It won’t take too long to find someone who’ll point out that if you had a sprinkling of coffee in your morning routine, you’re no longer a true carnivore. The same person would definitely have an issue with the dextrose you add to your intra workout drink. Followed by a seizure when he or she found out about the evening dose of raw honey.
But while you can certainly argue that none of those are technically carnivore, it’s still the closest label we have. A diet of 95% steak and 5% rice is still closer to being carnivore than it is any other diet. You might call it omnivory, you might call it meat-based, but it’s still 95% carnivore. Dogma be damned.
So with this rigorous analysis in mind, here are a few variations of carnivore that are worth the consideration for people who want to tailor it to fit their own lifestyle and goals.
The major reasons are going to be flexibility, by increasing their food choices, and muscle gain, by making it that bit easier to add weight while eating a highly thermogenic and satiating diet.
1. Caffeinated Carnivore
Let’s get this out of the way. Caffeine is a neurotoxin. It can raise anxiety when taken chronically. The coffee been also contains salicylates, which can cause itching and cramping. Caffeine suppresses collagen formation. It certainly has the potential to be problematic, especially when taken in hefty, frequent doses.
But caffeine can also be a great tool for boosting alertness and productivity in the mornings, as well as reducing perception of effort and thereby improving the intensity of the workouts. It’s a potential antidote for people who find that ketosis makes them too mellow.
I’m not against the view that while plants are generally problematic due to their toxins and nutrient scarcity, they can be used medicinally, to accentuate certain mechanisms on top of an optimal carnivorous diet.
To get the best out of it, I’d recommend creating a few rules in your coffee regime to prevent unwanted side effects.
1. No caffeine after midday, or at least 9 hours before sleep – Caffeine has a half-life of 5 hours, and that means if you take 200mg at 3pm, you’ll still have 100mg swimming around your bloodstream at 8pm. More than enough to diminish sleep quality, even if you no longer feel its stimulating effects.
2. No caffeine for 90 minutes after waking – Caffeine exerts much of its stimulating effects by lowering adenosine, the body’s chemical for getting you tired and ready for bed. Unfortunately, pressing the trigger too early can result in adenosine levels rebounding sharply in the aftermath, rewarding you with a midday energy crash.
Waiting 90 minutes before having that first sip will allow you to sidestep that unwanted side effect, while also allowing your body’s natural cortisol spike to do the initial grunt work.
3. Use caffeine pills – This is for people who are squeamish at the thought of ingesting aflatoxins and salicylates along with their caffeine fix. Just get the caffeine in pill form, and you won’t have to worry about the baggage.
4. Having low caffeine days – As a drug, caffeine is all about managing the dose to limit the side effects. The more you have, the greater the tolerance, the more you need, the worse the side effects. You definitely don’t want to be in the position where you need your coffee just to make the headache go away so you can feel normal again.
That’s why you’re best off erring on the side of minimal effective dose, and keeping yourself down to 1-2 cups of coffee a day, or under 150mg. Then you should also strongly consider setting days aside where you avoid caffeine altogether or keep it down to one small cup.
2. Power Carbs
If the thought of adding coffee to a carnivore regime has carnivore gatekeepers in a panic, wait till they hear the idea of adding plain glucose to their workouts. Well, this has been a staple for me over the past couple of years. I’m not about to suggest that sugar isn’t the villain we’ve made it out to be, but I would put forward the idea that it can be beneficial as an ergogenic aid.
Much like caffeine.
Ingesting glucose during workouts, preferably alongside electrolytes, will add an extra layer of intensity to a keto-adapted system, while also restoring depleted glycogen stores.
Yes, it’s true the keto-adapted athletes show unimpaired glycogen stores. It’s true that the most you could expect to deplete glycogen stores, would be by around 30%. But it’s also the case that you can still experience localised depletion in fast twitch muscle fibers, which can impede performance even when overall glycogen stores are near perfect.
Your muscle fibers themselves produce less force in the presence of low glycogen availability, which in turn reduces mechanical tension and impairs muscle growth. Simply training to failure won’t be enough if the muscle fibers are getting handicapped.
This can be remedied by adding in a 30-50 gram dose of fast carbs, like dextrose, during the workout alongside electrolytes. There are no accompanying toxins, besides sugar. It won’t interrupt ketosis in the aftermath, since the incoming glucose will be quickly swallowed up by the muscles. But it can offset keto-adaption if you’re still transitioning into the diet, so you don’t want to add in this variation during the first 3 months of carnivore.
By adding carbs on top of a keto-adapted metabolism, you’ll be getting the absolute best out of your workouts. You’re using a cocktail of triglycerides, ketones, and glucose to reach greater intensities. It’s been a staple of my training for a couple of years, and I’ve seen nothing but upside.
3. 5/2 Carb Cycling
I’m going to test the defences of dogma a little further with a setup that I’ve seen decent success with in the past. There are times when power carbs won’t be enough to fix localised glycogen depletion, and glucose itself is a potent driver of muscle growth through the activation of MTOR through insulin.
You can still activate MTOR just fine on carnivore through the amino acid leucine, but there is an argument to be made that because insulin is a more powerful trigger, the effects on muscle protein synthesis will be higher and longer through glucose. In fact, we know for fact that glucose and protein is a greater anabolic trigger than glucose or protein alone.
This puts us in a bit of a pickle. On one side, many of us like the idea of maximising muscle gain. But plenty in that same camp will also be loath to give up the revelatory effects of carnivore by including carbs and subsequently giving up brain-boosting ketones and inviting in problematic plant toxins.
That’s where I’d suggest the 5/2 model. 5 days of straight carnivore, followed by 2 days of a moderate carb intake of around 150-200 grams. The carbs would come in the form of low toxicity plants like white rice, and preferably included later in the day to avoid interfering with the morning cortisol pulse.
If you’re fortunate enough to work regular 9-5 hours, then you’ll be able to power through the business side of things while remaining at your best. The weekend carbs would have a mild sedative effect, but shouldn’t leave you feeling wrecked. Then the following working week, you’d take at worst a day to be back living and breathing ketones.
The regular infusion of carbs will also be a tonic for those who are apprehensive at the thought of losing their treasured metabolic flexibility, since you’re still making plenty of use of the glucose and insulin pathways. I can’t say I’ve had any issues dealing with blood sugar spikes, and my tolerance for carbs has remained high.
Obviously this falls apart if you use this split as an opportunity to have cheat days. You’d be tanking your dopamine, wrecking the gut, and significantly increasing your chances of relapsing back into your sorry western diet days.
4. Evening Carbs
There can still be those who struggle to build muscle even on a 5/2 setup, in which case I’d suggest the possibility of going nuclear by titrating the sugar across the evening. As I’ve mentioned, breakfast carbs just aren’t the best of ideas since they put the dampers on your morning energy, as well as cause digestive distress at a point where you’re at your freshest.
Evening carbs on the other hand, might be fair game as long as they’re not taken too close to bed time. I’d still suggest keeping a three hour window of no food before your appointed bedtime.
Keep in mind that this will offset many of the benefits of ketones, so you will have to wave goodbye to peak low carb zen. And if you go too crazy on the dose, you can still significantly affect sleep quality by putting the body in a hypoglycemic state. For this reason, I’d still recommend keeping the carbs under 150 grams.
Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of this option, but it’s still a clear improvement on a standard high carb diet.
5. Proper Ketogenic Diet
A proper ketogenic diet, meaning one devoid of seed oils and not overly reliant on heavy cream and bacon grease, acts as a precursor to carnivore. Many people, like myself, stumble upon keto and get great results. Then we get the lightbulb moment.
Why not take things that little bit further?
Maybe you’re not quite ready to say goodbye to blueberry smoothies and walnut salads. In which case, that’s absolutely fine. I’d be happy to go out on a limb and say that most people won’t experience significant negatives from including a smattering of fruits, vegetables, and nuts in their diet.
Fructose, fiber, plant toxins, these are all problematic compounds for your digestion. But a healthy system should be able to deal with minor amounts of these without much fuss.
The caveat here is ‘healthy’. People suffering from leaky gut and autoimmune conditions should strongly consider going through the full carnivore initiation before stretching their wings. Whereas those who have already done the hard work and revitalised their system, can reap the rewards by increasing their dietary flexibility.
Keeping the total carbs under 50 grams will keep most in ketosis, and there will be highly active people that can hold onto ketosis at intakes as high as 100 grams.
Obviously, at this point it’s just keto rather than carnivore, but you can still tick off many of the fundamentals of the latter, by keeping seed oils to an absolute minimum, while choosing from low toxicity carbs and getting the bulk of the calories from red meat rather than white meat or fish.
Ultimately, the style of carnivore you choose should be the one that fits your circumstances and your goals, both physique and lifestyle. Some people are obsessed with maximising muscle gain, others want to sharpen their cognition and keep it primed across the day, and there will be those who will be happy simply to keep their autoimmune conditions at bay.
And if you wanted, there is no good reason you couldn’t simply persist with straight carnivore and skip the logistics of plant reintegration. There are those that espouse the dangers of long-term ketosis, but the mechanisms that are cited are hypothetical at best, such as the lowering of T3. They’ll forget to mention that while T3 goes down, sensitivity to T3 goes up, meaning the metabolism is likely getting by just fine.
If we weren’t able to survive across long periods on a fully ketogenic carnivorous diet, we wouldn’t be here. So don’t let a few naysayers bring you down from your palaeolithic nostalgia tour.