If You’re Tempted to Try the Carnivore Diet, Read This First
The newly popular carnivore diet may initially strike you as pretty wild. Eating nothing but meat all day, every day? Sounds like something a picky toddler would come up with to get out of eating their vegetables — and you would probably wind up with some serious nutrition gaps as a result. But anecdotal evidence can be compelling. In recent months, folks like author Jordan Peterson’s daughter Mikhaila and doctor-slash-Instagram-fitness-aficionado Shawn Baker have made the news with claims that a meat-only, no-plants dietary plan has cured diseases like arthritis and depression and prompted massive weight loss. These testimonials can ignite our curiosity and even lead us to consider trying the carnivore diet.
But before you jump on the meat bandwagon, it’s helpful to give careful consideration to the science (or lack thereof) behind such an extreme approach to eating. Does the evidence support these celebrities’ health claims? And if not, what else might you be doing to your body by doubling down on burgers and bacon?
How We Got Here
Though it may sound like a fresh new craze, the carnivore diet’s popularity probably shouldn’t surprise us. For years, the similarly meat-heavy paleo diet has held dieters’ attention with the theory that humans are intended to eat wild game like our ancestors. Quite likely, this belief has paved the way for our fascination with the health potential of animal products. Plus, since the advent of the Atkins diet in the 1960s, low-carb eating plans have been a top choice for millions of weight-loss seekers, culminating in the current affinity for the carb-limited keto diet.
Weight Loss — But Not in a Healthy Way
These low-carb regimens have captivated consumers for good reason: they do actually make you lose weight. But with any carb-restricted eating plan, the carnivore diet included, results are generally short-term. Here’s how it works: Normally, when you eat plenty of carbohydrates, they get turned into glucose, a source of energy. If there are any carbs left over, your body has an alternative plan for them. “Any glucose that’s not used right away is stored as glycogen, which will later be called upon to provide energy for the body, and especially for the brain,” says Alyssa Ardolino, RD, nutrition communications coordinator for the International Food Information Council. But when carbs are restricted or eliminated, the body plows through these glycogen reserves. Explains Ardolino, “Storing glycogen also requires that we store water. When glycogen reserves are depleted, water goes along with them, leading to rapid weight loss.” But this quick pound-shedding is often unsustainable. “Once you begin to eat carbs again, your glycogen stores — and the water that comes along with them — will be replenished and the weight will quickly come back on,” she notes.
In addition to causing the body to shed weight from lack of carbs, people on the carnivore diet may lose weight out of sheer boredom. Any time a diet allows only one type of food, whether it’s cabbage soup or smoothies, we tend to get sick of it pretty fast, especially if we’re used to dietary variety. So though it may sound appealing to feast on steak and pork chops, can you really consume enough meat in a single day to meet your calorie requirement?
Carnivore for Your Health?
Going carnivore comes with another downside. Any so-called “mono-diet” (an eating pattern that involves only one food item) leads to losing a lot more than just pounds. Critical nutrients like fiber, calcium, and vitamins A, C, and K also go missing with the omission of fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy. So even if diving all-in with meat “works” to make you lose weight for awhile, you may end up with undesirable complications like severe constipation, poor blood clotting, or a good old-fashioned case of scurvy.
As for evidence of its purported health benefits beyond weight loss, an all-meat diet has thus far has not been the subject of much scientific study. Search for “carnivore diet” in medical journal databases and you’ll find research on dogs, leopard cats, and even “captive giant anteaters,” but not much on humans. Most of the information proliferated online about the diet’s supposed benefits has come from bloggers, Instagrammers, and message boards — a red flag when it comes to establishing reliable evidence for health claims. “I have not found any research to support that following this diet will benefit your health,” affirms Ardolino.
The Bottom Line
Health considerations aside, adopting a carnivorous diet can have a major impact on your lifestyle, and not necessarily in a good way. “It’s impractical, unhealthy, and potentially expensive to only eat meat at all meals,” says Ardolino. And saying goodbye to all other foods may pose significant hurdles to your social life, not to mention your options for dining out. Many people on restrictive diets end up feeling isolated and limited. So before you sharpen your steak knives and fire up the grill, consider your health — and your lifestyle.
Looking for some recipes with meat (but not only meat)? Check out our “To Eat” board on Pinterest.
(Photo via Getty)