The Carnivore Diet – Is it healthy?

The Carnivore Diet – Is it healthy?

The carnivore diet is one that’s risen to popularity in the fad diet sphere in the last couple of years. The aim of the diet is to eat only animal products, mostly meat and nothing else to the exclusion of all plant foods and carbohydrates. Pretty much the opposite of a vegan diet! I’ll discuss the potential pros and the many cons of a carnivore diet soon but it should be mentioned that for the most part, advocates of the diet are not eating a full spectrum of animal products. From what I’ve seen it’s mostly meat, beef in particular. This fact poses some issues in itself that we’ll get to.

The first point to remember is that there is no scientific evidence to support the carnivore diet as being good as is the case with most fad diets. All of the evidence is based on anecdote and while there does seem to be a lot of anecdotes to go around of people going carnivore and feeling great and resolving some health issues as a result you cannot then push a diet like that because “well it worked for me”. And I do have to empathise with people who have likely tried a lot of different treatments to help with chronic health conditions, like the daughter of the illustrious Jordan Peterson, with no relief until they come to carnivore and find it works for them. If you’ve tried everything and it’s the only thing that worked it doesn’t give you much option does it? However it’s still an issue to try and mass recommend a lifestyle approach that has no scientific backing whatsoever.

PRO’s

1) Meat and animal products are very nutritious

Unprocessed meat is one of the most nutritious foods you can eat in that it contains large amounts of important nutrients like zinc, iron, vitamin B12 and folate. It’s also a fantastic source of protein which in general diets tend to be too low in. The most nutrient dense foods we can get our hands on turn out to be organ meats, particularly animal livers. Eating more of these foods is one of the best ways to give your diet a nutrient boost. Within this I would include fish, seafood, poultry, eggs and dairy. Many of which seem to be excluded from a carnivore diet. And where red meat is concerned – unprocessed red meat seems to have very little if any negative impact on health whereas processed red meat like sausages and bacon do depending on how much of them you’re eating.

2)You likely won’t be very hungry once you adapt

If you’ve been eating a fairly normal diet high in carbohydrates then switching to a protein and fat only diet is likely to make you feel a bit rough. This can be offset by consuming electrolytes like potassium salt/ Lo-salt but for most people it’ll take some adapting to. Once you do adapt though and are likely to be in a state of ketosis i.e. using fat breakdown products as fuel, you likely will have a good handle on your appetite since ketones are very appetite suppressing. As such, many proponents of the carnivore diet also practice intermittent fasting and may eat only 1-2 times per day.

3)You’ll lose weight

If calories are controlled and you want to lose some body fat you’ll probably have a relatively easy time losing it on a carnivore diet because of the appetite suppression from the ketones and all the protein. When you’re restricted to such a small list of food options it’s less likely you’ll overeat and it could be relatively hard to get a lot of calories in on a meat only diet where you don’t get hungry.

CON’s

1)Plants overwhelmingly stand out in the scientific research as being healthy

Unlike meat, trying to find research or studies to suggest that plants are harmful to health is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Overwhelmingly plant foods are shown to be beneficial in terms of reducing the risk of chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancers and type 2 diabetes and reducing all-cause mortality i.e. any known cause of death.

2)Fibre/gut health

Many of the reasons plant foods and carbohydrates offer health benefits is down to the fibre content. This helps digestive health as well as feeding the gut microbiome. And although we don’t know all the ins and outs of microbiology and health the fact that we’re 90% made up of bacterial cells makes me think we best pay heed to this. Also, fibres from plants and plant foods in general seem to promote more healthy varieties of bacteria than a meat-based diet. Carnivores will argue among many things that their..ahem..’reduced digestive output’.. is just down to the better utilisation of the food they’re eating. When we consider though that a lot of faecal weight is made up of dead bacteria it just says to me that they have greatly reduced diversity of bacterial species in their gut. And while we don’t know the whole story for the gut and microbiome it does seem clearly enough that greater diversity is a positive sign.

3)Exclusion of foods

You’re stuck with just eating meat and maybe other animal products. Having so few options could make this a tough diet to stick to in the long-term. It makes eating out more difficult. Although to be fair if you’ve found what seems to be the holy grail for your health you’re probably going to stick with it. It’s just not for the faint hearted.

4)High saturated fat intake

Yes, saturated fat is no longer vilified like it once was, and with good reason. However it is still not necessarily a ‘health’ food as some people would have you believe by putting butter and coconut oil in their coffee…Not all saturated fats are created equal and some people can respond quite badly to them leading to elevated cholesterol levels. It’s not everyone but it’s worth thinking about. A balance of fats in the diet is what’s important and monounsaturated fats (many of these are found in meats) and polyunsaturated fats (omega 3’s in here), particularly plant sources outperform saturated fats when looking at health.

5)Plants help counter a lot of the negatives associated with red meat/cooking

Meats when they’re charred or burnt – think BBQ’d, can create some compounds called heterocyclic amines that are carcinogenic. Usually I don’t think this is something to really worry about if you are consuming plenty of plant foods and/or use antioxidants when cooking – many marinades and seasonings like herbs, spices, olive oils, citrus are protective against this but if you’re only eating meat and no plant foods and you cook on high heat like frying or BBQing or burn your meat you might be putting yourself at more risk there.

6)Awful for sports performance except maybe endurance sports

For the majority of sports carbs are your friends. They help you perform during exercise by supplying you with stored energy. We have stored energy as fat too but it can’t be accessed and utilised fast enough to support any sort of intense exercise which is a category most sports fall into except maybe endurance sports. In endurance sports you might get away with running on only fat but if I was your nutritionist I would be using carbs in there as well and get you running well on both carbs and fats. If you were to try a carnivore diet you could expect your training performance to tank.

7)You might not eat diversely enough

If you said to me that you were going to try a carnivore diet that was based around meats, fish, seafood, poultry and eggs and maybe some dairy well then you’re going to get a lot more nutrition from that than from just eating beef for example. By limiting your variety of foods you could easily run into nutrient deficiencies like vitamin C and magnesium. Sure you could supplement but this was one of my main criticisms of a vegan diet – the list of supplements needed to make it really healthy is a long one. By eating all of the animal products available to you as in those mentioned above as well as some organ meats like liver you’d be much better off. You could further improve on this by including nutrient-rich and protective herbs and spices and fats like olive oil.

Final thoughts

You might get the gist by now but overall I think it’s pretty ignorant to think that a diet that actively avoids plant foods (carnivores make many arguments as to why plants aren’t all they’re cracked up to be – I didn’t cover it here because these arguments don’t actually stand up to any scrutiny) is going to be health promoting. Quite the opposite. If you tried eating only meat and it virtually saved your life then I’m not going to argue with you – just don’t go around telling people that vegetables are bad for them, that’s nonsense. Meat and animal products are great. So are plant foods. Eat them both.

By Brian Ó hÁonghusa, BSc (Hons) Human Nutrition, ANutr, PN1, PN2