Do Calories Matter On The Keto Diet? Both Arguments Analyzed

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Of the many approaches to dieting, the ketogenic diet, typically referred to as just the keto diet, has certainly become one of the most popular, or at least most highly discussed diets.

It seems like there’s always another keto diet product coming out, with everything from cereals and bars to pancake syrup substitutes and entire meal kit delivery service boxes.

The keto diet is a very low-carbohydrate diet that focuses primarily on eating fat, with some contribution from protein as well.

Some proponents of the ketogenic diet say you don’t need to count calories on the keto diet, and you can still lose weight. But is this true? Do calories matter on the keto diet, or can you eat as much as you want on keto and still lose weight?

In this article, we will discuss if calories matter on the keto diet or if you can just use intuitive eating and still lose weight. 

We will cover: 

  • What Is the Keto Diet?
  • Do Calories Matter On The Keto Diet?

Let’s dive in! 

A tablet with a word jumble related to the keto diet.

What Is the Keto Diet?

The keto diet, which is technically called the ketogenic diet, is a high-fat diet that’s very low in carbohydrates and contains a moderate amount of protein. 

Although there is some flexibility and variations in the specific macronutrient ratios on the keto diet, experts suggest that most ketogenic diets involve consuming 70–75% of your calories from fat, 20-25% of your calories from protein, and 5–10% of your calories from carbohydrates. 

Other people following the keto diet are advised to stick with specific limits in terms of grams of carbohydrates. For example, some keto experts say that you should consume a maximum of 20 grams of carbohydrates per day, which is extremely low. 

A maximum of 50 grams of carbohydrates per day is more standard or capping carb intake at 5% of your total daily caloric intake. So, for example, if you eat 2,000 calories a day, you could eat 100 grams of carbohydrates per day on the ketogenic diet.

Keto diet meals are built around healthy fats and typically animal proteins, including foods like fatty fish, meat, nuts, cheese, avocados, coconut, seeds, and oils. 

The purpose of the keto diet is to bring the body into a state of ketosis, which occurs in a metabolic state where the body is burning only fat for fuel rather than carbohydrates.

Ketosis is thought to not only promote weight loss and fat loss but also provide additional health benefits, such as providing a neuroprotective function and increasing insulin sensitivity.

So, do you count calories on Keto, or can you eat as much as you want on Keto? Let’s see!

A variety of food eaten on te Keto diet such as fats and proteins.

Do Calories Matter On The Keto Diet?

If you’ve ever adopted any type of diet in an effort to lose weight, you’ve likely received the advice to count calories. 

The concept that you don’t need to count calories on the keto diet stems from the idea that “not all calories are created equally” and that the calories in the foods you eat on the keto diet are metabolized differently and not as much of the “net” energy is absorbed by the body. 

This can be somewhat controversial. Let’s take a look at a few of the main arguments:

Although it is true, in theory, that certain foods affect the body differently, the differences in the amount of net energy various macronutrients provide are typically not significant enough to fully eliminate the need to be mindful of your caloric balance. 

The thermic effect of food (TEF) refers to how much energy it takes for your body to break down the nutrients in the foods you eat, and it’s one of the constituents of your total daily energy expenditure.

Related: TDEE Daily Calorie Calculator

A notebook page with a pie chart outlining the percentages of macronutrients eaten on the Keto diet.

For example, it takes more energy, or caloric expenditure, to break down protein than it does carbohydrates, so the thermic effect of food for protein is greater than it is for carbs. In fact, about 25% of the calories in protein are used up in the process of digesting the protein, while the TEF of carbohydrates is around 8%. 

This means that if you eat 100 calories of protein, you theoretically only yield a net of 75 calories, whereas you’d get 92 calories out of the carbohydrates.

With that said, most research suggests that proteins actually contain about 5.2 calories per gram and the 4 calories per gram nutrition labeling used already takes into account the energy lost through the thermic effect of food.

Therefore, this is something to be mindful of when you are following the keto diet. Don’t automatically assume that you are only absorbing some of the calories in the foods that you’re eating. 

Moreover, one of the common mistakes that people make when following the keto diet is consuming too much protein. 

A notebook page with a pie chart outlining the percentages of macronutrients eaten on the Keto diet.

The keto diet is really a fat-focused diet. You should only be consuming about 20 to 25% of your total daily caloric intake from proteins, so even if protein is metabolized in a more energy-demanding process than carbohydrates and fats, only about one-quarter of your daily caloric intake is coming from proteins anyway.

Some studies suggest that you might burn an additional 300 calories a day on the keto diet due to the thermic effect of food, so while this isn’t insignificant, it’s also not massive.

Finally, the other reason that people say that you do not need to count calories on the keto diet is that proteins and fats are much more satiating, and if you just listen to your hunger cues, you won’t end up overeating.

This speaks to the concept of intuitive eating, which basically just states that you can let your hunger cues and cravings guide your eating choices, and this should naturally bring your body to a healthy weight.

This argument against the need to count calories on the keto diet holds a lot of water. 

A plate of pork, avocado, eggs and cheese.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that both protein and fat are more satiating than carbohydrates. 

This can mean that if you listen to your hunger cues, rather than just eating because it’s “meal time” or you emotionally want to eat, you won’t consume as many calories on the keto diet because you won’t be as hungry, and your appetite and energy levels will be more stable. 

Proponents of the keto diet say that what differentiates the keto diet from the Atkins diet or some other low-carb diets is that you don’t need to count calories on the keto diet; you only need to count carbs.

The principle is that you can still lose weight on the keto diet without counting calories because you will naturally become satisfied with much less food/calories, so it’s pretty hard to overeat on the keto diet.

While it is true that protein and fat are more satisfying, and you might even get a metabolic boost eating these macronutrients instead of carbohydrates, it’s arguably shortsighted to assume that everyone can follow the keto diet being totally mindful of their body’s hunger cues and only eating exactly as much as their body ends up needing.

We eat food for many reasons, including emotional ones that have no biochemical connection to how many calories the body needs.

A cutting board outlining the percentages of macronutrients eaten on the Keto diet.

Furthermore, if you are following the keto diet to lose weight, you inherently need to be generating a caloric deficit. This means that you need to be taking in fewer calories than your body is burning in a day.

If your metabolism is working well, your body’s hunger cues should be in line with how much energy you actually need in a day to maintain your weight, not lose weight.

Our biological survival mechanisms are designed to support homeostasis, so in most cases, your body wants to maintain the weight that you are currently at unless you are significantly under or overweight.

Thus, just relying on eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are satisfied may not yield enough of a caloric deficit to actually lose weight.

Overall, the keto diet can definitely be an effective weight loss diet, but how much weight you lose on keto really does come down to how many calories you are eating versus how many calories you are burning, even if you aren’t counting them.

The words, ketogenic diet.

What have you decided? Do you count calories on Keto?

Whether or not you should count calories on the keto diet really comes down to your goals and how dialed in you are to your appetite.

If you want to ensure significant weight loss, it probably makes sense to count your calories and not just your carbs, and if you tend to overeat or eat just for the sake of eating, counting calories also becomes more important for achieving weight loss on the keto diet.

On the other hand, if you are satisfied with a more natural and gradual body transformation and you tend to only eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full, there is no reason that you need to count calories on the keto diet. Take the stress out of eating and enjoy the nourishing foods you put in your body.

To learn more about the Keto diet and decide if it is right for you, check out our article: Is The Keto Diet Healthy? 5 Common Mistakes While On Keto.

A variety of keto-approved foods, such as avocado, fish, cheese, and vegetables.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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