to talk about the differences between the paleo and ketogenic diets, and how you might determine which one is the best fit for you.
Entire books have been written about both strategies, so we’ll be taking a bird’s eye view of the major themes of each one to keep things simple.
Towards the end of the post, I’ll provide links to my favorite resources for each one.
What is the paleo diet?
The paleo diet is based on the idea that modern diseases like obesity and diabetes are tied to certain aspects modern eating habits, so if we shape our eating habits to look more like they did before the rise of agriculture, we lower our risk of such diseases.
Some who implement a paleo diet take this idea quite literally and attempt to mimic paleolithic eating habits as closely as possible.
Others who implement a paleo diet take this idea a bit more loosely, and think of it only as an easier way to determine what to eat instead of remembering long lists or guidelines.
While the details of what foods are or are not included in a paleo diet vary depending on who you ask, most forms of paleo diets involve eliminating grains, legumes, dairy, vegetable and seed oils, and added sugar.
Just as there are countless definitions of what the paleo diet is, there are countless reasons folks implement it.
Some folks use it as a long-term strategy for managing symptoms associated with digestive or autoimmune conditions.
Some folks use it as an elimination protocol to determine how certain foods affect their health.
Some folks use it simply as a way to make food choices that help them look and feel good.
What is the ketogenic diet?
A ketogenic diet is a diet that results in either elevated levels of ketone bodies in the blood.
Ketone bodies are an alternative source of fuel for several organs, most notably the brain, when glucose (the primary form of carbohydrate our bodies use) is limited.
While the ketogenic diet was originally developed for the treatment of epilepsy, it’s now recently become popular for other reported benefits, including weight loss and improved cognition.
Implementing a ketogenic diet involves the restriction of non-fibrous carbohydrates like starch and sugar and, to a certain extent, moderating protein, while then using fat (from the diet or the body) to satisfy energy needs.
The specific details of how much carbohydrate, protein, and fat one includes in their own ketogenic diet will vary based on their personal circumstances, like their intent in implementing the diet and their activity levels.
Unlike a paleo diet, there is no list of foods that one does or does not eat when implementing a ketogenic diet.
What’s the difference between paleo and keto?
The idea of choosing between a paleo diet or a ketogenic diet is a false dichotomy.
Paleo diets are defined by food quality.
Ketogenic diets are defined by macronutrient profile.
Since the two strategies are defined by different criteria, they aren’t mutually exclusive.
You can implement a paleo diet, a ketogenic diet, both at the same time, or neither.
You can implement a paleo diet with lots of carbohydrates or none at all.
You can implement a ketogenic diet with minimally processed, nutrient-dense foods or with highly processed, nutrient-poor foods.
That being said, if you’re looking to be successful with either approach – or any dietary strategy, really – you’re going to want to pay attention to both food quality and macronutrient profile.
Regardless of whether you choose to implement a paleo, ketogenic, or any other diet, here are five steps that will give you your most “bang for your buck” in terms of looking and feeling better:
- Drink plenty of water and other non-caloric drinks like green tea or coffee, depending on how they’re affecting your sleep, mood, and energy levels.
- Get some form of high-quality protein like pastured beef or lamb, wild fish, chicken, shrimp, or venison with every meal.
- Eat tons of colorful non-starchy vegetables like broccoli, spinach, peppers, mushrooms, onions, tomato, and (my personal favorite) brussels sprouts
- Make sure you’re eating enough healthy, natural fats like nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, and the fat that comes along with your protein.
- Fuel up with minimally processed carbs like fruit, berries, tubers, and root vegetables, as appropriate for your needs and goals.
Which one’s the right fit for you?
If you feel like a paleo or ketogenic diet might be a good fit for you, and you’re wondering which one to choose, you might want to start with paleo.
Dialing in the quality of your food first, before ever worrying about restricting carbohydrates, might be enough to move the needle towards looking and feeling better.
Once you’ve established a baseline of consistently eating minimally-processed, nutrient-dense foods, then you might start tinkering with your carbohydrate intake to see what makes you feel best.
Just know that you don’t have to balls to the wall with either of these approaches to improve the quality of your diet or play around with your carbohydrate intake.
You could start by just making sure you’re getting enough protein each day.
Maybe then you could move on to eating more colorful, nutritious vegetables.
After that you could start to focus on the improving the quality and quantity of your fats and carbohydrates.
If you want to go all in with a paleo or ketogenic diet, that’s totally cool.
Lots of folks have long term success with both approaches, and you might also.
The key is to find out what works for you.
Nobody but you can determine what foods make you feel bad or feel awesome.
Nobody but you can decide how much carbohydrate you need to feel your best.
Remember that any defined dietary strategy like “paleo” or “keto” is just a starting point.
It’s up to you to move forward from there.
Move beyond labels.
Move beyond lists.
Move towards your own, unique, best diet.
It will take some time.
It will take some effort.
You’re worth it, though.
You’ve got this.