Many people like to define their diet based on macro ranges, such as:
However, if you want to control your appetite, reduce body fat, and improve your health, you probably want to know if your chosen dietary preference works.
Everyone agrees that consciously restricting calories can be difficult. We want to understand how we can manipulate macronutrients and micronutrients to improve satiety and reduce hunger which will lead to a spontaneous reduction in appetite and sustained fat loss.
My Nutrient Optimiser partner Alex Zotov and I have been busy lately mining the database of half a million days of MyFitnessPal data for insights that can help us refine our algorithm to help people achieve their goal with more precision. It’s fascinating to be able to quantitatively answer common questions and dispel many myths about nutrition with this massive data set!
In order to focus on people trying to lose weight, we filtered for people with a calorie goal of between 1000 and 2500 calories and eliminated days where people consumed more than 300% or less than 50% of their target calorie intake. This trimmed reduced out data set down from the original 587,187 days of data to 438,014 days of completed food diaries.
Definitions of diets by macronutrient range
The table below shows how we sliced up the data based on macronutrient ranges that align with different popular dietary approaches.
The “n” is the number of days in each ‘bucket’ of data.
The “%” column shows the percentage of days that meet that criteria.
The average row represents the average macronutrient breakdown of all 438,014 days of data. Each of the dietary approaches are subsets of this data.
10 – 20%
30 – 40%
Very low carb
Very high protein
Average macros (%)
The chart below shows what each of the diet approaches looks like in terms of macronutrients for the days that met the criteria for each ‘bucket’.
Average diet macros (grams)
Many people like to manage their diet by limiting or targeting a certain quantity of a particular macronutrient, so the table shows the average intake of each of the approaches in grams. If you currently track your diet you might like to see how you compare to these averages.
Very high protein
Low carb, high protein
Very low carb
Low carb, high fat
Low protein, high fat
Satiety of different macronutrient diet approaches
This table shows the average goal and actual calorie intake for each of the groups. The right-hand column shows the average of the actual intake divided by their calorie goal and multiplied by 100%.
A calorie goal in MyFitnessPal is set by a person’s Basal Metabolic Rate minus an allowance to ensure that they achieve an energy deficit if they are trying to achieve weight loss.
A score of less than 100% means that someone was able to eat less than calorie goal for the day.
A score of greater than 100% indicates that someone was able to eat less than they planned.
Low protein, high fat
Low carb, high fat
Very low carb
Low carb, high protein
Very high protein
This chart shows the goal vs actual calorie intake for each approach graphically.
The chart below shows the % goal achieved for each approach graphically.
Looking at the goal vs actual calories in the chart below we can see that:
The people following a low-protein, high-fat approach were the only ones to exceed their calorie target consistently.
The people using the high-protein diet had the highest target calorie intakes, suggesting that they were active and likely had more metabolically active muscle mass, and hence a higher BMR.
The high-carb approaches seemed to have a lower goal intake, indicating that these people may have already been typically smaller or had less muscle mass.
Both the high-fat and low-protein approaches have a negative impact on satiety. Combining these two approaches (i.e. high-fat with low-protein) appears to lead to people to eat much more than planned.
Avoiding protein (i.e. in pursuit of ketones or due fear of gluconeogenesis) and consuming “fat to satiety” appears to significantly increase your chances of overeating.
Lowering carbohydrates provides slightly better than average satiety. Focusing on reducing carbohydrates while also prioritising protein seems to provide a better outcome.
When we look at the correlation between macronutrient consumption and the ability to achieve your target calorie goal, we see that higher protein has the strongest alignment with followed by lower fat. Restricting carbohydrate seems to have a much smaller impact on spontaneous calorie intake.
This observation from the data also aligns with this recent study that tested high protein low carb vs normal protein high fat and found that “Body-weight loss and weight-maintenance depends on the high-protein, but not on the ‘low-carb’ component of the diet, while it is unrelated to the concomitant fat-content of the diet.”
A higher protein approach with less fat may be more advantageous in terms of satiety if your goal is fat loss.
A high carb approach such as a Whole Food Plant Based approach may lead to weight loss. However, it may not provide adequate protein to prevent loss of lean muscle which is a real concern during weight loss.
Also, keep in mind that plant-based amino acids and some micronutrients such as vitamin A and omega 3s are less bioavailable from plant-based sources compared to animal-based sources.
Someone following a high carb plant-based approach should monitor their body fat levels during weight loss and look to add additional protein if they are losing excessive amounts of lean muscle mass or their % body fat is increasing even though they are losing weight.
Personally, I used to follow more of a low carb high-fat approach in an effort to manage my insulin levels and blood sugars. However, recently I have found much better results in terms of satiety and body composition by prioritising protein.
I now realise that following a diet that enables you to eat less and control hunger is what will reverse insulin resistance (see this article for more discussion) and lead to increased satiety and fat loss.
So, with protein locked in, this article looks at how fat, carbohydrates and fibre affect our appetite.
The chart below shows the scatter plot of fat versus % goal calories consumed for about half a million days of food logs from 9,900 MyFitnessPal users.
On the vertical axis, an intake of less than 100% line means that an individual logged less than their goal for the day. A typical goal calorie intake is set at about 15% below a person’s Basal Metabolic Rate or the amount of energy needed to maintain weight.
To make sense of all this data, we divided it up into 25 “bins’. Each of the dots in the middle of the chart below represents the average of 22,000 days of data, while the ones at the extremes where there is less data available represent around 11,000 days of data.
This analysis suggests that the lowest spontaneous energy intake occurs with a lower fat intake.
Satiety seems to improve a little when we have around 60 to 70% fat, presumably because we can still accommodate a reasonable amount of protein.
Satiety is the worst at the highest levels of fat, likely because refined fat is energy dense and there is no room for protein.
Many people report that they find fat satiating. However, this is likely because they are able to consume a lot of calories quickly, so they feel full.
However, on a calorie for calorie basis, the data indicates that fat is the least satiating macronutrient. While you feel full sooner, you had to consume more energy to achieve satiety.
The chart below shows the scatter plot for carbohydrate vs % goal intake achieved.
The simplified chart for carbs is shown below.
This data suggests that:
We get the lowest satiety when carbohydrates make up about 47% of the energy in our diet.
We see some improvement in satiety with around 25% carbs.
A very low carbohydrate intake provides less satiety, presumably because it corresponds with a higher fat intake.
Satiety improves dramatically when carbohydrates exceed 60%.
Dietary battle lines tend to be drawn around extremes of low or high carbohydrate (e.g. low carb and keto vs plant-based, vegan and fruitarians). This data suggests that both camps may be correct to some extent.
We just need to avoid the middle ground of moderate levels of carbohydrate combined with moderate fat levels of fat, particularly with low protein (a.k.a. hyper-palatable junk food).
On the high carb extreme, it’s going to be hard to ingest enough energy to overeat. But when we add generous amounts of fat, we are able to consume enough energy to exceed our daily requirement.
Then due to oxidative priority, carbohydrates must be burned off first. So any excess fat that is not burned at the end.
The moderate carb moderate fat grey zone
So it seems we can do OK with either extreme of high or low carb. It’s the ‘grey zone’ of moderate fat with moderate carbs that seems to really mess us up.
There are plenty of examples of people who seem to do well on either high or low carb extremes in nature. However, we very rarely find a combination of both fat and carbs together with low protein. The closest we come to this in nature is milk, which is ironically a pretty good growth formula!
In order to understand how the ratio of fat to carbs affects our satiety, I plotted the fat versus carb ratio for days where people logged less than 25% protein.
On the left-hand end of the chart, a very high carb low-fat diet can be hard to overeat. It’s just a lot of effort and takes a lot of time to get too much food in your stomach.
On the right-hand end of the chart, a very high fat low carb approach is easier to over consume compared to the high carb low fat.
But in the middle, we have the ultimate miracle grow formula of fat mixed with carbs.
In food the food industry, food scientists spend a lot of time trying to optimise for this bliss point of the optimum mix of fat, carbs and salt that will enable us to eat more of their food.
If you want to avoid obesity, diabetes and the most common western diseases your mission is to avoid this grey zone.
Putting it all together
The chart below shows the plots for protein, fat, carbs, sugar and fibre together.
The key takeaways are that:
Increasing protein improves satiety.
Decreasing fat is likely to help you eat less.
Unprocessed contain more fibre are beneficial.
Varying carbohydrates has a smaller impact on satiety compared to manipulating fat or protein.
So, to understand how to apply this, let’s look at some examples of each of the foods that fit these categories.
High protein to maximise satiety
Once you push protein above 50% there isn’t much room for fat or carbohydrates. You will struggle to over-consume these foods!
ground beef (lean)
sirloin steak (lean)
Worst case macronutrient profile (the grey zone)
These foods have low protein and a mix of carbs and fat.
choc chip cookie
High satiety, low carb
On the low carb end, we get improved satiety when carbs are below 30%, protein is greater than 20% and we have less than 60% fat.
This is the sort of macronutrient profile that we would have experienced before agriculture away from the equator and/or during winter.
These foods are not as satiating as the ultra-high protein foods, but they will be a vast improvement on low protein junk food diet.
milk (full fat)
High satiety, high carb
We also seem to get improved satiety when carbs go above 60% with more than 20% protein. Most people who lived close to the equator (or in other places during summer) would have had access to higher carb foods that contain less fat. These foods have a lower energy density and hence are very hard to overeat!
If you are going to use a high carb low fat approach you may need to go out of your way to ensure you get adequate protein, particularly as proteins from plant-based sources tend to be less bioavailable.
So, in summary:
We seem to get improved satiety with either lower carbohydrates (between 20 and 30%) or high (greater than 60%) carbohydrate.
Lowering fat reduces energy density and helps us reduce our overall energy intake.
If your goal is to spontaneously reduce calorie intake and lose weight with minimal hunger you should consider:
minimise added or refined fats,
avoid foods that are high in both carbs and fat and have minimal protein (aka junk food).
Alternatively, if you want to ignore macronutrients altogether, you can focus on nutrient density using the Nutrient Optimiser and get pretty much the same outcome.
There is a lot of discussion, confusion and misinformation around the interwebs around the topic of protein.
Will ‘too much protein’ raise my blood sugars?
Will ‘too much protein” ‘kick me out of ketosis’?
Won’t ‘too much protein’ hurt my kidneys?
Won’t protein raise mTOR and give me cancer?
Isn’t protein is a poor energy source?
But I don’t want to be a bodybuilder!
While these are all interesting concerns, most people digging into nutrition are interested in losing some body fat and being healthy. So, fundamentally, I think the most critical question is:
“How much protein do I need to and lose fat without excessive hunger?”
Show me the data!
We recently stumbled across a massive dataset on ResearchGate of more than half a million days or two million meals worth of anonymised MyFitnessPal Food Diary from nearly ten thousand people logging their food for more than two months.
I was intrigued to see what we can we learn about the protein intake of people who succeeded in eating less compared to the people who struggled to meet their goal.
The chart below shows % energy from protein vs how much they ate compared to their goal intake.
Greater than 100% means that they failed to meet their target.
Less than 100% means that they were able to consume even less than their goal.
While there is a lot of scatter, we can see that people who consume higher % protein tend to spontaneously eat less, while those who consumed less protein tended to eat more and were less likely to achieve their goal.
We can remove some of the noise in this plot by breaking the data into 20 groups and looking at the average. This next chart shows the % protein versus the % target intake on average for each of the 20 groups of people. Each of these dots represents the average of 25,000 days of food logging.
While there are some extremes, most people tend to get between 12% and 35% of their energy from protein.
What does this look like in terms of lean body mass?
Assuming most people are aiming for a calorie intake about 15% below their Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), we can estimate their lean body mass using the Katch McArdle formula. From this, we can then estimate their lean body mass (LBM) and convert the chart into protein in terms of g/kg LBM as shown below.
A protein intake of around 0.7g/kg LBM (around the Daily Recommended Intake) appears to correspond with minimum satiety while a higher protein intake reduces hunger which will enable you to effortlessly consume less food and lose weight.
Increasing your protein intake from 0.7 to 2.4g/kg LBM appears to correspond to a spontaneous calorie reduction of approximately 15%. When we consider the fact that protein does not yield as much energy due to the thermic effect of food, we end up with a spontaneous energy deficit of more than 20% simply by prioritising protein!
Unfortunately, discussions on protein targets often get muddled in a mess of units. So I thought it would be useful to demonstrate what the minimum and maximum protein amounts look like using different units.
0.7g/kg LBM protein
The table below shows what 0.7g/kg LBM (which provides minimum levels of satiety) looks like in terms of a number of different units for a lean and an obese man (consuming 2000 calories) and woman (consuming 1600 calories).
g/kg lean body mass (LBM)
g/kg ideal body weight (IBW)
g/lb body weight
g/lb ideal body weight.
body weight (kg)
2.4 g/kg LBM protein
Meanwhile, the table below shows the protein intake that corresponds to the highest satiety protein intake of 2.4 g/kg LBM.
body weight (kg)
My preference is to talk about protein in terms of g/kg LBM because it relates to the amount of metabolically active muscle mass. However, body weight is simpler because you don’t need to think about how much body fat you have. Meanwhile, ideal body weight suits some because they have an idea of what weight they would like to be.
If your goal is increased satiety, fat loss and decreased hunger then you will want to move towards the higher levels of protein. In the first instance, you can just try to make sure you hit a minimum protein intake each day based on your weight and body fat. This will help kerb the cravings and manage your overall intake.
As you become leaner you may need to dial in your overall energy intake by focusing on leaner protein sources to ensure you get the protein you need without excess energy.
Protein intake levels assumed in the Nutrient Optimiser
If you require therapeutic ketosis to manage epilepsy, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s then the Nutrient Optimiser algorithm will calculator your macros using a minimum of 0.8 g/kg LBM.
However, most people who are interested in nutrition are looking for fat loss and/or diabetes management (and not therapeutic ketosis), hence we set the minimum protein intake at 1.8 g/kg LBM. Dietary approaches with lower protein than this ‘minimum effective dose’ tend to have a poor nutrient density.
A protein intake of 1.8g/kg LBM corresponds to the level beyond which we don’t appear to get any further gains in muscle growth. However, we do appear to get additional benefit in satiety and nutrient density.
Many people get confused with the numbers and units, which is why we created the Nutrient Optimiser. to calculate your ideal macronutrient range as well as provide you with some suggested foods and meals that will help you reach your goals.
Responses to common concerns
If you are still concerned about ‘too much protein’ I have outlined some brief responses to the common concerns noted at the start of this article.
Too much protein will raise my blood sugars!
People that produce adequate insulin in their pancreas (i.e. not Type 1 diabetic) tend to see a fairly stable blood sugar response to protein. Some people even experience a drop in blood sugar, so start slowly and titrate up to a more ideal protein intake.
While a low carb high-fat diet will mask the symptoms of diabetes by stabilising blood sugar and reducing your HbA1c, it is the reduction of fat stored around your organs that will ultimately reverse your diabetes!
Too much protein will ‘kick me out of ketosis’!
Ketosis occurs when there is less carbohydrates and proteins to provide oxaloacetate in the Krebs cycle, so we revert to ketosis to burn fat for energy.
If you need to lose weight then more protein will likely drive an energy deficit, which will cause higher ketone levels as you consume your body fat for fuel. However, keep in mind that BHB ketones are mainly a transport or storage form of energy and do not correspond with effective use of fat for fuel.
While ketones have experienced a surge in popularity thanks in part to people who would like to sell you some, ketones are far from the most important health marker.
If you are more concerned about elevating your blood ketone levels than the fat that is being stored in your liver, pancreas, heart, eyes and brain and driving you towards the most common diseases of our western civilisation, then may I politely suggest that you should review your priorities?
This video, while very graphic (you have been warned!), demonstrates why fat loss is not just for bodybuilders, but critical for health and longevity.
Too much protein will hurt my kidneys!
Unless you have late-stage kidney failure and are on dialysis ‘too much protein’ is not a concern. If you are concerned about your protein intake you should talk to your nephrologist (kidney specialist) about the optimal protein level for your situation. (If you’re not already seeing a nephrologist there’s probably no need to be concerned about ‘too much protein’ hurting your kidneys.)
Will protein raise mTOR and give me cancer?
We need a balance between building up (mTOR and anabolism) and breaking down (fasting and autophagy). What we do know for sure in all this is that excess energy (regardless of the source) seems to be one of the biggest contributors to diabetes, cancer and other metabolic diseases that accelerate ageing.
Optimising your diet with adequate protein to improve satiety and reduce body fat levels to ensure you are physically robust and independent for as long as possible sound like a much safer bet than crossing your fingers hoping that protein restriction (which only seems to work on worms in a Petri dish) will extend your life.
Protein is a poor source of energy!
Yes, fat is an efficient fuel source compared to protein. But if you have excessive stored body fat then getting more fuel is not your highest priority. Your body is highly motivated to ensure you consume adequate protein to prevent loss of lean muscle. Getting adequate fuel is secondary.
Eating lower protein foods means that, in the pursuit of adequate protein, you will need to consume more fuel (i.e. carbs and/or fat) than your body can use. Conversely, eating higher protein foods reduces appetite. With adequate protein locked in to build and repair muscle (and enable other vital functions), your body will be happy to get the fuel it needs from your excess stored body fat.
The spontaneous reduction in appetite that we see from the analysis of the half a million days of MyfitnessPal data demonstrates that your body is much more willing to burn your unwanted body fat if it is getting the protein it needs.
Forcing your body to convert some protein to glucose for energy (a.k.a. gluconeogenesis) is not such a bad thing. If you always give your body some fat or carbs when you need energy it will never need to dip into your body fat stores.
But I don’t want to be a bodybuilder!
The ‘good news’ here is that it takes a lot of intentional effort (and often some extra chemical or hormonal assistance) to build massive muscles. Optimising your protein intake will only enable you to manage your hunger, lose body fat and reverse your diabetes.
So, in summary. the analysis of half a million days of MyFitnessPal data indicates that:
Our bodies seem to be happy with less energy when we provide it with adequate protein.
Low protein intakes correspond with the lowest levels of satiety and the highest energy intake.
Higher protein intakes tend to increase satiety and spontaneously reduce hunger.
Increasing protein from 0.7 g/kg LBM to 2.4 g/kg LBM corresponds to a to spontaneous calorie reduction of approximately 15%, even before we account for the higher thermic effect of protein.
Thanks so much for reading! In the next article in this series, we’ll look at what the data can tell us about the relative satiety provided by fat, carbs, sugar and fibre. You might be surprised by the findings! So make sure you subscribe to ensure you receive it!
There is a lot of confusion about ‘excess protein’ and whether you can have too much protein on keto.
Insulin and protein are used to build and repair your muscles, organs and the other important parts of your body. This is an important and beneficial use of protein and insulin.
Foods that contain the harder to find nutrients (e.g. potassium, magnesium, choline, vitamin D) typically contain plenty of protein.
Actively avoiding protein and can lead to a less nutritious diet.
Unless you require therapeutic ketosis for the treatment of cancer, epilepsy, Alzheimers, Parkinson or dementia, you should be chasing vitality, health and nutrition along with stable blood sugar levels rather than some arbitrary ketone level.
There are a range of different ways to quantify protein intake. Thinking in terms of percentages can be more confusing than helpful.
It’s hard to over-consume protein because it is highly satiating. However, if you avoid protein your body may drive you to consume more calories until you get the protein it needs.
If you follow your appetite and focus on foods that contain the vitamins and minerals you need you will probably get enough protein.
Virta Facebook Live Q&A
I recently had the opportunity to pose some questions about protein intake to the Godfather of Keto, Dr Stephen Phinney in a recent Facebook live Q&A.
Dr Phinney’s response to my question is shown below, including his recommended protein intake levels of 1.2 to 1.75 g per kg reference body weight of protein.
While I largely agree with Dr Phinney’s response, I think it’s worth elaborating on some of the issues that are causing so much confusion at the moment.
The food insulin index data shows that our insulin response to food is more accurately predicted when we consider the fibre and protein content of our food, not just the carbohydrate.
However, I fear that many people have used the insulin load concept as a reason to avoid protein. I now understand that this is far from optimal within the broader context of good nutrition for health, weight loss and vitality.
If you are interested in learning more the implications of the insulin index data I recommend you check out the following articles:
While trading your calories from butter for steak will increase your requirement for insulin, the food insulin index data suggests that as a general rule, getting more of your energy from protein will reduce your insulin requirements as it forces out processed carbohydrates as shown in the chart below.
Getting more energy from protein tends to decrease our glucose response as it forces out nutrient-poor refined high carb foods. Your body can convert protein to glucose (i.e. gluconeogenesis) if it really needs to but it’s a lot of work, so it would much rather get energy from carbs or fat.
Protein is also very satiating. Once we have enough protein, our body tends to crave more fatty and carby foods for energy.
While it is both financially and metabolically expensive, protein is the most important component of your diet. Different people will need different amounts of protein depending on their life stage and activity levels.
While you probably don’t need to be going out of your way to binge on more protein than you can comfortably consume, actively avoiding protein containing foods is a recipe for nutritional disaster. If you are exercising or lifting heavy then you will naturally crave more protein.
If you actually need higher levels of blood ketones for therapeutic ketosis, it may be a good strategy to consciously restrict protein. However, I don’t’ think the vast majority of people chasing ketones are looking for therapeutic keto for the management of cancer, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, dementia or Parkinson’s but rather fat loss or diabetes control.
Protein number crunching
The numbers around protein can be confusing due to the units used.
Dr Phinney uses ‘reference body weight’ (RW) (which he says is ‘the weight you were when you were in college’).
The mainstream nutrition world talks in terms of total body weight (BW).
Meanwhile, the sports nutrition community talk in terms of lean body mass (LBM).
In order to understand what this means in practice, let’s look at an example of a woman who is currently 40% body fat but was 25% in college (i.e. her reference weight). For argument’s sake let’s say she was 70 kg in college but she is currently 87 kg or 193 lb. The images below will give you an idea of what these level of body fat levels look like.
In the table below I have calculated what Dr Phinney’s recommended protein intake looks like for this person in terms of:
reference body weight (RW),
lean body mass (LBM), and
body weight (BW).
Based on Dr Phinney’s guidance, this person should be eating between 84 and 123 g of protein per day.
1.2 g/kg RW
1.75 g/kg RW
lean body mass
1.6 g/kg LBM
2.3 g/kg LBM
1.0 g/kg BW
1.4 g/kg BW
On a practical note, there is nothing low about 2.3 g/kg LBM protein. While I do track my intake I find it hard to get above 2.2 g/kg LBM even when trying to maximise protein. At the same time, the lower limit is well above the official Recommended Daily Intake of 0.84 g/kg for men and 0.75 g/kg for women which are set to maintain nitrogen balance and prevent disease (i.e. not achieve optimal health and vitality).
What about percentages?
Talking about protein in terms of percentages of energy intake can be confusing as it depends on your activity levels or whether you are dieting. Theoretical energy intake requirements are based on your lean body mass and activity levels.
The table below shows what Dr Phinney’s protein recommendation of 1.2 to 1.75 g/kg RW (or 1.6 to 2.3 g/kg LBM) look like for our hypothetical woman above in terms of percentage of energy intake for different energy intakes depending if she was trying to lose weight, maintain weight or was more active.
Protein intake in terms of percentage energy intake can vary widely to the point that it’s practically useless. It’s generally much more useful to talk in terms of protein intake in grams per weight lean body mass rather than percentages.
Protein and nutrient density
Since stumbling across the insulin index, one thing I have found consistently is that nutrient-dense foods are not low in protein.
If you are focusing on the foods that contain the harder to find nutrients (e.g. magnesium, magnesium, choline, vitamin D etc) you will be getting plenty of protein.
Conversely, the only way to really get the ultra-low protein intakes being recommended by many people without an energy deficit is to avoid most solid foods and prioritise macadamia nuts, butter and oils. It should not be a surprise that it will be hard to get a broad spectrum of essential nutrients with this sort of dietary approach.
As shown in the chart below, nutrient density tends to increase up to about 50% of energy intake. If you’re eating more than 50% protein you’re likely relying on processed foods and supplements.
The chart below shows the nutrient profile of the most nutritious foods in the USDA database. If you could stick to these foods you would easily be getting a lot of the essential nutrients without having to consume too much energy.
The problem with these foods is that they can be very satiating which makes it hard to get enough energy in if you are active. However, if you are trying to lose weight these foods may help to ensure that you are getting the nutrients you need with less energy without being hungry.
It’s interesting to see many people who have been experimenting with the Nutrient Optimiser have commented on how little food they can get away with while experiencing minimal levels of hunger. Nutrient dense foods tend to be hard to overeat and also provide you with the nutrients to prevent cravings and hence reduce appetite.
For comparison, the chart below shows the nutrient profile of the ketogenic diet foods. That is, the foods that have the lowest percentage insulinogenic calories. These foods are 80% fat, 15% protein and 3% net carbs). Ironically, an individual consuming these foods will be meeting the minimum levels of protein but they will be missing out on a large number of other vitamins and minerals.
I find that it’s often the people who are trying to actively avoid protein that find themselves at the bottom of the Nutrient Optimiser Leaderboard with a very poor nutrient profile.
The chart below shows the nutrient profile that we get when we actively avoid protein. The only nturients that we get enough of in this scenarios is sodium and vitamin C!
Unless you are chasing therapeutic ketosis for the treatment of cancer, epilepsy, Alzheimers or dementia I think your focus should be on building health and maximising nutrition rather than higher ketone values.
If you are getting the micronutrients you need to thrive you will be getting plenty of protein and won’t need to worry too much about getting adequate protein intake. Conversely, if you are actively avoiding protein you will be unnecessarily sacrificing your other micronutrients (especially if you are replacing your calories from protein and carbs with refined fat).
But will too much protein kick me out of ketosis?
As I write this I have been experimenting with adequate protein with less fat and carbs and maximal nutrients on the Ketogains Bootcamp. A typical daily Cronometer summary is shown below.
My protein is sitting at about 2.2g/kg LBM for me given that I’ve been spending a lot of time in the gym lifting heavy during this time. I’ve also been able to hit many of the nutrients targets while maintaining a significant calorie deficit.
Leading up to this period my blood glucose levels were sitting in the mid 5s (approx 100 mg/dL). However, once I introduced the energy deficit my glucose levels plummet to the mid 4s (approx 80 mg/dL).
And although I don’t worry much about ketones, they seem to be sitting at around 0.7 mmol/L, which I’m pretty happy with.
I know if I keep my blood glucose around this level I will continue to lose weight and continue to improve my glucose control and HbA1c.
I also get plenty of breath acetone from endogenous ketones as shown on my Ketonix below.
Don’t forget the basal insulin!
While there has been a lot of focus on what we can do to not have too much insulin, we need to remember that insulin has a number of important roles including:
to help us get glucose into cells to be used by our mitochondria,
to help build and repair our muscles, and
to control the release of glucose from our liver while the energy in our bloodstream is used up.
People with type 1 diabetes demonstrate happens if we don’t have enough insulin. Not only would we not be able to store the energy we eat as fat and muscle, the brake comes off the liver and all the stored energy in our body comes flowing out in the form of excess glucose and ketones (i.e. diabetic ketoacidosis).
The image below is the same child, “J.L.”, in the 1920s before and after receiving insulin therapy. In a healthy person, insulin suppresses the fuel flow from the liver to healthy levels.
In someone on a standard western diet, basal insulin represents about 30% of the today daily dose. Basal insulin drops to about 50% for someone on a low carb or keto diet. But you can never drop your insulin requirements to zero. You always need this basal to stop the uncontrolled flow of fuel from your liver into your bloodstream.
We focus so much on the effect of the food we eat but we forget that it’s also the excess fuel on your body and floating around in our bloodstream that also plays a massive role in the insulin demand on our pancreas.
Whenever there are high levels of energy sitting in our bloodstream (from glucose, ketones or fat) the pancreas has to ramp up basal insulin production until the fuel in our bloodstream is used up. The more fat there is on our body the harder our pancreas has to work to hold back the pressure of excess fat on our body from being released into our bloodstream.
So, you may believe that your mug of Bulletproof coffee or the fat bomb may not be raising your insulin levels because it does not contain glucose or protein. However, your pancreas is still working overtime to produce more insulin to hold the fat on your bum and until the energy coming in via your mouth is used up.
You may be able to ramp up your energy expenditure for a while by shivering and fidgeting, more but after a time of overdriving energy you’ll likely end up fat and insulin resistant.
If you really want to reduce your insulin levels you need to work on reducing the excess level of energy floating around in your bloodstream (from any source, including fat, carbs, protein or exogenous ketones) so your pancreas will decrease its production of insulin to allow body fat to be used.
Focusing on obtaining the nutrients you need without too much energy seems like common sense to me.
Someone targeting therapeutic ketosis to assist with the management of chronic conditions such as cancer, epilepsy, dementia or Alzheimer’s may benefit from higher levels of ketosis and less reliance on glucose. But I don’t think the vast majority of people who are Googling “keto” at the moment are looking for a therapeutic treatment.
Understanding how to quantify the insulin load of our food enables us to accurately tailor or food choices to suit our goals. When it comes to insulin load we need to keep it low enough to get the results we need without compromising the nutritional value of the food we eat too much.
The chart below shows that nutrient density peaks at around 40% insulinogenic calories.
If you are insulin resistant it would be prudent to have less than 40% insulinogenic calories.
Someone on a low carb diet might have less than 25% insulinogenic calories.
Someone targeting therapeutic keto will likely need to have less than 15% insulinogenic calories to see therapeutic levels of ketones.
Unless you really require therapeutic keto then I don’t think there is a need to worry too much about the impact of protein on your blood ketone levels. Actively avoiding protein tends to lead to compromising nutrient density unnecessarily which may lead to nutrient cravings or deficiencies in the long term.
The glucose : ketone index
People who require therapeutic ketosis should also ensure that they are not driving the total energy in their system too high. To do this they can track their glucose as well as ketones. The glucose:ketone ratio (GKI) which was developed by Dr Thomas Seyfried to measure the degree of therapeutic ketosis.
If you’re interested, your GKI can be calculated by dividing your glucose (in mmol/L) by your ketone values. For example, if your blood glucose is 108 mg/dL and your blood ketones are 0.5mmol/L, GKI = blood glucose / ketone = (108 mg/dL / 18) / 0.5 mmol/L = 6 mmol/L / 0.5mmol/L = 12.
People who are chasing therapeutic ketosis typically do not need to worry about ingesting too much energy. Driving a hypercaloric state with refined fats is not a major concern for someone trying to keep weight on (e.g. cancer cachexia). However, ensuring that they are achieving lower glucose levels will ensure that they are not driving insulin resistance.
For reference, the table below shows the relationship between HbA1c, average glucose, ketones and GKI for different scenarios showing how your GKI and ketones correlate with HbA1c and blood glucose.
average blood glucose
Really low GKI values (i.e. very high ketones and very low glucose) are typically seen in extended fasting when glucose levels to drop and ketones from body fat increase in a low insulin state.
The chart below shows my blood ketone and glucose levels during a seven day fast. Amazingly, as my blood glucose levels dropped below 4.0 mmol/L my ketones drifted up to 8 mmol/L. During more recent, however, I haven’t been able to achieve such high ketone levels.
While we can get these high ketone levels during fasting, we typically don’t see them in the fed state. To give you an idea of what to expect, the chart below shows GKI values over time during fasting for RD Dikeman (from Type 1 Grit), Jimmy Moore, Simon Saunders (Keto Island) and myself. As a rule of thumb, you might expect to see a GKI value less than 2 after two or three days of water fasting.
If you’re interested, you can see the full report here and where these meals rank on the leaderboard here.
So what should you do with all this information?
So, to summarise:
If you have great blood sugars and just want to lose weight then you should focus on maximising nutrient density while reducing the energy levels in your bloodstream. There is no need to worry about “being in ketosis”. You will produce ketones if you are successfully achieving an energy deficit and burning your own body fat stores.
If you are insulin resistant then you will want to limit your insulin load to a maximum of 2.9 g/kg LBM. This will restrict carbohydrates in your diet so your blood sugars stabilise.
If you are trying to manage diabetes then you want to keep your insulin load under 1.8 g/kg LBM. This will restrict carbohydrates and may reduce your protein intake a little.
If you require therapeutic keto then you will want to keep your insulin load less than 1.1 g/kg LBM and may need to consider limiting protein.
The recommended values for protein and insulin load are shown in the table below.
max insulin load
diabetes / nutritional ketosis
weight loss (insulin resistant)
weight loss (insulin sensitive)
Can run the numbers for me?
I realise all this data can be confusing if nutrition is not your hobby.
Over the last few months, I’ve been working with a very talented programmer, Alex Zotov, to develop some handy software to help people navigate all this information and put it into practice.
The first instalment of the Nutrient Optmiser is a free calculator that will help you identify the ideal macronutrient ranges to suit your goals as well as a shortlist of optimal foods and meals. The table below shows how we can determine the optimal approach for you based on your metabolic health, waist to height ratio and goals.
We’d love you to check it out the Nutrient Optimiser. We’d love to hear what you think and how we can refine it to suit your goals.
We hope it will be really helpful for a LOT of people on their journey towards health through optimal nutrition
The lipophobics and the aminophobics are both talking past each other at strawmen.
The hysteria is not just humorous, it’s confusing and turning away novices.
This phony controversy causes people to recommend insane amounts of protein at BOTH ends of the spectrum.
Protein tends to be a passionate topic of discussion n the online macronutrient wars. So I thought it would be useful to set out arguments at both extremes of the ‘protein controversy’ and detail some responses to bring some balance. My hope is that this article will bring some clarity to the civil war in the low carb/keto community.
The TL:DR summary is:
appetite is a reliable driver to make sure you get enough protein to suit your needs,
our appetite decreases when we get enough protein,
it’s hard to overeat protein because it’s hard to convert to energy, so the body doesn’t want more than it can use,
most people get adequate protein without worrying about it too much,
people who require a therapeutic ketogenic approach should pay attention to their diet to ensure that they don’t miss out on essential micronutrients while maintaining a low insulin load, and
if you prioritise nutritious whole foods, you’re likely getting enough protein but not too much.
If you want more detail, read on! The arguments and responses of the two sides are outlined below. The article then concludes with some learnings and observations from the Nutrient Optimiser about how we can optimise protein intake to suit our goals and situation.
High protein bros
This section outlines the arguments and responses from the “high protein bro” extreme end of the debate.
“There is no such thing as too much protein.”
Refined protein supplements do not contain the same quantity of much vitamins, minerals or essential fatty acids as whole foods.
As shown in the plot of percentage protein vs nutrient score, a focus on obtaining adequate vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids from whole foods typically leads to obtaining plenty of amino acids. Meanwhile, actively avoiding protein tends to dilute overall nutrient density in terms of vitamins and minerals.
The body typically down-regulates appetite before it consumes ‘too much protein’. It is physically difficult to eat ‘too much protein’ from whole foods (although hyperpalatable whey protein shakes may be another matter).
While protein is beneficial, we also need a balanced diet that provides the other vitamins and minerals (e.g. electrolytes that will enable the kidneys to maintain acid/base balance which is critical to insulin sensitivity which is hard to obtain from protein supplements).
In summary, it is possible to focus too much on protein to the point that you are missing out on other important micronutrients. Conversely though, if you chase micronutrients from whole foods you will get adequate amounts of protein.
“Fasting will cause you to lose muscle due to a lack of protein intake.”
A high-fat diet reduces the need for glucose and therefore the requirements for protein from gluconeogenesis decrease. Someone who is ‘fat adapted’ with lower insulin and blood glucose levels will also be more readily able to access their stored body fat for fuel.
The body defends lean muscle loss by upregulating appetite. People with more body fat and/or lower insulin levels will likely find fasting easier than people who are lean and/or have high insulin levels.
Fasting will drive autophagy, which is beneficial, to an extent. Fasting and feasting is a cyclic process of building and cleaning out. We need to balance both parts of the cycle. Humans generally do this well in the absence of hyper-palatable processed foods.
One of the benefits of fasting is that when you re-feed, your body will be more insulin sensitive so you will build back new muscle more efficiently with less protein and insulin required. People doing regular multi-day fasts should ensure their average protein intake is adequate over a number of days and not just on the days they eat.
You should target more nutritious foods on your eating days to ensure you are getting adequate nutrients over the long term. If your goal is to lose body fat, then re-feeding to satiety on very high-fat foods may be counterproductive in terms of fat loss and micronutrient sufficiency.
“Everyone needs to lift heavy weights and be jacked.”
Not everyone wants to look good with their shirt off or is willing to invest the dedication that it takes to have a six-pack. However, being active and having sufficient lean muscle mass is important to maintaining insulin sensitivity and delaying the diseases of ageing. Doing something is better than nothing. Having sufficient lean muscle mass is arguably better than manipulating macronutrients if your goal is glucose disposal and fat burning.
Low protein “ketonians”
This section outlines a number of arguments against ‘too much protein’ along with some responses.
“Too much protein will turn to glucose like chocolate cake in your bloodstream”
Protein can be converted to glucose via gluconeogenesis if there is no other fuel available. However, gluconeogenesis does not come easily, and the body only resorts to increased levels of gluconeogenesis above baseline levels in emergency situations. Gluconeogenesis yields only 2 ATP from 6 ATP.
“Too much protein is dangerous for your kidneys”
High levels of protein are only a concern if you have a pre-existing kidney issue, and even then not everyone is in agreement.
“Protein is expensive and a waste to use for fuel”
The fact that using protein for fuel is metabolically expensive can be beneficial if our goal is fat loss as it increases overall energy expenditure. By contrast, fat and carbs are more efficient fuel sources. Higher levels of protein intake will drive satiety as well as being less efficient and cause more losses.
High protein foods are often financially expensive. Processed high fat and high carb foods are cheaper to produce and hence can have a higher markup applied to them. Thus, food companies tend to promote cheaper foods with a higher carb and/or fat content.
“Too much protein is dangerous for people with diabetes.”
People with diabetes convert more protein to glucose through uncontrolled gluconeogenesis (i.e. due to insulin resistance in Type 2 and a lack of insulin in Type 1). They also find it harder to build muscle due to a lack of insulin. Hence, people with diabetes may benefit from consuming more protein to maintain or gain muscle.
Conversely, people who are insulin sensitive may require less protein because they can use it more efficiently to build and repair muscle.
Older people tend to require more protein to prevent sarcopenia. A loss of lean muscle mass is a significant risk factor for older people.
As shown in the chart below, people with diabetes (yellow lines) produce more insulin in response to protein than metabolically healthy people (white lines). Forcing more protein beyond satiety may make diabetes management more difficult. However, most people get the results they require from reducing carbohydrates. The fact that protein turns to glucose can be a useful hack for people with brittle diabetes who want to get their glucose without the aggressive swings that refined carbohydrates can provide.
“Too much protein will make it hard maintain healthy blood sugar levels because protein stimulates insulin and glucagon.”
Protein requires insulin to metabolise. Insulin also works to keep glycogen stored in the liver.
As shown in the charts below, an increase in protein in the diet typically forces out processed and refined carbohydrate and so decreases your insulin and glucose response to food. [You can check out the interactive Tableau version of these charts here.]
People with Type 1 diabetes don’t have enough insulin to metabolise protein and maintain healthy blood sugars at the same time and hence require exogenous insulin.
People with Type 2 diabetes often have plenty of insulin but need to ‘invest’ their insulin wisely on metabolising protein to build muscles and repair their vital organs rather than ‘squandering it’ on refined carbohydrates.
People with hyperinsulinemia will often see their blood sugars decrease after a high protein meal as the insulin released to metabolise the protein also works to reduce their blood sugars.
If you see your blood sugars rise after a high protein meal you may have inadequate insulin. IF you have an insulin insufficiency, you may need to learn to accurately dose with insulin for protein rather than avoiding protein.
“High protein will shorten life due to excess mTOR stimulation.”
Humans need to balance growth (i.e. increased IGF-1, insulin and mTOR) with repair (i.e. autophagy, fasting and ketosis). Driving excess growth through unnatural means may not be beneficial for long-term health.
However, the research into protein restriction and longevity is either theoretical or in worms in a petri dish where they grew more slowly when protein and/or energy was restricted. Free-living humans typically don’t manage to voluntarily restrict energy intake. We seem to have an inbuilt drive to protect ourselves from a loss of muscle mass, depression (note: good nutrition, especially amino acids is crucial to brain function) and loss of sex drive, and generally feeling cold and miserable.
Longevity research in monkeys suggests that energy restriction or at least a reduction in modern processed foods is beneficial. However, there is no research in mammals that demonstrates that protein restriction extends lifespan or health span.
The low target protein values proposed by some for longevity (i.e. 0.6g/kg lean body mass or LBM) are practically impossible to achieve from whole foods without the addition of a significant amount of oils and refined fats and/or substantial calorie restriction to the point of rapid weight loss (e.g. check out the Nutrient Optimiser analysis of Dr Rosedale’s diet here).
There is a difference between lifespan and healthspan. Humans in the wild who are frail risk fractures and other complications related to muscle wasting and lethargy.
As shown in the chart below, there is an optimal balance between growth and wasting. Too much insulin and you grow to the point that you get complications of metabolic disease. Too little growth and you become frail, lose your muscle and bone strength then you may fall, break your hip and never get up again.
“Just eating protein won’t give you gainz!”
Yes indeed! You need to force an adaptive stress to cause muscle gains, not just eating protein. If you work out, you will likely crave more protein. This is natural and healthy and ensures that we can recover, adapt and get stronger.
“Overeating protein will make you fat.”
Excess consumption of any macronutrient will make you fat. However, eating more protein and fewer carbs and fat tends to increase satiety.
Research in resistance-trained athletes shows that overeating protein does not cause an increase in fat mass. Research in sedentary adults shows that overeating protein causes a more favourable change in body composition than overeating the same amount of calories from fat and/or carbohydrate.
“Too much protein will lead to rabbit starvation.”
Healthy people can metabolise up to 3.5g/kg protein per day and digest up to 4.3g/kg per day. This makes sense in an evolutionary context (or even in more recent times before we had refrigerators) when there wouldn’t have been a regular supply of food but we would have needed to be able to use the food when we came across a big hunt after a long famine.
Theoretical research suggests there is no upper limit to protein intake to the point it is dangerous. However, the practical upper limit seems to be around 50% of energy intake. If you force extreme levels of protein, you get thirsty and pee out the excess protein.
Growing children and active people tend to crave higher levels of protein to build and repair their muscles (i.e. 10-year-old Bailan Jones, shown on the right here with his brother, who is a growing young man with Type 1 who consumes 4.4g/kg LBM).
If you’re obese and eat only lean protein, your body will be forced to use body fat for fuel. If you are very lean and eat nothing but very thin protein satiety will kick in and you will not have enough body fat to burn. This is dangerous and leads to death. So if you are already very lean and going to live in the wilderness with only wild rabbits to eat, make sure you take some butter. However, most people will have adequate body fat to use for fuel for a significant period of time before rabbit starvation would be an issue.
“If you’re not losing weight, you should cut your protein and your carbs and eat fat to satiety.”
Reducing processed carbs helps to lower insulin and stabilise blood sugars and helps a lot of people reduce their appetite and lose body fat. However, not everyone reaches their optimal weight with this method.
LCHF / keto works until it doesn’t.
Many people find that they need to reduce dietary fat in addition to carbohydrates to ensure they burn body fat.
Restricting protein and carbs while eating ‘fat to satiety’ may lead to an inadequate intake of vitamins and minerals which can lead to cravings and a lack of satiety.
While reducing the insulin load of your diet to the point that we achieve healthy blood glucose levels often helps improve satiety, effective weight loss diets typically involve some permutation of reduced fat and/or carbs to achieve a reduction in energy intake.
Medical weight loss clinics typically use a version of a protein sparing modified fast which provides adequate protein to prevent loss of lean muscle mass while restricting carbohydrates and fat.
People on a low carb or keto diet may have an increased requirement for protein due to the body’s increased reliance on protein for glucose compared to someone who is getting their glucose from carbohydrate. Protein is the most satiating macronutrient and eating more fat when your appetite is actually craving protein, or other nutrients may lead to excess energy intake.
“Too much protein will kick you out of ketosis and halt fat burning.”
Contrary to popular belief (which is often propagated by people marketing ketogenic products), ketosis is only one of a number of pathways that we burn fat.
Ketones (i.e. AcetoAcetate or AcAc) are produced when there we don’t have enough Oxaloacetate (OAA) to produce citrate in the Krebs cycle.
If you are consuming enough protein and/or carbs to provide OAA you will still burn fat but through the Krebs cycle rather than via ketogenesis. Thus, you may be “kicked out of ketosis” if you eat more protein but you’re still burning plenty of fat.
If you have high levels of NADH (which is associated with ageing and diabetes), more of your AcAc will be converted to BHB in the liver.
Most people will see ketones in their blood increase when fasting or restricting energy intake due to the lack of OAA as they burn body fat. As shown in the chart below, blood glucose levels decrease while BHB increases.
There are a number of beneficial processes (e.g. autophagy, increased NAD+, increase in sirtuins) that current during fasting/energy restriction that is associated with increased BHB. It is possible that many of the benefits related to BHB may actually be due to these other beneficial processes that occur in endogenous ketosis (i.e. it’s probably not the ketones).
We can force higher levels of BHB in the blood by eating more dietary fat and less protein and carbohydrates. In this case, high BHB may be an indication that you are eating more fat than can be burned in the Krebs cycle and it is building up in the blood. High levels of BHB in the blood do not mean you are achieving the same benefits via exogenous ketosis as we do in endogenous ketosis.
If your AcAc is not converted to BHB due to a low NAD+:NADH ratio you will tend to see more breath acetone (BrAce). If you do not have metabolic syndrome, you may see higher levels of BrAce (i.e. measured with the Ketonix) and lower levels of BHB in the blood. You should also be aware that exercise and an adequate intake of B vitamins in the diet will also increase your NAD+ levels and ‘kick you out of ketosis’.
Before you get caught up chasing ketones by whatever means possible, you should keep in mind that someone who is metabolically healthy and easily able to access their body fat stores for fuel (i.e. low insulin levels) will have lower overall levels of energy floating around in their blood (i.e. from blood glucose, ketones or free fatty acids). Higher levels of energy in the bloodstream is a sign of poor metabolic health and reduced ability to access and burn fat.
High levels of glucose lead to glycation. High levels of free fatty acids lead to oxidised LDL. High levels of glucose and free fatty acids tends to lead to glycated LDL. High levels of ketones can similarly lead to metabolic acidosis if not balanced with an adequate mineral intake which may also ‘kick you out of ketosis’.
The average fat intake of these people is 60%, with half the people between 54% and 68% calories. The average carb intake is 11% with half the people between 6 and 15%. So, we can see that this is generally a CLHF population.
Half of the people lie between about 1.4 and 2.5g/kg LBM with an average of 2.1g/kg LBM. In terms of percentage, half of the people sit somewhere between 18 and 29% of energy from protein with an average of 24% energy from protein.
Dr Rhonda Patrick, who is sitting at the top of the leaderboard, seems to be eating about 2.5g/kg LBM protein even though she says she is not particularly active and eats heaps of veggies.
People following a zero carb approach tend to be eating more protein (e.g. Shawn Baker at 6.1g/kg LBM and Amy on 3.3g/kg LBM) as more of their energy comes from animal food. Perhaps many of the satiety effects of a Zero Carb dietary approach are actually due to the high satiety effects of protein.
The people with less than 1.0g/kg LBM tend to be relying on a significant amount of added fats and do not tend to achieve the highest overall nutrient score (see examples here, here and here).
What are the recommendations?
The very wide range of protein intake levels can be confusing. Some are outlined below for reference.
In long-term fasting, we use about 0.4g/kg LBM protein from our body via gluconeogenesis.
The Estimated Average Requirement is 0.68g/kg body weight for men to prevent protein related deficiencies and 0.6g/kg body weight for women. For a woman with 35% body fat, this equates to 0.92g/kg LBM as a minimum protein intake. (Note: These standard values are in the context of someone eating a conventional diet where they would typically be getting plenty of glucose from carbohydrates and are not particularly active, and protein requirements may be higher where someone is active and using some protein for glucose via gluconeogenesis.)
The Recommended Daily Intake is 0.84g/kg body weight for men to prevent protein related deficiencies and 0.75g/kg body weight for women (Note: For a woman with 35% body fat this equates to 1.15g/kg LBM as a minimum for someone who is sedentary).
Steve Phinney recommends 1.5 to 2.0g/kg reference body weight (see slide below from his recent presentation in Brisbane) which equates to around 1.7 to 2.2g/kg LBM for someone wanting to lose 10% of their body weight to achieve their ideal ‘reference weight’. This increased level allows for some glucose to come from protein via gluconeogenesis and allows adequate protein for people who are not eating carbs and active.
Ketogains suggest 0.8 to 1.0g/lb LBM or 1.8 to 2.2g/kg LBM for people who are looking to maintain or build higher levels of muscle mass.
Mainstream bodybuilding recommends 1.7 to 2.5g/lb body weight or 3.7 to 5.5g/kg body weight. For someone with 15% body fat, this equates to 4.3 to 6.4g/kg LBM!!!
What happens to micronutrients when we chase protein?
When I first started tinkering with nutrient density, I assumed that we would want to boost all the essential nutrients (i.e. similar to Dr Mat Lalonde’s approach). The chart below shows the nutrients provided when we prioritise foods that have higher amounts of all the essential micronutrients. The amino acids are shown in maroon.
The ‘problem’ with this array of foods is that, because protein is easy to obtain, this group of foods ends up being very high in protein! Even the “high protein bros” won’t be able to consume seventy percent of their energy from protein.
As you can see from the figure below, we typically can’t eat more than 50% of our energy from protein. However, satiety levels tend to be highest, and hence energy intake is the lowest at around 50% protein (dark blue area).
There is generally no need to prioritise amino acids because it is easy to meet the Recommended Daily Intake for amino acids if we eat whole foods.
Emphasise only harder to find nutrients
Rather than prioritising all the micronutrients, the chart below shows the micronutrient profile that we get if we prioritise the harder to obtain micronutrients (shown in yellow) without prioritising any of the amino acids (shown in maroon). (Note: Vitamin E and Pantothenic Acid haven’t been prioritised as the target levels are based on population averages rather than deficiency studies).
As you can see, we still get heaps of protein. However, we get a much better micronutrient profile in the vitamins and minerals because we are only prioritising the harder to find micronutrients.
Maximising nutrient intake while minimising energy intake appears to be central to reducing natural energy intake and minimising nutrient related cravings and bingeing. It’s not hard to see how we could reduce our energy intake eating these foods while still getting plenty of the essential micronutrients.
Highest protein foods
For comparison, the chart below shows the nutrient profile of the highest protein foods. It seems when we prioritise foods based on their protein content we end up missing out on a number of the vitamins and minerals. Thus, there appears to be a danger that we will miss out on micronutrients when we focus only on protein.
Do plant-based diets provide enough protein?
The one situation I have seen people not meeting the recommended daily intake levels for protein is people following a purely plant-based diet. In the nutrient profile shown below, Sidonie is only getting 11% of her calories from protein and you can see that leucine is not meeting the DRI levels while methionine and lysine are just meeting the minimum levels. This may be a legitimate concern for someone on a plant-based diet as amino acids tend to be less bioavailable from plans in comparison to animals.
The image below shows the foods that will help to fill in the gaps in her current nutritional profile which is focused on high protein vegetables and legumes.
This food list shows the foods that would fill in Sidonie’s nutritional gaps if she was open to adding animal foods. This is an interesting contast to the typical food list for someone on a low carb diet which has a much longer list of vegetables to rebalance the vitamins and minerals.
Most ketogenic foods
The chart below shows the nutrient profile of the most ketogenic foods (i.e. the ones that require the lowest insulin by limiting carbs and moderating protein). It seems that, if you actually require therapeutic ketosis (i.e. to manage epilepsy, cancer, dementia or Alzheimer’s), you will need to pay particular attention to getting adequate micronutrients (i.e. notably, choline, folate, potassium, calcium and magnesium).
Lowest protein foods
And finally, the chart below shows the micronutrient profile if we actively avoid protein.
It seems that actively avoiding protein has a diabolical impact on the micronutrient profile of our food. However, when we focus on balancing our diet at a micronutrient level, everything else seems to work out pretty well.
So what should I eat?
With all the conflicting opinions it can be confusing to know what to eat.
In the end, it comes down to eat good food when hungry.
If we remove hyperpalatable processed foods, I think we’ll have a much better chance of being able to trust our appetite to guide us to the foods that will be good for us.
The food lists below have been prepared to provide the most nutrients while aligning with different goals (e.g. therapeutic ketosis, blood sugar control weight loss, maintenance or athletic performance). There are a whole lot of other lists in the Optimal Foods for YOU article that are tweaked to suit different goals.
I think if you limit yourself to these shortlists of healthy foods you will be able to listen to your appetite to guide you towards the protein rich foods, the mineral rich foods or the vitamin rich foods depending on your need right now.
The Protein Sparing Modified Fast (PSMF) is regarded by many to be the most effective way to lose body fat while preserving muscle and avoiding rebound binge eating due to nutrient deficiencies.
First developed in the 1970s, the PSMF has seen various permutations in weight loss clinics and the bodybuilding community.
While the specifics vary depending on context, a PSMF generally defined as a diet with adequate protein, while simultaneously limiting energy from carbohydrates and fat.
While the protein intake is high in terms of the food on the plate, it could also be seen as a ketogenic diet due to the high contribution of body fat to your energy expenditure which will generate ketones.
Despite the peculiar name, there’s nothing really magical about a PSMF. It just means that you pay particular attention to protein in an energy deficit.
If you want to lose weight quickly and body fat fast you need a more substantial deficit, and therefore more attention needs to be paid to ensuring you are getting adequate protein.
This article outlines the key principles of the PSMF that can be applied to weight loss or maintenance over the long-term.
If you just want a PSMF calculator to determine your optimal protein, fat and carbohydrate range along with nutrient-dense foods and meals, then we recommend you get your Nutrient Optimiser free report.
Medical applications of the PSMF
In the medical version of the PSMF, patients obtain the majority of their energy from protein while keeping energy from carbohydrates and fat low.
Protein levels are set at 1.2 to 1.5 g/kg of ideal body weight per day. Note: For someone with 30% body fat wanting to get to 10% body fat this would be equivalent to 1.5 to 1.9g protein per kilogram of lean body mass or LBM.
Carbohydrate intake is typically restricted to less than 20 to 50 g/day.
Additional dietary fat beyond what comes with lean protein sources is minimised.
Patients in the weight loss clinic setting (e.g. for morbidly obese people in the lead up to bariatric surgery) are restricted to less than 800 kcal/day.
The Cleveland Clinic has carried out extensive research into the use of adequate protein low-calorie diets for aggressive weight loss and found that:
patients are encouraged by the initial period of rapid weight loss which leads to a lower dropout rate;
meal replacements in the form of commercial shakes or bars can be used, however learning to make meals from whole foods critical to developing habits that lay the foundation for long-term success;
the PSMF is effective for people with normal glycemic control as well as pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes;people on a whole food-based PSMF are significantly less hungry and preoccupied with eating compared to those on a liquid-formula based version of the PSMF; and
most of the weight lost during a PSMF is from fat tissue rather than muscle.Adherence to a very-low-calorie, ketogenic PSMF program results in major short-term health benefits for obese patients with type 2 diabetes. These benefits include significant weight loss, often more than 18kg, within 6 months.
In addition, significant improvements in fasting glucose and haemoglobin A1c levels are linked to the caloric and carbohydrate restriction of the PSMF. Insulin resistance was also attenuated, with possible partial restoration of pancreatic beta-cell capacity.
McDonald details how someone can individualise the PSMF based on their goals and context.
Someone who is already very lean and undertaking heavy weight training will need higher levels of protein, while someone who isn’t yet lean may do better with a less aggressive approach over a more extended period.
McDonald’s recommended protein intake ranges from 2.2 g/kg LBM to 4.4 g/kg LBM
Unlimited green leafy fibrous veggies are strongly encouraged as they are filling and provide the vitamins and minerals with minimal calories.
McDonald also recommends supplementing with a multivitamin, sodium potassium, magnesium, taurine, calcium and fish oil.
A severely energy restricted PSMF is typically not a long-term proposition due to the risk of nutrient deficiencies with a severe energy deficit.
If you are active and/or doing resistance training, then your requirement for protein is even higher. As shown in the chart below from a recent review paper by Stuart Phillips, lean muscle mass is best preserved when we have at least 2.6g/kg total body weight where there is an aggressive deficit (e.g. 35%). A lower protein intake of 1.5 g/kg body weight seems to be adequate where we have a more moderate deficit.
Protein drives satiety
The body fiercely defends loss of muscle mass by increasing appetite after periods of fasting or low protein consumption to ensure that muscle mass is retained.
Conversely, as per the Protein Leverage Hypothesis (Simpson, 2005), it appears that we continue to eat until we get enough protein, and thus prioritising protein typically leads to a lower spontaneous calorie intake.
“Protein generally increases satiety to a greater extent than carbohydrate or fat and may facilitate a reduction in energy consumption under ad libitum dietary conditions.”
If we eat foods with a lower % of energy from protein we may end up consuming more energy to obtain our adequate protein. Conversely, we can ‘hack’ our appetite by prioritising adequate protein while minimising energy from carbohydrate and fat.
Similarly, the chart below shows that diets with a higher percentage of their energy from protein tend to increase satiety and lead to less energy intake while dietary approaches with less protein tend to increase spontaneous energy intake.
Protein is prioritised, with carbohydrates and fat viewed more as lower priority fuel sources:
Minimum carbohydrate requirement: While there is a need for the vitamins and minerals that are often packaged with carbohydrate-containing foods such as non-starchy vegetables, there is really no minimum level of carbohydrates. While it takes a little bit more work, we can get the glucose we need for our brain function from protein via gluconeogenesis.
Minimum fat requirement: Most people have plenty of body fat stores that they can draw on and hence do not have an immediate need for dietary fat other than the essential Omega 3 fatty acids. You can still get a robust micronutrient profile with 10% dietary fat (or 0.4 g/kg LBM). This allows the fat from your body to be used for energy.
The secret to a sustainable and successful PSMF is to get adequate protein, along with vitamins, minerals, the essential fatty acids with energy. This will improve satiety while also getting adequate nutrients which is really the holy grail of weight loss and long-term maintenance.
Thermic effect of food
The other advantage of consuming a higher protein diet is increased thermogenesis (i.e. the energy lost in the process of converting food into energy). The thermic effect (or specific dynamic action) is 5 to 15% for carbohydrates and fat and 20 to 35% for protein.The thermic effect of food is illustrated nicely by these images from Physioqonomics. We lose a lot more calories metabolising protein compared to fat or carbohydrates.
While there is much debate over the “metabolic advantage” of fat vs. carbohydrates with claims that we can eat more calories of fat than carbs, there is actually an advantage’ when it comes to how many calories of protein we eat versus how much we can convert to energy.
While we can convert protein to glucose (i.e. gluconeogenesis), it is harder to do, and our body doesn’t like to do unless it has to. Satiety typically kicks in quickly once we have had adequate protein and we go in search of fat or carbs which are easier to convert to energy.
Just think, you can only eat so much steak, but you always have a ‘dessert stomach’, even after a big meal. Humans are programmed to overeat foods with fat and carbs with minimal protein to ensure that they survive the coming winter.
Should you just eat the highest protein foods?
So, the obvious question is:
What should I eat on a PSMF?
The table below lists the foods with the highest protein content as a percentage of energy. These foods may be useful if you are looking to boost your protein intake.
For a longer list of nutrient dense, high protein foods and meals tailored for your current situation and goals we recommend you get to obtain your Nutrient Optimiser free report. Just select “fat loss (insulin sensitive)” as your goal.
The problem with a very high protein diet
While you may be getting plenty of essential amino acids if you focus purely on high protein foods, you may not be getting all the vitamins and minerals you need.
As shown in the chart below, there is a strong relationship between protein and nutrient density. However, if we only focus on high protein foods, we may still end up missing out on the harder to find vitamins and minerals.
The chart below shows the micronutrients provided by the top 10% of the foods in the USDA database when sorted for maximum protein content.
Now imagine, that rather than getting 2000 calories, we are getting only 800 or 400 calories during long-term fasting or extreme dieting. We have a higher chance of becoming deficient in many key nutrients which may in turn increase appetite and drive us to eat more than we would like to.
Ensuring you are getting adequate micronutrients is a key component to long-term success in weight loss and maintenance.
In his Rapid Fat Loss Handbook McDonald mentions ‘The Last Chance Diet’ which was popular in the 1970s and 80s. It was essentially a PSMF centred around liquid nutrition which led to the death of a number of devotees due to some fatal flaws.First, they picked the cheapest protein source available, collagen; a protein that provides essentially zero nutrition to the body. Second, they provided zero supplemental vitamins and minerals (some of which would have been obtained if the dieters had been eating whole foods in the first place). This caused a couple of problems including cardiac heart loss (from the total lack of protein) and arrhythmias from the lack of minerals.
Basically, the problem wasn’t with the approach so much as with the food choices. PSMF’s based around whole foods (which provide high-quality proteins as well as vitamins and minerals) and with adequate mineral supplementation have shown no such problems.
Bruce Ames’ Triage Theory
Nutrient density becomes even more critial when we consciously try to limit our energy intake.
Attaining adequate micronutrients can help to mitigate metabolic/mitochondrial slowdown and adaption to the severe calorie deficit. If we are getting the range of micronutrients we need, the body is more likely to keep on feasting on our own fat stores without reacting like there is a famine.
Similar to the protein leverage hypothesis, it seems if we provide the body with low nutrient density food it is driven to consume more energy to ensure that it gets the nutrients it needs.
While we can argue that the some of the DRIs for various nutrients are overly conservative, you also don’t have to look too far to find people that argue that we need multiple times the DRI for another particular nutrient to optimise our health and longevity.
You don’t need to worry about precisely meeting the daily recommended intake for every single micronutrient every single day. A healthy well-balanced diet will achieve the DRI for the majority of the essential micronutrients most of the time.
More research is required to understand whether our requirements for different nutrients change depending on our diet (e.g. how much less vitamin C do we need if we are not consuming as much glucose) and how much more bioavailable nutrients are from plants versus animals.
However, if you are an order of magnitude below the recommended values for a handful of nutrients, then you should consider focussing on foods that contain that contain higher levels of that cluster of nutrients. If you are an order of magnitude over the recommended values for a particular group of nutrients you don’t need to prioritise foods that contain those nutrients.
Bruce Ames’ Triage Theory suggests that if we are low in critical nutrients, the body will prioritise those nutrients for functions essential to short-term survival rather than longevity and preventing the diseases of ageing (e.g. cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, etc.).
“The triage theory posits that some functions of micronutrients (the approximately 40 essential vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and amino acids) are restricted during shortage and that functions required for short-term survival take precedence over those that are less essential. Insidious changes accumulate as a consequence of restriction, which increases the risk of diseases of ageing.”
So, while we might do OK with poor nutrition for a period of time, we will probably do better if we obtain a substantial amount of all the essential nutrients. Ideally, we would get these nutrients from whole foods which are more likely to contain all the non-essential but also beneficial vitamins and minerals that we don’t track.
The nutrient-dense adequate protein diet
So, to recap:
getting adequate protein is essential, especially if we are fasting or restricting energy intake, and
not getting sufficient nutrients is potentially dangerous and possibly the fatal flaw of the PSMF.
We can use the Nutrient Optimiser to prioritise foods with the nutrients we want to obtain more of. Prioritising amino acids is usually unnecessary because maximising vitamins and minerals generally leads to more than adequate protein. However, in a PSMF where we are severely limiting energy, we want to increase protein as well.
The chart below shows the resultant micronutrient profile achieved if we ate 2000 calories per day of the foods recommended by the Nutrient Optimiser. When we focus on nutrient density, we get adequate quantities of all nutrients other than the Omega 3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid.
The chart below shows the same foods if we only ate 600 calories per day rather than 2000. Even with these highly nutrient dense foods, we miss the DRI for eight of the essential nutrients. Hence, we may still benefit from supplementing with Omega 3, vitamin D, calcium, magnesium and potassium if we are intentionally limiting energy on a PSMF.
It’s not hard to imagine that our ability to maintain a low energy intake and achieve sustained weight loss is likely related to getting adequate levels of the various essential micronutrients without having to over-consume energy. Conversely, a nutrient-poor diet will likely drive us to consume excess energy which will lead to obesity.
To make this a little more practical let’s look at some calorie math using a hypothetical scenario. If you want to skip the numbers and are looking for a PSMF calculator, then we recommend you check out the Nutrient Optimiser free report and select fat loss (insulin sensitive).
Let’s say Super Ted is looking to get shredded for the Ketogains conference in two weeks but also wants to stay strong and to win the arm wrestle and beat the reigning champion, Mighty Mouse.
Super Ted currently weighs 160 lbs or 73kg and has 10% body fat. His maintenance energy intake is 2336 cal/per day.
While getting the majority of your dietary energy from protein might seem excessive…
… it’s not so dramatic when you also take into account the body fat being burned.
Between the 8% dietary fat (8%) his body fat stores (60%) Super Ted will be getting a ketogenic level of 68% of his energy from fat while also adequate protein to maintain his muscles and enough carb containing vegetables to get the vitamins and minerals that are also critical to his long-term success.
The details of the calorie math are shown below. Once you take the energy deficit into account Super Ted is consuming 2.2g/kg LBM.
Meanwhile, Luis Villasenor (aka Mighty Mouse) is also consuming protein at 2.4g/kg LBM during his PSMF. Luis says his regular protein intake is around 140g increases this up to 180g during a strict PSMF.
Insulin resistant long-term fat loss scenario
For most of us, such an aggressive fat loss approach might be hard to maintain long-term. So, let’s consider another scenario with another hypothetical character.
Introducing… Big Ted.
Big Ted doesn’t post shirtless for photos on the internet.
At 110kg and 30% body fat Big Ted is far from shredded.
Big Ted is also pre-diabetic.
His doctor has warned him that if he doesn’t lose a significant amount of weight he will need to take Metformin and then insulin before too long.
Big Ted is motivated to drop a significant amount of weight with perhaps a calorie deficit of 30% which will take him about 30 weeks to get to his goal weight of 90kg.
We can refine Big Ted’s PSMF approach given that his circumstances and goals are different from Super Ted’s. Rather than just prioritising nutrient density and energy density, this scenario also prioritises a lower insulin load given Big Ted’s looming pre-diabetes situation.
The chart below shows the nutrient profile of these foods once we take a 30% energy deficit into account. Big Ted will be meeting the DRI for all his nutrient other than Omega 3s which he may need to supplement.
This is basically a hybrid between a PSMF and a low carb diet. If you want to try this approach in the Nutrient Optimiser select ‘fat loss (insulin resistant)’ for a not so aggressive version of the PSMF for a lower long-term approach.
The charts below show the energy consumed and energy burned. There is a significant amount of fibre which will not be metabolised for energy, but rather feed his gut bacteria. There is still a substantial amount of net carbs from veggies. However, there are no sugars or processed grains to be seen, so they’re not about to boost his insulin or send him on a blood sugar roller coaster.
Once his body fat loss is accounted for, half of Big Ted’s energy expenditure is still coming from fat.
Although we didn’t prioritise amino acids, we still get a solid 2.2g/kg LBM protein.
body weight (kg)
body weight (lbs)
body fat (%)
lean body mass (kg)
protein (% diet)
fat (% diet)
net carbs (% diet)
diet protein (g)
dietary fat (g)
body fat (g)
body fat (kg/week)
net carbs (g)
protein (g/kg LBM)
As shown below, the nutrient profile of these foods is also excellent. These foods will help Big Ted to minimise his chance of developing nutrient deficiencies which may lead to rebound binge eating and derail his long-term weight loss efforts.
How often should I eat on a PSMF?
Big Ted is fond of intermittent fasting. He finds it easier to not eat for a day or two and then eat to satiety rather than trying to count calories or restrict energy. Meanwhile, Super Ted likes to eat two meals per day which save him time and helps him not overeat. But which one is ideal?
It’s not so important when you eat as long as you stick to the foods that align best with your goals. Recent research suggests that in the fasted state we can use up to 3.5 g/kg/day and digest up to 4.3 g/kg/day of protein. This makes sense in an evolutionary context when there wouldn’t have been a regular supply of food, but we would have needed to be able to use the food when we came across a big hunt after a long famine.
Practically though, it can be hard to consume your minimum protein allocation in one sitting. Eating two meals a day seems to be ideal to help you maintain a consistent deficit while maximising satiety and minimise your opportunities to continue to eat.
Eating earlier in the day also appears to be better as it aligns better with your circadian rhythm and insulin sensitivity as well as eliminating opportunities to overeat which seems to be easier at night when you have time to kill rather than when you are trying to get on with your day.
How low can you go?
A PSMF is never a zero calorie fast as it will have enough calories to get the protein you need and ideally some essential fats and adequate vitamins and minerals. People with more fat to loss will be able to maintain a more significant deficit for longer without losing muscle than lean bodybuilders. Your Nutrient Optimiser free report will give you an estimate of this lower calorie intake based on your current body fat levels, and your minimum recommended protein intake.
Each person needs to find the ideal approach that they can sustain until they achieve their goal.
Ideally, if you’re going to the effort of tracking your food and dieting, then you want to be losing at least 0.5% body weight per week. If you’re not achieving at least 0.5% per week, you should ratchet down your maximum calorie intake until you do.
Weight loss of 1.0% per week should be treated as an upper limit over a shorter period. If you’re losing more than 1.0% per week over the long term you may risk losing excessive amounts of lean muscle mass.
What about rabbit starvation
Rabbit starvation happens to very lean people if they only have lean protein foods with minimum fat available. They just can’t get enough energy to sustain high levels of body fat. However, for most of us who have plenty of body fat, this is an advantage.
The fat loss (insulin sensitive) option is designed for aggressive short-term weight loss (i.e. leading up to a bodybuilding comp).
The fat loss (insulin resistant) option may be more appropriate if you have more weight to lose over a more extended period.
Minimum protein intake in a weight loss clinic setting is 1.2g/kg total body weight. Your appetite will likely drive you to eat more protein if you are working out. 2.2 to 2.4 g/kg lean body mass is typical for someone lifting heavy.
Focusing on nutrient-dense foods will ensure you still get adequate protein as well as vitamins and minerals while minimising energy consumption.
Eat only carbs that come with non-starchy veggies (i.e. no processed grains or foods with added sugars). Eat only the fat that comes with lean protein foods.
Don’t eat too much
It will be hard to overeat these high nutrient density low energy density foods.
It may be beneficial to track or plan your energy intake to ensure you are achieving your goals.
Ratchet down your maximum energy intake until you achieve your desired rate of weight loss (e.g. greater than 0.5% per week).
Lift heavy / exercise (optional)
If you are dieting and not active the body will see your muscle as unnecessary and expensive. Resistance training will help you to use the protein to build lean muscle and keep your metabolic rate up.
Pay attention to your micronutrients
To improve your chance of long-term success, it’s essential to pay attention to both your protein and your micronutrient intake. If you want to maximise your chance of success you can track your food in Cronometer and feed it back into your Nutrient Optimiser report to determine the optimal foods and meals to help you continue to fill your nutrient gaps.
The protein sparing modified fast (PSMF) provides adequate levels of protein to support lean muscle mass while restricting energy from carbohydrates and fat.
Protein intakes vary widely depending on the goals and the level of energy restriction between.
Providing adequate nutrients, ideally from whole foods, is critical to long-term weight loss and maintenance.
It is crucial to prioritise nutrient-dense foods to improve your chances of long-term success.
While the PSMF is commonly used in weight loss clinics and the bodybuilding community, the principle can also be applied in other situations to maximise fat loss while maintaining lean muscle mass.
Now that fat is out of the spotlight, the focus for many in low carb and vegan circles has turned to protein as the macronutrient that needs to be avoided for health, good blood sugar control and longevity.
At the same time there are still are plenty of ‘meat heads’ who say that their ‘brotein’ can do no wrong and you can’t get enough of it.
In the sea of conflicting opinions and advice, how do we determine the optimal amount of protein that will suit our situation, goals and needs?
How much protein do we need?
How much is too little protein?
How much protein is too much?
This is an intriguing, controversial and multifaceted discussion.
So hold on as I try to unpack the various perspectives!
First, let’s look at the general recommendations for protein intake.
Lean body mass
Protein recommendations are often given in terms of grams per kilogram of lean body (LBM) where “LBM” is your current weight minus your fat mass.
Protein is required to support your muscles, not your fat.
You can use a DEXA scan, bioimpedance scale or pictures (like the ones below) to estimate your level of body fat (% BF) and then calculate your LBM using the following formula:
lean body mass (LBM) = body weight weight x (100% – %BF) / 100%.
None of these methods are particularly accurate. However, calculating your body fat levels or protein intake to a high degree of accuracy is not necessary for most people.
After we burn through the food in our stomach and then the glycogen stored in our liver and muscle, the body will turn to its own internal protein stores (i.e. muscles, organs etc) and, to a lesser extent, fat (glycerol backbone) to obtain glucose via gluconeogenesis.
The figure below shows that we use less protein the longer we go without food. After a couple of days of no food, fat and ketones kick in to supply the energy deficit.
People with better insulin sensitivity may burn through less protein as they are able to access their body fat stores for energy more easily when they go without food. However, people who are lean and insulin sensitive may have less body fat to burn before the body will turn to protein during fasting. Hence, extended fasting is not typically recommended if you are super lean.
Gluconeogenesis peaks at around two days and decreases thereafter as insulin levels decrease and ketones rise further. While chronic muscle loss is bad news (sarcopenia), particularly in old age, short term gluconeogenesis and autophagy is not necessarily a bad thing as the body will ‘self eat’ and clean out the old and sick and superfluous parts of the body for fuel.
After a fast the body is primed and highly insulin sensitive and ready to build new muscle. Fasting can actually be beneficial for gaining muscle provided that the refeed has adequate amounts of amino acids to support muscle growth.
Daily recommended protein intake
The Daily Recommended Intake (DRI) for protein is 0.84g/kg of body weight (BW) while the Estimated Average Requirement (EAR) is 0.68 g/kg BW.
This minimum protein level is based on nitrogen balance studies that indicate that if healthy test subjects eat less than around 0.6 g/kg BW you will be losing muscle and be at risk of the various diseases of malnutrition and then factored up to 0.8 g/kg BW as a factor of safety.
Keep in mind though that the DRI is a recommended minimum per day to prevent diseases related to protein deficiency. This is not necessarily optimal.
More recent studies have indicated that higher quantities of protein may be necessary, particularly for older people.
Older people appear to require 1.0 to 1.3 g per kilogram of total body mass per day protein to optimize physical function, particularly whilst undertaking resistance exercise recommendations.
Keep in mind too that minimum protein recommendations are given in terms of total bodyweight, not lean body mass. For someone with 30% body fat 0.8g/kg BW will convert to 1.1 g/kg LBM.
If you fast for a day or two you should consider compensating with more protein on your feasting days. If you are fasting for fat loss there is no need to replace additional fat when you feast.
DRI for individual amino acids
If we dig a little deeper we see that there are also requirements for individual amino acids as shown in the table below. Depending on what you’re eating you can be deficient in some amino acids while getting enough other amino acids.
The Nutrient Optimiser reviews the individual amino acids to make sure they are all adequate. People who are running close to the minimum DRI for protein overall are typically deficient in a handful of individual aminos.
Typical protein intake
The average protein intake for the general western population is about 1.2 g/kg LBM or around 16% of calories. This is greater than the minimum required to maintain nitrogen balance in the figure above and the DRI values.
It seems that most people get enough protein without trying too hard. However, what constitutes as “enough” protein will vary depending on whether you are going through puberty, weight lifting,a middle aged sedentary office worker or an elderly person in a nursing home.
Appetite is a strong drive that ensures that you don’t stop eating until you get enough protein. Average protein intake seems to be consistent across cultures and time.
Practical maximum protein intake
Recent research indicates that, when fasted, we can use up to 3.5g/kg/day and breakdown and metabolise up to 4.3g/kg/day. This makes sense in an evolutionary context where would be primed to use a lot of protein after going without and then making up for lost time after a successful hunt.
‘Rabbit starvation’ is said to occur when people only have lean protein available and just can’t get enough calories in because they are eating only lean protein. However, I have seen people eat higher levels of protein in an energy excess situation when they are trying to gain weight (e.g. Andy Mant who is trying to gain size eating and muscle 4.4g/kg LBM or Bailan Jones who is a growing young man with type 1 diabetes at 5.0g/kg LBM).
From a pure calorie standpoint we could theoretically eat up to around 7g/kg LBM using very protein foods. However, most people will struggle to eat more than 3.5g/kg LBM because protein is very satiating and it is hard to find protein containing foods that don’t come with substantial amounts of fat.
The chart below shows the nutrient score for the highest protein 10% of the foods in the USDA database. What we can see is that high protein foods provide a ton of amino acids while lacking key vitamins and minerals. This is not an optimally balanced diet at a micronutrient level. Rather than worrying specifically about ‘too much protein’ I think it’s more useful to think in terms of getting the range of micronutrients you need without having to consume excess energy.
I think the real problem eating ‘too much protein’ is that once our protein goes too high we end up reducing the amount of vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids that our food contains. While it is important to get adequate amino acids, it is also important to get adequate vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that protein has a net acidic load that the body needs to balance to maintain acid/base homeostasis. If we eat a lot of protein without adequate amount of alkalising minerals (e.g. potassium, magnesium, phosphorus and calcium) our kidney may struggle to maintain an optimal pH balance which can lead to low level metabolic acidosis in the long term.
How will you spend your “discretionary calories”?
I think it’s important to keep in mind that the DRIs for protein are a minimum to prevent disease and should not be treated as optimal targets or maximum values. Finding the right balance of all the essential nutrients is quite a balancing act.
In this video Dr Donald Layman points out that if we targeted the minimum DRI for protein, carbs and fat we would end up with only eight hundred calories per day whereas, on average, we eat around 2300 calories per day. Hence, there is a window of “discretionary calories” that we can chose how we fill to make up our daily energy requirements.
People in low carb circles are fond of saying ‘there is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate’. So, once we cut the carbs out we are left with only 314 calories to meet our essential macronutrient requirements as shown in the table below.
Now this might be reasonable if we were minimising calories for weight loss (e.g. we could try to live on protein powder and Omega 3 capsules). However, this this would be impossible to achieve with whole food.
Discretionary calories from body fat
The chart below shows the break up of energy sources if we were living on the minimum DRI for protein and essential fatty acids. 85% of our energy would be coming from our body fat stores. This would be the ultimate protein sparing modified fast (PSMF) however there is a pretty good chance we would struggle to obtain adequate levels of vitamins and minerals from 300 calories.
Then once we reached our goal weight we would need to work out what we are going to fill the rest of our intake with to prevent drastic weight loss (and literally starving to death)?
Another option is to fill the window of ‘discretionary calories’ with carbohydrates which would look like this.
Filling your energy deficit with protein would be impossible in terms of available foods (even with protein powders which are only 80% protein) as well as the strong satiety that would kick in well before then.
The other option is to fill the remaining energy deficit with dietary fat. This looks like a therapeutic ketogenic macro ratios. This will be difficult without consuming the majority of your energy intake from butter, cream and MCT oil.
Optimising for micronutrients and insulin load
My suggestion is to look to fill your remaining energy requirements with foods that provide the micronutrients you need while keeping an eye on the insulin load of your diet.
Keeping your blood sugar and insulin levels down will help normalise appetite and access your own fat stores for fuel.
However, ensuring that you are getting the micronutrients you need will help you prevent nutrient cravings with less energy which will be ideal for optimising longevity, insulin resistance and blood sugar levels.
How much protein are real people actually eating?
Protein in real life varies significantly, as evidenced by the fifty or so people on whom I have run the Nutrient Optimiser analysis. As you can see in the table below, protein intake in real life is highly variable. The average protein intake amongst these people who are generally following a low carb diet is 2.1g/kg LBM.
I have also included the 25th and 75th percentiles, which indicate that half of these people were eating between:
1.4 and 2.5g/kg LBM protein per day,
18 and 29% energy from protein,
54 and 67% energy from fat, and
6 and 15% energy from net carbs.
Very few of these people are consuming anywhere near the minimum DRI levels for protein. And the people who are the closest have some of the poorest nutrient scores.
Protein scales with activity levels
Unfortunately, simply eating protein doesn’t build muscles. You also need to exercise to use the protein to build lean body mass (i.e. muscles). If you’re active, you’ll need more protein for growth and repair of muscles. If you’re sedentary you’ll need less.
There appears to be an upper limit to how much protein can be used for muscle protein synthesis (i.e. to grow and repair your muscles). If you’re active, then it’s likely that your appetite for protein will increase to make sure you get these higher levels of protein to prevent muscle loss.
a strength athlete won’t stimulate more muscle protein synthesis by eating more than about 1.8 g/kg LBM;
an endurance athlete won’t trigger more muscle protein synthesis with more than around 1.4 g/kg LBM; and
someone who is sedentary won’t trigger more muscle protein synthesis with more than around 0.9 g/kg LBM.
So, if you are wanting to minimise energy intake while still building muscle you could use these values as a minimum protein intake.
is protein really a good source of energy?
We typically think in terms of the macronutrients, carbs, fat and protein as if they are all sources of energy. However, there are some that argue that protein should not be considered be an energy source equivalent to carbs and fat.
Protein is critical for growth and repair of our muscles and organs and our neurotransmitters. While it is true that protein can be converted to glucose and ketones if required, the reality is that it is not easy for the body to do this!
The amount of energy lost in processing each macronutrient (i.e. the thermic effect of food or specific dynamic action) is shown in the table below. Compared to carbohydrate and fat, it takes a lot of energy to convert protein to glucose. The body just doesn’t want to do it unless there is absolutely is no glucose available from any other sources.
Personally, I find that if I eat a lot of protein and not much else my appetite for carbs or fat will increase. It seems that my body wants to use anything other than protein to replenish liver glycogen. To quote Jason Fung:
Why would your body store excess energy as fat, if it meant to burn protein as soon as the chips were down? Protein is functional tissue and has many purposes other than energy storage, whereas fat is specialised for energy storage.
Would it not make sense that you would use fat for energy instead of protein? Why would we think Mother Nature is some kind of crazy?
That is kind of like storing firewood for heat. But as soon as you need heat, you chop up your sofa and throw it into the fire. That is completely idiotic and that is not the way our bodies are designed to work.
There is only a small capacity for protein storage in our blood stream and we waste around 25% of the energy from the protein as heat in processing it. Hence, the body typically doesn’t drive us to overeat protein, but it can be used for fuel if there is nothing else to burn. It makes sense that protein sends a strong satiety signal back to our brain once we have eaten as much as we can use.
The body will prioritise clearance of alcohol because there is no storage system for it.
Similarly, the body will look to clear ketones from the system because there is minimal storage capacity for them in the blood.
The body will look to clear protein that hasn’t been used for muscle repair and neurotransmitters for brain function.
We will turn to glucose, for which we have a greater storage capacity in our liver, muscles and bloodstream.
Lastly, once we have burned through all these other substrates, will we look to burn our fat, either dietary or the fat stored on our body.
So, if you want to burn body fat you need to limit alcohol, exogenous ketones, protein, carbohydrate and dietary fat.
Oxidative priority versus insulin load
I think Cronise’s oxidative priority concept is another way to look at the insulin load of our diet.
insulin load = carbohydrates – fibre + 0.56 * protein
Our body uses insulin to keep glycogen stored in our liver and fat in our adipose cells until the other fuels are used up. There is no point in going out of our way to consume excessive protein because it takes more effort to burn through before we can get to the fat on our plate or our belly. However, it is logical that our appetite switches off once we get enough protein because there is no room to store excess protein and it’s hard work to burn it.
but what about mTOR?
mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin) controls our fuel flow and our appetite. Similar to insulin and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), mTOR promotes growth. Growth is good if we are a baby or a teenager. But some people grow too much.
There is a limited number of times we can turn over our cells in our lifetime. Constant periods of plenty without periods of restriction leads to continued growth of unwanted things like cancer.
Dr Ron Rosedale is a proponent of limiting protein in an effort to extend lifespan.
There have been a number of other proponents of limitation of animal protein in the vegan circle for some time. Dr Greger’s Plant Based NutritionFacts.org recommends limitation of methionine, leucine and isoleucine.
Dr Steven Gundry recommends a grain free high fat version of the protein restricted approach.
One option in response to this theory is to consistently restrict protein to achieve long term health. Some people try to keep their protein low to ensure that they are always in a state of autophagy or muscle breakdown and self eating.
However, I don’t think chronic intentional protein restriction is necessarily optimal. What we are aiming for is adequate, but not excessive, energy intake (including protein) without malnutrition (i.e. vitamins, minerals, aminos and essential fatty acids).
On top of this, balanced periods of feasting and fasting will allow autophagy and growth.
Before we had refrigerators
In the days before agriculture, fertilisers from fossil fuels, and even refrigerators in our homes (less than 100 years ago) our environment would enforce periods of growth and period of famine.
These days, we can source cheap food to keep on growing 24/7, 365 days a year. We have no externally enforced periods of autophagy when we can clear the old and dying proteins in our body.
If we have growth interspersed with fasting, then we give the body a chance to build muscle and use protein for repair while also giving the body a chance to clean house and purge the dying white blood cells and burgeoning cancer cells before it gets ugly.
Your body will naturally crave more protein in periods of activity and repair and less in periods of inactivity. If your appetite isn’t working as well as you’d like it to (i.e. you have more body fat than you would like), you can force a feast / fast cycle based on managing your weight or your blood glucose levels.
Like many things in life, optimal protein intake is a balance between extremes. More is not necessarily better. But less is not better either. We want our body to thrive on enough, but not too much energy while still getting the micronutrients it needs.
Too much mTOR and IGF-1 can stimulate excessive growth and cancer while too little can lead to muscle loss, which does not support health in old age. The EAR and DRI for protein actually increase for people over 70 to prevent sarcopenia. If you are lacking lean muscle mass then there is a greater chance you will not have great insulin sensitivity in old age.
If you are suffering from sarcopenia you may fall and break your hip and never get up again. As shown in the figure below, too much or too little IGF-1 is not good. As with most things, it’s a balance.
protein leverage hypothesis
Protein is critical to life so our appetite typically makes sure we get enough. “Obesity: The protein leverage hypothesis” suggests that we keep eating until we get enough protein. If we are getting plenty of protein then we will stop eating when we get enough energy and protein.
In the wild, animals have an innate sense of the nutrients they need and which foods will provide those requirements, whether they be protein, energy or other micronutrients.
While it’s easy to track macronutrients and calories, I think it’s often the body’s micronutrient needs that derail our calorie restriction efforts and aspirations.
Most of the food that is available to us these days is much more deficient in micronutrients than it once was, but at the same time it is flavoured and coloured to make it appear that it has heaps more nutrition than it actually does; so we keep on eating the food that is manufactured to look and taste good, all the while not getting the micronutrients we really need from the food, so we just keep eating.
We need a range of nutrients from our food to fuel our mitochondria so that it can efficiently burn through the food we eat, and not have it sit around in the blood.
For instance, the figure below from Spectracell shows the nutrients that are often missing in people with diabetes. We need all these nutrients from our food to support our mitochondria to effectively produce energy from our food and stop excess glucose and fatty, fatty acids and ketones building up in our blood stream.
It’s important to meet your minimum protein intake which may be higher if you are growing, older or active.
Once you’ve met the minimum intake of protein and essential fatty acids (about 314 calories per day) you need to decide what you are going to fill the rest of your “discretionary calories” with to prevent starvation.
If you are looking for therapeutic ketosis (i.e. for cancer, epilepsy, dementia, Alzheimer’s etc) then you may want to get the majority of your energy from fat while maintaining minimum protein levels and also staying in an energy deficit (see optimal foods for therapeutic ketosis).
If you’re wanting to lose body fat then perhaps you can count the energy from your body as part of your daily intake and try to maximise the nutrient density of the remaining intake. That is, maximise nutrients with the minimum amount of energy intake (see optimal foods for fat loss).
You can get too much protein but at the same time you can get too little protein.
Periods of feasting and fasting are beneficial rather than targeting chronic high or low protein.
It’s very hard to get a good balance of micronutrients with low protein. Protein tends to come packaged with other nutrients.
If you focus on micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids) then the macronutrients (carbs, fat and protein) largely look after themselves. We will get enough, but not excessive, amounts of protein.
There is a lot of controversy and confusion over gluconeogenesis and the impact of protein on blood sugar and ketosis.
Some common questions that I see floating around the interwebs include:
If you are managing diabetes, should you avoid protein because it can convert to glucose and “kick you out of ketosis”?
If you’ve dropped the carbs and protein to manage your blood sugars, should you eat “fat to satiety” or continue to add more fats until you achieve “optimal ketosis” (i.e. blood ketone levels between 1.5 and 3.0mmol/L)?
Then, if adding fat doesn’t get you into the “optimal ketosis zone”, do you need exogenous ketones to get your ketones up so you can start to lose weight?
And what exactly is a “well formulated ketogenic diet” anyway?
This article explores:
the reason that some people may see an increase in their blood sugars and a decrease in their ketones after a high protein meal,
what it means for their health, and
what they can do to optimise the metabolic health.
Protein is insulinogenic and can convert to glucose
You’re probably aware that protein can be converted to glucose via a process in the body called gluconeogenesis. Gluconeogenesis is the process of converting another substrate (e.g. protein or fat) to glucose.
Gluco = glucose
Neo = new
Genesis = creation
Gluconeogenesis = new glucose creation
All but two amino acids (i.e. the building blocks of protein) can be converted to glucose. Five others can be converted to either glucose or ketones depending on the body’s requirements at the time. Thirteen amino acids can be converted to glucose.
Once your body has used the protein it needs to build and repair muscle and make neurotransmitters, etc. any “excess protein” can be used to refill the small protein stores in the bloodstream and replenish glycogen stores in the liver via gluconeogenesis.
The fact that protein can be converted to glucose is of particular interest to people with diabetes who go to great lengths to keep their blood sugar under control.
Someone on a very low carbohydrate diet may end up relying more on protein for glucose via gluconeogenesis compared to someone who can get the glucose they need directly from carbohydrates.
Obtaining glucose from protein via gluconeogenesis rather than carbs is that it is a slow process and easier to control with measured doses of insulin compared to simple carbs which will cause more abrupt blood sugar rollercoaster.
The food insulin index testing measured the glucose and insulin response to various foods in healthy people (i.e. non-diabetic young university students).
To calculate the glucose score or the insulin index pure glucose gets a score of 100% while everything else gets a score between zero and 100% based on the comparative glucose or insulin area under the curve response. So we are comparing the glucose and insulin response to various foods to eating pure glucose.
As shown in the chart below, the blood glucose response of healthy people is proportional to their carbohydrate intake. Meat and fish and high-fat foods (butter, cream, oil) tend to have a negligible impact on glucose.
Our insulin response to carbohydrates
The story is not so simple when it comes to our insulin response to food.
As shown in the chart below, the carbohydrate content of our food only partially predicts our short-term insulin response to food. Low fat, low carb, high protein foods elicit a significant insulin response.
As you can see in the chart below, once we account for protein we get a better prediction of our insulin response to food. It seems we require about half as much insulin for protein as we do for carbohydrate on a gram for gram basis to metabolise protein and use it to repair our muscles and organs.
But does this mean we should avoid or minimise protein for optimal diabetes management or weight loss? Does protein actually turn to chocolate cake?
What happens to insulin and blood sugar when we increase protein?
While protein does generate an insulin response, increasing the protein content of our food typically decreases our insulin response to food.
The food insulin index testing was done using 1000 kJ or 240 calories of each food (i.e. a substantial snack, not really a full meal). But what about if we ate a LOT of protein? Wouldn’t we get a blood sugar response then?
The figure below shows the glucose response to 80g of glucose vs. 180g of protein (i.e. a MASSIVE amount of protein). While we get a roller coaster-like blood sugar rise in response to the ingestion of glucose, blood sugar remains relatively stable in response to the large protein meal.
So, if protein can turn to glucose, why don’t we see massive glucose spike? What is going on?
The role of insulin and glucagon in glucose control
To properly understand how we process protein, it’s critical to understand the role of the hormones insulin and glucagon in controlling the release of glycogen release from our liver.
These terms can be confusing. So let me spell it out.
The liver stores glucosein the form of glycogenin the liver.
Glucagonis the hormone that pushes glycogenout into the bloodstream as blood glucose.
Insulinis the opposing hormone that keeps glycogenstored in our liver.
When it comes to getting glucose out of the liver, glucagon is like the accelerator pedal while insulin is the brake.
When our blood glucose is elevated, or we have external sources of glucose, the pancreas secretes insulin to shut off the release of glycogen from the liver until we have used up or stored the excess energy.
Insulin helps to turn off the flow of glucose from our liver and store some of the excess glucose in the blood as glycogen and, to a much lesser extent, fat (via de novo lipogenesis). It also tells the body to start using glucose as its primary energy source to decrease it to normal levels.
We can push the glucagon pedal to extract the glycogen stores in our liver by eating less carbohydrate (i.e. low carb or keto diets), eating less, or not eating at all (aka fasting)!
High insulin levels effectively mean that we have enough fuel in our blood stream and we need to put down the fork.
While fat typically doesn’t require significant amounts of insulin to metabolise, an excess of energy from any source will cause the body to ramp up insulin to shut off the release of stored energy from the liver and the fat stores.
Glucose, insulin and glucagon response to a high carbohydrate meal
At the risk of getting a little bit geeky, let’s look at how our hormones respond to different types of meals.
As shown in the chart below, when we eat a high carbohydrate meal insulin rises to stop the release of glycogen. Meanwhile, glucagon drops to stop stimulating the release of glycogen from the liver. When we have enough incoming glucose via our mouth, we don’t need any more glucose from the liver.
Glucose, insulin and glucagon response to a high protein meal
When we eat a high protein meal, both glucagon and insulin rise to maintain steady blood glucose levels while promoting the storage and use of protein to repair our muscles and organs and make neurotransmitters, etc. (i.e. important stuff!).
In someone with a healthy metabolism, we get a nice balance between the insulin (brake) and the glucagon (accelerator). Hence, we don’t get any glycogen released from the liver into the bloodstream to raise our blood sugar because the insulin from the protein is turning off the glucose from the liver.
This is why metabolically healthy people see a flat line blood sugar response to protein.
Insulin response to protein for people with diabetes
Things are different if you have diabetes.
Insulin resistance means that between our fatty liver and insulin resistant adipose tissue, things don’t work as smoothly.
While your blood sugar may rise or fall in response to protein, needs to rise a lot more while you metabolise the protein to build muscle and repair your organs.
Unfortunately, people who are insulin resistant may struggle to build muscle effectively due to insulin resistance. Then the higher levels of insulin may drive them to store more fat in the process. Becoming insulin sensitive is important!
The chart below shows the difference in the blood glucose and insulin response to protein in a group of people who are metabolically healthy (white lines) versus people who have type 2 diabetes (yellow lines).
People with diabetes may see their glucose levels drop from a high level after a large protein meal and will have a much greater insulin response due to their insulin resistance. People with more advanced diabetes (i.e. beta cell burn out or Type 1 diabetes) may even see their blood sugar rise. Their ability to produce insulin to metabolise the protein and keep glycogen in storage cannot keep up with the demand.
Drawing on the brake/accelerator analogy, it’s not necessarily protein turning into glucose in the blood stream via gluconeogenesis, but rather the glucagon kicking in and a sluggish insulin response that isn’t able to balance out the glucagon response to keep the glycogen locked away in the liver.
Healthy people will be able to balance the opposing hormonal forces of the insulin (brake) and the glucagon (accelerator), but if we are insulin resistant and/or don’t have a properly functioning pancreas (brake), we won’t be able to produce as much insulin to balance the glucagon response.
Someone who is insulin resistant has normally functioning accelerator pedal (glucagon stimulating glucose release in the blood) but a faulty brake (insulin).
Real life example
To unpack this further, let’s look at an example close to home.
The picture below is of a family meal (i.e. steak, sauerkraut, beans and broccoli) that we had when my wife Monica (who has Type 1 Diabetes) was wearing a continuous glucose meter.
The photo of the continuous glucose monitor below shows Monica’s blood sugar response after the meal which we had at about 5:30 pm. Her blood sugar rises in response to the veggies and then comes back down as the insulin kicks in.
The process to bring her blood sugars back under control from a few carbs in the veggies takes about two hours.
But over the next twelve hours, Monica’s blood sugar level drifts up as the insulin dose goes to work as she metabolises the protein. For all intents and purposes though it looks like the protein is turning to glucose in her blood!
This is not a one off. We’ve seen this blood glucose response regularly. The advent of continuous glucose meters makes this more evident as you can watch blood sugars rise over a long period after a high protein meal.
Many people with type 1 diabetes know they need to dose with adequate insulin for protein. Once you work out how to reduce simple carbs, working out how to dose for protein is the next frontier of good insulin management.
It’s complicated and sometimes confusing.
More insulin or less protein?
So, what is the problem here?
Why are Monica’s blood sugars rising?
Is it too much protein?
Or not enough insulin?
I think the best way to explain the rise in blood sugars is that there is not enough insulin to keep the glycogen locked away in her liver and metabolise the protein to build muscle and repair her organs at the same time.
Meanwhile, the glycogen pedal is pushed down as it normally would be in response to a protein which is driving the glucose up in her bloodstream.
There is just not enough insulin in the gas tank (pancreas) to do everything that needs to be done.
So, if Monica had a choice, should she:
A. Keep her blood sugars stable and stop metabolising protein to repair her muscles and organs,
B. Metabolise protein to build her muscles and repair her organs while letting her blood sugars drift up, or
C. Both of the above.
Personally, I think the correct answer is C.
While it’s probably not wise to go hog-wild with protein supplements and powders if you have diabetes, swinging to the other extreme to target minimal protein levels is a sure way to end up with a poor nutritional outcome.
One source of protein loss is hepatic gluconeogenesis, whereby amino acids are used to produce glucose. This is inhibited by insulin, as is the breakdown of muscle proteins to release amino acids, and therefore occurs mainly during periods of fasting (or low carb).
However, inhibition of gluconeogenesis and protein catabolism is impaired when insulin release is abnormal, insulin resistance occurs, or when circulating levels of free fatty acids in the blood are high. These are interdependent conditions that are associated with overweight and obesity, and are especially pronounced in type 2 diabetes (12,34).
It might be predicted that the result of higher rates of hepatic gluconeogenesis will be an INCREASED requirement for protein in the diet.
Like Ted Naiman, I thought if we reduced the insulin load from our food (including minimising protein) we would have a pretty good chance of losing a lot of weight (just like someone with uncontrolled type 1 diabetes).
I no longer think we need to restrict or avoid protein to manage insulin resistance. However, there’s no need to go to the other extreme and binge on protein if you are injecting insulin.
Worrying about getting too little or too much protein is largely irrelevant. We will get enough protein when we eat a nutritious diet. Left to its own devices, our appetite typically does a good job of seeking out adequate protein to suit our current needs.
Meanwhile actively aiming to minimise protein will make it harder to maintain lean muscle mass which is critical to glucose disposal and insulin sensitivity.
If you see your blood sugar levels rise due to protein, it is likely due to inability to produce enough insulin rather than too much protein. If you are injecting insulin you may need to dose with more insulin to allow you to utilise the protein in your diet to build and repair your body.
Basal and bolus insulin
One option to minimise the adverse effects of excess insulin is to focus on reducing the insulin load of our diet and eat only high-fat foods that have a low proportion of insulinogenic calories (i.e. ones towards the bottom left of this chart).
If you are highly insulin resistant and obese, this will work like magic, at least for a little while.
People who suddenly stop eating processed junk carbs and eat more fat often find that their appetite plummets as the insulin demand of their food drops and they are more easily able to access their own body fat.
But this is only part of the story. Again, we can learn a lot about insulin from people with Type 1 diabetes who have to manually manage their insulin dose.
In diabetes management there are two kinds of insulin doses:
basal insulin, and
The bolus insulin is the insulin for the food we eat.
The basal insulin is a steady flow of insulin that is required throughout the day and night.
Without the basal insulin, we would disintegrate into uncontrolled gluconeogenesis and ketoacidosis (e.g. uncontrolled type 1 diabetes).
In a person eating a typical western diet around half the insulin given in a day is for the food and half is basal insulin. The chart below shows the daily insulin dose of a person with type 1 diabetes eating a standard diet. The white component is the basal, and the black is the bolus for their food.
In someone following a low carb diet only around 30% of the insulin is for the food and 70% is basal insulin as shown below in my wife Monica’s daily insulin dose shown below.
We can only reduce our insulin requirements marginally by changing our diet. We always need basal insulin. If we’re insulin resistant, we’ll need more.
Like caffeine or alcohol, we become more sensitive to insulin when we are exposed to less of it. As we reduce the insulin load of our diet, our insulin sensitivity will improve.
But not everyone who follows a low carb diet instantly turns into a super athlete. There has to be more to the story.
How to improve your basal insulin sensitivity
In addition to modifying our diet, we can also improve our blood glucose control by maximizing our body’s ability to dispose of glucose without relying on insulin (i.e. non-insulin mediated glucose uptake). We enhance our insulin sensitivity and our ability to use glucose by building more lean muscle mass.
I used to think that if we just dropped the insulin load of our diet down far enough, we would be able to lose weight, a bit like someone with uncontrolled type 1 diabetes. But now I understand that there will always be enough basal insulin in our system to store excess energy (regardless of the source) and stop our liver from releasing stored energy.
While a diabetic can reduce their insulin requirements for food by eating food with lots of fat, they can actually end up insulin resistant and need more basal insulin if they drive over abundance of energy, regardless of whether it’s from protein, fat or carbs.
While ketones can rise to quite high levels when fasting (which is great), I fear that some people are chasing high ketone levels with lots of dietary fat and the excess energy may lead to insulin resistance in the long term.
Dr Bernstein’s approach
The method recommended by Dr Bernstein (who has type 1 diabetes himself) is typically lower in carbs, adequate protein (depending on whether you are a growing child) and moderate in fat.
Even at 83, Dr B feels it is important to maintain lean muscle mass through regular exercise to maximise his insulin sensitivity.
Will too much protein “kick me out of ketosis”?
While the ketogenic diet is becoming popular, I think most people who are interested in it do not necessarily require therapeutic ketosis, but rather are chasing weight loss or blood sugar control/diabetes management.
If you are managing a condition that benefits from high levels of ketosis (e.g. epilepsy, dementia, cancer, traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s) then limiting protein may be necessary to ensure continuously elevated ketone levels and reduce insulin to avoid driving growth in tumour cells and cancer.
Giving the burgeoning interest in the ketogenic dietary approach, I think it’s important to understand the difference between exogenous ketosis and endogenous ketosis.
Endogenous ketosis occurs when a person eats less than the body needs to maintain energy homeostasis and we are forced to up the glycogen in our liver and then our body fat to make up the difference.
Exogenous ketosis (or nutritional ketosis) occurs when we eat lots of dietary fat (or take exogenous ketones), and we see blood ketones (beta hydroxybutyrate) build up in the blood. We are burning dietary fat for fuel.
Higher levels of ketones in the blood are an indication that you are eating more fat than you are burning. Having some level of blood ketones is an indication that your insulin is low, but whether your blood ketones are high or low should not be a major cause for concern as long as your blood glucose levels are also low. Unless we are doing a long term fast, we will all be somewhere on the spectrum between exogenous and endogenous ketosis.
Keep in mind though that most of the beneficial things we attribute to “ketosis” and the “ketogenic diet” occurs when we are in endogenous ketosis (i.e. when fat is coming from our body, not our plate or coffee cup).
Our blood ketones may not be as high when we are in endogenous ketosis, but that’s OK because most of the good stuff happens in a low energy state.
Low total energy (i.e. blood glucose + blood ketones + free fatty acids)
High total energy (i.e. blood glucose + blood ketones + free fatty acids)
Stored energy taken from body fat for fuel
Ingested energy used preferentially as fuel
Stable ketone production all day
Sharp rise of ketones for a short duration. Need to keep adding fat or exogenous ketones to maintain elevated ketones.
Insulin levels are low which allows release of glycogen from our liver and fat stores
Insulin levels increase to hold glycogen in liver and fat in adipose tissue
Mitochondrial biogenesis, autophagy, increase in NAD+, increase in SIRT1
Mitochondrial energy overload, autophagy turned off, decrease in NAD+
Body fat and liver glycogen used for fuel
Liver glycogen refilled and excess energy in the bloodstream stored as fat.
Gluconeogenesis is the creation of new glucose (generally from protein).
Protein requires about half as much insulin as carbohydrate to metabolise.
Increasing protein intake will generally improve our blood glucose and insulin levels. Protein forces out processed carbohydrates, increasing the nutritional quality of our diet and helps us to build muscle which in turn burns glucose more efficiently.
In a metabolically healthy person glucagon balances the insulin response to protein, so we see a flat line blood sugar response to even a large protein meal.
If you cannot produce enough insulin, you may see glucose rise as your body tries to metabolise the protein and keep the energy stored in the liver at the same time.
The insulin for the food we eat (bolus) represents less than half of our daily insulin demand. We can improve our basal insulin sensitivity by building lean muscle mass and improving mitochondrial function via a nutrient dense diet.
If we are aiming for weight loss and health, then low blood sugars and low ketones will be more desirable rather than chasing high ketone levels via exogenous ketosis.
I give up! All you ‘diet gurus’ can’t agree. I’m going back to Maccas where things are simple!
Although many of these answers are contradictory, all are ‘correct’ depending on which low carb / keto group(s) you belong to. It can be confusing out there on the interwebs!
For the last two years I’ve been working to refine our ability to quantitatively define and optimise our food quality (a.k.a. nutrient density).
At the start of 2017, I developed the Nutrient Optimiser and have since run detailed macronutrient and micronutrients analyses for more than forty people, all with different starting points and with different goals.
With all the conflicting advice out there and my personal quest to manage diabetes while maximising nutrient density, I wondered what my nutrient analysis tools might be able to tell us about the relationship between macronutrients and micronutrients to provide some clarity to the circular debates that I see so often online.
I’m never sure where these articles will end up when I start the analysis. And this one is certainly interesting!
The analysis suggests that a nutrient dense diet is typically not low in protein. However just focusing on increasing protein won’t necessarily lead to a nutrient dense outcome.
We get a much better outcome when we focus on the harder-to-find micronutrients (i.e. vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids). From there we can tweak the nutrient dense template to suit our goals (e.g. weight loss, diabetes control, muscle gain, athletic performance or therapeutic ketosis).
Let’s quickly look at what we mean by ‘nutrient density’ and how we can quantify it.
The chart below shows the nutrients provided by the 8,000 foods in the USDA database in terms of the percentage of the Daily Recommended Intake (DRI) if you ate just a little bit of all of them.
It’s easy to meet the recommended minimum intake of the micronutrients shown at the bottom of the chart (e.g. vitamin B12 and most of the amino acids) (at least if you are eating animal products).
However, you really have to go out of your way to get adequate amounts of the nutrients at the top of the chart (e.g. omega 3, vitamin D, choline, vitamin E, calcium, manganese and magnesium).
The most nutrient dense foods
The chart below shows the micronutrients provided by the most nutrient dense foods. When we focus on foods that contain more of the harder-to-find nutrients we can get a massive boost in all the micronutrients.
Why should we pursue a nutrient dense diet?
With adequate amounts of nutrients being provided by the food we eat there is a good chance we will be able to satisfy our cravings with less energy.
Obtaining adequate levels of all the micronutrients will ensure that we have what we need to drive our mitochondria at full power rather than limping along. We will feel energised and may find that our appetite turns off sooner and we will be less likely to overeat and get fat.
The chart below shows a comparison of the most nutrient dense 10% of the foods available compared to all the foods in the USDA database. We get a significant improvement in our food quality by prioritising more nutrient dense foods.
Which nutrients do we need to worry about?
After a ton of trial and error and systems refinement (and some robust debates with Ray Cronise) I finally figured out that maximising nutrient density works best when we only focus on boosting the nutrients that are harder to obtain.
The nutrients listed below tend to be generally harder to get in adequate quantities:
EPA + DHA
Which nutrients are easier to find?
Listed below are the micronutrients that we don’t need to prioritise because they are fairly easy to get enough of:
I have intentionally left out all the amino acids (i.e. protein) from the prioritisation because, as you will see below, it’s easy to get enough protein when we focus on the vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids.
Can you get too much of a good thing?
As a general rule it’s hard to get excess micronutrients from real food, but it is possible.
While we can get more than thirty times the DRI for vitamin K from a nutrient dense diet there is no upper toxicity level of toxicity for vitamin Kfrom natural sources. However you can get too much menadione which is used as a vitamin K supplement.
We can get eighteen times the DRI for vitamin B12 from a nutrient dense diet, however again, there is no upper limit established for B12.
We can get seventeen times the DRI for Vitamin A from a nutrient dense diet. It is possible to get vitamin A toxicity, though again this typically occurs from supplementation. There are some reports of Hypervitaminosis A from explorers gorging on polar bear liver, but this is not likely to be a common occurance.
We can get around twelve times the DRI for copper from a nutrient dense diet which is around the upper limit. Though these high levels are unlikely to occur without high liver consumption which is not common.
A nutrient dense diet can provide around fifteen times the DRI for vitamin C however the upper limit is more than 20 times the DRI. Excessive vitamin C supplementation usually causes diarrhea, so it’s largely a self limiting situation.
A nutrient dense diet will provide around ten times the DRI for iron while the upper limit is set at around six times the DRI. Many women are iron deficient while many men have hemochromatosis which is excess iron storage. Liver, mushroom, seaweed and spices are the highest sources of iron. It’s useful to understand your current iron status to know whether you need more or less iron or should even be considering donating blood.
It is quite easy to get more than the DRI for amino acids. While high protein diets do not cause kidney disease in healthy people there is no need to chase excess super high levels of protein. And just like liver, most people will struggle to eat excessive amounts.
So yes, it is possible to get excessive levels of some micronutrients, though generally not a concern unless you are eating a LOT of liver or supplementing with synthetic nutrients.
The chart below shows the nutrient profile of Amy who is following a zero carb diet with a lot of organ meats. While she is generally getting high levels of most nutrients, she is still not meeting the DRI for a number of vitamins and minerals that are typically found in plant foods (e.g. vitamin K1, calcium, manganese, vitamin E, magnesium and potassium).
At the other extreme we have David who is eating a plant based diet that has plenty of vitamins and minerals but less amino acids. He knows he needs to supplement with vitamin B12 and vitamin D which are hard to get from a purely plant based diet.
When it comes to nutrient density I often see arguments around whether or not the daily recommended intake levels are correct and whether they might vary for different people with different dietary approaches and whether or not nutrients from plant or animal based food are more bioavailable.
While I think these are definitely under researched areas I think these discussions are not so relevant when we’re orders of magnitude above or below the DRI values. We need to identify the full range of foods, from whatever source, that will provide the nutrients that we’re not getting enough. We can then choose from within those to suit our tastes and preferences. Our appetite can be a pretty good guide once we eliminate the processed hyper palatable nutrient poor foods that our willpower is no match for.
There is plenty of discussion about excess protein or excess calories. While it’s true that excess is typically not good, I think it’s more valuable to focus on eating foods that contain more of the nutrients that we are currently not getting enough of. When we’re eating nutrient dense whole foods we’re less likely to need to consciously worry about calories, protein, fat, carbs, sugar, fibre or whatever.
Is there any relationship between macronutrients and nutrient density?
While I don’t see a lot of discussion about nutrient density or food quality, there is seemingly endless debate in social media in low carb and keto circles around macronutrients. People are often very passionate about eating more or less protein, carbs, fat and fibre.
Perhaps this is because macronutrients are reasonably easy to track and understand. Or maybe it is because the previous approach hasn’t worked, so they swing to the other extreme.
We’ve been told for so long that fat is bad and now people are realising that it’s not as bad as they were told, so they swing to the other extreme. Now fat can do no wrong.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of people who stick to fat being bad and wanting to avoid it.
Different people have different perspectives on the multifaceted topic of nutrition.
But is there really any value gained by focusing on primarily on macronutrients? Will it improve our food quality or the adequacy of the various essential micronutrients?
To understand whether there is any useful relationship between the various macros and micronutrient adequacy I have plotted the various macronutrients versus the nutrient density score for the 8,000 foods in the USDA foods database.
Note: In this analysis a high nutrient density score means that a particular food has a relatively large amount of the harder-to-find nutrients listed above.
Protein versus nutrients density
There is a lot of debate about protein and whether we should be getting more or less of it.
The chart below shows the nutrient density score for the harder-to-find vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids vs protein (%).
Although amino acids have not included in the nutrient density score it appears that the more nutrient dense foods have more protein. Conversely, foods with less protein have less of the nutrients that are harder to find.
It seems that if we avoid protein we will end up with less nutrients overall. While if we focus on getting the nutrients that are harder to find we will get enough protein.
However, as they say, correlation does not equal causation. There is a lot of scatter in this chart. In this case the correlation (R2) of this relationship is 0.31.
This analysis makes me wonder if the studies that the benefits from increased protein are not at least in part from, not just getting adequate amino acids, but the increased levels of the other micronutrients that often come along with protein.
It’s hard to separate good nutrition and protein.
Fat versus nutrient density
The chart below shows the nutrient density score versus the percentage of calories from fat.
The first thing to point out here is that there is a massive amount of scatter and a low degree of correlation between fat and micronutrients (R2 = 0.06).
However, it does seem that very high fat foods contain less of the harder-to-find nutrients.
Meanwhile at the other extreme very low fat foods can either be nutrient poor (e.g. sugar and processed grains which would be at the bottom left of this chart) or very nutrient dense (e.g. non-starchy vegetables which would be at the top right of this chart).
If we run a trend line through all these foods we see that the highest nutrient density occurs at around 30% calories from fat.
The reality is that not many people live primarily on high nutrient density low fat foods at the top left corner of this chart. People avoiding fat will often slip into the bottom left of this chart and resort to the low fat processed grains and sugars to get enough energy to get through the day.
Sugar versus nutrient density
There is currently a lot of focus on sugar as the primary culprit for our poor health. Gary Taubes and Damon Gameau are down on sugar while Robert Lustig is leading the charge against fructose or fruit sugar.
This analysis suggests that foods with more sugar have a poorer nutrient density, though it’s hard to make sense of this unless we differentiate between added refined sugar and naturally occurring sugar in plant based foods that come with a ton of other nutrients. However, low sugar content does not necessarily guarantee excellent nutrient density.
Energy density versus nutrient density
Energy density is the amount of energy we get per gram of food.
Minimally processed foods contain more water and fibre and thus have a lower energy density but also tend to have a higher nutrient density.
Meanwhile, processed foods that are shelf stable and easy to transport typically have less water and fibre and more preservatives.
While lower energy density foods have a higher nutrient density, most people won’t survive long on a diet of only lettuce, broccoli and celery. They will need some more energy dense foods to survive.
However, if you are looking to lose weight in a hurry while still getting the nutrients you need, focusing on lower energy density foods might not be a bad place to start.
Most people agree that eating more veggies will be better for their health, but the unfortunate reality is that it takes some time and money to prepare the food yourself rather than reaching for a quick and cheap energy hit with minimal effort.
Net carbs versus nutrient density
Foods with more digestible carbohydrates typically have a lower nutrient density.
However, simply going low carb doesn’t guarantee that we maximise nutrient density There is a range of high and low nutrient density foods at the low carb end.
Whether or not you carbs are nutrient dense will likely depend more on whether they are highly processed or in their natural form, and will likely make a bigger contribution to their nutrient density than the quantity of carbs.
Higher fibre foods contain more nutrients. However, we can’t just add fibre supplements to maximise nutrient density. Plant based whole foods that also happen to have heaps of fibre that provide us with more higher levels of nutrition.
The proportion of insulinogenic calories is the proportion of the food we eat that requires insulin to metabolise.
On the right hand side of the chart, highly processed foods with minimal protein and fat typically don’t provide a lot of the harder-to-find nutrients.
Meanwhile on the left hand side of the chart, foods with minimal fibre, carbs and protein are also less nutritious.
If we plot a trendline it appears that the maximum nutrient density occurs at around 50% insulinogenic calories.
If you are already insulin resistant you may want to steer your dietary ship to the left with a lower insulin load diet to the point that your pancreas can keep up and maintain normal blood sugars. Meanwhile if you’re fit and insulin sensitive you will be able to have more leeway when it comes to macros and insulin load.
So what to make of all this? Which of these parameters has the best correlation with food quality or nutrient density? The table below shows the various parameters sorted by their correlation (R2) with their nutrient density score.
Nutrient dense foods tend to have more protein.
Lower energy density foods are typically more nutrient dense.
Foods with more net carbs are typically less nutritious.
Nutrient density peaks at around 50% insulinogenic calories. Extremes are not optimal.
High fibre foods are often more nutritious.
Nutrient density peaks at around 30% fat.
High sugar content correlates with low nutrient density
It seems that if we want to optimise the quality of our diet we should:
Focus on the foods that contain the harder-to-find nutrients.
Not actively avoid protein.
Chose lower energy density foods when we can.
Avoid foods that are largely digestible carbs with minimal fibre (e.g. processed grains and sugars).
Chose moderately insulinogenic foods without swinging to either extreme (though we should err on the less insulinogenic side if we already have diabetes).
Meanwhile, sugar, fat and fibre, aren’t spectacular predictors of nutrition.
chasing nutrients vs chasing macros
So, if protein is good, more is better, right? Bring me the bulk tub of protein powder!
Not so fast. It is important to understand the difference between emphasising:
less insulinogenic foods, and
Maximise all nutrients
The chart below shows what happens to the micronutrient profile when we simply maximise all nutrients.
The amino acids are through the roof (69% protein) because aminos are easy to find in our food system, but we’re still lacking in many of the harder to get nutrients.
If nutrient density correlates with protein then it makes some sense to prioritise protein. Doesn’t it?
The chart below shows what happens to the nutrient profile if we sort the USDA foods database by % protein. It seems that if we simply focus on protein we get a poor vitamin and mineral profile.
Minimising protein and maximising fat
Minimising protein and carbs while maximising fat is all the rage in the keto scene. Unfortunately, a very low insulin load diet is not a high nutrient density approach as we can see from the chart below. While we get adequate protein (15%), the vitamin and mineral profile is poor. With 80% of our energy coming from fat we are deficient in about half the micronutrients.
Perhaps a very high fat therapeutic ketogenic approach should be reserved for special circumstances and extra attention given to the nutrients you won’t be able to get from your food?
Prioritising the harder to find nutrients
The chart below shows the outcome when we focus the harder to find nutrients (excluding amino acids). We get adequate quantities of all the micronutrients and still plenty of protein.
Learnings from the Nutrient Optimiser analysis
It’s one thing to look theoretically in a database of individual foods. But it’s another to look at what people are eating in real life. Next, I’m going to share what I’ve learned from analysing a lot of different people’s food logs in the Nutrient Optimiser.
The nutrient density score
But first, I need to introduce you to the Nutrient Density Score.
Rhonda would score 100% if she could achieve 200% of the DRI for the hardest to hardest to find lower half of the nutrients. However, because she doesn’t achieve 200% with all of the lesser scoring half of the nutrients she only gets a Nutrient Density Score of 81.3%.
For reference, if we add a little bit of all the foods in in the USDA database we would get a nutrient density score of 63% . The most nutrient dense 10% of the foods in the USDA database will give us a nutrient density score of 93%. Even Rhonda has some room for improvement.
By contrast, the chart below shows Patrick’s nutrient density score which comes in at only 21%. Patrick is following a very high fat keto approach even though his blood sugars are great and he doesn’t appear to be insulin resistant, just obese.
With so many of his micronutrients being nowhere near the DRI vales Patrick will need to eat a lot more of his current diet to meet the daily recommended intake for most of the nutrients.
There is a good chance that that Patrick will be craving more food to obtain the nutrients that he needs to get through the day. Even though he is trying to lose weight, he might end up overeating more calories using his current diet than if he spent a week eating with Rhonda.
The table below shows the nutrient density score for more than forty Nutrient Optimiser analyses that I’ve run to date along with:
protein (g/kg LBM),
net carbs (%).
I encourage you to click on each of the names below to review their nutrient analysis to see what they are and aren’t eating to get these scores.
In the charts below we’ll quickly look at the relationship between the macros and their nutrient score.
This chart shows the relationship between protein intake and each person’s nutrient density score. The average protein intake for this range of people following a low carb or keto diet is 2.1g/kg LBM or 23% of energy.
On the top left corner of the chart we have David who is following a plant based diet and intentionally getting lower levels of protein but also maximising vitamins and minerals from plant based foods.
On the bottom left we have a number of people following a therapeutic ketogenic diet targeting low protein and high fat.
As long as you are not trying to target low protein and high fat to generate higher blood ketones then it doesn’t seem to matter what your protein intake is. Most people get enough protein to support their activity levels.
The chart below shows the nutrient density score versus protein (%). Again, it seems that it’s hard to get high levels of nutrients if you are targeting minimal protein levels.
The story is similar with insulin load. Reducing the insulin load of your diet to the point that your blood sugars normalise is a great idea, but less is not necessarily better. We want to avoid really high insulin levels but not drive it so low that we don’t have enough nutrients to repair our muscles and organs.
High levels of fat do not guarantee high levels of nutrition.
It’s good to reduce the carbohydrate load of your diet to normalise your blood glucose levels, but again minimising is not necessarily the best idea and may be unnecessary if you are not managing diabetes.
Higher levels of isn’t necessarily bad either when it comes to nutrient density. On the top right of the chart we have David who is striving for a nutrient dense plant based diet with about 35% net carbs while for contrast we have Robin’s baseline junk food diet which also has about 35% net carbs which has about the same nutrient density score as the very high fat therapeutic keto dietary approaches on the bottom left of the chart.
Higher levels of fibre typically correlate with more nutrition (although you can get heaps of nutrients from shellfish and organ meats with minimal fibre intake).
A nutrient dense diet is not low in protein; however focusing on protein won’t necessarily guarantee great nutrition.
Foods with a lower energy density are often more nutrient dense. To maintain our body weight and growth we will need to add more energy dense foods (i.e. more non-fibre carb and / or fat). Meanwhile, dialling back the energy density and forcing your body to use your stored body fat can be a good strategy for weight loss.
Reducing your carb intake or the insulin load of your diet can be useful if you are managing diabetes. However less is not necessarily better.
For the most part ensuring you are getting the harder-to-find micronutrients will maximising your diet quality without going to macronutrient extremes.