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What is the Carnivore Diet?

Written by Jasmine Foster, BS (Animal Biology), BEd | Reviewed by Ana Aleksic, MSc (Pharmacy) | Last updated:
Medically reviewed by
Jonathan Ritter, PharmD, PhD (Pharmacology), Nicole Craven, MD | Written by Jasmine Foster, BS (Animal Biology), BEd | Reviewed by Ana Aleksic, MSc (Pharmacy) | Last updated:

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Meat

What Is the Carnivore Diet?

Only Meat?

The carnivore diet, also called zero carb, is exactly what it sounds like: eat only meat. Some people are more strict than others about what counts as meat; animal products like milk, cheese, and eggs are a topic of debate. Some people salt their food which can provide some minerals, while others claim not to need it.

People are most commonly following a carnivore diet to alleviate autoimmune or inflammatory issues.

Critics of the carnivore diet say that it destroys the intestines and can’t provide all the nutrients the human body requires. On the other hand, people like the Maasai and Inuit eat traditional diets of almost exclusively meat [1, 2].

But are these people true carnivores?

A strict carnivore diet includes only meat, while some people eat other animal products too. Opinions on this diet are split.

Carnivorous Cultures

Generally speaking, the colder the environment, the less plant life grows there. This means that people who traditionally live in cold climates tend to eat more meat and fewer plants. The Chukotka people of Siberia and the Inuit and Eeyouch of Canada are great examples of such cultures [3, 4, 5].

However, none of these cultures completely cut plants out of their diets; in fact, they travel great lengths to gather and eat fruits, roots, and medicinal herbs during the warmer seasons [3, 4, 5].

The vast majority of a traditional Eeyouch (northern Quebec) diet is made up of wild game like moose and caribou, goose, and fish.

However, during the summer months, they gather huge quantities of wild blueberries and Labrador tea. They also make tea with white spruce needles and gather a variety of medicinal plants and mosses [5, 6, 7].

Even the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania – whose famous carnivorous diet is made almost entirely of cow’s blood, meat, milk, and honey – eat herbs, roots, and tree bark as part of traditional medicine [8, 9].

Some people from areas with a cold and harsh climate almost exclusively eat meat, but they also sometimes gather wild berries, roots, and medicinal plants.

Snapshot

PROs

  • Eliminates potential plant-based irritants such as gluten & lectins
  • High protein and metabolism challenged
  • Devoid of sugar and processed foods
  • Likely causes weight loss based on anecdotes

CONs

  • High risk of nutrient deficiencies
  • Doesn’t contain healthy compounds such as polyphenols & fiber
  • Might not be ideal for longevity if not combined with fasting
  • May result in lower brain serotonin
  • Increases oxidative stress
  • May cause gut microbiome issues
  • Large carbon footprint

Carnivore Diet Benefits

So, what’s the deal? Why do this? The health effects of the carnivore diet are poorly studied, but its proponents have a few arguments.

One such line of reasoning is evolutionary. Some people claim that humans are “meant” to eat meat because when our ancestors started eating meat, the extra energy and protein helped them get bigger, faster, and smarter quickly.

Indeed, the historical transition from a plant-only diet to an omnivorous diet coincided with a massive expansion in brain size [10].

Advocates say you’ll have lower nutrient requirements, that you can get all the vitamin C you need from meat, and that nutrients are more bioavailable in meat anyway. Some claim this diet cures a long list of diseases.

Most people on a carnivore diet claim they eat this way to avoid the “toxins” or antinutrients in plant matter. They point to compounds like gluten, oxalates, lectins, histamine, and other plant-based irritants, which may cause serious illness in sensitive people [11, 12, 13].

We took a deep dive into the science to address all the common arguments from carnivores in this post.

Many specialized diets, such as the lectin avoidance diet, aim to eliminate specific antinutrients and potentially prevent certain inflammatory conditions. For sensitive people, avoiding these foods may alleviate inflammation or autoimmune issues.

Joe Cohen, the founder of SelfHacked, actually started this website because of unresolved inflammatory symptoms, and his breakthrough came when he realized that most of his issues were from various components in plant-based foods.

The carnivore diet is also high protein energy (low carb) and devoid of sugar and processed foods.

But let’s put this diet in perspective: it’s not a solution for the masses. Rather, the carnivore diet should be regarded as a therapy for specific people.

As such, this post is not intended to discourage the diet. The point of this post is to make people aware of the potential deficiencies so that they can supplement properly and avoid the negatives. As with any diet, you should always think twice about long term use of a restricted diet such as this.

The carnivore diet is high in energy and protein and devoid of sugar, processed foods, and plant-based irritants; it may thus help with inflammatory conditions.

Carnivore Diet Experiences

People who eat carnivore or zero carb diets have formed active, engaged communities online with lots of user experiences, anecdotes, and recommendations.

Many people who eat a carnivore diet say that they have more energy and mental clarity. This was Joe’s experience.

Some people claim that the carnivore diet improved or eliminated their irritable bowel symptoms. Beware, however: some people also describe a difficult transition period of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Other people have horror stories. Some developed scurvy and their teeth and hair started falling out. Others fell into depression and craved fruits, vegetables, and sugars.

Thyroid problems, high cholesterol, and menstrual irregularities can emerge after several months on the carnivore diet.

Many people who eat a carnivore diet are not extremely strict. They say that they eat a ketogenic diet or low carb high fat (LCHF) diet in social settings and eat only meat in the comfort of their home.

Strict adherents to the diet describe nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and severe fatigue after eating a piece of bread or fruit.

People report increased energy and mental clarity on a carnivore diet. However, some developed scurvy, depression, menstrual problems, and digestive issues in the long run.

Deficiencies From the Carnivore Diet

The glaring drawback of the carnivore diet is what’s missing from the meat.

The common commercial cuts of beef, pork, and chicken do not contain all of the vitamins, minerals, and compounds required for human health… and over enough time, these deficiencies can be extremely dangerous.

That said, most of the nutrients listed here can be found in organ meats: liver, kidney, sweetbreads, lungs, brain, and so on. Thus, the key may be that many people eating a carnivore diet do not eat enough organs.

If you are still getting less than the recommended levels, you should supplement. Even if you’re getting sufficient amounts, it’s important to realize that “just enough” is often not ideal. Some people may need more than the recommended intakes for optimal health [14].

Meat lacks an array of essential nutrients found in plant foods, and long-term adherence to the carnivore diet can cause dangerous deficiencies. Organ meats may supply additional nutrients.

Genetics: The Carnivore Diet Gene?

The SNP most likely to predict if you will do well on a carnivore diet is rs1049353, which belongs to the CNR1 gene.

About the Author

Jasmine Foster

BS (Animal Biology), BEd
Jasmine received her BS from McGill University and her BEd from Vancouver Island University.
Jasmine loves helping people understand their brains and bodies, a passion that grew out of her dual background in biology and education. From the chem lab to the classroom, everyone has the right to learn and make informed decisions about their health.

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