Chemistry Before Calories

Producing ketones in your liver and having them circulate in your blood is what demonstrates that your blood chemistry is in ketosis. You can be producing ketones and not using them. When you first start on your ketogenic lifestyle, your cells, tissues, organs and mitochondria may not know how to use this clean fuel source well. Given time, your cells, tissues, organs and mitochondria will “learn” how to use ketones and prefer this fuel over glucose. I often tell clients that being fuel flexible is your ultimate goal.

I have discussed ketone blood chemistry in an earlier blog post. Check it out HERE and HERE.

Your goal is to become keto-adapted before worrying about calorie intake (within reason of course), protein sparing, fasting and other aspects often associated with the keto lifestyle. So what is being keto-adapted? Keto-adapted or fat-adapted (definitions reviewed HERE) simply means your body is using ketones/fatty acids for fuel by your mitochondria, cells, tissues and organs.

Depending on who your current keto guru is will depend on what his/her rules for following keto means. The keto diet is actually very easy — eat 20 grams total carbs, don’t eat when you’re not hungry and eat enough protein to feed your lean muscle mass. Initially you may eat more fat to ward off the cravings gremlin, but once your body is using ketones for fuel, your body’s “extra” fat can be converted instead of eating fat to produce ketones.

Following a well-formulated ketogenic diet means your body is prioritizing ketones for its fuel. And if you want your body to use the clean fuel of ketones, you will need to be making ketones. To make ketones means you will need to keep your total carbs to 20 or fewer grams. After you are keto-adapted, you can align other aspects like total calorie intake, protein sparing, fasting or whatever the latest keto guru is touting.

Make ketones first by keeping carbs below 20 grams. Then prioritize protein and eat enough dietary fat to satisfy your hormone and enzyme needs (usually 30-40 grams daily). Following a keto protocol is actually very simple. I would also add — only eat, if you are hungry. You’ll notice I have not included any calories recommendation so far.


A calorie is a unit of energy measurement or more specifically this is calculated in a calorimeter where one kilogram of water is heated to one degree Celsius and the heat needed to do that is one calorie. So the calories in your food is actually the amount of energy your body can derive from whatever the food is.

Every macronutrient — carbohydrate, protein or fat — has a different calorie per gram of that macro.

  • 1 gram of protein = 4 calories
  • 1 gram of carbohydrate = 4 calories
  • 1 gram of fat = 9 calories
  • 1 gram of alcohol = 7 calories –> yes, I realize that alcohol is not a macronutrient, but it is a body fuel.


Thermic effect of food (TEF) is the amount of energy needs to “burn,” breakdown or digest a particular macronutrient. Protein, for example, requires more energy to break it down into amino acids. It is said to have a TEF of 25%. Simply put, that means 25% of the protein eaten is needed to digest it, whereas, carbohydrates is only 8%. For further explanation, check out The Protein-Sparing Modified Fast Method by Maria and Craig Emmerich on pages 24-26.

Let’s say you eat 100 grams of protein for dinner. That would translate to 75 calories of amino acids left for your body to absorb and assimilate into your cells for energy (fuel). However, if you eat 100 grams of carbohydrates, you would have 92 calories left to use for fuelling your body. With a TEF of 3%, 100 grams of fat results in 97 calories for your body to use. Then of course, there is alcohol — the TEF of 100 grams of alcohol results in 85 calories.

Interestingly, “higher TEF raises your BMR (basal metabolic rate, or the calories you burn throughout the day.” (Emmerich, keto, 54) So, I tend to eat more protein, keep my carbs below 20 grams total, minimize my alcohol and use enough fat to keep my hormones happy. I prioritize protein.


Your body has 5 different fuel sources and it prioritize each one differently. This is known as oxidative priority. Those 5 fuels are alcohol, ketones, amino acids (from protein), glucose (from carbs) and fatty acids (from fat). Your body has an amazing ability to tightly regulate the fuel in your bloodstream — glucose, ketones and free fatty acids (FFA). Without a capacity to store alcohol or protein, your body burns these nutrients first. Any fuels not needed are stored.

Too much of a fuel is not good for your body; it is unhealthy and may lead to symptoms and eventually disease. For example, too much unregulated glucose in your blood can lead to diabetes. Your body is smart, it wants to return your blood to a stable level of the various fuels. To do this, it deals with the highest priority fuel (alcohol) and works through to the lowest priority fuel (fat).

A fantastic explanation of oxidative priority can be found here on Maria’s blog post “Keto for Weight Loss” also highlights how oxidative priority matters. Check it out HERE.

SO, Do Calories Matter on Keto?

I do align with the camp that calories or rather the type of calories matter. Dr Westman and Maria Emmerich do agree that calories do matter. Check out this video from Diet Doctor asking a couple of leading doctors this very question.

Know your ‘why’ – why do you want to follow a ketogenic diet and what are your long term goals for eating this way. If your goal is fat loss (or weight loss), you need to be mindful of what you eat. If you eat more than your body needs for its daily processes, then it will store the excess for future fuel on your body (usually body fat). And this happens regardless of which diet or protocol you follow, even keto — consume more than your body needs and it will save it until it does need it. Hint — that day usually doesn’t come unless you decide to mindfully reduce your food intake or type of food. “Calories matter, but the makeup of those calories also matter.” (Emmerich, keto, 65)

If supply (diet) is greater than demand, fuels of lower priority get stored first.

Maria Emmerich and Craig Emmerich, the Protein-Sparing Modified Fast Method, (Victory Belt, 2022) 25.


Are you wondering if you have your macros right for you to produce ketones for fuel? Or do you need to tweak your current keto protocol because you’re in a plateau or stalled? Perhaps you are simply curious about following a well-formulated ketogenic diet. Don’t wait! Send Brenda an email to schedule your FREE Discovery Chat to find out to take your keto journey to the next level. Brenda enjoys helping others to achieve their health and wellness goals using the ketogenic protocol.


Bosworth, Annette, MD. ketoContinuum: Consistently Keto for Life. MeTone Life, 2021.
Bosworth, Annette, MD. ketoContinuum online course.
Emmerich, Maria and Craig Emmerich. keto: the Complete Guide to Success on the Keto Diet. Victory Belt, 2018.
Emmerich, Maria and Craig Emmerich. The Protein-Sparing Modified Fast Method. Victory Belt, 2022.
Westman, Eric, MD. with Amy Berger, CNS. End Your Carb Confusion. Victory Belt, 2021.

About Brenda

Brenda loves learning and sharing what she's learning with you. She is a certified keto/carnivore coach with Keto-Adapted (Maria and Craig Emmerich, a certified holistic nutritional consultant (CHNC), and a natural nutrition clinical practitioner (NNCP).