The Carnivore Diet: All You Need to Know

Authored by Brady Holmer • 
November 10, 2019
 • 16 min read
nutritionketosisbiohackingketo-diet

Sometimes, paradigms shift. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the realm of nutrition. It seems like every day, a new study is telling us that one food is good, only for another study to come around and conclude that it’s killing us.

This is exactly what happened with meat. Once thought to be a cause of cancer and other diseases when consumed in moderate to high amounts, meat is now generally regarded as safe (with some exceptions).

There are so many different “diets” out there—whether it be a vegan diet, paleo diet, keto diet, high-carb diet rich in whole grains, or fruitarian—it’s hard to know how any one person should eat.

While we hate to simplify, it seems like a diet containing moderate amounts of meat, plenty of vegetables, and other nutrient-rich compounds is the best thing for human health.

Or is it? A recently popularized diet is trying to change our thinking about nutrition.

Termed the “carnivore diet”—this way of eating involves consuming only meat (and a bit of dairy and eggs). While seen as absurd by some, advocates of the diet claim that this is a natural way for humans to eat. Some of their results are quite convincing.

Before we get into the details of the carnivore diet, it’s important to point out that this way of eating is fairly “new”—at least among a sizeable amount of individuals.

Some people have been practicing carnivore for decades, but it’s still fairly new in the wider spectrum of nutrition. Because of this, there is virtually zero evidence to support or refute this way of eating—we simply don’t have scientific data, only anecdotes.

This doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t have a scientifically-based discussion on this “diet.” You won’t likely get any of this advice from a nutritionist or dietitian With that being said, let’s dive in.

What is the Carnivore Diet?

The name is pretty self-explanatory. The carnivore diet is a pattern of eating that excludes all food groups except meat, eggs, and (for some carnivores) dairy—that means no fruit, no vegetables, and no grains. In some cases of strict carnivory, all herbs other than salt and pepper are taboo. While red meat is sometimes seen as the staple, carnivore dieters are technically allowed to consume meat from any animal, and many do.

While it’s not necessarily a new diet, its popularity is. Outspoken social media personalities including Joe Rogan, Jordan Peterson, Mikhaila Peterson, and Shawn Baker have all brought carnivory to the mainstream.

From a macronutrient perspective, the carnivore diet is high-fat, high-protein, and zero-carb diet—since meat contains virtually no carbohydrates.

An all-meat diet is also an “elimination diet” , removing all food groups other than meat—with the exception of some dairy products. For this reason, as we’ll discuss later, it might be particularly beneficial in some GI disorders or food intolerances.

Most people who opt to go carnivore advocate consuming a diet high in nutrient-dense animal products, like high-fat meats and organs: including steaks, ground beef, organ meats, and other animal parts. Far from being a restrictive diet, many claim that carnivore has opened up a whole new world of eating for them.

It’s a “nose to tail” way of eating.

Many carnivores also combine this way of eating with intermittent fasting—and claim it’s quite easy due to the satiating properties of fatty cuts of meat. Have a few ribeye steaks, and you’ll be full for hours, supposedly.

Why Go Carnivore?

Eating a carnivore diet seems to totally go against all that we’ve learned about nutrition—aren’t veggies good for us? Why would anyone want to cut them out?

Most of the research has shown this to be the case; and vegetables CAN have a role in a human diet. Most carnivores, however, claim that vegetables are just animal food: unnecessary for human health and, at best, just taking up room in the stomach that would be better served by a T-bone.

And, while seeming to contradict decades of nutrition research, many people who have adopted a carnivorous lifestyle note immense health improvements despite consuming no vegetables. These claims range from weight loss and mental clarity to a resolution of a lifetime of digestive issues and autoimmune conditions.

What might be behind this? One theory is that eliminating all other foods besides meat means that any potentially allergy-causing compounds in plants and other foods are taken out of the diet completely. Unless you’re allergic to meat, there’s nothing to set off your immune system.

Another theory behind the carnivore diet: some of our ancestors had a diet based primarily on meat. Some cultures today (such as the Inuit) can thrive on all-meat diets that contain virtually zero plant matter.

This theory holds some water. While research supports that humans did consume plants, eating meat might be what made us “human,” responsible for increasing brain size and possibly giving us the thinking and reasoning powers we now take for granted.1 Animal foods that are high in essential fats may have played a large role in our developing brains—perhaps being the reason we were able to “elevate” above other less-advanced species.2

One final reason for adopting a carnivore diet is the sheer simplicity of eating this way.

Not to say that meal planning is hard, per se, but what could be easier than stocking up your fridge with ribeyes and eggs, eating until full, and then doing it all over again? The grocery list of a carnivore is quite simple, and this can definitely be one of the upsides.

What Studies Have Been Done on the Carnivore Diet?

The short answer: none.

Given its relatively recent ascendance into the mainstream, there haven’t yet been rigorous clinical trials on the carnivore diet.

However, if we look back a bit in history, we can find two interesting examples of the carnivore diet under the lens.

In the 1920s and 30s, an arctic explorer name Vilhjalmur Stefansson, upon returning from an expedition, reported that he had lived among the Inuit for seven years on an exclusively meat- and fat-based diet, with no apparent adverse effects.

Following this report, two men (one of them being Stefansson) voluntarily agreed to eat nothing but meat for one entire year while they continued their normal daily activities inside a New York hospital.

Following this year-long experiment, results indicated that the men were “mentally alert, physically active, and showed no specific physical changes in any symptom of the body.”3 In other words, eating like a carnivore was feasible.

The men maintained weight during the entire year-long experiment despite consuming 2,000 - 3,100 calories per day. Blood pressure declined or remained constant in both men, and perhaps more importantly, vitamin deficiencies were non-existent.3

While the incredibly limited sample size precludes definitive conclusions, this is the first profound example of a successful carnivore diet in a laboratory setting.

It should be noted that both of these men reported eating “nose to tail” meaning they were consuming parts of the animal we don’t typically see at a grocery store. By eating these parts of an animal (like organ meats, brain, etc), they were able to get a wider variety of nutrients.

Fast forward to modern day. A group called Paleo Medicina, located in Hungary, may be doing the closest thing to full-on carnivore diets to treat patients. This group is experimenting with paleolithic ketogenic diets in their clinic—using a meat-based approach (primarily grass-fed meats and organ meats) along with the addition of some paleo vegetables like dark leafy greens. They rarely advocate consuming dairy or fruit.

Paleo Medicina has published several case reports (meaning one patient was studied) which, truly, are quite impressive.

The group has published studies showing complete resolution of Crohn's disease4 (an inflammatory bowel disease), successful management of type I diabetes,5 complete cessation of a cervical premalignant cancer,6 halted progression of a cancer of the soft palate,7 and successful treatment of rectal cancer.8 We aren’t just talking about the common cold here.

These are some of the most robust clinical trials of disease progression and resolution on a nearly carnivore diet. Sooner or later, we might expect to see large-scale studies of similar diet regimens for different types of chronic disease including type 2 diabetes, obesity, and other metabolic and neurological conditions.. Until then, these results are promising, and if you look hard enough, you can find some pretty compelling anecdotal data; including blood work from carnivore dieters posted all across the web.

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Nutritional Qualities of Meat

One of the main caveats of a carnivore diet is that since you’re eliminating plant foods, you’re also eliminating several sources of valuable vitamins and minerals in the diet.

Carnivores argue, however, that this shouldn’t be a worry, as meat contains all of the nutrients you need. No need to fret about getting your daily RDAs—a big steak provides the complete nutrient spectrum. Professionals in this sphere, including Dr. Paul Saladino, are adamant that meat (and some organs here and there) are all you need to thrive.

They might not be far off. Take an 8oz grass-fed beef burger. This half-pound patty is loaded with calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, zinc, phosphorous, choline, selenium, niacin, and folate, among other micronutrients.

In addition to the vitamin profile, grass-fed beef contains about 200mg of omega-3 fatty acids per serving, along with 32g of fat, 45g of protein, and virtually zero carbohydrates.

You can find the entire nutrition profile of ground beef at this database to see for yourself.

Sometimes forgotten, carnosine and carnitine are both found at high levels in meat. These nutrients are invaluable—especially for carnivores or people on a ketogenic diet. Why’s that?

Carnitine is necessary for proper functioning of the carnitine palmitoyltransferase (CPT) enzyme, which transports long-chain fatty acids into the mitochondria where they are oxidized and used for energy. Since keto and carnivore diets rely heavily on fat oxidation for energy, a properly functioning CPT system is a must.9

Grass-fed beef isn’t the only exception; there are plenty of other animal-based sources that provide similar or even more nutrition than beef. For instance; collagen, bone broth, liver, and other organ meats are high in vitamins like B12, iron, zinc, selenium, and vitamins A, D, E, and K.10

The only nutrients found in smaller quantities in meat are vitamin C and fiber. We will discuss these later on.

What to Eat on a Carnivore Diet

We’ve briefly talked about many of the food items included on a carnivore diet, but here’s a more extensive list.

Basically, if it comes from an animal, carnivores can eat it. The bulk of calories on a carnivore diet will come from fattier cuts of meat—beef, lamb, pork, and chicken (but not just the breast).

In terms of dairy, if it’s something you’re o.k. eating, sources can include cream, butter, and cheese. Some people choose to go carnivore due to food tolerance issues, and lactose intolerance may be one of those. In this case, dairy is off the menu.

Animal fats are also frequently consumed on a carnivore diet, and very useful for cooking. These include things like lard, tallow, and ghee—all great options if you’ve ditched plant-based cooking oils.

Organ meats are also green-lighted. Liver, tongue, heart, offal...these are consumed by more adventurous carnivores (brain, anyone?).

And finally, seafood is also allowed. Favorites include salmon, sardines, anchovies, oysters, shrimp, and crab.

You can mix it up with a variety of meats, or, as made popular by Dr. Shawn Baker (responsible for popularizing carnivore), “just eat a damn steak.”

What Not to Eat on a Carnivore Diet

You could probably infer this part, since we’ve already told you what you can and should eat. But just in case you needed a reminder, here are things that carnivores say no to.

Any plant-based foods. This means no green vegetables, no fruit (including avocados), no vegetable oils (including olive, coconut, and avocado), no potatoes, no grains or starches, and no sugar.

If it comes from a plant, it’s a no-go for carnivores.

As mentioned earlier, some carnivores won’t even consume spices, with the exception of salt and pepper. However, this might be an issue for more strict carnivores or those with certain food intolerances.

Carnivores also don’t take supplements—they claim they don’t need to. That’s one of the reasons they’ve gone carnivore: it eliminates the need to supplement nutrients since meat contains everything a person needs. The carnivore diet provides A to Z nutrition if you’re eating nutrient-dense animal products or “nose to tail.” Steak is the best multivitamin.

Carnivore vs. Keto

People who go full carnivore may have experimented with a ketogenic diet beforehand; some may have jumped right in. While these two dietary regimens have some things in common, they’re also drastically different.

The ketogenic diet is a high-fat low-carb diet (with moderate amounts of protein consumed). It’s designed to get your body into ketosis—a state where you’re burning fat for fuel and producing ketones, which can be used by organs in our body for energy. Keto and carnivore can both be great for regulating and reducing blood sugar.

The carnivore diet is also a high-fat, low-carb diet and, in most cases, is a ketogenic diet. The big difference between carnivore and keto is the macronutrients—carnivore is much higher in protein since meat is the only thing consumed. Keto encourages you to consume more fat, taking the place of some of the protein you’d be eating on carnivore.

Basically, carnivore is keto, but keto is NOT carnivore.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that on a ketogenic diet, you’re encouraged to consume a wide variety of vegetables including leafy greens, olive/coconut/avocado oil, dairy products, and other plants like nuts and seeds—which are all high-quality sources of fat and other nutrients.

So, other than consuming some veggies, oils, and nuts, the ketogenic and carnivore diets are sort of similar...carnivores just eat a lot more meat and pass on the greens.

Benefits of a Carnivore Diet

Again, since no studies have been done on carnivore, it’s impossible to state the benefits in a clinical sense.

However, we can look at data on similar diets to examine where the potential for the carnivore diet exists to treat a wide variety of conditions.

Simplicity

This is one of the non-physical benefits of carnivore, but is no less important.

On the carnivore diet, the shopping list stays simple: meat, fish, eggs, and maybe some animal odds and ends.

For most carnivores, counting calories and macros is a thing of the past. This is very freeing for some individuals who have felt trapped by calorie quotas their entire life. On carnivore, the premise is simple: eat until you’re satisfied, wait until you’re hungry, then eat again.

Rather than seem restrictive and time-consuming, carnivore frees up your mind and allows you to consume food that you love and enjoy.

Weight Loss

Many people who adopt a carnivore diet experience weight loss (if that’s their goal). There may be a few reasons for this.

For one, carnivore is a high-protein diet, and protein is known to be the most satiating (i.e. “filling”) nutrient. When paired with fat, it’s a combo for true meal satisfaction.

Satiation is the key to caloric control—if you feel full and satisfied after eating, you’re a lot less likely to eat more than you need by snacking throughout the day.

High protein diets have been shown to increase satiety hormones and reduce hunger hormones (like ghrelin).11,12

The thermic effect of food is also enhanced on low-carb and high-protein/high-fat diets. The thermic effect of food (also known as diet-induced thermogenesis or DIT) is defined as the increase in energy expenditure above resting levels that occurs due to the metabolic response to food.

In simple terms, how many calories you “burn” after consuming a food, due to the process of digesting said food.

For protein, the thermic effect is about 15% - 30%, meaning that for a short while after a high-protein meal, your metabolic rate can increase by 15% - 30%.13,14

Studies have proved that high protein diets increase DIT—both by increasing body temperature due to digestion and through the increased energy requirement of gluconeogenesis (GNG). This is a calorie-requiring process that manufactures glucose from non-carbohydrate sources (protein and fat).11

When you start using more calories to metabolize food, this will result in a gradual loss of body weight, all else being equal.

And while body weight comes off, muscle may stay on. High protein diets are great for maintaining and even building lean muscle mass during weight loss,11 meaning you can lose your gut, and keep those triceps.

Better Digestion and Reduced Inflammation

Bowel disorders and leaky gut—these are all things that everyday people suffer from for a variety of reasons. Well, the carnivore diet seeks to combat many digestive issues, claiming that the cause might just be something found in plant foods.

Many carnivore devotees choose to cut out all plants for one big reason.

Plants contain lectins—compounds sometimes referred to as “antinutrients” that are said to be toxic at certain quantities (this is hard to achieve, however, so if you like salads, keep on eating them!)They might even interfere with nutrient absorption.15 Some individuals tolerate lectins just fine, but in higher quantities or in people who have less tolerant immune or GI systems, lectins may spell disaster.

Lectins bind to cells in the digestive tract where they trigger a cascade of reactions in the body: damaging gut cells and the lining of the GI tract, interfering with nutrient absorption, modifying gut bacteria, and leading to poor digestion.15

Lectins and other plant sugars/compounds may also be a source of inflammation for some individuals. Carnivore might help clear some of this up. It is well known that low-carbohydrate and ketogenic diets reduce inflammation in the body, which might benefit people with autoimmune conditions, obesity, or GI disorders.16,17

Carnivores think lectins and other inflammatory foods should be avoided at all costs. This means no plants.

Carnivore Diet Controversies

We’ve discussed the many (potential) benefits of a carnivore diet, but some people still aren’t sold. The lack of long-term studies and clinical data is a source of worry for some.

In fact, there are a few theories about the carnivore diet that people use to warn others about the risks of going meat-only. These theories claim that carnivore doesn’t really provide all you need—and might lead to health problems or nutrient deficiencies in the long term.

What About Fiber?

We’ve been told that fiber is absolutely necessary for proper digestive function. And, while fiber performs numerous valuable functions for the gut (like producing beneficial short-chain fatty acids and aiding gut health) it might not be absolutely necessary in terms of regulating bowel movements.18 At least that’s what carnivores claim.

First of all, let’s talk about the “pros” of fiber. Increased fiber intake has been associated with lower rates of coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and certain GI disorders.19 This suggests that it undoubtedly provides some human health benefits.

However, in terms of digestion regulation, the literature might not be all in favor of the absolute necessity of dietary fiber.

In many studies, when individuals suffering from certain GI conditions are put on a low-fiber diet, symptoms of constipation, bloating, flatulence, and diarrhea actually improve.20,21,22

Even more interesting, when individuals with GI issues were given fiber supplements to increase their fiber intake, symptoms of gas, constipation, bloating, and diarrhea actually got worse! This stands in stark contrast to what many people recommend or think is true.22

But we need to keep in mind that these were people who were prone to digestive issues, meaning that the lack of fiber in the diet may not be as beneficial for individuals without these issues.

Many carnivores report that they have no problem “going” on the diet—especially once the digestive system gets used to the change in dietary composition.

If you think about it, the idea that meat somehow “causes” constipation doesn’t make intuitive sense, especially in an evolutionary context.

Will I Get Scurvy?

What's scurvy? This is the name given to vitamin C deficiency—a condition that can result in fatigue, swelling in the body, and most prominently issues in the gums, teeth, and skin.

These problems ensue because vitamin C is essential for collagen production. The origins of scurvy date back centuries to sailors who, on long voyages across the ocean, had little access to fresh fruits and vegetables, but a steady supply of dried meat (jerky). Dried meat, interestingly, contains no vitamin C, and thus sailors suffered from a deficiency in this crucial nutrient.

This fact is often used against carnivores, with plant-eaters claiming that they’ll develop scurvy as a side-effect from a lack of vitamin C. Well, meat (especially grass-fed beef) actually does contain a small amount of vitamin C.23 Therefore, a carnivore diet isn’t completely devoid of vitamin C, though it may be a minor concern. Some carnivores claim that the vitamin C requirement of carnivores is actually reduced (from the absence of carbohydrates) but there are no human studies to back up this claim.

In contrast to some people's fear, studies on high-protein, low-carb (carnivore-ish) diets actually have shown that plasma vitamin C content increases over a four-week period.24

Furthermore, people on low-carb diets might actually have higher levels of plasma vitamin C compared to those who aren’t on a low-carb diet

The study above did show a slight decrease in plasma retinol, Vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol) and B-cryptoxanthin.24 Although the levels were still well above deficiency values, it is worth questioning if these concentrations would continue to decrease over time potentially posing as a health threat.

This suggests that after adopting a new diet, requirements for some micronutrients might actually change.

Perhaps eating carbohydrates increases the requirement for some nutrients. This is one theory of the carnivore diet—whose advocates seem not to be suffering from any scurvy-like symptoms.

In short, the carnivore diet may be beneficial, but more studies are needed in order to shed some light on the potential benefits of this diet. A possible reason this diet may be good for some, especially those with GI issues, is that it does eliminate overly-processed and sugary foods and encourages the consumption of nutritious, whole foods.

Sample Carnivore Diet Meal Plan

You’ll likely experience much greater levels of satiety on carnivore due to the increased intake of fat and protein.

Many people on this diet say they routinely only eat one or two meals per day, with no desire to consume more. Nevertheless, below you can find an example of a three-meal carnivore diet (plus a snack) to get you started on your journey. Modify as you wish.

Breakfast: 3 eggs, 4 slices of bacon, and some black coffee

Lunch: 10oz - 16oz grass-fed beef patty or salmon

Snack: Zero added ingredient beef jerky, pork rinds, or some deli meat and cheese

Dinner: 8oz - 16oz cut of fatty meat like a T-bone steak or a ribeye topped with grass-fed butter

Should You Go Meat Based?

There are many reasons to adopt one diet or another. Perhaps the most important reason is health: is what you’re eating giving you the most nutritious, satisfying, and health-promoting effects possible?

There is no perfect food, but there are foods that are “perfect” for each individual taste.

Second of all is lifestyle. How will your chosen dietary pattern fit into work, family, and social life? While some individuals claim that carnivore is a restrictive diet — many claim the opposite.

Some people can easily make do with any dietary pattern, while others may struggle to integrate their diet seamlessly into daily life. It might take some time to adjust, but we believe you can make anything work.

And last (but not least) is enjoyment.

While this might not be more important than health, it’s still an important part of any diet because it will determine compliance. You won’t stick to a diet you don’t enjoy, and taking the enjoyment out of eating is NOT the goal of any diet.

With that being said, how could the carnivore diet work for you?

We suggest, if you’re interested, trying out carnivore for a few weeks. Start with steak and eggs, experiment with some new cuts of meat, and see how your mind and body respond. The carnivore diet isn’t for everyone, but you might just find that a meat-based diet suits your style.

Learn More about the Carnivore Diet

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7.Csaba Tóth, Zsófia Clemens. Halted Progression of Soft Palate Cancer in a Patient Treated with the Paleolithic Ketogenic Diet Alone: A 20-months Follow-up. American Journal of Medical Case Reports. Vol. 4, No. 8, 2016, pp 288-292.
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