A dirty keto diet is a high-fat, low-carb diet that doesn’t take the quality of your food into account. People who follow a dirty keto diet don’t care about where their food comes from or if it’s nutrient-dense.
Instead, dirty keto is less about a holistic approach to your overall health and more about drive-thru burgers, diet sodas and prepackaged foods — as long as they fit your keto macros.
This “quick and dirty” approach to the ketogenic diet replaces the meal prep, cleanup, and “hard” work of keto with food that’s terrible for your body long-term. Still, people are convinced they can reach their weight loss goals by eating fast food and sugar-free junk for every meal.
Is it true? And is dirty keto even good for you?
Let’s get the basics out of the way before discussing the consequences this new keto diet spinoff may inflict on your body.
Dirty keto is a lot like the ketogenic diet but without a lot of thought about the quality and nutrient-density of your food.
Those who follow a dirty keto diet will eat a lot of fast food, cheese and other dairy products, cured meats, and sugar-free diet products, as long as it all fits into their macronutrient ratios.
Since the goal of the keto diet is simply to get your body into a state of ketosis, the dirty keto approach technically can result in weight loss.
You can absolutely get into ketosis — a metabolic state wherein you’re burning fat for fuel instead of glucose — just by lowering your carb intake enough.
However, simply getting into ketosis doesn’t mean you’re healthy.
Real, sustainable weight loss and health depends on where your food comes from and the nutrients you’re digesting and using.
According to the dirty keto commandments, as long as you stay under 20g of carbs per day, you can:
- Eat fast food all the time. Dirty keto dieters find it easier to stick to their macros if they don’t have to prep, cook, and clean up all their meals and snacks. They believe it’s much more convenient to order keto fast food and continue eating their favorite drive-thru meals by simply making a few low-carb tweaks (like skipping the bun and switching to diet soda).
- Snack on pre-made, packaged foods over fresh, whole foods. This includes everything from low-carb snacks like pork rinds to keto-friendly frozen meals and protein bars. As long as it fits your macros, the ingredients aren’t important.
- Replace your favorite sugary drinks or high carb foods with sugar-free versions. Dirty keto dieters don’t care about artificial sweeteners and believe sugar-free chocolate, ice cream, protein bars, drinks, and more are all okay as long as you make it under 20g of net carbs for the day.
But can you really eat this kind of junk food three or more times a day — every single day — and still lose weight?
By limiting your net carbs to less than 20g per day, you’ll get your body to enter ketosis and start burning fat for energy instead of sugar. This should then lead to weight loss.
Though this shortcut approach to losing weight may work, you also won’t feel nearly as many of the positive health benefits a clean keto diet offers — things like mental clarity and better physical performance.
Many people lose weight on a dirty keto diet. But, it’s not sustainable long-term and, frankly, it makes the keto diet look bad. Here are the top five reasons to pass on a dirty keto diet. Plus, what to eat instead.
Dirty keto may seem like the easy answer to losing weight; it’s easy and delicious if you’re into greasy fast food and sugar-free sodas and candies.
But whether these tradeoffs are more important than what you’re doing for your long-term health is another story.
Here’s what this convenience buys you, and why your body wants you to avoid dirty keto:
#1. Dirty Keto Food is Highly Processed
Studies show eating highly processed foods increases your rate of:
- Food addiction[*][*]
- Chronic inflammation[*][*]
- Poor digestion and GI disorders[*]
- Asthma and allergy symptoms[*]
Many of those negative outcomes stem from sugary drinks and high-carb staples like hamburger buns, french fries, potato chips, ice cream, and cookies. However, studies have not shown whether eating fast food and processed snacks in a ketogenic state is any better for you. Likely not.
Consuming low-quality and ultra-processed foods often means you’re also getting harmful additives and hormones like:
Added Hormones and Antibiotics
Growth hormones and antibiotics found in factory farmed beef, chicken, and pork products. Artificial hormones may make livestock bigger, and help cows produce more milk, but eating them may mess with your body’s own hormones.
Antibiotics are given to animals in cramped quarters to prevent diseases and infections from spreading. Having too many antibiotics in your system, however, increases antibiotic resistance, which makes antibiotics given to treat serious infections much weaker.
The CDC says antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest public health challenges of our time. Each year at least 2 million people get an antibiotic-resistant infection in the US — and at least 23,000 people will die as a result of them[*].
Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, maltitol, lactitol, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, and generally anything labeled “sugar-free.”
Sugar-free versions of high-carb foods may also raise blood sugar levels and blood pressure, increase anxiety, and cause GI upset like bloating, diarrhea, and cramping[*].
Unhealthy, processed, refined vegetable oils, like soybean oil, canola oil, corn oil, and more, extend the shelf life of packaged foods and make their consistency more palatable. Your bacon cheeseburger or grilled chicken is probably also cooked in the drive-thru using these oils.
These types of low-grade, cheap oils are considered bad fats on keto.
Soybean and corn, the most popularly-used oils, are among the top GMO crops in the US[*]. They cause inflammation (by being higher in omega-6s than omega-3s) and may even trigger allergic reactions in some.
Chronic, systemic inflammation has serious consequences if left unchecked and has been linked to:
- Autoimmune disorders
- Several types of cancer
- Type 2 diabetes
- Leaky gut syndrome
- Heart disease
- Liver disease
- Negative behavioral changes
- Anxiety and depression
- Neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
Plus, when these fats oxidize (through heating), they create dangerous free radicals with the power to alter your DNA, change the ways your cells function, and even impact whether crucial cells live or die[*].
This may be why one team of researchers discovered for every 10% increase in ultra-processed foods in the diet of their participants, there was a significant increase (greater than 10%) in risks of overall cancer and breast cancer[*].
Scientists even discovered mice fed a diet high in soybean oil had higher rates of obesity and weight gain, and they also showed signs of insulin resistance and diabetes. But when the same mice were fed a high-fat diet rich in saturated fats from coconut oil, these negative side effects disappeared[*].
Harmful Preservatives and Other Additives
Companies hide these terrible ingredients in everything from their meat “seasoning” to the preservatives keeping your pickles, bacon, eggs, and salads looking fresh longer.
Check the ingredients label for these food additives:
- Modified food starch (from corn, rice, wheat, or potato)
- Propylene glycol
- Propyl gallate
- Potassium sorbate
- Polysorbate 80
- Natamycin (a mold inhibitor)
- Sodium metabisulfite
- Sodium benzoate
- Sodium phosphate
- Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite
Then there’s monosodium glutamate (MSG), which enhances the flavors of less-than-fresh food and is virtually tasteless on its own.
More than 40 different ingredients contain the same chemical in MSG (processed free glutamic acid).
So even if you don’t see MSG on the label, you may find maltodextrin, sodium caseinate, autolyzed yeast, autolyzed vegetable protein, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, or yeast extract, just to name a few, instead[*].
What’s wrong with using MSG to make things taste better?
Many people are sensitive to MSG and don’t realize it. This means they may experience headaches and migraines, flushing, sweating, numbness, chest pain, nausea, and even heart palpitations after eating[*].
What’s worse is MSG has been shown to increase your appetite and make you hungry for more calories — definitely not what you need if weight loss is your goal.
Then there are all the food dyes to make this unhealthy food look appealing.
Americans now consume five times more artificial food dyes than when they were first approved by the FDA in the early 1960s[*]. They’re in sliced cheese, pickles, sugar-free drinks and candies, sausages, and more.
Both the UK and the EU have taken actions to ban artificial food colorings since lab studies have connected these potential carcinogens with cancer, an increase in allergies, and hyperactivity in children[*][*].
Phthalates are a group of chemicals used in food handling and plastic food packaging. And they can seep into the food they’re protecting or come in contact with.
The problem is, they’re hormone disruptors that may lead to cancer, type 2 diabetes, and fertility problems.
When 10,253 participants in one study were asked to recall what they ate and where their food came from in the previous 24 hours, phthalate levels were 35% higher in those who regularly ate out at restaurants and fast food joints[*].
All these chemicals are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to eating out and picking up pre-made foods with long ingredients lists.
So even though you may be eating fewer than 20g of carbs, what you’re really giving your body is chemicals instead of nutrient-dense foods.
#2. Dirty Keto Lacks Essential Micronutrients
Don’t ignore your micronutrients just because your macros are stealing all the attention.
Vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals from whole food sources are essential for your body to function at its best.
Found in meat, veggies, fruit, nuts, and seeds, micronutrients:
- Strengthen your immune system
- Aid in normal cell functioning and maintenance
- Help your hair, skin, and nails glow
- Boost your energy levels (B vitamins especially!)
- Protect your cells from environmental damage, which may contribute to early signs of aging and cancer
Though you’ll need to cut out many vitamin- and mineral-rich fruits and vegetables when you switch to a keto diet, you’ll get even fewer micronutrients on dirty keto.
Eating meat and cheese alone will make you deficient in certain vitamins you can only get naturally from fruits and veggies.
Since fast food and grab-and-go options don’t have all the vitamins and minerals you need, you may also get sidelined with the keto flu.
#3. The Potential for Neverending Keto Flu
The keto flu is a temporary side effect of getting into ketosis. Most people just starting out on a keto diet experience a few weeks of fatigue and other issues, then happily transition into full ketosis.
These symptoms are a result of your body adjusting to a different ratio of macronutrients (more fat and protein, fewer carbs).
As your body depletes all the glycogen (stored glucose) you’ve been accumulating on a high-carb diet, you start to lose water quickly. This is because each gram of glycogen is stored alongside 2–3 grams of water.
As your cells flush glycogen, they also lose water and electrolytes. And this can result in dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.
Symptoms of Electrolyte Imbalance
Without the right balance of fluids and electrolytes like sodium, magnesium, calcium, and potassium, symptoms of an electrolyte deficiency may appear, such as:
- Heart palpitations or a racing heart
- Feeling shaky, dizzy, or weak like you’re going to pass out
- Headaches or migraines
- Muscles cramps
- Constipation and bloating
When you combine the normal effects of the keto transition with imbalanced electrolytes, you may wind up with a collection of flu-like symptoms known as the keto flu.
Symptoms of Keto Flu
Until you balance your electrolytes again and finally reach ketosis, you may feel symptoms of the keto flu such as:
- Brain fog
- Dizziness or confusion
- Stomach pain
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Muscle cramping or soreness
- Lack of concentration or focus
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
- Sugar cravings
- Heart palpitations
Both the keto flu and an electrolyte imbalance are temporary issues which will lessen (and even go away) when you become fat-adapted and properly hydrated (with water and electrolytes).
But if you’re following dirty keto, it may take you much longer to get over the keto flu — if you ever do.
Processed ingredients cause your body to become dehydrated more quickly, especially if you’re drinking diet sodas instead of water to rehydrate. The lack of micronutrients on a dirty keto diet may also make electrolyte imbalances even worse.
Another side effect of dirty keto that’ll make you feel worse is the GI discomfort.
#4. Dirty Keto Lacks Fiber
The only rule about carbs on dirty keto is you must stay under 20g each day. But there are no rules about where those carbs come from.
If you “save up” all your carbs for the day for a beer or a few bites of bread, you’re still technically under your carb limit. But your health will suffer.
Instead, if you eat 20 grams worth of low-carb, high-fiber vegetables, you’ll experience all sorts of benefits.
Low-carb dietary fiber is your friend on a classic keto diet because it helps your body:
- Bulk up your stool and move digestion along
- Feed good bacteria in your gut[*]
- Improve insulin sensitivity[*]
- Control appetite by keeping you full longer[*]
- Reduce risks of cancer and heart disease[*]
Everyone should eat more fiber, but most people aren’t hitting their daily 25–34g of fiber goals[*].
And this is much harder to do on low-carb diets like keto[*].
Since high-fiber carbs like beans, whole grains, apples, and veggies are off limits — and there’s zero fiber in animal sources like meat and cheese — you actually have to make an effort to reach your recommended fiber intake.
Best Sources of Low-Carb Fiber
The best sources of low-carb fiber on keto include whole, unprocessed foods like:
- Seeds: chia seeds, hemp seeds, and pumpkin seeds
- Berries: blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries
- Nuts: almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, and pistachios
- Vegetables: broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and spinach
Healthy carbs on keto are rarely found in the drive-thru.
And even though you can snack on packages of nuts and seeds, you’ll need to avoid those containing harmful ingredients like ultra-refined oils used for roasting or preservatives to extend shelf-life.
All this worrying about lengthy ingredient labels, constantly feeling under the weather, and unpredictable bowel movements may cause you to throw in the towel and abandon the dirty keto life.
#5. It’s Less Sustainable
Dirty keto is a temporary fix if you’re traveling or unable to cook for yourself in the short term. However, it’s not a good strategy for better health and weight loss in the long run. Here are just a few reasons why:
- Dirty keto doesn’t create a true lifestyle change, especially if you can blame fast food restaurants and junk food for your initial weight gain. Tweaking your favorite orders or buying sugar-free versions of your high-carb go-tos won’t teach you how to live without them.
- It gets expensive fast. The average American spends over $3,000 a year dining out[*]. Since a typical $15 restaurant meal can usually be made at home for just $5, you’re going to be wasting more money to eat lower-quality ingredients[*].
- You’re more likely to fall off the wagon. It may sound like a dream to never have to cook or clean up the dishes again, and you may be legitimately excited to eat out at your favorite guilty pleasure drive-thrus on keto. But this novelty will wear off. And without practicing clean keto eating you’re more likely to revert back to your old habits and gain the weight you lost right back.
- You’re not going to feel good, and if you don’t feel energized and lose weight, you’re not going to continue down the low carb path.
Since you want a diet that promises — and delivers — those results, here’s how to make a clean keto diet work for you.
A nutrient-dense, healthy keto diet doesn’t have to be complex or time-consuming. There are just a few tenants of a healthy keto diet.
A clean ketogenic diet includes plenty of[*]:
- Organic and grass-fed meats and protein, including beef, poultry, pork, game meat, and organ meat
- Wild-caught, sustainably sourced, fatty fish like salmon and tuna
- High-quality, full-fat dairy free of antibiotics
- Healthy fats from coconut oil, avocado, olive oil, grass-fed butter, and MCT oil
- Low-carb vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and leafy greens
- Low-sugar fruits such as blueberries and raspberries
- Keto coffee and keto matcha lattes
Don’t think the keto diet is sustainable with your busy lifestyle?
Use these tips to make clean keto an easy diet to manage:
#1: Begin a Transition to Clean Keto Using Keto Cycling
If a classic ketogenic diet feels too difficult or restrictive for you right off the bat, you can ease into one using keto cycling.
With this plan, you’ll eat clean keto for five or six days of the week and then have one or two “cheat days” where you’re allowed to visit the drive-thru or eat a higher carbohydrate intake.
This may lessen some of the initial pressure of buying, prepping, cooking, and cleaning up every single day of your new healthy life. Just commit to getting back on the keto bandwagon after your scheduled cheat day.
The downside to this yo-yo keto approach is you may never truly get into ketosis, which means weight loss, appetite suppression, higher energy levels, and all the other health benefits of a keto diet may not come as quickly.
Cycling may make clean keto more sustainable until you commit 100%. Learning a few easy keto recipes will help you take those baby steps.
#2: Learn a Few Easy Keto Recipes
You don’t need a lot of time, money, or experience to make some of the tastiest, healthiest keto meals and snacks.
You just need to stick to the approved keto foods list.
It’s also essential to understand which foods you should avoid in order to stay in ketosis, and that includes many packaged, processed foods and those with hidden carbs.
Fill your grocery cart with good keto foods you already like eating.
Then use these keto recipes to kickstart your new low-carb lifestyle without the drive-thru:
- The Best Keto Weight Loss Meal Plan for Beginners
- 25 Easy Keto Meals: How to Keep It Simple on the Keto Diet
- Easy Keto Recipes for When You’re Short on Time
- Delicious Low-Carb Casseroles that Make Keto 10x Easier
Once you make a few of these recipes and beef up your cooking skills, it will be easier and faster to fit meal prep into your hectic schedule. Bonus: You’ll also save money and always have fresh keto food around.
If you’re a total beginner in the kitchen, you may want to try keto meal service delivery until you get in the swing of things.
#3: Try a Keto Meal Service
Most people don’t have the luxury of hiring a private chef to cook all their healthy keto meals. Meal delivery services come close and can make fueling your low-carb life a lot simpler.
While some of the most popular meal delivery services now have keto and low-carb menu options, other new companies are devoted entirely to the keto fanbase.
Choose which recipes you want to be shipped to your home and all the ingredients and instructions to make said meal will show up at your door. You won’t have to think about measuring or buying your food, and you’ll still be eating quality ingredients.
Your keto pantry should also be stocked with a few quick options to keep you out of the drive-thru.
#4: Find Healthy, Convenient Food Options
What if you could replace the quick foods and snacks on dirty keto with healthier options just as convenient?
Products 100% free of sugars, cheap fillers, and additives can help ease your transition from fast food to healthy keto food, such as:
- Nut Butter. With healthy fats from macadamia nuts, cashews, and MCT oil, a spoon of this will crush cravings and give you a jolt of energy — minus the bad stuff found in standard nut butters.
- Instant Keto Coffee with MCT oil is the best way to give your caffeine routine a keto upgrade. This high-quality swap also makes intermittent fasting easier.
- Keto Bars, the perfect companion for on-the-go keto dieters. One bar has 19g of fat, 10g of collagen protein, and just 3g of net carbs. These real food ingredients will keep you away from junk food.
- Keto Micronutrient Powder. Each scoop packs pure, plant-sourced nutrition from 26 different fruits and veggies so you’re not missing out on essential vitamins and minerals. Just toss it in a blender with collagen protein or keto whey protein for a quick, delicious smoothie you can make in less than five minutes and take with you.
Add these options to your diet of whole, unprocessed food sources and you’ll never worry about questionable ingredients kicking you out of ketosis.
While dirty keto may be delicious for a while, is neither healthy nor sustainable.
A clean keto approach using real, healthy foods will support your body through deep nutrition, lead to greater weight loss, and give you higher energy levels.
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