With the explosive popularity of the keto diet, more and more people are turning to low carb dieting to fulfill their health and fitness goals.
That’s awesome. I’ve been doing the keto diet for over five years now, and it’s changed my life. It’s also changed the lives of many of my clients and hundreds of thousands of other people around the world.
But along with it’s popularity, the keto diet also brings new debate to the fitness sphere. One of the main controversies is around protein.
One reason for this is that, for many years, protein was the sacred cow of the fitness world and protein recommendations used to be astronomical. When I was in my teens and 20s, I would regularly eat an astounding 300-400 grams of protein per day. This of course made me bloated, gassy, and really uncomfortable, but I chalked it all up to the cost of getting gains.
This, like many of the things I did in my teens and 20s, was completely dumb, and it wasn’t until I started the keto diet that I realized that I could build muscle without consuming 4-5 lbs of chicken breasts per day with a protein shake chaser.
Since I’ve been doing the keto diet, my intake has been closer to between 125 grams of protein per day at a bodyweight of 180 lbs, or around 0.7 grams per lb of bodyweight. While this is lower than what I used to eat, it’s actually still above the RDA for protein (which is a very modest 0.8 grams per KG of bodyweight), and at 20% of my daily calories it is higher than what many keto “gurus” would recommend.
So what’s the right answer to “how much protein should you eat on a keto diet?” Well, it depends. I’ll do my best here to give you some recommendations to nail down your protein intake for keto, but remember, you’re all special snowflakes. That means that these recommendations should be taken with a grain of salt and you should experiment with yourself to find what works best for you.
Why Are People Confused?
As I said before, the prevailing opinion in fitness circles until just a few years ago was that people should be consuming a lot of protein. This ranged from 1 gram of protein minimum per pound of bodyweight in your general fitness magazines, all the way up to 2-3 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight in your more hard core bodybuilding magazines. If you were getting anything under that 1 gram per pound of bodyweight, you were missing out on gains…bro.
On the other hand, most keto experts, including Jeff Volek and Stephen Phinney recommend between 1.3 grams and 2.2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. This pans out to between 0.6 to 1 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight.
This is not a “low” protein recommendation. It’s still well above that very low RDA of 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight, which pans out to 0.36 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight.
So while the keto diet is a “moderate” protein diet when compared to the classic bodybuilding and vintage fitness plans, it’s still actually a pretty high protein diet when we look at the RDA.
In fact, protein intake is extremely important for success on the keto diet. Get too little and you compromise lean body tissue, which can negatively affect fat loss.
The big fear that many people have, however, is in getting knocked out of ketosis. This has led to recommendations from some practitioners to keep protein intake to under 10% of total calories, far lower than what Volek and Phinney recommend.
My best guess on this is that this confusion comes from one of two sources. The first is that when those same fitness writers who used to recommend 1-3 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight first encountered the keto diet, they were thinking in terms relative to their previous recommendations and categorized the keto diet as a “low protein diet” when the reality is that it is a moderate to high protein diet.
The second is that they could have been looking at macro nutrient recommendations for cancer patients and epileptics, which tend to conform to a very archaic macro nutrient breakdown of 80% fat, 10% protein, 10% fat.
The truth is that the average person looking to lose weight could probably benefit far more from a less strict breakdown with protein closer to 20-25% of total calories. So if you miss ribeye steaks, there’s good news for you if you read on.
So How Much Protein Should You Eat?
The answer here is going to depend on your goal, your activity levels, and how long you’ve been fat adapted.
For example, if you’re a 60 year old diabetic, even 60 grams of protein a day could kick you out of ketosis.
For most people, the number would be between 0.6 and 1 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight.
If you’re sedentary, meaning that you don’t do much exercise, that number would be closer to 0.6. As I mentioned in the diabetic example, certain health concerns may cause you to need to go below this.
If you’re active, meaning that you work out 5-6 days a week, 0.7-0.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight would be a good rule of thumb. I would include off season bodybuilders and physique athletes in this category.
If you’re an athlete and you do several strenuous workouts a day, then you’ll probably need closer to 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. This would also be coupled with increased flexibility as far as carb intake goes.
What Type of Protein Should You Eat?
To tell you the truth, I actually hate the concept of counting macros. It’s just not realistic for the average person to be programming everything they eat into their cell phone. Macro recommendations are always rules of thumb. I’m pretty sure our cave man ancestors got by without knowing how many grams of protein were in their buffalo and caribou steaks.
A better question is what kind of protein should you be eating on a keto diet?
I would avoid those classic lean sources of protein that the fitness magazines used to love: egg whites, tilapia, whey protein, and chicken breasts.
They actually hold no real nutritional value outside of their protein content and are highly insulinogenic because they lack fat.
Your better sources of protein fuel are going to be fatty cuts of meat from beef and whole eggs. Your best protein sources are going to be organ meats like grass fed beef liver due to their high nutritional density. Yeah, I know liver can be rough, but if you make it right, it actually tastes like a fine steak.
Collagen is also an awesome source of protein and you can get it from bone broth, bone marrow, and collagen protein supplements. It’s the most abundant form of protein in your body and it comprises your skin, your nails, your hair, and the interior lining of your intestinal tract.
Can eating too much protein kick you out of ketosis? Absolutely, especially if you follow those old school protein recommendations. Nevertheless, fears about consuming too much protein on a ketogenic diet are largely overstated. I think we’re all at a point now where we’re all beyond the classic bodybuilding recommendations. As long as you’re getting a sensible amount of protein in your daily intake, and not overdoing it, you should be fine.
With that said, there’s many other things you should strive to get right when it comes to your keto diet, including mineral intake, your digestion, and your omega 3 balance. If you want a complete guide to doing the ketogenic diet the right way, check out our course Keto Camp, It’s a one stop, low cost, course that teaches you everything you need to know to reach your goals with the ketogenic diet.