Whole 30 vs. Keto vs. Paleo: What to Actually Eat That Works for Your Body

I find myself perusing the library health section whenever I get a chance. Picking up a few new recipes, ideas, and reading up on trends. Call it continuing education, I suppose. The study of nutrition is a relatively new field, and even with years of training and education there are always new studies, research, and of course trends, to keep an eye out for.

I found myself in the cookbook section, running my fingers over the “vegan desserts” books and stopped. Rows and rows of diet books began to unfold in front of my eyes. Keto, paleo, vegan, Atkins, vegetarian, Whole30 - the options were endless. How is one supposed to choose?

I’ve rounded up the three most popular trending diets right now (according to a poll of my Instagram and Facebook followers, and my current and past clients) and am breaking each one down for you so you can discover how to eat what works best for your body.

The Ketogenic Diet

The Ketogenic Diet, or Keto, was originally used to treat patients with epilepsy and seizures, and likely gained popularity due to the low-carb craze. So what exactly is it? What do you eat? What don’t you eat?

The Keto diet looks at the ratio between fat, protein, and fiber. Basically, you’re looking for about 70% of your calories to come from fat, 20% from protein, and 5% from carbohydrates. To put that in perspective, the average American diet consists of 300g of carbohydrates a day. That’s like swapping those carbs for fat. A huge difference.

Why? The goal is for your body to reach a state of ketosis. Ketosis is when your body doesn’t have enough carbs to use for energy, so it begins to use ketones (byproducts of fat) instead.

Keto can help with short-term weight loss, mood, and physical performance.

What do you eat? Lots of high fat foods like red meat, eggs, dairy products, avocados, nuts, and oils. What don’t you eat? Pasta, rice, oats, beans, root vegetables, and you’ll be eating very little greens and higher carb veggies.

The Keto diet hasn’t been studied enough long-term to know its effects. That means that if you use it for short-term weight loss (under the advisement of a health professional), it could be useful for you. But in the long term, there’s just not enough evidence to support continued use. You should also know that the human brain needs glucose to function (the major component of those carbohydrates that you’re not eating).

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The Paleo Diet

The Paleo Diet essentially answers the question, “What would a caveman eat?” Basically, anything a person would have been able to hunt and/or gather. The breakdown for a Paleo diet is about 30% of calories from protein, 35% from fats, and 35% from carbohydrates. According to research from Emory, that’s the general breakdown of a caveman’s diet.

What can you eat? Foods on the menu are pretty straightforward: fresh fruits and veggies, fresh meats, nuts, seeds. All of these need to be organic, grass-fed, and free of pesticides because, of course, cavemen didn’t have such technology. Off-limits foods are anything that comes in a jar or a box, dairy, legumes, and grains, as well as alcohol.

Simple, clear-cut and to the point. The Paleo diet may lead to weight loss because of the lack of options, cleaner foods, and the good source of iron coming from what you would eat can help with inflammation.

A quick Google search will show you thousands of results for “paleo cookies” which seems to contradict the whole premise, right? This particular diet sounds simple at first, but has been distorted to fit our modern society and eating habits.

A true paleo diet is healthy on a biological level, but doesn’t take into account modern lifestyle and current nutrition research.

Many of the “banned” foods in a paleo diet are incredibly healthy (legumes, eggs, quinoa, oats), however this diet can be expensive to follow given its limited food options.

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You’ve surely heard of Whole30. Your Facebook feed is full of friends and family giving it a try. #Whole30approved has over 350,000 posts on Instagram alone. Whole30 isn’t a long-term diet. Or at least it’s not designed that way. Whole30 is a 30-day program to determine which foods or food groups are causing inconsistencies and intolerances in your body.

By following Whole30, you can find out if you’re lactose intolerant, or if you have an intolerance to nightshades.

You can discover a gluten allergy you never knew existed. It can serve as a powerful tool for figuring out how your body thrives.

What can’t you eat? Whole30 is confusing and complicated and comes with a lot of rules, and zero tolerance for breaking those rules. Sugar (including honey and maple syrup), alcohol, grains, legumes, dairy, MSG, sulfites, baked goods, treats, or snacks are all on the “off-limits” list. You eat a lot of meat, fruits, and veggies, but that’s pretty much it.

So which route do you take? What’s the “best diet” around?

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While diets may be wonderful biologically - lose weight, more energy, no more yucky feelings after eating cheese - most fail to take into consideration the other aspects of health. Because health doesn’t happen in a biological vacuum.

True health encompasses the biological, the psychological, the social, and the spiritual.

This is called the Biopsychosocial Model. If you’re eating all the “healthiest” foods and eschewing things that are on the “don’t even think about touching” list, you’re rocking the “bio” part. But what about the rest? Is your restrictive diet causing you stress? Yes. Is your restrictive diet limiting your social interactions? Yes. Is your restrictive diet allowing you to connect with yourself on a spiritual level? Or, as I like to put it, are you doing honoring yourself? No.

So if diets like these are too restrictive to be healthy on the biopsychosocial level, how should we be eating? Most nutrition experts agree that the healthiest diet is the Mediterranean Diet. It begins with activity and social connections, then adds on whole grains, fruits, veggies, beans, herbs, spices, and healthy fats. Fish and seafood are recommended a few times a week, and dairy, like cheese, are enjoyed frequently and in moderate portions. Red meats and sweets are rarely eaten, you’re drinking plenty of water, and some wine. Simple, right?

Food doesn’t have to be complicated. It can, and should be enjoyable, delicious, stress and guilt free.

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If the Mediterranean Diet doesn’t sound like it’s for you, that’s totally fine. Try something else. Michael Pollan said it best when he told us to, “Eat food. Mostly plants.” Stick to whole foods, mostly plants, and focus on what you CAN have instead of what you CAN’T.

The best diet is the one that serves your body and makes you feel your best.

Not what the latest blogger is doing or what your friends keep posting on Facebook. If Paleo works for you and you love it - go for it! But don’t do it because it’s trendy and you think you “should”. Today’s diet and wellness craze is at an all-time high. And that’s both good and bad. It can be an incredible tool for health change, but it can also bring a lot of stress and shame and fear. So listen to your inner voice, your body, and consider working with a health expert who can help you feel amazing in your body.


Brianna Towne

Bri is a nutritionist and exercise therapist helping mamas and mamas-to-be repair their relationships with food, get clear on the healthiest path to nurturing their unique bodies, and eating and exercising without fear, shame, or deprivation. She is the developer of the MIND + BODY + FOOD method which combines her expertise in health psychology, yoga, personal training, and nutrition to create a truly holistic picture of health. Bri lives in Los Angeles with her husband and four children.