Subsisting on meat, salt and water sounds absolutely nuts, right? No kale, no quinoa, no blueberries? A cholesterol fest, that would produce instant heart disease, right? Not to mention a sure, quick path to scurvy and other nutritional deficiencies. Not to mention the suffering of giving up ice cream, garlic, bread, pasta and everything that is not animal-based. What deprivation!
My first reaction as a part-time healthy eating educator was close to horror. But the carnivore diet is a thing, and growing in popularity. It has been around a long time — hundreds of thousands of years per YouTube star Ken Berry, MD.
It’s now enjoying trend status, with multiple YouTube videos by people swearing that eschewing all but meat saved their lives and cured dozens of diseases and other health problems, including overweight. Although most of the evidence is anecdotal, the sheer number of people swearing to its benefits invites a closer look at this strange diet.
In 1928 anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson and a colleague decided to live on meat and water for a year. Stefansson had studied the Inuit people, who ate a diet that was 90 percent fatty meat and fish, with very few vegetables. He found that they were very healthy despite their diet, with no obesity or scurvy.
Steffanson ate as they did during the time he spent with them, and then when he returned home decided to publicize his findings by checking into a hospital to do a meat-only diet. He left the hospital after three weeks but continued the diet at home, eating only meat, including bones, organs, brains and fat. Though a brief experiment with lean meat caused adverse reactions, he was fine once he returned to higher-fat meats.
At the end of the experiment he was tested and found to have no scurvy nor vitamin deficiencies. He had suffered no negative effects at all.
More recently, a young woman named Mikhaila Peterson suffered from debilitating arthritis and joint replacement surgeries, as well as depression. She sought to determine whether her diet had any influence on her illnesses. She started to eliminate foods one by one. When she was down to eating only meat, the symptoms of her afflictions diminished. Her father, controversial Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, author of the best-selling 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, was impressed by her success and adopted the meat-only diet himself, losing 50 pounds and finding his own health issues cured.
Orthopedic surgeon and athlete Shawn Baker MD is another high-profile proponent of the carnivore diet. The 50-something buff guy lives mostly on ribeye steaks.
Although Dr. Baker limits himself severely, other carnivore diet proponents expand their meals a bit, with burgers and other fatty red meats from lamb to bacon and sausage. Some include poultry, fatty fish like sardines and salmon, and other animal products like eggs, cheese and butter. Some add bone broth, tallow and lard. Some stress quality, grass-fed, organic, pasture-raised or wild-caught meats. Most eschew seasonings, sauces or spices except for salt and perhaps pepper.
Proponents of the diet and a couple of studies claim that high-fat meat-eaters have less inflammation and better cholesterol numbers than the rest of us, and that their lack of fiber does not adversely affect intestinal workings but makes them more efficient. They claim that plant-based foods contain compounds such as lignans, lectins, gluten, phytic acid and self-protective substances that don’t agree with many people, although the pro-plant camp claims that cooking and digestion eliminates these effects.
People practicing the carnivore diet report improved mental clarity and focus. They also claim that without the carbs you don’t need much vitamin C, and that there have been no reported cases of scurvy. They say that eating carnivore leads to weight loss, more energy, better moods, higher testosterone and the end of disease states in the body.
The carnivore way is the latest in a collection of recent trendy diets. There was (and still is) the macrobiotic diet that promotes whole foods and is based on whole grains, fruits and vegetables but may skip certain nutrients.
Atkins began in 1972 and became wildly popular. Not long ago the high protein and fat-based diet was so popular that one supermarket I shopped at had an Atkins aisle. The diet had phases that became gradually less restrictive, with very low carbs that increase as you go from 20 to 100 grams a day.
The South Beach Diet followed, based on lean protein, low fat and “good carbs” like vegetables, fruit and whole grains.
More recently, practitioners of the raw vegan diet claim that breaking down the enzymes in food by cooking it destroys nutritional value. Detractors say it’s too tough to stick to and that cooking actually makes the food more digestible and better assimilated by the body.
A hot new-ish diet is paleo, which is based on what humans ate in the Paleolithic era, with no sugars, grains, dairy or processed food. It focuses on healthy wholesome foods like wild fish, lean grass-fed meats, fruit and vegetables, combined with exercise.
The ketogenic diet was developed in the 1920s to treat children with epilepsy but has become very hot as of late. Also known as LCHF or low carb/high fat, it is based on counting “macros,” or calories, carbs (5 percent of your calories), protein (20 percent) and fat (75 percent), according to your age, gender, weight, and whether you want to lose, maintain or gain weight. Eating at these ratios causes your body to enter a state of ketosis, which is when ketone bodies in your liver cause you to burn fat for fuel instead of carbs. Recent studies have maintained that low-carb has better results in reducing diabetes and heart disease than low-fat.
Keto is probably the newest on the scene of these diets. The carnivore diet is considered by some to be an outgrowth of keto, although clearly much more severe. The diet has many detractors beyond those of us that feel it’s just plain weird. It’s so restrictive that it has to be very tough to stick to, especially when you have any kind of social life that involves sharing food with friends. As much as you may love steaks and bacon, they too can get boring after a while. Variety is the spice of life, after all.
If everyone went carnivore, we’d run out of animals pretty quickly. Meats are rich in iron and iron can be toxic if you consume too much. Long-term studies on the effects of the diet are non-existent. The benefits that we get from plant-based foods extend to eye and taste appeal, antioxidants, vitamins and fiber.
“The carnivore diet is not a diet I would recommend,” says Vicki Koenig, a New Paltz-based registered dietitian nutritionist and certified health coach with OptaVia. “It’s not something, I believe, one could sustain long-term. It reminds me of a fad; something trendy to follow. The best ‘diet’ is a food plan that supports health and has variety to choose from. Life is colorful!
“For me to recommend a carnivore diet,” Koenig adds, “I need to see some research (there is currently none!) on the long-term benefits of only eating animal products. The research would have to be especially strong for me to recommend eliminating so many healthy other foods!”
Koenig recommends the cardiometabolic food plan for her clients that “emphasizes a variety of proteins, good fats, lots of vegetables, and is fairly low in grains and starchy vegetables. There is some fruit with emphasis on low glycemic choices. It supports the heart and helps balance blood sugar.”
I’m not a nutritionist, but my personal feeling is that the pescatarian diet is probably the best. In practice I do eat meat because I crave it sometimes, but I feel that eating as few processed foods and as little refined sugars as possible is the way to go, with a good variety of foods. Eating from just one food group just doesn’t make sense to me.
The folks on YouTube who have been practicing the carnivore diet for a while don’t look quite right to me. Their skin seems to have an odd texture. They look sallow and unwell. While I don’t believe in telling people what to do or eat, we are all different in our nutritional needs. Even Dr. Ken Berry, who practices the carnivore diet, says it’s probably best for those of Nordic heritage and/or high Neanderthal DNA. He does not recommend it to his patients.
So, take that steak-only diet with a grain of salt. And maybe pepper.