Nutritional Ketosis: Do Calories Matter?

CaloriesOne of the main questions I had regarding nutritional ketosis is regarding the potential for weight gain despite rigid adherence to the high fat, low carb, and moderate protein model recommended by Volek and Phinney.  In my reading of both of their books, they write frequently of how nutritional ketosis promotes fat burning and subsequently weight loss and body recomposition, and the benefits of ketoadaptation for athletes.

But they never really satisfactorily answer the question of whether or not you can actually gain weight from nutritional ketosis and exactly how important overall caloric intake is in weight loss vs weight gain. I tried to do some research online but I didn’t really find much information out there, so I figured I’d try to ask some people that are well respected in the field.


I posed this question to Robb Wolf on his website and this was his response:

“I think we will see some studies looking at exactly that out of NUSI.”

When I asked Jimmy Moore, this was his response:

“The calorie people say over consuming them will lead to weight gain. But none of those studies examined someone with adequate levels of blood ketones (not measured) and how it impacts their weight.”

And this was the Caveman Doctor, Colin Champ’s (wonderful podcast btw) thoughtful response to my question:

“Based on the calorie in/out, etc. you will. I personally have tried to gain weight on it and have been unable to. Perhaps I am not eating enough calories or something else is going on (whether digestion, hormonal, or unable to reach that caloric threshold). That being said, I have self experimented with extremely high caloric intake. I think it is likely individualized because I have definitely put weight on with lower calories on a higher carb diet. Clearly this is the threshold for my “carbohydrate intolerance”. which nearly everyone has. We need more studies evaluating this.”

Jimmy Moore actually recently wrote an article on CarbSmart where he concludes from his own n=1 experiment that:

“But the more likely explanation is the ketones produced by a well-formulated high-fat, moderate protein, low carb diet are at a sufficiently high level that calories are automatically kept in check without really worrying about them because both my insulin and leptin levels have normalized.”

According to the responses above, it doesn’t seem like there is very good data out there except for anecdotal reports.

In my own experience after 30 days (I’m working on an official writeup of this) of mostly being in nutritional ketosis and having my weight being back at square one at 180 lbs I have to say that my conclusion is mixed.  I noticed more positive changes after the folks at the LowCarbFriends forum urged me to keep a food log to have a better picture of my macronutrient and overall caloric intake, and it wasn’t until I implemented this that I discovered that despite being in nutritional ketosis and eating until satiety, my overall caloric intake was way higher than expected.  I hadn’t lost any weight by this point and attribute this to my increased caloric intake.

I’ve been fiddling with my macro intake in the past few days and have only recently discovered that I experienced increased satiety without bad hunger pangs once I changed my lunch to include more meat (higher protein to fat ratio) from hard cheeses (lower protein to fat ratio).

My conclusion, which I think agrees with Jimmy’s, at this point in my n=1 experiment is:

Caloric intake IS the most important factor if the primary goal is weight-loss (fat-loss).  The benefit of nutritional ketosis is that it promotes the conditions under which your  body self regulates its overall caloric intake by increasing satiety and appetite suppression (if using the correct source of foods) once adapted to ketones as the primary source of fuel in which supplies are plentiful.  Your body is no longer subjected to the extreme highs and lows in blood sugar and the accompanying hormonal responses when using carbohydrates as the primary source of fuel which often lead to an increased appetite.


I got a great response from one of the forums regarding this post,  drjlocarb from the Low Carb Friends wrote:

Calories do matter, but, the composition of those calories matter more.
1300 calories of high carbs, low fat and protein = HUNGRY and weight gain
1300 calories of high protein, lower fat and low carb = gluconeogenesis and high fasting glucose
1300 calories of high fat, low carb and mod. protein = decreased hunger, lower fbg [fasting blood glucose], higher blood ketones

And another idea that first drew me to nutritional ketosis which I neglected to mention was that nutritional ketosis promotes burning of your body’s fat stores for energy, so the entire time you’re in NK, you’re constantly burning up your fat stores, as opposed to available carbs/glycogen… at least in theory.

16 Responses to Nutritional Ketosis: Do Calories Matter?

  1. Daytona says:

    I tend to agree that in order to lose body fat, one must start burning their own fat, which is difficult to do when eating a sufficient amount. I like to focus on controlling calories via satiety instead of “willpower”. If you are not hungry, not only have you made it easier to control calories BUT you are happier without constantly being hungry and thinking about your next meal.

    • BJJ Caveman says:

      Yes.. I am definitely less irritable now that I’m not as subject to extreme hunger.

      I like what you said about ‘willpower.’ I definitely have a very limited amount of ‘willpower’ and that supply gets exhausted very quickly… I can look at a donut for about 3 times MAX and resist it before my ‘willpower’ is exhausted and I give in. However if I’m completely satiated and filled to the brim with fats and proteins.. no amount of donuts will appeal to me.

  2. Justin says:

    I agree that it is a more consistent blood sugar level that increases willpower. I found this applies to more than just willpower regarding food choice. Since I moved out of ketosis I’ve had much more trouble being consistent about some other life choices.

    I found the same thing after ~2 months in ketosis – my weight loss was consistent with my caloric deficit based on traditional metabolic rate calculations. I would definitely like to try some overfeeding with high fat levels in my next attempt.

  3. […] Despite the fact that we know the whole calories in vs calories out way of thinking is extremely incomplete, and doesn’t take into the account the types of calories as well as the subsequent hormonal responses elicited, calories still do matter. […]

  4. Mike says:

    I would also like to add that for some people with higher insulin resistance eating even moderate healthy carbs will “turn off” their bodies ability to burn fat.

    A recent Dexa scan has proved to me personally that although I have been able to lose 45 pounds at times (vegan), I lost considerable muscle in the process. With each subsequent diet and fail over the years, my BF% has grown higher and higher. Yes folks, even Tanita home scales work well enough to prove this fact.

  5. KD says:

    I actually emailed Volek a question about this to better understand the mechanism of weight loss. If you google the studies, it’s still not clear from the abstract. His response was insightful, the people in the study, although they were on a VLCKD, they also were in a caloric deficit. So this is key to losing the weight (bodyfat).

    Also, I have read through your blog posts and noticed your diet, and from my personal experience, you have to eat very clean meaning free of carbs. As you see in the book, all of the daily carbs are not from carb rich foods themselves. They are from veggies, nuts, etc. So essentially, you are eating a 0 carb-sourced diet even though you might get some here and there.

    I only eat meat, fat, green veggies, and a small amount of nuts. When I eat like, I can consistently stay above 1.5 and higher. Highest I’ve gotten is 2.5

  6. KD says:

    Forgot to add,

    I eat more than 120 grams protein a day, current weight is 170 lbs…

    Like I said in my previous post, try cutting out the chocolate squares, and sobe water, etc. (I only drink water and tea) The books states most people will need 50 grams or less of carbs, but recognize where those 50 are coming from, it’s not coming from sugar, etc.

    It’s probably likely you will have to stay more strict in the beginning and then as insulin sensitivity/carbohydrate tolerance improves, you can get away with eating more carbs while still staying keto. Bodyfat is key here, the less bodyfat you have, the better insulin sensitivity you have and more carbs you could eat without coming out of ketosis.

    • BJJ Caveman says:

      Thanks for your comments!

      My diet is actually much different compared to my original posts…

      I’m planning my next experiment, and I think it will include food logs again with macronutrient break downs… which I hate doing!

    • Evonne says:

      I have been in and out of NK since December with 20 g of carbs per day. I have not lost any weight. I stopped working out with my trainer who does too much cardio. My hypothyroidism was stabilized on Armour Thyroid for some time before. Over the past two weeks, I have noticed many symptoms of hypothyroidism return–BJJ this site has been very helpful and I now keep all your same information. I know I need to up my carbs to about 50 g. I have increased my VD, Selenium and Iodine. However, I was also concerned about the quality of the carb so as to avoid the sugar as you mention above. Are you saying those 50 g cannot come from fruit? I was trying to eat only green veggies to but….it’s a bit much. Going to get new labs this week and a bit nervous that my cholesterol will be very high.


      • BJJ Caveman says:

        Thank you for the kind words!

        50 gm from fruit is fine. The issue with eating too much fruit is the large amount of fructose which can be converted directly into triglycerides if liver glycogen is full.

        If you’re getting 50 gm just from leafy greens, that’s probably almost all from fiber, and isn’t really giving you the carbs that you’re looking for.

        Rice, sweet potatoes, and some fruit would probably be the best sources of carbs for you. Also you can experiment with eating 50 gm of carbs and see how that is… and if you’re not feeling well or your thyroid is still bad, you can try to up it to 75 gm… or even 100 gm.

        Don’t pressure yourself to be in ketosis just because you think you need to, as we’ve seen in my case, it may not work for everyone.

        Hope this helps!

        Keep us updated on your labs

  7. KD says:

    Food logs are the way to go! Especially if you aren’t eating the same things everyday….. You’ve got to make sure you are getting that deficit…

    I’m down 8 lbs since starting, Im’ assuming its all BF as I strength train and do HIIT training to maintain/gain muscle. My fpg was 62 this morning and ketones were 3.6…. my ketones have been off the charts as off late, peaking as high as 5.7

    Looking forward to your next posts

    • BJJ Caveman says:

      Ya, that’s the one thing missing from my most recent experiments is keeping food logs.

      I did it for my initial nutritional ketosis experiment, but it was such a pain!

      I’m resolving to use a food log with my next experiment…. painful as it is.

      Great job with your ketones!

  8. Erica says:

    I just found you via a post on twitter.

    I am about 3 weeks in on NK. I started after reading “why we get fat” and I am reading The “Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living”.

    I am wondering if it is possible to eat too little on Nk? At this point I find that I am generally just not hungry, so I don’t eat. but I can go a whole day and only eat once. When I was doing mostly fresh fruit and veggie diet, and lean meat my body responded poorly and I did not lose weight even with low calories, and possibly because they were too low. I worry that the same can happen in NK, but it seems like with tons of fat stores that my body has plenty of energy, so I just don’t know… ?

    • BJJ Caveman says:

      Thanks for stopping by!

      A lot of people report having a much lower appetite while doing NK… it didn’t happen with me, at least not in the beginning. Gradually my appetite has decreased, although when I get started I can really chow down… especially when I’m doing a carb up day.

      It might be a good idea for you to do a food diary, at least for a week just to get a sense of how many calories you’re eating and what your macronutrient break down is.

      It’s also a good idea to keep a journal (your blog looks great btw) about how you feel in terms of energy throughout the day and when you exercise… if you happen to feel like your energy is going down or your performance is suffering (after you are done with the keto-flu of course), that may be an indication that your calories are too low.

      Another thing to consider if you plan on doing NK for a while is to get a baseline thyroid test (including TSH, free t3, free t4, and RT3) now… and if you feel your energy going down or beginning to see signs of hypothyroidism, you can check your labs again to see if there are any significant changes.

      Just listened to a podcast today where Ben Greenfield reported that he developed hypothyroidism while doing NK.

      If you are experiencing low energy, you can also try to up the calories and see how you feel… and if that doesn’t help, you can try adding in a carb up day and see if that helps.

      Hopefully these suggestions will help. Keep us posted!

      You can look here if you want to see all the other things I messed around with.

      • Erica says:

        Thank you so much! My energy is actually really high, I felt pretty sluggish during workouts the first two weeks, and then this weekend it felt like I had a breakthrough. I had my thyroid checked about a year ago, and everything was normal. Thanks for taking the time to answer my question. I look forward to keeping up with your blog.

  9. EV Lynne says:

    I would say Jimmy Moore’s entire weight loss history pretty well answers this question.

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