In the 20 years that I’ve been helping people follow healthier eating plans, I’ve seen a lot of random diets come and go (and far too many overstay their welcome). As you’d expect, there have always been fringe weight-loss plans (tapeworms, anyone?), but some diets have just enough believability that it's hard to determine if it's the best...or worst idea.
Such is the case with "The Carnivore Diet." This fad diet consists of eating meat and eggs. And that's it.
No vegetables, fruit, or any starches or sugars. Dairy products are allowed, but most carnivore dieters don't eat them due to their lactose (which is a sugar). Plant foods are considered "harmful" because of their alleged "anti-nutrients" (more on this in a moment).
So, what are you to make of this way of eating? Let me walk you through the plan through the eyes of a dietitian.
The Carnivore Diet Meal Plan
To be clear, the Carnivore Diet isn’t the same as the keto diet. The keto diet consists of 80 percent fat and is relatively low in protein. The Carnivore Diet is a lot of meat.
A day's worth of food for a carnivore might be:
Meal 1: eggs and steak for breakfast
Meal 2: 2 steaks for lunch
Meal 3: 2 steaks for dinner.
In this world, avocados are not accepted (even though they're filled with "healthy fats) because they're a plant.
Held up against other ways of eating, the carnivore diet is lacking a lot of redeeming qualities.
On the positive side, you might lose weight. But, it's not because there's anything special about meat. This style of eating is high protein, which will help you stay fuller. Also, the plan is free of ultra-processed food, and the combination of protein and no processed food means you're eating less food overall. And eating fewer calories is the first rule of effective weight loss.
Does the Carnivore Diet Solve Health Problems?
The Carnivore Diet claims many benefits beyond weight loss. This includes fixing problems such as arthritis, gastrointestinal issues, and other conditions. If you have a condition that appears to have resolved after starting this diet, unfortunately, it's unlikely that the meat-only approach is the reason you've seen your symptoms improve.
For instance, you could feel better because the changes in your diet triggered gut bacteria to die, or your weight loss reduced negatives symptoms, or you eliminated food that was previously causing problems (you weren't aware of), or even the placebo effect.
Some also say that the diet cures depression, but that claim is, unfortunately, both irresponsible and dangerous, as it may cause people to go off their required medications.
While this diet may be lower in calories than your normal way of eating, it’s based on a lot of hypotheticals. The emotional effects of eating this diet can’t be ignored, either.
Carnivore Diet Risks
Limiting your diet to one or two foods and seeing food as fuel isn’t healthy. Food, as we know, is so much more. This type of dietary approach can result in disordered eating behavior and a distorted attitude towards foods that have never been proven to be harmful (like plants).
Beyond the psychological burden, one of the biggest myths about the Carnivore Diet is that you can receive all of your essential vitamins and minerals from the meat that's available at most grocery stores.
While meat does contain a lot of nutrition, a meat-only diet also has several fundamental gaps that can lead to health problems.
At a minimum, your diet would be can be low in vitamin C, unless you’re eating raw liver or eggs. Also, you wouldn't be eating any antioxidants (which are not present in meat), and you be missing out on fiber (which is an essential nutrient).
Fiber isn’t just for keeping you regular. It also feeds your good gut bacteria, which may affect everything from your mood to your immunity and weight. A Carnivore Diet could kill the bacteria in your gut (good and bad), which is perhaps why some people find relief from their gastrointestinal symptoms. Eventually, though, killing the good bacteria die will eventually become an issue.
Just as important, any diet based on "one-source" of food is high-risk. For example, while the vegan diet consists of only plants, when it’s done correctly, this style of eating has a combination of carbohydrates, protein, and fats from a variety of plant-based foods.
The fiber and antioxidants that are present in plants (and not meat) have repeatedly been proven by credible research to be associated with a reduced risk of disease and contribute positively to overall health. Meat-heavy diets have never shown any of those particular benefits.
Finally, Although saturated fat may not be as harmful to us as we previously thought, eating too much saturated fat can still increase your risk of heart disease if the saturated fat replaces mono or polyunsaturated fats in your diet.
While I don’t recommend cutting saturated fats from your diet, I advise people to choose a variety of all fats (except for trans fats), instead of concentrating on just one.
In the end, your diet is your choice. But, following a healthy diet doesn’t have to be a choice between an ultra-processed, carb-heavy diet or only meat. You can eat a balanced diet without going to either end of the spectrum, and you’ll likely be healthier for it.