How much protein on keto? This sounds like such an innocent question. But it’s not as straightforward as it seems.
If, like me, you have known about and applied the keto diet for some time, it’s principles may seem like common sense. You may have forgotten how radically different it is from the diet recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (USDA CNPP).
This article is the third in our series on the ketogenic diet, so I am not going to repeat the information given elsewhere, but you may want to read the previous articles to get a better understanding about ketosis and about carbohydrates (specifically vegetables).
In this article I’m going to do a bit of a comparison of the underlying philosophies of the USDA vs the Keto diets, and then talk about what the recommendations are for protein intake.
USDA Dietary Guidelines
The US Department of Agriculture released the Food Guide Pyramid in 1992, and replaced it by MyPyramid in 2005, followed by the MyPlate version in 2011. The pictures are different, but there has not been much change in the fundamental thinking. This pyramid suggests that the largest portion of our diets should be from bread/cereal/rice and pasta group of foods, and that fats and oils should be used sparingly.
The focus of this diet is on the 5 food groups and on the calories in each. Fats and sugars are described as "empty calories" – ie having little nutritional value, and likely to lead to weight gain. Weight management is seen to be related to calorie-intake management.
In fact one of the recommendations from the USDA CNPP is to aim for an eating pattern that is low in energy density (ED). ED is the amount of energy per weight of food – kilojoules per gram or kilocalories per gram. So food that is high in water and /or fiber has low ED, while food that is high in fat is high ED.
The MyPlate version from 2011 provides a visual of more or less the proportions of the food groups you should be eating every day.
Notable here is that fats have been left out altogether, and it is recommended that both the protein and the dairy foods should be low-fat.
So, according to USDA guidelines, about half of your diet should be fruits and vegetables. Fats are bad for you, grains are good for you. Protein, including dairy, should be about a quarter of your intake, provided it is low-fat.
Keto Diet Guidelines
The keto diet pyramid is very different. Grains are placed in the items to be avoided. Fats and oils are moved from the items to be used sparingly to being a major base. You should be eating fatty meat and fish. Vegetables should be non-starchy and low in carbs.
The big difference is that foods here are seen in terms of macronutrients – protein, fat and carbohydrates. The key to weight (and health) management is seen in limiting the number of carbohydrates that you eat. Fats are seen as nutrient dense (not "empty calories" as in the USDA diet).
Keto diets are usually high-fat, although there are some low-fat versions. Provided carbohydrates are limited (generally to below 100 carbs per day), you will get into ketosis.
Generally though, you will need more proteins per day on keto diets with low fat (less than 30g per day). It will be necessary to have extra protein snacks between meals to maintain metabolism and to prevent hunger.
A high-fat keto diet suggests that up to 70% of your daily intake should be in "good fats" (including foods such as butter, coconut oil, avocado, and the fat on meats). The rationale is that these foods are "nutrient dense", providing the fat that is required for all the cells in the body, as well as ensuring that you are not hungry. In fact, the high-fat version often goes together with recommendations for intermittent fasting.
Answering the Question, "How Much Protein on Keto?"
Protein is an important building block for life. It provides the amino acids required for every cell in our bodies. It is important for repair and renewal of cells, the production of hormones and enzymes, and building of bones, muscles, skin, cartilage and blood.
A common misconception about ketogenic diets is that they are high-protein. Often, when people try to work out how much protein they can eat or should eat on a keto diet, they actually eat too much protein.
A true keto diet has a moderate amount of protein.
- One recommendation is that protein per day should be between 15% and 30% of your total intake.
- How much protein you should have depends on your bodyweight (preferably your lean weight), height, physical activity and calorie needs. The calorie needs depend on whether you want to lose weight, gain weight or maintain weight. A rule of thumb is a range of 1.5 to 2.0 grams protein per kilogram of bodyweight (or 0.7 to 0.9 grams per pound of bodyweight). So, if you weigh 65kg, you would need between 100g and 130g protein per day.
- How much protein in one meal depends on you, but try to have protein with every meal, together with some fat and some carbohydrate.
Please remember that a "protein food" is not 100% protein. So, for example, 100g of beef has 20 grams of protein, 1 egg has 7 grams of protein, and so on. At the same time, there may be small amounts of protein in other foods. For example, there are 29g of protein per 100g of mustard powder. All the lists don’t give exactly the same ratios, but you can get a simple list of protein content in foods here and a detailed one here.
Check Your Ketone Levels Regularly
The best way to know how much protein you should eat on a keto diet is to download one of the many apps on the market. You can perhaps try freedieting or ketodietapp. Remember that in the keto diet you want up to 15% - 30% protein, between 5% - 30% carbs and the rest fat (this can be up to 70%). (These apps also have calculations for those wanting to know how much protein to eat for special needs like bodybuilding and muscle building.)
One reason for monitoring protein intake is that having too much protein can actually switch your body out of ketosis. This is through a process known as gluconeogenesis, where the body breaks down amino acids into glucose. This causes a spike in insulin, which shuts down the fat-burning process. If you weigh yourself, you will be losing kilograms, but this will probably be because you are losing lean muscle mass, not fat. So it is really important to regularly check the ketone levels in your urine, using a ketostix.
To make sure you are on track, your bathroom scale, your keto app and your ketostixs become your best friends.
Conclusion: How Much Protein You Have on Keto Diets Is Important
The purpose of a keto diet is to get your body into a state of ketosis, where body fat is being used as fuel, rather than glucose. How much carbohydrate, how much fat, and how much protein you have on keto diets all matter in getting to ketosis and staying there.
I hope that you have had some of your questions answered here and also in the other articles in our series on keto diets. Look out for the next one on keto desserts!
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