Protein on a low-carb or keto diet

Along with fat and carbohydrates, protein is one of the three macronutrients (“macros”) found in food, and it plays unique and important roles in the body. Here’s a guide to everything you need to know about protein on a low-carb or keto lifestyle.


 

What is protein?

Protein is made up of several smaller units called amino acids. Although your body is capable of making most of the 20 amino acids it needs, there are nine that it can’t make. These are known as the essential amino acids, and they must be consumed in food on a daily basis.1

Because animal foods contain all 9 essential amino acids in roughly the same amounts, they are considered “complete” protein. By contrast, plants lack one or more essential amino acids and are referred to as “incomplete” protein.

Keto-friendly animal protein sources include meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and cheese.

Keto-friendly plant protein sources include most nuts and seeds, although some are higher in carbs than others.

What does protein do in your body?

Protein is a major component of every cell in your body. After you eat protein, it is broken down into individual amino acids, which are incorporated into your muscles and other tissues.

These are just a few of protein’s important functions:

  • Muscle repair and growth. The protein in your muscles is normally broken down and rebuilt on a daily basis, and a fresh supply of amino acids is needed for muscle protein synthesis, the creation of new muscle. Consuming adequate dietary protein helps prevent muscle loss, and – when coupled with resistance training – promotes muscle growth.
  • Maintaining healthy skin, hair, nails, and bones as well as our internal organs. Although the protein turnover in these structures occurs more slowly than in muscle, new amino acids are required to replace those that become old and damaged over time.
  • Creation of hormones and enzymes. Many of the hormones necessary for life – including insulin and growth hormone – are also proteins. Likewise, most enzymes in the human body are proteins. Your body depends on a continuous supply of amino acids to make these vital compounds.

In addition, getting enough protein can help make weight control easier.

For instance, protein has been shown to reduce appetite and prevent overeating by triggering hormones that promote feelings of fullness and satisfaction2 Your body also burns more calories digesting protein compared to fat or carbs.3


 

Guidelines for individualized protein intake

Taking into account the among keto and low-carb experts, we recommend a protein intake of 1.2-1.7 grams per kg of body weight for most people.

In a few cases, even higher protein intake of up to 2.0 grams of protein per kg of body weight may be beneficial, at least temporarily. This would include people who are underweight or healing from illness, injury, or surgery and, in some cases, people who are very physically active (more on this in the exercise section below).

On the other hand, individuals who follow keto diets for therapeutic purposes – for instance, for management of certain cancers – may need to restrict protein intake to less than 1.0 gram per kg of body weight per day.4 Importantly, this must be done under strict medical supervision.

Follow these guidelines to customize your own protein intake.

woman satisfied

Use reference or ideal body weight if overweight

If you’re near your ideal body weight or very muscular, use your actual weight (in kilograms) to calculate your protein needs. However, if you’re overweight, it’s best to use your reference weight or ideal body weight in order to prevent overshooting your protein needs, which are based on the amount of lean mass you have.

You can use this calculator to determine your ideal body weight in kilograms, and then multiply this number by 1.2-1.7 to get your daily protein range.

Aim for at least 20 grams of protein at each meal

Research has suggested that your body needs about 20-30 grams of protein at each meal to ensure that amino acids get incorporated into your muscles.5 Therefore, it may be best to spread out your protein intake evenly among two or three feedings rather than consuming most of it at one meal – at least if you want to increase your muscle mass.

Older people and children have increased protein needs

Growing children need a large amount of protein in their diet. As young adults, our protein needs aren’t as high as children’s relative to our height and body weight. But as we approach old age, our needs increase again.

Health organizations in the US, European, and most other countries recommend a minimum daily intake of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram for all adults aged 19 and older.

However, several experts in protein research believe that people over 65 need a minimum of 1.2 grams per kg daily to counteract muscle loss and other age-related changes.6

Benefits of higher protein intake during menopause

During and after the menopausal transition, women may find that consuming protein within their middle to upper range makes weight loss or maintenance easier by helping to control appetite, boosting metabolic rate, and promoting muscle retention.

man with kettlebell

Resistance training increases your protein requirements

People who engage in weight lifting and other forms of resistance training need more protein than people of the same height and weight who are sedentary. If you perform strength training, aim for protein intake at or near the top of your range, especially if your goal is gaining muscle. Consuming a high-protein snack (such as 1-2 hard-boiled eggs) immediately after working out may further enhance the muscle-building process.

However, keep in mind that even with rigorous training, there is a limit to how quickly you can increase muscle mass, regardless of how much protein you consume.

How much protein should I eat every day?

Getting the right amount of protein needn’t be complicated or stressful. Most of the time, you’ll end up within your target range by simply eating an amount that is satisfying and paying attention to when you begin to feel full.

Here are the amounts of food you need to eat to get 20-25 grams of protein:

  • 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of meat, poultry or fish (about the size of a deck of cards)
  • 4 large eggs
  • 240 grams (8 ounces) of plain Greek yogurt
  • 210 grams (7 ounces) of cottage cheese
  • 120 grams (4 ounces) of hard cheese (about the size of a fist)
  • 120 grams (4 ounces) of almonds, peanuts, or pumpkin seeds (about the size of a fist)

Other nuts, seeds, and vegetables provide a small amount of protein, roughly 2-6 grams per average serving.

20 g of protein in 4 ways
The image above shows 20 grams of protein in four different ways. Almonds, salmon, eggs and chicken thighs.

Below you’ll find examples of three different levels of daily protein intake using the same foods:

About 70 grams of protein

Breakfast plate 30 g cheese 2 eggs

Breakfast

2 eggs
30 g (1 oz) cheese

Serving suggestion
1 cup mushrooms
1 cup spinach

Lunch plate 85 g salmon

Lunch

85 g (3 oz) salmon

Serving suggestion
2 cups mixed salad
½ avocado
2 tbsp olive oil

Dinner plate 80 g chicken

Dinner

85 g (3 oz) chicken

Serving suggestion
1 cup cauliflower
2 tbsp butter

About 100 grams of protein

Breakfast plate 30 g cheese 2 eggs

Breakfast

2 eggs
30 g (1 oz) cheese

Serving suggestion
1 cup mushrooms
1 cup spinach

Lunch plate 100 g salmon

Lunch

100 g (3.5 oz) salmon

Serving suggestion
2 cups mixed salad
½ avocado
2 tbsp olive oil

Dinner plate 100 g chicken

Dinner

100 g (3.5 oz) chicken

Serving suggestion
1 cup cauliflower
2 tbsp butter

About 130 grams of protein

Breakfast plate 30 g cheese 3 eggs

Breakfast

3 eggs
30 g (1 oz) cheese

Serving suggestion
1 cup mushrooms
1 cup spinach

Lunch plate 150 g salmon

Lunch

150 g (5 oz) salmon

Serving suggestion
2 cups mixed salad
½ avocado
2 tbsp olive oil

Dinner plate 150 g chicken

Dinner

150 g (5 oz) chicken

Serving suggestion
1 cup cauliflower
2 tbsp butter

Tips for further personalization

  • Adjust the protein portions up or down as needed, but don’t be concerned about hitting an exact target. Remember, your ideal protein range is pretty broad, and you should feel completely free to vary the amount you eat by 30 grams – or even more – from day to day.
  • If you’re an intermittent faster, you may want to increase the protein portions at the two meals you eat somewhat. For instance, in the 70-gram example above, either eat larger portions of fish at lunch and chicken at dinner, or add hard-boiled eggs at lunch and have a piece of cheese after dinner.
  • Be sure to include healthy fats at each meal, such as butter and coconut oil for cooking and olive oil for salad dressing.
  • Nuts and seeds can also be eaten at meals or as snacks. Keep in mind that they provide about 2-6 grams of protein per quarter cup or 30 grams (1 ounce). In addition, they contain some carbs, which can add up quickly and are also high in calories. Therefore, being somewhat cautious with nut intake is a good idea for most people, especially if you’re trying to lose weight.

Different experts’ views on protein intake

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or confused about how much protein you need on a keto or low-carb diet, you’re not alone. Protein intake can be a controversial topic in the low-carb world, and it’s very common to find conflicting information about this online and in books, especially with the growing popularity of this lifestyle. That’s why we’ve included our simple recommendations earlier in this guide, as a good guidelines for most people. However, if you’re interested in the different views among experts working in the field of low carb, read on for a summary.

One of the reasons is the lack of universal agreement among keto and low-carb experts about what’s optimal when it comes to protein intake:

  • Lower protein: For example, Dr. Ron Rosedale recommends 1.0 grams of protein per kilogram (2.2 lbs) of lean mass on a keto diet to promote longevity. For a person who weighs 68 kg (150 lbs), this would be about 60-63 grams of protein per day, depending on body composition.
  • Higher protein: At the other end of the spectrum, Dr. Ted Naiman advocates high protein intake for people who follow low carb or keto, especially those interested in weight loss. His recommendation is to consume 1 gram of protein per 1 lb of lean mass. For the same 68-kg (150-lb) person above, this would be about 130-140 grams of protein daily – more than double the amount Dr. Rosedale advises.
  • Moderate protein: Recommendations from most of the other experts fall somewhere in between these two. For instance, ketogenic researchers Drs. Steve Phinney and Jeff Volek recommend 1.5-1.75 grams of protein per kg of reference weight or “ideal” body weight for most individuals. For a 68-kg person, this is around 102-119 grams of protein per day.

 
One of the arguments made in favor of keeping protein on the lower end is that higher intakes may increase blood sugar and insulin levels. However, research hasn’t shown this to be the case.7 In a recent presentation, Dr. Ben Bikman proposed that your body’s ability to regulate blood sugar and insulin after you eat protein is influenced mainly by your carb intake, as well as how metabolically healthy you are. Overall, he has observed that those who eat keto or very low carb aren’t affected by high protein intake the way people on high-carb diets are. At Diet Doctor, our ketogenic recipes are moderate rather than high in protein.

A final word on protein

There is often some debate within low-carb communities about protein and people can feel very worried about how much protein to consume on a low-carb or ketogenic diet. However, generally speaking, when consuming meals that contain enough fat and non-starchy vegetables and are based on real, whole foods, most people will find it difficult to go overboard with protein.

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