What is the difference between eating low carb, paleo and keto?

    Abdulaziz Sobh

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    Low carb, paleo, keto ... if it seems like everyone, but you are out of bread lately, it is probably because they are on one of these diets. And although the diets themselves are not exactly new, it certainly seems that many people are suddenly cutting back on one degree or another the macronutrient that has long been the main source of energy for humans.
    While for some of us this idea is, tbh, disconcerting in itself (you can take my bread and bananas from my cold and dead hands, thank you) it is also confusing to differentiate even among all these popular diets. What is paleo versus keto? How low is low carb?
    We have answers

    However, before entering the heart of paleo versus keto versus low carbohydrates, it is important to put this carbohydrate cut in the context of what the evidence tells us about diets in general. There is no better diet for everyone (or even for most of all), and although most diets can cause weight loss in the short term, they also tend to fail in the long term. If your goal is weight loss, you should know that weight is determined by a multitude of factors beyond the diet, many of which are beyond your control, and is not the only measure of health. For all these reasons and more, it is definitely advisable to consult a doctor first or work with a DR if you decide to start a diet such as low carb, paleo or keto. It is especially important to consult with a health care provider before starting any diet if you have a history of eating disorders or any health condition.

    That said, if you're curious about what each of these diets implies, we have useful information. Here, we explain everything: where these diets come from, what they are based on, how they are similar to each other and, most importantly, what you really eat in them.

    What it really means to eat low carb
    Low carb is a flexible and generic term that can describe any eating pattern that consumes less than the average amount of carbohydrates, says New York-based dietitian Samantha Cassetty, M.S., R.D.
    What is average? It depends on who you ask. But as a baseline we can work outside the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines, which establishes the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) for each of the macros (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins). AMDR represents the range of intake of a given macro that is associated with a decrease in the risk of chronic diseases and a sufficient intake of essential nutrients. Anything outside the AMDR and may begin to potentially increase your risk of chronic disease or nutrient insufficiency, according to the Dietary Guidelines.
    For carbohydrates, that target range is 45 to 65 percent of your total caloric intake. (Therefore, someone who eats 2,000 calories a day would get between 900 and 1,300 of their calories from carbohydrates. Carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram, which is equivalent to 225 to 325 grams.)
    Then, "when you get less than 45 percent of your energy from carbohydrates, that's where we generally begin to classify diets as low carb," Jennifer Bruning, MS, RDN, LDN, national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), he tells himself.
    Beyond that, low carbohydrates are not really a prescriptive diet. There is a lot of room for maneuver in the way of reaching that mark below 45 percent. "A low carb diet can drastically reduce carbohydrates and can be very restrictive, or it can be more moderate and include different foods," Cassetty explains. Technically, a person who gets 10 percent of their calories from carbohydrates and a person who gets 40 percent of their calories from carbohydrates are technically eating low carbohydrates. There are also no foods expressly included or omitted, which means you could stick to only low carb foods or incorporate moderate portions of carbohydrate foods, such as bread or potatoes. (However, it is likely that your diet naturally includes more protein and fat to compensate for carbohydrate reduction.) So, ultimately, it depends on the degree to which you reduce your carbohydrate intake and how you get there.
    Under this umbrella, there are many specific diets that qualify as low carb, each with different route maps. For example, the Atkins diet was one of the first low-carb diets that reached the mainstream in the 1990s. More recently, paleo and keto have become very popular. While both are low carb diets, that's where their similarities end, says Bruning. Here is the deal with each of them.

    The idea behind paleo
    "Paleo is meant to be a modern approach to the way our ancestors ate during the Paleolithic area," says Bruning, "approximately 10,000 years before the advent of agriculture when we were hunter-gatherers."

    The basic idea is that human beings are essentially genetically equal to our ancestors during that period. And according to the anthropological and scientific study of that time, humans who lived at that time did not experience the prevalence of chronic diseases we suffer today, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, explains Jen. Paleo advocates believe that this lack of illness is due in large part to the very different way they lived, including the way they ate and exercised.

    The origins of paleo
    The idea of ​​eating like our ancestors cannot be attributed to a single person. But Cassetty says that the man largely credited with doing mainstream paleo in the 21st century is Loren Cordain, Ph.D., professor emeritus of the Department of Health and Exercise Sciences at Colorado State University. On his website, Cordain says he first encountered the concept of the paleo diet in a 1985 medical journal article.
    Cordain presented the principles of paleo for the modern masses in his book The Paleo Diet in 2002, which became a New York Times bestseller. Although Cordain has registered the Paleo Diet® Movement, several iterations of the paleo diet (lowercase p) have been widely adopted by several bloggers and food influencers. (For simplicity, we will keep the original version of Cordain).

    What you do and do not eat in paleo
    In paleo, the focus is more on what you eat than how much. "There is no strict counting or breakdown of macronutrients to follow," says Bruning, "only foods that are allowed or not." In general, "the Paleo diet promotes certain whole foods, but not others, and eliminates all refined foods," says Cassetty.
    The list of what cannot be eaten in paleo is long and includes almost everything that has to be cultivated or refined, as opposed to something that in theory could have been eliminated by our ancestors. That includes a series of highly nutritious whole foods, such as legumes (i.e. beans, lentils, peanuts), dairy products, whole grains and starchy vegetables such as potatoes. It also covers added sugars, salt and refined oils (such as canola oil). And eliminate any type of packaged or processed food. That includes both those who generally lack nutrients (such as candy, ice cream, and fries) as well as packaged foods full of nutrients (such as protein bars or fortified cereals).
    Although eating paleo does not necessarily mean that you will maintain a low carbohydrate diet, the total elimination of various categories of carbohydrates (both whole and refined), as well as the emphasis on protein and fat, make eating low carb a common result of following the paleo diet explains Bruning. But people who use paleo can still get 35 to 45 percent of their calories from the types of carbohydrates allowed, according to the Cordain site, namely fruits and vegetables such as berries, citrus fruits, squash, and sweet potatoes. (So ​​you also get a considerable amount of fiber with your carbohydrates.)
    The list of what you can eat in paleo is also relatively long and includes a wide variety of whole foods: fish and shellfish, grass-fed meat, eggs, fruits, non-starchy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and unrefined vegetable oils (such as olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil). When it comes to animal products, there is an emphasis on the source, says Cassetty. For example, beef must come from grass-fed cows, eggs must come from cage-free chickens and fish must be caught in the wild. And the products should be fresh whenever possible.

    The idea behind keto
    Keto is a more drastic low carb diet because it requires a significant reduction (and careful monitoring) of carbohydrate intake. Unlike paleo, keto is about counting. The idea is to maintain a very precise balance of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins in your diet to force your body to change the way it generates energy. "Having a firm understanding of the macronutrients in the foods you are choosing is paramount in keto," says Bruning.
    Generally, glucose is the preferred form of fuel for the body and brain. We get glucose from carbohydrate-rich foods, so when we severely restrict carbohydrates, the body is deprived of fuel. Then, the body resorts to plan B and begins to break down fat to produce a secondary energy source called ketones. This metabolic state, called ketosis, is the goal of the keto diet. However, it is very difficult to remain in ketosis, says Bruning.
    Keto is quite different from the low carb diet of its garden variety because it restricts carbohydrate intake to only 5 to 10 percent of its energy consumption, says Bruning. In general, that means consuming less than 20 to 50 grams of carbohydrates a day. Most of the rest of your diet, about 70 to 80 percent, is fat and 10 or 20 percent or so is protein. "Fat is the vast majority of calories, carbohydrates are very intentionally suppressed and you get a moderate amount of protein," says Bruning, adding that too much protein can interfere with ketosis.

    The origins of the keto
    The keto diet has been around for about a century and has an amazing history. It was originally developed as a tool to help treat epilepsy that did not respond to other drugs and has recently been shown to be effective in doing so. (Scientists are still discovering exactly why that is.) But in the past two years with the growing popularity of low-carb diets of all kinds, keto has come as the ultimate anti-carbohydrate diet, and many of its advocates reported weight loss as a result.

    What you do and don't eat in keto
    Keto has to do with fat loading and avoiding carbohydrates, so most of the keto diet is foods high in fat and without carbohydrates or very low in carbohydrates. While technically there is no specific food to eat or avoid, Bruning says there are only many foods high in fat and low in carbohydrates. Therefore, staple foods usually include whole dairy products (such as butter, cream, and cheese), eggs, oils, more fatty meats (such as bacon or fatty cuts of meat), fish, avocados, and low-carb or non-carbohydrate vegetables such as Green leafy vegetables, nuts, and seeds, says Bruning. You can also have low-sugar berries such as raspberries in very small amounts. In addition to these fatty whole foods, you increasingly see friendly keto snacks that appear on the shelves of grocery stores. Unlike the paleo diet, these processed foods are allowed in keto as long as they remain within their macro limits.
    What you can't eat, obviously, are carbohydrates. Technically, Bruning notes, there are no foods that are strictly off-limits: you could eat some cake bites and have zero carbohydrates for the rest of the day and still achieve the correct macro distribution. But in practice, most people do not find it feasible and, instead, severely limit or eliminate all carbohydrate-rich foods: grains, fruits, legumes, sugar, and starchy vegetables. (This can also make it hard to get a lot of fiber.)
    But since every carbohydrate matters when you strive to eat so few, even low-carb foods that are allowed in the diet, such as nuts and vegetables, they should be eaten in moderation, says Cassetty. "The carbohydrates in non-starchy vegetables and nuts count for [your carbohydrate quota], so you can't eat all you want," says Cassetty. "In keto, you really need to moderate everything that is not pure fat."

    The bottom line
    While all these diets limit carbohydrates in different ways and to varying degrees, what they have in common is that they are ultimately quite restrictive ways of eating. And that is certainly not the right path for many people.
    If you are interested in following one of these diets, it is a good idea to consult a health care provider first. That may mean consulting with your primary care doctor or talking to any specialist you see if you have any concerns about how a certain diet could affect a medical condition. And ideally, you would work with a registered dietitian to help you incorporate as wide a range of nutrients as possible in your diet.

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