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."
What Is The Carnivore Diet?
This fad diet has become popular because it’s a low-carb, high protein, all-meat diet. It 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 makes this extremely restrictive diet so appealing? Good question. From cult followings like these Reddit forums to podcast host, MMA commentator and comedian, Joe Rogan, this diet has piqued the interest of many influential wellness leaders in the industry. But, where did the carnivore diet come from and is it really worth the hype?
Many defenders of this diet cite the people of the Canadian Arctic are known as the Inuit. They used to be called Eskimos, which came from a Native American word for 'eater of raw meat'. Due to their extreme climate, the Inuit survived on the carnivore diet, however there are many differences between the climate, meat profile, and diet of this ancient tribe compared to modern times. For instance, the Inuit consumed meat that was wild, fresh, at times raw, high in fat, and also ate the organs. Most meat consumed today is highly processed, grain-fed, very high in saturated fats, and loaded with omega 6s (aka pro-inflammatory).
That all being said, there are many out there who have reported having real success with the carnivore diet. However, the hype is well ahead of the science and research needed to prove it. 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
The Carnivore Diet includes only animal products and excludes all other foods.
- Meat: beef, chicken, turkey, organ meats, lamb, pork, etc.
- Fish: salmon, mackerel, sardines, crab, lobster, tilapia, herring, etc.
- Other animal products: eggs, lard, bone marrow, bone broth, etc.
- Low-lactose dairy (in small amounts): heavy cream, hard cheese, butter, etc.
Restricted foods from the Carnivore Diet include:
- Vegetables: broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, green beans, peppers, etc.
- Fruits: apples, berries, bananas, kiwi, oranges, etc.
- High-lactose dairy: milk, yogurt, soft cheese, etc.
- Legumes: beans, lentils, etc.
- Nuts and seeds: almonds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, pistachios, etc.
- Grains: rice, wheat, bread, quinoa, pasta, etc.
- Alcohol: beer, wine, liquor, etc.
- Sugars: table sugar, maple syrup, brown sugar, etc.
- Beverages other than water: soda, coffee, tea, fruit juice, etc.
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.
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.
Carnivore Diet vs. Keto: What's the Difference?
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.
The ketogenic diet encourages large amounts of veggies, as long as total carbohydrates are kept under 50g. On keto, protein is kept under 40% of total calories to prevent knocking you out of ketosis. Ketosis is a natural metabolic state when ketones are elevated and the body uses fat as its preferred energy source. The carnivore diet encourages high protein and high fat intake as long as you’re getting these calories from animal sources.
While both diets recommend eating fats and protein, carnivore dieters stay away from all plant sources, meaning virtually zero-carb.
Health Benefits of the Carnivore Diet: Are They True?
The Carnivore Diet claims many health 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.
Is the Carnivore Diet Safe?
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 because most store-bought meat is largely saturated fat, since that's the kind that develops on animals who get little exercise and eat mostly corn.
While meat does provide beneficial micronutrients, a meat-only diet also has several fundamental gaps that can lead to health problems such as:
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
Should You Try the Carnivore Diet?
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.