The popularity of the ketogenic diet has grown significantly over the past few years, and more people are experiencing great health benefits as a result. But with an uptick in conversations about the high-fat, low-carb, moderate-protein diet that inspires your body to burn fat instead of carbs come food products and marketing aimed at the keto consumer. As a result, it can be challenging to understand the very best foods to eat on a keto diet. Thankfully, there is plenty of information on this subject. You may have even heard some of the terms associated with it in keto communities, specifically “clean keto” and “dirty keto.”
The Difference Between Clean and Dirty Keto
Generally speaking, there are two ways to eat keto: clean keto and dirty keto. The difference between clean and dirty keto is straightforward. Clean keto is focused on whole, natural foods. Dirty keto refers to a diet of less wholesome, more processed or factory-farmed keto-friendly foods and ingredients.
Proponents of “dirty” keto (aka lazy keto) suggest that as long as you are hitting your macronutrients (macros) you can eat whatever you want, including processed foods loaded with preservatives, factory-farmed meats, diet drinks, and more (one thing you cannot eat more of is carbohydrates, however). While it’s true that you may be able to achieve ketosis and weight loss on a dirty keto diet (lazy person’s keto), it does not have the same overarching benefits as clean keto because dirty keto foods tend to be calorie dense and less nutritious than “clean” keto foods.
“Dirty keto” also refers to people who occasionally eat high-carb foods like corn chips or french fries, yet are still able to stay in ketosis. People with high metabolic rates can sometimes get away with this. To find out what your carb threshold is, you need to test for bio-individuality.
As we mentioned above, clean keto focuses on a diet of whole, natural foods, ideally organic and sustainably raised. Yes, clean eating requires more cooking, food-prep, and meal plans. But it makes nutrient density and health a priority and is consequently a more sustainable long-term diet; with an emphasis on delicious, high-quality keto meals made from scratch from the likes of organic dairy products, grass-fed meats, organic keto-friendly veggies, and organic eggs. (Find great keto recipes here.)
Why is “Dirty Keto” Popular?
We live in the age of convenience. We want our food prepared, fast to access, and effortless to consume, and we often need to eat on the run. We’re also addicted to sugary and starchy products and want emotional satisfaction from the types of comfort foods we’re used to eating, even, and perhaps especially, when starting a keto diet. This have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too mentality is exactly what food companies tune into and cater to. They know that if they create products that taste good, satisfy our cravings, and can qualify as keto, people will buy them, regardless of the quality of ingredients, processing, and additives used to create them. So, like any growing food trend, food manufacturers are producing foods that meet our demands. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they’re truly good for you.
While dirty, or processed or prepackaged, foods like snack bars, cookies, drinks, etcetera taste good and are convenient, they aren’t generally great for you. In fact, eating primarily dirty-keto foods, such as fast food, junk food (like keto chips and cookies), and highly processed meats and snacks, contributes to inflammation and nutritional deficiencies. These can lead to poor recovery from exercise, chronic pain, inflamed joints, autoimmune issues, metabolic issues, and even depression. Just like with the typical American diet, with the dirty keto diet, our cells are not being properly fueled.
Clean Versus Dirty: The Cheeseburger Example
If you’re unclear on why organic and grass-fed are important differentiators in your food choices consider this: a bunless double cheeseburger from McDonald’s would probably fit into your keto macros, as it has 21 grams of fat and only 3 grams of net carbs. But the meat is factory farmed, which means it is likely to contain antibiotics, hormones, and steroids. It’s also not as nutrient dense as grass-fed beef, which has a completely different fatty-acid profile than grain-fed beef. (Grass-fed beef contains up to five times more omega-3 fatty acids than grain fed beef and twice as much CLA as grain-fed beef; CLA, or conjugated linoleic acid, is known to be protective against cancer, obesity, and diabetes.) Meanwhile, the processed cheese on the burger contains added colors. So while you may be getting your macros, you’re getting limited nutrition and micronutrients, plus unknown food additives that may impact your overall health.
Why Keto Sweeteners Aren’t Always Keto
Then there’s the issue of alternative sugars. Many keto-friendly packaged goods rely on alternative sweeteners to enhance flavor. But not all keto-friendly sweeteners are created equal; some of them are known to trigger blood-glucose spikes (which can kick you out of ketosis and inspire you to gain weight or bloat), others contain some carbs, and everyone reacts differently to the varying low- or zero-carb sweeteners on the market. So while that packaged keto cookie may be within your macros, it may also kick you out of ketosis without you knowing it.
Questionably Keto Packaged Goods
Finally, there’s no government regulation on what can be labeled “keto.” A product can easily have more carbs than what works for your macros, or they can contain enough carbs to take up all your macros for the day in one small treat. So, on top of eating products that aren’t great for you, dirty keto opens the door to you mistakenly eating too many carbs, which can also kick you out of ketosis.
What Foods and Ingredients are Dirty Keto?
Dirty keto foods aren’t strictly packaged foods. In fact, they have a lot to do with ingredients. Even if you cook at home, you may be using “dirty” ingredients. Following is a list of foods that qualify as “dirty keto” foods:
- Processed oils such as canola oil, vegetable oil, hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, and trans fats: These can be found in fast food and prepackaged snacks. If you purchase keto-friendly snacks, be sure to read the label and check for partially hydrogenated oils and trans fats. Look for snacks prepared with quality ingredients like coconut oil.
- Processed meats like deli meats, bacon, and hot dogs: often very high in sodium, factory-farmed meats often contain nitrates. (There are some brands, such as Applegate Farms, Butcher Box, US Wellness Meats, and Pederson’s, that make healthier versions of processed meats and are great alternatives as they are grass-fed, organic, and don’t contain nitrates and fillers.)
- Fast food: usually containing bad oils, factory farmed meats, unknown added ingredients, void of nutrition
- Diet soft drinks: true, they don’t contain sugar, but they do contain artificial sweeteners, food dye, and other unknown ingredients.
- Excessive factory-farmed dairy: Some people react to dairy and some don’t. Even if you don’t have a problem digesting dairy, quality matters. Grass-fed, cultured, full-fat cottage cheese is a cleaner option than traditional full-fat cottage cheese, due to antibiotics, and the diet of the cow (often fed genetically modified corn and soy). The cultured variety gives you probiotics, which are good for your gut health.
- “Keto Doritos” and other “keto” chips cooked in poor-quality oils and loaded with sodium
- Roasted, salted nuts: they’re often roasted in poor-quality oils and loaded with sodium and other unknown ingredients. Be sure to read the nutritional label.
Can Dirty Keto Be Okay Sometimes?
The primary focus of a ketogenic diet should be on real, whole foods. However, there is a place for “dirty” keto foods, such as when you are traveling, rushed, or just in need of some convenience. Just be sure not to fully rely on dirty keto for your daily macros, and try to find keto-friendly foods and clean keto meals that are made with more natural, real-food based ingredients. Place the emphasis on food quality as much as possible, and your body will get more nutrients, even when eating dirty. You can find reviews of products we like here.
What keto Foods and Ingredients are Considered Clean?
As we mentioned, a clean keto diet is more sustainable and nutrient-rich. And because there are no confusing ingredients lists to decipher, it’s also quite simple to follow clean eating compared to a dirty keto diet. Following is a list of some clean keto foods:
- Grass-fed beef/pasture raised poultry dairy, and coconut milk (a dairy-free, vegan option)
- Wild caught/sustainable fish
- Healthy fats, such as coconut oil, grass-fed butter, ghee, olive oil, avocado oil, lard, tallow, and pasture raised bacon fat
- Low-starch vegetables (think zucchini, cauliflower, green beans, and leafy greens for starters)
- Berries, such as blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries, in moderation
A list of some “Clean” Keto Snack Ideas
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Nut butters
- Raw nuts (preferably macadamia nuts, walnuts, or pecans)
- Seeds (preferably sunflower seeds or pumpkin seeds)
- Coconut butter
- Organic/nitrate free meats and cheeses
- Avocados with a sprinkle of Himalayan salt
- Dark chocolate (at least 85% cacao)
- Homemade fat bombs
- Organic broth and bone broth
The Key to Eating Clean Keto
Of course, it’s not just convenience that makes people reach for packaged foods. It’s also habit. If you’re new to keto and have subsisted on mostly packaged foods in the past, it’s easier to reach for readymade items than to both learn how to eat keto and also how to cook from scratch (a requirement for eating clean keto). Plus, everyone wants a cookie now and then. However, educating yourself on quality (and unhealthy) ingredients and foods, and learning how to prepare healthful meals is one of the most important investments in the future of your health.
So, don’t cheat yourself out of quality nutrients with a “dirty” keto diet and risk inflammation and poor health. Instead, aim for a mostly clean diet. It will nourish your cells with healthy fats and nutrient-dense whole foods, keep your ketones up and your blood sugar down, and give you more energy and vitality whether you’re eating keto or not.
Disclaimer: whether you’re trying the keto diet for weight-loss or to mitigate the problems surrounding diabetes, heart disease, or other medical conditions, it’s always a good idea to consult a dietitian or your primary care provider before making dramatic dietary changes, even for the short-term.