Ranking The Steak Diets
Hopping off the Food Pyramid is all the vogue these days, and there are plenty of people arriving at the realisation that red meat was never the driver of the modern metabolic epidemic. Steak is back on the menu, saturated fat gets the green light, and total nutrition is a reality within reach. Except there is still a major decision to be made. You’ve broken away from the mythical balanced diet, but how far do you go down the new extreme?
Meat-based – Ideally low carb, with 100g-250g coming from sugars. Heavy on red meat, poultry, pork, fish, eggs, dairy, alongside various unprocessed plant foods. For best results, you’re minimising plant toxins and fiber, so it’s not quite paleo.
Keto – 20-50g carbohydrates, potentially going up to 100g if you’re crunching weights with regular ferocity. Heavy on red meat, poultry, pork, fish, eggs, dairy, with low-calorie vegetables, berries, and a sprinkling of starches. Once again, assuming you’re sticking to the principles of total nutrition and low inflammation, it wouldn’t be such a good idea to overload on fiber. So don’t bother calculating net carbs.
Carnivore – 0g carbohydrates, and we’re not losing sleep over the trace amounts coming in liver and dairy (excluding milk). Entirely reliant on red meat, eggs, fish, and whatever dairy one can put up with.
And that’s the pack. You could obviously work in a few more options here, like high carb meat-based, or high fiber keto. Unfortunately, they don’t tick the boxes you need for achieving total nutrition without wrecking the body with defence chemicals and other toxins. We’ll stick with the steak triumvirate.
Now it’s time to actually put them up against each other, and see how they match up. Chances are, it’s going to hinge on what your specific needs are, so don’t go in expecting an outright winner.
If you’re jumping in with the intent of packing an extra ten pounds of muscle, then you’ll want a diet that supports performance and growth. Whereas, if you’re just looking to get as shredded as humanly possible, then you’ll benefit from maximising nutrient density. And the roads don’t stop at moving the scale, so there are plenty of angles for sizing up the steak diet.
How We’ll Be Rating Them
In this article, I’ll be ranking their performance across a few specific categories, each of which is bound to appeal to dieters holding certain goals in mind.
- Social – How it fits with visits to restaurants, parties, and other social duties
- Cognition – The benefits to alertness, focus and creativity
- Mental Wellbeing – The effects on stabilising neurochemistry
- Strength – Muscle retention, explosive power, glycogen repletion, and the anabolic potential
- Fat Loss – What the diet offers for maximising leanness, and targeting stubborn fat stores
- Stamina – How close it brings you to becoming unbreakable
- Recovery – How well your body tolerates stress, which inevitably includes sleep
- Autoimmune Conditions – The capacity for the diet to manage autoimmune disorders
- Long-Term Viability – The ease or difficulty in taking the diet for the long haul
If you haven’t gotten as far as defining your finish line, don’t sweat it. The following guide will help clear up the different angles of dieting, and some of them are going to resonate stronger than others.
Just eating steak isn’t enough to get you in this category, you also need to follow a few other fundamentals for optimal results. Carb intake overall should be low enough to let you avoid episodes of hypoglycemia, as well as allowing the metabolism to shift back and forth between glycolysis and lipolysis, thus assuring the holy grail of metabolic flexibility. Beyond that, those carbohydrates should be mainly sourced from low toxicity plants, and seed oils should be kept to an absolute minimum.
Social – You get to eat at most places, but you do need to keep an eye on vegetable oils sneaking in. Since fast food and processed foods are typically drenched in those oils, that’s certainly an issue that can mount up if you don’t get most of your calories through domestic means.
Cognition – There’s a drastic lowering of inflammation when compared to the standard western diet. Along with pumping the brakes on the sugar rollercoaster, and an abundant supply of creatine, choline, and DHA, your brain gets dealt a comprehensive upgrade. But you don’t get the ketones, and that’s a knock that we’ll soon get into.
Mental Wellbeing – Hyperglycemia gets debuffed, the glutamate pedal gets some relief, and lectins stop breaking through the blood-brain barrier. All of which favour more stable brain chemistry. Unfortunately, your well-being is massively influenced by the gut, and a meat-based diet might be enough of an intervention to reset the microbiota. Bad bugs can still survive on the lingering carbs.
Strength – This is where meat-based truly delivers. Steak provides all the micronutrients, protein and saturated fat to fuel high testosterone levels and support anabolism. Meanwhile, the accompanying glucose provides a strong signal to muscle protein synthesis (MPS) through insulin. The influx of carbs can also prove necessary to break past weight stalls. Assuming you’re aiming upwards.
Fat Loss – While meat-based provides plenty of the appetite suppression needed to maintain good portion control, it’s still a steady trigger for insulin, which can be a negative in this context. Insulin is anti-catabolic, for both muscle and fat. This can be a problem when you’re down to the stubborn holdouts of fat, around the waist, the glutes, and the thighs.
Stamina – Assuming meat-based doesn’t follow off the back of a ketogenic diet, you’re dropping points. The process of becoming fat and ketone adapted allows the body to optimise its use of energy substrates, and its own fuel stores, thereby enabling you to perform at moderate intensities for greater durations. Those ketones are effectively silenced when glucose is present. With that being said, you’re still going to making use of fat as a fuel source while being meat-based, so it’s still a few levels above the fat-phobic balanced diet.
Recovery – The addition of carbs can help recovery on two counts. On the anabolic side, it makes for better glycogen resynthesis, bouncing you back from intense bouts of lifting. For sleep, glucose raises serotonin and drops cortisol, shifting you into a more sedated state in the evenings. Both of which prime you to better cope with a hectic schedule. As a caveat, you can still get wrecked by mild episodes of hypoglycemia if you dose those carbs too heavily close to bedtime.
Autoimmune Conditions – This can hinge heavily on how well you manage the existing carbs. The dose might make the poison, or it might be that any dose gets received like poison. Because meat-based will likely fail to induce a gut-reset, it probably won’t provide anything special unless it’s preceded by the elimination diet.
Long-Term Viability – Meat-based is a slam-dunk if you’re not heavily beset by autoimmune disorders. The potential for cortisol dysregulation gets muted, as well as any concerns about its efficacy over sustained spells of muscle gain.
For some people, for many, the success of a ketogenic diet is defined by whatever number pops up on their blood ketone meter. The higher, the better. Since protein puts a dent in those numbers, high protein foods like muscle meat are generally treated with caution.
But there’s always going to be danger in arbitrarily defining your wellbeing by one measure. Especially when weighing up the possibility that blood ketones could represent the amounts that aren’t being effectively used by the body. Since protein is particularly useful in the pursuit of muscle-building, appetite control, and general wellbeing, we might as well make the most of it.
So this particular slant on the ketogenic diet would be decidedly high protein. And plenty of fats for company, mostly sourced from animal foods, with a smattering of olive oil. Nuts and seeds should generally be minimised, since they contain inflammatory and obesogenic Omega 6, as well as doing nothing special for appetite control.
The carbs themselves could be taken from fruits, which are typically designed to be eaten, and a few benign vegetables. Fiber shouldn’t be prioritised, since it provides little of value, decreases nutrient absorption, and acts as fertiliser for bacterial overgrowth.
Social – If you don’t like getting rudely shaken out of your ketone stupor, then that’s going to seriously restrict your options. Not that fine dining and fast food become hopeless endeavours. You just have to be savvy enough to play the game. Burgers without the buns. 20 ounces of steak, a wad of butter, and tightly portioned sweet potato chips. You’ve got options.
Cognition – The ketogenic diet might get framed as a weight-loss aid, but it’s also a nootropic giant. A steady supply of ketones is a clear upgrade to the stop-start nature of the sugar rollercoaster. The brain, despite the persistent myth, is entirely comfortable living off ketones alone. Those magical creatures also have the bonus effect of lowering appetite, creating the distraction-free setting you need for peak productivity.
Mental Wellbeing – Ketones also raise GABA, the neurotransmitter that acts as a brake and an antidote to the excitatory glutamate. This in itself will tilt your mood towards a steady, relaxed buzz. The drop in inflammation and elimination of hypoglycemia will also prevent your mood from swinging back and forth with each meal. That being said, there’s still the potential for plant toxins to destabilise your neurochemistry through gut distress.
Strength – The initial few weeks, even months of keto will almost certainly put a dent in your ability to bend barbells. But as the body steadily begins to unlock and hone in on long-dormant pathways, your ability to be explosive will reach similar levels to your glucose-powered past. It just won’t be quite as high, with the drop in water retention, insulin-powered anabolism, and glycogen resynthesis. Your ability to gain weight could also be compromised by the catabolic nature of maintaining low insulin levels. However, there’s a case to be made that these downsides could be mostly alleviated by titrating in high glycemic carbs around the workout.
Fat Loss – This is where the diet gets its wings. The lack of glucose and abundance of fats produce two adaptations that combine for a potent blubber-burning cocktail. Low insulin levels allow lipolysis to continue mostly uninterrupted across the day. A steady supply of fatty acids encourages the metabolism to get better at using it as a fuel source, an ability that can then be harnessed against its own fat stores.
The appetite-suppressive effect of ketones, alongside the simplicity of choice, then make dietary adherence that much easier. To cap all that off, lowering insulin and raising cortisol creates the ideal setting for teasing out stubborn fat stores, which are characterised by their heightened sensitivity to the anti-catabolic nature of insulin.
Stamina – The increase and improvement of fats as a fuel source provides a clear upgrade to your endurance levels. Fats burn for longer durations, and are present in far, far larger quantities. While you might be storing about 2400 calories of glucose as glycogen, fat stores will provide at least tens of thousands of calories at any point in time. Even if you’re bordering on emaciated. Ketones themselves will allow you to perform at a sustainable level at higher intensities, making you practically unbreakable and unbonkable.
Recovery – Ketones eliminate the sleep woes created by midnight episodes of hypoglycemia. They also raise GABA and improve adenosine levels, priming the body for a more sedated state in the evenings. This might be why ketogenic diets have been shown to increase deep sleep.
However, people can often struggle with their sleep while in ketosis, particularly over the initial few weeks. The breakdown of glycogen can get you waking up in the middle of the night with a bursting bladder. The increase in cortisol and lowering of serotonin and melatonin might leave you feeling too alert to sleep. Generally though, these problems dissipate after the adaptation period, and as it is, you’ll likely feel better rested even with a shortened sleep window.
Autoimmune Conditions – Carbs get down further, reducing inflammation and improving the immune response. Even better if you also make the point to eliminate seed oils. The ketones themselves improve gut health. Disorders like Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Grave’s disease, and psoriasis often get put into remission. But since a ketogenic diet doesn’t quite get rid of plant toxins, and the bad gut bugs still have scraps to survive off, it’s not quite the finished article for dealing with autoimmune conditions.
Long-Term Viability – Ketosis is likely going to sync up best with a season of weight loss, but if you’re at your best on ketones, there’s little to suggest that you won’t be able to take it up for the long run. Cortisol and sleep can be dysregulated, but that’s going to depend on the person, and that person’s overarching lifestyle. It does induce peripheral insulin resistance, but that’s hardly a problem if you’re not consuming sugar, and it’s easily reversed. Your gut diversity doesn’t need fiber to thrive when ketones are perfectly adept at running the show.
So as long as you’re able to keep your electrolytes in balance, the only red mark on ketosis would be the drawbacks for muscle gain. Drawbacks that could be alleviated by a well-timed carb infusion.
Social – Luckily, there are plenty of places offering steak of some sort, it’s just a question of what they’ve been fried in. As long as you don’t feel uncomfortable posing that question to the waiter, it’s hardly an issue. But you will nevertheless be severely restricted when you’re picking off the menu. Then there’s the case of alcohol, which unfortunately isn’t allowed unless you’re happy to look the other way.
Cognition – The ketone-fuelled brain is further improved by the addition of organ meat nutrition, as well as the elimination of neurotoxins like cyanide (almonds) and lectins (peanuts) which would otherwise contribute to inflammation in the brain.
The ridiculous simplicity of the diet itself keeps distractions to a minimum and frees up mental resources that would otherwise be drained figuring out what to have for dinner. Decision making is a finite resource. On top of the appetite-suppressing ketones, cravings are practically cut out altogether thanks to the gut reset. Your distractions will be minimal.
Mental Wellbeing – Carnivore forces a hard reset on the gut, and gives your tissues the respite from inflammation that it needs to heal themselves. This leads to a level of zen that is unmatched. The peaks and troughs of a brain being pulled back and forth by the whims of a modern lifestyle, those get whittled down to a more stable baseline. The only issue would be the fatigue inflicted by insomnia, but that’s not common enough a side effect to mark this down.
Strength – Not much different to the keto version. The lack of carbs offers a few downsides, which is contrasted with the all-powering nutrition of red meat. You can absolutely gain weight, but it’s up to a point, and there may come a time when you have to call in reinforcements.
Fat Loss – This is the ultimate diet for healthy weight loss. No carbs to get in the way of relentless lipolysis, large doses of saturated fat that further pump fat loss through mitochondrial fusion, and high-density nutrition that lets you comfortably drop weight with ultra-low calories. You simply can’t do better.
Stamina – If you’re a morning lifter, this is your chance to shine. Carnivore puts the rockets on the cortisol pump, creating a window where your energy levels can thrive. Adding in ketone magic, and you’re going to struggle to find the bottom of the barrel.
Recovery – The further drop in inflammation leaves no barriers to the mechanisms of recovery, so feel free to take the body to its limits. Once you get past the adaptation phase, of course. As for sleep, it’s much the same as keto. There can be speedbumps, but it’s worth taking the time to persist until the body finds its new rhythm.
Autoimmune Conditions – About as good as it gets for managing autoimmune disorders. The metabolically critical Omega 3:6 puzzle gets solved by cutting down the latter. The gut gets a much-needed reset, possibly even laying down a platform from which you can safely reintegrate plant foods.
Long-Term Wellbeing – A diet as restrictive as this can certainly be difficult to hold up over a matter of years, if not decades. But then there’s the respite it provides from autoimmune conditions, the absence of cravings, as well all the upgrades it offers to your psychology and physiology.
There’s every chance you end up sticking around. As for concerns of unquenched nutritional deficiencies and hormone dysregulation, they haven’t yet been substantiated. To be perfectly honest, I’d find it hard to believe that a diet that very much matches our evolutionary patterns couldn’t go the distance.
Which One Rules The Roost?
That’s going to hinge largely on the goals you have in your sights, the contexts you’re saddled with. Maybe your metabolism is in such a precarious spot that straight carnivore is the only option. Perhaps you’re a hard gainer that can’t put on appreciable muscle without being buffered by carbs.
There’s also plenty of real estate to be hogged in the gaps between the carnivorous tetrarchy. You could quite easily combine the carnivore template with a timely infusion of dextrose around the workout, without having to put the former in jeopardy. I wouldn’t call that meat-based, since workout carbs are transient and typically devoid of any toxins. For me at least, this is the sweet spot for marrying carnivore with a muscle-building lifestyle.
Then there’s the possibility of carb cycling within a carnivore or ketogenic diet, which could allow you to spend the majority of your time in ketosis while still getting the perks of the insulin bomb. That’s not necessarily going to work for everyone however, since the return to carbs can provoke flare-ups, and the transition back into ketosis can be rocky.
So there’s more nuance than this article can cover. But if I were to sweep across this topic with broad strokes, then I’d favour each diet for the following goals.
Meat-based – Muscle gain while staying social
Keto – Fat loss and brain gains
Carnivore – Fat loss, brain gains, and eliminating autoimmune disorders (at least the side effects)