Keto, Paleo, Whole 30... what?? A quick guide to understanding low-carb diets

It may be confusing navigating and choosing a diet when you see all those different names tossed around. What do they mean? What are the differences?

To help you out, I made a quick summary of them below. I've added the Standard American Diet (SAD) just for the sake of comparison. 



Main foods

Main Exclusions



Standard American Diet 1

High in calories, processed food and sugar, low in fruit, vegetables, grains and dairy

Highly processed and sugary foods, meats

Not excluded per se, but low in fresh produce

300g+ a day

Most common are table sugar and corn syrup (as added sugar)

Paleo / Primal

Eating more like our ancestors used to, before modern agricultural methods

Fresh produce, meats, seafood, eggs, nuts, healthy oils, dairy (on primal)

Processed food, grains, legumes, sugar.

There is no carb counting. Can range from keto levels (20g or less) to 150g a day

Natural, low processed sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup, molasse, coconut sugar


High fat, low carb, moderate protein to achieve ketosis and minimize blood insulin levels

Natural fats, meats, seafood,  eggs, cheese, vegetables (above ground, lower in carbs)

Grains, sugar, most fruits, starchy vegetables. 

Typically, under 20g a day, some may consider 50g

Zero net carb sweeteners such as Erythritol, Stevia, Xylitol


A 30-day challenge with only real food, no exceptions

Meat, seafood, and eggs; vegetables and fruit; natural fats; nuts

Sugars and sweeteners, grains, legumes, dairy, baked goods (even if made with approved ingredients)

There is no carb count, but it is typically a lot lower than SAD as carbs are only coming from fruits, vegetables and nuts

No sweetener is allowed

What about the low-carb diet? Low-carb is a strategy that can be applied to all of the above diets by watching carb intake. 

While there is no official carb consumption boundary to define a low-carb diet, anything under 100g of carbs per day can be considered low-carb. So Keto is a very low-carb diet, and Whole 30, Primal and Paleo can be low-carb. I for one follow a Paleo Low-Carb approach!

Hope this quick guide helped! Want to know more? Check the links below for further reading:

The Paleo Diet - Dr. Loren Cordain's website; he coined the term "Paleo Diet".

The Paleo Mom - Dr. Sarah's Ballantyne's website has tons of resources, with lots of practical information backed by science

- Mark's Daily Apple - Mark Sisson created the Primal diet as a spin-off of the Paleo diet. I particularly like the charts around carb intake and his views on the importance of exercise.

- Diet Doctor - Details on Keto / Low-carb diets, recipes, meal plans. 

Whole 30's official website



1. Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020

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