The Carnivore Diet: Pros, Cons, And Possible Risks
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The Carnivore Diet: Pros, Cons, And Possible Risks

The carnivore diet is an increasingly popular trend in the low-carb community. Carnivore encourages you to eat only meat, avoiding all other foods including fruit and veggies.

Carnivore has been understandably controversial. Eating nothing but meat is a bold suggestion.

At the same time, more and more people report increased energy, higher testosterone, easier weight loss, decreased bloating, improved mental clarity, and other benefits after switching to carnivore.

Is it worth at least considering whether a zero-carb, all-meat diet can improve your health? 

Possibly. In this article, you’ll learn the basics of the carnivore diet, the science behind it, its potential benefits, and how carnivore differs from the ketogenic diet.

What Is the Carnivore Diet?

The carnivore diet is an all-meat diet where you eat only meat, eggs, and, in some cases, dairy.

Dr. Shawn Baker, an orthopedic surgeon, is often credited with the popularity of the carnivore diet. Other advocates include comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan (who welcomed Dr. Baker on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast). 

Carnivore is a variation of a ketogenic diet, but they are not the same thing. While keto, Paleo, and other low-carb diets are centered around reducing carbs, carnivore’s aim is a zero-carb diet. 

Cutting out all carbs will put you into ketosis, and people on carnivore report many of the benefits that you get from a keto diet: mental clarity, faster weight loss, and a stronger digestive system, to name a few.

Carnivore is also an elimination diet: it removes all potential food sensitivity issues (unless you’re sensitive to meat), which may explain why some people feel better on carnivore.

Finally, advocates of the carnivore diet maintain the somewhat controversial claim that the ancestral human diet consisted primarily of meat and fish. Inuit people living near both poles reportedly follow a carnivorous way of eating for the majority of the year, yet have no adverse health effects.

All you have to do on the carnivore diet is eat animal foods and avoid foods that come from plants.

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What To Eat On A Carnivore Diet

What to eat on the carnivore diet

On the carnivore diet, all the foods you eat come from animal products.

  • Meat. Beef, lamb, pork, chicken — any kind of meat is fine on a carnivore diet. Since you aren’t consuming any carbohydrates, you should be getting the bulk of your calories from fattier cuts of meat to make sure you’re getting enough calories.
  • Dairy. Some carnivores eat cream, butter, and cheese, but many people avoid dairy products. Milk and half-and-half are not allowed on carnivore because they contain carbs.
  • Animal fat. Lard, tallow, ghee, schmaltz, and other animal fats become the standard for cooking on carnivore. The good news is that they all have very high smoke points, which makes them well-suited for searing steak or crisping up a roast chicken.
  • Fish. All types of fish are allowed on carnivore. Salmon, tuna, sardines, anchovies, oysters, and shrimp are all popular for their DHA omega-3 content.
  • Organ meats. This includes liver, heart, tongue, and bone marrow, which are excellent sources of nutrients that are hard to find in other types of meat[*].
  • Bone broth.
  • Salt.
  • Coffee and tea. Most carnivores are fine with coffee and tea, although some don’t drink either because of their caffeine content, and because they’re from plants. 

Foods to Avoid on Carnivore

What to avoid on the carnivore diet

The carnivore diet is pretty straightforward when it comes to what you won’t be eating.

  • All plant-based foods. From candy to vegetables, any plant-based food is 100% prohibited on a carnivore diet. Strict carnivores won’t even cook with olive oil, instead using lard, tallow, bacon fat, etc.
  • Supplements. The theory behind the carnivore diet is that if you switch to a zero-carb diet, your nutritional needs change, and that all the vitamins and minerals your body needs to thrive are contained in meat.

Sample Carnivore Diet Meal Plan

Here’s a quick example of a carnivore meal plan:

  • Breakfast: Scrambled eggs with bacon and black coffee (or coffee with heavy cream)
  • Lunch: Grass-fed burgers with bacon (and cheese, if you tolerate dairy) and water
  • Dinner: Porterhouse or ribeye steak

How Does the Carnivore Diet Work?

Scientists and researchers haven’t studied a carnivorous diet directly. However, there are studies on low-carb, ketogenic, zero-fiber, and other related diets that shed light on how carnivore might be good for you.

Disclaimer: Keep in mind that this research is not directly about carnivore, and nobody has researched what happens when you’re on carnivore for a long time. 

Until carnivore-specific studies come out, much of this is still a hypothesis, so take the statements in this section with a grain of salt.

Carnivore Puts You Into Ketosis

When you’re in ketosis, your body runs on ketones for fuel instead of carbs. Ketosis comes with a variety of health benefits, ranging from decreased inflammation to appetite suppression to increased mental clarity[*][*].

Theoretically, you would get similar benefits from the carnivore diet. It’s perfectly viable to run on fat without eating carbs. In fact, many people feel better when they cut out carbohydrates.

You can get the few carbs you need from gluconeogenesis — your body will convert protein to sugar to fuel processes that require carbohydrates.

Your Nutrient Needs May Change on Carnivore

When you eat zero carbs, your metabolism runs very differently than it does on a higher-carb diet, and your nutrient needs may shift as a result.

For example, glucose metabolism uses a lot of vitamin A, and cutting out carbs may decrease your vitamin A requirement[*]. Additionally, people on a low-carb diet show a higher antioxidant status, despite eating fewer antioxidants than people on a higher-carb diet. This suggests that carbohydrate metabolism may increase antioxidant demands as well[*].

This is fairly speculative, but more people report thriving on an all-meat diet in the long-term (for more than a year) without supplements. They also say their blood work shows no nutrient deficiencies.

A common concern with a carnivore diet is scurvy from lack of vitamin C. There’s a section on that below.

In theory — and, according to practicing carnivores — it’s possible to eat nothing but meat and maintain a healthy metabolism, with no nutrient deficiencies. Dietary carbohydrates are not technically necessary for your body to run.

Ketogenic Diet vs. Carnivore Diet

Both the ketogenic diet and the carnivore diet allow fat and protein while eliminating carbohydrates. But the carnivore diet takes it one step further and eliminates all plant foods.

On a ketogenic diet, you’re encouraged to eat lots of fresh, leafy low-carb vegetables, as well as plant-based fat sources like nuts, coconut oil, and avocados. Keto also requires you to calculate your macros and follow them carefully, making sure you get the right ratio of fat to protein to carbs.

Unlike the ketogenic diet, there are no macronutrient ratio preferences in the carnivore diet. You just eat meat. And because you’re not eating any carbs, you’ll likely reach ketosis on a carnivore diet.

Most people report that they do. The only sticking point would be gluconeogenesis from all the extra protein. But gluconeogenesis is unlikely to take you out of ketosis.

Can Carnivore Help You Lose Weight? Possible Benefits Of A Carnivore Diet

There are a few potential benefits to eating a carnivore diet. Once again, there is little research behind the carnivore diet, so some of the following benefits are simply reports from those who have experimented with it.

#1: It’s a Simple Way of Eating

Carnivore could not be simpler. You don’t have to calculate macros or count calories. Food shopping is easy, and you’ll never have to think about what to eat for dinner. You just stock up on meat and eat it until you’re full.

#2: It Might Improve Your Digestion

Cutting out plants may help improve health problems associated with digestive distress. Plants contain antinutrients called lectins, which are indigestible and can threaten the growth and health of humans (and animals) who consume them[*]. 

While fiber has been a staple in just about every diet and has been promoted as a way to improve your body’s digestive system. Carnivore dieters propose an opposite outlook: that cutting fiber out of your diet may actually improve any digestive distress. 

One study by the World Journal of Gastroenterology looked into the effects of decreasing fiber intake in people who were experiencing constipation, which is the opposite of what you’ve been told to do. People who cut out all fiber saw a return to regularity in their bowel movements. Those in the zero-fiber group also saw bloating and gas disappear completely — 0% reported digestive issues[*].

Cutting out fiber may also be helpful for people with Crohn’s Disease or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Fiber irritates your intestines — you can’t digest it, and it causes microscopic damage to your intestinal lining as it passes through[*]. If your gut is sensitive (from IBS or Crohn’s, for example), fiber can cause intense bloating and pain[*]. 

#3: It May Decrease Inflammation

Carnivore may help decrease inflammation. One study compared inflammation markers between a low-carb, high-fat group to a low-fat, high-carb group for 12 weeks. The results show that the low-carb, high-fat dieters had lower systemic inflammation by the end of the 3-month study[*].

It’s worth noting that this was a keto diet that still included carbs and fiber. It wasn’t a zero-carb, carnivore diet. The benefits may not transfer — although plenty of anecdotal reports say that carnivore helps people manage their inflammation.

#4: It Might Help You Lose Body Fat

Carnivore will put you into ketosis, which can suppress your appetite and helps you burn up to 300 more calories per day than a standard American diet[*][*][*]. It can feel easier to stay in a slight calorie deficit when you’re in ketosis, which leads to sustained weight loss for many people[*]. Carnivore also pairs well with intermittent fasting, which can further help you reduce your body weight. 

The elimination of all carbohydrates also eliminates foods that raise your blood sugar levels. This could be beneficial for people with type 2 diabetes, although people on a keto diet see the same benefits to managing diabetes without needing to cut out vegetables and low-sugar fruits[*]. 

#5: Carnivore Might Increase Testosterone Levels

High-fat, low-carb diets can increase your testosterone levels.

One study found that men who adopted a low-fiber, high-fat diet for two months had a 13% higher testosterone and 12-28% lower estrogen than participants following a low-fat diet[*].

Possible Downsides To A Carnivore Diet

Regardless of whether or not it works, carnivore is an extreme diet. 

Does Carnivore Work for Athletes?

There’s no research on carnivore for athletes, but plenty of people report doing well in the gym when they’re on carnivore. Dr. Shawn Baker, the person who began carnivore’s popularity, is a good example. He has repeatedly broken world records in rowing for his age group since switching to carnivore. 

That said, if you find you’re losing stamina in the gym after the first few weeks of carnivore, you may want to add in some carbs, or try a standard keto diet.

If that still doesn’t feel like enough and you want more carbs, you can try a targeted ketogenic diet or cyclical ketogenic diet

Does Carnivore Cause Nutrient Deficiencies?

There’s not much good research on whether or not an all-meat diet will cause nutrient deficiencies.

You won’t meet all your recommended daily intakes (RDIs) of vitamins and minerals on an all-meat diet. However, your nutrient needs may change when your metabolism stops processing carbohydrates entirely[*].

A growing number of people report no nutrient deficiencies in their blood work, even after months to years of eating only meat. Red meat contains many (but not all) vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients, particularly if the meat is from a grass-fed animal. Some people also report reductions in total cholesterol, blood lipids, and other surprising changes after switching to an all-meat diet — although, again, there are no empirical scientific studies on carnivore yet. 

Does Carnivore Cause Vitamin C Deficiency (Scurvy)?

You may have heard that carnivore can cause scurvy — a disease triggered by a lack of vitamin C. 

Scurvy can cause symptoms ranging from dry skin and hair to loose teeth.

Scurvy was common with pirates and sailors before the 18th century. They would go out to sea with nothing but jerky to eat, and the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables would deplete their vitamin C stores, eventually causing their teeth, skin, and nails to develop lesions.

Vitamin C is water-soluble, and dehydrating meat removes vitamin C content. However, fresh meat does contain a small amount of vitamin C, especially if the meat is grass-fed[*].

On top of that, people on a low-carb diet actually have higher vitamin C levels (and other antioxidant levels) than people on a higher-carb diet do, suggesting that you either become more efficient at using vitamin C or you require less of it when you aren’t eating carbs[*].

If you’re still worried, you can always take a vitamin C supplement. About 1000 mg of vitamin C a day is more than enough to keep scurvy at bay.

Will a Carnivore Diet Cause Heart Disease?

Carnivore involves eating a lot of saturated fat. Will such a high saturated fat intake cause heart disease?

Again, there are no long-term studies on carnivore. However, recent research has found that saturated fat intake is a poor predictor of heart disease, and that a high-fat diet can improve cardiovascular health more than a higher-carb diet does, provided the high-fat diet is also low-carb and contains unprocessed foods[*].

How Long Does it Take to Adapt to a Carnivore Diet?

If you’re going to try carnivore, stick with it for at least a month. You may experience low energy, fatigue, and brain fog as your body transitions from burning carbohydrates to burning fat as its main energy source.

You also may experience either constipation or diarrhea while your digestive system adjusts to the lack of fiber and increased fat intake. Stick it out for four weeks and see if these short-term side effects go away.

If these problems persist for a month, carnivore may not be for you.

Is a Carnivore Diet Right for You?

There is very little research to directly show the health benefits or drawbacks of a carnivore diet. Most of the rationale in favor of it is theoretical, and adopting any extreme diet over a long period of time comes with some inherent risk. 

That being said, those who follow the carnivore diet offer personal testimonies that seem to contradict everything in mainstream nutrition. They see significant improvements in their health despite eating only meat, apparently without any nutrient deficiencies or obvious health issues. 

The carnivore diet is an extremely controversial way of eating. Whether you want to try it is up to you. If you’re looking for a more moderate eating plan, keto is a great option. 

For more information on how to start a ketogenic diet, you can use this complete beginner’s guide to keto. It has everything you need to get started today.

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