Protein is an oddly controversial macronutrient. It is an essential building block for muscle development, helping to promote health and good body composition. Protein also makes us feel full, which helps you lose weight.
Yet, many people feel that too much protein is dangerous (it isn’t!).
For anyone on a keto diet, protein is more complicated still. Too much protein will kick you out of ketosis. Yet, too little protein on keto isn’t good either.
So, what’s the balance?
I’m going to show you why protein matters and how much you should be having. After all, you want the best possible outcomes. Right?
Why Protein Matters
Protein is an essential macronutrient, so you need it to survive.
For one thing – protein helps in muscle building. That’s important for maintaining a healthy body composition, which then promotes health. Regardless of your weight, you need lean muscle and protein is a key aspect of that process (1,2,3).
Protein is also important for health, offering various benefits. Many protein-rich foods are nutrient dense as well. So, if you have too little protein, you might miss out on other key nutrients too.
If you’re losing weight, getting enough protein is critical. If your intake is too low, you’ll start to lose lean body mass rather than fat (4). That’s not what you want to do.
Protein makes sure that you lose fat, not muscle.
How Protein Helps Weight Loss
After all, feeling hungry is frustrating – and it’s a key reason why people fail diets.
Protein also helps in other ways. For example, high-protein meals can lower cravings and help people to snack less (8). Likewise, protein increases energy used. This effect isn’t dramatic but any benefit helps.
The muscle-building aspect of protein is also important. Having more muscle mass can make weight loss easier and promote calorie burning.
The Problems of Excessive Protein
In a general sense, high protein intake isn’t a bad thing (despite the myths). High protein diets can even be a good health and weight loss tool.
But, not if you’re following ketosis. Instead, a keto diet is considered a moderate protein diet.
The reason is gluconeogenesis.
This refers to how the body creates the carbs that it needs for survival. After all, carbs like glucose and glycogen are essential for the body. You don’t need to eat them – but the body still needs to produce them.
But, if you eat too much protein, the level of glycogenesis increases. Instead of using ketones for fuel, your body starts to use protein instead. This has two effects.
Both outcomes are extremely unappealing.
Clearly, too much protein is bad for ketosis, but insufficient protein will make weight loss harder. So, you have to find a balance.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
The amount of protein you need is influenced by your age, body weight and activity level. So, physically active people will need more. If you don’t move around much, you might need less.
To roughly calculate protein intake, you need to look at your lean body mass.
The site KetoDiet App offers detailed information about how to make this calculation.
You can also use visual guides to estimate your body fat percentage. The site BuiltLean has a powerful set of images and descriptions that you can rely on. For many people, visual guides like that will be enough – as your protein calculation doesn’t have to be precise.
Your lean mass is simply your total weight minus body fat. That’s easily calculated once you know your body fat percentage. From there, you can calculate your ideal protein intake.
You can also turn to the KetoDiet Buddy, which is a calculator that offers details about the ideal keto macros for weight loss.
Most keto macro calculators will offer similar information. While these don’t take everything into account, they’re a good way to learn the basics. You can refine from there.
Pay Attention to Your Body
The calculations above are a rough estimate and a good place to get started. But, they don’t tell the full story. Instead, you may want to increase your protein intake on ketosis, which is possible.
Plus, people respond differently. As such, you might need to tweak your macros to ensure you remain in ketosis and are losing weight.
And, as the authors from Paleo Leap point out, your eating won’t always remain the same. Instead, you’ll need to make adjustments as you go and your needs may change as well.
So, keep an eye on how your body responds. Figure out what makes you feel good and what keeps you in ketosis. Doing this is critical for long-term success.
How Much Is Too Much?
The earlier estimates are a good general guide. But, they’re not going to help everyone.
Some of us love our red meat and high protein foods. Which begs the question, how much protein can you actually eat?
Bjarte Bakke on Diet Doctor did an interesting experiment on this question recently.
His starting macros were: 60 g protein and 10-20 g carbs per day, with the remaining energy coming from snacks.
He then started to increase his protein intake, monitoring his blood ketones along the way. This ended up with between 80 g and 100 g of protein each day.
And, he stayed in ketosis!
You can read the entire post here if you want more details.
This suggests that your protein intake can be much higher than is normally suggested - without dropping you out of ketosis.
But, the same results won’t apply for everyone. For example, people with high blood sugar levels may not see the same outcomes. The same is true if you’re overweight or if you have a medical condition.
What Is Your Upper Protein Limit?
So then, what can you do?
One step is just to exercise more. Being active increases the amount of protein you need. That lets you get more protein without having to stress.
But, you can also test to see what protein intake works for you.
To do this, you have to monitor your ketone levels. A blood-ketone meter is most accurate for doing this – and tracking your ketone levels is useful anyway.
The first step is to simply get into ketosis normally. If you’re new, you can follow the guide at KetoDiet App. You can also check out my ketosis resource page for additional guidance and links to many powerful resources.
If your blood-ketone levels measure 1.5 mmol/L or above, you’re in ketosis. You then need to stay there for a while (at least a week), following your macros. You can then slowly increase your protein intake and see how your body responds.
Over time, you’ll find an upper limit for protein intake on ketosis.
You don’t have to stick to that upper limit, of course. For that matter, you can stop the experiment once you are happy with the way that you eat.
Most keto dieters stick to the moderate protein concept, often following recommended protein intakes. So, it’s not clear what your protein needs to be in the long-term.
The writer from Diet Doctor thinks that he will stay in ketosis at these ketone levels, even months or years later. But, until he updates the post – we don’t know if that’s the case.
And, there are relatively few others who follow this idea.
This means that if you go above the typical protein intakes, you should monitor your ketone levels. You don’t need to do so daily, just once a week or so.
Eating More Protein on Keto
One of the best ways to increase protein intake on keto is through red meat. This is naturally low in carbs and is a powerful source of nutrients. If possible, it’s worth choosing grass-fed meat. This is a healthier option and has a better macronutrient balance.
But, you’re not just limited to meat. There are also other low-carb sources of protein, including some of the following:
Many other ingredients offer some protein as well, including various low-carb vegetables. The site Ruled.me also has a detailed Ketogenic Diet Food List. This highlights many options, along with the carbs they contain.
You can turn to high protein keto recipes as well. These tend to have a good macronutrient balance, which takes the guesswork out of your eating. Some examples are the recipes below:
Protein Powders on Keto
For some people, protein powders can work well. These offer a fast and easy way to get protein into your diet – without having to cook anything. And, there are many low-carb protein powders that you can use.
Most of these are whey but you can turn to egg white protein if you’re sensitive to dairy.
Such products are especially relevant for anyone with high protein needs, like if you’re physically active or elderly.
You don’t just have to rely on protein shakes either. Many people also use protein powders in keto recipes, like in the following examples:
Protein-focused recipes like these are perfect for keeping you satisfied. This makes it easier to stick to your keto lifestyle.
You can also put protein powder in coffee, if you want to.
At the end of the day, protein intake is flexible. Most people can significantly increase their protein, without pushing themselves out of ketosis. For that matter, you’re more likely to eat too little protein, rather than too much.
This means that even the most passionate meat lover can successfully follow keto.
Most importantly, you need to pay attention.
This includes learning how much protein works for you, along with the best food choices for your macros. Once you have this information, you can optimize your health and weight loss.
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