What’s the Difference between Whole30 and Keto?

For a lot of Americans, new year means new diet—bringing terms like juice cleanse, sugar fast and healthy eating to mind. Two modern options in particular, Whole30® and ketogenic, are on trend. But what are they? Should you try one? Below, here’s a bite-sized look at the question of what’s the difference between Whole30 and keto!

Fresh produce for a post on keto vs Whole30 eating // go eat your bread with joy
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It sounds like the beginning of a joke: if two people come to a dinner party, one on Whole30, one on the keto diet, what do you serve–carrot sticks? The fact is, these buzzwords are two of 2019’s hottest food crazes–labels that have inspired an entire selection of newly launched diet-specific Chipotle bowls. And, given that it’s January, a month known for resets and resolutions, if you aren’t currently trying either Whole30 or a keto diet, you probably know someone who is.

So what exactly is the appeal of these restrictive eating plans? What’s similar and what’s different about them? What can and can’t you eat?

To help answer these questions, here’s a look at the basics of Whole30 and keto eating–and a few tips for sticking with them, should you want to do so.

What Is Whole30?

Whole30 originated in 2009, when Certified Sports Nutritionist Melissa Hartwig first blogged about a 30-day food challenge she was trying. As you’ll find in her New York Times bestselling book The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom, the diet is essentially a one-month fast from certain foods. In order to jumpstart your body’s ability to heal, it says you need to cut out everything that’s ever been associated with cravings, blood sugar spikes, gut damage and inflammation.

This means goodbye to sugar, dairy, alcohol, grains and legumes, for example. Also: baked goods, junk foods or even treats with “approved” ingredients, according to program rules posted on its website.

What Is Keto?

The keto (short for ketogenic) diet is, essentially, a low-carb, high-fat program, a little like the Atkins fad diet. Accordingly to Healthline, it gets its name from ketosis–the metabolic state the body goes into when it’s given a drastic reduction in carbs and big boost in healthy fats. The idea is that lowering carbs will get your body to burn fat for its energy, potentially helping you lose weight, improve certain health numbers, etc.

What’s restricted with keto eating is anything high in carbs, including sugary foods, grains, beans and even starchy vegetables. Also: alcohol, processed “unhealthy” fats and all fruit, except for small portions of berries.

What can you eat on Whole30 or keto diets? What's the difference between them?
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What They Have in Common

Back to the dinner party question in the intro: for either dieter, you can’t go wrong with meat and (non-starchy) vegetables. Skip the wine or dessert; make sure the meal has no gluten, grains or beans; and maybe have some extra nuts or avocados on hand for the keto eater. Essentially, what’s similar about Whole30 and keto is that both skip some of the same food groups (i.e., alcohol and sugar, grains and legumes).

How They’re Different

Here’s what’s not the same with these diets: the focus. With Whole30, you’re emphasizing whole foods, sans common problem groups, for a month, almost like an elimination diet; with keto, you’re emphasizing high-fat foods, sans almost all carbs, for as long as you’re on board. So there’s overlap, sure, but which one you choose will depend on what you’re willing to cut and what you want to focus on eating.

A look at the difference between Whole30 and keto diets and how to know if they're right for you // go eat your bread with joy
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Why You Might Try One

Anecdotally, we all know people do diets for lots of reasons. Search online and you’ll hear stories of reduced brain fog, clearer skin, less digestive bloating and increased weight loss when individuals take on short-term diets or eating plans. Across the board, a common testimonial, however, seems to describe the real reward: a mental shift. By reading labels and putting more intention into your eating habits, you may be able to adjust the way you keep eating long-term.

As writer Lindsey Lanquist wrote in SELF Magazine about Whole30: “It was a 30-day challenge that promised to change the way I think about food and fuel—how could I resist?”

Some of the benefits of trying either Whole30 or keto eating, in January or otherwise:

  • A clear program/goal for moving towards healthier choices
  • The potential for feeling better in the process
  • Lowering carb intake (which both diets do) has been shown in studies to decrease your appetite (resource), as well as improve cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure and insulin levels (resource)
  • Decreasing sugar/alcohol/carb dependence
  • A renewed, refreshed outlook on health

Hear from Dieters: What People Have Experienced on Whole30

  • “One of the most unexpected side effects of my first Whole30 was how lovely my skin looked after three weeks or so of no junk. In fact, my skin was almost…glowing,” says Kaitlin Bitz Candelaria of Fitness HQ.
  • “Overall, my biggest Whole30 lesson is that mindful eating is possible. I don’t have that urge to eat everything in sight, but I also know I don’t need to deprive myself or worry about food 24/7,” according to Julia Naftulin of Health.com.  
  • “[G]oing into Whole30, my main objective was to lose weight, but even though I lost more than 60 pounds (and that has been fantastic) … Whole30 has shown me that even though I’m a wife and mom of three, I can (and should) make my health a priority,” says Stephanie May at The Kitchn, in an article explaining how she’s already tackled the challenge seven times.

Hear from Dieters: What People Experienced Going Keto

  • “I won’t be staying with keto for the long term … [but] my month-long experiment helped me break my dependency on some of my biggest food crutches (sugar, pasta, crackers),” says Kimberly Holland at Eating Well.
  • “Towards the end of my 30 days, I realized I had felt the best I had in years. It’s hard to stop a diet that makes you feel so good. While restrictive and not for everyone, I came to the conclusion the ketogenic diet could be the perfect plan for the right person,” Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, R.D., manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, wrote for Today.

But Wait! Here Are a Few Reasons Why You Might Not Want to

Even despite all the online reviews and write-ups about the perks of short-term diets, it’s always good to treat this info with caution. According to research published by Harvard Medical School, for example, mega-boosting your fat intake in a ketogenic diet poses several risks, from nutrient deficiency to liver and kidney problems to constipation and mood swings.

Likewise, restrictive diets aren’t typically sustainable over time. “[E]ating a restrictive diet, no matter what the plan, is difficult to sustain,” says registered dietitian Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Once you resume a normal diet, the weight will likely return.”

One Nutrition Consultant’s Take

According to my husband, Tim, who’s worked as a nutrition consultant here in Nashville, currently for online workout video company TrainOD, for eight years, neither diet is ideal: “Personally, I do not do or recommend either; I prefer a long-term sustainable diet that includes all food groups but with minimally processed foods free of pesticides, artificial ingredients, etc. However, what I like about both is that they get individuals thinking about food and how food affects the body. Doing diets like these can often help people learn about what’s in their food and move towards higher quality options.”

In other words, if you’re looking for a clearly defined, approachable program that can jumpstart a move towards healthy eating, you might like a 30-day reset. Tim also adds, “If you add a practice such as intermittent fasting to your lifestyle, it can give you the benefit of ketosis without the difficulty of the ketogenic diet. Overall, I encourage individuals to look past the hype of diets to what has been consumed as food for thousands of years and learn about some of the changes, such as A1/A2 dairy, modern wheat versus ancient wheat, pesticides and synthetic vitamins—understanding these changes can provide long-term benefits that are not only very doable but enjoyable.”

Tips for Success If You Try One

Should you decide anyway that you want to try a one-month food reset, almost every Whole30 or keto enthusiast will say something similar about sticking with the program: If you’re going to drastically change your diet, don’t expect it to happen by accident. You have to plan ahead.

So, with that in mind, here are some common tips I found:

  • Get a buddy to do it with you; change is easier together.
  • Clean out your kitchen of everything you can’t eat: no emergency sugar stash on hand.
  • Meal plan each week.
  • Buy or prep approved food to have on the ready when you’re hungry.
  • Follow blogs and social media accounts relevant to your eating plan, and stay inspired all month.

For more inspiration on resetting your eating habits, type your diet into social media platforms and search engines, and get exploring! And if you’ve ever tested out a 30-day eating program, I’d love to hear your story: message me here.

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