If you switch to a ketogenic diet, one of your primary concerns is your calorie intake. Given that most diets involve tracking calories for weight loss, you might ask: Do calories matter on keto?
To answer this question, first, we need to understand how eating very low-carb and high-fat foods affects our satiety and ability to burn body fat. Furthermore, it’s important to remember that there are instances where counting calories on keto makes sense.
Keep reading to gain a basic overview of calories, their role when following a keto diet, and calorie management strategies.
Calories are a measure of energy. When it comes to nutrition and health, the foods you eat provide you with calories so that you can survive. Your cells burn calories to perform specific functions, such as metabolizing protein to produce amino acids (*).
Foods vary in their number of calories depending on the macronutrients present. Dietary fat has the highest calorie density, providing 9 calories per gram. Protein has 4 calories per gram, while carbohydrates also contain 4 calories per gram.
For example, a piece of chicken wing (about 21 grams) has 43 calories, mostly coming from protein and a small amount of fat.
Meanwhile, butter (also weighing 21 grams) has 151 calories, which is pure fat.
In this regard, one can quickly assume that because butter has more calories, it causes weight gain compared to a chicken wing, which has fewer calories. Bear in mind that calorie intake is more than just quantity — food quality and your overall diet also matter (*).
The Role of Calories on Keto
Besides giving your body the energy it needs for physical activities, calories on keto diet can be tracked if an individual fails to see the weight loss results they’ve been hoping for. It’s possible for someone to experience a plateau — not losing more weight after an initial weight loss — in the middle of their keto diet journey, for different reasons.
But let’s say you’re just getting started on the keto diet. In that case, it would be necessary to determine your calorie intake goal (which depends on whether you want to lose weight, maintain weight, or gain weight) to get a breakdown of your keto macros.
As a quick recap, keto follows this macronutrient ratio:
- 5-10% of your calories from carbohydrates
- 70-80% of your calories from healthy fats
- 20-30% of your calories from protein
Pro Tip: Use our free keto calculator to instantly find out how many calories you need in a day, along with your carbs, fat, and protein requirements.
The general consensus is that strict calorie counting on keto is unnecessary because ketosis, which results from eating very few carbohydrates, teaches your body to burn fat at a greater rate. Moreover, the keto diet in and of itself has a satiating effect that leads to decreased hunger (*, *).
Considering that calorie counting is used primarily for reaching a weight loss goal, sticking to your keto macros — particularly honing in on decreasing carbs — may be a good alternative for weight loss.
What’s more, counting calories on keto is not suitable for everyone. According to an older study, calorie tracking has been perceived to contribute to an eating disorder. So, for those who have a history of disordered eating, tracking calories might contribute to increased stress levels and unhealthy behaviors (*).
On the flip side, calorie counting may be useful in situations where you tend to eat too much fat on keto, which ultimately results in a weight loss stall. This is where, at a fundamental level, the “calories in calories out” or CICO model holds true (*).
Another good reason to become aware of your calorie intake (even though you’re on a satiating diet plan) is that it can keep you accountable. If you’re someone who often overeats or isn’t satisfied with the amount of weight you’ve lost so far — then calorie counting may be worth trying.
How many calories you eat in a day on the keto diet will depend on many variables. This includes your activity level, sleep quality, stress, intake of processed foods, and alcohol consumption. Paying attention to these areas and optimizing them play a huge role in managing your calories.
Activity level, for instance, can affect a person’s calorie needs and the number of calories they burn. Athletes and those who spend more time at the gym, in general, have higher caloric and macronutrient requirements to support their performance and recovery. Additionally, people who exercise regularly burn more calories efficiently than those who are sedentary (*).
Sleep quality, or how well you’re sleeping, also influences your calorie intake. You may be on a diet that supports weight loss, but keep in mind that insufficient sleep is associated with eating habits that increase your risk for weight gain. This includes snacking more frequently, night-time eating, and eating more fast food and sugar (*).
Being stressed out, especially long-term stress can lead to the consumption of hyper-palatable foods (those that are high in both fat and sugar) as a way of seeking comfort. Unfortunately, these foods contain many calories (*).
With regard to alcohol intake, research suggests that alcohol consumption may be a significant risk factor for weight gain. 1 gram of alcohol provides 7 calories, which increases your overall calorie intake (*).
Not just that, but drinking alcohol can increase your food cravings as well. Multiple studies have shown that individuals consuming alcohol also consume larger amounts of food (*).
As you’ve learned, it is still possible to go over your calories and deal with excess weight along the way. For this reason, it might be a good idea to strike a balance between calorie control and a high-quality keto diet.
Increase your chances of reaching your weight loss goals and prevent weight gain with these daily strategies:
Make more home-cooked meals
Compared to fast food and takeouts, meals prepared at home are healthier because you have control over the ingredients. A study published by the Cambridge University Press also showed that those who cooked dinner more frequently at home consumed fewer calories regardless of whether they were trying to lose weight or not (*).
Eat non-starchy fruits and vegetables
Broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower, salad greens, avocados, strawberries, and blueberries are examples of non-starchy fruits and veggies. They’re low in both carbohydrates and calories and are packed with fiber.
Adding more of these options to the keto diet is a great way to control your calorie intake for two reasons. Besides being low in calories, the fiber in these foods may reduce hunger and promote satiety.
Stop mindless snacking
When done correctly, snacking is a great source of fuel and nutrients for the day. On the contrary, snacking can be done out of boredom or to experience relief from a stressful situation. This is the kind of behavior you would want to avoid to stop overeating.
While there are mixed opinions about snacking, the reality is that it can be both positive and unhelpful depending on your habits. Here are some helpful snacking tips:
- Base your snacking frequency on your activity level. If you’re very active, have two snacks a day. Limit yourself to one snack or no snack at all if you’re sedentary.
- Instead of high-sugar snacks, choose those that contain fiber and are high in protein. Healthy examples include almond nuts, walnuts, eggs, pumpkin seeds, and avocados.
- Before grabbing a snack, ask yourself if you’re experiencing true physical hunger or feeling bored or stressed.
Prioritize protein in every meal
Protein, which is consumed in moderate amounts on the keto diet, can help increase the calories you burn. This is because of its thermic effect, which is higher than carbohydrates and fat (*). Moreover, protein can keep you full.
Check out our guide which explains the role of protein on keto and how much you need.
Get sufficient sleep
Given the fact that sleep is essential for weight loss by moderating your appetite and preventing late-night snacking, make sure you get enough sleep.
Note that adults need 7 or more hours of sleep. Aim for that on a daily basis and see your health and weight loss improve.
Whether you count calories or not is a decision only you can make. Generally, calorie tracking on keto is not recommended as long as you prioritize whole and minimally-processed foods. Meat, eggs, seafood, nuts, and non-starchy veggies and fruits provide quality fats, protein, and fiber to keep you satisfied.
In case you’re experiencing a weight loss stall, you might want to examine your snacking habits, stress, sleep, activity level, and alcohol intake. Also, remember that long-term maintenance of weight loss involves trying different strategies and learning along the way.