How does the Ketogenic diet deal with calories?
As one of the most interesting emerging diets – a spin on some of the most popular diets of the 20th century – the ketogenic diet is a world of possibilities and interesting applications. It’s a tool in a toolkit, as we’ve mentioned before, and one that has a few interesting medical and performance implications.
Today, however, we’re going to discuss Keto in reference to the king of dieting principles: the calorie deficit.
We’re going to answer all your pressing questions:
How does keto deal with calories?
Do you need to count calories on keto?
What sort of ketogenic diet guidelines should you be following?
Stick with us, and you’ll have a great understanding of how keto fits into the overall map of weight-loss dieting and what an effective, well-balanced ketogenic diet will look like when thinking about the macros and calories!
- The Reputation Calories Have in Dieting
- The Role Calories Play in Weight-Loss Dieting
- Keto: A Weight-Loss Diet
- 3 Reasons Keto Makes a Calorie Deficit Easier
- Do You Need to Count Calories on Keto?
- Keto Calorie Calculator
- Closing remarks
Calorie counting is often discussed like it’s the very worst thing in the world – like it’s a diet that is based on salads and starvation. This is because calories are misunderstood and demonized: everybody wants to achieve their goal body, but nobody wants to spend all day counting their food intake.
There are pretty much two reasons that this reputation has come about:
- Being attentive to your diet is often associated with compulsive or overly-restrictive behaviors, and the inevitable failure and guilt they come with
- The amount of effort and discomfort associated with being on a very strict, numerical food plan is a real psychological bummer!
So when we talk about calories, it’s going to be important to break down the difference between how a ketogenic diet deals with calories and, as a totally different discussion, whether or not you’ll have to count calories on a ketogenic diet.
Obviously, this means starting out with a discussion of what a calorie is and how it plays into your diet…
What is a Calorie?
Calories are just a measure of the energy found in food. As a scientific concept, it is the amount of energy necessary to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1-degree. If you’re super knowledgeable on energy, its also just over 4 joules.
This isn’t actually that important, what is important is what it means to you in a practical sense. A calorie is a unit of energy that food provides – but calories are not good or bad by themselves. They become bad when you have too many, and good when you need more.
A calorie surplus is how you become obese, but it’s also how you become incredibly muscular. This is because the energy itself doesn’t code for fat or muscle – your body decides what to do with this energy based on your lifestyle: your diet, training, sleep, supplementation, hydration, and so on.
So when we look at calories, it’s important to remember that they’re just energy. If you have an excess of energy, your body will either store it as fat to be used later or it will use this additional energy to repair and grow tissues like muscle.
On the other hand, calorie deficits are key to weight-loss dieting. The simple principle is that your body is lacking energy when you consume fewer calories than you use, during which time your body burns that stored body-fat to make up the difference and ensure you’re getting all the energy you need for exercise and other activity.
This is how dieting works – something we need to discuss a little more in-depth.
Creating a calorie deficit between your food/drink and your activity levels is entirely the point of any weight-loss diet.
While there are many differences between popular diets – some more-effective and some less so – the general idea is to create a sustainable deficit for long enough that you burn away excess body-fat as fuel.
This is also why diet is considered essential for weight-loss, while exercise is only considered beneficial. You can create a calorie deficit by simply eating less, while exercise and other forms of activity can increase this deficit by upping your overall calorie needs.
This balance between reducing food and increasing exercise is going to be personal preference, but the way that your calorie balance is important. This is why we describe weight-loss diets in the “calories-in, calories-out” model:
Weight Change = Calories In – Calories Out
This isn’t all there is to weight loss – there are dozens of dietary factors that will maximize your results and health – but it’s the bedrock. You could lose weight just by eating fewer calories, but the diets that do this (IIFYM and “flexible” dieting) tend to totally overlook key areas of dietary quality!
However, this is the launching off point for what keto is, how it plays within these rules, and how it provides a unique way of dealing with your calorie intake/weight-loss.
The ketogenic diet is a weight-loss diet.
While many people think you can gain muscle on keto, the reality is that it really doesn’t work for that purpose very well. With protein limitations, carb reductions, and a preference for endurance-performance over strength and power, it’s clearly a diet that aims to boost your fat-loss potential rather than balance it off against strength and muscle results.
This is even more obvious when you look at what nutritional ketosis is and how it works. The keto-adaptation process is only effective to the top-level when combined with calorie maintenance (TDEE) or a calorie deficit.
Keto-adaptation is what happens when you’re utilizing body-fat as a fuel source because your external fuel sources – especially carbs – are restricted. This means that the weight-loss process and an optimal ketogenic diet just can’t be separated: they’re tied together in a fundamental way.
What this means is that we have to discuss weight loss and calories, rather than just keto and calories. You can use keto for gaining weight/muscle if you want, it’s just far less effective than other forms of diet for that purpose.
Calories and Weight-Loss
We mentioned above how the calorie works.
There are two myths/attitudes we want to get rid off right off the bat because they complicate the issue of the ketogenic diet and what it has to do with calories.
The first myth is that keto is a magical fat-burning diet. This is from the people who think that carbs make you fat and that cutting them out is a simple way to fix everything about your body and health.
Despite support from ‘gurus’ who claim that insulin is the only thing that matters – or that carbs are the devil – this isn’t true. The body’s response to diets of any kind – whether high or low carb – is to lose weight when put at a deficit. We definitely eat too many (refined) carbohydrates as a society, but that’s not how you get fat all by itself.
The second myth is that all calorie-deficit diets are created equal. This is a backlash to the first problem: people claiming that the ketogenic diet and its results are identical to any other form of diet that aims to reduce body-fat.
Suggesting that LCHF and LFHC diets are going to have exactly the same benefits and outcomes at all times is just as ridiculous as saying that there’s only one way to lose fat.
The reality for both of these myths is that you can lose weight with any deficit diet, but the best choice for your goals is more complicated. It’s a complicated relationship between what different macro-nutrients do in the body and what you want your diet to do for you.
There are a few ways that Keto can make the weight loss process easier by simply making it easier for you to hold a calorie deficit.
1. You Like Fats
The first and most powerful reason is that it fits you better. For some people, this is literally just as simple as preferring high-fat foods to carbohydrates and being able to sustain a lean diet really easily when eating salmon and avocado and coconut oil and other stereotypically “keto foods”.
An LCHF diet is a great choice if you love those fatty foods but you’re not so bothered about carbs – if you can cut carbs out and not feel too much impact, you’re going to do great on a keto diet. Sticking with your diet is the #1 factor in long-term weight loss, so prioritize it.
2. You Like Endurance Training
Endurance training and keto are a perfect combination: they improve each other in a way that allows you to progress rapidly in both areas.
Ketogenic diets provide a great fuel source for endurance training. Relying on carbs for energy is a struggle for endurance training since you’re going to run out early into your training and performance will drop accordingly. However, body-fat provides hundreds of thousands of calories of energy without the need to eat.
Once you’re keto-adapted, you can make huge changes to your performance and when you start to experience extreme fatigue-related losses.
On the other hand, endurance training boosts ketogenic diet performance by rapidly accelerating your ability to oxidize fats. This, in turn, boosts efficiency in burning fats as fuels and pushes you towards nutritional and exercise-induced ketosis, as well as faster keto-adaptation.
So, if you’re looking to perform at your best in endurance training – or you enjoy it more than heavy weights or intense gymnastics – the ketogenic diet is going to be a great way to really open up that calorie deficit.
3. You Have a Carb/Snacking Problem
This is the opposite of the “you like fats” reason: you really depend on carbohydrates in an unhealthy way.
If you’re the kind of person that struggles with compulsive or stress-related eating of carbohydrates, then the keto diet is a great way to address some behavioral concerns.
If you eat well during your meals, but you find yourself snacking on refined carbs like candy bars and sugary junk, keto can really help you. Improving your habits by cutting out carbs entirely, reducing your long-term cravings for carbs may be a great way of changing your dietary habits for life.
This can cut out any silly calorie slip-ups and ensure that you’re sticking with effective rules for any time you return to intuitive or more-liberal eating practices.
4. Satiety and Fullness
The final benefit we’re going to discuss is how a well-balanced and well-planned ketogenic diet is going to be able to improve satiety and reduce overall cravings/hunger. This isn’t part of a traditional ketogenic diet specifically, but with a single addition, you can easily improve the whole keto experience and make weight-loss easier.
The key to this is high food-volume. This means that all of your non-protein, non-fat foods should be focused on increased volume. This is the sheer size and amount of food that you’re eating for the same amount of calories.
Everyone seems to love avocados nowadays, but they’re not the best for controlling calorie intake since a very small amount of food provides a relatively huge amount of calories. On the other hand, broccoli, carrots, and other fibrous vegetables provide a large amount of volume for almost no calories.
Combining the high-fat, moderate-protein ketogenic diet with a large amount of food volume for your remaining carbohydrates and veggies is a crucial way to make the most of the ketogenic diet and this can make a calorie deficit incredibly easy.
For most people, this is the real big questions surrounding keto and calories. Do you care that you have to be under your maintenance calories if you never have to count them and you just keep happening to be under?
Most of us don’t mind this – it’s the act of having to count calories and restrict them that concerns most people.
Step One: Are you Losing Weight?
The answer to the calorie-tracking question isn’t very simple. The first answer – and the simplest – is “probably not”. The ketogenic diet reduces your overall calorie intake by cutting out some of the most common calorie-dense foods like sugary junk and refined carbs, making it easier to keep your weight under control.
However, this is only going to be the case if you are losing weight. If you’re on a ketogenic diet and you’re not losing weight – or you’re gaining weight – then you’re doing something wrong and you’re going to need to count calories.
This isn’t even surprising: the high-fat approach to dieting can be a problem because fats provide 250% as much energy (calories) per gram than carbs or protein. This means that it is possible to over-eat on a keto diet, especially if you’re eating foods like bacon and avocado, or you’re not consuming enough fibrous veggies.
Step Two: Do you Know How Much to Eat?
Whatever your approach to the ketogenic diet, it’s going t be important to have a good idea of how much you can eat in a single day without gaining weight or over-shooting your calories.
For this reason, our advice is to start counting calories once every 4 weeks on any given diet – or if you start to stall your weight loss. This gives you a chance to check your estimations of how much you should eat against the scale and the calorie count.
This also allows you to get a better understanding of what the calorie/macro-nutrient content of your staple foods is like. This can be surprising and after more than a month without tracking, it can be easy to overlook your calorie intake creeping up – a concern on any weight-loss diet.
This practice is great for better awareness of your food and it can avoid some of the serious problems associated with stalling on a weight-loss diet. If you’re consistently plateauing with your progress, there’s something wrong in the way your diet is set up or how you’re sticking with it.
Calorie counting makes sure you’re not doing anything wrong.
You Have Specific Weight-Loss Goals
This one is a concern for anyone who is losing weight for medical reasons or to compete in a weight-class sport. It might also be for you if you’re going to be aiming for a very specific milestone-based goal.
We don’t recommend worrying about a specific number if you’re just trying to lose weight for a better life/confidence, but if you’re going to do it then calories are a useful tool.
You may lose weight without counting on a ketogenic diet, but if you’re trying to make a certain body weight on a certain date – or just lose weight at a consistent speed – you’ll want to count calories.
A pound of fat is roughly 3,500 calories, so understanding your daily intake, deficit and time-frame can all be useful for making weight. Setting yourself a daily deficit of 500 calories on any diet can provide you with a semi-reliable 1lb/week weight loss – something that would be very hard to achieve without calorie estimates.
You’re Not Going to Be Using Keto Forever
This is one of the situations where Keto might be a good choice, but you don’t plan on sticking with a ketogenic diet forever.
This would require a ketogenic diet that provides a framework for dieting without just cutting out carbs. This is typically what you’re going to see if you’re looking to lose weight rapidly with a ketogenic diet and then gain weight as muscle mass in the future – a common approach.
For this type of dieting pattern, you’re going to need to know how to count calories and have a good understanding of how many calories a given meal or food provides. This is going to be the case for anyone who is not an endurance athlete but looking to improve their physique or strength as well as cutting body-fat in the short-term.
- Workout Calories are the number of calories you should be consuming on the days that you’re working out.
- Rest Calories are the number of calories you should be consuming on the days that you aren’t working out.
The ketogenic diet cannot get past the basic science of human energy storage/use: it has to conform to the basics of how calories play into your diet. Without this key piece, it is going to be impossible to lose weight, even with the benefits of fat oxidation and endurance performance that the keto diet can bring.
However, from a logistical standpoint, the keto diet does a lot of great things to reduce how much you feel the presence of calories in your life. Calorie counting may not be a problem if you naturally tend to stick with a good surplus when eating an LCHF diet, you can increase the deficit with endurance training, or simply remove problem-carbs from your diet.
Overall, there may be some needs to count calories on a ketogenic diet, but only to avoid problems. It isn’t a necessary part of the diet until something goes wrong or you stall – we recommend taking this approach on a week-by-week basis rather than rushing to or away from calorie counting.