The Carnivore Diet: Here Are The Benefits & Risks Of Going Meat-Only
You probably remember learning about carnivores, herbivores, and omnivores back in grade school. Carnivores eat meat (and exclusively so—they survive on all-meat diets), while herbivores are nature's vegetarians. Omnivores are happy to eat both, balancing some meats with some plant-based foods, like fruits and vegetables. Humans are, by nature, omnivores, but we're in the unique position of being able to choose what we want to eat and avoid.
Going vegetarian or vegan is a pretty common lifestyle choice for humans, at least in some parts of the world. But what about going in the other direction? What about choosing to embrace your inner predator and eschewing plants as food altogether? Choosing that lifestyle would make you one of the growing number of people experimenting with the carnivore diet, a meal plan that, just like it sounds, involves eating only meat.
Horrified? Intrigued? Wondering if this is all a hoax? Here's everything you need to know about this new meat-based eating trend, especially if you're thinking about trying the carnivore diet yourself.
What is the carnivore diet?
The carnivore diet is essentially what it sounds like—living the life of a carnivore and subsisting entirely on meat (as well as a few meat-adjacent proteins like eggs and a few extras like butter and dry seasonings). Unlike other famous low-carb diets like the Atkins diet and the ketogenic diet, the carnivore diet takes things a step further, going from "low-carb" to "no-carb." Also forbidden on the carnivore diet: fruits, vegetables, dairy—nearly anything that is not meat. As one website dedicated to the diet explains succinctly, "Meat + Water = Carnivore Diet."
This Ron Swanson–approved diet is gaining popularity both as a weight loss plan and for the treatment of certain health issues like anxiety and pain (more on that below).
History of the carnivore diet.
While low-carb diets have been a craze for decades now, the carnivore diet in its current form traces its roots back to an American doctor named Shawn Baker. Baker, a former orthopedic surgeon, completed a low-carb, high-fat diet experiment on his own, saw results, and went on to spread the gospel of the carnivore diet.
On his website, Baker paints a picture of the carnivore diet as a key component of a winner's lifestyle. He describes himself as an "Athlete, father, doctor, soldier, and revolutionist" who has spent a lifetime "pursuing excellence," "pushing the boundaries and not settling for mediocrity." As apparent proof that the carnivore diet is the natural way (or at least a naturally viable way) for people to live, he proclaims that humans evolved as apex predators. He encourages carnivore diet followers to share their stories with the hashtag #MeatHeals.
Baker released a book about his meal plan, The Carnivore Diet, in early 2018. It's worth noting, however, that Baker's medical license was revoked in 2017 when the New Mexico Medical Board ordered its "voluntary and permanent surrender." According to the NMMB's report, "This action was based on failure to report adverse action taken by a health care entity and incompetence to practice as a licensee." In the aftermath of the New Mexico Medical Board's decision to revoke his medical license, Baker released a two-part YouTube video in which he tells his side of the story.
Foods you can eat on the carnivore diet.
So, what exactly can you eat on the carnivore diet? The diet stresses the importance of leaning heavily on red meat, particularly on fatty cuts that will help you meet your daily calorie needs. Foods that are definitely allowed under the carnivore diet include:
- Organ meats
- Bone marrow
- Salt and pepper
- Bone broth
If you're adhering to the strictest version of the carnivore diet, you'll stick to the list above; however, some people choose to live by a looser interpretation of the diet and include some foods that come from animals indirectly, like milk, yogurt, and cheese.
Another sticking point among purists and more flexible carnivores has to do with coffee and tea. These popular drinks are made from plant products, so they're off-limits on the strictest versions of the carnivore diet. Some people, however, choose to continue consuming them while on the diet. It's a personal choice.
Potential benefits of the carnivore diet.
The major benefit of the carnivore diet is its ability to help adherents lose weight. Because you're eating just one kind of food, your caloric intake will almost certainly be restricted1, which in and of itself will lead to weight loss in most people.
As with keto2, some point to reduced insulin levels, sugar intake reduction, and a reduction in cholesterol and cardiovascular disease risk factors3 as potential benefits of the carnivore diet. These are largely unproven or strongly countered by experts and research, however (more on that below).
Although Mikhaila Peterson (and her father, Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson) claim that the carnivore diet can help cure depression and autoimmune diseases, there is only anecdotal evidence (and limited anecdotal evidence, at that) suggesting these benefits.
Potential health risks of the carnivore diet.
Most experts agree that the risks of the carnivore diet far outweigh the potential benefits.
"I don't recommend diets that restrict you to just one food group or that involve cutting out entire food groups," says Jessica Cording, M.S., R.D., CDN, registered dietitian and mbg Collective member. "Aside from being an extreme approach that may be difficult to sustain, you also set yourself up for deficiencies in certain nutrients and excess intake of others—and the related health issues that come from a poorly balanced diet."
First, there's the basic nutritional downside of the diet. "Unless someone is supplementing, you could miss out on a lot of key nutrients, which can lead to impaired function of organ systems and poor energy," warns Cording. Some vital nutrients, like folate, vitamin C, and vitamin E, are found almost exclusively in vegetables, which are expressly forbidden on the carnivore diet.
What's more, eating a meat-only diet opens you up to a litany of potential health issues, including scurvy4, digestive issues related to inadequate fiber (constipation, gas, bloating), and even increased risk of colon cancer5. And the potential risks don't end there. A 2018 study6 also found a link between eating lots of red and processed meats with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and insulin resistance—a big red flag for people with diabetes who are considering the carnivore diet.
How to get started on the carnivore diet.
If you decide to try the carnivore diet (which many registered dietitians and physicians recommend against), you'll want to prep for the transition by stocking up on high-quality meats (obviously) and mapping out a meal plan. Since the protein-heavy diet is very filling, most people don't snack on the carnivore diet, meaning that planning for three meals a day should be sufficient.
However, the carnivore diet probably isn't the answer to your health woes. Other approaches are likely much healthier and more sustainable.
Instead of switching to a no- (or even extremely low-) carb diet, many experts advocate opting for carb cycling to enjoy the health benefits of carb restriction without the health risks that may come with engaging in the behavior long term. Carb-cycling is a carb-specific form of intermittent fasting that involves eliminating carbohydrates from your diet for short periods of time and then adding them back in.
And if your goal is to control arthritis or depression symptoms, which can often be aggravated by food triggers, a more approachable first step may be an elimination diet, says Cording, adding that she would "strongly encourage working with a licensed health care professional who can offer appropriate guidance if you're dealing with an issue that makes you feel an elimination diet is necessary."
If you're considering trying the carnivore diet, even temporarily, you should always consult with your doctor and/or a registered dietitian to determine if the diet is safe for you.
Kayleigh Roberts is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles, California. She earned a B.S. from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She covers culture, entertainment, and health and has written for several notable publications including Elle, Marie Claire, and The Atlantic.