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The Carnivore Diet – What Is It, And What Are the Potential Risks?

By Jiri Kaloc

The carnivore diet is said to promise some amazing benefits such as weight loss, better digestive health, improved mental clarity, and even improved autoimmune disease management. Two questions one should to ask themselves with any diet is one, what it is exactly? And two, what are the potential risks? Let’s take a closer look at these questions and the likely dietary risks of an only meat diet.

What can I eat on the carnivore diet?

The carnivore diet meal plan is an extremely restrictive elimination diet based on the principle of consuming virtually zero carbs and avoiding all plant-based foods in favour of high-fat and protein rich animal foods. A carnivore diet shopping list would consist of red meat, eggs, and fatty fish. It does include a limited percentage of low lactose dairy products such as hard aged cheeses, ricotta and cottage cheese, full fat natural, Greek yogurt, and kefir too.

The carnivore diet aims to lose weight by eating only high-levels of protein and saturated fat found in animal products. When you eat meat, the animal-based protein keeps you feeling fuller longer. And because you feel satiated, you eat fewer calories at each meal and thus progressively drop in body weight.

It should be said that a low carb intake also contributes to weight loss and losing body fat, but according to nutritional guidelines from government health services like the NHS, knocking carbs out of your diet isn’t a requirement. Simply reducing carbs from processed foods and avoiding sugar is as effective in weight loss. The lack of fibre in the carnivore diet can also lead to poor gut health. People diagnosed with certain conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, chronic kidney disease, or women that are pregnant or breast feeding should avoid it.

Is a Carnivore diet plan a good choice?

As you know from the previous article, there are no long-term studies on a carnivore diet meal plan. We can only rely on reports from people who are on it. But you don’t have to be a scientist to wonder if maybe such a heavily unbalanced nutrition plan would have limited health benefits. But are these thoughts based on pure bias? Society is fed specific wellness and food messages like “Eat less red meat, more plant foods, fruits and vegetables” from an early age.

Carnivore dieters have proven to suffer from unfavourable side effects of only eating meat and a zero carb diet, but they normally only occur during the period when your body is acclimating to these changes. Many diet followers call this period the “trough” as it can be uncomfortable and cause issues with blood sugar regulation making it hard to maintain motivation.

Flu-like symptoms are the first to appear as your body receives no carbs over a long period. It is a type of a natural alarm since there is little glucose in the blood stream which effects blood sugar levels, and all glycogen reserves have been depleted. Your body is simply in the process of accommodating to the only meat requirements of the carnivore diet. It is learning to fuel itself by burning body fat and releasing ketones into the bloodstream to keep you going. Once this adaptation is over, any negative reactions will go away.

Why is the Carnivore diet bad for me?

The short answer is that an animal based diet isn’t balanced. Let’s take a closer look at the nutrient spectrum the carnivore diet provides and the effects it can have on the human body.

It lacks vitamins and other essential nutrients

A piece of raw steak covered in pepper, ready to be cooked.
Based on current science, e know that protein-rich meals tend to be really good at satiating you and keeping hunger away.

[/caption]Animal meat contains only very small amounts of vitamin C, which is not very heat stable. That’s why it’s virtually impossible to get the recommended daily amount of it on the carnivore diet. Also, many people arrive at a meat only diet because of digestive problems as mentioned in the last article. That’s why this diet usually excludes high lactose dairy intake as it is not tolerated well. This expands the range of potential nutrient deficiencies of the fat soluble vitamins K2 and calcium. Plus, if a person eats muscle meats only and avoids organ meats like liver, then vitamin A, folate, manganese, and magnesium should be on this list too.

There’s an argument that people following a carnivore meal plan might have lower requirements of the preceding nutrients than those eating a regular diet. And it is true that people who reported to be on this diet long term did not get scurvy which is a disease resulting from vitamin C deficiency. Based on the current recommended daily amounts, the carnivore diet should cause deficiencies in the general public. But considering case reports from the carnivore community, we can’t be sure. Hopefully, more data will be available as time passes.

It contains no phytonutrients

Dozens of hot, cooked meat skewers ready to be eaten.
People on the carnivore diet usually gravitate towards cuts of fatty meat, which contains zero carbs, so saturated fats become their main energy source.

[/caption]Phytonutrients such as curcumin, beta-carotene, quercetin, resveratrol, and others can be very healthy. Their only source is from plant foods and they help us through a process called hormesis. Just like lifting weights creates a stress on your muscles that forces them to adapt and get stronger, similarly, phytonutrients cause stress that motivates the body to become more resilient. They also help reduce inflammation, repair DNA damage, and detoxify potential carcinogens via this process. So, eating a diet with no plants means losing out on these benefits.

It might be hard on your liver

Eating mostly meat means eating a lot of protein. It’s ok to have a protein intake of roughly 10 – 30 % of your total calories. Things start to get problematic if you go over 35 %. When you don’t get enough carbohydrates and fat, your liver can make glucose from protein through gluconeogenesis. This process creates nitrogen waste, which is converted to urea and disposed of. In situations of a very high protein ratio, the urea cycle might get overwhelmed and lead to nausea, diarrhoea, and in extreme cases, potentially even death. This is why it’s essential to always go for fatty steaks or add animal fat to meat to avoid overloading your system with protein on the carnivore diet.

Slices of thick raw bacon on cutting board.

Is it worth the risk?

In theory, you can add the missing vitamins and minerals to any carnivore diet food list, and choose fattier meats and fish to do well on it. A carnivorous diet, just like its polar opposite, the vegan diet, can work in the short-term. But right now, we simply don’t know what impact it’s going to have over the long-term. Some people might be well suited to thrive on the carnivore diet indefinitely, or it could just as easily prove to be unsustainable. Others might take the risk because it’s the only thing that helps them effectively manage their disease.

If you plan on trying out the carnivore diet for yourself, eat grass fed meat and organ meat instead of processed meats. A balanced diet would include food groups and vegetables that provide more healthy fats and carbohydrates for optimal health. Whether it’s a vegan, carnivore or a high carb diet, it’s always important to first learn lots about it and consult experts to better understand the potential impact it might have on you. Only then you can truly weigh the pros and cons. How many meals do you thing you could eat on a strict carnivore diet?