Low-carb diets have become popular in recent years. They’re often effective (for things like weight loss) and encourage a lifestyle change to consume more nutritious, whole foods (not the processed foods and sugar in typical standard American diets).

However, not all low-carb diets are the same. Take keto and Atkins for example.

Some people tend to think the two are similar (for good reason); they both involve a low-carbohydrate intake. But, they may not be as similar as you think.

Despite the overlapping characteristics, each diet is unique in its own way (like through the amount of protein consumed).

While both diets are focused on low-carb intake, the Atkins diet allows for more carbohydrate consumption during certain phases of the diet and focuses on higher protein consumption. The Atkins diet modifies carb intake through different phases while keto uses a constant low-carb approach.

Which diet is right for you? Let’s take a look at each of the diets in closer detail to get a better understanding of how each diet works.

What is Keto?

In the simplest terms, the ketogenic diet is focused around high-fat, moderate-protein, and low-carbohydrate intake. The goal? The production of ketones. The diet hopes to create a metabolic adaptation with the goal of using more fat as a fuel source.

An image of avocados cut in half, showing the basics of keto

Ketones are a fundamentally different energy source than carbohydrates. Both our body and brain will preferentially choose carbohydrates because they’re usually readily available and are easy for your body to use for fuel. But what happens when we don’t have carbohydrates in our system to use (as you would on keto)?

The body converts fat to ketones because the brain cannot use fat as fuel (the brain loves carbs).

That’s why we evolved to create ketones in the first place; our cavepeople ancestors needed a way to fuel their bodies when food was not readily available; it was a means of survival . Ketones are a highly-efficient fuel source for both the brain and the body.

It can take days or weeks of low-carb dieting or fasting to achieve ketosis, which is generally considered to be levels of ketones in your blood above 0.5mM.

Ketosis can be achieved two ways: through the body producing its own ketones via fasting or diet manipulation (called endogenous ketosis) or through an external supplements like ketone esters (called exogenous ketosis).

There may be a bit of a transition period here, as the body adapts to using ketones and fat as fuel. This is called the keto flu; usually, it passes once the body becomes keto-adapted, and learns to operate without carbohydrates.

However, even despite this potential short-term setback, there are many benefits to ketosis. Now that you know how to get into ketosis, let’s look at some of those benefits.

Keto Health Benefits

People practice ketogenic diets for various reasons. There are several evidence-backed health benefits that are experienced while ketogenic dieting, including:

  • Controlling the symptoms of type I and type II diabetes through limiting carbohydrate intake and controlling blood sugar levelsBhanpuri2018
  • Better weight loss results compared to low-fat dietsBueno2013
  • Treatment of epilepsy to prevent seizuresFreeman1998
  • Ketones help maintain cognitive function during stressful situationsEvans2018b
  • In some cases, a high-fat diet helps improve satiation and controls hunger leading to a lesser likelihood of overeatingGiibson2015
  • Keto may help with processes such as inflammation and agingNewman2017
  • It may also help increase the rate of autophagyMcCarty2015

When most people think about keto, their minds go straight to weight loss. But as you can see, the benefits of keto are greater than just body composition.

How to Eat Keto

A balanced caloric intake on keto is essential for reaching nutritional and weight loss goals. Each and every calorie you consume will be made up of three types of macronutrients: fats, carbohydrates, or proteins.

The keto diet is a high-fat, moderate-protein, low-carbohydrate diet consisting of the following macronutrient ratios:

  • 70% - 80%+ total calories from fat
  • 10% - 15% total calories from protein (or 20% - 25% on a more liberal keto diet)
  • 5% - 10% or less of total calories from carbohydrates

Although you can calculate macronutrients on your own, that process can be pretty time-consuming; there are several online tools available to make the process easier. Just be sure to set macronutrients within suggested ranges according to the keto diet.

To illustrate this, let’s use a real life example.

If a man is 200 pounds and has a 17% body fat percentage, he will have a basal metabolic rate (BMR) of around 2,000 daily calories. If he wants to simply maintain his current weight, he can use a macronutrient ratio of 25% protein, 5% carbohydrates, and 70% fat.

Put these values into the macronutrient calculator and it’ll spit out 179g of fat, 28g of carbs, and 144g of protein. Following this type of macronutrient ratio will allow the body to stay in ketosis while providing adequate protein for retaining lean body mass.

Keeping your diet low-carb will help cause a metabolic state of adaptation encourage ketone production.

But as we mentioned, keto dieting and fasting can take time to induce ketosis. If you’re looking to get into ketosis faster, try an exogenous ketone supplement along with your dieting or fasting. While things like MCTs (found as MCT oil powders) aren’t exactly ketones themselves, they’re healthy fats that are readily converted into ketones.

Another supplement option are ketone salts and ketone esters. Data on salts shows fairly low levels of the ketone body beta-hydroxybutyrate (or BHB) in humans, anywhere from 0.6mm - 1mm.Stubbs2017,Rodger2017,Omalley2017 There’s also the potential for GI issues due to the high salt load required when taking ketone salts.Evans2018,Fischer2018

Ketone esters can help you reach ketosis faster with very little risk of side effects. Studies conducted on ketone esters showed ketone levels at 3mM - 6mM within 30-minutes.Stubbs2017,Clarke2012,Shivva2016,Cox2016

The keto diet involves mainly healthy fat sources and low-carb food options. The most common keto friendly foods include:

  • Meats such as fatty fish and beef
  • Non-starchy vegetables
  • Most types of cheese
  • Eggs
  • Yogurt
  • Avocado
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Berries (in very low amounts)
  • Oils

A common day of eating on the keto diet could look something like this:

  • Breakfast: two eggs, two pieces of bacon
  • Mid-morning snack: one serving of blueberries, one serving of macadamia nuts
  • Lunch: 8oz of steak, 100g of Brussels sprouts, one serving of full fat yogurt
  • Mid-afternoon snack: half an avocado, string cheese
  • Dinner: 6oz of mahi mahi, 100g of asparagus

Meal plans can vary from person to person but sticking to a diet of fatty meats and veggies with some low-carb snacks is one way of simplifying eating habits.

What is the Atkins Diet?

The Atkins diet was originally developed by cardiologist Robert Atkins during the 1970s with the publication of his first book in 1972.

Robert Atkins popularized the diet after studying the benefits of carb reduction, which was fairly controversial at the time. He continued publishing books on the topic until his death in 2003. Since the original book’s publication, more than 45 million books have been sold worldwide.

Different colored eggs stacked on each other, showing the benefits of the Atkins diet

Atkins Health Benefits

The Atkins diet has been around for nearly half a century and can help improve overall health in a number of ways. The most popular health benefit of Atkins? Weight loss.

There have been many studies that have investigated the effects of the Atkins diet on weight loss and there appears to be a lot of controversy in the literature with some studies showing that Atkins causes a greater weight loss or there is no difference when compared to low-carb diet controls.Astrip2004 However, when dieting for weight loss, one must consider the ability for someone to adhere to a diet long-term, which is a major indicator of whether or not someone will be able to keep the weight off.

Let’s face it, fat tastes good and without it, food can taste bland and boring and this may make adhering to a low-fat diet hard or near impossible.

This all being said, the Atkins diet may be easier diet to adhere to long term compared to a low-fat diet, which may help maintain weight loss.

Another study was performed on 21 overweight, diabetic adults who consumed under 20g of carbohydrates per day for a period of 16 weeks. After the study was completed, diabetic medication was discontinued in seven patients and reduced in ten more. Bodyweight also decreased by 6.6% on average. The diet was not specifically labeled as an Atkins diet, but for all intensive purposes it had a similar macronutrient profile.Yancy2004

Low-carb diets such as Atkins can also help lower risk of potential heart disease. A meta analysis was performed on 1,141 obese patients following a low-carb style diet and the results showed decreases in body weight (-7.04kg), body mass index (-2.09kg m), waist circumference (-5.74cm), systolic blood pressure (-4.81 mm Hg), diastolic blood pressure (-3.10 mm Hg), and plasma triglycerides (-29.71 mg dL). Increased good cholesterol (HDL) also improved as well (1.73 mg).Santos2012 The research shows low-carb diets such as Atkins can have a positive impact on overall cardiovascular health.

A modified Atkins diet (slightly lower in carbs and higher in fat) can also be used to treat epilepsy as shown by a consensus study.vaccarezza2016

Atkins and keto overlap because they’re both low-carb diets; so many of their benefits overlap as well.

How to Eat Atkins

The Atkins diet focuses on carbohydrate restriction, although carbs are not restricted throughout the entire duration of the diet.

There are four main phases of the Atkins diet:

  • Induction phase (phase 1): During the initial stage of Atkins, you can consume unlimited amounts of fats and proteins, but must keep carbohydrates under 20 grams of carbs per day (Atkins 20). This helps to kick-start the weight loss progress.
  • Balancing phase (phase 2): Carb intake is slightly increased to 40 grams of carbs per day (Atkins 40). Certain carb sources such as nuts and low-carb fruits can be added back into the diet as long as weight loss is continuing.
  • Pre-maintenance phase (phase 3): Carbs are gradually added back even more as you can eat fruit or whole wheat bread during this phase. The body becomes re-accustomed to carbs and gets used to processing them again.
  • Maintenance phase (phase 4): Once you reach your desired weight, carbs are increased up to 60g per day. You can consume carbs in your diet as long as you have reached your goal weight and your weight doesn’t increase.

Although these phases seem complicated, they are not a cut and dry process. Some people skip the initial induction phase entirely while others stay within the induction phase indefinitely.

Here are some of the most common foods found on the Atkins diet:

  • Fatty meats
  • Fatty fish
  • Eggs
  • Non-starchy vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Most cheeses
  • Full fat dairy
  • Healthy oils

Although carbs are severely restricted during the induction phase of the Atkins diet, healthy sources of high carb foods such as starchy vegetables (potatoes), fruits, legumes, and whole grains can gradually be reintroduced if you choose to follow the various phases of the diet.

What do Keto and Atkins Have in Common?

The ketogenic and Atkins diet both share several overlapping traits, including:

  • Whole food consumption: Both diets emphasize the importance of eating whole food for the foundation of the diet including meats, vegetables, and nuts.
  • No processed foods: There is no place for processed foods or sugars in either diet. Foods such as cookies, cakes, chips, or crackers are all high in carbohydrates and strictly unallowable in both diets.
  • High-fat consumption: Both diets encourage the consumption of healthy fat intake such as fatty fish and meats and healthy cooking oils such as avocado oil and olive oil.
  • Both diets can help weight loss: Both diets are most commonly used to help people lose weight through a reduction in carbohydrate consumption.

Although the diets may appear to be similar on the surface, they do have some differences making each one unique.

How are Keto and Atkins Different?

As you’ve seen both the keto and Atkins diets have some overlapping characteristics, but there are some key differences that should be noted.

A strict keto diet is based around constant low-carbohydrate consumption and moderate protein consumption. If you are following a traditional keto diet, carbs are not readily consumed much during any phase of the diet. The Atkins diet uses a slightly different approach. Although the induction phase of the diet follows a short-term low-carb approach, carbs can gradually be reintroduced to one’s diet as you move through the different phases if you choose. During the later phases of Atkins, healthy complex carb sources such as starchy vegetables and fruits can be eaten within the confines of the diet.

The ketogenic diet does not follow a formal structure but instead gives guidelines to follow based on macronutrient consumption.

As long as you consume high-fat, low-carb foods, it's easy to stick to keto. This is a less formalized approach than the Atkins diet.

The Atkins diet is a structured way of eating using four distinct phases designed to guide people step-by-step. This approach provides people with distinct steps to follow if they prefer a slightly more structured diet plan. Atkins is also a brand that also produces pre-prepared meals that can be purchased at most grocery stores if you choose to do so.

A cutting board with eggs, scallions, tomatoes, avocado and mushroom, showing the differences and similarities between keto and Atkins

Which Diet Should You Choose?

The keto diet is a scientific approach to dieting revolving around creating metabolic adaptations within your body using a constant low-carb approach.

Atkins, on the other hand, starts out similar to keto during the induction phase, but carbs can later be added back as you move through phases of the diet.

If you don’t mind following a low-carb diet permanently, the keto diet will likely work for you. However, if you prefer temporary carb restriction or want a more structured approach, the Atkins diet could be a viable option.

As with any diet, you should choose the one that will provide the best results you can stick to over a sustained period of time.

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