The ketogenic or “keto” diet has become one of the more popular diets for those looking to change their bodies by losing fat, adding muscle or improving overall health. Its premise is allowing the body to use fat for fuel, which is then converted into ketones, as a primary fuel source. However, if you’re following the keto diet or plan to start soon, it’s critical to understand how much protein you should consume so that you can keep your body in a truly ketogenic state.
This article will provide more details about some of keto's health benefits, why protein matters so much on the ketogenic diet, and how to talk about keto with a dietary or medical professional.
Broadly speaking, when you are looking to use the keto low-carb diet to build muscle mass or drop fat, you want to shoot for between 10% and 20% of your calories to come from protein sources, ideally whole foods or quality supplements.
In the most simple terms, the ketogenic diet is a very low carbohydrate, high fat, and moderate protein diet. The ketogenic diet centers on the idea of reaching a metabolic state called “ketosis”, where the body is said to increase its efficiency at burning fat for energy. This is achieved through extreme low-carb restriction of the ketogenic diet, which is similar to that of the Atkins diet, though the two diets differ in their approach to fat intake.
The ketogenic diet has been linked to benefits ranging from weight loss, reduced blood sugar levels, heart disease risk prevention, to diabetes management. In the 1800’s, the ketogenic diet was used to manage diabetes, and in 1920 it was used in children with epilepsy who were not responding to medications. Modern research indicates that the keto diet can help improve athletic performance by making our bodies use stored energy more efficiently.
It should be noted, however, that there are some downsides and negative side effects of the keto diet. If you restrict carbs for a long time, you will most likely be left feeling tired, lethargic, and craving whole grains and other carbohydrate foods. Carbohydrate-rich foods also have essential nutrients that you may not get from other foods, such as fiber and certain kinds of vitamins and minerals.
The ketogenic diet is also high in fat (usually saturated fat). A high fat diet can lead to other health consequences down the line, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, etc. People who are at higher risk of cardiovascular disease or have a family history of heart disease or similar conditions may want to avoid keto or other low-carb diets. Conversely, those with type 2 diabetes and other blood sugar issues may actually benefit from an extremely low carbohydrate intake. Because of the high fat and carb restriction, the ketogenic diet is difficult to adhere to for an extended period of time.
Finally, some people experience the "keto flu" as their body adjusts to extremely low levels of carbohydrates. This usually involves headaches, fatigue and nausea but is typically short-term.
Keto is not a high protein diet. Tracking your protein is especially important on a ketogenic diet because maintaining the state of ketosis depends on depriving the body of a specific kind of nutrient – carbohydrates. Since carbs are so important to human functioning, this requires sufficient levels of fats and protein to offset the energy imbalance.
A good breakdown of macronutrient intake for those on a keto diet would look something like:
70-80% of daily calories from fats, ideally healthy sources like nuts and avocado. Fats are especially good for keeping you feeling full throughout the day.
5-10% of daily calories from carbs. Starchy vegetables like corn or squash are a great option for helping you fill the few grams of carbs you are typically allowed to consume each day while on the keto diet. These veggies also help with satiety.
10-20% of daily calories from proteins. Make sure to hit your daily protein goals using an array of quality foods (see next section) so that you don’t lose muscle or strength.
Unlike many diets that encourage a more drastic increase in protein consumption, the keto diet limits protein intake to a moderate amount, as too much protein is thought to prevent ketosis by causing a condition called gluconeogenesis. However, unless you’re consistently overshooting your daily protein goal by a large amount, it’s unlikely for this to interfere with your body’s keto state, since protein has a lesser impact on blood sugar levels than carbohydrates.
We’ve addressed what keto is, how to eat on the keto diet, and why it’s so important to manage your protein levels. Below are some ideas for healthy protein sources on keto:
Lean meats and fatty fish including chicken, salmon, mackerel, turkey and others. These foods provide a great base and can be prepared in many different ways depending on your preferences.
Red meats like prime cuts of steak and grass-fed beef, which is believed to be healthier for your heart and cardiovascular system.
Greek yogurt is a great way to incorporate dessert-type dishes into your diet. Naturally high in protein, greek yogurt is also easy to mix with other keto-friendly foods like nuts and fruits to give you a healthy treat after a meal or tough workout.
Protein powder can be a great way to give your body the protein it needs on keto. Protein powder blends that are low in carbohydrates (1-2 grams), and contain 20-30 grams of protein are best for those on keto. If you want to add more healthy fats to your protein powder, you can use an oil or milk derived from nuts like almonds or walnuts.
Gainful offers a special blend of protein powder designed for those following a keto diet. It’s made with less than 1 gram of carbohydrates, MCT oil and collagen – the latter is an important component of bone and skin health.
Looking to consult with an RD about your protein intake while on the keto diet? Here are a few guidelines:
Talk about your lifestyle. Do you have a long daily commute or take frequent trips out of town? Maybe you have obligations at home – everyone has certain restrictions that influence their ability to meet their nutrition goals.
Choose foods you like. Meeting your fitness goals will almost always involve some form of sacrifice, but your keto diet shouldn’t require ironclad discipline every day – keto is challenging enough to maintain on its own, so give yourself some breathing room in your meal plan.
Schedule accordingly. While keto can be an efficient way to shed some body fat or help you improve performance in an athletic event, most people should not be in keto long term. Talking to your registered dietitian about keto should also involve a plan for how long you’ll be on the diet and how you will transition back to regular eating.
Everyone’s body and goals are different – Gainful was founded on this premise. While the keto diet can be a tool you use to adjust your body composition, remember that you’ll need to be particularly stringent on monitoring your macros on it – especially your carb intake. The only way to know for sure the exact amount of protein you should eat each day is to get help from a registered dietitian or medical expert and engage in trial and error with your diet plan until you find a keto and protein combination that helps you get to the next level in your fitness and health journey.