What exactly is the carnivore diet?
It’s pretty straightforward: eat only animal foods and steer clear of all plant foods. As a result, your energy comes almost exclusively from protein and fat. Unlike alternatives such as the Atkins and ketogenic diets, the carnivore diet takes things one step further: going from ‘low carb’ to ‘no carb’. “The carnivore diet is the ultimate ketogenic diet,” explains nutritionist Shelley Harvey, who freelances for HRS Communications. “All foods other than those from animal sources are avoided, including starchy carbohydrates (bread, pasta, rice, potatoes), fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and most dairy. Instead, meat, poultry, fish, eggs and animal fats, such as butter and tallow, are the main constituents. Salt, pepper and other no-carb seasoning, such as herbs, are also permitted.”
Why has it become so popular recently?
The roots of the carnivore diet can be traced back to an American doctor called Shawn Baker. A former orthopaedic surgeon, Baker underwent a low-carb, high-fat diet experiment that delivered incredible results: he reversed severe autoimmune disease and continues to break world records in rowing events at the age of 52. Since then, the diet has exploded in popularity. Paul Saladino has become something of a health sensation on Instagram, preaching the benefits of a meat-only diet. Both Baker and Saladino claim the carnivore diet is the way we have evolved to eat. On his website, Saladino says, “There’s a pretty strong argument to be made that it was the hunting of animals that allowed our brains to grow in size and complexity in the years that followed. Analyses of 80,000-year-old collagen samples from neanderthals and homo sapiens show that these humans were carnivores. Our recent ancestors were eating animals, lots of animals. I strongly believe a carnivorous diet is the ancestral human diet, and eating this way is the best thing we can do for health and longevity.”
So what are the benefits?
As Harvey explains, the carnivore diet claims to aid weight loss, improve sleep and blood sugar regulation and reduce inflammation, which can support conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. “Eating a very low level of carbohydrates, like you would on the carnivore diet, will reduce the amount of glucose in the body, which may help with blood sugar regulation, simply because there is less glucose coming into the body. Carbohydrates also hold water in the body, so it’s likely you will see a drop in body weight after a few days of following the diet, though it’s important to note this is simply water weight, not fat. Plus, as with many restrictive diets, it’s likely you’ll be in calorie deficit, which can aid with weight loss.” While research is lacking when it comes to the carnivore diet, studies show it’s not uncommon to lose 5kg (11lb) in the first week of the nutritionally similar ketogenic diet.
Aren’t carbs the body’s preferred source of energy?
Yes and no, says Harvey. “Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel source. Some organs rely solely on glucose (the component that carbs are broken down into) to function, such as the brain and red blood cells. However, the body can produce the required amount of glucose from other parts of the diet and other cells can utilise energy produced from fat breakdown (ketones). Therefore, it is safe to cut carbs from the diet.” In short, when you eat only meat and other animal products, you force your body to burn fat instead of glucose. When your body switches its fuel supply to run on fat, insulin levels drop significantly, triggering the fat-burning process. Some studies suggest burning fat is a cleaner way to stay energised than running on carbs – by forcing the brain to burn fat instead of glucose, you avoid blood-sugar swings, resulting in supercharged concentration.
Is eating a meat-only diet safe?
The jury’s out. As with any diet that cuts out major food groups, controversy surrounding the carnivore diet is widespread. “There is no research to support many of the claims associated with the carnivore diet, and the only ‘evidence’ available that it works comes from personal anecdotes,” says nutritionist Lily Soutter. “The diet is extremely restrictive and can put individuals at risk of nutritional deficiencies. This diet lacks key micronutrients including manganese, folate, vitamin K1. Plus, the diet is extremely low in fibre, which has been linked to an increased risk of colon cancer, unhealthy cholesterol levels and diverticulosis. Furthermore, as fibre is the gut’s primary source of fuel, this low-fibre diet can impact its composition.” The potential risks don’t end there: a 2018 study found a link between eating lots of red and processed meats with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and insulin resistance – a red flag for those with diabetes considering the carnivore diet.
If you want to give it a go, how would you do it safely?
“My first tip would be to ease yourself in slowly, especially if you’re used to eating a large amount of carbohydrates,” advises Shelley. “This will reduce some of the side effects you may experience when cutting carbs, such as headaches, nausea and fatigue. Ensure you are drinking plenty of water as the lack of fibre may leave you feeling constipated. Water will help keep your digestive system moving – a fibre supplement may also be a useful addition.” Shelley also recommends taking certain supplements, such as electrolytes like magnesium, sodium, potassium and calcium, which are often depleted at the onset of a low-carb diet due to water loss. “Experiment with different cuts of meats, cooking methods and low-carb seasonings to add variety to the taste and texture of your meals. Also remember different meats have varying nutritional profiles (for example, chicken is lower in fat than beef, but beef is higher in iron), so eating a variety is the best way to ensure you get all the nutrients you need.” Shelley also says quality matters, especially if meat is your main food source. “Always choose the best quality meat you can afford, ideally organic and grass-fed, as these are more nutrient dense and contain less pesticides, which may be toxic in high amounts.”
The bottom line?
While there is a growing number of anecdotes, a wide range of expert opinions and some interesting evolutionary theories around the carnivore diet, there’s still not enough research for it to stand up scientifically. That said, studies have suggested the nutritionally similar ketogenic diet may be beneficial for improved blood sugar, mental clarity, increased energy, easier weight loss and higher testosterone levels. If you are tempted to give the carnivore diet a go, the experts say meeting it halfway could be a more realistic option. This could consist of carb cycling (a carb-specific form of intermittent fasting that involves eliminating carbs from the diet for short periods of time before adding them back in) which some claim will allow your body to reap the benefits of carb restriction without the health risks that may come with engaging in the behaviour in the long run. But whether you’re tempted to go all the way or willing to take a more measured approach by consuming carbs now and again, there’s no denying the carnivore diet is as extreme as they come.
For more information on the carnivore diet, visit CarnivoreMD.com and MeatHeals.com. Biohacker Dave Asprey’s personal account of his experience on the diet is also worth a read. For more from Shelley Harvey, check out Youtrition.com.
*Features published by SLMan are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. Always seek the advice of your GP or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health-related programmes.
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