Medical News Today: What’s the difference between the keto and Atkins diets?

The ketogenic, or keto, and Atkins diets are two popular eating plans that restrict carbohydrate intake with the aim of promoting weight loss and improving overall health.

The recommended daily intake of carbohydrates for adults is about 200–300 grams (g) per day. The keto and Atkins diets both involve a significant reduction in carbohydrate consumption, and the two can produce similar effects on the body.

There are, however, differences in these eating plans. The differences involve the timing and extent of carb intake and specific effects on the body.

This article looks at the similarities and differences between the keto and Atkins diets, including their potential benefits and adverse effects and the foods involved.

What are the keto and Atkins diets?

a man in a supermarket looking at information on Keto vs atkins on his phone.
Grains, most fruits, and sugars are all excluded from both the keto and Atkins diets.

The keto and Atkins diets both aim to promote weight loss and improve health by limiting carb intake.

Foods excluded from both diets are grains, most fruits, and sugars.

The keto diet puts more emphasis on eating healthful fats than the Atkins diet.

Understanding how these diets work can help a person decide whether either is a good choice.

The keto diet

A person following the keto diet will eat very few carbohydrates, lots of fat, and some protein.

Below are the proportions of a person’s total daily macronutrient intake on the keto diet:

  • 70–80% fat
  • 20–25% protein
  • 5–10% carbohydrates

Carbs are the body’s go-to source of fuel. The keto diet involves significantly reducing levels of carbs so that the body can no longer use them for fuel.

When this happens, the body enters a state called ketosis, in which it starts to burn fat and produce ketones — molecules that serve as a new energy source. For this reason, many people follow the keto diet as a way to burn body fat.

Keto diet proponents recommend getting the carbs allowed from specific foods, including keto-friendly vegetables, such as leafy greens, and certain fruits, primarily berries. The diet excludes grains and legumes.

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The Atkins diet

Like the keto diet, the Atkins diet allows for few carbs, moderate amounts of protein, and high amounts of fat.

Over the years, the Atkins diet has evolved to include various eating plans. The current name for the original version of the diet is “Atkins 20.”

According to the Atkins website, this diet consists of 4 phases distinguished by the amount of carbs that a person eats each day:

  • Phase 1 – This is the most restrictive phase, allowing for just 20–25 g of carbohydrates per day. People stay in this phase until they are 15 pounds from their ideal weight.
  • Phase 2 – During this phase, people eat 25–50 g of carbs each day.
  • Phase 3 – This allows people to eat up to 80 g of carbs per day until they meet their goal weight and maintain it for at least 1 month.
  • Phase 4 – Phase 4 is the maintenance phase, allowing for 80–100 g of carbs per day.

The final phase is the least restrictive. The aim is to help a person be conscious of their carb intake and maintain a healthful weight.

During the first phase, the body enters ketosis, as in the keto diet. As the person moves through the different phases, they begin to eat more carbs and more varied foods.

What are the differences between the keto and Atkins diets?

The keto and Atkins diets both involve restricting carb intake, even in the final phase of the Atkins diet. However, there are key differences.

Restriction

a woman about to eat chicken.
The Atkins diet allows moderate protein intake.

In general, the keto diet is much more restrictive than the Atkins diet.

The keto diet places more emphasis on carb elimination, and it restricts protein sources, as the body may break down proteins into glucose for energy. The vast majority of calories in the keto diet come from fat.

The Atkins diet places strong restrictions on carbohydrate intake at first, but it allows for moderate protein intake. As the person moves through the stages, the Atkins diet becomes more relaxed, allowing for more carbs and a greater variety of foods.

Ketosis

The keto and Atkins diets can both lead to a state of ketosis.

However, in the Atkins diet, only the first — and sometimes second — stages involve the carb restriction required to maintain ketosis.

If a person follows it strictly, the keto diet involves continuous ketosis.

Long term viability

No strong, long term studies indicate that restrictive, low carb diets are healthful for extended periods. In fact, the opposite may be true.

Research published in The Lancet Public Health in 2018 found an increased risk of mortality among people following low carbohydrate diets rich in animal protein and fat.

The researchers also found that people following diets rich in plant sources of fat and protein had a lower risk of mortality.

Many of these plant sources, such as nut butters, whole grains, and legumes, also contain carbohydrates. As a result, they are highly restricted in low carb diets.

Some people find that the Atkins diet is an achievable long term option. Though it starts restrictive, a person introduces more foods and carbs as they get close to their goal weight.

The last stage, or maintenance stage, of the Atkins diet can feel more manageable than keeping up with the perpetually restrictive keto diet.

However, it is dangerous to remain in ketosis for extended periods. Also, most people are unable to maintain a very high fat intake or extreme carb restriction for a long time.

Origins

Doctors developed the keto diet to help treat epilepsy in the 1920s. Researchers noted that it may have other benefits, and since the mid-1990s, the diet has become more popular.

Dr. Robert Atkins developed the Atkins diet as a simple, low carbohydrate approach to nutrition. The diet has changed over the years to take on its four stage structure.

Similarities between the keto and Atkins diets

Both the Atkins and keto diets involve carb restriction, and the effects can be similar.

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Weight loss

Many people follow the keto or Atkins diets for weight loss.

A number of studies have shown that these diets can result in weight loss, as the body burns fat very well when it enters ketosis. Most relevant studies indicate that a low carb diet produces more weight loss than a low fat diet in the short term, but in the longer term, these diets produce similar weight loss results.

As a small scale study published in Diabetes & Metabolic Syndrome: Clinical Research & Reviews notes that ketosis may help manage obesity and metabolic risk factors that are precursors to type 2 diabetes. However, confirming these findings will require more research.

Potential health benefits

A review published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that ketogenic diets protect the body from certain illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

These benefits may result from a reduction in highly processed, high carb foods and excess sugar in the diet.

There is emerging evidence these diets may help with other issues, such as acne and neurological disorders, although confirming this will require more research.

Focus on natural foods

Both diets encourage a person to eat unprocessed foods. Highly processed foods are linked with obesity, cardiovascular disease, and other health conditions.

Side effects and risks

woman having a cold
Keto flu can develop when a person starts the keto diet.

Any diet that involves ketosis can cause adverse effects, such as keto breath, keto skin rashes, and keto flu. Staying in a state of ketosis for long periods can be harmful.

Also, people following either diet can develop nutrient deficiencies due to food restrictions. For many people, carbohydrate sources are also key sources of fiber. When reducing carbohydrates, people should be sure to get enough daily fiber from other sources, such as vegetables.

In addition, these diets may increase the risk of deficiencies in electrolytes and many water-soluble nutrients that come from fruits and vegetables.

Finally, ketosis may help burn fat, but it may also burn muscle to use for energy. Following a very low carb diet can result in a loss of muscle mass.


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Summary

There are many similarities to the keto and Atkins diets. Both require a significant reduction in calories from carbohydrates and encourage a person to get their calories from fats.

The keto diet puts greater restrictions on the source of calories. The Atkins diet starts very restrictive but becomes less so over time, allowing a person to eat a greater variety of foods.

Restrictive diets may help with short term weight loss or fitness goals, but they may not be as healthful in the long term as other options.

Consult a healthcare provider before making any major dietary change. This is especially important for people with chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, or high blood pressure.

When following any diet that eliminates food groups, make sure to avoid deficiencies by meeting daily nutrient needs in other ways.

Once a person reaches their target weight goals, it may be a good idea to switch to a less restrictive diet that incorporates a variety of nutrient-rich foods. Getting the right amount of daily physical activity can also help with maintaining a healthful weight.

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