Keto and Whole30 are two of the most popular diets trending on the internet today.
These eating patterns share a few things in common, but they’re more different than alike.
In this article, you’ll learn the basics of each diet, how they compare for weight loss and other health benefits, and how to decide which one is the best choice for you
What is Keto?
The ketogenic diet (or keto for short) is a very-low-carb, high-fat diet with moderate protein intake. Ketogenic means ketone-producing.
When you lower carbs drastically on keto, your body goes into a state of ketosis after a few days to a week. For most people, eating fewer than 30 grams of carbs per day is necessary to achieve ketosis.
During ketosis, your liver makes the ketones acetate, beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB), and acetoacetate for additional energy as you burn fat.
Your body can burn stored fat or fat you eat as fuel, but your brain requires either glucose (a simple sugar) or ketones for energy. In the absence of carbs and sugar, ketones take the place of sugar as brain food.
Benefits of the Ketogenic Diet
Perhaps the most noteworthy feature of the ketogenic diet is that most people can eat ad libitum (to a state of fullness) and still lose weight. That’s because keto changes your appetite and hunger response and cranks up your fat-burning capacity at the same time.
In addition to steady and sustainable weight loss, the ketogenic diet offers some unique benefits not found in other diets. Diets rich in sugar and other types of carbohydrates severely limit your ability to burn fat, but the keto diet maximizes fat oxidation.[2, 3]
As you fat-adapt, meaning you rely solely on fat oxidation for energy, the following health benefits occur:
- Reduced hunger and fewer cravings
- Improved insulin sensitivity
- Lower blood sugar levels and no “sugar crashes”
- Decreased inflammation
And unlike glucose, ketones decrease oxidative stress and lower inflammation in your brain. They are a cleaner, steadier form of energy for your brain.
Ketones can also bypass defects in brain glucose metabolism that happen during the aging process. That’s why researchers have found that ketosis enhances cognition and memory in seniors and people with dementia.[13, 14]
Types of Keto
The two main variants of the ketogenic diet are medical keto and modern keto.
The medical version of the ketogenic diet has been around for 100 years, and was first used to treat seizures. Doctors and researchers still use the keto diet for that purpose today.
Medical experts recommend people with seizure disorders eat the following macronutrients on keto:
- As close to zero carbs as possible (a few grams per day of trace carbs are unavoidable)
- 10% protein
- 90% fat
This extremely strict version of the diet is built around maximizing ketone production and minimizing the likelihood of seizures. It contains less protein than popular versions of keto because gluconeogenesis (the breakdown of amino acids into glucose) might interfere with the treatment of epilepsy.
However, the modern version of the ketogenic diet is more popular. It allows you to enter ketosis and offers the same health benefits as the medical version, but it’s more practical for most people. It’s also used today in scientific studies of keto in people who do not have epilepsy.
Athletes, biohackers, and people who want to lose weight usually follow these modern keto macros:
- ≤5% carbs (that’s 25 grams or under on a 2000 calorie diet)
- 20-25% protein
- 70-80% fat
With the popular, modern version of keto, the majority of your calories still come from healthy fats. But unlike medical keto, it allows you to eat more low-carb fruits and veggies, and the protein intake allows you to recover from strength training and other forms of exercise.
Unless your #1 priority is managing epilepsy, modern keto is the way to go–it’s more flexible, easier to follow, and allows you to eat a greater variety of healthy whole foods.
Other Variations on the Keto Diet
Like any popular diet, there are also several spin-offs of the keto diet.
For people who need (or want) to eat more carbs, the cyclical ketogenic diet (CKD) and targeted ketogenic diet (TKD) are common choices.
On the CKD, you’re allowed one or two “cheat” or breakover days per week to eat a lot of carbs. For some people this is simply a treat or a convenience, but other people believe it enhances their fat-burning when they return to ketosis.
As long as you don’t hang out at a buffet all day, you can still lose weight with cyclical keto. The CKD does kick you out of ketosis for 24-72 hours, so you won’t accrue as many health benefits with this approach. And a study from the University of British Columbia found that carb binges after going keto can increase the adverse effects of sugar on your blood vessels, so CKD isn’t the best option if you want to enhance your health and wellness.
In contrast to CKD, the TKD is a strategic method of timing your carbs around physical activity. It’s popular with people who weight train or compete in sports because it allows you to increase your glycogen (glucose stored in your muscles) for better athletic performance, then quickly re-enter ketosis after exercise.
For targeted keto, it’s best to limit yourself to carb meals prior to strenuous exercise only, and eat 50-100 grams of carbs for one or two meals before exercise. After physical activity it’s time to cut carbs again. Following a TKD allows you to strike a balance between physical performance and fat loss.
Keto and Intermittent Fasting
Many people choose to merge keto with various forms of intermittent fasting, adhering to a daily eating window of four, six, or eight hours. Another option is longer fast periods several times per week, such as skipping one or two full days of eating.
If you’re just beginning keto or don’t have any experience fasting, this isn’t the best approach to start off with. That said, fasting is a great way to accelerate fat loss, boost ketone production further, and decrease inflammation in your body, so intermittent fasting is worth a try if you want to take your keto journey to a new level.[17, 18]
A Day on Keto – Sample Meals
If you’re considering going keto, it can be confusing trying to figure out what you are allowed eat. But one of the biggest attractions of the keto diet is that you can most likely fill yourself up at each meal and still lose weight.
While carb cravings can be difficult at first, eating plenty of healthy fats and adequate protein typically addresses this issue within a couple of days.
If you want to give the ketogenic diet a dry run, you can use these sample meals for a day to explore the lifestyle:
Scrambled eggs cooked in butter with diced onions and tomatoes added
Bacon on the side
Grass-fed beef patties with homemade aioli (whisk 3-4 finely minced large garlic cloves, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1 egg yolk, and 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil; optionally add lemon juice and paprika or other spices)
Mixed greens salad with extra virgin olive oil, apple cider vinegar, and herbs
Salmon fillet cooked in extra virgin coconut oil
Baked mashed cauliflower with heavy cream and cheese
Note that each meal contains a fatty protein source or two, but also a lot of extra fat in the form of added butter, extra virgin olive oil, heavy cream, or cheese. That’s because it’s difficult to get enough fat on keto unless you intentionally add more healthy fat sources.
Going keto for a day is a good way to get a taste for the diet, but your body won’t begin producing ketones for at least several more days. To gauge the full benefits of keto, you’ll need to extend your experiment.
Who Should Consider Going Keto?
You should consider going keto if you:
- Want to lose weight (especially if you’ve struggled with your appetite on other diets)
- Want to age gracefully, preserve your brain and heart health, and reduce your risk of cancer
- Have aches and pains or other signs of inflammation
- Have high blood sugar and want to lower it
However, it’s essential that you commit to the ketogenic diet if you want to reap the benefits. While it doesn’t require as much attention to detail as many diets, keto does demand discipline.
You have to be patient during the first week as your body achieves ketosis, and much of the payoff occurs after several months of staying low-carb consistently.
If you have type 2 diabetes, or another metabolic condition like hypoglycemia, be sure to inform your doctor before you make the switch. Ketosis could impact your symptoms or change your medication requirements, so it’s best to be on the safe side.
Any diet has the potential to be unhealthy, but a properly structured keto diet with sufficient calories may stimulate the brain to reduce anxiety and replace unhealthy eating patterns, a major plus for people who have struggled with eating disorders. If you’ve dealt with disordered eating in the past, it is highly recommended that you speak to your doctor or therapist before going keto.
Why You Should Test Your Ketone Levels
To get the most out of keto, it’s an excellent idea to test your ketone levels, especially at first. While you can skip this step (and many people do), ketone testing lets you know for sure if you’re in ketosis.
That means you can discover exactly how many carbs you’re allowed, how long it takes your body to achieve ketosis, and how your ketone levels correlate to the health benefits you’re observing.
If you’re not convinced, consider that some people decide to test their ketone levels months after “going keto” only to find they weren’t producing any ketones the whole time due to trace carbs, faulty math, or other oversights.
How to Test Your Ketone Levels
There are three options for testing your ketone levels:
- Urine ketone strips: the easiest, cheapest, and least accurate, they measure acetoacetate.
- Breath ketone levels using a meter like Ketonix: more accurate than urine, they test acetate.
- Blood ketone levels using a meter like Keto Mojo: the most accurate and direct, they gauge beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB).
Urine testing only tells you about acetoacetate, which your body converts into acetate and beta-hydroxybutyrate. If you’re in ketosis for a long time, urine strips can give you a “false negative,” meaning you’re in ketosis but the test says you aren’t.
Breath meters are a step up from urine, but the ketone they measure–acetate–is less significant than BHB. Generally speaking, acetate levels correlate to BHB levels, but not perfectly.
While any test is better than nothing, blood ketone levels are the most useful and precise measurement of how deep into ketosis you are because they tell you about beta-hydroxybutyrate, the ketone with the greatest impact on your health and metabolism.
Many of today’s ketone meters also measure blood glucose, which provides even more insight into the benefits you can derive from the keto diet. Keto is an effective way to lower your blood sugar and improve your insulin sensitivity.[6, 5]
Itmay seem like a burden, but remember that you don’t need to commit to a lifetime of testing ketones. You can measure daily for 2-4 weeks, then once or twice a month to check your levels, or whenever you exit ketosis to see how long you take to achieve it again.
The Whole30 Program
The Whole30 program–Whole30 for short–is an eating plan invented by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig about ten years ago. The name comes from the fact that participants eat whole foods (and nothing else) for 30 days.
Unlike most traditional diets, Whole30 only requires a thirty-day commitment. However, it’s also far more strict than most eating plans.
In essence, this approach is a nutritional reset and an elimination diet to detect problem foods. You can also think of it as an experiment to learn how the food you normally eat impacts your health and quality of life.
By eliminating all problem foods for 30 days and focusing on a limited list of allowed foods, your body gets a break from any possible allergens. As a bonus, nutritious whole foods can also correct nutrient deficiencies that impact your wellness negatively.
When the thirty days are up, it’s time to gradually add back the foods not on the Whole30 “approved” list as you pay attention to how each addition affects your health and sense of wellbeing.
What You Can Eat, and What You Can’t
Compared to other diets, Whole30 is an very, very strict. Eat one thing on the “don’t eat” list and you have to go back to day one of the program to start over.
According to the Hartwigs, even a small amount of inflammatory or sweet-tasting food triggers your immune response, brings on cravings, and allows symptoms to re-emerge.
Foods Allowed on Whole30
Here’s what you are allowed to eat:
- Moderate amounts of meat, seafood, poultry, and eggs
- Large quantities of vegetables
- Large quantities of natural, healthy fats like clarified butter (a.k.a. ghee; the only exception to the “no dairy” rule), avocados, coconut oil, avocado oil, olive oil, beef tallow, bone broth, and lard
- Moderate amounts of fruits (fruits have sugar, so if you eat too much fruit, your results won’t be ideal)
- Moderate amounts of nuts and seeds (without sugar or artificial flavoring added)
- Green beans, snow peas, and snap peas are fine (they’re the only exception to the “no legumes” rule)
- Coffee in moderation, without any sweetener or dairy (milk substitutes like almond milk are fine, so long as they don’t contain sweeteners)
- Vinegar is allowed for seasoning or cooking, as long as it doesn’t contain alcohol or added sugar
- Spices and seasonings sans sugar or preservatives
- Limited quantities of fruit juices as a sweetener are allowed (but make sure it doesn’t have added sugar).
Foods to Eliminate on Whole30
Here’s what you must avoid to remain Whole30 compliant:
- No processed or junk food, even if it’s made from Whole30 allowed ingredients(!)
- No desserts, even if they’re made using approved Whole30 ingredients, and no “substitute” foods (like cauliflower pizza crust, a keto favorite) either
- Dairy is a no-no, even cultured dairy like yogurt.
- Any sweetener (other than limited quantities of fruit juice) or sugar is prohibited, in any quantity, including zero-calorie sweeteners.
- Grains like rice, quinoa, oats, or wheat are out
- Gluten is forbidden
- Alcohol is prohibited (even for cooking)
- Legumes, which includes most beans as well as peanuts, are not allowed
- No soy
- Sulfites aren’t allowed
- No monosodium glutamate
- You must avoid carrageenan
That means on Whole30 you’ll eat fruits, vegetables, meat, seafood, eggs, healthy fats, nuts, and seeds for the bulk of your meals. In turn, you exclude sugar, dairy, alcohol, grains, legumes, desserts and dessert substitutes, most additives, and all processed foods.
Who Should Try the Whole30?
Whole30 is geared to people who want a strict but brief reset for their relationship with food. Because you get to reintroduce all your old food choices one at a time, it’s very flexible after the initial period.
Overall, the program is best for people who have the willpower and ability to commit, who suspect they may be responding poorly to certain foods (but aren’t sure which), and who find inspiration in drastic measures.
If you’ve had trouble sticking to other diets, Whole30 might be a rough ride for you. It’s really no fun at all to keep getting sent back to day one of the thirty-day plan with every misstep or “moment of weakness.”
You can weigh yourself before and after Whole30, but not during. Adherents often report it works well for fat loss, with many women losing 8-10 lbs on average, but the plan prioritizes mindfulness around food and paying attention to your quality of life over pounds lost on the scale.
If your goal is weight loss, there are other effective approaches (like keto or paleo) that still allow you to weigh in while you’re on the program.
Similarities Between Keto and Whole30
Here’s what keto and Whole30 share in common:
- Both diets eliminate all processed carbohydrates and grains
- Similar to Whole30 (which is 100% whole foods), the majority of your intake on keto is whole foods
- They can both work for weight loss without counting calories (because you get full easily–and also aren’t allowed to count on Whole30)
- You must adjust your attitudes and habits around food radically
In terms of what works well universally, these are good rules of thumb for anyone who wants to lose weight or have a healthier relationship with food.
Differences Between Keto and Whole30
While keto and Whole30 have some features in common, they’re fundamentally more different than alike. Here’s the breakdown of how and where they differ:
- Aside from allowing more carbs, Whole30 is far more restrictive than keto in terms of foods and behaviors
- You can reintroduce other foods at the end of Whole30, but not on keto
- Keto is a long-term shift in the way you eat, not a thirty-day reset strategy
- The keto diet is backed by dozens of peer-reviewed studies demonstrating numerous unique health benefits, while Whole30 is not
- Weight loss seem to vary greatly on Whole30, with some people losing up to 8-10 pounds, and others losing very little.
The lack of scientific backing doesn’t invalidate Whole30. Doctors and dieticians frequently use elimination diets to trace food sensitivities and other issues, and anecdotal evidence (like thousands of people who will tell you Whole30 worked for them) isn’t automatically untrue.
Whole30 requires greater commitment in the short term, but keto represents a bigger fundamental shift in your lifestyle when it comes to food.
Can I Combine Keto With Whole30?
In case you’re wondering: “is it possible do keto and Whole30 at the same time?” It’s best to pick one and stick with it.
However, if both options are attractive, you could do Whole30 first, then go keto later.
Or if you’ve been keto for a while but suspect you may have food sensitivities, you could use a Whole30 approach to eliminate alcohol, dairy, and other foods, then add them back in to get to the root of the problem.
The only thing you probably shouldn’t do is go from a conventional diet to a combination of keto and Whole30. Each approach has unique challenges, and you’re more likely to make mistakes if you bite off more than you can chew.
The Verdict: Should I Go Keto or Try Whole30?
In the end, the two approaches have different purposes. They’re not interchangeable with one another.
Whole30 is a short-term experiment that can work for resetting your body, shifting your preferences, and learning how food impacts your energy levels, mood, and health.
If you want a quick fix and don’t mind a challenge, Whole30 is worth a try. Many people appreciate the fact that it allows tremendous flexibility after the thirty days are up.
On the other hand, keto is an evidence-based diet with a wide range of benefits not found in other diets. It ups your ketone production, enhances your brain health and cognition, allows you to maximize fat-burning, and stabilizes your blood sugar.
Although you don’t have to commit to keto long-term, it’s not a quick fix. To realize all the advantages keto offers, you have to stick with it.
You might be wondering, “Can’t I do both diets at the same time?” While it is possible, it is not recommended. Whole30 is a reset program designed to help you discover problem foods, while keto is more of a long-term strategy. It makes sense, then, to complete one at a time, or choose one over the other, but it is ultimately your decision to make.
If you’re still feeling unclear on which diet is best for you, it might help to consider your personality and goals: if you are a go-getter with potential food allergies, Whole30 is a great pick. But if you have it in you to commit long-term, and want to enhance your long-term health or lose a significant amount of weight, keto may be the way to go.