The dirt on dirty keto: Why lazy keto won’t help

From the desk of
Luis Villaseñor
ScienceThe dirt on dirty keto: Why lazy keto won’t help

“Everything popular is wrong” – Oscar Wilde

Dirty keto is way too popular right now. It’s popular because—despite the potential for long-term health risks—it’s sold as a convenient way to lose weight.

It concerns me when I hear about dirty keto “success stories”. Though losing weight may sound alluring, this way of eating may bring nutrient deficiencies down the line.

Eating a dirty keto diet is like polishing your car without servicing the engine. It may look nice, but it’s not going to run well for long.

I’m not trying to blame anyone for trying a lazy keto diet. It’s marketed as an easy way to lose weight without sacrificing many peoples’ preferred tastes—it takes food quality out of the picture. I can see how that kind of marketing can make lazy keto seem quite appealing.

Wait, you can eat salami, pork rinds, and bunless hamburgers and still lose weight? Sign me up!

The problem is that the marketing never talks about the long-term risks of eating this way. It never talks about how the high consumption of heated vegetable oils is linked to accelerated atherosclerosis (heart disease) or how whole foods provide a wide spectrum of nutrients to support optimal functioning.

Because of this, I felt compelled to write this short manifesto against dirty keto. As always, we’ll cover the basics first.

What Is Dirty Keto?

First things first—I hate undefined or unclear statements, and terms like “moderate,” “dirty,” or “lazy” lack any clear definition. But these terms already exist and have a pretty consistent use in the low carb and keto communities. So, for the purposes of this article, the following is how I am going to define these terms:

Dirty keto (or lazy keto) is a low-carb diet that ignores food quality. The only rule is to avoid carbs. 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 weight (and body fat), it won’t help anyone down a path of optimal long-term health outcomes. It ignores food quality along the way to weight loss goals.

Can You Lose Weight on a Dirty Keto Diet?

Yes, yes you can. Keto’s weight loss mechanisms are mostly uncoupled from food quality. This is true outside of keto too. Despite the complexity of the energy balance model, 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 meal timing can affect energy balance.

Nonetheless, yes—you can absolutely lose weight from dirty keto. And you can lose your health and well-being along with it. But here’s how it can help drive weight loss:

When you restrict dietary carbohydrates for a while, your body quickly enters a metabolic state called ketosis.

Because many people feel more satiated on keto, they tend to eat less. This leads to a caloric deficit, which is the primary reason keto works for weight loss. Couple that with the increased reliance on fat and ketones for energy, and it tends to promote fat loss in most people.

It’s not some fat-burning wizardry. If you overeat, you’ll still gain weight—even on a ketogenic diet. It’s just that people are naturally eating fewer calories than they’re expending.

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 for human (or rodent) participants. They restrict carbs. They enter ketosis. They net a caloric deficit. They lose weight.

But this method doesn’t give protein enough attention. Protein intake health risk is highly asymmetrical—the risks of eating too little vastly outweigh any perceived risks of eating too much, until the amounts consumed become absurdly high.

What will eating too little get you? 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 without a focus on protein intake, oftentimes a good chunk of this weight loss is actually muscle loss. We want to lose body fat and maintain our hard-earned muscles.

But protein is not only for muscles. It’s needed for myriad different processes in your body, such as the production of hormones and enzymes, and your immune system. And since our body doesn’t have a place to store protein besides using it to build 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. Then we limit carb intake, and lastly we fill in the remaining calories with fat according to the energy requirements and calorie goal of the person. 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. It’s definitely not. Allow me to list the main reasons why lazy keto is crappy for you.

#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 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. The data on its health risks just aren’t there.

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 Wednesday? 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, but I don’t buy it. 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—and the sized up 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 HUGE assumption), my money is on the likelihood that salami and sausage eaters tend to live unhealthier lives. If you’re eating lots of these “terrible” foods, you probably aren’t exercising, meditating, eating vegetables, etc. Correlation, not causation.

Within the context of this article, my problem isn’t so much with processed food itself. More-so, I worry that processed foods (which are often calorie-dense and hyperpalatable), will stunt many peoples’ main goal on keto: weight loss.

But weight loss goals aside, processed foods tend to lack nutrients. Dirty keto can neglect a whole buffet of nutrients that your body needs to thrive. Let’s double click on that last point now.

#2: Lack of nutrients

One signature of lazy keto is a conspicuous lack of vegetables. Too much work! People that eat lots of processed foods tend to be low in important vitamins like B12 and K.

But low-carb vegetables like kale, spinach (for those who do not have issues related to oxalates), and broccoli are some of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. These foods are high in:

  • Folate (for energy production and DNA repair)
  • Vitamin C (for immune and skin health)
  • Magnesium (for heart health, energy, muscle function, and much more)
  • Potassium (for healthy blood pressure)

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. These 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 (or tested for) as a cause of low energy or malaise.

There’s another dirty deficiency I need to mention: fiber deficiency.

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.

I know, I know, I’m going to get messages from people saying, “but what about us carnivores?” I understand that there are some people for whom fiber has a deleterious effect on health. However, I have yet to see data to suggest to me that those are the rule rather than the exception. The majority of people would improve their health by eating more foods that contain 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 the golem that’s awakened as a result.

Dirty keto is all about the quick low-carb box check. 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 carb restriction. But the similarities in benefits 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 and eggs, plus 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, to prevent fiber, electrolyte, and other micronutrient deficiencies.

But 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.

But to speak generally, a cleaner keto diet (with less junk food and more whole foods) will serve your long-term health better than a dirtier keto diet. As I like to say, the simple moves the boat so much further across the ocean.

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