|October 17, 2023

Dirty Keto vs. Clean Keto: Everything You Need to Know

By Alison Moodie
Reviewed by Emily Gonzalez, ND for Scientific Accuracy

Dirty Keto vs. Clean Keto: Everything You Need to Know

  • Dirty keto is a version of the high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet. On a clean keto diet, you prioritize whole foods while sticking to your regular keto macronutrient breakdown. On a dirty keto diet, it doesn’t matter where those macros come from.
  • Dirty keto dieters might eat a mix of clean foods, fast foods, sugar-free drinks and processed snacks that fit keto macros. While this style of eating is more flexible, there are good reasons to prioritize nutrient-dense whole foods whenever possible.
  • A regular keto diet doesn’t have to feel like you’re missing out on delicious, convenient foods. Find easy keto recipes below, like chocolate donuts and creamy Bulletproof Coffee.

Whether you’re a seasoned keto dieter or you’re just getting started on your journey, chances are you’ve heard of “dirty keto.”  While the rules for the traditional keto diet are fairly cut and dried, a dirty keto diet provides a little wiggle room—but it looks different for everyone.

For some, it means eating fast food when the craving strikes but making choices to stay within low-carb keto macros—like ordering a bunless bacon cheeseburger and diet soda. For others, it means occasionally breaking ketosis to include non-traditional keto ingredients.

What is dirty keto and is it good for you over the long haul? Get the facts about dirty keto vs clean keto and how to maximize your results following this fat-fueled lifestyle.

What is dirty keto?

Overhead view of soda cans

First things first: In all styles of the keto diet, the majority of your daily calories come from dietary fat (about 75%). You also eat moderate protein (about 20%) and very few  net carbs per day.

Restricting carbs puts your body into ketosis, a metabolic state where you burn fat, not carbs, for fuel.[1] The result? Weight management and improvements in health.[2]

But what is dirty keto? It’s a version of the high-fat, low-carb keto diet that follows the same breakdown of fats, protein and carbs. But compared to a regular keto diet, there’s one key difference: It doesn’t matter where these macronutrients come from.

That’s because the benefits of keto primarily come from carbohydrate restriction, whether you’re eating grass-fed steak seared in grass-fed ghee or a bunless cheeseburger with a side of pork rinds.

Simply put, you don’t have to worry so much about the quality of the foods you eat in the dirty keto diet plan. Processed foods like artificial sweeteners, processed oils, or even a bunless burger are perfectly acceptable.

The difference is understanding how dirty keto foods make you feel, what’s sustainable for you and what results you’re seeing on the keto diet.

Pros & Cons of the Dirty Keto Diet

There’s no such thing as a perfect diet. No matter which one you choose, there are always unique benefits and drawbacks.

And the dirty keto diet plan is no exception.

When compared to clean keto, this version might seem like a simple compromise that gives you more flexibility with your food choices. While that is true, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of the dirty keto diet before you commit to this style of eating.

Pros

  • Less expensive than clean keto
  • Requires less intensive food preparation
  • Allows for dining out
  • Less restrictive food choices

Cons

  • Lower-quality foods than clean keto
  • May be difficult to maintain ketosis with high-calorie processed foods
  • Processed foods are less nutrient-dense than whole foods
  • Could contribute to weight gain if caloric intake is not monitored

Dirty keto vs clean keto

We’re going to use the terms “dirty keto” and “clean keto” throughout this article, but these terms are subjective.

When it comes down to dirty keto vs clean keto, the key difference is that the latter emphasizes food quality—like eating grass-fed, pasture-raised and organic foods—as much as possible. On the other hand, the former doesn’t place nearly the same level of importance on where you get your calories from.

Dirty keto is largely open to interpretation based on how you prioritize “dirty” and “clean” foods—namely, things like artificial sweeteners and food additives, ultra-processed oils and snack foods, sugar-free sodas and other foods that are technically low-carb, but not as nutritious as whole foods.

Another facet of the keto diet is lazy keto, which is often lumped in together with dirty keto. People who follow a lazy keto diet tend to pay close attention to food quality, but they put less emphasis on macronutrients than either dirty or clean keto dieters.

Want to keep things super simple? Here’s an easy way to put all three versions in context:

  • Dirty keto: Eat whatever you want, regardless of ingredient quality, and track your keto macros.
  • Clean keto: Emphasize high-quality ingredients and whole foods, and track your keto macros.
  • Lazy keto: Following keto protocol and prioritizing ingredient quality, but not strictly counting your macros.

Related: 7 Reasons You’re Not Seeing Results on Keto

Does dirty keto work?

Though not as healthy as clean keto, you may still be able to achieve success on a dirty keto diet. Eating high-calorie convenience foods might make it more difficult to stay in ketosis, but if you’re diligent about tracking your macros, the dirty keto diet can still be an effective strategy for those who want to make fat their primary fuel source.

Dirty Keto Foods

Row of canola oil bottles

From dirty keto snacks to sugar-free beverages to ingredients for making home-cooked meals, there’s no shortage of options when you’re not adhering to clean keto.

So, what exactly should you expect to see if you open a dirty keto dieter’s fridge or pantry? Some of the most common items you’ll see on a dirty keto food list include:

  • Processed cheese
  • Sugar-free sodas and other drinks
  • Bunless fast-food burgers
  • Pre-packaged meats
  • Pork rinds
  • Bacon made with conventional meat
  • Margarine
  • Mayonnaise made with vegetable oils
  • Cheese crisps
  • Chocolate
  • Potato chips
  • Low-carb cookies
  • Processed vegetable oils

Choosing between dirty keto and clean keto

Chocolate cinnamon donuts with icing

When you pick up a packaged food, it’s easy to scan the nutrition label and see if it works for your macros. But even though something is lower-carb and sugar-free, a dirty keto diet based around ultra-processed foods like chips, meat jerky and soda can hold you back from the overall health benefits of a keto diet that’s higher in whole foods.[3]

With that said, it’s too black-and-white to classify dirty keto foods as “junk food” dieting that happens to be keto-friendly. For some people, simply restricting carbohydrates can help them feel better by helping to reverse insulin resistance and stabilize blood sugar—even if every single meal isn’t “clean.”

Obviously, there’s a connection between optimal wellness and eating whole foods. Our point of view is that food is fuel, and if you want to feel your best, start with the right nutrients. It shouldn’t be about dirty keto vs clean keto—the best diet is the one that makes you feel your best and that you can stick with long-term.

If you’re used to eating whatever you want, jumping into a “cleaner” style of eating is a big change. Saying “hold the bun” is a starting point. As a short-term fix, dirty keto (or, said another way: eating foods that meet your keto macros) is a way to dip your toe in the keto diet and transition into a new style of eating—or stay in ketosis when you’re out or too busy to cook.

How to boost your results

Person reading and drinking Cold Brew Latte

Want to feel your best on keto? Eat primarily whole foods, not ultra-processed foods. Prioritize quality fats like MCT oil, coconut oil, olive oil and grass-fed ghee, not canola oil and margarine.

There’s a reason we recommend avoiding inflammatory foods and additives: They can derail your health goals over time. If you really, really want that bunless fast-food burger, only make it an occasional indulgence—not your entire diet. Check out our keto food list for more details, including examples of healthy fats and proteins.

And if you’re choosing a dirty version of the keto diet for its convenience or its indulgences, know that clean keto meals, snacks and beverages don’t have to be time-consuming and restrictive. Keep reading for delicious ideas.

A day of keto eating

On a clean keto diet, you can still enjoy delicious, indulgent keto meals and sweet treats. Set yourself up for success by creating a weekly keto meal plan and ensuring you have plenty of healthy snacks and veggies in the fridge. Talking to a registered dietitian or nutritionist can help ensure you’re getting enough micronutrients throughout the day, too.

Looking for more ideas to start planning healthful keto meals? Start here:

Want to take your keto results to the next level? Experiment with intermittent fasting on keto to support ketone production and reduce blood glucose levels.

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This article has been updated with new content.