Does Protein Kick You Out Of Ketosis?
To sum up these diets in the briefest of terms, keto involves eating a low amount of carbs. It makes the ideal stepping stone for the meat-exclusive carnivore, which is effectively a zero-carb diet.
This is a hot-button question currently burning through the minds of keto-fanatics, as they’re wracked in self-debate. Carnivore appears to come with a bunch of extra perks, more than enough to drop the midday snack of celery slathered in real mayo.
But then there’s the issue of ketones, the magic fuel that drives the success of its namesake diet. A survival mechanism that’s been in place since the cave days, ketones can do wonderful things when they’re running up and down your veins. They can suppress appetite, charge up energy, and reduce stress, even when you’re trudging waist-deep through life with no calories in the tank. As far as the quest of losing weight goes, they’re a miracle drug. But as a lifestyle tool and emotional aid, they bring much more to the table.
All this means there’s a lot of good will riding on the power of ketones, and a keto-fanatic may be worried about the wrench about to be thrown into the mix by a barrage of extra protein. Which happens to be all-but-inevitable on an all-meat diet. There’s a reason the therapeutic version of keto recommends a stunningly dramatic split of 90% fat and 10% protein. All because high protein will drag the patient kicking and screaming from the blissful throes of ketosis.
So opting for more steak and ditching the nuts and heavy cream may look like a bridge too far, at least for people looking to keep their mojo in place. Without tearing off big chunks of beef suet, 90/10 split would be hard to replicate on carnivore.
But, perhaps, the whole ‘protein is bad’ hypothesis has been given too much hype.
Why Ketones Are Miracle Fuel
First, let’s do a quick deep dive into the metabolic machinery that makes keto tick. The topic of ketones drives right at the heart of why modern diets are failing us. Since we’ve decided to mass-overproduce grains to feed a booming population, since we’ve gone on to spike everything with carbs, the body has lost its ability to use its favourite fuel source. That would be fats, or triglycerides, from which ketones are made.
The fact that fats make up the body’s favourite fuel doesn’t stop the body burning carbs instead when given the choice. This is known as oxidative priority. If you had a big Sunday roast alongside while chugging down a beer, there’d be a pecking order. The body would start by burning off the alcohol, which is a toxin and therefore needs to be removed. Then you’d move on to the carbs, which are easy to digest and convert into energy. Third up, it’s protein. And when all that is over, fat enters the play.
All this should make it fairly obvious why the modern diet cripples the body’s ability to use fat as a fuel source. Instead, it’s just rolled into the storage depots. Fat doesn’t make you fat. Carbs and fats? There’s a winning combo for a mobility scooter.
An abject dieter seasoned in failure often finally finds success with the ketogenic diet, as it forces the metabolism to reopen that forgotten pathway. When carbs are taken off the menu, the body has to find an alternative fuel source, and there happen to be tens of thousands of calories nestled away in fat stores. It may take a few foggy weeks, even several months, for the metabolism to iron out the kinks and regain the evolutionary state of being fat adapted. But once that happens, the brakes on fat loss are released, energy begins to skyrocket, and the new cult-member would have reason to feel that he’s finally stumbled on the ultimate diet.
Except keto still leaves out a few roadblocks. Vegetable oils, and plant toxins, are often given the green light on a ketogenic diet. That’s a giant problem, as they’re two of the central culprits in modern diets. The carnivore template dispenses with them, but does ketosis get taken down in friendly fire?
Protein can be converted to glucose through the mechanism of gluconeogenesis, but that wouldn’t cancel the production of ketones. They’d still be hanging around, it’s just that their signals would be blotted out in the presence of glucose. And ketone hype aside, you wouldn’t want to be relying on glucose in a position where there’s very little available. Which is the scenario of a carnivore diet, where incoming carbs are usually a grand total of zero.
Without active ketones, you’d be using triglycerides, which are standard fat cells. These triglycerides are too large to get past the blood-brain barrier and feed the main energy hog in the body. Gluconeogenesis could provide some fuel for the brain, but it’s a slow process, not quite what you need for an uninterrupted supply of energy. That’s where ketones can play the perfect role. They’re efficient, consistent, and they’re small enough to squeeze past the netting. They are our evolutionary fuel source with good reason.
Ketones Are Our Evolutionary Fuel
So if gluconeogenesis gets outperformed by ketones, does that mean the carnivore diet comes with a hitch? Even if you could stray beyond the 10% recommendation of the Atkins version of keto, the more moderate approaches are still pretty low in protein, at 20-25%. If you picked the fattiest cuts of meat, and exclusively ate ribeye, that would still put your macros ratios around 70:30. That still adds up to a metric ton of protein.
But to say that carnivore would take you out of ketosis, would also be arguing that our cavemen ancestors did not spend much time in the body’s driving fuel mode. As I’ve outlined in another guide, before the first agricultural revolution, humans were more hunters than gatherers. Their standard cuisine would have been a close replication of the carnivore template. As the food-chain table-toppers, they had more than their fair share of protein. It seems counterintuitive to imagine the body hadn’t the means to deal with it.
And as it turns out, there is a mechanism that allows the body to remain in ketosis despite the rise of protein in the bloodstream. The perfect insulin spike, the ketone-cancelling enemy in this context, can be ushered on by a cocktail of protein and carbs. Think the standard chicken rice combo. Hence the rapid rise in blood sugar, brakes on lipolysis, and muffled ketones.
But what if that protein came without the carbs, like a big serving of ribeye? In this case, rather than just prodding insulin into action, glucagon is also secreted, a hormone that’s inherently ketogenic. Glucagon prevents blood sugar from dropping too low and activates lipolysis, making it ketosis-friendly. By stopping blood sugar levels from crashing, it effectively halts the post-meal energy roller coaster.
Beyond glucagon, the process of gluconeogenesis is itself rate-limited. It’s a slow production line that’s unlikely to cause any spikes in blood sugar. And while that’s inevitably going to increase with keto adaption, it’s not going to amount to match. After nearly a year of carnivore, I still use dextrose during intense workouts for this reason. Gluconeogenesis alone can’t give me the same level of explosiveness that carbs bring.
Carnivore also works in sync with an intermittent fasting regime. They go together almost as well as steak goes with butter. Extremely nutrient dense foods with no post-meal crash means the body can go for long stretches without needing to refill the tank. This once again harkens back to a fact of evolution. We didn’t have fridges, and we didn’t always have our next meal lumbering through the neighborhood. The ability to fast was a necessity. Without being able to handle spells of starvation, we wouldn’t be here.
Fasting is a sure-fire method to increase ketones, meaning that any effect on blood sugar by protein will be easily negated with a subsequent fast. You wouldn’t always be in ketosis, but you’d be spending the majority of your time there.
Don’t Be Afraid Of Fat
While ketosis is likely to remain in place during a high-protein carnivore diet, the numbers of those magic ketones can be suppressed compared to a by-the-book cream-in-coffee ketogenic diet. But chasing the ketone count doesn’t necessarily get you better results. Higher ketones could easily mean the body’s less efficient at using them, hence why they are running around untamed. That’s why urinary ketones are highest in the first week of a low carb diet. The body just has more on its hands than it knows what to do with.
For all intents, there’s no need to sweat over the plunge from keto to carnivore. You’ll be wasting less time prepping all those intricate gourmet salads, leaving more time to mindlessly scroll down your facebook feed. The only potential hitch would be in choosing lean cuts of meat. For ketosis and all that comes with it, a 70:30 Fat to Protein ratio would be on the money. Chicken breast wouldn’t quite cut it, and neither would the thighs. Tilting the ratio further in favour in protein would definitely suppress the effect of ketones. You have to pick the fat-drenched foods. And by fat, I mean the good kind.
Here are a few of the best picks for a ketone-powered carnivore diet. But there are other ways of tackling this. Salmon may be leaner than brisket, but it shouldn’t be ruled out when it’s a critical Omega 3 source. So to even out the fat to protein ratio, you could simply add a generous pasting of grass-fed butter to the proceedings.
Personally, if I felt all that protein kicked me out of ketosis, I wouldn’t have made the jump from keto to carnivore. Having been battered by chronic stress all across my teenage years, the effects of ketones came as a game-changer. And I’m in no position to give that up.
Can’t stomach red meat or don’t want to give up all your favourite foods? Check out my guide for the different ways to make up a carnivore-style diet.