What Happens When I Try To Cut My Protein Intake Out of Ketone Envy?

Day 56aDespite making good progress and seeing new lows in weight and body circumference I still had some ketone envy seeing how other consistently have ketones greater than 2.0 mmol/L and even upwards of 3.0 or 4.0 mmol/L!  I’m not sure how accurate or inaccurate this is, but in my mind I equate a greater ketone number to more fat burning.

I’ve been following the blog of Dr. Georgia Ede who has been doing her own n=1 experiment with nutritional ketosis.  One of the things she observed is that when her protein intake was around 75-80 gm/day her blood ketones consistently stayed around 1.0-1.4 mmol/L.  The moment she cut her daily protein intake down to 50-55 gm/day her blood ketones shot up to 3.8-4.8 mmol/L.  Seeing those results certainly caught my attention.

Since I haven’t seen any of her stats including height or weight, but I’m assuming that since her calculated daily BMR is 1400 calories, she is smaller and has less muscle mass than I do.  My estimated BMR is around 1700 calories but since I’m so active, my estimated caloric intake needed to maintain my weight is around 2700 calories.

I had reservations about cutting down my protein because I didn’t want to risk losing any lean mass, but curiosity and ketone envy got the best of me, so I attempted a trial of 3 days where I attempted to consume less protein to see if I can replicate her ketone levels.

Low Protein Experiment Day 1

Low Protein Experiment Day 1

Day 1: As you can see, I didn’t do too well in cutting my protein down.  I found that I started to get hungry so I ate more, and when I went to tally up my results, I saw that by the end of the day I ate right in the range of my typical average of around 100-120 gm.  For exercise, I did a light IFAST workout with foam rolling and some basic core movements.  My blood ketones the following morning measured 0.7 mmol/L.

Low Protein Day 2

Low Protein Experiment Day 2

Day 2: I did a little better by cutting down my protein to 86.5 gm.  I found that I ran into the same problem as I was tallying up my numbers throughout the day.  I just got too damn hungry and couldn’t resist eating more.  I started doubting whether I could get myself into the 50 gm range that Dr. Ede did.  For exericse I did a slightly more rigorous IFAST (but still light and gentle) workout with weights that gave me a light sweat.  My ketones the following morning measured 0.9 mmol/L.

Low Protein Day 3

Low Protein Experiment Day 3

Day 3: I successfully fought against the hunger I was feeling and managed to keep my protein intake to 69 gm.  This was really uncomfortable for me though since I experienced the strongest hunger pangs I’ve felt since starting this experiment.  I concluded previously that protein is for satiating for me, and this experience only reinforces that further.  I had a pretty rigorous Crossfit intro session for exercise.  On the following morning, my blood ketones measured 1.5 mmol/L.  I thought that this was a slight improvement, but I didn’t get too excited since I’ve seen that exercise can raise my ketones, and 1.5 mmol/L is in line with what I’ve observed before.

Low Protein Day 4

Low Protein Experiment Day 4

Day 4: Since I wasn’t seeing the higher ketones I was hoping for, I tried one more day… and failed because I got too hungry.  I used this day as a rest day and didn’t do any exercises.  My ketones the following morning were 1.3 mmol/L.

CONCLUSION

My takeaways from this experience are:

  1. It’s too damn hard for me to cut my protein down.  I just get too hungry.  Ketone envy or not, it’s just not worth it for me.
  2. On the day when I managed decrease my intake to 69 gm, which is the lowest I’ve consumed in this entire time that I’ve been keeping a food log, I didn’t see a sufficient elevation of my ketone levels to make me want to continue.

Again, this is the beauty of n=1 experiments, you try things and see.  In some cases, sometimes something that will work for others will also work for you, and in other cases it won’t.  The problem is you don’t know if you don’t try.

As an aside, while I was in the process of writing this post, Dr Ede posted her most recent results.  While she managed to keep her protein intake to around 50 gm and her ketones were still high, she herself wasn’t doing too hot.  Some lines for her post (bold emphasis mine):

I ate my entire protein allotment for the day by 10 am because I was so hungry.  It helped a lot. Notes:  I’m clearly not getting enough of something lately–not enough calories?  Not enough protein?  Not enough fat?  Who knows…

…In the afternoon and evening I found myself distracted by thoughts of food–dancing through my head were images of chocolate cupcakes, giant balls of fresh mozzarella cheese, grilled burgers, and all kinds of yummy things.  I was getting mouth-watering hankerings for…well…just about anything…

She concludes by stating:

This current plan is not sustainable for me and is clearly not healthy.  Perhaps if I’d been able to comfortably eat more fat, it would have worked, but my blood pressure, energy, and hormonal rhythms are telling me that I need to change the plan.  I would have been willing to tolerate some fatigue and some hunger, which some people experience during the first 2-3 weeks of keto-adaptation, but it’s been more than 3 weeks and these have not been the only worrisome signs, so time to increase protein intake.

And regarding having such elevated ketones:

Ketones:  When these are in the 5+ range it feels more like starvation (based on my experiences with fasting on days 1 through 4) than dieting, and doesn’t feel healthy.  I feel cold, sluggish, and can’t sleep.

After reading all this, my ketone envy is probably misguided.  The benefits don’t seem to outweigh the costs when it comes to striving for higher ketones.

11 Responses to What Happens When I Try To Cut My Protein Intake Out of Ketone Envy?

  1. Lori says:

    This is a timely post, I was suffering from ketone envy too!
    I was going to try a 3 day fat fast to get my ketone numbers up. 1000 calories coming from 90% fat. Five 200 calorie meals of macadamia nuts, cream cheese, etc.
    I bought the ingredients but haven’t had the motivation to begin.
    My ketone numbers can read around .7-1.4 without any discomfort.
    Instead of a fat fast I think I’ll try a nutritional ketosis streak like you do. That way I don’t have to eat a block of cream cheese for lunch!

    • BJJ Caveman says:

      Good idea. One of the other things when I tried to just have a meal of cheese… was that it just wasn’t filling enough for me. I ate a bunch of hard cheeses, like they recommend in the Art and Science books, and even after 600 calories worth cheese.. I would still get hungry in 2 hours. But when I changed it to cheese and a little bit of meat, a 400-600 calorie meal would last me up to 8 hours!

      Took me a while to figure this out though.

  2. mike says:

    Have you tried any fasting?

    • BJJ Caveman says:

      Not yet. Even though I’m feeling more satiated while on this diet, I still can’t go the whole day not eating without starting to feel uncomfortably hungry. At this point, I figure since I’m making good but slow progress, there’s no need to push myself to the limits where I start to feel uncomfortable. One of the benefits of this diet is that it you are supposed to ‘eat to satiety,’ and eating 70-80% fat and 15-20% protein makes you satiated earlier and longer.

      That is the quality that makes nutritional ketosis SUSTAINABLE which I feel is the most important part to sticking with a diet.

      The moment I modify it to where I’m feeling uncomfortable and feel like it’s too much of a struggle… that’s when I start wanting to fall off the wagon.

      Although once I notice my hunger starting to abate even more I may experiment a little more with fasting… or at least the 16:8 version of it.

  3. Daytona says:

    It seems your calories were hovering just at your BMR (1800) when you said that your preferred calorie range is 2800. Were you purposefully trying to limit calories and protein at the same time? I am just curious why you didn’t crank up the fat to make up the calories.

    I did a similar experiment only I lasted longer than 3 days. The result was very detrimental to my health and goals. I was ravenous, whereas before I was satisfied eating 85g of protein, after eating 50g for a while, once I gave up nothing I ate would satisfy. I ended up overeating and really going off plan for months before I could reign in my hunger.

    I am just not sure that severely limiting protein to increase ketones is a good idea for many people. I like to think of it similarly to fasting. If it happens naturally due to lack of hunger that is one thing, but if you have to force it, you shouldn’t be doing it.

    • BJJ Caveman says:

      I’ve been normally trying to keep my caloric intake at a deficit (1800-2400 calories) since my goal is still to lose some weight, or rather body fat. But during this particular sub-experiment I solely focused on my protein in take and didn’t pay much attention to the calories.

      It just so happened that I met my protein limit faster than I would have liked and subsequently went unsatiated.. the caloric deficit was just a side effect of this.

      You’re correct in that I could have just taken in more fat… but for some reason, during these few days I felt nauseated by the thought of eating straight butter or coconut oil… it would’ve made me vomit. If I mixed it with my normal drink “fat hot chocolat”, it would’ve included additional protein from my protein shake as well as almond milk that I usually add…

      I agree with you 100% that restricting protein this low is unsustainable… and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else. Dealing with the hunger, discomfort, and side effects is just not worth it… and Dr. Ede seemed to reach the same conclusion. But I wouldn’t have known this if I didn’t try…

  4. Ian S says:

    I’d be curious what would happen if you ate 3 square meals a day, with a full 2700-2800 of daily calories, including lots of greens/veggies, and limited protein to about 20g/meal. So you would be in the low protein area but not be hypo-caloric or hypo-nutrient – both of which can make one very hungry.

    I haven’t lost any weight (I’m not trying to), and I still haven’t had the sensation of ‘kicking in’ to ketosis (increased energy, mood, endurance etc…) While I wait for it to kick in, I’m trying to keep my blood ketone numbers solidly over 2.0, and the only way I can do it so far is by limiting protein. I end up eating loads of fat.

  5. jj says:

    I’ll be honest, I’m not sure I’m a believer that such high levels of ketones are beneficial long term if it’s such a struggle to get to that point. If you’re in mild-moderate ketosis and seeing benefits, hang tight where you’re feeling good.

  6. […] This can explain why it’s so hard for people to get their ketones up. […]

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