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What’s The Difference Between “Keto” and Whole 30?

September 4, 2016

Breakfast bowl! Cabbage, pork, salsa, avocado and egg. Keto & Whole 30 compliant.

It’s that time of year again. That time, which comes 3 times a year for us at Rocket CrossFit, when dozens of us will band together for a Nutritional Challenge. We used to always do a Whole 30 Challenge, but for the last year, we’ve had several members – Brady and I included – do a Low-Carb, High-Fat plan instead, which is commonly called “keto.” In fact, since doing my first keto challenge 9 months ago, I’ve not gone back. I take vacations off, but other than that, I’ve felt so good, and found it so easy, that I’ve not stopped.

But, what is the difference between Whole 30 (and “paleo”) and a ketogenic diet?

Carbs. Carbs are the difference. Which translates also into: Sugar. Sugar is the difference.

So, as we start this next Rocket Nutritional Challenge, let’s first lay out a few ground rules, and also explore the difference between Whole 30 and Keto, so that you can make an informed decision about what feels best for you, at this moment in time, for your body. (And, not to complicate things, but you can do both. That’s how I did my first round of keto.)

I will never advocate a strict plan of either nutrition or exercise unless you know why you are doing it and it is good for you both physically and emotionally. I will ask “why” until we get to the kernel.

Are you doing it to lose weight? Why do you want to lose weight? If it is because someone called you fat, or you don’t fit into society’s little plan for us, or you think that being thinner will make you happier, I’ll ask “why” again. Why do you believe that? Is it based on facts and opinions of someone who has both knowledge and the right to tell you what to do with your body? (Hint, you’re the only person who has that right.) Are you doing it because you are trapped in a cycle of gain and lose that you’ve been in all your life? Why? What’s going to be different this time? I’m not saying weight loss is an inherently bad goal, but I am saying that it works best when you are doing it for YOU, because YOU want to. And I am definitely saying that weight loss goals rooted in arbitrary numbers created by the advertising industry are a bad goal. Even if you do lose weight, there is no way to know if you can hit that number, or size, that’s in your head. So let’s be clear about that from the outset. “Lose some fat and see if I feel different” is a way healthier goal than “weigh 120 and be a size 6.”

Define what you actually want. More energy? More mental clarity? To feel less controlled by food by breaking some habitual patterns? More endurance for whatever it is you enjoy doing? Write down those goals so that you can tell if it’s making a difference. Make nutrition a PART of achieving life goals. Don’t make it the goal itself. Your nutrition is a tool, not a badge of honor, not a personal branding point, not a way to punish or reward yourself. It’s a tool to feel what you want to feel and do what you want to do.

Nutrition makes a giant difference. If I had to pick only 1 thing for you to do, it would be that. Eat in a way that is nourishing for your body and you’re a million steps ahead in the game of life. This recent article about a High-Fat Low-Carb plan from the New York Times does a great job of illustrating how powerful nutrition can be even without adding exercise.

However, there is more to it than that. When we do our Nutritional Challenges at Rocket, we heavily weight for nutrition. We score with a potential for 10 points a day:

  • 5 for eating perfectly according to your plan
  • 1 for getting at least 7 hours of sleep
  • 1 for drinking enough water (we do ½ your body weight in ounces of water.)
  • 1 for working out (not always vigorously)
  • 1 for mobility / stretching
  • 1 for reporting back to the group how you did that day. (Accountability and support are huge for us.)

We’re looking to help create balance, not give you something else to fixate on. And no, most people don’t have 10 point days. Real life is what it is, but it’s worth paying attention to how you provide restorative time for yourself, and what stops that from happening. Often, people will make other changes in their lives in order to get all that sleep, for instance. (I miss watching TV in bed at night, but it had to go in order for my husband to get the sleep.) Imperfection is fine. It’s reality. Awareness, however, is GOLD. This structure provides that.

We do these for 30 days. Then what? Even before you start, once you have a clear idea of why you’re doing it, you need to be prepared for what happens afterwards. Assuming that you feel better – by the metrics we laid out about FEELING rather than LOOKING – what are you going to do at the end of 30 days. Do you want to keep feeling better? Or are you all like, “meh, 30 days of feeling good is good enough.” Maybe it’s a good time to set some longer-range goals for yourself. Goals that will keep you focused on feeling good as a result of nutrition and exercise.

Again, carbs. Carbs are the difference. Because I like equations, here’s what I use:

Whole 30 + dairy – fruit = Keto

…. I also like…

Above Ground Veggies > Fat > Nuts > Meat = Keto

It’s an over simplification, but it works. My problem with the Whole 30 is that it still has tons of carbs, which is tons of sugar. For me, that’s why I couldn’t sustain it. I never kicked my sugar habit. Sure, I ate Larabars instead of traditional candy bars, and potatoes instead of bread. But even though I felt all high and mighty for doing it, my body didn’t feel a difference. Like, at all.

And it’s no wonder, since your body pretty much uses all sugar in the same way. It does so at varying rates and in moderately different ways, but really sugar is sugar.

Also, where the Whole 30 is based on ideas, keto is based on science. (I’m sure I’ll get backlash for that one.)

The idea of a ketogenic diet is to teach your body to use ketones for fuel (fat, for all intents and purposes) rather than sugar (carbs, to keep it simple.) Carbs are WAY easier to access, and way quicker to burn through. Given the choice, your body will totally go for that. Because your body has probably been primarily fueled by carbs for most of your life, you have to force it to transition, by denying it carbs as much as you can. It will figure it out. I did 20g of carbs or less a day, and it took almost a month for my body to sort itself out. (Which is why I really want people thinking about what they will do after 30 days.) When your body is burning ketones (fat) as its primary fuel source, that is called ketosis. And you can feel it when it kicks over. (And yes, a single cheat in the early stages sends you back to square one, talk about accountability.)

If you’ve never done either, then a Whole 30 will feel like a huge change as you cut out grains and legumes. And it is a great place for many people to start, because that will make a huge difference. You’d be cutting those out with either plan. If this is your first rodeo, really, either one is a great place to start, as they have more in common than not. But if you’ve done several Whole 30 and are still bouncing around, I’d give keto a try.

The Whole 30 and Keto seem to differ in 2 main places: Sugar and Dairy

Where the Whole 30 is adamant about not having anything with an artificial sweetener in it, they can only tell you that it’s because it’s trying to reprogram your relationship with sweet things. (Something I am 100% in favor of, by the way.) But with keto, it’s clear that sugar a is carb to which you will have a hormonal response which will in turn kick your body out of ketosis, putting you, metabolically speaking, back at square one. So, if you “must” have something sweet (an idea I will forever be working on with folks) then will a piece of keto cheesecake hurt you? Nope. Made with wholesome high fats and a good no-carb sweetener, we’d call it a ‘fat bomb” and it’s just fine.

In Whole 30, that would be called Sex With Your Pants On. (As if any kind of consensual sex is bad. Puleeeeze, come grind that…. Wait, I’m digressing.)

However, Whole 30 is fine with fruit and larabars and potatoes and…..  Which is really still sugar. And is where many people derail. I kid you not, when I first started doing these things, I would by Larabars by the case.

DON’T DO IT. If you’re going to do a Whole 30, really try to limit your relationship with sugar.

And then there’s dairy. For many people, dairy just isn’t great for them and they have a lifetime of knowing that. For many of us, however, we have a lifetime of knowing that our bodies are fine with dairy. I’m one of those people. So being able to have high-fat dairy (heavy cream) and cheeses makes it much easier for me.

The fuzzier difference to me is just the relative ease of the two. Whole 30 is massively restrictive on everything. No soy sauce, no sweetener in anything, no booze ever… Whereas with keto, it’s just, “am I under 20 or 30 carbs?” So I don’t have to read every label, I can go out to eat more easily, I can go to a cocktail party and eat cheese and drink champagne. (Okay, I can’t remember the last cocktail party I went to, but I love the idea of cute dresses and finger food.)

I still love the Whole 30. It was life changing for me, and I’ve seen it change the lives of others. But for me, a ketogenic diet feels much better in my body. And in my mind, it makes more sense. I understand what it is doing on a metabolic and molecular level, and it’s not punishing you for wanting a drink, or a cookie or some sugar-free ice-cream now and then.

Which brings me to the last thing that I’m always telling people. You have to live your life. You do not want to be that person who stares, sullen, at a homemade cobbler at someone’s birthday brunch and says “it’s my favorite thing in the world, but I can’t have it.” Yes, you fucking well can have it. If the point of your general nutrition plan is to keep you fit so that you can suck all the joy out of life that you can reach, then have the fucking cobbler. I mean, not during the 30-day challenge, but after that.

Say What????

While you are doing the 30 Day Challenge, show yourself that you are, in fact, strong enough to do anything you set your mind to. I’m not joking. It’s 30 days, you can go without cobbler for 30 days and I promise that doing so will empower you more than you think. We all have tons of myths in our head about what we can and can’t do. These nutritional ones are easy to bust. You can go 30 days and stick to your word.

When you’re “done,” or think you are, here’s what I challenge you to do: Stick with it as a lifestyle, but learn when and how to make exceptions. For me, vacation is always an exception. Summer cherries were an exception (though I only had 11 at a time, at the end of each day, with heavy cream, which was amazing. And far better than the 2 pounds at a time that I used to eat in a single sitting.)

Do not think about denying yourself cobbler forever. What kind of life would that be? A shitty one, that’s what kind. But do start teaching yourself that you are in control of what goes in your body. You can decide. (You can even decide to have sex with your pants on, if you want to.)

And you can do it for you. Because no matter what you look like, no matter what size you are or what some random stranger thinks about the shape of your body, feeling good is its own reward.

Yes, I mean physically good. But more than that, I mean emotionally good. Like you are in charge, and you are living this life on your own terms. And that you are empowered in your body at every level.

You are allowed to feel good, just because you want to.

And life is juicy delicious when you do.
* Just to be clear, any dietary change can have other repercussions. If you’re concerned about it, talk to a doctor. I’m not a doctor. Also, keto can be dangerous for people with diabetes (though, for that matter, so can anything that involves a lot of sugar.) But no, ketosis and ketoacidosis are NOT the same thing.

Whole 30:
Good basic info about keto:…
The induction phase:…
The Keto Diet Blog:… (Ignore the blonde bimboey look of this one, there’s some good info here, for reals.)


7 Comments leave one →
  1. SnipRoad permalink
    September 4, 2016 11:35 pm


  2. Jan Welch permalink
    August 8, 2017 5:29 am

    What a fabulous article. So well written and easy to understand. Thank you for explaining the difference between Whole 30 & Keto in a simple to understand way.

  3. Ashley permalink
    August 10, 2017 6:50 am

    I thought this was a great, informative article. I’ve successfully completed 3 rounds of Whole 30 but have been thinking about trying Keto + high quality dairy. When you have these challenges do you encourage members to track macros or just follow the formula of Whole 30+dairy – fruit? I really love that formula!

  4. Julia permalink
    December 29, 2017 10:32 pm

    Great piece! I’ve been struggling in weather to do another whole 30 round it try keto, then I wondered if I could do both. This is a great perspective and has helped me decide to try a whole30 keto for 30 days. Thanks!

  5. Lynn permalink
    January 2, 2018 10:51 am

    There is one more difference–Whole 30 is meant to be followed for 30 days. In that time you are restricting yourself from eating things that could potentially cause problems. After the 30 days, you introduce, one at a time, those things to see how your body reacts.

    If you want to do Whole 30 all the time, that’s fine, but that isn’t the intention as I understand it.

  6. Jim permalink
    May 21, 2018 8:27 am

    This is great, thanks.

  7. Laura permalink
    July 28, 2018 6:17 pm

    I have been doing keto for almost a year and loved it, until I developed Keto Rash. It is miserable and the only way to get rid of it is eating more carbs. I am thinking of doing WholeFood 30 instead and go back to keto. How do you feel about going back and forth (in and out of ketosis) like this?

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