What role does protein have in preventing nutritional ketosis?

By T.J. Murphy/@burning_runner

(previous report)

About a week into being in an early stage of keto adaptation and following a low-carb diet to enable a keto-adapted state. Here’s what happened yesterday that I is obviously anecdotal, but probably underscored a fundamental of nutritional ketosis.

So using a form of intermittent fasting is a strategy toward being in ketosis. This can be defined a number of ways. Skipping a meal. Or compressing all of a day’s eating into a six-hour or so window.

Intermittent fasting has a range of powerful benefits, particularly when combined with high-intensity exercise. It triggers a state of autophagy (“self-eating”) in the cells. Old, junky mitochondria get burned up and cleaned out, for example.

It also can kick up a high-level of fat-burning and ketone production. I’ve seen this myself in the past week. My highest ketone reading so far has been 3.1mm. Which is an optimal number. It means I’m in a metabolic state where my body is burning mostly fat for fuel. And I’m also getting some desirable epigenetic signaling effects.

But I stumbled into what can be a problem for anyone seeking a state of nutritional ketosis: Getting the right amount of protein. I find it easy to focus in on restricting carb intake to less than 50 grams per day. I’m also comfortable with a high fat intake.

But protein is trickier. There’s a Goldilocks thing going on: Not too much, not too little. If you eat too much protein, the insulin response is high and you’ll boot yourself out of ketosis.

So what I did two days ago probably showcased this problem. I didn’t eat anything from 6 p.m. until noon the next day. That’s an 18-hour intermittent fast. I also did a 20-minute weight workout in the morning. So when I had lunch, about three hours after the workout, I ate more than half of the number of protein grams I believe I need a day (according to Jeff Volek’s formula for determining how many grams of protein you need in a day). So later that day I took a ketone reading and was at .6mm. Technically still in ketosis but that’s the boundary. I should mentioned I burned through two other blood ketone strips that day and the readings were .9, .8 and .6.

So my take was (and I could be wrong) it was the blast of protein that lowered my ketone levels below 1.0mm. I plan on screwing around with this using some more experiments. But that’s my first impression.

I would also like to note that I don’t like taking three blood samples in a day. I don’t plan on doing it again anytime soon. It’s expensive, it hurts enough to be annoying and I did a nice job of getting blood on my jeans.

I am reminded of an experience years ago when I was on a story assignment, writing about a coach in Oakland who liked to do blood lactate testing with all of his athletes. I went through the drill. As I recall, I did repeat quarter-mile runs with very short breaks, long enough to get a finger stabbed for a recording. By the end of the test, each finger had been stabbed and drained at least once. I went back to my office in San Francisco and it was pretty funny when I tried to type up the story. My fingers were done for the day.

T.J. Murphy is the editor of LAVA Magazine. Follow T.J. on Twitter @burning_runner and sign up for his health/performance newsletter here