If you're confused about the differences between a keto and low-carb diet, you're not alone. A quick online search of these diets will yield dozens of options, but sometimes, it can be difficult to distinguish one diet from another. If you’re deciding which one to choose, you’ll want to know the differences between low-carb vs. keto diets, the health benefits associated with them, and how to get started. We’ll break down the science behind the keto diet and the nuances of both weight loss strategies to help you choose the diet that might work best for you.
Low-carb vs. keto: The basic differences
So, what is a low-carb diet? It’s just what it sounds like: It’s one that reduces your carbohydrate intake.
“Following a low-carb diet doesn’t mean you’ll need to give up carbs completely,” says Briana Rodriquez, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Jenny Craig. “Paying attention to the types of carbs you eat and how much of them you enjoy are two of the keys to maintaining a low-carb diet.”
Carbohydrates are a type of macronutrient found in many foods and are often blamed for weight gain. But the truth is, carbohydrates are extremely important for your health. The body converts carbs into glucose, a type of blood sugar that is your body’s main source of energy.1 Common sources of carbs include sugars, grains, dairy products, fruits and vegetables. Consuming an excess of unhealthy carb-heavy processed foods, like sugar-sweetened beverages and fast food, could contribute to weight gain. (Here’s the difference between simple and complex carbs and how they impact weight loss.)
On the other hand, one of the key differences of the keto, or the ketogenic diet, is that it's a more restrictive version of a low-carb diet paired with a high-fat diet. Its goal is to get your body into ketosis, a process that makes the body use fat for energy when its glucose stores have been depleted.2 Compared to a low-carb diet, the keto diet drastically reduces the amount of carbs you consume per day and replaces them with foods that are high in fat, such as meat, eggs and avocado. The most extreme versions of the keto diet can drop carbohydrates to a mere 5%,3 which means you might need to say goodbye to your favorite breads, pastas and desserts.
While a menu consisting largely of high fat foods like bacon and butter may sound tempting, Rodriquez cautions against it.
“Without the right guidance, it can be easy for someone to overeat foods, like red meat and full-fat cheese, that are easy to find in the keto diet,” Rodriquez says. “Organic, free-range and grass-fed foods are often encouraged by keto dieters. Those types of food can be delicious and good for you, but portions are still important. Large amounts of meat and cheese can be high in saturated fat, which could impact your weight loss efforts.”
Instead, Rodriquez recommends enjoying a more moderate approach, like one of Jenny Craig’s balanced low-carb diet plans, where you’ll enjoy mindful portions of fiber-rich carbohydrates, lean proteins and healthy fats.
Is keto healthy? Our registered dietitian explains.
Health benefits of a low-carb vs. keto diet
A low-carb or keto diet could help to support weight loss, but that’s not all — both diets may be linked to other positive effects on your health. And when it comes to choosing between the two, understanding the effects either diet could have on your health may help.
A low-carb diet might help reduce inflammation. A small study from 2014 reported that following a low-carb diet could have a beneficial effect on inflammation associated with Type 2 diabetes.4
A low-carb diet might reduce your risk of heart disease. One large, 20-year study found that women eating a low-carbohydrate diet high in vegetable sources of fat and protein had a moderately lower risk of heart disease.5
The keto diet might help with certain health conditions. As early as the 1920s, versions of the keto diet have been used to help treat epilepsy.6 Now, the practice of treating epilepsy with a high-fat, low-carb, low-protein approach to the keto diet is carefully monitored by teams of health professionals and can be used as a potential alternative to medication.
Keeping these health benefits in mind, you might be wondering how hard it is to follow a low-carb or keto diet.
Is it difficult to maintain a keto or low-carb diet?
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Any change to your lifestyle can require a little bit of practice. Depending on the way you approach a keto or low-carb diet, you may need help sticking to your goals.
Keeping up with the keto diet can be challenging, says Rodriquez, but it’s not impossible.
While many keto dieters have reported health and weight loss benefits in the short term, keto meal options can be restrictive and expensive, and extreme carbohydrate restriction could even result in a variety of unpleasant side effects, including fatigue, constipation and headaches.8 Experts at Harvard Health report that adhering to the keto diet long-term may also result in an increased risk of kidney stones and the potential for nutrient deficiencies.7
“It’s easy to find all sorts of keto resources online, but if you’re following the keto diet on your own, you might not be giving your body what it needs to feel its best,” Rodriquez says. “Try working with a registered dietitian or nutritionist to make sure you’re choosing healthy sources of fat, protein and carbs so you don’t miss out on important nutrients.”
On the other hand, a low-carb diet that doesn't completely eliminate your carb intake could be a more balanced option that’s potentially easier to follow and may help you lose weight.
“A more moderate low-carb diet won’t force you to cut back on carbohydrates the same way that the keto diet does,” explains Rodriquez.
She points to non-starchy vegetables, fruits and whole grains as key sources of healthy carbohydrates, which can be enjoyed while following a low-carb diet. They're rich in fiber, which may help to support weight loss and digestion. High-fiber foods, like fruits and vegetables, help to fill you up and keep you feeling satisfied so you’re less likely to overeat later.
And if your goal is weight loss, a low-carb diet could help in the long run. A study conducted from 2014 to 2017 found that people who followed a low-to-moderate carbohydrate diet burned more calories than those who followed a high carbohydrate diet.9
How to get started with a low-carb diet
Now that you know the differences between keto and low-carb, you might be curious about giving one a try. If you're considering a low-carb diet plan, Jenny Craig can help!
Jenny Craig offers delicious and healthy low-carb options. And unlike the keto diet, you won’t need to count macronutrients, measure ingredients, or even bother with complicated prep work: Jenny Craig meals are perfectly portioned to help support weight loss and are ready in minutes! Plus, Jenny Craig’s low-carb menus are designed by a knowledgeable team of registered dietitians and nutritionists to help you get the right balance of nutrients at every meal.
You won’t have to do this alone. Throughout your weight loss journey, you’ll have a dedicated weight loss coach to cheer you on and to help you stay accountable. With your coach’s guidance, you’ll learn healthy habits you can practice while you’re following the Jenny Craig program and beyond.
You won’t need to follow a low-carb diet menu forever. Once you reach your weight loss goal, you’ll gradually begin reintroducing more carbohydrates into your diet. Next, you’ll move on to Jenny Craig’s Maintenance Program to help you celebrate your achievements and stay on track with your healthy lifestyle.
Stephanie Eng-Aponte is a copywriter for Jenny Craig and has written for the health and wellness, tech, and environmental industries. Stephanie graduated from Rutgers University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Media Studies. They employ an “eat first, write later” approach to food blogging and enjoy the occasional Oxford comma. Outside of writing, you can find them photographing a muttley crew of rescue pups, brewing kombucha, or exploring San Diego.
Favorite healthy snack: green apple slices with sunflower butter
Briana is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer for Jenny Craig, based in Carlsbad, California. She is passionate about utilizing food as functional and preventative medicine. Guided by a simplistic and optimistic approach, Briana’s philosophy is to help people improve their health and achieve their goals through the development of sustainable habits to live a healthy life. In her free time, you can find her strength training, indoor cycling, coffee tasting, and at local eateries with her husband and two dogs.
Favorite healthy snack: peanut butter with celery alongside a grapefruit-flavored sparkling water (so refreshing!)
This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and was written by an experienced health and lifestyle contributor and fact-checked by Briana Rodriquez, RDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Jenny Craig.
Our goal at Jenny Craig is to provide the most up-to-date and objective information on health-related topics, so our readers can make informed decisions based on factual content. All articles undergo an extensive review process, and depending on topic, are reviewed by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) or Nutritionist, to ensure accuracy.
This article contains trusted sources including scientific, peer-reviewed papers. All references are hyperlinked at the end of the article to take readers directly to the source.