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What is dirty keto? And can you get the results you want while on this diet?

5 minute read • March 3, 2022
eating cereal

There are as many different ways to do ketogenic diets as there are people doing them. There’s strict keto, clean keto, lazy keto, a well-formulated ketogenic diet, and then, there’s dirty keto. No, dirty keto doesn’t mean eating your vegetables without washing them, or leaving your discarded eggshells on the kitchen counter for weeks at a time.

So, what is dirty keto, and can you get the results you want by following that approach?

No formal definitions

seafood in a bowl

If you’re thinking the phrase “dirty keto” doesn’t sound very scientific, you’re right. Terms like dirty keto, lazy keto, and clean keto don’t have formal definitions. They’re internet shorthand to provide general insights about the kinds of foods and beverages someone includes in their diet and the ones they avoid. 

In order to zero in on what dirty keto is, it might help to first define “clean keto.” Clean keto, for most people, means eating and drinking only things considered “real food”—a phrase that itself is problematic, but let’s focus on one semantic issue at a time!

When someone says they eat “clean keto,” they typically mean that their diet includes some combination of meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, other animal proteins, vegetables, low-sugar fruits, dairy products, and nuts and seeds. What their diet doesn’t contain is anything colored electric blue or neon green or that comes with an ingredient list six inches inches long. 

Dirty keto, on the other hand, includes all the dietary mainstays of clean keto but also includes things like store-bought breads, breakfast cereal, and granola marketed as “keto,” and keto treats, like bars, cookies, cakes, and other baked goods made from nut flours and nut butters.

Dirty keto may also include low-carb items from fast food menus, diet soda, sugar-free fruit-flavored drinks, and other items made with artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols.

Foods and beverages that are regular everyday things for someone employing dirty keto are reserved for only once in a while, or possibly never, among those who pride themselves on doing clean keto—free of anything that comes from a factory rather than a farm or ranch. 

Why Does Dirty Keto Have a Bad Reputation? 

men talking at table

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding specific items that fall under the dirty keto umbrella. Among these are the aforementioned artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols, as well as seed oils—canola oil, soybean, corn, and cottonseed oils, for example.

For some people, this would extend to things like deli counter lunch meats (a.k.a. cold cuts) that are cured with dextrose, maltodextrin, and other potentially “questionable” ingredients, plus items that are labeled as “keto” or “sugar-free” even though they’re relatively high in carbs because they contain things like tapioca starch, oat fiber, inulin, or modified wheat starch. 

The thing to know is, people have been getting great results on low-carb and keto diets long before there was any emphasis on avoiding some of these things. Dr. Robert Atkins published his first book in 1972 (Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution—the basis of “the Atkins Diet”), with numerous revisions and updates over the next three decades.

There was no requirement to avoid seed oils, and items that contained artificial sweeteners were suggested as good alternatives to their sugar-laden counterparts. People have lost weight, reversed type 2 diabetes, and have freed themselves of long lists of other health problems even though their diets still included moderate amounts of these items.

Research suggesting these ingredients are harmful is not as ironclad as some clean keto enthusiasts lead people to believe. It’s fraught with flaws and shortcomings.

Findings in laboratory animals might not translate exactly the same in humans, and the effect of certain ingredients when included in a high-carb diet may be different when included in a much lower-carb diet, particularly in an animal or a human who already has hyperglycemia and hyperinsulinemia compared to one that is metabolically healthy. 

Is Dirty Keto Bad for You?

women holding up mugs

Just as there are no formal definitions for clean and dirty keto, there’s no right or wrong or good or bad when it comes to either approach. The question isn’t whether it’s bad or somehow harmful to do dirty keto; the question is, which approach is going to get you the best results?

Only one person can answer that: you. 

Plenty of people reach their weight loss and health goals while including keto treats, diet soda, and other “dirty keto” items in their diet on a regular basis. Others don’t. People differ in their sensitivity to various compounds: something that causes a significant rise in blood sugar or insulin for one person might have a negligible effect in someone else.

For some people, regardless of the impact on blood sugar or insulin, the mere taste of something sweet triggers cravings for more and more. This perpetuates the cycle of addiction to sweets and starches—something that would be nice to be free of altogether.

Should You Switch From Dirty Keto to Clean Keto?

women clinking milkshakes

This is pretty simple: if you’re satisfied with how things are going with your current keto diet, then don’t change anything. You know how the saying goes: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

On the other hand, if you regularly consume things on your keto diet besides the mainstays of fatty proteins and low-starch vegetables and you’re unhappy with the results you’ve been getting, consider ditching some of the things that might be standing in your way.

Here, too, there’s no exact method you need to follow. You can eliminate everything but those fatty proteins, non-starchy vegetables, dairy products and nuts & seeds as tolerated, or if you prefer, start by taking out the things that are the most likely culprits putting up a roadblock to weight loss or improving a health condition.

For example, if you used to eat a whole box of regular cookies and you’ve traded that for polishing off a tray of keto cookies, it’s probably best to eliminate those for a while. Inhaling half a loaf of “keto bread” made with tapioca flour? My guess is that’s holding you up more than diet soda is. 

The best reason for ditching the potentially problematic foods that are getting in the way of your progress is what I mentioned earlier: breaking the hold those foods have on you. Many people report that their sugar and carb cravings go away only when their diet is free of things that mimic their old starchy favorites or that taste sweet, even if they’re made with keto-friendly sweetening agents.

You might have to white-knuckle it for a few days, but you’ll be surprised at how quickly your palate adjusts and those cravings are gone.

Make Keto Easier, whether it’s dirty or clean

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No matter what kind of keto you’re doing, you can always use an on-the-go meal. That’s where Keto Chow comes in. Our meal replacement shakes provide you with one-third of your daily nutrients, which includes protein, vitamins, minerals, fiber and more. Our low carb shake mixes come in 30+ flavors, which you can check out here.

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