Keto is well-known as the “low-carb diet” or even for being low-carb, high-fat. But what about protein? When we practically eliminate a whole macro (carbohydrates), protein and fat naturally fill its slot. How much is enough protein, and is there such a thing as too much?
While protein is a very important macro (and the one that satisfies hunger the best), protein consumption should be moderate on a ketogenic diet. You need to get enough for your body’s needs, but too much protein can actually reduce your level of ketosis. Fortunately, fiber and fat together are second-best at satiating hunger, so low-carb veggies topped or eaten with fat will also be very filling.
The Importance of Protein
The amino acids that your body derives from protein are important for many processes. They are essential building blocks for your entire body, and they are also used in the synthesis of hormones, enzymes and other chemicals in the body. Protein is used to build tissues like muscles, bone, skin, cartilage and even blood. It is also used to repair them.
With as important as protein is, you might think that a daily all-you-can-eat protein buffet would be awesome for ketoers and people in general. So why isn’t it?
Protein and Ketosis
When you eat a ketogenic diet, you starve the body of glucose to force it to switch fuels. Ketosis allows you to burn fat for energy and converts some of those fats into ketones. However, not all of your body can use fat and ketones; some tissues (such as the liver and a small portion of the brain) need to use glucose.
Since glucose is so vital for those tissues, your body has a back-up system. If you don’t eat carbohydrates and absorb glucose, your body can make some in a process called gluconeogenesis (GNG). It uses compounds from within the body to piece together new glucose, and one of those vitals pieces is protein.
Now, don’t worry, it’s not going to use your muscles for that unless you are literally starving for an extended period of time. And even then, that won’t happen until it has scavenged all the damaged, old and excess proteins that are tucked away in cells and tissues all over your body. But when you are eating, dietary protein will be used for gluconeogenesis.
The rate of gluconeogenesis remains pretty constant even in the presence of excessive protein levels, so GNG isn’t actually the problem (though many say it is). However, eating a large amount of protein provides a large amount of glucagon, which releases glucose from the liver into the blood. That triggers an insulin response, and the presence of insulin will temporarily suppress ketone-body production.
While that won’t give you enough glucose in your system to stop ketosis completely, it can derail it. That is especially true if you constantly have meals that are very high in protein. You can still be in mild ketosis, but you won’t be getting the full benefits.
How Much Protein is Optimal?
Now that you understand how too much protein can negatively affect ketosis, you are probably wondering what the right amount of protein is. This varies for each individual. Your current weight and activity levels have the greatest impact on that number.
Those who are sedentary will have a lower protein need, and those who lift weights regularly will need more for muscle repair and building. Those who are heavier will usually need more than those who are slim. The ideal range is about 0.7 to 1.2 grams per pound of lean (not total) body weight, depending largely on exercise. That’s about 1.5 to 2.6 grams per kilogram of lean mass.
Calculate Your Macros
The first step to optimal protein consumption is to use a keto macro calculator to get your macros. You will input your weight, exercise level, age and a few other things. Age is an important factor because it causes our protein needs to change.
For best results, track your food intake to make sure you are staying within your macros. After a few weeks, you will have a good understanding of what your meal composition should look like. It is a good idea to recalculate your macros periodically as you lose weight. Your food needs will go down and, if you don’t adjust, your results will suffer.
You can also use something like this protein calculator to give you another estimate on your protein needs.
Monitor Ketone Levels
If you are uncertain whether you accurately assessed your activity level, checking your ketone levels can be a good way to verify proper ketosis levels. It is also useful because there is some variation between individuals. Your carb intake will affect your test results too, so make sure to restrict them carefully.
Regular testing intervals will help you stay on track and not deceive yourself about how you are doing. It will also signal you if your carb consumption creeps up. There are three ways to test ketones. You’ll have to decide what will work best for you: urine, breath or blood testing.
Best Proteins for Keto
The quality of the protein you eat is as important as the amount. Since plenty of fat is healthy and necessary on keto, you don’t need to steer clear of fatty cuts of meat. That’s one of the best things about keto – you get to enjoy all the great flavor that fat brings to the table!
Examples of meat you can eat include:
- Lamb or goat
- Fish (salmon, mackerel and sardines are great choices)
- Offal (organ meats – very nutritionally dense)
Ideally, you’ll get pastured, grass-fed or wild meat, as the fats are healthier than those of animals raised on grain. They also have higher concentrations of certain micronutrients. When buying fish, make sure the specific type isn’t known for heavy mercury contamination and go for wild instead of farmed. Sustainably caught is an even better choice if you can manage it.
Be careful with processed meats; they can be high in added sugar and starch. Check the labels of things like bacon, ham, sausages and deli meats as they are the most likely to contain hidden carbs. The first three are usually fine as long as they have very little sugar used in their curing or seasoning.
With the knowledge of how much protein to eat and your personalized macros, you have all you need for success. Weight loss is easy when you use protein, fiber and fat appropriately to keep hunger away. For great results, remember to keep it low carb, moderate protein and high fat, and you’ll slay your goals.