Clean Keto vs. Dirty Keto

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Written by Brenda Peralta, Registered Dietitian and medically reviewed by Abby Courtenay

Imge of Clean Keto vs. Dirty Keto



The ketogenic diet is a low-carb, moderate protein, and high-fat way of eating.
There are different types of ketogenic diets, such as cyclical, moderate, and targeted. One of the most common debates is dirty and clean keto. However, there is still a lot of confusion regarding these types. 

This article will explore the similarities and differences between clean and dirty keto. 


What is clean keto?

Here, the key is to focus on eating high-quality and nutritious foods while limiting your intake of carbohydrates to 5-10% of your total calories. 

This means you eat whole, natural foods that are high in nutrients, such as non-starchy vegetables, healthy fats, lean proteins, low-carb fruits, and nuts and seeds. 

When consuming proteins, if possible you aim to have grass-fed and wild-caught options since they may be higher in some nutrients than farmed-raised animals. 

Studies have shown that wild-caught fish can have up to 50% more omega-3 compared to farmed-raised. 

On a clean keto diet plan, you also reduce your consumption of highly processed foods. So, you’re eating real foods and cooking from scratch using whole ingredients, instead of eating food that comes out of a can, jar, or bag. While you still make an exception once in a while, the idea is to mostly have minimally processed food.

If you do eat packaged foods, they should have a short list of ingredients from natural products.

What is dirty keto?

On the other hand, with a dirty ketogenic plan you don’t pay attention to food quality. 

It doesn’t matter where your calories come from as long as you stay under your carb limit. This means you can consume as much highly processed food as you like as long as you don’t go overboard on your calories or macros. 

In theory, this means you can have bacon cheeseburgers dipped in mayonnaise for every meal and packaged keto bars for every snack, while washing it all down with diet soda. 

Clearly, this is not a very healthy approach. Ideally, you would only allow yourself to eat dirty occasionally, when you don’t have much time to prepare a meal.


Similarities between clean and dirty keto


Same principles

They both follow the same principles of a ketogenic diet. 

This means they both look to reduce their carb intake to put your body in metabolic adaptation for you to enter ketosis, using fat to create ketones as your energy source. 

Therefore, they both have the same goal in mind: to make your body go into a ketosis state. 



Since they follow the same principles of getting your body into ketosis, they follow the same macronutrient breakdown:

  • Carbs: 5-10%
  • Protein: 20%
  • Fats: 70-80% 

There might be slight modifications based on whether you are following another type of ketogenic diet (like the moderate keto). There is a range because each person’s macros are different, depending on things like your age and how active you are.


Weight loss

Finally, since they both rely on ketosis, they can both be used to lose weight. 


Differences between clean and dirty keto


Food quality

One of the biggest differences is the food quality. 

On clean keto, you focus on having healthy, nutrient-dense whole foods.
With dirty, you have a greater processed food intake.
While it might be easier to follow a dirty ketogenic diet when going out (it’s usually easy to find a cheeseburger and toss away the bun), it also increases your risk of nutrient deficiency. 

However, more on that later in the article. 


Higher in sodium 

Another major difference is the sodium content. 

The American Hearts Association recommends consuming less than 2,300 mg of sodium daily to decrease heart disease risk. 

However, when most of your foods come from processed sources, it is very easy to consume more than this amount. 

Processed foods have a high sodium content to help extend their shelf life and to boost their flavor.
Thus, you need to be careful with your sodium intake when following a dirty ketogenic approach. 


Chronic conditions 

Finally, while it is not always the case, a dirty keto diet can increase the risk of chronic conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes. 

When you consume more processed food, you are likely to increase your saturated fat content. 

Additionally, processed foods can be high in trans fats, increasing your cholesterol and inflammation levels and your risk of heart disease. 


Benefits of clean and dirty keto

There are several benefits of following a ketogenic diet. Since both have the same principle, they have the same benefits. 

  • Weight loss. The ketogenic diet is known for its weight loss results. On average, you can lose 1 to 3 lbs per week following this eating plan. 
  • Reduced appetite. Fats can increase your leptin levels (satiety hormone) and reduce your ghrelin (hunger hormone). This leads to a decrease in your cravings and your appetite, helping you to eat less. 
  • Reduced glucose levels. While it depends on the type of processed foods you include, they both can reduce your glucose levels. 


Side effects of clean and dirty keto

While there are several benefits, there are also side effects you need to consider when you go into ketosis. 

You can get the same side effects from either diet, but there is an increased risk of constipation and nutrient deficiency when following a dirty ketogenic approach.

  • Keto flu. When your body is adapting to creating ketones and using them as your primary energy source, you might experience symptoms like headache, fatigue, foggy brain, and nausea.
  • Constipation. By cutting carbs, you often significantly reduce your fiber intake. This can increase the risk of constipation. On the dirty keto diet, most processed food is very low in fiber, increasing your chances of constipation. On the other hand, on a clean keto diet, if you are mindful to eat lots of veggies, this can be prevented. 
  • Nutrient deficiency. Vegetables and fruits are sources of vitamins and minerals. When you reduce them, it increases the risk of nutrient deficiency. Like in the case of constipation, you have a greater risk of nutrient deficiency when following a dirty ketogenic approach. 


Clean vs. dirty keto foods

One of the biggest differences between these diets is the foods you eat. 

Remember that there is some overlap, meaning you can consume some foods from the dirty keto in a clean approach (and the other way around). 

The main takeaway is that on a clean keto, the majority of your foods are natural, while on a dirty ketogenic diet, most of them are processed. 

The following table compares the foods in each diet. 

Beans and legumes In moderation In moderation
Condiments and sauces ✓ (home-made)
Dairy ✓ (low-carb) ✓ (low-carb)
Sugar-free drinks X (natural teas and coffees are ok) ✓ (diet soda, sugar-free energy drinks are ok)
Sugar-sweetened beverages X X
Alcoholic drinks X ✓ (low-carb)
Fish and seafood
Fruits In moderation In moderation
Grains and starches X X
Herbs and spices
Meat and poultry
Nuts and seeds
Oils and fats
Processed foods X ✓ (low-carb)
Sugar-free sweeteners X
Natural sweeteners

Only if low-carb, such as monk fruit, stevia

White and brown sugars X X
Starchy vegetables In moderation In moderation
Non-starchy vegetables


As you can see they have similar food groups. They both reduce the intake of high-carb foods and sugars. 

However, the biggest difference comes in the quality of the foods. 

On a dirty ketogenic diet, you can consume ultra-processed foods and drinks as long as you manage to stay within your calorie limit and carb budget. 

Take a closer look at which foods are keto-friendly


Clean vs. dirty keto costs

Typically, processed foods are less expensive compared to natural foods.

However, it also depends on what type of foods you buy and if you eat out at restaurants. 

Grass-fed, wild-caught, and organic produce tends to be more costly, meaning the clean keto diet might be somewhat more expensive than a dirty approach. 

Nonetheless, if you know where to buy and how to save on meal prep, you can save more money while following a clean keto diet and cooking your meals at home.


Which one is healthier?

Clean keto is healthier than dirty keto since you consume more high-quality, nutritious foods. 

While it is ok to have processed foods once in a while, basing your diet on processed foods increases the risk of constipation, nutrient deficiency, and serious health conditions. 

Additionally, processed foods may be high in saturated and trans fats, which can increase the risk of heart disease. 

A clean approach can also provide you with more nutrients and fiber.


Bottom line

Consuming processed food once in a while is okay as a treat, to make your life easier on a busy day or satisfy a specific craving. 

However, the more processed foods you eat, the more you increase your health risks. 

Make a balance between natural and processed food.
For example, you could aim to have 80% of your diet from natural sources and 20% from processed foods. 

Ultimately, it’s up to you. But since you’re putting in the effort to transform your body, why not do it in the healthiest way possible?

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