Carving Up the Carnivore Diet

The trendy diet du jour of 2021? From this dietitian’s perspective, it’s the Carnivore Diet. Let’s take a look at the latest diet to make headlines.

The Carnivore Diet has entered the consciousness of the nutrition world over the past 2-3 years, with authors like Shawn Baker, Jordan Peterson, and Paul Saladino extolling the benefits of an all-meat diet.

To be clear, that’s exactly what a carnivore diet is: eating meat, and (usually) only meat. The health claims for the diet range from weight loss to treatment of depression and everything in between. So, is following an all-meat diet really a good idea?

First, let’s ask if we could even survive on an all-meat diet, let alone thrive. Just as a strictly vegan (no animal products) diet requires supplementation with nutrients like vitamin B12 for survival, a carnivore diet leaves the door open for numerous deficiencies. For example, vitamin C is scarce in meat, and unless organ meats like liver are regularly consumed as part of the diet a deficiency is likely. Severe deficiency in vitamin C could lead to a condition called scurvy.

An all-meat diet is likely to carry several other side effects, including:

  • Constipation

  • Increased risk of kidney stones

  • High LDL cholesterol, increasing risk of heart disease

A carnivore diet shares many of these risks with the also-popular ketogenic diet, or “keto” for short.

It’s always worth examining the habits of the world’s healthiest and longest-lived communities - also known as The Blue Zones - to assess the merit of a diet’s impact on health and longevity. Do Blue Zoners eat anything close to a carnivorous diet? The answer is a resounding no, as Blue Zone communities predominantly eat whole plant foods with meat consumption being reserved for special occasions.

Are people likely to lose weight eating only meat? Probably, yes. Any diet that severely restricts food options, and therefore calorie intake, is likely to reduce weight. Despite the potential health benefits of weight loss for conditions like hypertension, sleep apnea, and type 2 diabetes, a carnivore diet brings into play other complicating factors (such as increased risk of heart disease) that will likely overshadow the advantages of reducing weight.

An all-meat diet is also unlikely to be affordable or accessible for many people. The best possible attempt at a carnivorous diet would include lean cuts of high-quality meat, organ meats like liver, and omega-3-rich seafood. A strict reliance on these foods prices out most consumers immediately.

Weren’t our ancestors mostly carnivores? Definitely not. Your meat-eating heritage does vary based on your ancestry, but meat was usually a prized treat, not a staple, over the course of human history.

Finally, there’s the personal sustainability question. If you started The Carnivore Diet, and were fortunate enough to follow the diet without deficiencies and side effects, would your lifestyle and personal “food psychology” allow you to adhere to it long-term? This means never eating fruits, vegetables, breads, grains, legumes, potatoes, and more. For the vast majority of us, the answer is no.

The Carnivore Diet is the latest example of a trendy, but highly restrictive diet with numerous potential pitfalls. Curious why someone would market such an approach? Never forget the profitability of the diet industry, and the numerous books prescribing all-meat eating have generated considerable interest. Of course, (very) select people may truly do well on such a diet and perhaps these authors do. However, the stories of the vast majority who do not benefit from carnivorous eating will never generate the same type of buzz as the stories of those who do.

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