The Ketogenic and Paleolithic diets are, without a doubt, two of the most popular in the fitness world and beyond. A survey of more than 1,000 registered dietitians found keto was the most popular at the beginning of 2020, and paleo, which hit peak popularity in 2014, still has more than three million followers today.
People who want to limit carbs, lose weight, and improve their overall health generally utilize these two diets. But is one superior to the other when it comes to all those goals, or are they both a waste of time?
In this article, we’ll compare both the keto and paleo diets and discuss their supposed benefits, disadvantages, and other things you should know before considering these diets.
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before beginning a new fitness, nutritional, and/or supplement routine. None of these supplements are meant to treat or cure any disease. If you feel you may be deficient in a particular nutrient or nutrients, please seek out a medical professional.
What They Are
Before we discuss why you should (or shouldn’t) try out either diet, let’s discuss the ground rules of each. In this section, you’ll get a sense of each diet’s general goal and what foods to avoid.
What is the Paleo Diet?
The Paleo Diet is sometimes called the “Caveman Diet” because you eat like one — a caveman, that is. You’ll only eat foods that were around during the Paleolithic era — so lots of meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, nuts, and seeds.
The cavemen of this era were still hunters and gatherers, and so farming wasn’t a thing, which means grains, legumes, and dairy products are off-limits on this diet. This also means all processed foods (chips, sodas, pastries, etc.) are off-limits.
[Related: 9 Types of Diets — How They Work and Pros & Cons]
Supporters will tell you that humans during the Paleo era were much more active than any other time in history. We didn’t settle in one place for too long, and we took down wooly mammoths with our bare hands. So our diet had to support this lifestyle.
Some may classify Paleo as a low-carb diet, but this isn’t necessarily true. When most people think “carb,” they think of grains and processed foods, but fruits and vegetables are also carbs, and there’s no limit on how much you’re allowed to eat. (A medium banana has about 30 grams of carbs in it, which is equivalent to half a cup of uncooked rice.)
Certain roots (such as cassava) and plantains are also allowed on the diet, and cassava flour is a popular baking alternative for Paleo followers. Sure, you may eat fewer carbs than you’re used to since you’re eliminating modern processed foods and grains, but eliminating this macronutrient is not a must.
What is the Keto Diet?
The keto diet, unlike paleo, is stricter about your carb intake. In fact, some variations of keto only allow a select few fruits and veggies because they’re both classified as carbs. The whole point of keto is to reduce your body’s dependence on carbs, which is your body’s preferred energy source. Carbs are turned into glucose when digested and used to fuel our everyday life and workouts. But when there’s a lack of carbs, our bodies turn to alternative energy sources.
[Related: How to Gain Muscle — A Guide to Eating for Mass]
Enter ketosis (where the diet gets its name from). Ketosis is a metabolic state where the body, specifically the liver, creates ketones from fat to use as energy instead of sugar from carbs. The diet is aimed at keeping our body in a constant state of ketosis.
This is accomplished through diet by getting 65-75 percent of your calories from fat, with 20-30 coming from protein, and only about five percent from carbs (though some prohibit carbs altogether).
Breaking Down the Supposed Benefits
Right off the bat, supporters of both diets will tell you you’re guaranteed to lose weight on either. Weight loss, though, comes down to calories in vs. calories out — if you’re in a caloric deficit, burning more calories than you consume, you’re going to lose weight whether you’re paleo, keto, or neither.
However, both keto and paleo make this somewhat easier by eliminating some of the biggest contributors to weight gain: sodas, processed foods, simple carbs, and so on. Soft drinks alone are the largest source of added sugars in the United States, so it makes sense that by not drinking these, you’ll be cutting your calorie intake. (1)
In turn, that addresses one of the other claims of both keto and paleo — that they help treat, or even get rid of, diseases and conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cancer, and high blood pressure. While scientific studies have proved these claims, it’s unfair to say the diets themselves led to better health. (2)(3)
What’s more important is that followers of each avoided things like soda, sugar-laden pastries, and vending machine potato chips — all of which have been shown to contribute to diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular diseases. It’s easy to keep these out of your diet while doing the Mediterranean diet, intermittent fasting, or not dieting at all. (4)
Is Either Diet Good for Athletes?
At this point, you may be wondering if keto or Paleo is good for someone looking to pack on muscle, preparing for a lifting meet, or competing in an endurance competition.
On the surface, the answer may appear to be “no.” After all, we’ve been taught that carbs from sources like oatmeal, whole-wheat pasta, and whole-wheat bread are the best choices to fuel our workouts.
However, a 2019 study in the Journal of Sports Medicine found no improvement or decrease in performance for most athletes who followed a keto diet, and only some benefits for “short duration, vigorous-intensity tests” where weight loss was also a factor. (5)
A 2018 case study found an athlete’s performance and overall mood suffered under a low-carb, high-fat diet (it should be noted this was only for one athlete, and others may respond differently to such a diet). (6)
Finally, a 2020 analysis of prior studies concluded that more research needs to be done on the effectiveness of keto for athletes but that there’s substantial evidence that it’s good for improved body composition. (7)
On the paleo diet, most studies have looked at the effectiveness for endurance athletes — so it’s unknown how effective if at all, it is for strength athletes. One study, though, found it didn’t improve CrossFitter’s performance. (8)
As previously discussed, many of the supposed health benefits associated with keto and paleo have more to do with avoiding junk foods we’ve been told to limit since we were children. That said, it can be deduced that these diets mainly work because they eliminate certain foods. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but it may not be the best option for some. For example, counting your macros doesn’t inherently limit any one food group but holds you accountable for the overall amount of calories you eat.
Whether you should or shouldn’t follow these two diets depends. If you’re the type of person who likes a more structured approach, then either will work for you. Though, we do suggest reviewing the info to decide which may better suit your goals. For athletes, the paleo diet, which allows more carbs, may be better. However, someone looking to lose fat may benefit from the more restrictive, low-carb keto diet.
More Diet Tips
When it comes to keto v.s. paleo diet — there is no sure answer. There’s so much to learn about nutrition. To help, check out the below articles from BarBend.
- The Best Types of Supplements for Performance, Weight Loss, and Health
- Fat Loss for Athletes — The Right Way to Approach Calories and Hormones
- Hu, F. B., & Malik, V. S. (2010). Sugar-sweetened beverages and risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes: Epidemiologic evidence. Physiology & Behavior, 100(1), 47–54. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2010.01.03
- Stubbs, B. J., Koutnik, A. P., Goldberg, E. L., Upadhyay, V., Turnbaugh, P. J., Verdin, E., & Newman, J. C. (2020). Investigating Ketone Bodies as Immunometabolic Countermeasures against Respiratory Viral Infections. Med, 1(1), 43–65. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.medj.2020.06.008
- Österdahl, M., Kocturk, T., Koochek, A. et al. Effects of a short-term intervention with a paleolithic diet in healthy volunteers. Eur J Clin Nutr 62, 682–685 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ejcn.1602790
- Reedy J, Krebs-Smith SM. Dietary sources of energy, solid fats, and added sugars among children and adolescents in the United States. J Am Diet Assoc 2010 Oct;110(10):1477-84.
- McSwiney FT, Doyle L, Plews DJ, Zinn C. Impact Of Ketogenic Diet On Athletes: Current Insights. Open Access J Sports Med. 2019;10:171-183. Published 2019 Nov 15. doi:10.2147/OAJSM.S180409
- Mujika I. Case Study: Long-Term Low-Carbohydrate, High-Fat Diet Impairs Performance and Subjective Well-Being in a World-Class Vegetarian Long-Distance Triathlete. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2019 May 1;29(3):339-344. doi: 10.1123/ijsnem.2018-0124. Epub 2018 Nov 13. PMID: 30160554.
- Bowler AL, Polman R. Role of a Ketogenic Diet on Body Composition, Physical Health, Psychosocial Well-Being and Sports Performance in Athletes: A Scoping Review. Sports (Basel). 2020;8(10):131. Published 2020 Sep 23. doi:10.3390/sports8100131
- Escobar KA, Morales J, Vandusseldorp TA. The Effect of a Moderately Low and High Carbohydrate Intake on Crossfit Performance. Int J Exerc Sci. 2016;9(3):460-470. Published 2016 Oct 1.
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