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Clean Keto vs. Dirty Keto: What’s the Difference?

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  Published on March 24th, 2022
  Reading time: 5 minutes
  Last modified March 25th, 2022
Person buying dirty keto packaged foods

The ketogenic diet is a very low-carb eating plan where you’re allowed only 20-50 grams of carbs per day. 

Scientific studies show that the diet helps with weight loss and health conditions like diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), Alzheimer’s disease, and symptom management of other chronic diseases. [1] [2] [3]

If you’re thinking of starting a keto diet, you’ve probably heard about clean keto and dirty keto and are wondering how they’re different. Here’s more about these two dietary approaches, a list of clean keto vs. dirty keto foods, and, more importantly—which approach is right for you.

What Is Clean Keto?

The clean keto diet or clean keto focuses on real, unprocessed foods or foods that are close to their natural state. 

Eating clean allows you to get as many nutrients as possible. At the same time, you’re avoiding added sugars and food additives like monosodium glutamate (MSG), artificial food coloring, and carrageenan (a thickener and preservative). 

Clean keto foods

Adopting this practice doesn’t just keep your body fit, but it also helps you avoid allergic reactions caused by food additives, and lowers your risk of disease. [4]

Clean Keto Food List 

Whether you’re trying keto for the first time or are looking to clean up your keto diet, here’s a list of foods to meet your macronutrients: 

  • Red meat: beef, lamb, pork, veal, goat, venison
  • Poultry: chicken, turkey, duck, goose 
  • Fish: salmon, mahi-mahi, mackerel, tuna, sardines, trout
  • Seafood: lobster, crab, clams, shrimp, mussels
  • Vegetables: leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, green beans
  • Fruits: avocado, berries (strawberries, raspberries)
  • Herbs and spices: onion, garlic, sea salt, pepper, cumin, curry powder
  • Nuts and seeds: almonds, macadamias, pecans, chia seeds, flax seeds
  • Fats and oils: olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, butter, ghee, lard

What Is Dirty Keto? 

The dirty keto diet or dirty keto (also called lazy keto) includes low-carb processed foods ranging from canned goods to processed meats to chips. 

Getting packaged foods can mean less time in the kitchen while also making sure you hit your keto diet macros. However, relying on convenience foods for your nutrition can sometimes do more harm than good. 

For starters, a lot of processed foods contain empty calories, meaning they have too little or no nutrition (vitamins, minerals, protein, and healthy fats). Your body needs the right amounts of nutrients to function properly and thrive. 

For example, omega-3 fatty acids are essential for improving heart health and reducing inflammation, and they’re abundant in fish and shellfish. Missing out on omega-3s can increase your risk of problems like joint pain, dry skin, and anxiety—even when you’re meeting your macros on keto. [5] [6] [7]

Dirty Keto Food List

Unless you have to, it’s best to steer clear of dirty keto foods. Common examples are:

  • Packaged keto snacks like bars, candies, chips, and cookies 
  • Diet soda
  • Vegetable and seed oils (canola oil, soybean oil, corn oil, safflower oil)
  • Processed meats (hotdogs, bacon with added sugars, ham, pepperoni)
  • Bunless fast food burgers
  • Processed cheeses 
  • Margarine 
  • Pork rinds

The Differences Between Clean Keto and Dirty Keto

Feeling your best on the keto diet, and not just losing weight, starts with prioritizing whole, nutrient-dense foods. That said, the main difference between a clean keto and a dirty diet lies in food quality. 

People on clean keto consume a wide variety of animal foods, non-starchy vegetables and fruits, nuts, and seeds. Meanwhile, those on dirty keto consume mostly packaged foods and fast food items as long as these fit their macros. 

Here’s more about clean keto and dirty keto:

Fat Loss (Short Term and Long Term) 

You can lose body fat on clean keto or dirty keto as long as you’re restricting carbs to 50 grams or less per day. This depletes your glycogen stores and mobilizes fat in your adipose tissue. [8]

However, following a dirty keto approach can cause weight loss plateaus down the road. Processed foods contribute to weight gain by adding unnecessary calories and sugar to your diet. They’re also highly palatable, which can cause overeating. [9]

Verdict: For long-term fat loss, follow a clean keto diet.

Convenience

Clean keto meals prepped

Some people opt for keto-friendly convenience foods because it simplifies their lives while helping them meet their weight loss goals. They prefer dieting without meal prep. 

Dirty keto can sometimes be helpful if you want to stick to a keto diet despite a busy schedule, while you’re traveling, or during situations where you can’t access natural low-carb foods. 

But if you’re choosing dirty keto for the sole purpose of skipping meal prep and saving time, know that there are lots of clean keto meals that don’t require elaborate meal prep

Verdict: Dirty keto is best only for when you’re running short on time, such as hectic days and emergencies.

Cost

It’s true that eating healthily can sometimes cost more because a lot of nutrient-dense foods are expensive, for example, grass-fed beef and cage-free organic eggs. This is why some people try to save money by buying cheaper packaged food. 

However, in the long term, processed foods may lead to health problems like allergies, obesity, cancer, and heart disease. While this kind of food can be cheap upfront, its negative effects have bigger costs down the road due to hospitalization and medical treatments. [10]

Verdict: A clean keto diet saves you money by protecting your health. 

Maintaining Ketosis 

One of the mistakes you can make on keto is going over your carb limit. Unfortunately, this is easy to do when you’re relying on highly processed foods—unless you’re carefully tracking, reading every food label, and checking your ketone levels

Processed meats, yogurt, energy drinks, and pasta sauces are common sources of hidden sugar. Sugar can come with different names like dextrose, fructose, sucrose, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, and agave nectar. If you find any of these sugar names on a food label, avoid them to prevent a blood glucose spike. 

Verdict: You’re more likely to enter and stay in ketosis with a clean keto diet.

Clean Keto Vs. Dirty Keto? Focus on Whole Foods

Clean keto and dirty keto diets follow the same macros (very low-carb, moderate-protein, and high-fat), which makes them useful for weight loss. Doing dirty keto can be beneficial in certain situations where meal prepping is impossible. That way, you’ll still be able to hit your macros

As much as possible though, keep your diet clean by prioritizing whole foods. A clean keto approach doesn’t only lead to sustainable fat loss, but it also supports optimal health. This is because whole foods retain their nutrients and are free from added sugars, trans fats, colorings, and other preservatives. 

The good news is that keeping a clean eating lifestyle on keto can be made easier through planning and simple meal prep. Here’s a 14-day basic keto meal plan to get you started.

Clean keto meal of duck

References

1.

Crosby, L., Davis, B., Joshi, S., Jardine, M., Paul, J., Neola, M., & Barnard, N.D. (2021). Ketogenic Diets and Chronic Disease: Weighing the Benefits Against the Risks. Front. Nutr. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2021.702802

2.

Luukkonen, P. K., Dufour, S., Lyu, K., Zhang, X. M., Hakkarainen, A., Lehtimäki, T. E., Cline, G. W., Petersen, K. F., Shulman, G. I., & Yki-Järvinen, H. (2020). Effect of a ketogenic diet on hepatic steatosis and hepatic mitochondrial metabolism in nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 117(13), 7347–7354. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1922344117

3.

Jensen, N. J., Wodschow, H. Z., Nilsson, M., & Rungby, J. (2020). Effects of Ketone Bodies on Brain Metabolism and Function in Neurodegenerative Diseases. International journal of molecular sciences, 21(22), 8767. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms21228767

4.

Cleveland Clinic (2020). 5 Food Additives You Should Avoid. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/5-food-additives-you-should-avoid/

5.

Cleveland Clinic (2019). Omega-3 Fatty Acids. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/17290-omega-3-fatty-acids

6.

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. 7 Things To Know About Omega-3 Fatty Acids. National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/tips/things-to-know-about-omega-fatty-acids

7.

Larrieu, T., & Layé, S. (2018). Food for Mood: Relevance of Nutritional Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Depression and Anxiety. Frontiers in physiology, 9, 1047. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.01047

8.

Oh R, Gilani B, Uppaluri KR. Low Carbohydrate Diet. [Updated 2021 Jul 12]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537084/

9.

National Institutes of Health. (2019) NIH study finds heavily processed foods cause overeating and weight gain. News Releases, National Institutes of Health. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/nih-study-finds-heavily-processed-foods-cause-overeating-weight-gain#

10.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (2020) Poor diets linked to $50 billion in U.S. health care costs. In the News, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hsph-in-the-news/poor-diets-health-care-costs/

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