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Switching from Low-Carb or Keto to Paleo

Paleo plate

Disclaimer: some people do perfectly fine on very low-carb or ketogenic diets for years and years. If that’s you, great! But if that’s not you, then you might find something useful here.

Frustrated by low-carb? Did it stop working for you, or maybe you’re just tired of the intense restriction on everything from carrots to kale? It might be time to try a different tack: instead of focusing only on carbs, try a more rounded Paleo approach.

What’s the Difference?

On a low-carb diet, the goal is exactly that: to minimize carbs, usually for the purpose of weight loss (although sometimes it’s for other reasons – for example, people who try a ketogenic diet to control epilepsy). On a Paleo diet, the goal is to make appropriate nutritional choices considering your evolutionary history. You can do a low-carb version of Paleo, but just cutting carbs does not automatically make a diet Paleo, and Paleo is about a whole set of food choices, not just carbs. Here’s a chart comparing some key differences:

  Generic low-carb/keto Paleo
Carbohydrate level Low Variable; low to medium.
Ultimate goal Typically weight loss (although there are exceptions) Better health (sometimes this includes weight loss)
Is soy sauce (containing wheat) allowed? Yes, since the tiny amount of carbohydrate is negligible. No, since wheat is a gut irritant.
Is canola oil (containing lots of Omega-6 fats) allowed? Yes, since it has no carbs. No, since Omega-6 fats are inflammatory and unhealthy.
Are sweet potatoes (containing significant amounts of carbohydrate) allowed? No, since they have carbs. Yes, since they are full of nutrients and do not contain any toxins or gut irritants.
Is tofu (containing soy) allowed? Yes, since it has few carbs. No; soy is full of inflammatory Omega-6 fats and other problems.
Is dairy allowed? If it’s full-fat, to minimize carbs. Maybe, if you personally tolerate it well.

You can eat a healthy low-carb diet or a junk food low-carb diet. You can eat a low-carb or a moderate-carb or even a high-carb version of Paleo. There’s a lot of overlap, because Paleo tends to be lower in carbs than a typical American diet, but they’re not even close to the same thing.

If you want to switch from generic low-carb to Paleo low-carb, it’s pretty simple: just get rid of any vegetable oils, grains, legumes (including soy), and processed junk in your diet (if you were eating it in the first place). But if you want to try adding in more “safe starches,” it gets a little more complicated. So this article is really for people who were on a low-carb diet – whether it was keto, Atkins, or a generic low-carb diet of your own invention – and want to try a moderate-carb version of Paleo instead.

Why Would you Want to Switch?

Good question! You might consider switching from low-carb to Paleo if…

Low-carb just doesn’t work for everyone, and it’s not because you’re doing it wrong!

What Should you Change?

REMOVE these foods from your diet (if you were eating them): ADD these foods to your diet (if you weren’t eating them):
  • All grains (even very tiny amounts of wheat in something like soy sauce)
  • All legumes (even the low-carb ones like soy)
  • All vegetable or seed oils (including canola/rapeseed, peanut, and soybean oil). Acceptable cooking fats on Paleo are animal fat, olive oil, coconut oil, and other healthy plant fats.
  • All artificial sweeteners and low-carb processed food.
  • Protein powder

Add in the carbs slowly – don’t go all-out and starting eating meals comprised entirely of sweet potatoes! Also don’t start eating huge piles of carbs all by themselves. Instead, slowly replace some of the fat in your meals with more carbohydrate-dense foods. For example:

Eating carbs with fat and protein will minimize any blood sugar issues, and help you slowly work up to a level of carbs that works well for your own body.

Safe starches

What Should You Expect?

For the first week or two on a moderate-carb Paleo diet, here’s what to expect:

Water weight. You may gain 3-5 pounds of water weight (this is not fat!) because carbohydrates make you retain a little more water. Don’t freak out about it. Really. Retaining water is not the same thing as putting on fat.

Energy changes. During the transition period, your body gets used to eating more carbs again, you may notice any or all of the following:

Most of the undesirable effects on this list will iron themselves out over a week or two; just give it time.

Hunger changes. You may feel either more or less hungry than usual. You might also find that your meals suddenly seem “too big” (because carbs are much less energy-dense than fat, so the same number of calories will physically take up more room on the plate).

Other changes. Everyone’s body is different. Some people have digestive changes or a period of adjustment to eating more carbs and fiber (this isn’t always negative either: eating more carbs sometimes helps a lot with constipation). Other people just keep running right along without a hitch.

Summing it Up

It’s hard to compare low-carb and Paleo, because there are so many different varieties of both. You can eat a low-carb diet that doesn’t come close to Paleo, and a Paleo diet that doesn’t come close to low-carb, but you can also eat a low-carb Paleo diet if that’s what works for you. Most whole-foods low-carb diets are fairly close to Paleo anyway, so in practice many people restricting carbs are already almost Paleo.

Which one is “better”? That’s up to the individual person. The point of this article isn’t to persuade anyone to “switch teams:” it’s just an outline of why you might consider a change, and how to go about it if you decide to take the plunge.