The dirt on dirty keto: Why whole foods matter

From the desk of
Luis Villaseñor
ScienceThe dirt on dirty keto: Why whole foods matter

“Everything popular is wrong.” – Oscar Wilde

As a health coach focused on low-carb communities, this quote makes me think of dirty keto. Dirty keto has garnered significant popularity as a convenient way to lose weight. After all, people think that as long as you’re (1) eating fewer than 50 grams of net carbs per day, and (2) not overeating, your body will begin burning body fat for energy.

It begs the question: Food quality, who?

I’m not surprised that people gravitate toward the lazy keto diet. Processed foods are tasty and convenient, and people like to have their cake and eat it too — especially on a low-carb diet. But that’s not all. These foods may also trigger a subconscious appeal related to the keto flu.

The keto flu, if you’re not familiar, is a set of symptoms that most often stem from sodium deficiency, an indirect effect of reducing carb intake. It’s pretty common on most diets that minimize carbs (like fasting, carnivore, and paleo) because these diets accelerate sodium losses. And since processed foods contain much more sodium than whole foods, people may actually crave and feel better eating processed foods instead of whole foods (in the short term).

If only they knew… There are plenty of solutions for sodium deficiency — the salt shaker, olives, pickles, electrolyte drinks, and more — none of which require eating garbage and sacrificing your long-term health!

Nonetheless, many people decide that dirty keto must be all gravy after losing a bit of weight. That’s why I felt compelled to write this short manifesto. Keep reading to learn how dirty keto falls short, which foods to avoid, and the importance of whole foods.

What Is Dirty Keto?

Dirty keto (or lazy keto) is a low-carb diet that ignores food quality. The only rule is to limit carbohydrates. Some may define lazy keto distinctly as one that doesn’t track macros, but for my purposes here, I’ll be using “dirty keto” and “lazy keto” interchangeably.

Oftentimes, a lazy keto diet is high in processed foods (cured meat, industrial seed oils, etc.) and low in whole foods like unprocessed meat, fish, nuts, and vegetables. This doesn’t have to be the case but, for convenience sake, low-carb junk food usually takes the wheel.

By and large, a dirty keto diet is advertised as an “easy button” for weight loss and other benefits of ketosis. And while this message isn’t entirely false and may help people lose body fat, it won’t help anyone down a path of optimal long-term health outcomes. It ignores food quality for the sake of weight loss.

Can You Lose Weight on a Dirty Keto Diet?

Yes, you can. Like any diet, keto weight loss mechanisms are mostly uncoupled from food quality. Despite how complex the inner workings of energy balance can be, the straw that stirs the drink has always been calorie intake. This doesn’t mean that other factors (such as hormonal response to food composition) play no part — they absolutely do. In fact, diet composition and even the timing of your meals can affect energy balance.

Nonetheless, you can lose weight on a dirty keto diet. When you restrict dietary carbohydrates for a while, your body quickly enters a metabolic state called ketosis. Ketosis is not some form of fat-burning wizardry. If you overeat, you’ll still gain weight — even on a ketogenic diet.

It’s just that people naturally tend to eat less, because many people feel more satiated on keto. If this leads to a caloric deficit, then keto works for weight loss. The type of weight loss, thanks to the increased reliance on fat and ketones for energy, tends to be body fat.

This logic applies to all very low-carb diets, including lazy ones. And many studies, for better or worse, don’t worry about food quality when structuring keto diets. They restrict carbs. They enter ketosis. They net a caloric deficit. They lose weight.

But weight loss isn’t everything.

What Else Do You Have to Lose?

Weight isn’t the only thing you can lose on a lazy keto diet. You can also lose your long-term health and well-being. You see, dirty keto holds zero regard for protein intake. The risks of low and high protein intakes are highly asymmetrical — the risks of eating too little vastly outweigh the risks of eating too much. 

Inadequate protein is a HUGE reason why many people don’t hit their body composition (muscle vs. fat) goals on keto. People eating a dirty keto diet may lose weight, but oftentimes a good chunk of this weight loss is actually muscle loss. We want to lose body fat while maintaining our hard-earned muscles.

Beyond muscle, protein is needed for endless processes in your body, such as the production of hormones and enzymes, and upholding your immune system. Since our body doesn’t have a place to store protein besides muscle, it’s important we hit our protein goal each and every day.

When I coach clients, I start by helping them set a protein goal. Next, we limit carb intake. Lastly, we fill in any remaining calories with fat according to the person’s unique energy requirements. I’ve seen this approach work for thousands of people.

So if lazy keto is lazy on protein, well, that’s another huge downside. Coming up, we’ll cover other ways dirty keto can derail your long-term health.

Two Problems With Dirty Keto

Dirty keto may work for weight loss, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Here are two ways that dirty keto falls short.

#1: Processed foods

First of all, processed foods can be healthy foods. Fermenting, blending, soaking, drying, and freezing are all benign processing methods. Sauerkraut is technically processed, and that stuff is great for you. More heavily processed foods, however, often contain artificial colors, food dyes, preservatives, parabens, and anti-caking agents. While I don’t recommend consuming these compounds en masse, I also won’t slap some “Blue #2” out of your hand.

What about processed meat? Doesn’t that cause colon cancer? While there is epidemiology linking the two, it’s based almost entirely on food frequency questionnaires (FFQs) — notoriously unreliable for tracking actual eating habits. Do you remember what you ate last Monday? I can say with a good degree of confidence that, for most people, the answer is no.

Some researchers believe the formation of N-nitroso compounds in cured meat drives cancer risk. However, all modern processed meat is required to contain ascorbic acid (vitamin C) — and vitamin C inhibits the formation of these compounds.

Also, in the case of the famous colorectal cancer study, many people who reported eating meat were more-so eating fast food like burgers and hot dogs. So if we’re going to blame meat, we’d do better to first look toward over-processed meats with hydrogenated oils. The up-sized fries, soda, and ice cream that often accompany these foods aren’t doing us any favors either.

So why is processed meat linked to cancer? Assuming the FFQ data is accurate (a big assumption), my money is on the likelihood that salami and sausage eaters tend to live unhealthier lives. If you’re eating a lot of these foods, you probably aren’t exercising, meditating, eating vegetables, etc. Correlation, not causation.

All of that said, I do have a few problems with processed foods. They’re often calorie-dense, hyperpalatable, and lacking in nutrients. Excess calories stunt weight loss, and neglecting a whole buffet of nutritious foods that your body needs to thrive is just silly.

#2: Lack of nutrients

One signature of lazy keto is a conspicuous lack of vegetables. People that eat lots of processed foods tend to be low in important vitamins like B12 and K. But low-carb vegetables like spinach, kale (yuck!), and broccoli are some of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet.

These foods are high in:

Take magnesium, for example. This mineral functions as a cofactor for over 300 enzymatic reactions in your body. You need it for almost everything, from repairing muscle to producing energy (ATP) itself. Magnesium deficiencies are linked to chronic inflammation, impaired blood vessel function, osteoporosis, and insulin resistance.

Potassium and magnesium deficiencies are super common because people don’t eat enough leafy greens on the Standard American Diet or programs like dirty keto. Plus, low magnesium is rarely suspected as a cause of low energy.

Another dirty deficiency worth mentioning is fiber. Fiber feeds your gut bacteria so they can produce anti-inflammatory compounds like butyrate. In the literature, higher fiber consumption appears to be protective against colon cancer and heart disease. In other words, constipation isn’t the only consequence of a veggie-free keto diet. Your longevity is on the table too.

“But what about us carnivores?” I understand that there are some people for whom fiber has a deleterious effect on health. However, this appears to be the exception rather than the rule. I believe the majority of people stand to improve their health by eating more fiber.

The Importance of Whole Foods

In our quest for flavor and convenience, modern society has forgotten the value of real foods. Dirty keto is all about quickly checking off the low-carb box. The bunless burger, the pork rinds, the cured meat, and so on.

But when you neglect whole foods, you neglect what we evolved to eat. Whole food nutrients, in whole food combinations, are how we’re meant to nourish ourselves.

The concept of food synergy applies here. It’s the idea that whole foods are more than the sum of their parts. One example of food synergy is that tomatoes seem to benefit prostate health more than lycopene alone. Another is that full pomegranates seem to have stronger anti-cancer effects than individual compounds in the fruit.

Another advantage of whole foods? Relative to supplementation, it’s hard to overdo any specific nutrient. High supplemental intakes of folate may fuel the progression of cancer, and high supplemental intakes of vitamin A and vitamin E are linked to increased mortality risk. But unless you eat polar bear liver, you’re unlikely to suffer vitamin A toxicity. And I don’t know about you, but my grocery store doesn’t carry polar bear liver anyway.

Lastly, I’ll add that whole foods, compared to processed foods, tend to yield a greater thermogenic effect. Simply put, you burn a bit more calories eating whole foods (vs. processed foods) during the metabolization of the food itself.

Eating A Clean Keto Diet

Both a dirty and clean keto diet can tap into the benefits of ketosis. But the similarities largely end there. A clean keto diet:

  • Is largely devoid of vegetable oils and other processed pseudo-foods.
  • Supplies adequate protein from whole foods sources like meat, fish, eggs, and offal.
  • Prioritizes healthy fat sources like the ones naturally found in meats, fish, eggs, olive oil, avocados, coconut oil, and butter.
  • Is rich in non-starchy vegetables like kale, spinach, zucchini, broccoli, and some low-fructose fruits such as berries. This prevents fiber, electrolyte, and other micronutrient deficiencies.

Before I sign off, I’d like to clarify — I’m not saying that there’s no in-between. “Clean” and “dirty” are relative terms. They exist on a continuum. Our diets will vary, be it due to preference, circumstance, or past experience, and that’s okay. Not everyone needs to crank their diet optimizations up to eleven.

To speak generally, however, the cleaner your diet the better. The less junk food and more whole foods you eat, the better your long-term health will be. As I like to say, the simple moves the boat so much further across the ocean.

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