Maximillian Laumeister
Illustration of Miku the bird-fox shouting through a megaphone while flying in the sky

Keto Is Not A High Protein Diet

Breakfast of sausage, bacon, and fried eggs - with prohibition sign overlay

The purpose of this article is to help clear up the biggest point of confusion I’ve seen about the keto diet on the internet: its basic definition. I’m not trying to convince you this diet is good for you long-term or that you should try it - if keto were for you, you probably would have gone looking for it already. By the end of this article I have one singular goal: to correct a very common misconception about the definition of the keto diet.

If you are the writer of half of what I see on the internet, you probably think of the keto diet as a high-protein, low-carb diet with a focus on meats and dairy. To put it plainly, that’s not the definition of the keto diet. This is the definition of the keto diet:

Ketogenic diet

The ketogenic diet is a high-fat, adequate-protein, low-carbohydrate diet that in medicine is used primarily to treat difficult-to-control (refractory) epilepsy in children. The diet forces the body to burn fats rather than carbohydrates.


So while it’s true that keto is a low-carb diet, keto is not a high-protein diet. Of course, there are no rules necessarily restricting protein in the keto diet guideline, all the guideline says is to get “adequate” protein. But no part of the guideline says to eat high-protein, because keto is not a high-protein diet.

The premise behind the keto diet is that by starving your body of carbs, it forces your body to burn fat instead (it’s called the “keto diet” because the body metabolizes fat into ketones, then finally into usable energy). The details of this metabolic process of burning dietary fat are widely agreed upon in the scientific community. The controversy over the keto diet isn’t whether this mechanism exists, it’s whether forcing your body to use it is actually healthy or not.

When I hear people criticise the keto diet, it’s usually on the basis that eating a high-protein diet is unhealthy. There are valid criticisms of the keto diet, but criticisms based on keto being a high-protein diet are not valid criticisms, because keto is not a high-protein diet.

What should you conclude from the preceding paragraphs? What should you make of all this? Here’s the take-away: keto is not a high-protein diet.

Keto diets can be vegan

Isn’t the whole point of keto that it’s focused around meat? Not necessarily. If you remember from above, meat isn’t even mentioned in the definition. Even if keto were a high protein diet, which it’s not - because keto is not a high-protein diet - the keto diet’s definition says nothing about whether that protein should come from plant or animal sources.

Because of this, it is quite possible and even encouraged in some circles to do a keto diet with primarily plant-based foods, or even entirely vegan. A typical vegan keto diet might focus on olive and coconut oils, avocados, low-carb vegetables, nuts, and seeds. On this type of keto diet, one might easily be consuming less protein than the average American, because keto is not a high-protein diet.

Some keto diets are high-protein

Some keto diets are high-protein, it’s true. The most popular example of a high-protein keto diet is the Atkins diet. But just because a particular diet is both keto and also high-protein does not mean that the premise of keto is to eat high-protein.

Venn diagram of keto, high protein diets, and atkins diet

Saying that keto is a high-protein diet because it’s popular to eat a lot of protein on it is as silly as saying that gluten-free is a high-sugar diet because it’s common to eat a lot of sugar on it. Of course it’s obviously unhealthy to eat a keto diet that is high in animal protein, and it’s obviously unhealthy to eat a gluten-free diet that is high in sugar. But when eating keto there are foods you can eat that are not high in protein, just as when eating gluten-free there are foods you can eat that are not high in sugar. Since they are not premises of the diets, they are not valid criticisms of the diets.


Just as valid criticisms of margarine are not based on a notion that it is an animal product, valid criticisms of the keto diet are not based on a notion that it is a high-protein diet. Only by fully understanding something will our criticisms of it be valid. So let’s trash all the criticism based on the keto diet being a high-protein diet. If you want to criticise it for any other reason, be my guest.


Photo Credits:
Breakfast photo: Kgbo, Wikimedia Commons
Ketone metabolism pathway: Diapedia - Ketone Body Metabolism

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