What Is ‘Dirty Keto’?

With over nine million tags on Instagram, #keto has singlehandedly put butter back in our good graces. But does the diet really mean free reign to eat bacon and cheese whenever you want? Not really. Here’s everything you need to know about what’s come to be known as ‘dirty keto’—and why it’s not the best way to go high-fat.

The Keto Basics

Put simply, going keto means eating 60 to 70 percent of your daily calories from fat, 15 to 30 percent from protein, and just 5 to 10 percent from carbs.

By limiting protein and all-but eliminating carbs, you shift your body from its usual sugar-burning mode into ketosis. “Ketosis is the state in which the body no longer uses glucose from carbs as its main energy source,” explains Wesley Delbridge, R.D.N., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Instead, it breaks fats down into compounds called ketones, which can be used for energy.

The result: For many, weight loss, steady energy, reduced cravings, and more.

The Trouble With Keeping Keto Clean

In a perfect world, a keto diet still emphasizes clean, whole foods, with fats coming from nutrient-rich sources, like walnuts, avocados, and olive oil. Every meal still includes non-starchy veggies and quality grass-fed meats, pasture-raised eggs, and nuts and seeds provide protein. This way, your high-fat diet still provides the array of micronutrients—like vitamins and minerals—your body needs to function optimally.

Thing is, sticking to the keto’s strict (and extreme) fat, protein, and carb requirements takes quite a bit of effort—and doing it in a nutritious way often requires a lot of researching food items, meal planning, and meal prepping, says Delbridge.

Related: How To Do Keto On A Plant-Based Diet

So, unsurprisingly, many a keto eater takes the easy way out, eating a diet centered around foods like bacon, cheese, butter, and packaged foods that fit the macro bill.

Dirty Keto

As the conversation about keto has developed, this technically-keto but not-healthy way of eating has come to be known as ‘dirty keto.’ All about convenience and ease, a dirty keto diet doesn’t prioritize the quality or source of your nutrients, says Jessica Crandall Snyder, R.D.N., dietitian at VitalRD.

“Dirty keto says you can go to the local fast food chain and get a hamburger with cheese and just take the bun off,” says Delbridge. It doesn’t concern itself with whether a food is processed or lacks nutrition—just hitting the right amount of fat, carbs, and protein.

“Dirty keto is just justification to eat whatever you want on the keto diet,” says Crandall Snyder.

The Effects Of Dirty Keto

While it may be possible to stay in ketosis—and even lose weight—while eating ‘dirty,’ your body will eventually feel the effects of eating junk, says Crandall Snyder. Loading up on nutrient-deficient foods can mess with your hunger levels and make you more likely to binge at some point.

Related: Want To Try Keto? Here’s What A Healthy Day Of Eating Fat Looks Like

And then there are the long-term impacts. Too much processed meat, for one, may lead to an increased risk of cancer, according to the World Health Organization. Plus, replacing heart-healthy fats with processed oils and overdoing it on saturated fats may ultimately affect your cholesterol and heart disease risk.

The Bottom Line

As convenient and indulgent as dirty keto may seem, your diet still bears the responsibility of providing your body with the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients it needs.

If you’re going to give keto a try, focus on getting your fats from healthy, plant-based sources, like avocado and olive oil, and loading up on as many different vegetables as possible. Avoid processed meats and other keto-friendly but not-so-nutritious foods, like cream cheese.

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