Carnivore Diet: Possible Benefits, Problems and How to Do It Right
The carnivore diet is a high-protein diet that focuses on animal-based foods and excludes other foods, such as plants. Searching the internet, you may find a lot of positive anecdotal experiences. Some scientific evidence also suggests that the carnivore diet may be beneficial short-term or for certain health issues, however, we have no scientific evidence on its potential long-term effects.
In this article, you will learn what the carnivore diet is. You will learn about plant compound toxins. I will discuss the potential nutritional and health benefits of the carnivore diet. I will discuss potential problems with the carnivore diet. I will explain different ways to eat on a carnivore diet and recommend some supplements.
What is the Carnivore Diet
The carnivore diet is a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet that includes meat, fish, organ meats, and in some cases, other animal foods, such as eggs or certain dairy. The idea of the carnivore diet is that our human ancestors ate mostly meat and fish that they hunted or caught themselves. Our modern-day diet, however, is high in carbohydrates. Promoters of the carnivore diet, similar to the ketogenic or Paleo diet, believe that these high-carb diets are much to blame for modern-day chronic symptoms and diseases.
The carnivore diet, however, is different from other low-carbohydrate or animal food-based diets is various ways. Unlike the Paleo diet and most ketogenic diets, the carnivore diet does not include any foods beyond animal foods. It excludes greens, vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds, either completely or almost completely. It also limits or excludes dairy, except for some low-lactose dairy, such as hard cheeses or butter.
Unlike the ketogenic diet, the carnivore diet is not necessarily a high-fat diet but it is typically a high-protein diet. There are no specific macronutrient ratios to hit, but by the nature of the diet, it will be higher in protein and lower in fat than a keto diet. Unlike keto or Paleo that include some carbohydrates, many who follow the carnivore diet eat very little or even zero carbs. Others choose to use raw honey, which is technically an animal based carbohydrate sweetener source.
While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence and success stories when it comes to the carnivore diet, there is less scientific evidence than some other nutritional strategies. Many people have experienced remarkable health results when it comes to the carnivore diet.
As I will go over in the next sections, the carnivore diet may offer certain nutritional and health benefits for some people or short term. However, at this point, we don’t have any long-term studies to know if this is a good long-term diet. There are also some risks when it comes to the carnivore diet that I will also go over.
Plant Compound Toxins
You may be surprised to see that the carnivore diet doesn’t include any plant-based foods. What’s wrong with plant foods? Generally speaking, there is nothing wrong with plant-based foods. If you’ve been reading my articles for a while, you know that I promote getting your greens and veggies in along with some high-quality, animal-based fats and protein. However, plants use chemical warfare and have compounds like lectins, phytates, oxalates, and salicylates that can be challenging on the gut for some individuals.
Paying attention to these compounds and limiting them can be important for some people. It may also explain why some people do extremely well on a carnivore diet. But what are these compounds, you may ask. Great question, let’s get into it.
Lectins are a kind of protein that binds to carbohydrates. It is also called an antinutrient because it can lower your ability to absorb nutrients. It’s not surprising, since lectins have evolved as a natural defense system in plants to make animals avoid them (1). A 2015 review published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine has found that only about 30 percent of the foods we eat have a significant amount of lectins in them (2). Foods high in lectins include wheat, peanuts, kidney beans, red lentil beans, tomatoes, and potatoes.
Since humans cannot digest lectins, they just go through your gut unchanged until they get eliminated. There is some genetic and personal variability when it comes to tolerating lectins. Many people have no to few issues with lectin-rich foods, while others are much more sensitive. According to a 2015 review published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine lectins may trigger autoimmune issues in some people (2).
Lectins and Phytates
Phytates are another compound that may cause issues. Phytates or phytic acid is the main storage form of phosphorus in plant tissues, such as seeds or bran (3). They form complexes with proteins and metals. They are also called antinutrients because they can lower the bioavailability of proteins in your gastrointestinal tract. According to a 2016 study published in BMC Nutrition, phytates may reduce the bioavailability of iron and calcium in pregnant women (4).
Foods that are high in phytates include sesame seeds, peanuts, oats, amaranth, brown rice, and chickpeas. Just like with lectins, not everyone reacts to phytates the same. For some people, it can cause more serious gastrointestinal symptoms and health issues. For others, some amounts of these foods may be completely fine.
Oxalates are naturally occurring molecules in both plants and humans. They allow plants to get rid of excess calcium, so many plants are high in oxalates. Oxalates move through your intestines and bind with potassium, magnesium, calcium, and other minerals built up in your gut then get eliminated through urine and stool (5).
Foods high in oxalates include berries, kiwis, figs, potatoes, rhubarbs, beets, okra, purple grapes, leeks, cashew, almonds, quinoa, wheat germ, soy, and olives. For some people, high-oxalate foods and too much oxalates in their bodies can lead to all kinds of issues. According to a 2015 review published in the Arhiv Ja Higijedu Rada I Toksikoloiju, kidney stones are one of the main issues that may develop due to oxalate intolerance or oxalate excess (6).
However, oxalate-related symptoms may also include muscle pains, joint pain, interstitial cystitis, vulvodynia, headaches, allergies, digestive issues, and more. Your risk of oxalate intolerance and issues from oxalates are higher if you are eating a low-nutrient diet, have nutrient deficiencies, experience chronic stress, have liver or kidney issues, have some gene mutations, or use antibiotics.
People who have issues with oxalates, often also have issues with salicylates. Salicylates are another group of chemicals found in plant foods but also in cosmetic products, some medications, and food preservatives. Foods high in salicylates include tomatoes, chili pepper, sweet potatoes, berries, chocolate, eggplant, broccoli, dark leafy greens, winter squash, avocados, grapefruit, watermelon, and apples. Salicylates act as natural pesticides protecting plants from fungus, insects, and other handful elements. This is great for the plants but can cause issues in some people.
Not everyone has a problem with salicylates. But some people are sensitive to too much salicylates and salicylate-rich foods. A healthy body has no issue dealing with excess salicylates, but if you have a sluggish liver, it won’t be able to break it all down. According to a 2011 review published in Food and Function salicylates can cause some health issues (7).
Salicylate intolerance or access in your body can increase the overproduction of leukotrienes, which according to a 2006 review published in Inflammocalogy, are inflammatory mediators associated with the risk of inflammatory bowel disease and asthma (8). Symptoms of too much salicylates may include inflammation, allergies, asthma, digestive issues, skin problems, yeast infections, headaches, depression, and poor sleep.
Again, lectins, phytates, oxalates, and salicylates are not a problem for everyone, especially in lower amounts. However, some people are particularly sensitive or can benefit from eliminating these foods for a few months until they repair their gut flora and are able to tolerate them again. The carnivore diet is natural free from plant toxins, like lectins, phytates, oxalates, and salicylates, so may benefit people who have trouble digesting and tolerating these compounds.
Nutritional Benefits of a Carnivore Diet
Many people report feeling great on a carnivore diet which is likely due to some of its nutritional benefits. The nutritional benefits of the carnivore diet may include being low in FODMAPS, high in protein, rich in fat-soluble nutrients, and rich in certain animal-specific nutrients.
FODMAP stands for Fermentable, Oligo, Di-, and Monosaccharides, and Polyols. High-FODMAP foods include foods that are high in lactose, fructose, fructans, and polyols. High-FODMAP foods tend to include many vegetables and fruits, legumes, dairy, sweeteners, grains, some alcohol, certain herbs, and certain teas.
Some people have trouble digesting foods that are high in FODMAPs and develop all kinds of problems. The low-FODMAP diet is mainly used for small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and similar gut health symptoms because higher FODMAP foods, such as beans, grains, cruciferous veggies, and many fruits tend to increase SIBO symptoms.
A 2010 study published in the Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology has shown that the low-FODMAP diet can reduce gastrointestinal symptoms (9). A 2012 review published in the Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology has also found that it may be beneficial for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) (10). To learn more about the low-FODMAP diet, I recommend this article.
When people go on a low-FODMAP diet, they usually just eliminate high-FODMAP foods and focus on low-FODMAP foods, such as carrots, green beans, arugula, mint, basil, pepper, olive, pumpkin, tomato, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cucumber, zucchini, Swiss chards, lettuce, radishes, parsnip, sprouts, kale, collard greens, lemon, lime, kiwi, grapes, papayas, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, melon, pineapples, tangerines, eggs, meats, fish, brazil nuts, chestnuts, butter, bone broth, seafood, quinoa, millet, rice, walnuts, and pine nuts.
However, because the carnivore diet is naturally free from all plant-based foods, including both high- and low-FODMAP foods, and meat does not contain FODMAPs so it is a naturally low-FODMAP diet. Therefore, if you have problems with FODMAPs, going on a Carnivore Diet may improve all your FODMAP-related issues.
On the other hand, we must note that the low-FODMAP diet is usually only used for 2 to 6 weeks. This is enough time for your gut to repair and reset itself. After that, over the next 8 to 12 week period, people can slowly reintroduce higher FODMAP foods and as long as they continue following a healthy diet, they should have no problem eating at least some higher FODMAP foods. While the carnivore diet is naturally low in FODMAPs and can help those with digestive issues, we don’t know if there is a benefit of following this diet long-term.
High in Protein
Protein is a macronutrient your body needs for building muscle mass. It is composed of amino acids that offer various benefits to your body. Protein is found in animal products, such as meat, poultry, fish, and eggs, as well as certain plant-based foods, such as legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains. However, meeting your protein, especially your complete amino acid needs, on plants alone can be a challenge, making animal protein critical.
A carnivore diet is based on only or mainly animal foods making it a high protein diet. Getting adequate protein is important, however, eating a high protein diet may have its benefits as well. Research, including a 2012 study published in the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition, has found that protein can improve the results of your resistance and strength training workouts and increase muscle mass and strength (11). According to a 2005 review published in the Journal of American College of Nutrition, protein is also essential for bone health (12).
A 2011 study published in Obesity (Silver Spring) has found that protein may reduce hunger, cravings, and snacking (13). This a high protein diet may reduce the risk of weight gain, becoming overweight, and obesity. According to a 2002 clinical trial published in the Journal of American College of Nutrition, a higher protein diet may also improve fat burning and boost metabolism versus a high-carb diet (14).
Rich in Fat-Soluble Nutrients
Certain nutrients are soluble in organic solvent and then they are being absorbed and transported in a similar way to fats. They are called fat-soluble nutrients. They absorb better when taken with fats. Whether you take them as foods or supplements, you need to make sure to take them with fats (15).
Fat-soluble vitamins include vitamin A, D, E, and K. Fat-soluble minerals include magnesium, potassium, calcium, zinc, copper, selenium, phosphorus, and iron. A carnivore diet is rich in these fat-soluble nutrients and considering that animal foods tend to be moderate to high in fats, your body should have no problem absorbing them.
Rich in Animal Specific Nutrients
Certain nutrients are higher in animals or only found in animals foods versus plant foods. Carnitine, carnosine, vitamin B12, iron, retinol, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) are just some nutrients that are rich in animal foods. Carnitine is essential for processing fat and producing energy. Meat, poultry, fish, and milk are great sources of carnitine. Carnosine may prevent nerve damage, protect eye health, lower kidney issues, and reduce aging. Meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy are good sources of carnosine.
Vitamin B12 is critical for nerve, brain, mental, and blood health. While there is some vitamin B12 in animal foods, such as meat, eggs, and dairy, supplementation is usually critical for everyone. Iron is essential for your energy, gut health, and immune health. Red meat, liver, organ meats, shellfish, and turkey are great sources of iron.
Retinol is made from vitamin A and it’s critical for skin health and anti-aging. Beef liver, cod liver oil, lamb liver, certain fish, and hard-boiled eggs are great sources of retinol. CLA is a type of fat that’s important for immune function and reducing fat deposits. Meat, eggs, and dairy products are generally rich in CLA.
Other nutrients absorb easier when coming from or taken with animal foods. Zinc and calcium are fat-soluble minerals that absorb easier when coming from animal sources and absorb easier when taken with animal foods. Zinc is essential for immune health. Seafood, poultry, eggs, and beef are good sources of zinc. Calcium is critical for your bone health. Dairy and fish where you eat the bones are good sources of calcium.
Potential Health Benefits of a Carnivore Diet
The carnivore diet may also offer some potential health benefits, including better gut health, improved autoimmunity, better blood sugar balance, leaner body mass, and greater mental health. Let’s get into these benefits.
Improves Gut Health & Autoimmunity
I already discussed how the carnivore diet is free from plant toxins, such as lectins, phytates, oxalates, and salicylates, and low in FODMAPS (9, 10). Since both these plant toxins and FODMAP foods can cause digestive difficulties, removing them from your diet may help to reduce your symptoms and improve your gut health.
A 2015 review published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine has also found that lectins may trigger autoimmune issues in some people (2). Eating a Carnivore Diet free from lectins thus may reduce the risk of autoimmunity, especially if you are sensitive to lectins.
Beyond anecdotal experiences, there is no current scientific research suggesting that the carnivore diet helps gut health or autoimmunity. The closest we can go is the keto diet. The ketogenic diet is a low-carb, high-fat diet high in animal foods.
The carnivore diet goes a step beyond being even higher in animal foods and free from other foods. It can be higher in protein and lower in fats than keto but can also be modified to be higher in fat. A carnivore diet is a good way to achieve ketosis, however, which may explain some of its benefits.
According to a 2019 review published in Genes (Basel), the keto diet may benefit your microbiome health (16). The keto diet may also benefit autoimmunity, for example, according to a 2015 study published in Multiple Sclerosis International, it may be therapeutic for those with multiple sclerosis (17).
Improves Blood Sugar & Lean Body Mass
One of the main potential health benefits of the carnivore diet is that it can improve blood sugar. The Carnivore Diet is a low-sugar, low-carbohydrate diet and just like the keto diet, it can get your body into ketosis. According to a 2018 study published in the European Journal of Nutrition, low-carb diets may improve blood sugar and may reduce the risk of being overweight and diabetes (18).
The carnivore diet may also help to achieve a lean body mass. A 2011 study published in Obesity (Silver Spring) has found that a high protein diet may reduce cravings and snacking thus help weight loss and maintenance (13). According to a 2002 clinical trial published in the Journal of American College of Nutrition, a higher protein diet may also improve fat burning and boost metabolism (14).
Supports Mental Health
The carnivore diet is a low-carbohydrate diet that boosts ketone production. Getting into nutritional ketosis may help to support mental and brain health. A 2018 study published in Antioxidants (Basel) found that a diet supporting ketosis can offer neuroprotection in Alzheimer’s disease (19). A 2020 study published in Neuropsychopharmacology has found that the keto diet may benefit mental health (20). Since the carnivore diet also reduces insulin levels and increases ketone production, it may offer similar mental health benefits.
Low testosterone levels can also increase stress, anxiety, and anger. According to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, ketosis may improve testosterone levels in men (21). This may not only boost their strength but mental health. Furthermore, the carnivore diet is also rich in fat-soluble nutrients that support brain health, such as B vitamins, magnesium, selenium, zinc, and iron.
Potential Problems on Carnivore Diet
The carnivore diet is not without potential problems, however. The lack of diversity and fiber, getting potentially too much iron, not getting enough antioxidants, or eating too much protein can pose some health challenges. Let’s get into the potential problems with a carnivore diet.
Diet Lacks Diversity & Fiber
While the carnivore diet may offer some nutritional and health benefits, it also lacks diversity and fiber. A healthy body needs a diversity of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that a carnivore diet without any plant foods may not be able to fulfill. A 2018 study published in ASM Journals looked at 15,000 microbiome samples of 11,000 participants from 45 countries to examine microbiome health (22). They not only found that a diverse diet is a key to gut microbiome health, but also that a diversity of plant foods offer is important.
Greens, veggies, fruits, and other plant-based foods offer a unique variety of minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrients. Fiber can also help your digestion and prebiotic fiber can feed good bacteria in your gut. Not consuming plants at all may cause nutritional deficiencies or gut health issues.
That said, consuming a carnivore diet without fiber can actually be beneficial for the gut if you are dealing with gut health issues and imbalances. However, over time, it may negatively impact the microbiome for some individuals. This may depend on your personal health, body, and genetics.
Potentially Too High in Iron
One of the major benefits of a carnivore diet is getting plenty of iron from red meat and other animal sources. However, there is also a risk of having too high iron levels. Hemochromatosis is a condition where your body stores too much iron creating an iron overload. It can cause all kinds of issues, including liver, pancreas, and heart damage.
Plant foods can help to reduce the iron load from animal foods. We have already talked about phytates, a compound in some plant foods. According to a 1987 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology and a 2010 study published in the Journal of Nutrition, phytates may reduce iron absorption (23, 24). While this can be a problem if you have low iron levels, those with high iron levels can benefit from phytates in plant foods for lowering iron.
Low in Antioxidants
Another potential problem with the carnivore diet is being low in antioxidants. Antioxidants are substances that can prevent or reduce free radical damage and oxidative stress from environmental and other pressures, such as cigarette smoke, pollution, chemicals, radiation, or UV exposure.
Research, including a 2010 review published in Pharmacognosy Reviews, has found that antioxidants may reduce cellular damage due to oxidative stress and decrease the risk of associated disease (25). The same review has linked oxidative stress to immune health problems, respiratory issues, arthritis, stroke, heart disease, cancer, and other inflammatory issues.
Important antioxidants include vitamin A, C, and E, beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene, selenium, manganese, and zeaxanthin. Some antioxidants can be found in animal-based foods. For example, eggs and liver are good sources of vitamin A and you can find selenium in eggs and cheese. Other antioxidants are only or mainly found in plants. Flavonoids, flavonols, and polyphenols are antioxidants that come from plant-based foods. Berries, citrus, and bell peppers are great sources of vitamin C.
Leafy greens, nuts, and seeds, are rich in vitamin A. Carrots, peas, and other colorful veggies are high in beta-carotene. Leafy greens, oranges, and papaya are good sources of lutein. Tomatoes, watermelon, and other red or pink veggies and fruits are rich in lycopene. Brazil nuts are the most convenient source of selenium.
Goji berries, cacao, pomegranates, and green tea are some other powerful antioxidant sources. Eating a carnivore diet without any plant-based foods can increase the risk of not getting enough antioxidants and developing health issues linked to oxidative stress.
Too High in Protein
One of the benefits of the carnivore diet is getting plenty of protein. However, eating protein-rich foods all day long and eating a diet too high in protein can have its problems too. Protein intake stimulates a physiological pathway in the body called mTOR. mTOR stands for Mammalian Target of Rapamycin and is associated with the regulation of growing tissues in the body.
While temporary elevations in mTOR are great for building muscle and burning fat, as a 2016 review and meta-analysis published in Oncotarget demonstrated, chronically elevated mTOR is associated with increased cancer risk and chronic disease (26).
Eating a high protein diet all throughout the day during a large eating window of 10 to 16 hours can drive up IGF-1 and mTOR. However, there may be a way to avoid this by eating your meals within a shorter period of time. A 2011 study published in Nutrition and Cancer has shown that intermittent fasting would reduce mTOR (27).
Eating within a 4 to 8 eating window can decrease mTOR, activate AMP-K, and improve autophagy. Intermittent fasting may allow you to get some of the main benefits of eating a high protein diet, blood sugar stability, satiety, fat burning, and lean body tissue, without the excessive growth drive of mTOR.
Ways to Do a Carnivore Diet
There are several ways to do a carnivore diet. Read on to learn about your options.
Animal Centric Diet
One way to approach a carnivore diet is an animal-centric diet. This is a diet that is roughly 80 to 90 percent made up of animal products, including meat, poultry, fish, butter, eggs, and some dairy. The remaining 10 to 20 percent can come from plant foods, such as greens, vegetables, olives, and coffee.
You may choose certain days to be 100 percent carnivore and other days not to be. Some do a keto carnivore diet where they consume a higher fat carnivore diet. They include higher-fat plant foods, including avocados, olives, olive oil, and coconut oil.
Basic Carnivore Diet
The basic carnivore diet is more strict than the animal-centric one. You will only consume animal products, salt, and water. The animal products include meat, poultry, and fish, as well as eggs, dairy, and honey.
Strict Carnivore Diet
Those who follow a strict carnivore diet only eat red meat including grass-fed beef, lamb, bison, and so on, as well as salt and water. It’s important for all on a carnivore diet to choose grass-fed and pasture-raised animal food as much as possible to get the highest amount of nutrients and the least amount of hormones and other toxins.
This is a strict elimination diet and is usually not meant to be done long-term. Many have seen great results with the autoimmune disease following this approach.
Head to Tail Carnivore Diet
The head to tail carnivore diet focuses on all parts of the animal. You will be allowed to eat all parts of an animal, not just the meat, but also the heart, liver, kidney, bone broth, and so on.
You won’t be consuming non-animal food on this diet. Again, this diet may work well as an elimination diet or something you follow on certain days but not every day.
Seasonal Carnivore Diet
If you want to mimic ancestral patterns, you may try the seasonal carnivore diet. For example, you may eat carnivore during the wintertime when plant foods are more scarce and would be unavailable in nature. However, once spring and summer hits and greens, vegetables, and fruits become more available, you may start incorporating them again.
This diet may also be very local, consuming local and seasonal plant foods, instead of buying produce that’s available year-round at the supermarket. This approach may help you tune in with the natural rhythms of the Earth and allows an appreciation for tastes and varieties of the seasons, and our ancestral history.
Supplementing a Carnivore Diet
If you are on a carnivore diet or are inclined to try the carnivore diet, you may benefit from supplementation. Here are the supplements I recommend on a carnivore diet.
Beef Liver Complex
I recommend the Pastured Beef Liver Complex. This is a good substitute for not eating organ meats, which offer some tremendous health benefits.
I love this supplement because it is sourced exclusively from grass-fed, pasture-raised, New Zealand bovine, beef liver is an abundant source of nutrients, including protein, vitamin B6 and B12, folate, choline, copper, hyaluronic acid, and a concentrated source of preformed vitamin A (retinol).
Gut microbiome balance is critical. Many turn to the carnivore diet with existing gut problems and can use some extra support. The carnivore diet also lacks fermented foods that are naturally rich in probiotics so supplementation is even more beneficial.
Probiotics can help to improve your gut flora balance and reduce gut health symptoms, inflammation, fatigue, and other gut-related symptoms. I recommend taking a probiotic complex, such as Megasporebiotic.
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The carnivore diet is a high-protein diet based on animal-based foods and excludes other foods, such as plants. While the carnivore diet may be beneficial for short term and there are positive anecdotal experiences out there, there is no current scientific evidence on its long-term benefits. If you decide to embark on a carnivore diet, follow my tips and consider the supplements I recommended to support your health.
If you want to work with a functional health coach, I recommend this article with tips on how to find a great coach. We do offer long-distance functional health coaching programs. For further support with your health goals, just reach out and our fantastic coaches are here to support your journey.