The Ketogains method: Your ultimate guide to gaining muscle and losing fat on a ketogenic diet
It shouldn’t be surprising that Ketogains has grown into a thriving community of more than one hundred thousand members on the back of a no-nonsense system that consistently produces fantastic results.
This article examines the critical components of the wildly popular system that works consistently for so many people.
Protein as a goal
The first pillar of the Ketogains system is getting adequate protein, which is critical to building muscle and losing fat sustainably with greater satiety.
Protein promotes satiety and helps us to not overeat without having to continually fight our appetite (see Why Does Protein Suppress Your Appetite?).
Ketogains recommends a minimum protein intake of 0.8 g per pound of lean body mass (LBM) (i.e. 1.8 g/kg LBM) and 1.0g/lb LBM (or 2.2g/kg LBM) on days you work out.
Protein becomes even more important in a calorie deficit. The higher the energy deficit, the greater is our need for protein to prevent loss of muscle. If you are doing the heavy resistance training to chase the gainz, you will require even more protein.
In practice, however, it’s difficult to over-consume protein due to the strong satiety of foods that have a higher percentage of their energy from protein.
While ‘excess protein’ can be converted to glucose as required (if you are not consuming a lot in your diet), it does not instantly turn to chocolate cake in your bloodstream (unless you are in a significant energy deficit with very low levels of non-fibre carbs and fat).
Your body can use protein for fuel, but it is an energy-intensive process to convert protein to energy. Approximately 25% of the calories in protein are lost converting it to energy compared to 11% form carbs and 3% from fat.
Your body would much rather some actual chocolate cake rather than having to convert protein to ATP.
Targeting the minimum effective dose of nutrition
If your goal is fat loss from your body, then you want to target the minimum effective dose of macronutrients and micronutrients. Your priority needs to be adequate
As a general rule, a higher protein intake tends to align with a better micronutrient profile and greater satiety, which means that it will be easier to maintain over the long term.  Our data analysis from people using Nutrient Optimiser aligns with the Protein Leverage Hypothesis that suggests that we eat until we get enough nutrients, particularly protein.
Can you build muscle on keto?
The short answer to this is “Yes, so long as you have enough protein”. If you are consuming a low carbohydrate intake, your body can get the glucose it needs from your protein. Hence, you may need to top up with more protein to compensate for the protein that will be lost to glucose.
Carbs as a limit
The fact that much of the population is insulin resistant with elevated blood sugars is likely part of the reason the KetoGains approach has been so successful.
If you have already developed prediabetes or diabetes, then reducing your carbohydrate intake to the point that you achieve normal blood glucose levels is a great place to start.
Our analysis also suggests that a higher intake of non-fibre carbohydrates also correlates with a lower nutrient density.
Fat as a lever
In recent years people are swinging back from their extreme fear of fat. However, while we do require some essential fats, we don’t need that much of it to thrive, particularly if we are trying to lose weight.
Many people do fine on a diet that obtains a lot of the energy from carbs while others do well on a diet that gets the majority of energy from fat.
Where things seem to go wrong is when people consume a diet that is high in energy-dense nutrient-poor fat and carbs together with minimal amounts of protein.
The satiety analysis below shows that we’re more likely to overeat when we’re consuming between about 30 and 60% carbs.
As less of your energy comes from protein and more from the combination of fat and/or carbs we tend to eat more.
Once we remove the protein ‘fat to satiety’ no longer seems to work.
While fat is a great source of slow-burning fuel, our analysis of six hundred thousand days of food diaries shows that a higher percentage of dietary fat will make it harder to control your overall energy intake and lose fat from your body.
If you are trying to reduce body fat, then it is crucial to maximise nutrient density while lower the energy density of your food.
If you are looking to gain weight, add muscle or perform extended feats of endurance exercise regularly, it may be beneficial to prioritise energy-dense foods with a lower percentage of protein.
However, if you are not an endurance athlete but trying to use your body fat for fuel (like most of us these days living in a sedentary environment full of hyper-palatable food), you may want to wind your dietary fat as well as your carbs back and prioritise more satiating foods.
Once you’ve determined your macros and get the hang of using fat as a lever to manage energy intake, the next step is to ensure you are getting your share of micronutrients.
Unless you like eating a lot of organ meat, shellfish, or fresh raw meat, you will likely benefit from consuming some non-starchy veggies to get your essential vitamins and minerals.
Unfortunately, focusing purely on macros (e.g. Flexible Dieting, IIFYM, etc.) fails to consider micronutrients. Chronic energy restriction without attention to micronutrients can lead to nutrient deficiencies, a lack of energy, increased hunger, rebound bingeing due to cravings and even death.
As much as we tend to focus on macronutrients (i.e. fat, protein, carbohydrates, fibre, ketones), micronutrients are arguably more useful to assist us in our nutritional decision making. While the percentage of protein in your diet protein has the greatest effect on satiety, vitamins and minerals are also critical.
Getting adequate minerals is especially important for:
- avoiding the symptoms of the “keto flu“,
- reversing insulin resistance and minimising the amount of basal insulin circulating in your body,   and
- maximising athletic performance.
Active people tend to sweat a lot and need more electrolytes, particularly sodium.
Again, our satiety analysis suggests that people who consume foods and meals that contain more minerals tend to have fewer cravings and consume less food overall (see The Effect of Minerals on Hunger and Satiety).
A low carb diet with less processed food will contain less salt, so you may need to ‘add salt to taste’. The ideal sodium intake seems to be at least five grams and likely more if you’re active.
While the Estimated Average Requirement for magnesium is 0.35 g per day and the Daily Recommended intake is 0.42 g per day for men, consuming higher levels from food seems to be beneficial (say 1.25 g/per day for men and 1.0 g per day for women).
Potassium is possibly the most neglected nutrient in our food system. It is deemed to be a ‘nutrient of public health concern’, with less than 2% of Americans meeting their recommended daily potassium intake. While very few people are meeting the Adequate Intake of 3.8 g per day or the Daily Recommended Intake of 3.8 g per day, it seems that even high levels may be even more beneficial.
While supplements can play a role, it’s ideal to obtain more of your nutrients from whole food. For the vast majority of us, this will mean consuming more non-starchy vegetables and/or nutrient-dense organ meats.
What to track
“What gets measured gets managed”.
We can only manage a handful of things at a time.
“If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.”
Rather than trying to track everything all at once, you need to identify a few things to monitor to ensure you are moving towards your goals.
In the context of losing fat and gaining muscle the best things to track appear to be:
- weight/body fat,
- micronutrients, and
- performance (e.g. weight on the bar).
Most people want to have more energy and look good naked.
While it’s much easier to track body weight, it’s ultimately about losing body fat and preserving muscle.
While you can do your head in focusing on the fluctuations in your weight or body fat from day to day, you want to see your overall weight and body fat reducing toward your target levels. In addition to overall weight, it can be invaluable to track your lean muscle mass and target more protein if you find you are losing too much too quickly.
If you are not moving towards your goal, something needs to change.
If you are disciplined, it is possible to lose 1% of your mass per week, but 0.5% is more realistic over the long term. The average rate of weight loss in the Nutrient Optimiser Challenge was 0.75% per week.
If you are already lean, then it will be harder to lose fat without losing muscle, so you will need to pay particular attention to adequate protein.
It’s not all about the weight on the scale – you can be losing fat and gaining muscle. The weight on the scale is probably the most reliable indicator that you’ve got your inputs right. If you’re getting enough protein and working out, increased muscle mass should be looking after itself, and any loss should be mainly fat. For reference, the average rate of fat loss in the Nutrient Optimiser Challenge was 2.1% per week for men and 1.6% per week for women.
When consuming adequate protein, many people will find they can gain lean mass during weight loss (see Body fat, lean mass and waist circumference changes after six weeks using Nutrient Optimiser).
Macros / calories
Many people don’t enjoy tracking their food, so we’ve designed a range of food lists and recipes to help people improve from where they currently are. It will be pretty hard to get/stay morbidly obese if you eat only nutrient-dense high satiety foods and meals.
However, if you want to look like a fitness model, or you are not getting your desired results ‘eating ad libitum’ you will likely need to track your food to overcome your inbuilt impulse to maintain a higher level of body fat.
Tracking your food in Cronometer can be a useful educational experience to help you change your habits.
Performance/weight on the bar
Being stronger will improve your metabolic health, insulin sensitivity and ability to burn fat more effectively. Having more lean muscle mass will ensure you burn both glucose and fat more efficiently. Lean muscle mass is a crucial predictor of longevity.
Ketogains recommend a 5×5 strength progression. The Stronglifts 5×5 or Starting Strength uses a similar progressive overload approach. These programs involve compound lifts (squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, row, etc.) and progressive overload, meaning that you add weight to the bar each time and continue to get stronger. By doing this, you train your body to produce energy more efficiently.
Other things you can track
Most people have limited time and don’t want to live a completely quantified life. Unless this is your only hobby or you are a professional athlete or fitness model, you may quickly hit ‘analysis paralysis’ and give up.
There is no guarantee that technology will help you reach your goals. In fact, it seems that you are more likely to gain weight if you use wearables like a Fitbit because people tend to congratulate themselves and eat back the calories the app has told them they burned.
So, don’t try to track too many things at once!
Heart Rate Variability
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a measure of the variability between your heartbeats. If you are stressed and/or exhausted, your heart will beat more rhythmically as well as more rapidly. If you are relaxed and well-rested, your heart will beat more to stresses and quickly return to rest.
Measuring your Heart Rate Variability (HRV) can tell you if you’re pushing too hard and need to rest and recover or you’re not pushing hard enough and should be working harder to maximise your progress. Training hard when you are burning out can be counterproductive and lead to injury or under-recovery. But it’s also important to train as much as you can reasonably sustain if you want to keep making progress. If you want to maximise your gains, you want to find your maximum recoverable volume of training.
HRV tells you whether your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system is balanced.
- If you are “parasympathetic nervous system dominant” you might be overstressed from too much activity, not enough sleep, too much caffeine or work stress.
- If you are “sympathetic nervous system dominant”, then it probably means your body wants to rest.
- If your overall HRV is dropping, it means you are burning out and should consider slowing down.
Your blood sugar and glucose control is a powerful indicator of metabolic health. But blood sugar readings can vary depending, not just due to the food you eat or your metabolic health, but also exercise and stress.
If you have diabetes refining your food choices to normalise your blood sugars is essential. However, regular blood sugar tracking is probably going to be a waste of time and money for most people who are following a Ketogains style approach (i.e. tracking their food to ensure they are moving towards an optimal weight, getting adequate protein and lifting regularly).
If your waking blood sugars are less than 100 mg/dL or 5.6 mmol/L, then there’s probably not much use worrying about blood sugars if you are actively managing your body fat and lean muscle mass.
Unless you require therapeutic ketosis to help manage epilepsy, cancer, Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s, measuring your blood ketones is probably going to be a waste of time and money.
Some people get caught up chasing ‘optimal ketosis’ by eating more dietary fat and less protein. However, this is precisely the opposite of what you need to sustainably gain strength and lose body fat and improve your metabolic health in the long term.
Blood ketones do increase when we don’t eat. But high ketone levels don’t necessarily mean you are burning fat from your body. It could just be the three Bulletproof coffees and exogenous ketones you just had that are driving your high ketone levels.
Some people, especially those who are physically fit and/or have been practising a low carb diet for a long time, seem to have lower blood ketone levels, even if they are eating a ‘ketogenic’ diet. It’s hard to know whether this is due to the more efficient use of ketones or the fact they are burning more fat through non-ketogenic pathways.
Someone who is not metabolically healthy can load up on exogenous ketones, butter and MCT oil and see a high blood ketone reading. But this may just mean that they have eaten a lot of fat that they are not burning (because of their lack of activity and/or poor metabolic health) but rather backing up in their bloodstream.
A healthy metabolism seems to keep the total energy circulating in the bloodstream fairly low (i.e. from glucose, ketones or free fatty acids). The chart below shows more than three thousand data points of blood glucose and ketones together from a range of people following a low carb and ketogenic diet. Having high blood ketones and high blood sugar at the same time is not a good sign! Healthy people tend to have lower blood sugar and moderate level ketones.
Ketogains’ co-founder Tyler Cartwright has lost nearly three hundred pounds without exceeding 0.4 mmol/L blood ketones on his ketone metre.
Whereas blood ketones (BHB) indicate that you have energy building up in your bloodstream, breath ketones (i.e. breath acetone) give you more of an indication of your metabolic health and whether you are burning fat. But again, tracking breath ketones is not necessary if you are focusing on a nutrient-dense diet without excess energy.
Body Mass Index (BMI) is notoriously problematic for people with more muscle. Waist to height ratio is a much better predictor of the years of life that you will lose due to your poor health. Tracking your waist circumference regularly is a great way to ensure you are moving towards optimal health.
A reduction in your waist circumference of around 1% per week is a reasonable target in a fat loss phase.
Micronutrients and nutrient score
Focusing on nutrient-dense foods and meals will give you a good chance of getting optimal nutrition. However, you can also track your micronutrients in Cronometer to help you identify the nutrients you are not getting from your diet.
Nutrient Optimiser Score
The Nutrient Optimiser Score is a measure of the micronutrient quality of your diet. If you were able to get three times the recommended daily intake of all the essential micronutrients, you would get a perfect score of 100%.
To demonstrate what this looks like in practice, Ted Naiman’s diet got a very respectable nutrient score of 70%.
Luis’ got 72%.
Alex Leaf scored an impressive 74%.
Mike Berta also scored 74%.
Brianna Theroux’s scored a very healthy 79%.
But the coolest competition is against yourself. Andy Mant managed to seriously up his nutritional game…
… by eating a LOT of nutrient-dense seafood…
… in preparation for his Paris wedding.
And after a couple of rounds of following the Nutrient Optimiser recommendations and a couple of Ketogains boot camps, Matt Standridge (aka The Ketodontist) stepped up from a nutrient score of 48% to 73%. He says he is feeling great and continues to gain muscle and lose fat.
Check out the current Nutrient Optimiser Leaderboard here. If you are the competitive type and want to see where you sit on the leader all you have to do is log your diet in Cronometer for a few days and then upload it to the Nutrient Optimiser Free Report.
But what should I eat?
One of the biggest challenges in all this is making wise food choices. That’s why we’ve developed a range of food lists that will help you meet the Ketogains macro targets while still getting plenty of micronutrients. Click on the links below to download your free lists of the most popular food that align with the various goals:
- fat loss/PSMF (for high satiety aggressive fat loss)
- bodybuilding (for building strength without too much fat)
- athletes and bulking (for bulking up and those who are very active)
- maintenance (for healthy maintenance once you’ve reached your goal).
Go to the food lists page here to get your free food list to suit your goals.
We’ve also created a suite of recipe books (with full micro and macronutrient details) that will align with your goal. Luis Villasenor has generously contributed a number of recipes that he uses during an aggressive Protein Sparing Modified Fast, including:
We’d also love you to check out the recipe books of recipes optimised to suit your goals by following these links:
- maximum nutrient density
- fat loss / PSMF
- blood sugar & fat loss
- low carb/blood sugar/nutritional ketosis
- athletes & bulking
Each recipe books contains 33 beautifully presented recipes with a secret index of links 150 recipes of the best recipes that align with your goals while maximising micronutrients. Once you purchase the books you will also get access to all the recipes in Cronometer so you can quickly build your own meal plan to ensure you maximise your BootCamp Results are ready to rock #flexfriday.
- Nutrient Optimiser Free Report
- The Nutrient-Dense Protein Sparing Modified Fast
- Nutrient Density 101
- The ultimate PSMF calculator… the fastest way to your summer body!
- Optimal macros for fat loss, maintenance and bulking
- “high protein” vs “low protein”
- Guess what happened to body fat, lean mass and waist measurements when a hundred people tried the Nutrient Optimiser?
- A hundred people used Nutrient Optimiser for six weeks. Can you guess what happened to their weight?