- Debunking the major criticisms of a meat-only diet
- Does eating carnivore result in nutritional deficiencies?
- Do you need plants for micronutrients?
- Protein and ketosis
- The matter of fiber
The Diets Of Extremes
When you match up the vegan and carnivore diets against each other, there’s an obvious similarity. Both are extremely restrictive, cutting you off from a huge range of foods and nutrients. The criticisms of carnivore are therefore much the same as the ones that get drawn up against the plant-only version. Ethical dilemmas aside, it’s easy to brush off this emerging diet as another fad. Great for losing a few extra pounds over a month, but completely unsustainable in the long-term.
How I Ended Up In Carnivore
I’ll happily admit, the first time I heard about the carnivore diet, I found it absurd. That level of restriction just seemed to make it more of a health risk than a way of gaining an upgrade. Meat made the majority of my diet as it was, and there I didn’t what I could possibly gain from increasing it even further. Besides, I liked my weekend cheat days that comprised of entire cheesecakes per sitting.
So I pretty much ignored the idea, and didn’t revisit it until a few months ago. This time, things were completely different. I’d made the jump from low carb to a keto diet, phasing out most carbs, besides a few stray vegetables.
From Ketovore To Carnivore
Everything had changed for the better. I was feeling fresher, and as strong as could be while dieting down to single digits. When I did attempt a cheat day, I felt significantly worse for wear the next day, shambling around in a hungover state.
Even a sensible plate of sweet potato didn’t agree with me. So without noticing, the carnivore diet had crept up on me. Now it was just the formality of sliding the last few brussel sprouts off my plate, and with that, I was on an animal-only diet.
Having started out on a bodybuilding-style high carb diet, I’ve been able to see the carnivore approach through the lenses of a skeptic. My idea of an optimal diet means finding the best possible sources of fuel for sliding an extra plate on the bar.
Being healthy is great, but that’s a happy side-effect of becoming stronger. And most of the time, that’s a fool-proof formula. If you’re getting stronger without meddling with pharmaceutical warfare or losing sight of the toenails, it’s clearly a sign that the diet’s giving you an all-round upgrade.
Can Carnivore Reduce Performance?
So with the carnivore diet, I was pretty wary of the possible ways that such a heavy restriction could impact performance levels. It’s pretty much a blanket ban on one of the best stimulants around, sugar.
How do you fuel up a workout without the magic of white rice and jelly babies to pump up your glycogen levels? What about all the constipation from fiber being taken out of the picture? And think of the little nutrients that you’re missing out on.
What I’ve discovered, is that meat is much more than a combination of good quality protein and water weight. There’s a lot going on under the surface. Here’s a breakdown of how meat manages to sidestep the classic pitfalls of crash dieting, becoming a tool that’s built to last across a weight-loss programme.
Myth 1 – Carnivore Causes Nutritional Deficiencies
This is naturally going to be the nagging doubt sitting front and center in curious minds. This article from self-hacked outlines 17 deficiencies in a carnivore diet. Vitamin C, Vitamin A, biotin, calcium, potassium, magnesium, amongst others. You’ll find plenty of others that echo these fears, and they’re completely misleading. There’s no reason to end up in a deficiency while eating a well-formulated meat-based diet.
There are several factors that play into making that bold statement. For one, the deficiencies are often resolved simply by eating a varied diet. Sometimes you have salmon, throw in a half-dozen eggs, or decide to try out beef liver.
Just like with a plant diet, different foods offer varying levels of nutrients. Organ meats and egg yolks, in particular, are extremely dense sources for nutrition. You can even branch out further and include fermented dairy or raw milk. Muscle meat maybe a little low in a select few micronutrients, but when you think about the sheer quantity you’ll be eating, the numbers add up.
As a second point, the purported deficiencies are based on RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) values, which are based on someone following a typical western diet. Loads of plant-products, processed foods, and a wasteful metabolism.
Converting to a carnivore diet makes for a startlingly different playing field. Nutrients are now more bio-available, because they’re animal structure, so there’s a much better conversion from intake to actual absorption.
Protein’s a great example of that. Getting your requirements from kidney beans is an extremely inefficient process due to structural differences and incomplete amino acids. A serving of steak, with its complete profile and similar biostructure, would therefore, result in better absorption.
This is even more pronounced due to the lack of vegetables on your plate. Plants impair digestive absorption and block many micronutrients by binding to them in the gut. For instance, beans have phytic acid, an antinutrient. People in a study ate beans with oysters, the highest zinc food, and showed much-lowered zinc levels compared to eating the oysters alone. Fiber in general blocks absorption, and that raises a bit of a question mark over its status as a superfood.
So with more efficient conversions, and a radically changed metabolism, the RDAs in carnivore are lower. Personally, I only supplement with magnesium and himalayan pink sea salt, but that’s more to aid my fasting protocols.
Takeaway – Eat A Variety Of Animal Products, And Deficiencies Are A Non-Issue
Myth 2 – You’re Missing Out On Plant Superfoods
There’s a huge list of plant compounds that get blown up almost to the status of miracle drugs. In fact, with cases like sulforaphane (broccoli) and resveratrol (red wine), they’re seen as exactly that. By harnessing the anti-oxidant potential, you’re able to improve your lifespan.
The line of thinking behind antioxidants is a little backwards, because it brushes over the fact that the pulses of glutathione (a body antioxidant) that show up after eating plant compounds, is actually a response to oxidative damage. It’s a defense mechanism, and perhaps it’s not the sort of button that you want to be pushing.
And it’s not to say you can’t find better replacements. Animal compounds like carnitine are great sources for improved antioxidation. Except it’s now an endogenous rather than exogenous supplement, meaning you’re improving synthesis rather than forcing a reaction through foreign invasion.
Carnivore is effectively a keto diet, and we’ll cover that in the next point, and ketogenesis activates the NRF2 pathway, the same longevity-boosting path that’s sparked by resveratrol.
There’s a mountain of extras that we can dig through here, but it’s mostly along the same lines.
Plants being foreign invaders, spark reactions in the body that attempts to protect itself from structural damage, and that reaction gets interpreted as a positive health-effect.
Now that still leaves the idea that a little bit of stress can be a good thing, but the folk with sensitive metabolisms should tread carefully.
The Takeaway – Plants Aren’t That Good For You, And The Body Might Be Better Off For It
Myth 3 – Too Much Protein Kicks You Out Of Ketosis
All these myths deserve an article by themselves, and the protein dilemma is no different. Carnivore is often adopted by dieters that have been following a ketogenic diet. Maybe they want more fat loss, perhaps they’re just following elimination diet protocol. Either way, it’s a natural stepping stone, and that’s where the problem is.
Anyone who buys into the keto lifestyle becomes protective over their ketotic state. That’s with good reason, as ketosis is a remarkable brain booster. Without factoring in the whole fat-burning adaptation, keto clarity can feel amazing.
The state of ketosis can be upset by raised protein levels, as it can be converted to sugar through the process of gluconeogenesis. More sugar means a potential insulin spike, and ketosis gets canceled. You slip out of your fat-fuelled state and go back to the carb rollercoaster.
This is partly why many keto diets advise a fat to protein ratio, by the gram, of 2:1. The carnivore restrictions can put a spanner in the works, as plant oils are out and dairy is restricted. As a result, the ration can drop to 1:1 and even lower. So does that mean you’re getting kicked out of ketosis?
Not quite. While extremely high protein levels can lower ketone levels and cause that keto clarity to be suppressed, it’s not going to cancel it entirely. Insulin can spike, but it won’t disturb blood glucose levels, as the incoming amino acids raise glucagon, which works to oppose the actions of insulin.
Glucagon releases glucose into the bloodstream, preventing levels from dropping too low. As a result, they stay stable, and ketosis doesn’t get disrupted. And since glucagon also stimulates lipolysis, the case could be made that protein is ketogenic rather than glycogenic.
Gluconeogenesis itself is mainly demand-driven, meaning your body won’t start producing more glucose if you increase your protein intake. So your primary energy source will remain as ketones.
There is still the question of suppression. Higher ketones can often mean increased energy and feelings of wellbeing, and gluconeogenesis certainly can reduce their potency. But it’s fairly easy to keep a 1:1 fat to protein ratio on a carnivore diet.
Choose the fatty cuts of meat, add some butter or goose fat, and you’re set. 1:1 is still a ketogenic ratio, and a lower protein intake may actually be detrimental due to lost lean mass. Ultimately, it’s a matter of what you’re targeting in a diet. Want more mental clarity? Go for 1:1. Looking to lose the last couple of pounds of lower ab fat? A 1:2 ratio may be better.
The Takeaway – Carnivore Is Inherently Ketogenic, And Won’t Cancel Ketosis.
Myth 4 – You Need Fiber
There’s plenty of purported benefits to fiber, to the point where it gets treated like its own micronutrient. Amongst many, fiber reduces blood-sugar, raises satiety, feeds a healthy gut, and helps you poop. So surely it’s worth at least keeping some in a meat-based diet.
As you’d imagine, unfortunately fiber intake comes with a few drawbacks. It’s a plant product, and you’re getting the toxins and antinutrients that come with it. The net outcome of prepping a salad is going to be fewer nutrients absorbed and a generous amount of extra inflammation for your troubles.
The effect of fiber on the gut is as sketchy as any current science on the microbiome is. We don’t actually know whether feeding the bacteria is a good thing.
The microbiome is a jumble of good and bad bacteria, and it’s impossible to pick and choose which ones you want to groom. Try to focus on prebiotic nutrition, and you could quite easily end up with some immune-sparking overgrowth.
The gut does use fiber for fuel through the production of short-chain fatty acids, but it can get the same effect from ketones. As for the poop dilemma, studies haven’t shown constipation issues in subjects on a carnivore diet. You may be visiting the bathroom less, but you’re not going to suffer for it.
The whole idea of eating so much fiber till you get bloated and need to make a mad dash, is a little absurd. Bloating isn’t normal. If you’re continuously feeling like your stomach’s about to burst after a meal, then something is clearly wrong with the dietary choices.
What we do know, is that fiber can actually irritate the stomach lining, the sensitive wall that’s separating the outside world from your insides. Anyone with leaky gut will likely be worse for wear on a high fiber diet. This is why an elimination diet like low FODMAP significantly cuts down on fiber intake.
The Takeaway – You Don’t Need Fiber, And Your Gut Is Probably Better Off
Wrapping Up – There’s Little To Lose, But Plenty To Profit On Carnivore
Any issues with carnivore are going to be the same as any other diet, the lack of long-term controlled studies. Which isn’t viable, as you’d be forced to keep subjects in a lab for 20 odd years.
In the short-term, there’s really nothing here that’s worth worrying about. Any negative effects will have more to do with withdrawal symptoms, whether that’s from sugar, from coffee, or anything else that you’ve come to depend on. As with any detox, you do the time, embrace the discomforts that crop up, and emerge healthier and fresher for your troubles.
Carnivore Diet Coach And Personal Trainer