What’s it all about? In the last nine months, you’ve read my various posts on aspects of primal eating, perhaps tried a recipe of mine (or two), and drooled through one of many What I Ate Wednesday posts. While all’s fine and dandy, I realise from a not-so-primal informed person that three terms (and other vocabulary associated with these terms) pop up again and again on my blog: paleo, primal and keto. While all three fall officially under the realm of ‘low-carb’ eating, they differ in more ways than one. This post is dedicated to explaining the differences, and similarities, between these ways of eating.
First, one point I need to get out of the way: the term ‘low-carb’ eating. The impression I get from non-low-carbers – and the assumption I had before I myself went low-carb – was that people following this way of eating ate no carbs at all. This is simply not the case. We eat carbs, and depending on our physical activity levels, plenty of them, but they don’t come from grain-based sources. The amount of carbs low-carbers eat in a day in grams can seem significantly lower (like under 100g if for weight loss) than conventional grain-based, carbohydrate consumption (which many recreational endurance athletes seem to think are vital…they’re not). Instead this way of eating should be called lower-carb because we rely on vegetables, fruit and tubers (potatoes, sweet potatoes, rutabaga, Jerusalem artichoke) for carbs, which happen to be lower in carbohydrates than your grain-based counterparts.
As you read through the rest of the post, please note that the use of the word diet is in the context of what one eats on a daily basis, not the context in which deprivation in the name of weight loss occurs – I really hate how this word has two very different meanings.
Before we begin, you should know that these diets have the following in common: they’re grain-free and therefore gluten-free, they’re free from legumes and free from soy (apart from fermented soy, like tamari and miso). They’re also sugar-free as in no added sugar. They all use the same healthy fats, and promote eating good quality protein and plenty of vegetables. For baking, they have coconut flour and almond flour (ground almonds) in common. These diets all love anything coconut too. And homemade bone broth is used throughout for intestinal health + delicious, wholesome food. These diets can all be used for weight loss and optimal health, but also as a way for people with serious medical conditions – especially autoimmune diseases – to go off medication, and put themselves into remission.
The most popular of lower-carb eating by far. With its associations to CrossFit, the paleo diet has been around for a while now, and has gained huge popularity; so much so that there’s now a Paleo Magazine in North America, and Australia airs The Paleo Way by Australian celebrity Chef Pete Evans. You can find tons of paleo cookbooks, all touching on a slightly different niche within this niche. The internet is crammed full of blogs, vlogs, books and food to order on e-ver-y-thing paleo. You’d have to be living under a rock to not know at least a little bit about the paleo diet.
Big paleo names include Robb Wolf, Dr. Loren Cordain, and Chris Kresser; popular paleo bloggers (and recipe book writers) include Michelle Tam (aka Nom Nom Paleo – my fave!), Stephanie Gaudreau (Stupid Easy Paleo), The Domestic Man Russ Crandall, PaleOMG Juli Bauer, Paleo Parents, Against All Grain, etc, etc, etc..
Paleo is basically going back to eating what our ancestors ate in order to have optimal health and fitness. It promotes eating plenty of vegetables and fruit, meat, fish, healthy fats (nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil, coconut oil, grass-fed meat). It’s really plain and simple. There’s a huge emphasis on real food, made with real ingredients. Ideally, you want to buy organic, non-genetically modified food from small companies and farms. If you can’t due to affordability, inaccessibility or impracticality, don’t worry, the paleo police won’t come after you (because they don’t exist!).
Many health issues, both major and minor, can clear up if one eats a well-formulated paleo diet of unlimited vegetables, protein and healthy fats. Strict paleo advocates eliminating nightshades – tomatoes, potatoes, aubergine (eggplants), peppers, paprika to name a few – and peanuts, because they’re technically legumes.
Within paleo, there also exists Autoimmune Protocol Paleo (or AIP paleo), a type of eating that is more strict than regular paleo. You may remember Coconut Friend Meg writing about it? This is for people with autoimmune diseases, who, despite following a typical paleo diet, are still experiencing the signs and symptoms they would like to put into remission through diet alone, and would like to be free from medication. It is a more intensely focused way of eating with the main purpose of healing the intestines through years of damage caused by the body’s immune response to foods in a person’s diet – autoimmune diseases are basically body tissue attacking itself. AIP further eliminates nightshades, nuts, eggs, chocolate, high fruit consumption, seeds, alcohol, and promotes the consumption of organ meats (highly nutritious!) and bone broth to help heal intestinal tissues. For more information on the AIP diet, click here. And check out the Paleo Partridge blog for AIP recipes from someone thriving in remission from Crohn’s disease through diet alone!
I write well-formulated above because it is very easy for one to follow the paleo diet but still be a sugar-burner, still experience cravings and still eat a diet that is high in sugar, but not added sugar. While paleo uses honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar and for some, agave nectar, as sweeteners, these still raise blood glucose levels; some more than sugar! Paleo also advocates plenty of vegetables and fruit, and I’ve seen many paleo eaters lean more towards fruit than veg; ideally, you want it the other way around. It seems for some, there is great emphasis on vegetables and protein, but not so much on fat. There are all sorts of paleo snacks, bars, cookies, drinks on the market too – the point of this way of eating is to avoid processed food… even if it’s claimed to be paleo. There is also an abundance of paleo versions of traditional baked goods recipes – like bread, cookies, cakes, donuts and brownies – that are made with other flours that do affect blood glucose levels drastically, like tapioca flour and rice flour (also used in gluten-free breads) which affect blood glucose levels more than sugar. When Pat and I ate made a paleo pizza crust using tapioca flour, we both felt like we just couldn’t stop eating; it was so moreish. Now that we’re primal, this doesn’t happen to us anymore because we don’t eat foods that cause this can’t-stop-eating reaction. Despite it, and many other paleo baked goods being paleo, they’re still foods that should be eaten sparingly because they’re still not good for you, nor are they nutritional power houses. One can still have sugar issues without actually eating sugar and by being paleo! Just read Stupid Easy Paleo’s experience.
I didn’t want to try paleo when I first changed my diet because I was concerned that I would slip back into my normal ‘healthy’ eating ways on it, for the above-mentioned reasons. I confess, I haven’t read a paleo book, but I’ve read plenty on blogs and websites, and I’ve seen many interpretations of paleo. What I write is based on this. I think paleo is fantastic way of eating – I’m actually paleo most days – but if you’re going to pursue it, start with a Whole30 first, then transition into a well-formulated paleo diet – no easy, premade treats, and light on the paleo baked goods and kombucha (I have one a week). Again, refer to Stupid Easy Paleo’s story linked above.
The lowest of the low in terms of low-carb eating. A ketogenic diet promotes a very high fat intake – coming from coconut oil/milk/cream, butter, ghee, eggs, fish, avocado, full fat dairy, homemade mayo – and extremely low-carb intake (less than 50g per day). Because of its very low-carb approach, keto eliminates much fruit, leaving pretty much berries, rhubarb, tomatoes (technically), avocado, lemons and limes. It also eliminates high carb tubers altogether, and some higher carb vegetables. All proteins are still game though. Keto is basically high fat, moderate protein, low carb with the main intention of becoming a fat-burner, and using both fat and ketones for fuel. Keto experts include Maria Emmerich and Jimmy Moore.
It is far more rigid in comparison to paleo, and approaches this way of eating from a scientific point of view rather than ancestral. Like AIP paleo, Keto can also be used as a way to treat major health issues through diet – epileptics do especially well on a ketogenic diet, as do some with autoimmune diseases and type 2 diabetes. Intermittent fasting can also be done when eating this way because keto eaters are fat-burners.
You can still eat traditional dishes from a keto angle; you just may need to increase the fat and protein in it to make up for little carbs. Keto uses sweeteners like the sugar alcohols erythritol and xylitol, along with stevia in baking – all of these have little to no effect on blood glucose levels, which is exactly what you want. Keto also allows full-fat dairy, (if you can handle dairy), but, from what I’ve read, doesn’t seem to promote consuming raw, unpasteurised dairy. Or grass-fed meat for that matter (although you still should, because it’s better).
The whole point of a ketogenic diet is to get into ketosis:
…a state at which the body has an extremely high fat-burning rate. Even the brain runs on fat, via ketone bodies. These are energy molecules in the blood (like blood sugar) which become fuel for our brains after being converted from fat by the liver.
- From Diet Doctor
The only way one can enter ketosis is through keeping insulin low, thus allowing increased productions of ketones. How do you keep insulin levels low and stable? Low-carb eating. Ketosis is basically when your body is producing high levels of ketones as a result of low and stable insulin levels. The only way you can know you’re in ketosis is through urine test strips or blood test kits, similar to ones for diabetes, where you prick your finger and test the blood through a small machine, but for ketones instead. This state of optimal ketosis can be maintained and sustained as long as you’re eating within the very low-carb, high-fat range.
It can take weeks to get to ketosis, however. A downside to ketosis is that you must maintain a very low-carb, high-fat diet to stay in it. Basically, if you cheat, you knock yourself out of ketosis, and will feel like absolute crap.
Another group of low-carbers that seem to aim for ketosis is those of the LCHF persuasion (low-carb, high-fat). This way of eating is especially big in northern Europe (especially Sweden – they even have an LCHF magazine there!). The main LCHF expert I know of is Andreas Eenfeldt, aka Diet Doctor, a medical doctor that follows an LCHF way of eating and writes about it.
While I liked keto as my way of kick-starting my primal journey, I basically gave up on it because I was experiencing heavy legs when I ran; I also felt my running wasn’t going well. I don’t know if I ever got into ketosis, but the ketogenic diet did help me quit sugar, grains, legumes and soy through just the information alone.
Ahhh, hello old friend! I left primal eating for last because the best way to describe primal is that it’s where paleo and keto meet. It takes the ancestral and philosophical approach to eating that paleo promotes, but aims for the science of becoming a fat-burner supported by keto. It promotes eating foods that keep blood glucose levels stable, but also allows for some cheat treats now and again, which won’t affect your ability to be a fat-burner (unless your cheat treats are every day!). Think of it as eating all the paleo-friendly food mentioned above, but much more fat, and using the keto-approved sweeteners instead. You can also dabble with intermittent fasting as well, and even get into ketosis should you wish.
Primal is still about keeping carbs lower and finding your own sweet spot for carb consumption: the point where your physical activity is going well and you’re losing weight – this is about the 75g of carbs per day mark. Once you’ve hit your desired weight, you can increase carbs a bit, to between 100g-150g a day, but again, this depends on your levels of physical activity. If you are an endurance athlete, say a triathlete or are training for a marathon, you will need to consume more carbs in the form of tubers to stock your muscles with glycogen. You can read more about going primal through the previous Primal Lessons series here.
If you’re doing primal for weight loss, or again to treat a serious medical issue, you will have to be more restrictive with your eating. Mark Sisson, THE primal expert, says to eat 1-3 fruits a day and avoid dried fruit; he also promotes unlimited veg and healthy fats, quality sourced protein of all kind, and consuming dairy preferably from organic, grass-fed cows, and even raw, unpasteurised dairy products.
Primal goes beyond just eating though: it’s a way of life. Paleo and keto are as well, but I’ve not seen someone’s complete approach to living for paleo and keto like I have for what Mark Sisson promotes with primal. It’s not just about food, but getting quality sleep, quality exercise (moving slowly, lifting heavy things, sprinting once and while), playing and enjoying the company of others, and eliminating sources of stress in our lives. It’s a very holistic approach that I try to use as much as possible, and you know first hand the results.
Have I missed anything?
If you follow any one of these diets and have more to add, please leave a comment below.
Now that you know more about the facets of low-carb eating, are you interested in trying one out?
What grain-based carb do you think you couldn’t live without?