Food Freedom Friday Edition 197 - Keto & Protein

Although the primary focus of keto is to restrict carbohydrate, protein intake plays a crucial part in your success. By eating too much protein, you may impair ketone production. However, keeping protein consumption low is not ideal either. So, how much protein should you eat on the keto diet?

Importance of Protein

Getting the right amount of protein every day is crucial to keto diet success. When protein consumption is too low, following any diet plan will be more challenging. Protein helps increase calorie burning while also decreasing cravings and hunger levels.

Protein supports maintenance and building of, which improves both appearance and quality of life.

Benefits of adequate protein consumption:

·       Maintain (or gain, if you do resistance training) muscle mass

·       Decrease cravings and increase your feelings of fullness

·       Reduce high blood pressure, LDL cholesterol, and triglyceride levels

·       Burn more calories than you would while eating an equal amount of fat or carbs

·       Improve bone health

·       Increase energy levels

This will help enhance your weight loss results while making it easier to adhere to the keto diet for the long term.

The Body & Protein Intake

Protein digestion and assimilation are an intricate process. Here the focus will be on the hormonal response to protein intake.

When protein is digested, it triggers the release of two energy-regulating hormones: insulin and glucagon. The degree to which each hormone is released depends on many factors including the macronutrient makeup of the diet, gender, activity levels, and diabetes status.

These two hormones is that they have opposing functions:

Insulin stimulates the uptake of sugar into cells, sugar burning, and anabolic processes like glycogen storage and protein synthesis (think muscle growth), while also reducing lipolysis (the breakdown and release of fat from fat cells) and gluconeogenesis (a metabolic process that turns non-sugar compounds into sugar).

Glucagon triggers glycogen breakdown, lipolysis, fat burning, and gluconeogenesis.

In general, insulin is an energy-storage hormone that helps keep blood sugar (and other energy sources like ketones and fatty acids) from getting too high and glucagon is a hormone that stimulates energy production that keeps blood sugar and overall energy levels from getting too low.

In effect, these hormones have opposing influences on ketone production. Insulin decreases ketone production while glucagon stimulates it.

The ratio of insulin to glucagon is one of the main factors that determines how protein intake will affect ketone levels. Secreting more insulin than glucagon in response to a protein feeding will reduce ketone production. On the other hand, when more glucagon is released, ketone production will be stimulated.

How Protein Becomes a Problem

Protein consumption will typically cause both insulin and glucagon to increase. As a result, insulin levels may elevate to the point where one is “kicked” out of ketosis. The likelihood of this happening, however, depends on specific aspects of health and how much protein is consumed.

Studies indicate that type 2 diabetics are much more likely to experience a significant increase in insulin levels after protein intake, while healthy individuals may not experience any insulin increase at all. This means that people who are struggling to keep their blood sugar levels under control may impair ketone production or be prevented from entering ketosis by eating too much protein. On the other hand, healthier individuals, especially if they are active, will be able to consume much more protein while maintaining a ketogenic state.

Gender may also play a role in how much glucagon and insulin is secreted after protein consumption as well. Studies suggest that healthy women in their early 20s experience a similar insulin increase after protein ingestion compared to men of the same age, but glucagon secretion is significantly lower in women than in men.

It is also important to note that the women participated in the study while they were in their follicular phase, which is characterized by changes in hormonal response and food intake. The researchers speculate that, if the study were done during their luteal phase, then the women would have a more similar hormonal response (i.e., glucagon and insulin secretion) to the men. The same may also be true for postmenopausal women.

These findings indicate that women may experience changes in how protein intake impacts ketone levels depending on the stage of the cycle. During their luteal phase, for example, women may be able to eat more protein without it impacting their ketone levels, but once they are in their follicular phase, that same amount of protein intake may trigger a decrease in ketone production.

Protein and Blood Sugar

The main argument against eating more protein is that your body will turn it into sugar and that sugar increase will cause insulin to increase, fat to be stored, and ketone production to be halted.

However, researchers have found that only a tiny percentage of protein consumed will enter the circulation after being converted into sugar. In fact, the current data indicate that blood glucose levels do not increase after protein ingestion in subjects with and without diabetes. Researchers speculate that most of the sugar produced from the protein will be used to replenish glycogen stores or released over an extended period of time in small increments.

Eating high amounts of protein will not affect blood sugar levels in the way that many keto proponents believe they will. Protein intake will only be detrimental to a keto diet if it increases insulin levels to the point that ketone production reduced.

How Much Protein

Finding the ideal protein intake on keto depends on many factors:


Genetic expression can impact the degree of insulin resistance and sensitivity throughout the body as well as the ability to burn ketones for fuel. Both will affect hormonal response to protein consumption.


Women may have a different response to protein depending on what phase of their cycle they are in.

Calories and Macronutrient Ratios. 

In general, eating fewer carbs and/or calories can keep higher protein intake from reducing your ketone levels.

Restricting carbs will help decrease insulin levels and increase your ability to produce and burn ketones. The longer you are on the keto diet, the less likely a higher protein intake will disrupt ketosis.

Body Composition. 

The heavier you are, the more protein you will need to eat. If you have a higher body fat %, higher protein intakes may cause enough of an increase in insulin levels to decrease ketone production.

Ideally, you want to eat enough protein so that you maintain/gain muscle mass without it decreasing ketone levels.

Insulin Sensitivity. 

People who have type 2 diabetes may struggle with ketone production because of their higher insulin levels, and protein consumption can cause their insulin to get even higher. On the other hand, healthier and more fit individuals can get away with consuming more protein without it impairing ketone production

Activity levels. 

Activity, especially weight lifting, will require more protein to restore glycogen levels and build muscle. Less insulin is required to make use of that protein. This means that ketone production will continue to be stimulated, even after high protein meals.

Each one of these variables will affect how much insulin and glucagon are secreted in response to protein consumption. This will then determine how much that protein affects ketone production and other processes in the body (e.g., muscle protein synthesis).

Most keto dieters have no problem at all when they follow these general protein recommendations:

Sedentary — consume 0.6 – 0.8g of protein per pound of lean body mass.

Regularly Active — have 0.8 – 1.0g of protein per pound of lean body mass.

Lift Weights — eat 1.0 – 1.2g of protein per pound of lean body mass.

Protein Sources

Beef. Ground beef, steak, roasts, and stew meat. Stick with fattier cuts and 100% grass-fed when possible.

Other Meat. Veal, goat, lamb, and other wild game. Stick with fattier cuts when possible.

Fish. Preferably eating anything that is caught wild like catfish, cod, flounder, halibut, mackerel, mahi-mahi, salmon, snapper, trout, and tuna. Fattier fish is better.

Shellfish. Clams, oysters, lobster, crab, scallops, mussels, and squid.

Whole Eggs. Try to get them pasture-raised from the local market if possible. You can prepare them in any way you’d like.

Pork. Ground pork, pork loin, pork chops, tenderloin, and ham. Watch out for added sugars and try to stick with fattier cuts.

Poultry. Chicken, duck, quail, turkey, pheasant and other wild poultry.

Offal/Organ. Heart, liver, kidney, and tongue. Offal is one of the best sources of vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals.

Bacon and Sausage. Check labels for anything cured in sugar, or if it contains extra fillers. Don’t be overly concerned with nitrates.

Cheese. Cheddar, mozzarella, parmesan, and other hard cheeses. Always purchase full-fat cheeses.

Nut Butter. Go for natural, unsweetened nuts and try to stick with fattier versions like almond butter and macadamia nut butter. Legumes (peanuts) and almonds are high in omega 6’s so be careful about over-consumption.

Keto-Friendly Protein. 100% grass-fed whey protein, collagen protein, casein protein, pea protein isolate, and any other very low-carb protein powders.

Although it is true that eating too much protein can decrease your ketone levels, you may never come close to reaching that point. In general, as long as you stay within these ranges (and keep your carbs below 25 grams) you should have no problem entering and staying in ketosis within the context of a well formulated ketogenic diet.

Michal Ofer