What’s the Difference Between Paleo and Keto?

Both diets are effective, but would you rather give up cheese or fruit?

Chad Callaghan December 05, 2016

If you’ve spent 15 seconds in a CrossFit box, you know what Paleo is. If you’ve spent 30 seconds, you’ve probably already cooked your first batch of Brussels sprouts and bacon on a bed of purple potatoes.

But what is this “keto” thing that’s popping up all over the Internet (and in many a CrossFitter’s kitchen)?

The staples of the two diets are actually pretty similar, and the limitations line up almost exactly. People on both diets are constantly eating butter by the pound — in their coffee, on their steaks and sometimes on its own like a slice of quadruple-cream brie (hold the cracker).

Paleo vs. keto

The real difference is why you restrict what you eat. Let’s start with Paleo. The goal is to eat the way people ate when our digestive systems were evolving. This means you want whole, unprocessed foods and no grains. Essentially, Paleo prohibits all the products of modern farming, which has evolved faster than our bodies. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but you get the idea. The high levels of protein in a Paleo diet make it ideal for anyone serious about building muscle.

Plus, it makes you feel damn good.

Keto, on the other hand, is for serious body hackers. This is for all of you out there who are looking past the community of CrossFit, beyond the easier-to-understand shorthand rules of the Paleo diet.

Keto is all about ratios — high fat, moderate protein and basically zero carbs. We’re scientific about our WODs, so let’s get scientific about our nutrition, too. Interestingly, because of the “no grains” rule, a lot of Paleo eaters tend to consume few carbohydrates anyway and might actually find themselves eating ketogenically without realizing it. The true litmus test of a ketogenic diet is whether you’re actually in ketosis. A lot of people eating Paleo find themselves in ketosis, but they just aren’t hyperfocused on ketosis as a goal.

What is ketosis?

It’s a metabolic state, the cousin to glycolysis. Glycolysis is your “normal” metabolic pathway by which your cells convert glucose into energy. When no glucose is available, your cells are forced to switch into ketosis, a slightly more complex metabolic pathway by which your body converts ketones (byproducts of fat) into energy. Ketosis only takes place in the absence of carbohydrates.

Basically, if a single carbohydrate slips through, your body will go right back into glycolysis until those carbs are processed and you’ve only got fat stores left.

A lot of endurance athletes call this total carbohydrate shutdown “getting fat adapted” because you’re essentially forcing your body to prefer fat for an energy source.

The benefits

Externally, the benefits are pretty obvious: If your body burns fat preferentially, it’s a lot easier to shed off the layers of adipose tissue that blanket the slabs of muscle underneath. 

Internally, the benefits of keto are legion. Just like Paleo, many people have reported anti-inflammatory benefits. There’s also mounting research that depriving your body of glucose goes a long way to preventing (or even treating) cancer. Cancer cells devour glucose even faster than regular body cells and don’t seem to be able to use ketone bodies for energy.

There are some performance benefits to eating ketogenically, as well. Fat is a dense energy source and you’ll be consuming a lot of it.

For CrossFitters, one benefit to paying attention to your macronutrient ratios is that you should never find yourself depleted of energy (once you’ve become fat adapted, that is). If you’re eating Paleo without paying close attention to your macronutrients (which you should be doing no matter how you eat), you might end up with high protein but low fat and low carbs. You’re gonna bonk before you even finish your first round of “Fran.” Say goodbye to your PRs.

With keto, on the other hand, you’ll just need to make sure you don’t let your protein numbers drop too low.

If you’re new to keto, be warned: It can take some time for your body to adapt. You essentially have to burn through all your stores of muscle glycogen before you start relying on ketone bodies, and it often takes three or four days to make the “switch.”

So what can you eat? 

It basically boils down to cheese versus fruit. 

ON PALEO — You get to eat fruit. Not all fruit but some fruit. And if you’re working hard in the box, you actually better be eating a good amount of it because the sugar in fruit is one of the few sources of quick-energy carbohydrates to fuel your workouts. The problem? Even in fruit, sugar is still sugar, with all its negative side effects. 

ON KETO — Sorry, no fruit. No honey or maple syrup, either. You DO get to eat cheese (just don’t overdo it on the protein-heavy stuff like Parmesan), and you DO get to eat processed food so long as it meets those high-fat, low-carb macronutrient ratios.  

The “no processed foods” rule on Paleo is basically a shortcut to avoid foods that are metabolically disadvantageous. Keto gets around this with the ideal macro ratios for a specific metabolic advantage.

If that sounds complicated to you but you’re intrigued to try going keto, give the foods from Quest Keto a try — they’re taking the guesswork out of keto with meals and snacks in the perfect ratios to provide you with sustained energy and keep you in ketosis.


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About the Author

Chad Callaghan