Today, you’d be hard-pressed to read a health magazine or step into any gym without hearing about paleo and ketogenic diets.
Many people follow these diets to lose weight or improve their overall health. Yet, since both diets are so popular, you may wonder how they differ.
Here is a detailed comparison of the paleo and keto diets, including which is best.
What is the paleo diet?
The paleo diet, sometimes called “the caveman diet,” is based on the principle that eating foods available to early humans will promote optimal health.
One of the fundamental theories behind the paleo diet is that modern food systems, production, and processing techniques are damaging to human health.
Thus, if you adjust your eating style to mimic that of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, you will better support your body’s natural biological function, improving digestion and health.
Paleo eliminates grains, legumes, processed sugar, and most dairy sources.
The main foods permitted on the paleo diet include:
- Meat and fish
- Nuts and seeds
- Vegetables — except corn, which is a grain
- Selected fats and oils, such as coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil, lard, tallow, ghee/butter
- Minimally processed sweeteners, including raw honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, raw stevia
For most, paleo is about more than just a diet.
There is also a strong focus on lifestyle practices, the environmental impact of food choices, and total body wellness within the framework of the paleo philosophy.
Summary: The paleo diet is an eating plan that emphasizes whole foods and eliminates grains, legumes, and most processed foods to improve health. The diet also has a lifestyle component focusing on wellness and exercise.
What is the keto diet?
Most tissues in the human body prefer using glucose from carbohydrates for energy.
Ketosis is the metabolic state in which your body uses calories from fat instead of carbs to create the energy needed to perform normal functions.
The keto, or ketogenic, diet aims to induce ketosis through the calculated adjustment of dietary macronutrients, namely carbs, protein, and fat.
The keto diet macronutrient breakdown looks something like this:
- Fat: 65-90%
- Protein: 10-30%
- Carbohydrates: less than 5%
Compared to a “standard” diet, the macronutrient distribution of the keto diet is shifted significantly in favor of fat, with moderate protein and very few carbs.
The purpose of achieving ketosis with this diet plan is to induce the metabolic breakdown of fat in your body. Thus, macronutrient intake must be tightly controlled, as otherwise you risk throwing your metabolism out of ketosis.
One of the main reasons the keto diet has gained recent popularity is its potential to help you lose weight and improve blood sugar control.
Summary: The keto diet is an eating plan that focuses on controlling the macronutrient distribution of meals to shift the body’s dependence from carbs to fat for energy.
These diets have a lot in common
Although they are distinct, paleo and keto diets share many characteristics. Below are some of the main ideas these diets have in common.
Both emphasize whole foods
Fundamentally, both paleo and keto diet plans are intended to rely on whole-food sources of nutrients.
Whole food is food that has undergone a minimal amount of processing by the time it gets to your plate.
Both keto and paleo diets strongly encourage eliminating all ultra-processed foods and replacing them with whole foods like fresh vegetables, meat, fish, and nuts.
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This is especially evident with excluding processed fats, oils, and sweeteners in paleo and keto “rule books.”
Both eliminate grains and legumes
For different reasons, paleo and keto diets strongly discourage eating grains and legumes.
For the paleo crowd, this elimination is largely based on the fact that grains and legumes were not likely part of early human diets and contain antinutrients.
Antinutrients are compounds, such as lectins and phytates, found in some plant-based foods. They interfere with your body’s ability to absorb minerals and nutrients and may cause digestive distress when eaten in large quantities.
On the other hand, research suggests that there may also be benefits to eating foods with these compounds.
The keto diet also eliminates grains and most legumes, but this is because of their carbohydrate content.
Grains and legumes contribute a significant amount of carbs to the diet. If you eat them while following the keto diet, you risk throwing your body out of ketosis.
Both eliminate added sugar
Keto and paleo diets strongly discourage the intake of added sugars.
For both diet plans, this largely falls under their shared message of avoiding heavily processed foods in general.
However, paleo dieters are more flexible with this rule, as unrefined sugar sources like honey and maple syrup are still permitted.
Keto, conversely, doesn’t allow any added sugar sources, refined or not, due to the high carb content of these foods.
Both emphasize healthy fats
In line with their shared goal of achieving optimal health, paleo and keto diets encourage the intake of unrefined, healthy fats.
Both diets also recommend moderate-to-liberal amounts of selected refined oils, such as olive and avocado oild, nuts, seeds, and fish. These foods benefit heart health because of their poly- and monounsaturated fat content.
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Both diets also discourage heavily processed fats, such as trans fats, which are detrimental to health when consumed regularly.
Keto places very heavy emphasis on fat in general, as it is the cornerstone of the entire diet. While not necessarily a high-fat diet, Paleo uses this recommendation to support overall health.
Both may be effective for weight loss
One of the primary reasons for the popularity of keto and paleo diets is the notion that they will promote weight loss.
Unfortunately, limited research is available on how effective these diets are for sustained, long-term weight loss. However, some short-term research is promising.
A small study of postmenopausal, obese women following the paleo diet showed a 9% weight loss after six months and a 10.6% loss at 12 months. No additional significant change in weight was seen at the 24-month mark.
One review of research on low-carb, high-fat (LCHF) diets, such as the ketogenic diet, indicated that short-term weight loss could occur when switching to this eating style.
This may have been because a high fat intake usually leads to decreased appetite and fewer calories consumed. It may also be that the process of ketosis is leading to more efficient elimination of the body’s fat stores. The exact reason is still unclear.
Ultimately, more research is needed to determine a clear causal relationship.
Summary: The keto and paleo diets share a lot of similar food restrictions and rules, though often for different reasons.
Paleo focuses more on ideology, while keto focuses on macronutrients
One of the key differences between the paleo and keto diets is the ideological message or lack thereof.
The paleo diet heavily emphasizes lifestyle choices beyond just the diet. It explicitly encourages a specific style of exercise and mindfulness in daily activities to accompany the dietary pattern.
One of the mainstays of the paleo lifestyle is to incorporate short, intense periods of exercise into your routine. This style of physical activity is thought to reduce the stress that may accompany longer workouts.
Other methods of stress reduction encouraged on the paleo diet include yoga and meditation.
When paired with the diet, these lifestyle practices are intended to support the total wellness of your body and mind, leading to better overall health.
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While the paleo diet regimen is very specific, it doesn’t place any emphasis on macronutrients at all. You can eat as much protein, fat, and carbohydrates as you want, provided you’ve chosen them from the “allowable” foods list.
Keto, on the other hand, doesn’t have an associated ideology or lifestyle component. While it does encourage choosing healthy food sources, the main focus is macronutrient distribution.
Any other implemented lifestyle changes alongside the keto diet are up to the individual and are not part of the diet regimen.
Summary: The paleo diet encourages certain activities outside of following the diet, such as exercise and mindfulness, and it places no limits on macronutrients. Keto only requires staying within a set range of carbs, protein, and fat.
Paleo allows for whole-food carbs
Although paleo does restrict some carb sources, it isn’t necessarily a low-carb diet in the same way keto is.
Because paleo does not emphasize macronutrients, your diet could theoretically be very high in carbs, depending on which foods you eat within the specified parameters.
Because grains, refined sugars, and legumes aren’t permitted, the carb sources on the paleo diet are somewhat limited but not eliminated. Paleo still allows carbs from groups of whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, and unrefined sweeteners.
Conversely, the keto diet restricts all rich sources of carbohydrates, including starchy vegetables, most fruits, grains, sweeteners, and most legumes.
Because total carb intake must remain below a certain threshold to maintain ketosis, many high-carb foods, regardless of their source, simply don’t fit into a keto diet.
Summary: Keto restricts your carb intake, while paleo allows for many whole-food sources of carbs, provided they fall into the permitted food categories.
Keto allows dairy and some soy foods
Keto permits, even encourage, eating many dairy foods. High-fat dairy in heavy cream, butter, and unsweetened full-fat yogurt are the mainstay of many ketogenic diet plans.
Other dairy products, like ice cream or milk, are prohibited on the keto diet, mostly due to their low fat-to-carb ratio.
Soy foods like tofu, tempeh, and soybeans are allowed on the keto diet if they fall within your specified macronutrient allotment. Soy milk, however, is usually discouraged.
Paleo, on the other hand, doesn’t allow for any soy and restricts almost all dairy.
Grass-fed butter is the one permitted dairy product on the paleo diet. However, there is some disagreement within the paleo community about whether this allowance truly aligns with the paleo ideology.
Additionally, paleo does not allow soy products because they fall into the legume category of foods.
Summary: Keto encourages eating high-fat dairy foods and some soy, provided that they fit within the recommended macronutrient range. Paleo doesn’t allow dairy or soy, except for some butter.
Which one is healthier?
Both paleo and keto diets can be healthy options, depending on how they are implemented and what they are used for.
Conversely, the paleo diet is a healthier option for most people.
Paleo allows for more flexibility in food choices and more options for obtaining the wide array of nutrients your body needs daily. It also encourages an overall healthy lifestyle.
Freedom within food choices makes paleo easier to maintain long-term with less potential to be socially isolating.
Keto does not suit everyone and may be beneficial as a treatment method for some health conditions.
Also, people should avoid eating too much saturated fat on a high-fat diet. Studies suggest it may increase the risk of heart disease.
Keto is more difficult to maintain because of the strict compliance needed to achieve ketosis. It requires careful planning and can be less adaptable to varied social situations.
Keto’s lack of flexibility can also make getting adequate nutrients challenging because of the limited options.
Summary: Both paleo and keto diets have the potential to be healthy, but paleo is more likely to offer a wider variety of nutritious options. Keto can be difficult to maintain and may not be well tolerated by some people.
The ketogenic diet is characterized by its high fat and low carbohydrate content. It may be effective for weight loss and blood sugar control.
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The paleo diet emphasizes eating whole foods considered available to humans in the Paleolithic era. It also encourages exercise and other wellness practices.
Both diets have the potential to impact your health when appropriately planned positively.
However, long-term research regarding the safety and efficacy of these diet plans is lacking, and some of the restrictions can be difficult to maintain.
For most people, the paleo diet is a better choice because it has more flexibility with food choices than keto, which makes it easier to maintain long-term.
At the end of the day, the diet that works long-term for you is the best choice.