People Swear By The Carnivore Diet For Weight Loss, But Dietitians Think It's Nuts
For meat lovers, typical diets can seem like such a drag (load up on veggies, opt for healthy fats, limit big juicy steaks and bacon). But if Joe Rogan is to be believed, you can chow down on all the steak and bacon of your dreams and still lose weight.
The approach is called the carnivore diet, and the comedian recently gave it a 30-day go in January, reporting that the all-meat, all-the-time regime helped him drop 12 pounds, improve a chronic skin condition, and feel more energetic (it also gave him explosive diarrhea for the first two weeks, but he seemed to be okay with that in the long run).
The only problem? Dietitians are skeptical about the diet’s total lack of evidence-based results and laser focus on a single food group, especially one that should typically be eaten in moderation compared to its fruit and vegetable counterparts.
The doctor-slash-athlete who originally pioneered the diet and wrote a book about it—an orthopedic surgeon named Shawn Baker—was embroiled in some controversy back in 2017: The state medical board of New Mexico, where he was practicing at the time, revoked his medical license due to concerns about his “incompetence to practice.”
But the controversy over Baker’s license isn’t really the point (his license was reinstated in February 2019 after an investigation). The point is whether it’s healthy or beneficial in any way to toss out your leafy greens and stock your fridge with cuts of meat. So, let’s dig in…metaphorically speaking.
What does the carnivore diet entail?
Get a load of this, bacon lovers: People on the carnivore diet eat only meat and animal products, and avoid all plant foods.
“I call this a mono diet, which means you’re basically eating one food,” says Abby Langer, RD, a Toronto-based dietitian and writer. “It’s meat, eggs, and coffee. Some people will eat dairy, but most believe that the lactose in milk makes it off-limits, because that’s sugar. No plant foods are allowed, which means you can’t eat any grains, nuts, seeds, beans, fruits, or vegetables.”
And there are no specific guidelines about how much meat you can or should eat per day on the diet, according to Amy Gorin, RDN, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area. (In 2018, Baker himself admitted to eating four pounds of meat per day.) There are also no guidelines about macronutrients, though most proponents of the diet seem to recommend getting the majority of calories from fat, not protein, which means choosing fattier cuts of meat.
Because there’s very little information available on the diet, it also hasn’t been studied yet—meaning most of its health claims and testimonials come from personal blogs and social media accounts. And before you think going carnivore is just another spin on the keto diet, think again. “Whether or not the carnivore diet would put you in ketosis really depends on the specific breakdown of what you’re eating,” explains Gorin. “Eating too much protein with too little fat may make it difficult to stay in ketosis.”
It’s a fine balance, basically, and the carnivore diet is not a shortcut for keto. (Sorry.)
So, what do you even eat on the carnivore diet?
Meat, right?! (Duh.) Except you’re also allowed eggs and other animal products, as well as shrimp. The diet recommends choosing fatty, ruminant meat from cows, elk, and deer. “I want to be clear that it is under no circumstances healthy to eat an all-meat diet,” says Gorin. “But [if you’re looking for] healthier meat and animal options, those would be lean proteins such as salmon and chicken breast.”
Either way, everyone seems to be in agreement that processed meats (like sausage) are not the best choice here. Instead, you should choose to eat:
- Ground beef and turkey, cuts of pork, steak, chicken breasts or thighs, and omega-3 rich seafood like salmon, mackerel, and shrimp
- Some dairy and butter, like hard cheeses and heavy cream
- Animal fats, like lard and ghee
What foods do you avoid on the carnivore diet?
Since the carnivore diet allows for animal products besides meat, the list of foods to avoid isn’t as simple as saying “anything that’s not meat.” Here’s a breakdown of off-limit foods:
- Fruits and vegetables (including starchy veggies like potatoes)
- Whole and refined grains
- Soft dairy like yogurt and skim milk
- Beans, nuts, and seeds
- Any kind of sugar or alcohol
What does eating the carnivore diet look like IRL?
So…animal products all day, every day. How do you make that work? Here’s a sample meal plan for a five-day week.
Breakfast: Fried eggs and bacon
Lunch: Salmon and pork chop
Snack: Beef jerky and cheddar cheese
Dinner: Grilled chicken thighs and mackerel
Breakfast: Cheddar and sausage omelette
Lunch: Tuna and beef tips
Snack: Shrimp and turkey jerky
Dinner: Roasted pork chop and bone broth
Breakfast: Eggs scrambled with ground turkey
Lunch: Salmon and lamb chop
Snack: Sardines and bacon
Dinner: Strip steak with bone broth
Breakfast: Sardines and poached eggs
Lunch: Grilled chicken thighs and shrimp
Snack: Cheddar cheese and turkey burger
Dinner: Sirloin and pork belly
Breakfast: Grilled chicken thighs and bacon
Lunch: Beef liver and ground beef
Snack: Hard boiled egg and parmesan cheese
Dinner: Ribeye with sardines
Are there any legit health benefits to the carnivore diet?
Some studies have found that high-protein, low-carb diets can help people lose weight. For example, an ongoing review of low-carb diets at NCBI suggests these diets can be responsible for lowering insulin resistance and helping with weight loss.
But there’s one huge difference here between this kind of diet (which includes keto) and the carnivore diet: You don’t have to cut out all carbs. With keto, you’re required to keep your carb count between 20 and 50 net grams per day; that still allows you to benefit from “good” carbs found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The long-term effects of a totally carb-free diet haven’t been well studied.
But what about those people who *have* lost weight on the carnivore diet?
Here’s the deal: Any time you eliminate major food groups from your diet (or in this case, pretty much all foods except meat), you’re likely going to be eating less. Less food equals fewer calories consumed, and eating fewer calories than you need is how weight loss happens. Period.
So, sure, you’ll probably lose weight on the carnivore diet in the short-term. You’ll have to say no to office snacks, birthday cake, and convenient on-the-go options like granola bars and trail mix.
That said, experts caution that the diet is likely unsustainable, and any weight you lose will probably come back as soon as you start eating a variety of foods again. “There are much healthier ways to lose weight that include making lasting lifestyle changes,” says Gorin. “It would be very difficult—and wouldn’t be healthy—to maintain an all-meat diet.”
What about all of these claims that the carnivore diet cures chronic health problems?
Bloggers and Instagrammers claim that, in addition to weight loss, the carnivore diet can cure a variety of ailments, from sinus and skin issues, to arthritis and depression (there are even #meatheals and #meatismedicine hashtags on Instagram).
But again, those are all anecdotal claims—there are no actual studies on the carnivore diet, so it’s impossible to say for sure what the health effects are, good or bad. “It could be the placebo effect, but it also could just be the result of weight loss,” says Langer. “It literally has no logical explanation—it’s not based in science at all.”
Langer also stresses that just because one person goes on the carnivore diet and has healthy blood vitals and reduced symptoms of a chronic condition, doesn’t mean that this will be true for everyone.
“Some people can eat more saturated fats and be okay, so that could be a reason their blood pressure and cholesterol are within the healthy range,” she says. “They also may have neglected to mention that they’ve lost weight, which in itself will make your blood pressure and cholesterol go down. They also may just be lying.”
What are the cons of trying a carnivore diet?
In case dietitians warning that it’s not a good move wasn’t enough, here are some other reasons you might want to avoid this mono-diet. First, it’s a high-cholesterol, high-sodium diet; while the NCBI low-carb diet review cited above showed positive results, a 2018 study in The Lancet found that low-carb diets paired with high amounts of animal protein (versus plant-based protein) are associated with higher mortality rates. This may partly be due to the higher amounts of cholesterol and sodium found in animal-based sources of protein.
With the carnivore diet, you’re also sacrificing lots of nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Look, protein is good for you—but it doesn’t give you everything you need. “This diet is a horrible idea,” says Gorin. “It cuts out important food groups, including fruits, vegetables, grains, and healthy fats.”
In fact, it could be downright dangerous for people with certain health issues. The high amounts of sodium and protein consumed may cause complications for people with chronic kidney disease, and eating too much saturated fat is a problem for people at risk of heart disease.
So I definitely shouldn’t try the carnivore diet, right?
Yup, it’s not a smart idea. “There’s a reason [health experts] say to eat the rainbow,” says Gorin. “You need a variety of foods for optimal health. These include fruits and vegetables, healthy fats like avocado and olives, and whole grains like quinoa and brown rice. You get so many important nutrients from these foods—from vitamins and minerals to antioxidants—that are important for good health.”
Langer agrees, as does, well, science. “You’re essentially cutting out foods that have been proven to be good for you, and that have never proven to be harmful.”
She also points out that, in addition to important vitamins and minerals, plant food contains fiber, which has been proven to promote weight loss, weight maintenance, improved cholesterol, and a lower risk of heart disease and stroke.
Plus, “fiber from plant foods are digested in the bowel by good bacteria…it improves gut health,” says Langer. On the carnivore diet, you’re missing out on all of these potential health benefits—and not only that, but you might start feeling pretty damn constipated from that lack of fiber.
It’s also worth pointing out that the USDA and the American Heart Association say the best diets are composed of mostly plant foods and limited amounts of saturated fat—a.k.a. the opposite of the carnivore diet.
“The Dietary Guidelines advise limiting saturated fat to no more than 10 percent of total daily calories,” explains Gorin. “Too much saturated fat can increase your cholesterol levels. So for a 2,000-calorie daily diet, you should get no more than 200 calories, or about 22 grams, of saturated fat.”
Gorin also points out that, if you were following the carnivore diet—say, by having a few eggs and a few slices of bacon—you’d get more than half of that amount for breakfast alone. Technically, it’s possible to eat meats lower in saturated fat, like skinless poultry, lean cuts of pork, and fish. But the carnivore diet recommends fattier cuts of meat (a.k.a. cuts high in saturated fat), because most of your calories on the diet should come from fat.
“The claims of this diet are just so crazy,” Langer says. “Its supporters are saying that vegetables are horrible, and that carbohydrates are toxic. None of this has ever been proven by science, and any studies they’re citing are not credible.”
Langer also emphasizes the fact that the carnivore diet could really take a toll on your mental and emotional health, too. “You’re going to be isolating yourself from social situations, and that’s just not okay,’” she says. “Mental and physical health go hand-in-hand in terms of their impact on your health and your life.”
The bottom line: If you’re looking to lose weight or improve your health, it’s best to do it through sustainable lifestyle changes—not going HAM (literally) on meat or animal products.
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