Meat, meat, and more meat.
Imagine a diet where you eat steak, bacon, and pork chops? For many this may sound pretty awesome.
The Carnivore diet encourages you to eat all these delicious morsels. In fact, those types of foods are the only ones you are supposed to eat. No vegetables. No fruits. All of your nutritional needs will come from meat. There are ZERO plant-based foods, including fruits and vegetables, as well as all manner of hyper-processed carbohydrate foods such as cereals and grains.
But is it the right diet for you?
Is it even healthy?
And how do the principles of the Carnivore Diet fit within a Paleo template?
Origins of the Carnivore Diet
As a species humans have been eating meat for three million years. Its caloric-and-nutrient density allowed humans to have smaller digestive tracts than those needed to digest fibrous plant matter and build large brains. There is no traditional culture on this planet that completely abstains or has abstained from animal products. Nearly every human being who ever lived ate meat whenever it was available.
Over recent decades various individuals have adopted a meat only diet, but the Carnivore Diet started to gain traction after an orthopaedic surgeon, and Record Masters rower, Dr. Shawn Baker, began promoting the benefits of the diet, purporting it was a way to make people healthier, younger looking, and more vibrant. Psychology professor Dr. Jordan Peterson, along with his daughter have shed further light on the benefits of eating a meat only diet through their transformative stories.
Throughout the years, countless other doctors, athletes, and notable personalities have embraced the carnivore diet, ditched all plant foods and embraced animal flesh. One of the biggest reasons proponents of the Carnivore Diet cite for adopting the diet is that plant foods, while rich in minerals, do not contain the right forms of those micronutrients. This means they are not highly bioavailable in the body. They continue on with the fact that plants contain a number of anti-nutrients (including phytates, oxalates, lectins, tannins,) that interfere with vitamin and mineral absorption in the body.
A common example of this is spinach, which contains the non-heme form of iron, compared to red meat which contains the heme form of iron. Additionally, spinach is also packed with oxalates that inhibit absorption of the plant form of iron. Another example of this would be if you consumed oysters and corn. Antinutrients in corn prohibit the uptake of the mineral zinc abundantly present in oysters.
On the other hand, there is little evidence of any purely carnivorous human cultures. Even in predominantly carnivorous tradition cultures, like the Inuit of the Arctic or the Sami of Finland, plants do tend to sneak in. Even the Masai, known for their meat, milk, and blood diets, often traded for plant foods like bananas, yams, and taro and used dozens of plants as medicines
As with a Paleo philosophy, the Carnivore Diet places a premium on the quality of the animal products eaten. It is not simply a matter of eating animal flesh, but sourcing the best quality meat possible, which means grass-fed, organic, and wild (if possible). It is recommended to eat a variety of lean and fatty cuts. Well-sourced animal fats contain healthy, naturally occurring saturated fats which provide additional nutrients needed to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins and minerals present in meat. Plus, fat is flavorful and increases satiety of your meals. Eating nose-to-tail is also encouraged for the greatest nutrient diversity.
Naturally cured and smoked bacon is fantastic both in taste, texture, and nutrition.
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Other processed meats made with fillers and preservatives are discouraged.
It is important to note that there have been NO long-term studies on the effects or safety of the Carnivore Diet. It is thus impossible to conclusively say whether it is healthy or harmful.
That being said, based on anecdotal accounts, there do not appear to be any adverse side effects or immediate health risks from meat only, zero carb diets, other than the symptoms commonly described as the ‘keto flu’.
Eating well-sourced animal protein could be beneficial for heart health, as numerous studies have shown that consumption of meat and animal fat raises HDL (‘good’) cholesterol and lowers triglycerides.[1; 2] These are also two of the most important factors for protecting against cardiovascular risk.
Research has disproven the myth that consuming too much protein is harmful to kidney function. This is with the understanding that you have normal functioning, healthy kidneys. If you have a history of chronic kidney disease and/or damaged kidney function, consult with your health care team regarding your protein intake.
If you have two normal functioning, healthy kidneys, you are not at risk of impairing or harming your kidneys from consuming a high protein diet. In fact, by consuming high protein, you are improving insulin sensitivity and regulating glucose levels, which supports healthy kidney function.
Isn’t this a fun topic?
This is one of the most common questions asked when discussing the topic of consuming only meat. Decades long conventional wisdom advises eating lots of fiber is essential to health as it keeps us full and promotes better bowel movements.
When on the Carnivore Diet, one may experience less bowel movements per day, but proponents of the diet say this is due to the fact that meat is more easily digested and better utilized by the body so there is less waste. They continue with the premise that plants are more challenging to digest and not readily absorbed by the body, meaning more goes to waste and has to be excreted. This leads to more stools.
Hardcore Carnivore Diet followers eat only meat and animal-based products. That means no supplementation. These often contain various plants and herbs, as well as other carbohydrates, which run counter to the dogma of the Carnivore Diet.
That being said, some carnivore dieters do take electrolyte supplements, as well as Vitamin C and E, potent antioxidants which are not found in abundance in meat products. Certain proponents also treat Spices and other minimal-calorie plant foods as medicinal supplements rather than a deviation from all-meat-all-the-time. Data on all the nearly-carnivorous cultures shows them also using bitter herbs and barks and the like as supplements to their diets. These are compounds that provide health benefits which far outweigh their plant origin.
The success of any diet, no matter if it’s high carb, moderate carb, or low carb, hinges on whether or not it is sustainable for you. This means could you continue to eat like this day in, day out for the rest of your natural life.
Sustaining the Carnivore Diet for the rest of your life is certainly doable, but it is likely not going to be easy or enjoyable at times and you may find it socially limiting. Whilst Paleo in premise (whole, unprocessed foods), the Carnivore Diet means no more summer fruits and salads, drinks and snacks with friends, or indulgent Paleo holiday treats. Avoiding carbohydrate-containing, plant-inclusive, Paleo friendly foods all day, every day is a challenge!
While there may be some reasoning behind avoiding plant foods due to their antinutrient content, there is an overwhelming body of evidence documenting the beneficial effects of compounds found inside foods such as berries, avocados, mushrooms, seaweed, cacao, and olives.
There is also some research showing that there may actually be good cause for having some greens alongside your cooked meat. When you grill meat over a high temperature, heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed. Both of these compounds have been found to be mutagenic, and potentially increase the risk of cancer. Pairing green vegetables, red wine, and/or tea (all of which are high in antioxidants and polyphenols) combat these compounds and protect your cells from damage.
Plants also include a host of beneficial micronutrients including flavonoids, carotenoids, and other phytonutrients that serve as a strong line of defense against oxidative stress, inflammation, and the effects of aging.
Ultimately, the Carnivore Diet is an intriguing spin on the popular low carbohydrate and ketogenic trends. Although it falls within Paleo ideology, due to the lack of substantial research, elimination of beneficial food groups, and restrictive mentality it places on food, it can be challenging to embrace this as a sustainable lifestyle diet.