Protein — should you eat as much as possible? How much is too much? Can it kick you out of ketosis?
These are just a few of the questions that people on ketogenic diets have about protein. It can be a tricky subject, especially when there are some concerns that protein could raise your blood sugar levels or undo all your hard work of getting into ketosis.
Still, protein is vitally important — even on keto. Here’s our guide to protein intake for ketogenic diets to help you find clarity on this key topic.
The Role of Protein in the Ketogenic Diet
Protein is one of three macronutrients, or nutrients that are needed in large quantities and that provide calories. The other two are carbohydrates and fat.
Protein has a big role in the diet. Proteins can be broken down into amino acids, which the body uses to build new tissues. This makes protein essential for wound healing, injury recovery, and muscle growth (*).
Additionally, there are nine essential amino acids that we must get through food (*).
However, this isn’t the only role of protein. For people who are aiming to lose weight, protein can be helpful for a number of reasons.
Protein helps to slow down digestion, so it keeps you feeling fuller for longer. Additionally, because it takes longer to digest, it burns more calories during the digestion process. This is known as the thermic effect of food (*).
Getting adequate protein while losing weight can also help to “spare” your muscles. While in many cases people lose some muscle mass when they lose weight, a ketogenic diet with adequate protein may help prevent these muscle losses. This has the benefit of keeping your metabolic rate, or the amount of calories you burn at rest, up — making it easier to lose weight (*, *).
Additionally, protein can help to prevent blood sugar spikes from eating carbohydrates. This is important to remember when you choose to go off of the keto diet, even temporarily. Consuming carbs with a source of protein can help to minimize the blood sugar impact they have (*).
How Much Protein Should I Eat on a Ketogenic Diet?
Generally, people following a keto diet need anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of their calories from protein.
However, according to ketogenic diet experts Stephen Phinney, MD, PhD, and Jeff Volek, PhD, RD, the most ideal way to calculate protein needs for people on keto is actually grams per kilograms of body weight (g/kg body weight). They recommend sticking to a target range of 1.2-2.0 g/kg body weight, depending on lifestyle. For instance, if you are a male who lifts heavy weights often, you may want to eat at the higher end of the protein range, while a smaller female who doesn’t do much weight lifting may do better at the lower end of the protein range (*).
Here’s a helpful table to help you calculate your protein needs, modified from Virta Health’s protein needs table. Note: if you are overweight, your protein needs are calculated based on a target weight rather than your current weight (*).
|Height||Target Weight||Protein Range (1.2-2.0 g/kg body weight)||Target Weight||Protein Range (1.2-2.0 g/kg body weight)|
|4’10”||Approx. 115 lbs.||63-105 grams||–||–|
|4’11”||Approx. 117 lbs.||64-106 grams||–||–|
|5’0”||Approx. 120 lbs.||65-109 grams||–||–|
|5’1”||Approx. 122 lbs.||67-111 grams||–||–|
|5’2”||Approx. 125 lbs.||68-114 grams||Approx. 136 lbs.||74-124 grams|
|5’3”||Approx. 128 lbs.||70-116 grams||Approx. 138 lbs.||75-125 grams|
|5’4”||Approx. 131 lbs.||71-119 grams||Approx. 140 lbs.||76-127 grams|
|5’5”||Approx. 134 lbs.||73-122 grams||Approx. 143 lbs.||78-130 grams|
|5’6”||Approx. 137 lbs.||75-125 grams||Approx. 145 lbs.||79-132 grams|
|5’7”||Approx. 140 lbs.||76-127 grams||Approx. 148 lbs.||81-135 grams|
|5’8”||Approx. 143 lbs.||78-130 grams||Approx. 151 lbs.||82-137 grams|
|5’9”||Approx. 146 lbs.||80-133 grams||Approx. 154 lbs.||84-140 grams|
|5’10”||Approx. 149 lbs.||82-135 grams||Approx. 157 lbs.||86-143 grams|
|5’11”||Approx. 152 lbs.||83-138 grams||Approx. 160 lbs.||87-145 grams|
|6’0”||Approx. 155 lbs.||85-141 grams||Approx. 164 lbs.||89-149 grams|
|6’1”||–||–||Approx. 167 lbs.||91-152 grams|
|6’2”||–||–||Approx. 171 lbs.||93-155 grams|
|6’3”||–||–||Approx. 175 lbs.||94-159 grams|
|6’4”||–||–||Approx. 179 lbs.||98-163 grams|
To calculate it for yourself, first convert your target weight to kilograms by dividing it by 2.2. Then, multiply that weight in kilograms by 1.2 to get the lower end of your target protein range, and by 2.0 to get the higher end of your target protein range.
Can Too Much Protein Break Ketosis?
One major concern that many people on keto have is that eating too much protein may kick them out of ketosis by increasing their blood sugar and insulin levels.
While this could theoretically happen if you eat enough protein, it’s unlikely. However, this effect may be more common in people with type 1 diabetes (*).
Sticking to the recommended protein guidelines of 1.2-1.0 grams per kilogram of target body weight should be adequate protein to support ketosis with no risk of kicking you out of ketosis.
Also, remember that protein is extremely filling, and it would probably be fairly difficult for the average person to eat a large enough amount of protein to reverse ketosis in one sitting.
What Happens If You Don’t Eat Enough Protein on Keto?
People on keto may easily slip into a pattern of low protein intake because high-fat foods can be filling on their own — especially if they are also concerned about protein kicking them out of ketosis.
On a short-term basis, you may not notice any side effects or complications of low protein intake.
However, an inadequate protein intake over time could lead to several problems, including muscle mass loss, appetite changes, weight gain, delayed wound healing or injury recovery, and fatigue. Low protein intake is also linked to a higher risk of death from all causes (*, *, *, *).
What Foods Should I Eat to Meet My Protein Target on Keto?
There are several keto-friendly foods that are rich sources of protein. These include:
- Meats: beef, chicken, pork, fish/shellfish, etc.
- Eggs: chicken eggs, quail eggs, duck eggs, etc.
- Dairy: cheese, plain Greek yogurt, cottage cheese
- Nuts and seeds: peanuts, hazelnuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, sesame seeds, nut/seed butters
- Protein supplements: protein powders, protein shakes
Protein Sources to Avoid on Keto
However, there are also several protein sources that are high in carbohydrates. These should be avoided on keto. They include:
- Meats: breaded or battered meats (chicken nuggets, chicken strips), meats in sugary sauces (General Tso’s chicken)
- Dairy: milk, sweetened yogurts
- Legumes: chickpeas, lentils, beans (all varieties — pinto, kidney, black, Great Northern, etc.)
How to Get Enough Protein On Keto
Now, let’s translate all of this information into useful, practical tips to help you meet your protein goal. Here are five protein tips and tricks to make getting enough protein on keto effortless:
- A piece of meat the size of a deck of cards is roughly 20 grams of protein. You can use this knowledge to build each meal, ensuring that you’re getting adequate protein. Most people will need at least 60 grams of protein per day, so you can aim to include at least a “deck of cards” worth of meat at each meal. If your protein needs are higher, you can double your meat portion at all or certain meals.
- Spreading protein intake evenly throughout the day is the easiest way to meet your goals. Protein is extremely filling, so it can be difficult to meet your goal if you’re trying to cram it all into one meal. This can be a real challenge for people following intensive intermittent fasting protocols like 20:4 or one meal a day (OMAD). If you’re able, it’s best to divide your protein intake evenly throughout the day to ensure you get enough.
- Nuts, seeds, and cheese can easily boost your protein intake. If you’re finding that you’re just a little bit short on your protein intake each day, having nuts or cheese as a snack — or adding a sprinkle of cheese or seeds to your meals — can help push you over the edge to your goal. However, if you’re trying to lose weight, you probably shouldn’t depend on these foods as your primary protein sources. They are very rich in calories, which may slow down your weight loss.
- Meat and protein powder are the easiest ways to significantly increase your protein intake. Need to significantly increase your protein intake? Adding an extra serving of meat to your meals, or having a protein shake or two as a snack, are the two simplest ways to get more protein without drastically changing the way you meal plan and prep.
- For more exact numbers, a food scale is a worthwhile investment. Although you certainly don’t need a food scale to get enough protein on keto, it can be helpful if you want to track your intake more accurately.
Does Protein Affect Blood Sugar?
Another major question people have about protein intake is if it can affect blood sugar levels.
In certain cases, such as on keto or as part of a low-carb meal, protein may slightly increase blood sugar levels through a process called gluconeogenesis — which enables the body to convert protein to sugar. Generally, this doesn’t cause any significant changes to blood sugar levels — however, researchers have found that large protein-only meals can significantly increase blood sugar levels in people with type 1 diabetes (*, *).
In mixed eating patterns that contain carbohydrates, however, protein can actually help to reduce blood sugar spikes. This is because it slows down digestion, reducing the rate at which carbohydrates are able to be broken down into sugar to enter the bloodstream (*, *).
The Bottom Line
Protein is key for muscle maintenance and growth, and eating enough protein offers several advantages to people who are trying to lose weight.
On keto, a range of 1.2 to 2.0 grams per kilogram of target body weight is the recommended protein goal.
In some instances, large quantities of protein may kick you out of ketosis — however, this isn’t as common as it’s made to seem online, and shouldn’t be an issue if you’re sticking to the recommended protein targets, spreading your protein intake evenly throughout the day, and consuming protein in combination with fat and low-carb vegetables.
If you have type 1 diabetes, you may be more sensitive to the effects of protein on your glucose levels. In this case, it’s important to work with your healthcare team to determine your ideal protein needs.