Keto diet macros: Redefining protein, fat, and carbs on keto

From the desk of
Luis Villaseñor
ScienceKeto diet macros: Redefining protein, fat, and carbs on keto

There’s a lot of prominent misinformed advice on keto diet macronutrients, and it’s hindering people’s body recomposition goals.

For instance, many people mistakenly calibrate their diet based on the classical ketogenic diet (CKD), which was first used to help treat childhood epilepsy in the 1920s. This version of the ketogenic diet dictates that fat must account for 85 to 90% of one’s calorie intake, leading to less than optimal protein consumption. While the CKD increases ketones into the therapeutic range, it’s not the best to maintain lean muscle mass and promote overall health.

That’s because focusing on dietary fat isn’t an optimal strategy to lose body fat and gain or maintain muscle. I’m not against dietary fat, of course. With carbs mostly out of the picture, fat must account for a good chunk of your caloric load. But your focus should be to 1) sufficiently limit carbs, and 2) consume enough protein. This shift in focus lies at the core of my macronutrient strategy. In my many years as a keto health coach, I have seen it help thousands of people achieve fat loss, improve body composition, and reach other health goals.

This article will cover my approach to the ketogenic diet in depth. In a sentence: Limit carbs, shoot for a protein target, and use fat as an adjustable lever to increase or decrease depending on your current goals. You’ll also want to avoid the most common mistake people make on a healthy keto diet: falling short on sodium. But I’m getting ahead of myself—let’s start with the fundamentals.

What Are Macros?

Macronutrients are called macro-nutrients because our bodies require them in relatively large amounts. The three primary macronutrients (or macros, for short) are protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Together, they provide the bulk of the calories humans consume to produce cellular energy called ATP, which is required to power every last one of your cells.

Carbohydrates are not essential macronutrients, with the notable exception of dietary fiber. If you don’t eat carbs, your body will simply create glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis. Alcohol and ketones are also non-essential macronutrients. Much like carbs, they yield calories and ATP but they’re not necessary for life.

Each macronutrient contains a set number of calories per gram:

  • Protein: 4 calories per gram
  • Fat: 9 calories per gram
  • Carbohydrate: 4 calories per gram
  • Alcohol: 7 calories per gram
  • Ketones: 4 calories per gram

Unlike carbs, protein and fat are definitely not optional. Dietary fat, for instance, is necessary to build cell membranes, absorb vitamins, synthesize hormones, and support brain function. Fat is relatively easy to break down and super easy to store. Unfortunately, the opposite is true for protein: It’s relatively difficult to process and store. Nonetheless, our bodies need amino acids—the building blocks of protein—to build and repair muscle, bone, skin, hair, and organs, as well as to synthesize both enzymes and hormones. So we must eat protein every day!

Compared to carbohydrates and lipids (fats), it requires more energy to process and convert protein into ATP. In addition, high-protein diets have been shown to increase satiety, the feeling of being full. In simple terms, this means that eating a high-protein diet promotes increased calorie expenditure and reduces overeating. These are both great things for weight loss, unlike the modern Western diet.

The Problem With Modern Diets

Take a look at the standard American’s diet, and you’ll find a ton of processed foods, high in simple carbs and unhealthy fatty foods. Picture the snack aisle or a fast food menu: pizza, burgers, TV Dinners, ice cream, and soda are abundant.

The problem with the chronic overconsumption of simple carbs? It elevates blood sugar and therefore insulin, a hormone in charge of shuttling blood sugar into storage as glycogen. Glycogen storage space is limited, however. When the stores fill up, leftover glucose must be sent to the liver to be converted to (and stored as) body fat. Keep this up for a while, and you’re a short hop from metabolic syndrome and a host of other chronic diseases.

It’s a vicious cycle. The modern high-carb diet easily meets our short-term energy requirements, and pumps out insulin to store excess energy as body fat. Keep a stream of carbohydrates pouring in, and you eliminate the need to burn fat for energy. No amount of exercise—unless you train like an olympic athlete—will make up for a poorly formulated diet. Sure, you’ll burn some fat during exercise even if you eat lots of carbs. But at rest, you’ll rely almost entirely on the glucose derived from carbs for energy.

If you’re trying to lose fat and gain or maintain muscle, prioritizing carbohydrates is far from ideal. And you probably already know that in order to enter ketosis, all you need to do is sufficiently restrict carbohydrates. But how many grams of each macronutrient should you consume on a daily basis? Keep reading.

Dialing In Your Keto Macros

If you remember one thing from this article, remember this: Carbs are a limit, protein is a goal, fat is a lever, and salt is the secret.

The Carb Limit

A ketogenic diet limits carbohydrate intake to (at most) 50 grams per day, increasing your body’s reliance on dietary fat and stored body fat for energy. It does so by depleting the glycogen stores in your liver, allowing insulin to fall, and increasing glucagon, a hormone that prevents blood sugar from falling too low.

This metabolic shift—especially the reduced production of insulin—allows you to burn more body fat throughout the day. This breakdown of fat releases fatty acids, which are converted into ATP and used as cellular energy. But fatty acids aren’t the perfect fuel source because they can’t cross the blood-brain barrier.

Thankfully, burning body fat in a carb-restricted and low-insulin state also produces ketones! Ketones provide 4 calories per gram, and they have a particular advantage over fatty acids: They can cross the blood-brain barrier to be used as brain fuel. Therefore, ketones reduce your brain’s reliance on glucose.

Try starting with 30 grams of net carbs per day to facilitate your metabolic shift. If you don’t know what I mean by net carbs, be sure to give this article a quick read—or, in short, just know that fiber and sugar alcohols don’t count toward your carb limit.

The Protein Goal

Not eating enough protein can seriously hinder peoples’ body recomposition goals on keto. Protein is the stuff of life. The amino acids from protein structure every tissue in your body—muscle, bone, connective tissue, organs, you name it.

Protein is also the most satiating macronutrient. The fuller you feel, the less likely you are to overeat. Unsurprisingly, the research on high-protein diets for weight loss is fairly compelling.

Try eating at least 0.8 grams of daily protein per pound of lean body mass on normal days, and around 1 gram per pound of lean body mass on active days. You can of course eat more if you want to. This can vary greatly depending on your size and body composition, but average-sized people typically fall between 100-180 grams of protein per day.

Won’t all that protein kick you out of ketosis? Unlikely. Multiple studies have shown that high protein keto diets are perfectly compatible with fat loss and muscle maintenance.

The Fat Lever

Fat is a crucial energy source, but it’s important to recall that fat is calorie dense—it contains 9 calories per gram. That means that, in terms of calories, 40 grams of fat is the same as 90 grams of protein! This level of energy density makes it easy to overeat.

If your goal is fat loss, you’ll want to avoid eating large amounts of fat. For those looking to lose weight, try starting with 50 grams per day. If you’re looking to gain muscle, fat can go higher as your caloric needs rise.

That’s why we say that fat is a lever. You increase or decrease fat consumption to suit your goals. In general, however, most people have levered up fat too high on keto. For better results, replace that fat with protein.

The Salty Secret

The number one mistake people make when transitioning to a ketogenic diet is not eating enough salt. In brief, you pee out more sodium when your insulin levels are kept low. The sodium losses can be quite rapid, and if you don’t replace that sodium you’ll certainly feel the consequences. The collection of symptoms is colloquially referred to as the “keto flu” because they include headaches, muscle cramps, low energy, and more.

The good news is that it’s fairly simple to get enough sodium—just drink a well-formulated electrolyte drink mix like LMNT, or eat salty foods like pickles and olives. Don’t be afraid of the salt shaker either, your body will thank you rather quickly. You will feel the difference within minutes when you get it right.

Why We Don’t Recommend A High-Fat Keto Diet

A high-fat keto diet is more or less dogma these days. And even though that’s great for a therapeutic approach, most people who follow a keto diet these days are doing so for fat loss.

A high-protein diet is better suited to weight loss and maintenance because protein is more satiating than fat and also has a higher thermic effect of food (TEF). Unsurprisingly, out of all the macronutrients, dietary fat is the most easily stored as body fat.

Additionally, fatty foods are oftentimes devoid of vitamins and minerals. If you’re getting 70-80% of your calories from fat, micronutrient deficiency may be a real concern. And you can only eat so much… Don’t reduce your protein intake at the expense of eating more fat. Not eating enough protein is one sure way to lose your beautiful muscles.

To be clear, we’re not saying to avoid fat on keto. Carbs are what you should minimize. But we are urging you to prioritize protein goals over fat. I’ll drill it into you: Carbs are a limit, protein is a goal, fat is a lever, and salt is the secret.

Macros Are Like Money

I’ll leave you with an analogy. Macros and calories are like money. Invest them wisely, and you’ll yield better results.

  • Investing in carbs makes it difficult to access and burn body fat, so you want to limit that spending.
  • Investing in fat is okay, but be mindful that it’s easy to overdo and may displace more nutrient-dense and satiating protein-rich foods. Plus, investing in fat when you already have a lot of fat stored in your body is a bad use of your budget. Use fat wisely: Pull from your own reserves first.
  • Save a big wad of calorie cash for protein. High-protein whole foods fill you up, keep you strong, help you burn extra calories, and help you reach your body composition goals.

If you’re not sure how many calories you’re consuming, use an app like Cronometer to figure this out, but don’t get too bent out of shape obsessively tracking macros. At the end of the day, dietary decisions are about improving the way you look, feel, and perform, not optimizing the numbers on the macronutrient calculators.

A good strategy while grocery shopping is to stick to the outer edge of the supermarket. You’re looking for meats, fish, eggs, and non-starchy veggies. In other words, you’re looking for low-carb whole foods. Intuitive eating will be your best friend. And don’t forget—Stay Salty!

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