In our previous article we covered some basics about the ketogenic diet and what you can expect from it. Today, I’m going to talk about the distinction between "clean" vs. “dirty” keto. Having tried both approaches myself, I’ll offer some perspective based on my own experience. I’ll also do my best to answer some common questions, such as:
My girlfriend and I had decent results after trying both versions of the diet; however, dirty keto also gave me a few things to worry about upon closer inspection. As we dive into these two approaches, I’ll explain the pros and cons of each so you can consider what will work best for you. To kick things off, I’d like to dig a little deeper into the overall concept of the keto diet to demonstrate why the distinction between “clean” and “dirty” is so important.
If you look at a standard definition of the keto diet, it states that this diet is based on a high consumption of fat, moderate intake of protein, and low intake of carbohydrates. But it won’t say what kind of fats to include in your diet:
“The ketogenic diet is a very low-carb, high-fat diet that shares many similarities with the Atkins and low-carb diets.
It involves drastically reducing carbohydrate intake and replacing it with fat. This reduction in carbs puts your body into a metabolic state called ketosis.
When this happens, your body becomes incredibly efficient at burning fat for energy. It also turns fat into ketones in the liver, which can supply energy for the brain.
Ketogenic diets can cause massive reductions in blood sugar and insulin levels. This, along with the increased ketones, has numerous health benefits” Source: Healthline
This information is completely correct, even without recommending healthy sources of fat over unhealthy ones. (You don’t technically need to be eating clean, unprocessed fats in order to enter ketosis.) Some sources do go on to explain side effects you might experience after eating a lot of “bad” fats in keto foods, but to a newbie this all seems lumped together as a general assessment of keto and it’s not clear that some side effects are actually avoidable.
Over time, people had to make a distinction between what’s known as “dirty” and “clean” keto, based on the types of food you choose to eat and the fats they contain. At this point, you can find explanations of both variations online, but getting to grips with the practical differences between them and how they affect your body comes with personal experience.
Whether you opt for clean keto or dirty keto, your macronutrient ratios will stay the same. This usually entails at least 70% of calories from fat, 20–25% from protein, and 5–10% from carbohydrates.
The distinction between “clean” and “dirty” comes from your primary sources of fat. Clean keto focuses on fats from fatty fish such as salmon, grass-fed butter and meats, avocados, and different nuts and seeds. On the other hand, dirty keto focuses on fats from processed foods such as deli meats, hot dogs, non-grass-fed butter, mayo, and even some fast foods.
No matter which approach you take, you can successfully enter ketosis and experience its benefits. Most people are driven by the effectiveness of the diet and sometimes overlook these distinguishing factors (we certainly did for a while!). So you might wonder, why bother choosing one over the other?
While the results you get on dirty keto are just as good in terms of losing weight, other results might backfire on you later on. Based on the foods you’re eating, dirty keto can leave your body nutrient deficient and may even increase your risk of cardiovascular diseases in the long run. Add to that various effects caused by preservatives and additives in “dirty” keto foods, and you could cause your body some damage.
And then there’s the matter of fat itself. I for one would like to see more distinction between different sources of fat, as I consider that to be an important part of the ketogenic diet. Don’t forget that fats make up close to 70% of your calories on keto, which means these have a significant influence over your body. Most fats out there are healthy for you, however some are straight-up dangerous, like trans fats. Unfortunately, you’ll find plenty of these “bad” fats in dirty keto foods like non-organic, processed meats and butter. Even though such foods may technically keep you in keto, they can still lead to weight gain or cardiovascular disease as a result.
“Even small amounts of trans fats can harm health: for every 2% of calories from trans fat consumed daily, the risk of heart disease rises by 23%.” - Harvard Medical School
I don’t mean to scare you off dirty keto entirely – this is a viable approach if you’re already in good health and plan on keeping your keto run relatively short for some quick results.
Clean keto, on the other hand, is a viable long-term approach. If done right, your body won’t miss any of the nutrients it needs, and the diet itself will not increase your risk of heart disease (in fact, studies show that this approach improves heart health).
Let’s take a closer look at both of these approaches and the science behind them...
Dirty keto primarily focuses on high consumption of fats from processed foods, fast foods, and other “bad” fats while maintaining a moderate intake of protein and a low intake of carbohydrates.
If you’re wondering why anyone would choose to do dirty keto, I’d say that the main reason is it’s cheap. Avocado, quality olive oil, and organic or grass-fed sources of fat that you would eat on clean keto can be quite expensive. In some countries, products like these are not widely available. Meanwhile, cheap meats and cheeses are generally accessible and easy to prepare, so there’s also a convenience factor.
This makes dirty keto appealing to someone on a tight budget who’s looking to lose weight quickly, since it’s more affordable and they can expect the same results in terms of weight loss.
I’ll list the main sources of fat and protein you can expect to eat on dirty keto. These foods will get you into ketosis and help you stay there, but in my opinion they should be consumed in limited amounts since they can also contribute to higher cholesterol:
Note that these are mainly meats and dairy items – definitely not the ideal diet for a vegetarian! In addition to these sources of fat and protein, you should also eat a lot of cruciferous vegetables.
You might look at this list and think it’s a heart attack in the making, but that doesn’t have to be the case. I’m not saying to go out and buy everything on this list, I recommend using a few of these things in moderation to keep your fat intake high while you’re on keto.
There’s nothing wrong with having a few slices of bacon with your eggs twice a week, but if you base your diet entirely on things like bacon, pork rinds, and hard cheese, chances are that your cholesterol will skyrocket, just like ours did.
Here’s a screenshot of my cholesterol levels at the peak of my keto diet:
Note that these are my results and yours could differ greatly. I’m also aware that your diet isn’t the only thing that affects cholesterol levels, but I was able to draw that conclusion here since Jacqueline was eating the exact same foods as I was at the time, and she got similar results:
These blood cholesterol results aren’t far from what I was expecting to be honest, considering I lost 15 kg (33 lb) in just 2 months. The thing to keep in mind is that our keto duration was limited from day one – we knew it would be a short amount of time and our main goal was to shed excess weight.
This also shows us why dirty keto should really be a short-term means to achieving your goal. Driven by results, I could’ve easily decided to stay on keto for a while longer (6 months…perhaps even a year). Can you imagine what my test results might be by then?! Not everyone is doing their blood analysis regularly, which means things could reach dangerous levels before you know it and that’s a pretty good recipe for clogged arteries (and possibly more serious heart disease).
I really want to emphasize that dirty keto should be done with caution. Keep monitoring your levels and take steps to better your cardiovascular health during the process and long after you’re done with your keto run.
Now, there are numerous studies which show no links between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular disease, which somewhat contradicts the results we experienced on dirty keto. You might be thinking, "Well what about the studies then, Matt?!"
My opinion of studies in general goes like this:
Use the studies to gain a different perspective and to broaden your knowledge; as far as I’m concerned they will usually offer one or more scenarios in a sea of possibilities. Remember that there are rules and exceptions to them. What I mean by this is that even though a study concluded one thing, it might not apply to you. In fact, it could be the opposite for you.
I like gaining my knowledge through experience and not through reading different studies and clinical trials, stats, and numbers. As much as science and our studies are evolving, we can’t be certain that the results and outcomes of those are 100% correct and applicable to everyone.
Studies are also very controversial in the fitness industry, especially if they’re served to you by someone who might be cherry-picking them and using them to support their own bias.
We have to realize that medicine has come far, especially in the last 20 years, but even with all the technological and scientific advances, there is still a hell of a lot more that we actually don’t know.
Based on my body and test results, I can see that higher intake of saturated fats increased my cholesterol to very high levels and, knowing that increased LDL levels lead to cardiovascular diseases, I decided to take some steps toward reversing the “damage.” At the end of the day it’s your body and it’s crucial to listen to it so you can find what works for you.
Since I’ve tried dirty as well as clean keto, I can tell you that both times I got pretty impressive results. I didn’t notice that one worked better than the other. But again, I’d suggest that you stick to the clean version of the ketogenic diet for the reasons I stated earlier in this post.
If you have no other choice but to do dirty keto, I’d suggest you limit the duration to 2–3 months max (per year) and do everything you can to keep the side effects under control.
Simply put, I don’t think that dirty keto is a viable long-term diet. The results from it are pretty impressive in terms of weight and fat loss, but the potential damage is not worth the risk, especially considering that a better alternative is available.
As you already know, keto is based on a high consumption of fats. Clean keto isn’t any different in terms of macronutrient ratios, but the types of fats you’re eating will be significantly different. While dirty keto includes saturated fats, clean keto will have you eating mostly unsaturated fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated). Here are the primary sources of fat and protein on a clean keto diet:
A clean keto diet also includes dairy items, ideally grass-fed butter and organic milk. You can consume raspberries, strawberries, or blackberries on keto but in very limited amounts. They don’t have a lot of carbs, but overindulging in them can kick you out of keto.
There are two kinds of “good” fats: Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.
Polyunsaturated fats are essential fats, but your body can’t produce any on it’s own, so you need to get them through your diet. Your body uses them to build cell membranes and nerve coverings, among other things.
Polyunsaturated fats have two main types and those are known as Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.
Hopefully this article gave you some insight into the difference between clean and dirty keto, along with a little bit more knowledge about nutrition in general.
If you choose to go with the dirty keto, keep in mind that it isn’t viable for the long term. Use your best judgement and take steps to combat possible side effects.
Thinking of trying the keto diet? Maybe you already started but need some help staying on track? Follow our blog for more keto content and feel free to comment with your questions or experiences!
Great content! Super high-quality! Keep it up! 🙂
We’ll keep it up for sure.