How Much Protein Should You Eat on a Low-carb Keto Diet?

Protein is one of the most important macronutrients obtained from food, and it has many crucial roles in the human body and research continues to suggest that protein can be greatly beneficial when trying to lose weight. This also backs up the strategy taken by many modified high protein, low-carb keto diets and why they are more successful compared to a low-carb, high fat ketogenic diet.

When keto was first introduced in the early 1920s for treating epilepsy seizures in children, it was very high on fat content (90% calories coming from fat) and incorporated little protein. However, when its potential as a fat-burning tool got popular, the macronutrient balance also shifted. Today, a true keto diet for fat loss provides close to 6080% of calories from fat, 510% of calories from carbs, and much higher protein.

But like any other diet, keto diet also imposes many restrictions, and to get the desired result, one must adhere to the guidelines. One such concern is how much protein you require daily on a keto diet and what foods deliver the adequate portion.

In this article, we are going to discuss all you should know about protein on a low-carb keto diet.

To Begin With, What is Protein?

Protein is composed of several tiny units known as amino acids. While the human body can make nearly all the twenty necessary amino acids, there are nine that it cannot produce. These are referred to as essential amino acids, and they need to be consumed through food every day.

Since animal foods contain all the essential amino acids in approximately equal amounts, they are referred to as “complete” proteins. On the other hand, most plants do not have one or more of these essential amino acids and are therefore called “incomplete” proteins.

Keto-friendly sources of animal protein are meat, cheese, eggs, and seafood, and keto-friendly plant protein sources are tofu, nuts, seeds, soy-based products, etc.

What Are the Functions of Protein in the Body?

Every cell in our body is made up of protein. Once it is consumed, protein is broken down into smaller units known as amino acids, which are assimilated into the muscles and other body tissues.

Here are some major functions of protein:

1. Muscle Growth and Repair

The protein present in the muscles is broken down and built up again every day. Hence, a new supply of amino acids is required for muscle protein synthesis – that is, the production of new muscle. Obtaining enough amounts of protein from diet helps avoid muscle loss and encourages muscle growth, especially when combined with resistance training.

2. Maintain Healthy Functioning of Various Organs

Protein helps maintain healthy hair, skin, bones, and nails, and as well as our internal organs. While protein is replaced more slowly in these structures than in the muscles, new amino acids are needed to take the place of the old and damaged ones.

3. Production of Enzymes and Hormones 

The hormones important for life, such as insulin and growth hormone, are basically proteins. Similarly, most of the enzymes in our body are proteins. The body needs a regular supply of amino acids to produce these important components.

4. Weight Loss

Moreover, studies have shown that taking adequate amounts of protein can make managing weight easier. The reason is that protein can lower appetite and help avoid overeating by stimulating hormones that make you feel full and satisfied.

Also, the body burns higher amounts of calories when breaking down protein compared to carbohydrates or fat.

5. Reduce Fat and Sugar

Lastly, there is a growing body of research that consuming more protein in a low-carb diet reduces liver fat and the levels of sugar in the blood.

Other Functions

6. Supporting healthy bones and joints

7. Promoting healthy skin, hair, and nails

8. Maintaining pH of blood and bodily fluids

9. Supporting immune function

Guidelines for Customized Protein Intake

Considering the different opinions amongst nutrition experts, we recommend a daily protein intake of around 1.2 to 1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight for most individuals. Consuming protein within this range has been shown to help prevent muscle loss, lower body fat percentage and offer many other benefits for people on higher or low carb diets.

Higher consumption of protein up to 2 grams per kg of body weight may also be helpful for some people. This includes people with low body weight or those recovering from sickness, injury, surgery, and sometimes, those who regularly engage in physical activities.

On the contrary, people who are on keto diets for healing purposes (for example, for managing some kind of cancers) may have to cut down their daily protein intake to below 1 g per kilogram of body weight.

However, this should be under thorough medical supervision. Follow the guidelines below to customize your protein intake:

If You are Overweight, Use Your Ideal Body Weight or Reference

If you have well-developed muscles or are close to your ideal body weight, use your real weight to determine the amount of protein you need. But if you are overweight, it will be good to use your ideal body weight or reference weight to avoid overestimating your protein needs, which depend on your lean muscle mass.

The DRI (Dietary Reference Intake) of protein is 0.36 grams per pound (or 0.8 grams per kg) of body weight. That means you can determine your average daily protein intake target by multiplying your body weight in pounds by 0.36 or your body weight in kg by 0.8. For example, a 50-year-old woman weighing 140 pounds in a sedentary lifestyle (doesn’t exercise) would have a protein RDA of 53 grams.

Aim for a Minimum of 20g of Protein at Every Meal

Studies have shown that the body requires around 20 to 30 grams of protein at every meal to make sure amino acids are absorbed into the muscles. So, you should spread the protein you take over two or three meals instead of taking most of it in a single meal – if you intend to build your muscle mass.

But can you consume too much protein in a single meal?

This is a controversial topic, with only a few studies to answer this important question. Two 2019 studies suggested that taking 20 or 30 g of protein per meal promotes muscle growth.

But incorporating more protein in a meal did not immediately improve muscle growth. Hence, some people believed this means that anything more than 30 g in one meal was “wasted.” However, this is not actually what the studies suggested.

Since muscle synthesis is not the only possible benefit of consuming protein, these studies don’t indicate that the additional protein is “wasted.”

Furthermore, questions arise – how does eating once or twice per day impact the way the body uses protein? Do low-carbohydrate diets help change this?

Presently, we have no answers to these questions, so it’s recommended that you take no more than 30 g of protein per meal.

Minimum Protein Requirements By Height 

  1. Under 5’4″ ( <163 cm) – 90g to 105g
  2. 5’4″ to 5’7″ (163 to 170 cm) – 100g to 110g
  3. 5’8″ to 5’10” (171 to 178 cm) – 110g to 120g
  4. 5’11” to 6’2″ (179 to 188 cm) – 120g to 130g
  5. Over 6’2″ (188 cm+) – 130g to 140g

Older Adults and Children Need More Protein

Children that are still developing have a much higher RDA (recommended daily allowance) for protein than adults (0.95 g per kg against 0.8 g per kg), which in theory makes a lot of sense considering their higher growth rate.

As we become adolescents, our protein needs are not as high as children’s relative to our height and body weight. However, our protein needs go up again as we reach old age.

Health organizations in Europe, the United States, and many other countries recommend at least a daily protein intake of 0.8 g per kg for adults up to 19 years and above. Still, many protein experts think that people older than 65 need at least 1.2 g of protein per kg every day to prevent muscle loss and other age-induced changes.

In a new study conducted on older women, a daily intake of more than 1.1 g of protein per kilogram was associated with a lower risk of frailty, a condition characterized by weakness, lack of strength, and many other changes common in old age.

Resistance Training Raises Your Protein Needs 

People who do weight-lifting, other kinds of resistance training and endurance exercise probably require a higher protein intake than inactive people with the same weight and height. So, if you engage in strength training, try to aim for a protein intake close to or at the top of your range, particularly if you want to add muscle. Consuming up to 1.6 grams per kilogram every day may help raise muscle mass.

However, note that even if you train rigorously, there’s a limit to how fast you can improve your muscle mass – no matter the amount of protein you take.

How Much Protein Should I Eat Every Day?

Obtaining the correct amount of protein should not be hard or complicated. Most times, all you have to do to reach your daily target range is consume a satisfying amount and be mindful of when you start to feel full.

Below are the amounts of food you have to consume to gain 20 to 25 grams of protein:

  • 100 g (3.5 oz) of fish, meat, and poultry birds (approximately the size of a pack of cards)
  • 4 big eggs
  • 240 g (8 oz) of plain Greek yogurt
  • 210 g of (7 oz) of cottage cheese
  • 100 g ( 3.5 oz) of hard cheese (around the size of a fist)
  • 100 g (3.5 oz) of peanuts, almonds, or pumpkin seeds (the size of a fist)
  • Other veggies, nuts, and seeds contain a little amount of protein, about 2 to 6 grams per serving.

Example of Three Levels of Protein Intake Per Day Using the Same Foods

1. About 70g of Protein

In breakfast
  • 2 eggs
  • 30 g (1 ounce) of cheese

Serving suggestion

  • 1 cup of mushrooms
  • 1 cup of spinach
  • 85g (3 ounces) of salmon

Serving suggestion

  • 2 cups of mixed salad
  • 1 half avocado
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 100 g (3.5 ounces) of chicken

Serving suggestion

  • 1 cup of cauliflower
  • 2 tablespoons of butter

2. About 100g of protein

  • 3 eggs
  • 30 g (1 ounce) of cheese

Serving suggestion

  • 1 cup of mushrooms
  • 1 cup of spinach
  • 130 g (4.5 ounces) of salmon

Serving suggestion

  • 2 cups of mixed salad
  • 1 half avocado
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 140 g (5 ounces) of chicken

Serving suggestion

  • 1 cup of cauliflower
  • 2 tablespoons of butter

3. About 130g of protein

  • 4 eggs
  • 60 g (2 ounces) of cheese

Serving suggestion

  • 1 cup of mushrooms
  • 1 cup of spinach
  • 150 g (5 ounces) of salmon

Serving suggestion

  • 2 cups of mixed salad
  • 1 half avocado
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 180 g (6 ounces) of chicken

Serving suggestion

  • 1 cup of cauliflower
  • 2 tablespoons of butter

Tips for Further Customization of Your Protein Intake

  1. Increase or decrease the protein portions as necessary, and do not worry about reaching a particular target. Bear in mind that your protein range is wide, so you shouldn’t hesitate to change the amount you consume by 30 g or more per day. If you eat a lower amount of protein in one day, make sure to add extra the next day.
  2. If you practice intermittent fasting, you may want to raise the amount of protein in the two meals you take. For example, in the 70 g example above, you may choose to consume bigger portions of fish at lunch and chicken at dinner or include boiled eggs at lunch and eat a little amount of cheese after dinner.
  3. It can be difficult to obtain adequate amounts of protein if you consume one meal per day (OMAD). So, try to eat OMAD a couple of days a week and consume more protein on the other weekdays. Alternatively, if you want to keep to OMAD every day, eat within a two-hour time window. This will enable you to eat your meal and also have time to take meats, nuts, and cheese as snacks to raise your protein intake.
  4. Eat seeds and nuts in your meals or have them as snacks. Remember that a quarter cup (30 g) of these offers around 2 to 6 grams of protein. However, they contain some amounts of carbohydrates that may quickly add up and are rich in calories. So, it’s good to be careful with nut intake, especially if you are planning to shed weight

Different Expert’s Views on Protein Consumption

If you are unsure or overwhelmed about the right amount of protein to take on a low-carb or keto diet, know that many people feel the same way too.

Protein consumption is a controversial subject in the world of low-carb and keto diets. And it is not uncommon to see contrasting information about this in books or on the internet, especially with the increasing popularity of this lifestyle.

This is the reason why we provided some simple tips earlier in this article as a guide. But if you want to know the different opinions of low-carb and keto experts regarding protein intake, continue reading for a summary.

The point is – nutrition experts don’t agree on the amount of protein that is optimal when on low-carb or keto diets.

Lower Protein

Dr. Ron Rosedale, a world-known expert in nutritional and metabolic medicine, recommends taking 1 g of protein per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of lean muscle mass when on a keto diet to promote longevity. For someone weighing 68 kg (150 pounds), this would be around 60 to 63 grams of protein every day, based on body composition.

Higher Protein

On the other hand, Dr. Ted Naiman suggests that people on keto or low-carb diets take a higher amount of protein, especially when trying to lose weight. He recommends eating 1 g of protein per 1 pound of lean mass. For a person weighing 68 kg, this would be around 130 to 140 g of protein per day, which is over 100% the amount Dr. Rosedale recommends.

Moderate Protein

Many other nutrition experts recommend a protein intake within these two. For example, ketogenic experts Dr. Jeff Volek and Dr. Steve Phinney recommend about 1.5 to 1.75 g of protein per kilogram of “ideal” body weight or reference weight for most people. For a person weighing 68 kilograms, this is about 102 to 110 grams of protein every day.

Moreover, other doctors and researchers think that protein restriction promotes health and longevity. For this reason, we need to aim for lower amounts of protein than the RDA advises. The big concern is that protein is important for growth, and as we grow older, we have to prevent abnormal growth, like cancer cells (tumors) or amyloid plaques in the brain.

Although protein restriction has been shown to promote longevity in rodents, worms, and other animals, there is little or no available data in humans, especially those consuming a low-carb diet.

Hence, it will be too premature to conclude about the possible risks of taking too much protein on a keto or low-carb diet, especially considering the risks of consuming too little protein.

Does Protein Negatively Impact Blood Sugar?

One of the arguments in support of protein restriction is that consuming higher amounts of protein can raise the levels of sugar and insulin in the blood. This is often an anecdotal report from people with diabetes. But there seems to be a disconnect between anecdotal reports and published studies.

For example, two studies indicated that a diet with 30% of the total calories coming from protein helped improve the levels of glucose in the blood. Although this was compared to a higher-carbohydrate diet, the higher intake of protein did not blunt the benefit of reducing carbohydrates.

Other studies of people with type II diabetes have shown that protein also helps reduce blood sugar. While it’s true that protein may raise blood insulin levels acutely, there is no evidence that high protein diets chronically increase the concentrations of insulin in the body (hyperinsulinemia). High protein in a carb-restricted diet may even help reduce fasting insulin levels.

As a matter of fact, the significant increase in insulin after eating may be one of the reasons why protein helps maintain low blood sugar levels.

Will Extra Protein Increase Sugar Level?

One big concern with a protein-rich diet is that the amino acids in protein may be converted into glucose through gluconeogenesis. However, physiological studies have shown that protein does not contribute significantly to blood sugar levels in healthy individuals or those with type II diabetes.

Even a meal containing 50 grams of protein will not bring about a significant increase in blood glucose. Dr. Benjamin Bikman, a professor of pathophysiology and biomedical scientist, recently proposed that your body’s ability to control blood glucose and insulin levels depends on the amount of carbohydrates you take and your metabolic health. He found that people on keto or low-carb diets are not impacted by high protein consumption as those on carbohydrate-rich diets are. Hence, while protein may induce a sugar and insulin response in the body, this is not likely to be a big concern for most individuals.

If you realize that your blood sugar rises after consuming a low-carb, moderate-protein meal, you first have to confirm that it does not have any hidden sugars or carbohydrates. If the meal is indeed low carb, you may then decide to cut down your protein intake to see if there will be a difference.

Bottom Line

It will be hard for people to take too much protein when consuming meals rich in fat and non-starchy veggies and are based on wholesome foods. So, we advise that you aim for a moderate amount of protein (around 1.2 to 1.7 gram per kilogram of body weight) every day, spread it out over two or more meals, and focus on eating healthy low-carb foods you love!

Another way to get rid of the headache of measurements is to follow Ideal Protein that offers a sheet to clearly outline which foods can be consumed and provides easy recipes for meal preparation. Ideal Protein too is a keto diet that is modified on the basis of clinically-approved testing and delivers adequate, high-quality protein instead of high protein.

To learn more about the program and for any questions regarding your daily protein intake, schedule a complimentary consultation here.

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