Many of your clients and athletes may have realized weight loss success on a ketogenic diet. Others, however, may be struggling to get the correct balance of macronutrients. The ketogenic diet is comprised of high fat, moderate protein, and low carbohydrates. Over the years of working with clients and writing about keto, I’ve noticed many people minimizing of proper protein intake when trying to implement ketosis.
Most remember a high-fat to low-carb ratio is vital to a ketogenic diet, but why it is equally important to have moderate protein intake as opposed to too little or too much. Eating unlimited amounts of protein and whatever source of protein and still being ‘ok’ on keto is a ketogenic myth and here’s why:
Three reasons why moderate protein intake is important in a ketogenic diet:
1. Too little protein has deleterious effects
Too little daily protein intake, regardless of whether a person is trying to reach ketosis or not can lead to muscle wasting because proteins are made up of amino acids. Amino acids play a vital part in many of the human body’s metabolic functions such as growth and development, digestion, healing and repair, and providing energy for the body. They are the organic building blocks of protein. Protein is important to the upkeep and protection of structures in the body such as muscles and organs (kidneys, liver, and heart). Hence, not consuming enough protein in a diet would impact the body’s ability to do the vital function of muscle repair and structure building and upkeep.
Low protein intake hazards to the body:
- Protein deficiency leads to reduction in muscle mass and weight.
- Negative impacts to the thyroid, resulting in heightened and severe metabolic and phenotypic alterations to the body.
- Create skin allergies, problems with nails and hair (hair loss/falling out).
2. Moderate protein intake supports ketosis
In a Ketogenic diet, moderate protein intake allows circulating ketones to reach levels of at least 0.5 moles per milliliter (mM).
So how much protein is enough?
The conventional ketogenic macronutrient convention suggests:
Around 75-80% of calories should come from healthy fats
Around 20%-25% of calories should come from protein.
Around 5%-7% of calories should come from carbs.
Some ketoathletes may need more protein prior to training or after training for recovery. If this is the case, it can be calculated by wearing a metabolic fitness device that shows how many calories are burned during sessions or sport. The extra protein intake necessary can be calculated by taking the number of calories burned during the session or sport and replenishing with that caloric amount from protein.
3. Too much protein also has deleterious effects
If too much protein is ingested in a ketogenic diet, protein deamination can occur. Protein deamination occurs when excess protein is consumed, resulting in the removal of an amine group which is then converted into ammonia and expelled in urine. The process of deamination allows the body to convert excess amino acids into usable by-products.
This process takes place primarily in the liver and also in the kidneys. Although it allows the body to convert excess amino acids into usable by-products, it is not ideal for a ketogenic diet because once the amino group is removed from the amino acid and converted to ammonia, the remaining components of the amino acid are mostly made up of carbon and hydrogen.
This is recycled or oxidized and used for energy. Since ammonia is toxic to the human body, it is excreted. In a ketogenic diet, the primary source of fuel is fat. If too much protein is consumed and protein deamination occurs, protein is being utilized as fuel through the protein deamination process instead. Hence, the ketogenic state of the human body is negatively impacted. In layman’s terms, eating too much protein in a ketogenic diet could deter a human body into becoming keto-adapted in the first place or kick a keto-adapted body out of ketosis (Volek & Phinney, 2012).
For newbies to keto, if too much protein is consumed, chances are that they may not reach the necessary ketone level to achieve ketosis. For people well into ketosis, they could get knocked out of ketosis. Those trying ketosis may not be obtaining the results they are seeking because they are not truly in ketosis due to not sticking to the formula of:
High fat, moderate protein, low carb.
Examples of recommended protein sources for the ketogenic diet are:
It’s key to remember not all sources of protein are the same. Chicken breast (with olive oil) is a much more nutrient-dense choice than bacon, sausage, and other processed meats. Similarly, when it comes to cheese, crumbly cheeses that have enzymes are healthier choices over processed cheeses. Gorgonzola cheese would be a healthier selection than packaged and processed cheese-like singles, or the cheesy chemical concoction that can be sprayed out of a can. Another caveat– it is comprised of the other macros as well, so to remain in keto, make sure to calculate those into your program.
The key takeaway here is, regardless of whether an athlete’s goal is to reach ketosis or not, adequate protein intake is important for the following reasons:
Volek, J. S., & Phinny, S. D. (2012). The art and science of low carbohydrate performance. Miami, FL: Beyond Obesity LLC. https://cdnstatic8.com/revolucaoketo.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/TheArt-Science-of-Low-Carb-Performance_VolekPhinney.pdf
Westman, E., Volek, J.S., & Phinney, S.D. (2010). The new atkins for a new you. NY, NY: Fireside/Simon & Shuster