The ketogenic diet, or “keto”, has become increasingly popular. It is a very low-carb, high-fat diet that many people use to lose weight and has been associated with a variety of other health benefits.
Many people have long believed that it is impossible to build muscle on a keto diet or a low-carb diet in general. This is because low-carb diets restrict carbohydrates, which are known to promote the release of insulin, an anabolic hormone that helps transport nutrients to cells, which helps create the conditions that drive muscle growth. However, you may be wondering if a low-carb diet can actually hinder muscle growth.
This article provides you with a complete guide on how to build muscle on a keto diet.
The keto diet is simple: replace your carbohydrates with fat. The idea is that when you eat an extremely low-carb, relatively high-fat diet, your body enters a metabolic state called ketosis. Ketosis occurs when the body does not have immediate access to glucose, or the sugars found in carbohydrates (and its main source of energy). Because of this, the body turns to burning the next best source of energy – the fat stores you already have in your body. If followed in the short term, a ketogenic diet can provide a host of benefits (it can help you lose weight, improve cholesterol levels, reduce body fat without feeling like you’re starving, and much more). However, since only about 5% of your calories come from carbohydrates (the basic component of muscle growth), it can be difficult to build muscle while following this diet.
The good news is: you can make it work. That’s because of a key ratio: 20% of the calories on a keto diet come from protein.
Can You Build Muscle on Keto?
Yes, you can. There are many real-world examples of people who have changed their physique and gained muscle while on a keto diet.
Studies have also shown that it is possible to increase muscle tissue and decrease fat at the same time using keto foods. For example, in a 2020 study, 25 young men participated in a strength training program while following a ketogenic diet or a traditional Western diet for 12 weeks. In addition, the ketogenic group experienced more fat loss.
Other studies were not as positive. One review concluded that ketones may help you maintain hard-won lean muscle mass on a weight loss diet, but make muscle hypertrophy more difficult.
Difficult or not, you can gain muscle on keto. Furthermore, I suspect that dietary factors other than lack of carbohydrates may be the reason some studies have found that keto foods are not optimal for muscle growth. You see, they didn’t control for the participants’ diets. Ketosis is known to increase satiety and suppress appetite, which likely caused them to eat less than they needed for muscle growth. The keto group often lost fat, while the non-keto group did not, supporting my theory.
A recent meta-analysis also supports my suspicions and found that a ketogenic diet is a good option for building muscle, as long as you can eat enough calories. Because ketosis makes you feel fuller than other diets, eating enough food is probably the most important challenge. Ketosis itself doesn’t seem to be the problem.
How to Build Muscle on a Keto Diet
The following recommendations can help you structure a keto diet to build muscle.
Determine your calorie intake
In order to optimally build muscle, you need to consistently eat more calories than you burn.
How many calories you need to eat each day to build muscle depends on several factors, such as your weight, height, lifestyle, gender and activity level.
The first thing you need to do is determine your maintenance calories – the number of calories you need to burn each day to maintain the same body weight.
To do this, weigh yourself at least three times a week and use a calorie tracking app to record your food intake for the week. If your weight stays the same, that’s probably your maintenance calories.
Eat plenty of protein
Eating enough protein is crucial to building muscle.
This is because protein is a building block of muscle, which means that when trying to build muscle, you need to consume more protein than your body breaks down through natural processes.
Most studies show that eating 0.7-0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight (1.6-2.0 grams per kilogram) is ideal for building muscle.
Keto dieters have some concerns about consuming too much protein because it may encourage your body to use gluconeogenesis – a process in which amino acids are converted from protein to sugar – which may prevent your body from making ketone bodies.
However, studies have shown that people can safely consume about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight (2.1 grams per kilogram) and remain in ketosis.
Track your carb intake
Traditionally, carbohydrates make up the majority of calories in a muscle building diet.
However, if you are trying to stay in a state of ketosis, then you need to limit carbohydrates.
In order to achieve and maintain a state of ketosis, most people need to eat less than 50 grams of carbohydrates per day, although exact values may vary.
You may find it beneficial to time your carbohydrate intake around your workouts, especially if you think your performance is suffering.
This strategy is known as a targeted keto diet, where you consume your daily allowance of carbohydrates before and after your workout to help with athletic performance.
If you’re struggling to complete your workout, you can try a targeted keto approach. Otherwise, feel free to consume carbohydrates when it works best for you.
Increase your fat intake
On a keto diet, it’s important to monitor your fat intake.
This is because when you restrict your carbohydrate intake and are in ketosis, your body relies heavily on fat for fuel.
After considering protein and carbohydrates, fats should make up the rest of your diet.
Both protein and carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram, while fat provides 9 calories per gram. After subtracting your protein and carbohydrate requirements from your daily calorie needs, divide the final number by 9 to determine your daily fat requirements.
For example, a 155-pound (70 kg) person on a 2,300-calorie muscle-building diet could eat 110 grams of protein and 50 grams of carbohydrates. The remaining 1,660 calories could be taken up by 185 grams of fat.
These guidelines tend to align with the standard keto recommended fat intake – 70-75% of your daily calories.
The Bottom Line
While careful attention needs to be paid to your protein, carbohydrate and fat intake, a keto diet may be just as effective as a traditional high-carb diet for building muscle.
Simply following the guidelines above can help you plan an effective keto diet strategy to build muscle.
However, it is unclear whether a keto diet has more benefits for building muscle than a traditional high-carb diet.