Can you have too much protein?
Ask anyone and most people will tell you that protein is key to a healthy diet. It fills you up, is converted and used to build and maintain muscle, and is a good source of vitamins and minerals. We by no means will argue with that. Yet when it comes to a ketogenic diet ,which by definition is a low carbohydrate, moderately low protein, high fat diet, you need to monitor your intake and consume the proper amount to meet your body’s nutritional needs while maintaining ketosis.
So how do you know what your body’s needs are? This is where proper macronutrients or macros plays a large role in success. When using an online macro calculator you want to look for one that takes into account both your body fat percentage as well as your activity level. The reason why this is important is because, to know the correct amount of protein for your body and needs, you have to take into account the muscle you currently have as well as any exercise you are doing that would require additional protein to build new muscle(as well as the additional calories needed).The Ruled.Me calculator is one of the best ones online that is free (just google Ruled.Me Macro calculator) And while it isn't perfect, it is the best I have found for individuals to get accurate macros. I use an algorithm that takes other metabolic considerations into account that I have formulated for those in my challenges or followers I help with their macros(I don't mind helping and never charge, but you need to be patient as I get a great deal of requests a day). In the below example woman A would require more calories and protein then woman B due to the more vigorous activity level. Her body will be utilizing the available energy to fuel her workout, maintain and build muscle, as well as provide the nutrients needed to sustain her body. With so many now utilizing fitness monitors such as Fitbits and Apple Watches it may be deceiving when you look at your activity level for the day and it gives you the amount of time you were “exercising” for. While it may display that you were active or exercised for 30 minutes, that is reflecting 30 mins where you had an elevated heart rate(if your monitor is heart rate compatible) not necessarily 30 consecutive minutes of an elevated heart rate(which is what will really lead to you requiring more protein as you build/maintain muscle).
Woman A: 5’7 165lbs, weight lifts daily for an hour a day, and does 30 mins of cardio every other day. She maintains an elevated heart rate for 80% of her workouts.
Woman B: 5’7 165lbs, active with her children, and walks 1-2 miles a day. Has 20 non-consecutive minutes of elevated heart rate during her activity with her children
So what happens when you have too much protein? Well, when eating a well formulated ketogenic diet, you are depriving yourself (intentionally, of course) of glucose. This is done to force your body to rely on fat for energy. This means your stored fat (aka, adipose tissue), your ingested fats, and your self-generated fats (cholesterol). When you are depriving yourself of excess glucose to be used as energy and stored as fat, your body will look to utilize other macronutrients in its place. With protein, this can become a problem. Unlike lipids (fats), protein is somewhat readily converted into glucose through a process known as gluconeogenesis. Gluconeogenesis is the process of turning non-carbohydrate sources (protein in this case) into glucose to be used to meet the body’s energy need (Mosby, 2009) . It is a little more complicated than that may sound, but this process is fairly easy for the body to do when deprived of glucose. When you are depriving your body of glucose and go over the amount of protein your body needs to maintain its current muscle and satisfy your activity level needs, protein is the first thing it is likely to convert, as the pathway for doing so in the body is the most straight forward. So to answer the question, “what happens when you have too much protein?”, it turns into sugar! That is the exact situation you are trying to avoid on the ketogenic diet as this increases your risk for further storage of glucose as fat and reduces reliance on stored fat to be burned (causing a weight loss stall).
“But I read somewhere that I should eat less fat so that my body burns the fat I currently have”. This is something we’ve heard a number of times and, unfortunately, it is just untrue. The thought behind this may make sense if you really oversimplify what is going on in the body. The problem with that is, fat metabolism isn’t simple! So what’s the real answer? You have to train your body to utilize fats for its primary caloric resource. That is what the entire premise is behind the ketogenic diet… use fatty acids (ketone bodies, stored fat, ingested fat, and generated lipids) for fuel in place of glucose or protein being turned into glucose. To fully understand this, you need to understand the topic of macronutrient breakdown.
Your macronutrients are broken down into two tiers: 1) Calories, 2) Fats, Protein, and Carbohydrates. The second tier is a subgroup of the first, meaning that your calories are just the total number of energy units gained from the foods you eat. You then break that down by grams per macronutrient (x grams of fat, x grams of protein, and x grams of carbohydrates). These values are individually specific with the one somewhat general guideline being the carbohydrate allotment. Many keto dieters practice the method of 20g of net carbohydrates per day. This allows you to get in vital micronutrients and fiber while avoiding things that will turn to glucose in order to avoid causing a serum blood glucose spike and an insulin spike. If you break this down into percentages (for the sake of discussion), rather than grams per macronutrient, the highest percentage should be fat intake. This is to train your body to rely on fats as your primary fuel source. The next highest is protein, and that is followed by carbohydrates as the lowest. Again, the values assigned to each of these is individually specific and influenced by a number of things such as activity level, body fat percentage, age, current weight, gender, desired metabolic benefits (weight loss, weight maintenance, muscle gain, etc), and even some pre-existing medical conditions.
So to wrap up the issues with the aforementioned statement, “I should eat less fat so my body will burn more,” it is not as simple as calories in, calories out or grams of fat in, grams of fat burned. Fat is utilized in a number of ways by the body and calories are also burned for a number of reasons. Tasks as trivial as breathing utilize calories. Where those calories come from make all the difference. If you are not ingesting fat, your calories have to come from somewhere else. If you calories are coming from protein, it can be turned into glucose and slow or even halt the process of burning fat as well as kick you out of ketosis. If they are coming from carbohydrates, then (simply put) you’re not ketogenic. If they’re coming from fat and you have calculated your actual metabolic needs correctly, you will burn stored fat and you should not restrict your ingested fats to do so. Everyone is unique and responds differently so it’s important to build a nutritional plan that works for you are your body’s needs.
glyconeogenesis. (n.d.) Mosby's Medical Dictionary, 8th edition. (2009). Retrieved May 31 2018 from https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/glyconeogenesis