The Keto Protein Debate: Is More Really Better?


Does it seem like everybody has gone keto diet crazy these days? Celebrities are sharing their favorite fat bomb recipes, modern nutrition scientists call it the antidote to the obesity epidemic, and a crop of keto foods is making it easier than ever to transform your body from a sugar burner to a fat burner.

While keto has become synonymous with high-protein/low-carb eating programs, such as Atkins, defining how much protein you should eat to produce a steady supply of ketones—the little fireballs of energy that the liver produces when there’s no sugar to burn—isn’t as well known as it should be.

You may be surprised to learn that a keto lifestyle is, by definition, NOT high protein at all…

High fat… Yes.
Low carb… Definitely.
High protein… Nope.

In fact, experts believe you must keep protein intake moderate—even low—to achieve the coveted, metabolic state of burning fatty acids for fuel, aptly called, ketosis.

And to achieve the optimum level of ketone production needed to incinerate fat stores and create the boundless energy keto is known for… moderate protein intake is what experts recommend.

You understand extremes like “high fat” and “low carb.” But a “moderate” amount of anything is subject to interpretation!

To get the full benefits of keto, you must calculate how much protein is right for you.

I know what you’re thinking…

First, you struggled with reducing your daily sugar and carbohydrate load. Then you had to retrain your brain to accept good fats as good for you. Now you have to curb protein?

Don’t ditch your favorite keto beef and avocado burger just yet. There’s a simple solution.

Burn fat, not protein

Optimal health is about achieving balance. And so it is for the amount of protein your body needs to burn fat for fuel without burning any excess protein.

Your body is hardwired to convert macronutrients to energy—whether the source is from carbohydrates, fat, protein, or what’s considered to be the fourth macronutrient: Ketones.

If your protein intake exceeds what your body needs to support the vital functions that depend on it, such as building muscle, producing hormones, and supporting healthy skin and hair, then it could cause a spike in insulin and promote the breakdown of protein and fat into glucose, in a process called gluconeogenesis.

Gluconeogenesis on its own isn’t cause for concern. If you follow intermittent fasting as part of your keto practice, this is the vital metabolic mechanism responsible for keeping your blood sugars level during periods of fasting or carb avoidance. Without it, glucose levels could reach a dangerous low.

But it’s only short-term… this activity subsides as your body becomes “fat adapted”—that is, accustomed to burning fat and ketones, but more importantly, favoring ketones instead of the sugar energy that gluconeogenesis creates.

A healthy way to support your transformation from sugar burner to fat burner is by consuming medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs)—fatty acids with shorter carbon chains that bypass the normal digestion process. Their shorter chain composition makes MCTs ketogenic by default because they go straight to the liver to be metabolized and converted into fuel.

By comparison, most dietary fat is made of molecules with long carbon chains, called long-chain triglycerides (LCTs), which take longer to metabolize and get converted to energy.

Less protein, live longer

There are studies to suggest that a high intake of protein can lead to reduced longevity, by means of the IGF-1/mTOR signaling pathway. Why does this matter?

Because research indicates that when this hormonal pathway is turned on (by the intake of protein), the body works to build and repair cells simultaneously.

You may think this cellular multitasking is desirable, except… cells are not meant to build AND repair at the same time.

Dietary protein is used to build tissue, not to repair it. If you consume too much protein, your body attempts to continuously synthesize new tissue, to the detriment of cellular repair and renewal.

Don’t take this internal conflict lightly—this constant push/pull between building or repairing is thought to actually increase the aging process!

In fact, periods of lower protein intake, or protein cycling (PC), combined with intermittent fasting (IF) permits the downtime needed for your body to restore itself.

I was fascinated by the biology and science behind the combination of protein cycling and intermittent fasting (IFPC), so much so that I tried it myself. IFPC is now part of my regular wellness routine. I share my experience, the scientific evidence, long term benefits and a 15-day step-by-step program on how to do it in my bestselling book, Glow15.

Get the right amount of protein for you 

With protein, as with many other elements of nutrition and fitness, there’s no “one size fits all” approach.

Clinically, the standard recommendation for protein intake for inactive individuals is 0.36 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight.

In the real world where schedules, hormones, and emotions can affect how much protein you need, having a target range of protein that you can cycle between periods of low and high protein intake will be of tremendous value to you.

Here’s how to calculate your protein range:

Top range: Weight (lbs) X 0.36 (grams of protein)

Example: Based on a 130 lb woman:
130 x .36 = 46.8, or approximately 47 g of protein

Bottom range: Weight (lbs) X 0.36 (grams of protein) / 2

Example: Based on a 130 lb woman:
130 x .36 = 46.8/2 = 23.4 or approximately 23 g of protein

A few other factors play a roll in how much protein you need day to day: age, sex, body composition, activity level, health status, and personal goals.

If you fall into any of these categories, you may have to increase your protein intake:

  • You’re highly athletic or physically active – A higher caloric and protein intake is necessary to sustain activity (0.9 to 1.4 g protein/lb bodyweight).
  • Your goal is to increase muscle mass – More protein is required to promote muscle growth and recovery.
  • You’re over 40 – Natural production of protein declines as you age, so amino acids from dietary protein become more important.
  • You’re nursing an injury – A boost in protein intake is needed to help heal wounds.

Everybody is different and you may have to adjust your protein intake according to how you feel. After some experimenting and tracking, you’ll discover what works best for you. You might be surprised how much or how little protein you actually need.

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