The Carnivore Diet and Gut Health… Is it Right for You? | Ann Shippy MD
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The Carnivore Diet and Gut Health… Is it Right for You?

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: 

  • What is the carnivore diet 
  • Is it safe 
  • Benefits of the carnivore diet… for the right person 
  • Why the carnivore diet works 
  • Who should be cautious with the carnivore diet 
  • How the carnivore diet is misused 
  • Tips for implementing a carnivore diet 
  • An alternative to the carnivore diet 

What is the Carnivore Diet?

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: 

  • Red meat, especially fatty cuts 
  • Poultry 
  • Fish and seafood 
  • Eggs 
  • Organ meats 
  • Bone broths 
  • Animal fats, such as lard and tallow 

Some versions of the carnivore diet also allow for low-lactose dairy such as

  • Ghee and butter 
  • Heavy cream 
  • Hard cheese 

  With the carnivore diet all plant foods are avoided, including: 

  • Grains 
  • Beans 
  • Fruits 
  • Vegetables 
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Herbs and spices
  • Alcohol

Strict followers of the carnivore diet also eliminate coffee and teas because these beverages are plant-based; this group drinks only water. 

Is the Carnivore Diet Safe? 

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: 

  • Vitamin C: necessary as an antioxidant and for immune health 
  • Vitamin E: necessary as an antioxidant and for immune health 
  • Vitamin K: necessary for blood clotting 
  • Calcium: necessary for bone density and for muscle contraction 
  • Folate: necessary for gene expression and for cell replication and growth 
  • Magnesium: necessary for enzyme activity and for mineral/electrolyte balance as well as energy  
  • Fiber: necessary for digestion and for microbiome support 
  • Phytonutrients: necessary as antioxidants and for detoxification support 

3 Benefits of a Carnivore Diet When Used by the Right Individual 

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: 

  1. Reduced GI symptoms. When the digestive system is in an acute inflamed state, such as with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or diverticulitis, sometimes a low-residue diet can help to reduce inflammation and symptoms while we work to heal the gastrointestinal system at a deeper level. A low-residue diet simply means low-fiber, and although there are other ways to implement this, a carnivore diet is one option. 
  2. Reduced inflammation. For some, the carnivore diet can greatly reduce inflammation, both in the digestive system and throughout the body, making it a possible solution for those with autoimmune disease and other inflammatory conditions as a way to calm the system while putting other measures in place.  
  3. Weight loss. Since fat and protein can both be very filling, it is common for those following a carnivore diet to naturally eat fewer calories and even enter the state of ketosis where the body primarily uses fat (including body fat) for fuel. Just like a ketogenic diet can produce weight loss, a carnivore diet could have the same effect. It may be an option for certain people, although there are other, less extreme options that would be more sustainable for the long-term.  

Why Does the Carnivore Diet Work?

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.  

Who Should Be Cautious with the Carnivore Diet?

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: 

  • Those with thyroid or adrenal issues. Eliminating all carbohydrates from the diet puts added stress on the body and when the thyroid and/or adrenals are weak or unbalanced, the body may not be able to handle the added stress.  
  • Women in their reproductive years. Some carbohydrate intake is required for proper hormone production and an insulin response is necessary for ovulation. The body can interpret the lack of carbohydrates as a state of famine or stress, all of which can impact fertility. 
  • Those with chronic kidney disease who have been advised to restrict protein intake.  
  • Those with certain genetics such as the APOE variant that makes them more sensitive to saturated fat in the diet. 
  • Those with a history of eating disorders or who struggle with the emotional aspects of food restriction. 

3 Ways People May Be Misusing the Carnivore Diet 

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: 

  1. Seeing the carnivore diet as a quick fix. It is part of the American diet culture to look for a singular quick-fix or easy solution to a health issue. However, these approaches are rarely effective or long-lasting. As a Functional Medicine doctor, I take a root cause approach. Instead of applying a band-aid approach that merely masks the underlying problem, I’m interested in uncovering the root of the issue and treating that. 
  2. Following the carnivore diet long-term. In my opinion, the carnivore diet is meant to be a short-term therapeutic tool and not a long-term diet strategy, yet I see carnivore diet “experts” advocating for its long term use. If someone feels better on a carnivore diet and worse when they introduce plant foods, this is a clue to me that there is something deeper going on in the gut that needs addressing. 
  3. Undereating. Because of the lack of variety and higher intake of protein and fat, it is actually possible to under-eat on the carnivore diet, which can impact metabolism and nutrient levels.  

How to Implement a Carnivore Diet

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: 

  • Be sure to include organ meats, bone marrow and broths for balanced nutrition. 
  • Eliminate dairy since it can be very inflammatory for a lot of people. 
  • Choose low heat and slow-cooking methods most of the time. 
  • Choose the highest quality animal products that you can find and afford. Look for pasture-raised, 100% grass-fed, organic and regenerative. 
  • Try a strict carnivore diet for 2 to 3 weeks and then begin slowly expanding the diet to observe any symptoms as you reintroduce foods.  
  • Work with a Functional Medicine provider to address your health concerns from multiple angles.

A Carnivore Diet Alternative

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.  

Final Thoughts

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. 

References:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3419346/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23674808

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