“What is the difference between keto and paleo?” isn’t a trick question, though keto and paleo—two popular diets among the biggest trends of the last few years—are often conflated. But if you take a closer look, there are significant differences.
Keto vs Paleo: What Exactly Are They?
A ketogenic or keto diet involves getting a larger majority of your calories from fat, a moderate amount from protein, and very little from carbohydrates. Typically, it means getting 65 to 80 percent of calories from fat, 15 to 30 percent from protein, and the remainder from carbohydrates. (This is percentage of calories, not the makeup of your plate. Fat is far more calorie-dense than carbs; for example, 1 cup of chopped romaine lettuce has about 10 calories, but a tablespoon of olive oil has 120.)
One thing to note is that keto isn’t the same as just eating a low-carb diet. The goal with keto is to get your body into a state of ketosis, in which it uses fat as fuel instead of carbohydrates and glucose. That requires more precision around the ratio of fat, carbohydrates, and protein you consume.
Related Reading: Since Keto Is a High-Fat Diet, Is It Bad for Your Heart?
With paleo (formally known as the paleolithic diet), there’s no such calculation involved. Instead, the point is to work within a modern framework to eat foods that align with what our ancient ancestors ate. It emphasizes non-starchy vegetables; animal proteins; natural, healthy fats; nuts; and seeds. Paleo dieters eschew legumes, refined grains, processed foods, and refined sugars (as well as artificial sweeteners). Within the paleo community, there are varying opinions about whether some foods, such as dairy products and ancient grains, fit into the framework.
It makes sense that there’s some confusion about them. “There can be some overlap,” Lowery says. “On a ketogenic diet, you’re relying on fat and ketones for fuel. That can be done through a paleo diet or not done through a paleo diet. In my experience, many people who are on a paleo diet are in and out of a state of ketosis pretty regularly.”
There are other differences as well.
“There are situations where you can be eating paleo but not eating low-carb,” Lowery notes. “But limiting carbohydrates is necessary to induce a state of ketosis.”
Keeping protein in check is also important in the keto approach, but within paleo there’s room to emphasize it more or less.
Another difference comes in the types of ingredients allowed in both diets, not just whole foods like fruits and starchy vegetables. As both diets have spread in popularity, more and more products have become available, often in the form of treats and snacks. In the paleo diet, these treats are usually sweetened with natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup. Since those add carbs, they don’t fit as well in a keto diet.
Keto snacks and treats are usually sweetened with sugar alcohols like erythritol and xylitol, which bump up sweetness with fewer carbs, and then fibers like inulin are also added. Keto dieters often count net carbs—that is, carbs minus fiber—so combining low-carb sweeteners with added fibers gives packaged goods a desirable macro ratio.
Neither diet allows refined sugar.
Related Reading: The Best Low-Sugar Cookbooks for Keto, Paleo, and Diabetic Diets
Processed Snacks & Whole Foods
With either approach, it’s possible to overdo snacks and treats.
“Ideally, the majority of someone’s daily calories will come from whole, unprocessed foods, meaning those that are as close to how they appear in nature as possible,” says Dr. Josh Axe, founder of Ancient Nutrition and author of “Keto Diet.” “This means that eating almonds is preferable over eating processed almond butter or almond flour cookies or brownies. Most people can still reap the benefits of the keto diet or other healthy diets even when they indulge in [treats] in moderation. But if you’re looking to lose weight, or find it hard to maintain, then eating lots of palatable snacks can be problematic. It’s much easier to turn away almonds that you’re not necessarily hungry for than it is almond flour brownies.”
Another big difference between paleo and keto is that with paleo, there’s a focus on lifestyle beyond diet. Moving more all day, spending time outdoors, getting quality sleep, and cultivating healthy relationships and community are all integral parts of a paleo lifestyle; paleo can also be a natural complement to intermittent fasting. Keto dieters may also put an emphasis on other healthy choices like getting enough exercise (since keto’s primary goal is weight loss), but it’s not quite as baked in as with paleo.
Header image by Chowhound, using photos from Getty Images and Chowhound.