People are talking about strict keto lazy keto and dirty keto. Let’s talk about the difference and why one of them scares me, one of them works for me, and one of them just creeps me out.
The Difference, briefly
- Carb intake 20g or under. Total carbs, not net.
- Strict adherence to Keto macros
- Tracking of all intake including caloric, weighing and measuring food
- Whole Foods only
- No starchy foods at all
- No snacking
- No artificial sweeteners.
- Tracking ketosis.
- Often uses apps for tracking and support
- 20g net carbs
- Focus only on keeping carbs down, not really keeping track of other macros
- No focus on calories
- Eyeballing amounts. Little or no weighing and measuring.
- Only natural artificial sweeteners
- No measuring of ketosis
- 20g net carbs
- Includes processed and unhealthy foods
- Includes some starchy foods as long as the carbs work out.
- Artificial sweeteners and diet soda.
- Reliance of keto convenience foods.
Also called “Clean Keto” (as opposed to “Dirty Keto” I guess), may be the most effective in the short run. It is certainly the healthiest. If you’re practicing Strict Keto, all your meat will be pasture raised and grass finished. All seafood is wild caught. This is often hard to find and/or expensive. All your vegetables will be organic. They will consist mainly of leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables, no grains, no beans, no starches. Your fruit will be, well you don’t really eat fruit except for organic avocados and occasionally organic berries. Oh, and maybe lemon slices in your water. No sugar, of course. No artificial sweeteners, either.
You’ll be writing things down a lot. You have to track everything. You’ll be making up detailed meal plans. If you haven’t time for all that, you may buy an ap or subscribe to a service that does all the planning, and tracking and shopping lists for you. You’ll stick to strict meal times and no snacking. You may not practice intermittent fasting, but you will have one long stretch every day when you eat nothing, usually 10- 12 hours between dinner and breakfast.
My take. This is the one that creeps me out a little. It seems a little obsessive, maybe even a little masochistic. For something to be good for you, it must also be difficult and unpleasant. No pain, no gain (or in this case, loss.) There is something a little puritanical and evangelical about strict keto. Not only are they fanatical about what they eat, they are fanatical about what you and I eat, too. These are the people who are quick to tell you that you are doing it wrong. These are the Vegan bashers.
I know, it sounds like I’m doing a little bashing of my own. I’m not saying that all adherents to strict keto are judgmental prigs, just that the judgmental prigs among us are usually strict keto. There are plenty of nice people who get enjoyment out tracking and charts and list making and meal planning. It can be a small refuge of certainty in an uncertain world. For such people, strict keto is perfect. God love them and more power to them.
I have discovered that I happen not to be one of those people. After the thrill of an eight pound weight loss my first week of cutting carbs, I got very gung ho and jumped into strict keto with both feet. I tracked, I weighed, I measured, I planned. I lasted about 4 days. Then, it all became a drag. It was very time-consuming, and it was boring.
My other problem with strict keto was that it seemed like binary thinking. In my mind it quickly went from strict keto to “perfect Keto.” In Cognative Behavioral Therapy,(CBT, which I highly recommend, not that you asked), I learned the dangers of such all-or-nothing thinking. The paradox of perfectionism is that we can never do anything perfectly. Thus, with that word view, we can never succeed, which consequence inevitably leads to “Aw the hell with it,” and in my case, back to the food.
No, perfectionism is not for me. I say if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.
Dirty keto is, I think, how most of us find our way into the Ketogenic lifestyle. We are impressed by someone’s success with keto and decide to give it a try. But all we hear is “low carb, high fat”. So, we toss out our Fruit Loops and our non-fat milk and buy some bacon and heavy cream. We choke down our last boneless skinless chicken breast and switch to heavily marbled Porterhouse. We keep eating all the processed food and low quality feed lot meat we’ve always eaten, we just cut the carbs and add more fat.
And guess what? It works! We immediately lose some weight. This initial success often spurs us to look deeper into the Ketogenic lifestyle. But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes we just want to lose weight but don’t want to give up the high carb foods we love.
My take. Dirty keto is kind of unclear on the concept. Keto is not just another diet. It is a fundamental change in how we nourish our bodies. All our lives we’ve been running on sugar and storing fat. Having no sugar available, we start to run on fat. We no longer get most of our energy from glucose. Instead, we now get it from ketones. We have become fat adapted.
This conversion takes place naturally and quickly. The body needs to run on something. Most people make this switch briefly without knowing it. If you had a light dinner, or for some reason you skipped dinner, some time in the wee hours of the morning, you may run out of glucose. If this happens, the body switches to burning fat to produce ketones.
Of course, as soon as you wake up and drink your morning coffee with milk and sugar or eat your bowl of oatmeal, your body switches back.
Your body switches back and forth between ketosis and glycolysis quite easily. For you mind, however, it’s not so simple. We all know how difficult it can be to break a bad habit. Living off glucose is probably your oldest habit. There is also the cultural aspect. High carbs foods are part of our national and ethnic heritage, whether it’s chibatta bread, pita, croissants, nan, tortillas, fried rice, grits, hot cross buns, or matzoh balls. Keto can feel like you’re denying your heritage, and can make family gatherings problematic.
There is another problem with a more lax keto. Recent studies have shown that sugar can spike dopamine levels just like cocaine and heroin. Researchers have stopped short of calling it an addictive drug, but the fact remains: you take it, it feels good. The feeling goes away. You want more. So your sugar cravings aren’t just habit. They are also biochemical.
Dirty Keto scares me because it feels like I’m not taking Keto seriously, like I’m treating it like just one more weight loss scheme that I’ll stay on until I reach my goal weight. Then I’ll go back to eating “normally.” And in my heart of hearts I know those all fail. Dirty Keto feels like I’m not really giving Keto a fair shake. Rather than learning to live on and appreciate the wholesome food that is naturally low in carbs, I’m already looking for loopholes. I just want to lose weight, but I don’t want to give up anything. I want to be on Keto but still have waffles for breakfast, smothered in syrup.
The processed food industry and Madison Avenue understand this better than you do. They are coming out with “Keto Friendly” versions of every thing they make. You can have Keto waffles with Keto syrup. One frozen keto toaster waffle with syrup has about 15g of carbohydrates. Technically, that’s keto but it’s also most of you carbs for the day in one toaster waffle. . . And a toaster has two slots. I’m just sayin’.
In strict keto your focus is on keeping your carbs as low as possible, so you concentrate on zero carb food like meat and nearly zero carb food like leafy green vegetables. In dirty keto the focus is the opposite. You are allowed 20g – 30g of carbs per day and you make sure you get everyone of them, and a few over is no big deal. For me, this kind of thinking, plus the sugar cravings that never really went away, would soon lead me out of Keto.
I guess mine is a kind of lazy keto. The term doesn’t offend me. Lazy can be a good thing. Most of the great inventions that have advanced civilizations and improved our daily lives were though up by some lazy person who said, “There must be an easier way to do this.”
So, call it lazy, fine. But I prefer to call it Sustainable Keto. It avoids the minutia, rigidity and binary thinking of strict keto which can lead to burnout. It also avoids the “have your cake and eat it, too” mentality of dirty keto that never really allowed me to get the sugar monkey off my back. And as long as it’s there, I stayed hungry.
Tracking. I don’t. I’ve always been dieting so I usually read the nutrition label. For the first 3 weeks of keto I read every nutrition label. I soon memorized which foods had zero or practically zero carbs. By building my meals around those items I could ensure that I never went over 20g. As for fat and protein, I usually just wing it. That’s bit me in the butt a few times, but mostly it works out. I’ve lost 62lbs. Something’s working.
Meal times. Generally, I eat three meals a day and no snacks. The only exception between meals is a lemon or lime slice in my water or iced tea. Incidentally, since kicking my sugar addiction, I find the taste of sour and bitter foods more appealing. My first meal is at 6 AM. My last meal ends by 6 PM. Then nothing for 12 hours. Sometimes I’ll skip breakfast, which makes it an 18-hour fast.
Food choices. I usually avoid keto convenience foods. Keto bagels or keto Cocoa Puffs may keep my body in ketosis, but my brain is back on sugar. I find this self-defeating in the long run. I’m not against all of them. Riced cauliflower has become a staple in my freezer. I like to keep my food organic, grass finished, free range and minimally processed. That isn’t always possible or affordable. When it isn’t I do the best I can and don’t fret about it.
Recipes. My meals are simply prepared for the most part. One advantage of the high fat diet is that many of the foods taste great all on their own. You don’t have to do much to a T-bone steak. My go-to seasoning is what I call HPG: Himalayan pink salt, Pepper, I use the mixture of black, white and red (sometimes called “peppercorn medley”) that comes in its own grinder, and Garlic powder. Seems like I use it on everything. My other favorites are cumin, celery seeds, Dijon mustard, wasabi, black sesame oil, Tabasco, Tajin, and Tapatio.
Every once in a while I feel like cooking something elaborate. When I do, it’s either a soup or a stew. If it’s a stew, it’s usually Mexican, like pozole or birria, adjusted for Keto. I also like to make chopped liver with schmaltz and gribenes, which needless to say is not Mexican.
Hunger. One of the most amazing things about my keto lifestyle is that hunger has mostly gone away. If you are a life long dieter like me, that is truly astounding. I’ve read it has to do with hormones. Glycolysis and ketosis release different ones. Whatever it is, for me it’s working. Diets always required “will power” and self denial. I was alway hungry and forcing myself not to eat.
With keto it’s very different. Monday I skipped breakfast. Not eating until noon would make it an 18-hour fast. I got busy and forgot about it. I didn’t realize it until 2 PM. I hadn’t eatin in 20 hours and I still wasn’t particularly hungry. On keto I’m eating less because I want to eat less. No will power required. This isn’t 100%. I still get cravings every once in a while. I still, over eat, once in a while, incidents which are usually bacon related. But for the most part, on keto my relationship with food has changed fundamentally.
A Parting Word
There you have it. Now you know the differences among strict keto, lazy keto and dirty keto. They all wok to some extent and each is probably the right fit for someone. Also, they are not absolutes. There are variations of each. The right one for you is the one you can stay on. For me, strict keto is something that I would quickly abandon. Dirty keto, for me, is too close to the edge of not being on keto at all. So I’ll take the middle path. From strict keto I take the emphasis on healthy food and stricter meal scheduling. From dirty keto I’ll take some of the looser attitude and a few of the convenience foods. And stevia. So, I guess I haven’t really defined where I stand exactly. I don’t know why not. Maybe I’m just too lazy.