Stepping Back From Diet Dogma
Before we step in, let me just say that I’m not making a case to abandon the zero carb version of carnivore. Beef and salt is a system that works perfectly fine, and in most cases, it’s likely going to be the optimal approach.
But there are going to be a few scenarios where an extra helping of low-toxicity carbohydrates can speed up progress.
In particular, if you’re lifting, lifting heavy, and keen to pack the muscle on.
The carnivore ruleset is incredibly straightforward. Focus on high-fat meat, eggs, and whatever dairy you can tolerate. Ditch any plant-based foods, with coffee being a strange anomaly that many of us have agreed to sweep under the carpet.
That doesn’t leave you much room for maneuvering. Practically all processed foods are off the menu, along with all forms of carbs and oils. Which leaves you to pick from animal-based products, salt, and water.
It’s a formula that works like a dream for many dieters, and the rigidity proves to be a strength. That’s a few less decisions you have to make in the day, the matter of portion control becomes intuitive, and snacking gets practically written out of the game. Sure, it might be hard to pass up on a serving of chips next to your bunless burger, but that’s a small price, soon forgotten amidst a steady stream of health wins.
Why You Need To Start With 30 Days Of Zero Carb
Then there’s the whole matter of carnivore doubling as both an elimination diet, and a ketogenic one. With the complete elimination of the sugar, the body is allowed to settle down, and progress through three pivotal routes.
- Detoxification And Healing
Inflammation drops down, and with it, the metabolic alarm bells, giving the body the breathing space it needs to start flushing toxins and repairing damaged tissues.
- Gut Reset
The gut is forced into an overhaul thanks to the complete elimination of prebiotic food groups, like the standard fare of fruit and veggies. Various species of problematic gut bacteria miss out on their favourite foods, and starve to death. It’s the good kind of genocide.
- Fat Adaption
With the sugar drip out of the picture, the body has no choice but to get good at using its evolutionary fuel source, fat. This can make for a shaky start, putting you in an energy purgatory, with no carbs, and terrible fat utilisation. But if the body is bullied into acclimatising to the previously-dormant fuel channels, the diet turns into a straightforward cake walk.
Each of these routes can provide drastic benefits to your health, just on their own. With carbs being a regular fixture in the diet, these three pathways are going to be neutered.
Which is precisely why I’d recommend any fresh-faced carnivore recruit, or curious fence-sitter, to open up their account with a 30 day solid stint on the zero carb version.
Embrace the tunnel vision and keep it simple. Then, and only then, would I suggest branching out into a carnivore-based low-carb variation.
And what would you call a carnivore diet with helpings of carbs? It might sound eerily like the Vertical Diet put up by Stan Efferding. Which, to keep it straightforward, is a base of steak with rice added in to pump up the calories. Then a blend of foods like sweet potato and Low FODMAP vegetables to add in various micronutrients.
What we have in mind with the carnivore-style version, is a sprinkling of low toxicity carbs, mainly for the purpose of performance enhancement. The micronutrient spectrum is irrelevant, because red meat already contains the rainbow. This isn’t a case for including plants, it’s a case for sugar, and we’re going by the same strategy we’d use when managing the side effects of prescription drugs. Minimal effective dose.
So ideally, we keep things low in fiber, low in antinutrients, low in toxins, and contained within miserly portion sizes.
There are a few similarities, but also some significant differences that radically change the game, particularly framing carbohydrates as a workout aid, rather than relying on it as the fuel of choice across the day. Otherwise known as the sugar drip.
Then there’s the matter of the conventional carnivore diet, which can be laid out like this.
How does that much up to the other two? In the context of weight loss, conventional carnivore is objectively superior, due to the lipolytic effects of ketones, and insulin failing to play its usual role of blocking lipolysis.
Since you’re forced to pick exclusively from nutrient dense foods, you’re effectively extracting the maximum buck from your calorie quota. Even better, you can use the thermogenic prowess of saturated fat to ramp up the metabolism.
There’s a fair case to be made that carnivore is the optimal diet for weight loss. But, on the other hand, there’s muscle gain, which requires longer spells, and more calories. That’s where things can get tricky, and that’s where the case can be made to bring the carbs back in.
We’re doing it in small amounts, and we’re only accepting the polite ones.
Now for the list of reasons why carbs can be our salvation.
1. Optimises Muscle Gain
You shouldn’t have a problem gaining muscle on a straight carnivore diet. Red meat comes stacked with all the essential amino acids, along with the building blocks for testosterone. In the meantime, it lowers inflammation and reverses insulin resistance, fine-turning the anabolic pathways.
But then there’s the question of optimal. And if we’re looking at the perfect platform for manufacturing big biceps, then there are a few drawbacks in the zero carb version.
- Insulin spikes MPS longer than leucine – Insulin normally fills the role of gatekeeper for anabolism, and its absence is both a blessing and a curse on the carnivore diet. Thankfully, the amino acid leucine is an able replacement for stimulating muscle protein synthesis (MPS). So for the most part, you can still get your bodybuilding on in a ketogenic diet. The only issue being that insulin can stimulate MPS for significantly longer durations than leucine.
Relegating insulin to a bit part player does wonders for allowing fat burning machinery to run unabated, but it can be seen as a loss when you’d rather pile it on.
- Topping up the glycogen tank – There is some research suggesting that fat-adapted ketogenic athletes possess the ability to protect and replenish muscle glycogen, despite lacking incoming glucose. They don’t show any noticeable difference when compared with their carbed up counterparts.
But there’s more nuance to this discussion, not least the fact that muscle glycogen doesn’t function like a gas tank. You don’t need to get anywhere near the bottom of the barrel in order to see your performance begin to slump. Muscle glycogen will typically be depleted somewhere between 24 and 40% during weight training. If you’re down to 70% capacity, there might be plenty left to work with, but certain areas will be severely depleted. In particular, your Type 2 muscle fibers. The stuff that makes the barbell go boom.
So what does any of this mean? There’s a strong case to be made here that in order to maintain maxed out glycogen levels, and therefore optimal performance on the big lifts, you might need to supplement carbohydrates in and around that workout window. Which in turn can result in improved MPS signalling.
This is why I like to use workout carbs, even during my cuts. Now I’ve doubled up on that by adding in a serving of post-workout carbs, to further help glycogen replenishment.
2. Prevents Bulking Stalls
Earlier, when I was making the case for carnivore being the optimal diet for weight loss, I touched on the metabolic-boosting effects of this template. Here’s where it can be turned into a negative.
Burning the weight away – Saturated fat activates ROS signalling in the mitochondria, resulting in lowered appetite, continued lipolysis, and mitochondrial uncoupling. The last of which is effectively the body wasting calories as heat.
Inhibiting insulin – Proteins and fats also result in a neutered insulin response, limiting energy storage.
Absorption issues – Protein itself can get wasted when consumed in huge amounts
If you’re looking to maingain your way to the top while keeping that sixpack on hand, then you might benefit from these mechanisms. It’s just going to take longer, and there’s always the chance that the body ends up pulling up at a setpoint that’s short of the pre-pharmaceutical ceiling. But if you’d rather pack the pounds on and accept those extra few digits of body fat that come along for the ride, then you might want to add carbs back into the mix.
Anecdotally, I got through four solid months of zero carb bulking before the scale decided to freeze. I was getting through more than 5000 calories of beef and butter. Then, once I added carbs, I began gaining weight despite actually bringing down the calorie count.
Incidentally, I did get fatter.
3. Blunts Cortisol
Do carbs raise stress or reduce it? It’s a funny one, and much can depend on the situation and the dose. In one sense, relying on the sugar drip can result in inflammation through several harmful mechanisms.
- Advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which cause oxidative stress
- High blood sugar, particularly in the case of insulin resistance
- Followed by the energy scarcity of low blood sugar
- Getting too happy on the glutamate pedal, the excitatory neurotransmitter
Inflammation itself is stress, and when allowed to stay chronically elevated, it exacerbates cases of anxiety, insomnia, and muscle breakdown. Clearly not the best cocktail for getting hyped for a max deadlift while filming yourself for Instagram live.
But we’re looking at the subject of stress through the context of low to moderate doses of sugar added into a metabolically healthy ketogenic diet. And in that case, it’s got a leg or two to stand on.
Carnivore raises the levels of stress hormones, and even if that tends to be acute rather than chronic, it can build into a crisis for the stress-sensitive folk. Whereas sugar blunts the cortisol response, which in this particular context, can be framed as a good thing. Personally I’ve seen decent improvements in sleep latency and efficiency by adding in a dose of low toxicity carbs in the evening hours.
Whereas sleeping on zero carbs was like rolling the dice. I might wake up at 2am and not be able to go back to bed, or I’d wake up at 4. Either way, I never got as far as the alarm.
4. Anti Fragility
Think of this as an issue that would only arise if you ever felt the need to cut loose a little. Maybe you’re out with the family for dinner, and you don’t want to come across as too pretentious. So you allow yourself some wiggle room. A bit of salad next to your steak, or a small serving of ice cream. What’s the harm in the occasional treat? Well, let me introduce you to the carnivore trap.
Once you’re in, a fully-adapted and certified member of the cult, it’s going to be hard to get yourself out.
After a lifetime of being exposed to a diet that’s laden with a myriad of plant toxins, metals, and various chemical byproducts, your metabolism would have become accustomed to the daily influx of foreign invaders. There would be some built-up resistance in place, somewhat attenuating the inflammation.
That’s anti fragility. Don’t worry, you’re taking damage anyway when you chug down an oxalate-laden spinach shake. It’s just not as noticeable.
A popular treatment for people with peanut allergies puts anti fragility in a nutshell. The patients are microdosed peanuts as a daily ritual, with the majority ending up becoming desensitized. Meaning they get to have a pasting of peanut butter without having to scramble for the EpiPen.
The problem being, that resistance tends to go away when you get adapted to carnivore. The body likes to be tight on its budget, and anti fragility becomes dormant, and a waste of resources.
So mixing spinach into your protein smoothie is destined to give you hours of painful bloating, making it terrible value for effort.
But what if you mixed in one leaf at a time, every day, scaling it up to two spinach leaves by the next week? You could conceivably be skipping past metabolic murder here.
Not that most people are too fussed on spinach being a part of their life. Whereas certain other foods, like ice cream, might be more tempting. So having a regular but miniature carb intake can have the effect of letting you live a little more. If by living more, we mean enjoying food. Some people eat for function, including me, and that’s absolutely fine.
With that being said, I’d still recommend people steer clear of outright inflammatory carbs, and pick from those in the lower fringes of the toxicity spectrum. That gives you a solid chance of managing the symptoms and keeping them down to a negligible level. Save the ice cream for the dearest of occasions.
5. Unlocks Metabolic Flexibility
You’ve probably become familiar with this term, as you’ve been repeatedly beaten on the head with it over recent years. Metabolic flexibility is a trendy term that’s brought into the wrong contexts more often than not, but it’s still valid.
To put it in overly simplistic terms, which is a force of habit, metabolic flexibility is a state where the body is able to seamlessly switch between carbs and fats for fuel.
You get a finely tuned machine that can put down a bowl of cream of rice in the morning, get your big lifts in, then settle back into the blissfully consistent pace of fat metabolism.
Or you could combine a carb-rich diet with fasting, and hop in and out of ketosis with barely a blip of hunger.
Metabolic flexibility is a fantasy lifestyle made into reality, one where both the high carb and ketogenic camps don’t quite hit the spot.
High carb – By overloading yourself with carbs, and keeping the body hooked to the sugar drip, you lose some of the ability to burn fat. With insulin resistance thrown into the mix, something that may be a creation of ultra processed foods and excess sugar, you even go down a few notches on sugar metabolism. Leaving you stuck in a manner of energy purgatory.
Ketogenic – Zero carbing your way to weight loss induces increases to insulin sensitivity, which is fantastic in the context of metabolic flexibility. However, there’s a catch. Fat adaption also ultimately results in peripheral insulin resistance, which basically means the muscles aren’t quite ready to receive a big sugar dump, and getting back on the carbs is quite likely to consign you to a coma.
It’s worth stressing the difference between peripheral and pathological insulin resistance. The former is restricted to certain tissues, like the muscle, while the former is the whole body experience.
The former is simply the body adapting to be more fuel efficient. The latter is the result of metabolic dysfunction, and becomes the breeding ground for inflammation, obesity, and chronic disease. So carnivore’s insulin resistance is a completely natural phenomenon rather than a nasty side effect.
That being said, ushering a regular dose of carbs into the diet will encourage the body to keep the glucose burning machinery primed and ready for whenever you need it. It might come at the cost of ketosis, although that needs individual context.
You could quite conceivably be hooked to the ketones for big stretches of the day, before deciding to risk it all on a late night cocktail. And that Pina Colada would draw the curtains on ketosis, but that doesn’t have to be for long, and it doesn’t have to send you into a syrupy stupor.
Metabolic flexibility lets you take those risks, and live a little more, if that’s your thing. Otherwise, it also primes the body to get the best out of both the glycolytic and lipolytic systems. You get the explosiveness of the former, and the unquenchable stamina of the latter.
That’s a pretty great deal.
6. Boosts The Metabolism
The carnivore diet and the subject of metabolic rate combine for a very fuzzy picture. We know that T3, which is activated thyroid, goes down when the body slips into ketosis. Since thyroid is the master regulator of the metabolic rate, that can go down as an L on the carnivore scoresheet. Except, we have a bit of a curve ball, with T3 sensitivity going up, and it’s precursor, T4, staying the same. Implying that the body is not panicking, but merely adapting to a new status quo.
Then there’s the case of leptin also falling, which manages hunger, thyroid, and fat burning. It’s increased by carbs and calorie surpluses, while fats, fasting, and calorie deficits pull it down. Once again, it could be an issue on a ketogenic diet, but improvements to leptin signalling could be ameliorating the effects.
So, all that being said, there isn’t enough going on here to suggest that carnivore could veer you towards hypothyroidism, making the body sluggish, slow, and prone to fat gain. If anything, it’s a net neutral effect. But, at the same time, you could see benefits by occasionally injecting low toxicity carbs into the process.
It was pretty much for this reason that I used 5/2 carb cycling during my carnivore cut. The metabolism gets a boost, weight loss stalls get side-stepped, all without having to step away from the fundamentals of carnivore. Most of the time, it’s still zero carb, low inflammation, and heavily based on fat metabolism.
A Simple Template For Carnivore Carbs
If you think I’m just going to be the latest in the line of carnivory turned meat-based fitfluencers, think again. I’ll still back beef and butter as the optimal plate for weight loss, and I don’t see anything to suggest that it can’t be done over the long term. The thing is, eventually, all diets have to come to an end. Assuming they’re getting the job done.
Once that point is reached, the goalposts change. In the context of muscle gain, I’d argue that you need carbs to complete the picture. And that’s pretty much the same party line I’ve been following for the past year on this blog.
And then there’s the idea of an evolutionarily consistent diet, where we make the bold assumption that the nutritional plan that our ancestors followed hundreds of thousands of years ago, still works for us now. On that front, all the evidence points to a hyper-carnivore diet. Plants were seasonal, and meager in quality and quantity, while red meat was walking a few hundred yards away on the steppe, wagging its tail enticingly.
Ultimately, there are a few caveats to consider if we were to simply copy and paste the ancestral diet from the caves of prehistory to the apartment blocks of modernity. Humans, universally, have more stressors to deal with. Those old hunter-gatherers also didn’t lead a double life as bodybuilders.
Metabolically, we’re not much different, evolution hasn’t had a long enough stretch since then to have its say. But the environment is wildly different to what it used to be, as are our goals, and carbs make a good case for their anti-cortisol and pro-glycogen effects.
How big were cavemen anyway? It’s hard to say.
In any case, the evolutionarily consistent diet still holds true, and what I’ve suggested here remains a hyper-carnivore diet. Carbs would still take up just a fraction of the diet. To demonstrate that, here’s how I’ve set it up for my new bulking phase.
- Workout dextrose – 40g
- Post-workout rice – 80g
- Evening dextrose – 40g
This is pretty much at the top of the range that I’m comfortable using, as I’ve had no problems maintaining heavy intense sessions, and bouncing back from said sessions.
My total calories are hovering around 4200, which means that my carb quota takes up just 15% of daily intake. Fat, on the other hand, takes up 60%. This is effectively a fat-based diet, with all of that fuel source coming from red meat. Just as they did back in the good old days, in that serene slice of history that took place before agriculture arrived and wrecked the place.
Carnivore Diet Coach And Personal Trainer