Are you curious about the carnivore diet? I get questions all of the time from my patients and community who have heard the claims of this all-meat diet for building muscle, losing weight and solving digestive problems. Meat is certainly a nutrient-dense food that I advocate for in the context of a whole foods diet, but is the carnivore diet really the right choice for you?
Like me, you might have questions about the long-term impacts of the carnivore diet or be wondering if there are risks to eliminating plant foods. The carnivore diet is certainly a trendy diet right now and I want to walk you through my thoughts.
In this article you will learn:
Let’s start with the basics. The carnivore diet is a high-fat diet where you eat only animal foods and eliminate all plant-based foods. By cutting out plant foods, you cut out all carbohydrates and so will rely solely on protein and fat for calories and energy. Essentially, the carnivore diet is an extreme form of a ketogenic, or keto, diet.
Here is what you can eat on a carnivore diet:
Some versions of the carnivore diet also allow for low-lactose dairy such as
With the carnivore diet all plant foods are avoided, including:
Strict followers of the carnivore diet also eliminate coffee and teas because these beverages are plant-based; this group drinks only water.
From a scientific perspective, we don’t know if the carnivore diet is safe, as there hasn’t been any official published research on this way of eating. Evidence right now is limited to people who have tried this diet and anecdotally reported their experience or clinicians who use this approach in their practice. However, even this information is lacking, especially for long-term results or risks.
When we look at indigenous communities around the world, historically, even those who subsisted primarily on animal foods (like the Inuit or Maasai) still ate plant foods when they were available. When I searched Pubmed (an online database used for evidenced based medical research), for information on the carnivore diet, much of the research that popped up was on dogs and other carnivorous animals. Humans are actually omnivores and are designed to eat both plants and animals.
Let’s now tackle the issue about safety more deeply. The carnivore diet is likely safe as a short-term therapeutic tool where, from an anthropological perspective, it can essentially mimic a period of the year where hunter-gatherer populations didn’t have access to any plant foods. However, I have some issues with the long-term use of the carnivore diet.
First of all, research is pretty clear about the long-term benefits and decreased risk of chronic disease from consuming vegetables and fruits (1, 2). Plant foods are also very important for the health of the microbiome and maintaining a healthy digestive system, so I question the long-term removal of these foods.
Second, and importantly, although meat is very nutrient-rich, there are some nutrients that we get from plant foods and I would suspect could become depleted over time with a carnivore diet including:
Despite my concerns, from a clinical perspective, there are some areas where the carnivore diet is worth consideration as a short-term strategy and in conjunction with other Functional Medicine interventions.
Here are a few possible benefits:
I believe the main reason that people can see improvements in their health from the carnivore diet is because it removes most of the allergens and anti-nutrients that people eat. Of course, it is still possible to be sensitive or allergic to animal foods, but by removing gluten, corn, soy and dairy, many people will find a reduction in inflammatory symptoms simply by eliminating these common triggers. The carnivore diet also removes sugar and other refined carbs, which can be a main driver of digestive symptoms and excess weight.
While I’m an advocate for experimenting with your diet to find what works best for each individual, there are some cases where I would caution against a carnivore diet, including:
The carnivore diet is certainly trendy these days and it is common for people to misuse or misinterpret this diet. Here is what I’ve seen:
If you believe you’d benefit from a carnivore diet, especially because you’ve already tried less extreme measures and are working on addressing your personal root causes, here are my tips for a successful carnivore diet:
If the carnivore diet feels too extreme, yet you are still looking for a way to address your digestive and inflammatory symptoms, I recommend starting with my version of the Paleo diet. A Paleo diet can be tailored to your specific needs and food sensitivities. It may be low-carb like a keto diet, but may be more moderate in carbohydrates if your body utilizes them well.
Along with the Paleo diet, I recommend addressing gut health and symptoms from a root cause approach. Often in my practice this means taking a closer look at what is going in the gut through a stool test and developing a personalized protocol.
I believe in a balanced real food approach to healing. Although niche diets, like the carnivore diet, are not appropriate for everyone; some people with severe GI issues or autoimmunity might benefit from a trial of the carnivore diet. I want to emphasize that this diet is meant to be a therapeutic tool, along with other interventions, and isn’t meant to be a long-term diet or lifestyle. My goal for you would be to use the carnivore diet short-term and then eventually reintegrating vegetables and other fiber-rich foods into more of a Paleo template that is balanced and provides all of the nutrition that you need to live your best life.