How to measure success on keto

From the desk of
Luis Villaseñor
ScienceHow to measure success on keto

What makes a person start keto? Often, it’s a desire for fat loss. Then there’s the potential for improved energy and lower disease risk, too.

That’s why we encourage folks to track progress in these areas. If you want to lose fat, you should be measuring body weight and body fat (if possible) on a routine basis. The same applies to performance and energy. Simply put, are you looking and feeling better? Our approach sounds obvious, but it’s oddly uncommon. Most keto advice—or at least a huge chunk of it—revolves around chasing the mythical ketone.

The ketone, we admit, is a useful biomarker for therapeutic applications of keto. (To manage epilepsy, for instance.) However, even this is somewhat questionable as there’s not a ton of data to support that artificially high or even naturally higher ketones are more suppressive for drug-resistant epilepsy.

But for the person going on a keto diet to lose fat and feel better, ketone levels are almost entirely irrelevant. Yes, that’s controversial. Though, to be honest, I don’t really know why it is. I suppose it’s because people assume that elevated ketones mean you’re burning fat like a barbeque.

That’s not necessarily true. Having ketones in your blood indicates some increased level of fat-burning, but it doesn’t tell you the source or the magnitude.

In fact, adapting to a low-carb diet over a period of months often correlates with a drop in blood ketone levels. This doesn’t occur for everyone, but we’ve certainly seen it in our community. Is this a case of enhanced ketone utilization in the brain and body? Maybe. Nobody really knows.

As to my comment about the source, fat is fat – meaning that if you are eating in a caloric surplus or at maintenance calories, there is not going to be any net change in body fat percentage. If you’re eating too much fat on your plate, your body has no motivation to strip it from your body’s stores.

The real problem is that chasing ketones leads you away from your primary goals: losing fat and feeling better.

As a result, people come to really bizarre conclusions regarding why they aren’t losing body fat or why they feel worse. By modifying their diet based on this false narrative, they wind up moving further away from their goals, or even giving up on them altogether. The keto diet that optimizes for ketone levels isn’t well-suited to these objectives.

“So, what is?” you may ask. Let’s dive in.

Your Main Macro For Keto Success

If your goal is to boost ketones on a low-carb diet, the best strategy is to mainline fat. Fat has a miniscule impact on post-meal insulin levels, and keeping insulin low (by eating less carbs and less calories overall) encourages lipolysis—breaking apart body fat, fatty acid oxidation (burning fat), and ketone production in your liver.

But the postprandial (post-meal) studies don’t consider the consequences that follow. In the delayed sense, the preceding day’s fat intake is highly correlated with next day insulin load at basal. Basically, the traditional keto diet model (super high in fat, low to moderate in protein, and very low in carbs) didn’t account for a few factors.

But that makes sense—the traditional keto diet wasn’t designed for fat loss. It was designed to help epileptics, and later used as an adjuvant therapy for some cancers. It’s the same model you see promulgated in popular magazines by “experts” that haven’t actually worked with folks in the keto community.

Here’s the issue. When 70-80% of your energy comes from fat and you’re eating in a caloric deficit, there’s not much room for protein. And protein, not fat, is the key macronutrient for body recomposition.

Compared to fat, protein is:

  • More satiating per calorie.
  • More important for muscle growth.
  • A better source of vitamins and minerals (in protein-rich lean meats, for instance).
  • Better suited to weight loss and body composition goals.

Fat, on the other hand, is:

  • More readily and easily stored as body fat.
  • Easier to overeat (think cheese, nuts, and dairy fats).
  • Relatively devoid of micronutrients.

But fat is better than protein in the category that many folks are chasing: Ketone production.

By now you’re probably wondering if a high-protein keto diet (which doesn’t optimize for ketones) can be effective for fat loss.

Absolutely. In fact, the data indicates that when calories are matched, a higher percentage of protein in one’s diet generally leads to greater fat loss. Not only have I seen this approach work for thousands of clients in my coaching career, but researchers running controlled clinical trials have seen it work too[*][*].

We like it when studies help us make our point. And the point is: Protein sufficiency is the key macro for keto success. Not fat.

Objective Measures of Keto Success

If your goal is fat loss and muscle gain on keto, confirm you’re moving the right direction by tracking these categories:

#1: Your body

Most folks go keto for body recomposition. They want to lose fat and increase lean mass (muscle) as a percentage of body weight.

For starters, weigh yourself every morning, preferably before you eat. If you have fat to lose, dropping about 0.5% of your body weight per week is a reasonable target. More is possible for those with more to lose, but the average over time comes out to around 0.5-1%.

Weight loss isn’t the whole picture though. A lean person may wish to add muscle, for instance. You may gain weight, yet improve your body composition. That’s why it’s important to occasionally measure body fat too. (We recommend a DEXA scan).

Finally, body measurements like hip to waist ratio can be useful. We also encourage before and after pics so you can visualize your progress. Seeing is believing.

#2: Performance

Are you running faster? Squatting more weight? Banging out more pushups?

These questions can be reduced to a single question: Is your performance improving?

If you aren’t the kind of person who likes wearing a stopwatch, that’s okay. You might notice how many rest breaks you need while climbing a local hill. As you grow stronger, your friends and family will notice too.

#3: Macros and calories

Protein is a goal, carbs are a limit, fat is a lever. That’s how we think about macros.

  • Protein: At least 0.8 grams per pound lean body mass per day—and up to 1 gram per pound for those who practice resistance training and/or people over 40 years old.
  • Carbs: Limit to 25 grams net carbs per day.

Fat: Fat is to be modified around your goals and your stats. If you’d like to figure out your macros, take a look at our calculator here.

Basically, you’ll be eating lots of lean meat, low-carb vegetables, and adding fats as needed or desired.

When you get the hang of keto, you may be able to eat intuitively. This is not always true, though. People with a history of obesity or binge eating should consider being more diligent with tracking. But, in the beginning, you’ll want to track your food intake with an app like Cronometer. Get it right the first time and the habits will follow faster and easier.

Subjective Measures of Keto Success

There are two main reasons why people embark on a keto diet:

  1. Body recomposition
  2. To feel better

Progress towards the first goal is fairly easy to measure. All you need is a scale and a mirror.

Feeling better, on the other hand, is more subjective, encompassing things like:

  • Energy
  • Mood
  • Digestive comfort
  • Alertness
  • Hunger
  • Cravings

These are just as important (if not more important) than the objective measures. But they’re harder to calculate.

We recommend keeping a daily journal to track your energy, hunger, and other subjective measures. They should be improving over time.

3 Keys To Keto Success

When I advise clients, I try keep the areas of maximum impact at the forefront of our focus.

Ever heard of the 80/20 principle? It’s the question: “What 20% of inputs will give me 80% of the results?”

Tracking ketones does not pass this test. If you wish to do so, go ahead—just know that those numbers won’t tell you which factor is impacting your ketone levels. Your sleep quality, stress levels, quality of food, and calorie intake all affect those measurements.

Instead, we focus first on the actionables that pass the 80/20 rule. Here they are:

#1: Nutrition

If you’re not getting most of your calories from high-quality foods, you’re doing your body a disservice. Even if you’re technically “keto”.

Are foods fried in vegetable oil technically keto? Yes. Are they healthy? It really depends, but usually they are not.

When filling your keto plate, focus primarily on lean meats and vegetables, particularly green veggies. These whole foods will provide plenty of protein, vitamins, and minerals to support your body and mind on your path to better health.

#2: Exercise

Fat loss is mostly achieved through diet. (A mild caloric deficit, specifically). Adding muscle, however, requires exercise.

The equation is simple. Adequate protein + sufficient calories + exercise = muscle growth.

Exercise also boosts your mood and decreases your risk for most chronic diseases. The 80/20 takeaway? Be active every day, even if only for 30 minutes. You’ll never regret it.

Pro tip: Be sure to get plenty of electrolytes (especially sodium) to support your active low-carb lifestyle. You lose sodium through sweat and urine, and whole foods are naturally low in sodium. Supplementing will help you feel and perform your best.

#3: Accountability and Community

Humans are interesting creatures. If we tell someone our goals, we’re more likely to achieve them.

Pledging yourself to a goal leverages a psychological phenomenon called consistency bias. When you commit to something—a weight loss goal, for instance—your brain works super hard to maintain that commitment.

We don’t like being inconsistent because it makes us uncomfortable. This is why communities are so effective. By simply sharing your story and goals, you become more accountable. Share your progress people you comfortable with or others on your journey; a warm and accepting environment is a powerful thing.

Chase Results, Not Ketones

People usually go keto to look, feel, and perform better. Not to hit a certain level of ketones. But in a haze of bad advice, this truth is often forgotten. Ketones become the goal. And when ketones become the goal, it can become harder for folks to achieve the goals that actually matter.

Chase results, not ketones. That’s how you get what you want out of keto.

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