You probably already know that limiting carbohydrates is a priority on the ketogenic diet. But protein intake matters just as much.
One of the biggest misconceptions people run into when going keto is eating too little protein.
Most beginners will fall into the assumption that high protein consumption may turn to glucose. It is a process called gluconeogenesis, which many people believe hinders the body from burning ketones for fuel.
Because of this assumption, many keto dieters never get to encounter the full advantages of a well-formulated diet.
So how much protein should you eat on a low-carb, high-fat diet?
Along with fat and carbohydrates, protein is one of the three macronutrients found in food. And it plays different and vital roles in the body.
How much protein do you need on keto, and is it possible to get too much?
We break down the science behind this hot topic so you can learn precisely how to dial in your perfect ketogenic macros for results.
Skip to section.
What is Protein?
Protein is made up of various smaller units called amino acids.
Although your body can create most of the 20 amino acids it needs, there are nine that it can’t make. These are known as the essential amino acids, and they must be consumed in food daily.
Because animal foods contain all nine essential amino acids, they are considered “complete” proteins. By contrast, almost all plants lack one or more essential amino acids, and it’s commonly known as “incomplete” protein.
Animal protein sources that are keto-friendly include meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and cheese.
Keto-friendly plant protein sources include tofu and soy-based products. You can also find protein in most nuts and seeds, although some of these plant-based protein sources are higher in carbs than others.
What Does Protein Do in Our Body?
Protein is a significant part of every cell in your body. After you consume protein, it is broken down into individual amino acids. These will then be incorporated into your muscles and other tissues.
These are just several of protein’s essential functions:
Muscle repair and growth
The protein in your muscles is usually broken down and rebuilt daily. This means your body needs a fresh supply of amino acids for muscle protein synthesis.
Consuming enough dietary protein helps prevent muscle loss. It also promotes muscle growth when coupled with resistance training.
Healthy skin, hair, nails, bones, and internal organs
The protein turnover in these structures happens more slowly than in muscle. Hence, new amino acids are needed to substitute those that become old and destroyed over time.
Creation of hormones and enzymes
Many of the hormones needed for life – including insulin and growth hormone – are also proteins. Furthermore, most enzymes in the human body are proteins.
Your body relies on a continuous supply of amino acids to make these vital compounds.
The Role of Protein in Ketosis
Clinical practice and scientific studies suggest that getting enough protein can make weight control easier.
This might be because protein can decrease appetite and prevent overeating. What happens is that protein triggers hormones that promote satiety and satisfaction.
Your body also burns more calories digesting protein associated with fat or carbs.
Finally, growing research shows that increasing protein when you’re in a low carb diet lowers liver fat and blood glucose.
Protein is an essential component required in every vital role of your body. It’s created from amino acids that come from food.
Protein is needed for several different actions in the body, including:
- Regulation and function of the organs and tissues
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Building muscle
- Needed for healthy bones, muscle, cartilage, skin, and blood
- Optimal enzyme and hormonal function
- Lowering blood pressure
- Regulate cholesterol
Restricting carbohydrates is one of the main components of the ketogenic diet. But as stated above, our bodies need some glucose for certain functions of the body.
This indicates that protein plays an even larger role for optimal health in people who follow a low-carb diet. When your body doesn’t generate glucose from protein, it will start looking for other sources, like your muscles.
If you start a keto diet, keeping protein consumption low can hurt your body composition, strength, and endurance. Several people who consume too little protein on keto may fall prey to the following:
- Weight loss plateaus
- Thyroid issues
- Hormonal imbalances
- Hair, skin, and nail problems
- Increased severity of infections
Several keto dieters have seen significant changes in their health after boosting their protein intake.
How Much Protein on Keto Should You be Eating?
Research continues to recommend that protein is one of the most useful macros to eat when looking to lose weight.
High protein consumption is linked to better appetite control, decreased cravings, and improved body composition. It also helps preserve lean mass in a calorie deficit. Thus, keeping your metabolism running strong and assisting in better physical results overall.
But unlike many other low carb diets, keto doesn’t typically recommend high protein intake. The exact amount you need seems to be up for continuous debate.
When keto was first introduced in the early 1920s to handle seizures in children with epilepsy, the macro ratio leaned heavily in fat. So much so that 90% of all calories come from fat.
As the diet became a popular way to lose weight, the macronutrient balance also shifted. Today a typical keto diet for fat loss produces approximately 60% to 80% of calories from fat, 5% to 10% of calories from carbs, and higher protein.
Based on this generally accepted macronutrient range, your keto protein intake would equal 20 to 30% of your total energy. Knowing that protein supplies four calories for every gram, you can easily calculate this amount for yourself.
For instance, if you require 2,000 calories per day, your protein intake would be 100 to 150 grams of (400 – 600 calories/ four calories per gram).
However, your ideal protein demands are more closely determined by your muscle mass than your calorie needs. This is because protein is essential for so many vital functions and acts as a building block for nearly every cell in your body.
Why Overeating Protein on Keto is a Myth
Many keto dieters believe that consuming too much protein can raise their blood sugar through gluconeogenesis.
Gluconeogenesis (GNG) is the production of new glucose in the body from non-carbohydrate sources such as lactate, pyruvate, and protein. Its name has the following three components:
- Gluco: Meaning glucose.
- Neo: Meaning new.
- Genesis: Meaning origin or creation.
GNG is the creation of glucose from anything but carbohydrates.
Your body uses compounds like lactate, amino acids (protein), and glycerol to produce glucose when no carbohydrates are present.
By this very description, it’s safe to assume that gluconeogenesis should be avoided at all costs. After all, when glucose is present, it means your body can’t create ketones and use it as the primary fuel source.
But some glucose is needed for us to live.
Your cells use gluconeogenesis to guarantee you don’t die when there are no carbohydrates present in your system.
The three primary responsibilities of GNG include:
- Preventing hypoglycemia
- Fueling the tissues that can’t use ketones
- Replenishing glycogen stores
Do not consume lower volumes of protein to avoid gluconeogenesis.
Too little protein is more dangerous for your health than too much.
This doesn’t mean you have to absorb a high carbohydrate diet to survive. Yes, your body requires glucose and glycogen to keep you healthy (even in ketosis). But it can create just the right amount from survival mechanisms like gluconeogenesis.
Calculating Keto Macros
Step #1: Prioritize Protein
Against popular opinion, protein should be your priority, not fat.
Calculating your protein intake will vary depending on the activity level per individual.
- Protein consumption should be 0.8 grams per pound of lean body mass minimum. Lean body mass (LBM) is your weight that isn’t fat.
- To find your LBM, you can purchase calipers from Amazon, use a bioelectrical impedance scale, or get a DEXA scan.
- Multiply your LBM by 0.8 to get your regular protein consumption.
If you’re fit, athlete, or you want to build muscle:
- Protein consumption should be 1-1.2 grams per pound of body weight, not lean body mass.
- Consume the upper threshold if you want to increase your muscle or need to stay in peak physical shape for athletic competition.
Remember: This should be the least amount of protein to consume. Don’t be afraid to eat more as it will not stop your ketogenic diet goals. Eating less protein can be more harmful to your health than having more.
Step #2: Keep Carbohydrates Low
Reduce your carbohydrate intake to 20-50 grams of total carbohydrates, not net carbohydrates.
This means you should calculate the fiber you consume as part of your carb consumption.
People who are lean, physically fit, or just want to gain weight and build muscle can absorb more carbs. On the other hand, those living in an inactive, sedentary lifestyle should keep carbs under 30 grams.
Step #3: The Rest Of Calories Should Come From Fat
After calculating your protein and carb consumption, subtract that number from your total daily calorie allowance.
To find the number of calories per macro:
- Protein = 4 calories per gram
- Carbohydrates = 4 calories per gram
- Fats = 9 calories per gram
Supply in the rest of your calories from healthy fats.
For example: If your macro goals are 100 grams of protein and 25 grams of carbohydrates with a 1,500 daily calorie allowance, calculate the following to find fat.
- #1 — 100g protein x 4 = 400 calories
- #2 — 25g carbohydrates x 4 = 100 calories
- #3 — 1,500 – (400 + 100) = 1,000 calories
- #4 — Fat consumption= 1,000 / 9 = 111g of fat
This macro analysis for 1,500 calories comes out to:
- 100 grams of protein
- 25 grams of carbohydrates
- 111 grams of fat
Using this method helps several people succeed in their weight loss plateaus. The same thing goes with any mental fatigue that may occur from protein deficiencies.
Best Keto Protein Foods
A ketogenic lifestyle can sometimes lead to high consumptions of saturated fat from animal-based foods.
While these foods can promote your keto macros, they aren’t always the best quality choices to support your health.
The most reliable sources of quality keto proteins are either nutrient-dense lean (low fat) proteins or meats high in healthy fats. Think unsaturated fats from plant-based foods and omega-3s from seafood.
Here are some of the best keto-friendly proteins to regard next time you build your keto shopping list.
Animal foods are usually high in protein, but the best cuts are lean or come from grass-fed/pasture-raised. Lean meat simply means meat lower in fat – which is the opposite of what one might reach for on keto.
However, not all fat is produced equal, and the saturated fat found in certain meats is associated with high cholesterol. Moreover, processed red meat like pepperoni, sausage, and bacon has been associated with an increased risk of colon cancer. It is even classified as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization.
Grass-fed and pasture-raised proteins, on the other hand, tend to be leaner and have a more desirable fatty acid composition.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to avoid high-fat meat altogether. Still, you should be careful of your consumption and choose more of the following choices when available.
- Grass-fed beef
- Pork loin
- Lamb (fat trimmed off)
- Duck Breast (skinless)
Most seafood is fairly lean, making it a healthy, protein-dense food choice. Also, unlike some land-based proteins, high-fat fish hold higher amounts of beneficial fats.
Choosing more fatty fish can improve your consumption of necessary omega-3 fats. Omega-3s are associated with improved heart health, brain health, and improved management of type 2 diabetes.
Regardless, almost all seafood proteins pack good nutrition and fit nicely into a healthy keto diet. Here’s a list to get you started.
- Arctic Char
- Sea Bass
Low Fat Dairy
Comparable to meat, high-fat dairy can also be high in saturated fat, and it is entirely possible to overdo it on the cheese and cream.
However, low-fat dairy can be an excellent protein and nutrition source and fits nicely into a keto meal plan. For the best dairy sources of protein, stock up on these choices:
- Low Fat Milk
- Low Fat Greek Yogurt
- Low Fat Cottage Cheese
- Mozzarella Cheese
- Low Fat Cheddar Cheese
- Egg whites
Plant-based proteins can be a challenge because nearly all plants contain several amounts of carbs. The key is to look for more high fiber plants.
Fiber is a type of carb that is not digested by the body, helping to reduce your total carb count. This is commonly referred to as net carb intake (your total carbs minus fiber intake).
The best vegan proteins that produce a fair amount of protein include:
- Soy crumbles
- Soy milk
- Pea protein crumbles
- Nutritional Yeast
- Nut butter
Keto Protein Powders
You can also supplement your protein consumption with keto protein powders.
The difference between a regular protein powder and a keto protein powder is that it often includes ingredients like exogenous ketones or MCT oil.
Regardless, any low carb protein option will help with your daily nutrition goals!
3 Tips for Protein Consumption on a Ketogenic Diet
Dietary protein is essential to support and preserve the structures and functions of the body. This includes the muscles, heart, liver, and kidneys.
Here are some tips to help you avoid a few common errors:
Watch out for protein sources that contain carbs
Whole food like meat, fish, poultry, nuts, eggs, and cheese are excellent protein sources. One egg or an ounce of these other sources hold about the same amount of protein—generally about 7 grams.
When picking your protein sources, keep in mind the carbohydrates in some foods. Those carbs can add up fast, particularly with nuts, processed meat, tofu, and vegetarian/vegan meat alternatives.
The carbohydrate content of protein-containing foods varies. Let’s take nuts as an example.
From macadamias with 4 grams of carbs per ounce to cashews with 9 grams of carbs per ounce, the type you choose matters when managing your carb intake.
Make sure you’re getting enough protein
Too little protein can jeopardize your lean tissue mass.
When daily protein intake is low, the body turns to lean tissue to meet its protein needs. This happens more rapidly when fasting for an extended period (greater than 24 hours).
It’s easy to get your protein needs met through meat consumption, but it’s not the only way.
Because the keto diet is high in fat and moderate in protein, this lifestyle is also suitable for vegans, vegetarians, and pescetarians.
One ounce of protein-containing food holds about 7 grams of protein.
Here are a few alternatives for what a day’s worth of protein intake could look like:
Option 1: Meat-eater
- 2 eggs
- 2 oz cheese
- 4 oz chicken
- 2 oz nuts
- 4 oz steak
Option 2: Pescetarian
- 3 eggs
- 4 oz cheese
- 2 oz nuts
- 5 oz tuna (1 can)
Option 3: Vegetarian
- 3 eggs
- 4.5 oz cheese
- 2 oz nuts
- 4.5 oz of high protein tofu (1.5 oz of high protein tofu = the equivalent protein in 1 oz meat)
- ½ cup of Greek Yogurt, plain, whole milk (equivalent to 1.5 oz of meat)
Space out your protein, and eat it with fat
- Space your protein out during the day: Proteins are continually being remodeled. And the proteins we eat provide the building blocks to help the remodeling. So make sure you’re spreading out your intake instead of eating it all at once.
- Consume enough fat: Make sure to include fat to your meals to ensure you’re satiated and don’t overeat other macronutrients.
Consuming enough protein (and the right amount of fat) takes practice. That’s because even the smallest adjustments can make a positive shift in your metabolic response.
Just because protein may create some glucose, does not mean it’s not suitable for the keto diet. Our bodies are smart enough to make just the right amount of glucose to survive via gluconeogenesis.
Many ketogenic dieters who are encountering adverse side effects may benefit significantly from increased protein consumption.
You should never worry about too much protein intake on keto. Eating too little can be more problematic.
If you aren’t experiencing the ketogenic diet’s full health benefits, increasing your protein consumption should help you avoid any keto plateaus.
When consuming enough fat and non-starchy vegetables and are based on whole foods, most people will find it difficult to go overboard with protein.
Our advice? Aim for a reasonable amount (1.2-1.7g/kg/day), spread it out as best you can over 2-3 meals, and focus on healthy low-carb meals you enjoy!