The Differences At A Glance
- Lowers carbs to 20% of calories
- Increases insulin sensitivity, supports fat loss
- The brain still relies on glucose, and the body can’t become full fat adapted
- Lowers carbs to 5-10% of calories
- Drops insulin for the most part, supports fat loss
- The brain switches to using ketones (fats) for fuel, which is a more efficient energy source
- Appetite is blunted, no energy swings from hypoglycemia
The Battle Of The Primal Diets
These diets often get jumbled together, and that’s probably because they were both allegedly practised by our caveman ancestors so many years ago. Remember how much we kicked ass back then? We might as well diet like it’s 10,000 BC. That means no grains, no beans, and no refined sugars. But once you look past the fact that keto isn’t technically caveman across all its foods, there are differences that make them functionally very different diets.
With this article, I’m looking purely at this from a functional standpoint, by looking for the diet that can provide the greatest physiological and mental benefits. This has to go further than rating how much you can shift the scale and how many extra holes you can punch in your belt. That means considering the effects the diet has on mental well-being, productivity and energy levels.
A perfect diet would see you keeping it past the point of hitting your target weight. You’d increase the calories, because staying in a deficit for too long is generally a terrible idea, but you’d continue with the same foods.
I’ll move past the pseudo-science and cherry picked data that’s created this holistic ideology that we somehow haven’t adapted to eat modern foods, and look at the real merits of these diets. Keto and paleo both get you to take a step in the right direction by limiting sugar intake. But paleo stops short of a full commitment, still allowing fruit, potatoes, and requiring that you get at least 20% of your calories from carbs.
So it’s technically low carbs, but ultimately not low enough to bring you into ketosis. This is the stage where the body becomes fat adapted and uses ketones for its fuel needs. It’s magic for fat loss, but it also means you’re getting a steady supply of energy with no spikes of hunger during the day. When you can preferentially burn fat, there are at least 90,000 calories ready to go in stores throughout the body. Ketones also decrease inflammation and stress, while improving mitochondrial function.
The Importance Of Ketosis
With paleo you’re generally getting at least 400 calories from glucose. This is partly down to the notion that the brain needs at least 130 grams of glucose to function each day, an idea that’s been debunked.
Dropping down to paleo level carbs will most certainly increase insulin sensitivity and general health markers, but it keeps the brain reliant on glucose for its fuel, and the body goes back and forth between using carbs and ketones.
You’re never allowed to become truly fat adapted, and as such you’ll continue to have energy swings and carb cravings as blood sugar goes up and down. And this is where the differences between the diets should become clear.
The brain can actually function better on ketones, to the point where it provides 70% of its energy needs. These ketones are present in trace amounts in a standard carb-rich diet, increasing in paleo, but the continued presence of glucose prevents them from having any impact on the brain. So to get the ketone benefits, you have to bring the carbs right down. No potatoes, no applesauce.
Ketosis requires something in the region of 25-50 grams of carbohydrates per day, and this is the main requirement of the ketogenic diet. Once you get past the sketchy first few weeks where the brain can reject the new order of the things, then you’ll start to experience the upsides of having ketones running up and down the bloodstream.
Keto is the final drop down the carb ladder that paleo is attempting. By practically eliminating sugar entirely, you’ll be able to get the full effects of fat loss, appetite suppression, cognition, and steady energy that ketosis provides.
Paleo still keeps some carbs, which prevents the body and brain from becoming fat adapted. It can be seen as more of a stepping stone for people looking to get off the carbs, but feeling intimidated by the miserly allowances of keto.
There’s an extra difference in paleo vs keto that doesn’t play into the ketosis argument, but it’s worth throwing in, because it’s a scandal. You’re not allowed dairy on keto. Imagine making a salad without greek yogurt!
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