The carnivore diet is the exact opposite of the vegan diet: you will eat only animal products and eliminate all plants. The history of this approach is rooted in looking at human evolution and peoples who went for multiple years eating a carnivore diet, while on the flip side noting that few to no groups of humans lived on a solely plant-based diet. Some of the groups in question include nomads from Mongolia, the Masai from East Africa and the Canadian Inuits, among others. And the interesting part is that these groups not only avoided many chronic illnesses seen today but thrived with impressive markers of health.
By now you are aware of the myth I have passionately spoken and written about for years, which is the belief that saturated fat and dietary cholesterol cause heart disease. Multiple studies have solidly disproved this. But unfortunately, meat has been discouraged by mainstream nutrition and medicine based on this myth. So as you can see, perpetuating myths can be quite dangerous to our health. The question is: can we and should we eat copious amounts of meat and animal products? Is it safe and is it healthy? Is there a middle ground?
The principles of this diet are really quite simple. Eat meat and other animal products such as dairy, animal fat products (lard, tallow, etc.) and fish. Avoid everything else, such as all carbohydrates and even supplements.
Proponents of the carnivore diet claim that by completely restricting carbohydrate intake, the body’s natural need for many nutrients decreases, especially vitamins involved in carbohydrate metabolism (vitamins C and A, for example) since you won’t need as much of them now that your diet won’t contain even close the number of carbs it previously did. Similarly to a ketogenic diet, the body becomes fat-adapted with a carnivore diet, meaning that it can effectively burn both dietary and body fat as its primary fuel source instead of relying on a constant intake of glucose (sugar) from carbohydrate-rich foods.
If you watched The Real Skinny on Fat docuseries, you already know that entering a state of ketosis, where you are relying on ketone bodies and fatty acids for energy, is actually the brain’s preferred fuel source, as it offers a “cleaner” burn leading to less systemic inflammation, which has been shown to decrease your risk of many prevalent chronic diseases in today’s world. You will also experience better-regulated blood sugar and insulin levels, leading to a decreased appetite, more sustained energy, better mood, and improved cognitive function, among other benefits.
Interestingly, this diet also has a different take on fiber being key to digestive health. Proponents take the opposite approach than most health experts by claiming that a total lack of fiber is actually more beneficial to digestion. This is based on a study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology that found participants experiencing constipation who ate only meat and animal products with no fiber saw a significant improvement in symptoms of digestive distress.
Even though both of these diets largely focus on the main principle of entering a state of ketosis by relying on fats and protein, the carnivore diet focuses solely on meat and animal products. A traditional ketogenic diet advocates a macronutrient breakdown of 80% fat, 20% protein and 5 to 10% carbohydrates. You are encouraged to enjoy a plethora of healthy good fats such as avocado, coconut, nuts, seeds and more.
The carnivore diet, on the other hand, emphasizes only the animal foods listed above with no specific macronutrient breakdown. For this reason, some people find it easier to follow than a ketogenic diet that typically requires (at least initially) careful macronutrient tracking. For example, a ketogenic diet will not allow certain dairy products due to their high carbohydrate content, but the carnivore diet specifies that any food that fits into the “allowed” food groups is fine. Animal products are the only priority. Another main difference is that proponents of the ketogenic diet are concerned with protein and monitor intake for fear too much will kick them out of ketosis. The carnivore diet allows as much protein as you want and holds the perspective that protein is not counterproductive to ketosis or insulin function. Both diets advocate the inclusion of organ meats for their high nutrient density.
As with any eating model, there are pros and cons of the carnivore diet, as extreme as it may seem. As I mentioned above, you might be drawn to this diet’s simplicity. You won’t have nearly as much of a need for meal planning or tracking, for example. Similarly to a ketogenic diet or any low-carb, high-fat diet model that promotes a state of fat-adaption, you are likely to experience improved cognitive function and mental clarity on the carnivore diet as your body transitions to using fat as fuel.
Blood glucose levels will likely remain quite stable on a carnivore diet, meaning you will experience fewer cravings for carbs and sugar, and you might lose weight. Carnivore dieters will probably experience lower insulin levels, which helps with insulin sensitivity overall.
The main risk and concern with the carnivore diet is the potential for nutrient deficiencies. Proponents claim that many nutrients are not needed when carbohydrates are eliminated, and that high-quality meats provide all essential nutrients. But elimination diets, like the carnivore diet, can actually contribute to dysbiosis of the microbiome. Research suggests your microbiome impacts everything from digestion to your immune system to your mood. Consuming healthy plant-based foods support good gut bacteria growth while consuming only animal-based foods can actually increase gut inflammation and create a gut imbalance. And then there’s fiber. We know that fiber also promotes good gut health. Our bodies need fiber, and meat cannot give it to you.
Another concern is the potential dangers of eating so much saturated fat. While the myth that saturated fats are the main cause of heart disease is certainly debunked, certain individuals due to their genetic predisposition will do better on a diet higher in monounsaturated fats, such as a Mediterranean diet. Furthermore, it’s important to note that no long-term studies have been done on the carnivore diet.
Yet another new and fascinating take on the best way to eat to achieve optimal health, right? My belief is that all lasting health begins with a real, whole foods diet. I place my complete trust in the natural world and have a passion for the healing science behind plants, especially herbs. In my bestselling book, Glow15, the vitality of plant compounds is discussed in great detail. I share the powerful healing of a process called autophagy that’s activated in several ways, but namely via bioactive ingredients in plant compounds. Incredible health begins in nature and nature abounds with ingredients such as spermidine (think cauliflower and pears), antioxidants, polyphenols, especially my favorite Powerphenols, caffeine, essential fatty acids (think chia, flax or hemp seeds), sphingolipids (think sweet potatoes), sulforaphane (think broccoli), saponins (think whole grains, legumes or sprouts) or even probiotics found in fermented veggies.
While I believe that a diet such as the carnivore diet can be used as a therapeutic tool to regain health and wellness, I have my concerns that a long-term diet that excludes some of the most potent ingredients from nature misses the mark on sustainable nutrition, not to mention the pleasure and enjoyment humans receive from eating a varied diet.
What do you think about the carnivore diet? I’d love to hear your thoughts and know if anyone out there has tried it. Here’s to always learning and growing together!