What Is the Carnivore Diet?

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The Paleo diet has taken the world by storm over the past decade, but different versions of this diet have been popping up in the last couple of years. You might have heard of the Autoimmune Paleo Diet (AIP), Dr. Terry Wahls’ Protocol, the Primal Diet (which includes dairy products), or a low-carb or keto version of the paleo diet. 

If you’re still not finding relief or simply searching for something new, you may want to look into the Carnivore Diet. 

The Carnivore Diet is the exact opposite of the vegan diet. While the vegan diet is 100% plant-based, the Carnivore Diet is 100% animal-based—although some versions may include herbs and spices or even coffee or alcohol. Still, you might call it a meat diet.

This diet is generally pretty high in fat. It can be a ketogenic diet, depending on how you balance your three macros (protein, fat, and carbohydrates). To do the ketogenic diet, you need to have a diet that’s at least 65% fat.

The keto diet also requires making sure you’re not overdoing the protein, or it could get converted into glucose via a process called gluconeogenesis. But not everyone following the Carnivore Diet does a ketogenic version.

All that said, please talk to your doctor or health practitioner if you’re considering rotating a Carnivore Diet into your seasonal eating.

What Is the Carnivore Diet? 

This diet is made up of all animal foods: overall, this means meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. The strictest version is simply meat, salt, and water. This diet tends to emphasize meat from grass-fed animals and it also focuses on eating all parts of the animal, so it’s much more than just typical muscle meat. 

On a Carnivore Diet, you’ll be able to choose from:

  • Fatty cuts of meat, like bacon, ribeye steak
  • Organ meats
  • Added fats like bacon grease, lard, tallow, duck fat, and other animal fats
  • High-fat dairy like grass-fed butter (or ghee) and cream
  • Bone broth
  • Bone marrow
  • Jerky
  • Fatty fish, like sardines and mackerel
  • Herbs and spices as desired and as tolerated

And there are more, as outlined below. You can see that the Carnivore Diet is very much a nutrient-dense diet that’s rich in traditional foods. 

Health Benefits of the Carnivore Diet

Despite its limited variety, a meat-based diet may provide several health benefits. Proponents of this diet, like orthopedic surgeon Shawn Baker, MD, recommend it for diabetes and blood sugar problems, high blood pressure, gut issues, joint pain, hormone imbalances, and even mental health conditions. 

It’s also recommended for losing fat, gaining muscle, and improving performance. 

Many of those health benefits are due to the fact that it’s essentially an elimination diet. Health practitioners recommend elimination diets for a variety of health problems, including inflammation and chronic diseases like autoimmune conditions. The Autoimmune Paleo Diet is a good example.

However, the Carnivore Diet may also promote health because it’s so high in protein and important nutrients. That said, here are a few conditions that may be helped by this way of eating:

Allergies 

The Carnivore Diet can be used as an elimination diet. By eating all meat, you’re automatically avoiding a lot of food groups. You’re automatically eating: 

To make this diet low histamine, you’d need to keep meat frozen as long as possible before using, avoid aged beef, and make sure fish is properly frozen (right after catch). Yogurt and most cheeses would also be off the menu and eggs may need to be avoided, depending on your sensitivity. 

Since these are common triggers of inflammation in the gut, taking them out for a time can help your gut heal. Since leaky gut is often behind food allergies, a Carnivore Diet could help you tolerate many or all of these foods again. 

These anti-nutrients or plant toxins, like oxalates or salicylates, are completely absent if you’re avoiding all plants in your diet.

Weight Loss

Health practitioners may recommend the Carnivore Diet for obesity and losing body fat. Because it eliminates carbohydrates, this diet is very much a low-carb diet. While researchers haven’t specifically focused on the Carnivore Diet, there’s a lot of research out there on low-carb diets.

A 2013 review published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that a very low-carb diet helped study participants maintain long-term weight loss. While the main outcome was weight loss, there were also benefits for improving triglycerides, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, as well as blood sugar and insulin. 

The Carnivore Diet, with its emphasis on animal products, is also a high protein diet. High protein diets are also helpful for weight loss. In a large review study published in 2012, high protein diets were better at promoting weight loss than calorie-restricted diets.

Type 2 Diabetes

Again, this diet is also naturally a low-carb diet (actually, it’s zero-carb), so it’s stabilizing to blood sugar levels. 

According to a year-long study of 259 overweight diabetic patients, a low-carb Mediterranean diet was superior to both a traditional Mediterranean diet and the American Diabetic Association’s (ADA) recommended diet in stabilizing blood sugar. 

A very low-carb, ketogenic diet was used in another study of type 2 diabetic patients and was shown to improve blood sugar, lessen medication use, and lower hemoglobin A1c in patients.

As mentioned, a low-carb diet helps lower body weight. Being overweight (especially with an increased waist circumference) is a characteristic of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic Syndrome tends to accompany both type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Heart Disease 

The Carnivore Diet may also be helpful for heart disease and its risk factors, including increased waist circumference, high blood sugar/diabetes, and high blood pressure. 

In a study of 4 different diets published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the Atkins diet had the best effects on blood pressure and weight loss, as compared to the Zone, Ornish, or LEARN (Lifestyle, Exercise, Attitudes, Relationships, and Nutrition) diets.

Mental Health

According to some research, a very low-carb/ketogenic diet, like the Carnivore Diet, can help soothe anxiety by balancing neurotransmitters like glutamate and GABA. Research has shown that increasing GABA levels are important for controlling anxiety. 

A review of 15 studies also showed a very low-carb/ketogenic diet was helpful for depression, schizophrenia, and animal models of Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD. While diet is rarely the whole answer for any of these health challenges, it’s nearly always helpful or supportive.

Carnivore Diet List

If you’re wondering what to eat on this diet besides straight-up meat, you have options! Here’s a list of foods to enjoy when following this diet:

Fats

Fat is an important component of the Carnivore Diet—particularly because there’s no fat coming from plant foods, like cooking oils, nuts, seeds, peanut butter, etc. Here are some great fats to include:

  • Lard
  • Tallow
  • Duck fat
  • Grass-fed butter (or ghee for a lactose-free Carnivore Diet)
  • Heavy whipping cream (Check for food sensitivity to dairy first)
  • Aged grass-fed cheese, including cheddar, gruyere, manchego, gouda, blue cheese, and parmesan (Check for food sensitivity to dairy first)
  • Pepperoni/salami/prosciutto
  • Bacon fat/lard/beef tallow for cooking
  • Healthy mayo
  • Pasture-raised pork rinds (I like this assortment)
  • Sardines
  • Wild-caught salmon

Proteins

Proteins are, of course, the staple on the Carnivore Diet. Find a local farmer if you can. If not, there are some great mail-order options that ship humanely raised grass-fed meats and quality seafood right to your door.

  • Pasture-raised pork & bacon
  • Grass-fed beef
  • Bison
  • Duck
  • Wild boar
  • Venison
  • Turkey
  • Cage-free/pasture-raised chicken
  • Cage-free/pasture-raised eggs
  • Lamb
  • Wild-caught fish (salmon, tuna, shellfish, cod, sea bass, mackerel, mahi mahi, anchovies, sardines, lobster, scallops, mussels, crab)

How do all these great food options come together on the dinner table or lunch bag? We’ll share some meal ideas next.

Carnivore Diet Meal Plan: What’s on the Menu? 

 If you’re wondering what exactly a Carnivore Diet looks like on any given day, no worries! Here’s an idea of what you might eat on this diet. You’ll find a lot of carnivore-friendly recipes here on Wellness Mama. We’ll include many of them below:

Breakfasts

Here are some delicious and healthy breakfasts you can enjoy on the Carnivore Diet. (You may need to eliminate the vegetables if you’re doing a strict version):

Lunches

Lunch can absolutely be leftovers from dinner the night before. But, here are some additional options for carnivore-friendly lunches:

Snacks 

Snacks can be leftovers, but you might find that you’re not hungry between meals. Otherwise, jerky is always a great option to have around. You can even make it yourself:

Dinners

Dinners are the meal where the Carnivore Diet really shines. You can seek out your favorite steak house or burger joint for an easy carnivore date night. For nights in with the family, try out these recipes: 

Fats & Condiments

You can mix up your fats to make meals more interesting. Below you can learn how to render your own tallow or flavor your butter—if you’re including herbs.

Need help meal planning? Check out my meal planning service! 

Drawbacks of the Carnivore Diet

There are a few things to be aware of if you want to try this diet. The first thing is that this diet is usually only recommended for the short term. 

Because it avoids all plant foods, including fruits, veggies, herbs, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds, this diet could lead to nutrient deficiencies, including important vitamins like the B complex vitamins and vitamin E. 

It’s also possible to develop deficiencies in major minerals like calcium and magnesium and micronutrients, such as chromium and iodine. 

Deficiencies can lead to side effects. Some side effects people experience when going on the Carnivore Diet include the following:

  • constipation
  • low energy
  • bloating
  • headaches
  • irritability
  • brain fog
  • cravings
  • undesired weight loss

The gut microbiome relies on a process known as saccharolytic fermentation, which is the process of breaking down carbohydrates, such as vegetables. This process helps to produce butyrate, propionate, and acetate, 3 short-chain fatty acids that are critical for a healthy gut environment. Specifically, butyrate helps to prevent leaky gut by maintaining the integrity of tight gap junctions, clears ammonia, and helps with metabolism. Propionate plays a role in T-cell mediated immunity. And acetate is used for cholesterol synthesis and lipogenesis. Saccharolytic fermentation relies on prebiotic fibers, such as inulin and oligosaccharides.

You can do a few different things to avoid these side effects. Keep reading for some tips for success:

Tips for Success on the Carnivore Diet 

To be successful on the Carnivore Diet, you’ll need to plan ahead. Here are some helpful tips for thriving on a meat-based diet:

  • Try gradually increasing your intake of carnivore foods over a couple of weeks rather than jumping in 100%. Start by slowly reducing your vegetable/fruit/nut intake. Ideally, you’d already be eating a paleo-style diet or would be grain-free for a while when starting.
  • At first, commit to following the Carnivore Diet for 30, 60, or 90 days. A longer time period will allow you to see positive changes.
  • Don’t try to under-eat on the Carnivore Diet and deprive yourself. Eat to satiety.
  • Don’t overly restrict herbs and seasonings. Make this diet sustainable for you.
  • Watch your electrolytes— make sure to use unprocessed salt as needed.
  • Use magnesium, HCl, and enzymes as needed to support digestion as your body adapts.
  • Talk to your doctor about adding a butyrate supplement like Tributyrin.

The main thing is to make this diet work for you. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach. You can start with just meat, salt, and water for 30 days if you’d like. Some like to do two or three months of a Carnivore Diet in the winter to reset their digestive system. 

Do what works for your body and take note of your symptoms and progress along the way.

Bottom Line

The Carnivore Diet can be very helpful for achieving health goals—especially in the short term (weeks to months). However, keep in mind that health isn’t only diet-related. It’s also important to focus on one’s lifestyle. Address the stress, eat clean, and nurture relationships. The Carnivore Diet is always worth a try when biohacking your way to vibrant health.

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Tim Jackson. He is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Orthopedic Rehabilitation, and a Functional Medicine provider. He holds a B.S. Degree in Health Science and Chemistry from Wake Forest University. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.

Have you tried the Carnivore Diet? What was your experience? Share with us below!

Sources:
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