Low-carb vs Keto Diet

Ketogenic diets are a type of low carb diet, and a low carb diet can be a ketogenic diet. It’s no surprise they’re easily confused. However, there are some distinct differences that are important if you want to get the most from your low-carb or keto lifestyle. Read on for the hows, whys and whats of keto and low carb diets.

What’s the key difference between keto and low carb?

The bare bones are that the term ‘low carb’ can describe a range of foods and diets – which restrict carbohydrate intake but don’t necessarily get the body into a state of ketosis (when the body uses fat for fuel, rather than glucose). And a ‘keto’ diet is a variation of low carb eating with its own specific rules.

A keto diet is designed to put the body into a ketogenic state by restricting carb intake to 20-50g per day – compared with many low carb diets allowing for up to 100g carbs per day. Additionally, a keto diet also emphasises a high intake of healthy fat, while keeping protein intake moderate. (Of course, protein is essential for the body, but excess can be stored as glucose. This process is called gluconeogenesis and will kick you out of ketosis.) (1)

What is a low carb diet?         

A low carb diet can mean following a plan with specific rules for carbohydrate intake, deciding on your own carb restriction rules, or generally eating fewer carbs without tracking amounts. Grains, starchy vegetables and fruit, foods with added sugar and most alcohol are usually avoided on low carb diets.

A typical low carb meal

Types of specific low-carb diets include:

•            Low-Carb Paleo – Keeping carbs under 100g while eating paleo foods.

•            The Atkins diet – A low carb eating plan designed around four different phases.

•            Zero-Carb – Based on eating food only from the animal kingdom.

•            The Dukan diet – High protein, low fat, low carb diet created by Pierre Dukan.

•            The South Beach diet – Designed around foods with a low glycaemic index, unsaturated fats and lean protein.

What is a keto diet?

A keto diet is a low carb, high fat diet with the specific goal of helping the body achieve ketosis – focussing on a daily ratio of 70 – 75% fat, 20% protein, and 5 – 10% carbs. 

Fuelling the body with carbohydrates causes highs and lows of blood sugar and a heavy reliance on the hormone insulin. This can lead to a less efficient insulin response, contributing to weight gain and health problems, including the risk of Type 2 diabetes. (2)

However, when fuelling the body on fat, which is converted to an energy source called ketones, you enter a state called ketosis. This can balance blood sugar and allow a person’s insulin response to improve, resulting in weight loss and other health benefits. (3)

What are ketones?

In simple terms, ketones are fat converted into a chemical energy source that the body’s cells can make use of.  

Getting a little more science-y…every cell in the body contains mitochondria which can metabolize either glucose or ketones, producing the energy molecule known as Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP). Interestingly, ketone metabolism creates more metabolic energy, more efficiently and with fewer free radicals that glucose metabolism. So, running on ketones can mean the body has a healthier and more stable energy source. (4)

It’s important to note that it can take days to a couple of weeks to get into ketosis, and you must maintain the keto diet to keep the body in this state.

How can I measure my ketones? 

A week or two into a keto diet, the level of ketones in the blood and urine rise significantly – and this increase can be measured in blood, breath and urine.

If you’re into tracking the changes in your body and or want to be sure you’re staying in ketosis, the easiest way is by checking the concentration of ketones with a home keto-urine test. Simply pass a keto stick through your urine stream, and then watch it change colour. For best results, check your pee mid-stream.

Even without the keto pee test, you’ll probably be noticing some differences in your body as it starts to adapt. You may notice rapid weight loss, a fruity smell to urine or breath or some flu-like symptoms – these initial side effect should pass and the weight loss should become steadier. 

You’ll also likely notice that you‘re peeing a lot more when you start a eating keto. This is because glycogen – the stored form of glucose – is being used up as an emergency energy source; glycogen is bound to water so the process of using glycogen releases water as extra urine output.

As glycogen levels decrease, so too will the amount you need to pee – eventually levelling out to normal as the body makes its full switch to using ketones for energy.

Basically, water loss happens before fat loss. Then as water loss slows, fat loss accelerates. We all know that hydration is a cornerstone of good health, but it’s also a good idea to top up your electrolytes in the first few weeks of a keto diet.

Why are ketones beneficial?

  • Ketones may be able to lower neuroinflammation

Recent research shows that increased ketones can reduce neuroinflammation and oxidative stress – reducing the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. (5). Frequency of seizures have been found to be lower on keto diets. (6)  

  • Ketones may have the potential to increase muscle strength.

Ketones have displayed anti-catabolic properties which protect muscle from being broken down. This feature of ketosis could be particularly helpful to protect against age-related muscle loss and aid healthy aging. (7)

  • Ketones may improve brain health

Over time, the brain’s ability to use glucose for fuel can become less efficient, sometimes leading to cognitive decline. Fuel in the form of ketones means less reliance on glucose which can result in healthier brain neurones. In one study, ketone supplements in patients with cognitive impairments or Alzheimer’s Disease experienced improved cognition and quality of life. (8)

  • Ketones may act as antioxidants

Ketones support our antioxidant defences by the boosting a powerful antioxidant made in the body called glutathione. A study involving mice exposed to radiation showed increased ketones led to a 50% decrease in markers of radiation-induced cell damage. (9)  

  • Ketones may steady our mood

Low GABA levels may be involved in many mood disorders. Ketones can increase in our calming neurotransmitter, GABA, and decrease the excitatory neurotransmitter, glutamate. And general improvements in mood have been reported by many people who follow a keto diet. (10)

  • Ketones may balance hormones

Eating just 5% more fat than usual has been shown to increase oestrogen levels in women – even after menopause. One study found women who ate a low fat diet suffered a reduction in oestrogen levels, while high fat diets had the opposite effect. (11)

For the guys, it’s been observed that low fat diets could drop testosterone levels by as much as 12% and that high fats diet may increase testosterone by 13%. (12)

  • Ketones may supress appetite and cravings.

We know that a keto diet can aid weight loss as the body is more efficiently fuelled by ketones from fat. But amazingly, ketones have also been shown to reduce cravings and keep appetite down. The hormones ghrelin and cholecystokinin (CCK) which trigger the feelings of hunger and feeling full can start working in our favour on a keto diet. (13)

  • Ketones may lower cholesterol

A 24-week study showed ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL) increased and ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and triglycerides lowered on a keto diet – without long term side effects. (14)

For many people, being in ketosis can be beneficial, but always check with your doctor before making big changes to your diet or lifestyle, especially if you have a pre-existing condition.

Low carb vs Keto Round Up

An avocado and egg keto snack loaded with healthy fats
A keto snack loaded with healthy fats

To summarise, ‘low carb’ is a descriptive term for foods, diet plans and general eating choices; however, ‘keto’ is a specific diet based on ratios of 70 – 75% fat, 20% protein and 5 – 10% carbs. Keeping consistently to a keto diet puts the body into ketosis where fat is turned to ketones which are then used for fuel and also benefit the body in multiple other ways. The benefits of a keto diet and low carb diet can be similar, but because your food intake on a keto diet is more specifically directed to achieving ketosis then you stand a greater chance of seeing specific results.

If you’d like more information including recipes and real life stories, then check out our knowledge hub on the Heylo site.


  1.  https://www.britannica.com/science/glycogenesis
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/library/features/diabetes-causes.html
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2633336/
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7768357/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16940764/
  6. https://www.seizure-journal.com/article/S1059-1311(14)00067-3/fulltext
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5556006/
  8. https://alz-journals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/alz.037961
  9. https://faseb.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1096/fasebj.30.1_supplement.627.3
  10. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18572306/
  11. https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/135/12/2862/4669919
  12. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8942407/
  13. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25698989/
  14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2716748/


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