If you’re a meat lover, the idea of eating steaks for the rest of your life may sound pretty good. A quick internet search on the carnivore diet finds that the supposed benefits are fantastic: reduced inflammation, clearer thinking, better digestion, more energy, less depression, and weight loss. Eat meat and be healthier. Sounds simple enough, but is it true?
I have to be honest, when I first heard about this I rolled my eyes big time. The biggest reason is that we have zero scientific evidence that supports the carnivore diet (to be clear, testimonials are not scientific). On the flip side, we have a lot of scientific evidence that supports increased consumption of whole plant foods.
That being said, the dietitians are open-minded here at Harmons. We understand effective diet therapies can surprise us by challenging conventional wisdom. So for this reason we wanted to explore this diet and give it a fair shake.
What is the carnivore diet?
While there is no technical definition, the carnivore diet means you can only eat animal products, with small amounts of salt, herbs, and spices.
Foods to eat on the carnivore diet: beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, fish, shellfish, eggs, lard, butter, organ meats, bone marrow, broth, and salt.
Foods that may or may not be allowed on a carnivore diet: milk, yogurt, cheese, coffee, tea, wine, and spirits.
Foods not allowed on the carnivore diet: fruits, veggies, seeds, nuts, beans, grains, and beer.
Lack of Evidence
The biggest red flag for this diet is that there are no scientific studies that show this type of diet is healthy or even safe. There are literally none. There is an abundance of research that has investigated low-carb diets, but we are in the dark for zero-carb diets.
Carnivore dieters will argue that the evidence is that humans began to succeed as a species when we incorporated more meat into our diets about two and half million years ago. (1) First, this is a theory and not scientific proof. This theory better argues the point that humans evolved to eat some meat, not only meat.
Without studies, the next best thing is to look at traditional indigenous diets to see if there are any that provide insight to a meat only lifestyle. Unsurprisingly, there are no groups of indigenous people that are 100% carnivore. The closest we have is a traditional Inuit diet, made up largely of whole sea mammals (seal and walrus including blubber, skin, and blood), as well as trout, Arctic char, caribou, goose, and duck. The traditional Inuit diet does include plant foods in the form of berries, seaweed, and nuts during the summer months. (2)
The traditional Inuit diet has been used to argue that a high animal protein diet can be healthy since traditional Inuit people had a very low incidence of heart disease. However, the Inuit diet is very high in omega-3 fat (healthier) whereas today’s carnivore diet is high in saturated fat (less healthy). We also can’t use this diet to compare because their food sources are entirely different; they do not eat beef, pork, lamb, butter, or chicken. In addition, evidence shows that Inuit populations probably evolved to adapt to their high-fat diets. (3) Since most Americans will not have these genetic adaptations, such diets are probably not optimal for our good health.
Finally, the biggest modern day proponent of this diet is an ex-orthopedic surgeon who chose to surrender his medical license due to “failure to report adverse action taken by a healthcare entity and incompetence to practice as a licensee.” (4) His website offers no research, just testimonials and a very prominent place to pay $190 for a consult.
When you only eat one food group, nutritional deficiencies are a big concern. The primary ones for this diet are vitamin C, vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, and folate. Eating organ meat and dairy products would be the best way to minimize these deficiencies. However, most carnivore diets exclude dairy and many Americans do not like the idea of eating organ meats.
Given that we have no evidence supporting the carnivore diet, it is impossible to say that it is healthy. Given all of the evidence showing the benefits of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds it is safe to say that the carnivore diet is probably not healthy.
1. Evidence for a Meat-Based Diet. https://www.kevinstock.io/health/evidence-for-a-meat-based-diet/
2. Searles, Edmund. "Food and the Making of Modern Inuit Identities." Food & Foodways: History & Culture of Human Nourishment 10 (2002): 64–71. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/261653841_Food_and_the_Making_of_Modern_Inuit_Identities
3. What the Inuit can tell us about omega-3 fats and ‘paleo’ diets. https://news.berkeley.edu/2015/09/17/what-the-inuit-can-tell-us-about-omega-3-fats-and-paleo-diets/
4. New Mexico Medical Board Actions July 1, 2017 – September 30, 2017. https://www.nmmb.state.nm.us/docs/board_actions/07-01-17%20thru%2009-30-17.pdf