The carnivore diet has made a comeback from its alleged pre-historic times. Although eating an all-meat diet is becoming popularized, what do we know about the impact that it may have on human health short and long term? Today we explore the ins and out’s of the carnivore diet, who it may help, and how diet variation may be a better solution in the long run.
What is the Carnivore Diet?
The carnivore diet is essentially an all-animal product diet. The semantics of carnivore will vary slightly depending on who you ask: for some, it’s just meat and salt. For others, it includes eggs, and others will also add dairy products too.
The carnivore diet includes ruminant meat, like cattle, lamb, goat, antelope, elk, and deer, and non-ruminant meat, like pork, chicken, duck, and fish. Those who can tolerate eggs and dairy qualify, as do all animal fats, like lard, duck fat, ghee, butter, cheese, and heavy whipping cream.
One thing is for sure, whether or not your ‘version’ of carnivore includes dairy or not: a pure carnivore diet will consume absolutely no plant material whatsoever.
The Problem with Plants
Just about every dietary recommendation from natural (naturopaths, ayurvedic, or traditional Chinese medicine) to more traditional (food pyramid or medical doctors) practitioners will include fruits and vegetables. Despite their popularity, plants actually have a dirty little secret that can cause significant problems for people struggling with health issues.
All living things on the planet have a protection mechanism to ensure the survival of their species. While animals have claws, teeth, or the ability to run from their predators: plants are armed with anti-nutrients in plants to help protect their species. This array of self-protection mechanisms triggers an immune response in their prey (in this case, humans).1-2 They include:
- Phytates (phytic acid)
- Protease inhibitors
- Calcium oxalates
These components help protect the plant species’ survival by deterring their consumption (over-consuming some anti-nutrients can cause stomach distress and other symptoms) and fortifying their constitution to the point of actually surviving a human or animal digestive tract.
A raw seed, for example, can often be consumed by an animal and actually make its way out whole in the animal’s excrement. Thus replanting itself and propagating the species. What this means for the animal, however, is minimal nutrient absorption at best, as well as symptoms like inflammation and indigestion.1-2
This built-in inflammatory response and protection mechanism is not a significant issue in animals, whose heightened intuitive connection to their dietary needs means they consume plant matter very mindfully.
Wild goats will know precisely how much of this or of that to eat before making themselves sick. On the other hand, humans have become very disconnected from their intuitive nature when it comes to food.
Our ancestors prepared plant materials very mindfully. Sprouting, fermenting, and slow cooking methods were present in every household. Not to mention, the grains and plants were heirloom varieties that hadn’t yet been modified by GMOs or drowned in pesticides and herbicides.3
Modern plants have been mono-cropped, grown in depleted soils, modified through genetic engineering, and then overly processed. Modern plant foods are often filled with preservatives, artificial colors, and flavors and loaded with sugar, salt, and bad fats. This over-processing of food leaves the human palate and body unable to connect with food as designed. They are also being met by a population of people with sub-optimal health, some of whom cannot deal with hormetic stress alone, not to mention all the genetic modifications and toxic sprays.
The stress that plants cause on the body is called hormetic stress. Hormetic stressors aren’t innately good or bad, but it can be either or depending on your state of health. Other examples of hormetic stress are exercise, sauna, and cold showers. These short bursts of stress can be extremely beneficial to help the body adapt and overcome stress, but if the body is under too much chronic stress, it can also cause more harm than good.4
The key to stress is balance and mindful exposure. Using stress like exercise or consumption of plant foods is great if you’re not dealing with chronic autoimmune conditions. If your body is always under chronic stress (autoimmunity, stressful work/ family dynamics, or battling severe toxin exposures), hormetic stress can be the final drop that causes the bucket to overflow.
Stress is good, but up to a point, it requires periods of rest. When someone has underlying health issues or is always emotionally stressed, things like vegetables, cold showers, or intense exercise can be the final straw for some significant health issues.
The Problem with Meat
The studies that demonize meat as a whole are flawed for two main reasons. Firstly, they are epidemiological in nature, and secondly (or both), they fail to account for the type and quality of meat being consumed.5
Epidemiological studies measure the risk of illness or death of a population in relation to the exposure, compared to another group that is unexposed to the variable. Although they can be valuable for exploring correlations, they are not even remotely accurate enough to conclude a causational relationship. Epidemiological studies do not produce reliable data.
The other issue is that all meat is not created equal, not only in how the animals were raised, but almost more importantly, how the meat was processed before it made its way to your plate, AND what else is on that plate.
For example, a grass-fed and finished beef steak is incomparable to a factory-farmed, grain-fed steak in terms of its nutritional impact and overall influence on the body. Pasture-raised, organically fed, ethically treated animals yield much more nutrient-dense food, unlike grain-fed cattle, which produce much more inflammatory meat.6
Then comes the processing.
These studies do not distinguish a grass-finished steak pan-seared in coconut oil from a highly processed fast-food beef patty that is pumped with artificial flavors, preservatives, refined sugars, and cooked in highly inflammatory vegetable oils. The studies don’t either account for the fact that meal 1 (the grass-finished steak) is consumed with organic broccoli and sweet potato, while meal 2 (the fast-food patty) is consumed with a white bun, sugar-filled condiments, french fries fried in vegetable oil, and a large soft drink.5
Needless to say: the studies that demonize all meat do not reflect the overall meat vs. no meat debate. It’s crucial to understand that quality matters and that eating properly raised and processed meat does not impact the body like factory-farmed, highly processed meats.
Elimination Diets and Autoimmunity
Elimination diets are prevalent and involve removing foods from your diet to see which foods you do and don’t tolerate. By reintroducing foods individually, you can see which foods do or don’t agree with your body. Some popular elimination diets include AIP (autoimmune protocol) or the GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) diet.7
Elimination diets are useful because, as humans, we are so incredibly bio-individual. One vegetable may help one person thrive and cause a complete autoimmune meltdown in another person. The variables as to why are so vast, including your genetic predispositions, your current state of health, and even your memories (like traumatic experiences with food).8
Getting to know what works for your body is an inside job.
Many blanket diets prescribe X, Y, and Z, but without removing and reintroducing foods, knowing if something is helping or harming your health can be challenging.
The carnivore is one type of extreme elimination diet. By removing all plant materials, the body is mostly given a relatively blank slate regarding the hormetic stress that is otherwise brought on by their consumption. For some people, this can work indefinitely– but for most, the more balanced and perhaps ‘healthy’ approach would be to use carnivore as an initial elimination, to then slowly introduce plant foods and see what works and what doesn’t.
The Long Term Solution
Regarding diet, nothing beats cycling low-carb days with high-carb days. This cycling is the ultimate ancestral approach to health that enables the body to go through some periods of higher protein/ fat (ketosis), some periods of higher-carb re-feeds, and some periods of fasting. Higher carb, lower carb, and fasting periods are naturally built into the seasonal bounty and periods between hunts long before we had 24/7 access to food in supermarkets.
When the body is given only one continuous type of eating (low-carb or high-carb), it adapts to this state of being.
Those on chronic low-carb ketosis diets (like the carnivore diet as an extreme) will down-regulate their metabolisms in efforts for self-preservation. Conversely, constant carb loading can be equally damaging to a metabolism continually battling insulin dumps due to a high-sugar diet.9
By varying the diet: some low carb, some high carb, some fasting days– the body experienced a continuous forced dietary adaptation. Like during cross-training in fitness, it prevents a plateau and keeps the body guessing, therefore adapting.
The carnivore diet has proven to be a panacea for those dealing with severe chronic autoimmune conditions, but no matter how sick or healthy you are– achieving a state of health whereby you can expose yourself to hormetic stress is a goal worth striving for. For those who need to use the carnivore diet as a bridge to rebuild their health, it can serve a purpose long term. But for those in decent or good health, implementing a long-term low/ zero-carb diet could prove to be detrimental to your metabolism and body’s ability to adapt to varied foods and macronutrient breakdowns.
There is a lot of misinformation regarding diet. Meat and vegetables are equally demonized for their inflammatory properties, depending on who you speak to. At the end of the day, the argument hinges predominantly on quality and on bio-individual needs. No one diet will work for every person. But, if you’re dealing with autoimmunity, the carnivore could be a great option to help reinstate hormonal health. In the long run, diet variation principles are a more balanced and sustainable option to promote whole-body health.
- Gundry, Steven R., and Olivia Bell Buehl. The Plant Paradox: the Hidden Dangers in “Healthy” Foods That Cause Disease and Weight Gain. Harper Wave, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2018.
- Vasconcelos, Ilka M, and José Tadeu A Oliveira. “Antinutritional Properties of Plant Lectins.” Toxicon, vol. 44, no. 4, 2004, pp. 385–403., doi:10.1016/j.toxicon.2004.05.005.
- The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World. Chelsea Green Publishing Co, 2013.
- Lindsay, David G. “Nutrition, Hormetic Stress, and Health.” Nutrition Research Reviews, vol. 18, no. 2, 2005, pp. 249–258., doi:10.1079/nrr2005110.
- Wes Ishmael 2 | Oct 28. “Scientists Cry Foul over IARC Red Meat-Cancer Conclusions.” Beef Magazine, 29 Oct. 2015, www.beefmagazine.com/blog/scientists-cry-foul-over-iarc-red-meat-cancer-conclusions?page=2.
- Daley, Cynthia A, et al. “A Review of Fatty Acid Profiles and Antioxidant Content in Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Beef.” Nutrition Journal, vol. 9, no. 1, 2010, doi:10.1186/1475-2891-9-10.
- Schoenfeld, Laura Beth. “AIP Diet: What It Is and How to Personalize It for Best Results.” Chris Kresser, 23 Dec. 2019, chriskresser.com/5-steps-to-personalizing-your-autoimmune-paleo-protocol/.
- Heianza, Yoriko, and Lu Qi. “Gene-Diet Interaction and Precision Nutrition in Obesity.” International Journal of Molecular Sciences, vol. 18, no. 4, 2017, p. 787., doi:10.3390/ijms18040787.
- Sothmann, M S, et al. “Exercise Training and the Cross-Stressor Adaptation Hypothesis.” Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1996, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8744253.