What’s the carnivore diet? (Meal plans, research, benefits and potential harms…)

Last updated: May 10, 2020 at 7:44PM | - Published on: Jan 20, 2019

Co-Written by L. Amber O’Hearn and Raphael Sirtoli

Scientifically Reviewed by Sarah Neidler, PhD

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What is the carnivore diet?

list of meat for the carnivore diet

The carnivore diet is really very simple. It’s simple to define although there are competing variations, see below. A carnivore diet is a plant-free diet, that typically excludes high carb dairy, so it’s a low or zero carb diet. In the most commonly practiced variation, food is eaten to hunger (ad libitum). Limiting quantity is strongly discouraged, even for fat loss.

In a sense, it’s simple to adhere to. Anecdotally, most people report that after a short adjustment phase, it’s easier to stick to than a low-carb or ketogenic diet because of how the cravings and desire for non-carnivore foods disappear.

It’s simple to do. Carnivores spend far less time thinking about food, planning menus, shopping, or cooking than on almost any other diet.

People following the carnivore diet do so because they have seen the results for themselves and because they think the ideas behind it make sense, not because an authority like a doctor or a government agency approved it. This means that carnivore dieters assume full risk and responsibility for their dietary choices, which, of course, everyone should anyway!

This guide is focused on the human health aspects of the diet, but it’s worth mentioning concerns about the effects of such a diet on the environment. We must prioritize human health. Allowing humans to be sick for the sake of other animals strikes us as ethically questionable. That said, we would still like to treat other animals and the environment with as much care as possible. There is no way for humans to live without making some impact on their environment. Vegetarian food derived from mono-crops of soy, wheat, and corn is not sustainable alternatives to meat [1]. They devastate ecosystems and animals living in them. Fortunately, despite popular opinion, livestock production can be compatible with a healthy planet recapturing its atmospheric carbon [2]. Interested readers should delve into holistic management initiatives and regenerative agriculture for more information. It is in everyone’s best interest to find ways to make the healthiest food in as sustainable away as possible. We would always advocate for the respect and best treatment of all living things.

How to start the carnivore diet?

It’s quite easy to start a carnivore diet. Like many others, you may want to try it for a couple of weeks before deciding whether it’s really for you. Alternatively, you could ease into it by cutting down on your fruit, vegetables, and nuts for a week or two before removing all plants for a whole month.

By the way, don’t forget to let your doctor know your self-experiment. And ideally, track your bloodwork before and after the experiment. It’s valuable information.

It’s up to you to decide whether or not to include high-fat dairy. If you think you’ll have trouble sticking to just meat, fish and eggs without the added variety from dairy, then keep it in the mix. However, if you’re doing a carnivore diet as an elimination diet to identify what may be triggering your symptoms, then cutting out dairy makes more sense. You can always reintroduce it after your experiment.

Try out the experiment when your schedule will make it easier rather than harder for you. And if you’ve never been on any kind of low-carb diet before, make sure you read our guide on the keto-flu just before starting your carnivore diet experiment. Knowing what to expect and what to do should any unpleasant symptoms arise will increase your odds of success.

Can you survive on an all-meat diet?

You can survive on an all-meat diet because animal foods contain all of the vitamins, minerals, amino acids and fatty acids that are literally essential to your biology. Animals are dense sources of these vital compounds we evolved to feed on.

Animal foods are complete sources of protein; they contain highly bioavailable amino acids packaged into proper ratios and in sufficient amounts. They also contain the two essential fatty acids DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and AA (arachidonic acid), as well as the essential vitamins and minerals in generous amounts.

These basic facts about human biology and nutrition receive further support from clinical cases. In 1928, two men called Stefansson and Anderson ate an all-meat diet for two years in New York’s Bellevue Hospital. They came out of the experiment healthy, if not even more so [3].

Further support is apparent from modern hunter-gatherer populations such as the Inuit and Masai. They’re living proof of large groups of people living on highly carnivorous diets with next to no chronic disease compared to Westernized populations [4,5].

Is it bad to eat meat every day?

Many people on an omnivorous diet eat meat every day and are far from carnivorous. In this context, we see associational studies suggesting that animal foods are generally unhealthy because of an increased risk for multiple diseases [6]. However, there are other studies suggesting the exact opposite [7]. Contradictory and unreliable observations aside, there’s no experimental evidence suggesting daily meat consumption is harmful.

Once we recognize that humans evolved eating animals over many tens of thousands of years, and knowing that they contain all of the essential micronutrients, it becomes a stretch to argue that meat is bad for us. In fact, we have indirect evidence of the opposite, whereby a relative absence of animal food from the diet carries significant risks. In a randomized trial of Kenyan children eating a diet of mostly starchy grains, those supplemented with the most milk saw substantial improvements in their health and growth trajectory [8].

What about longevity? Knowing that older folk encounter anabolic resistance (i.e. the decreased ability to grow muscle) tells us their need for enough high-quality protein (i.e. animal food) increases as they age. Indeed, studies have shown that beef is an excellent contributor to muscle protein synthesis when combined with a minimal physical training stimulus [9]. This evidence suggests that eating generous amounts of meat on a daily basis could be an important way for elderly sarcopenic individuals to reduce their risk of death from a fall and its complications [10].

Are there any dangers to carnivore diets?

study research and N=1 experience on the carnivore diet

Due to the current lack of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) specifically looking at carnivore diets, data is lacking about their potential benefit or harm. This leaves us with lots of anecdotal evidence (i.e. N = 1’s). For a collection of (mostly) positive anecdotes from people on a carnivore diet, check out Amber’s Ketofest 2018 video.

Raphael, Nutrita’s co-founder, collected as many negative anecdotes of people on the carnivore diet as he could for this post. It’s an effort to minimize inflating positive anecdotes.

list of N=1 experience on the carnivore diet.

Interestingly, a lot of the positive anecdotes revolve around improved mood and digestion, yet most of the negative ones involve digestive discomfort, which is somewhat contradictory.

Some people are very concerned about the prospect of not eating plants. After all, they say, “humans are omnivores”, and that means we need to eat both plants and meat in order to be healthy. Besides, “everyone knows” that we need several servings of fruits and vegetables a day for optimal health. These ideas are confused, so let’s get them straight.

It’s one thing to say that humans need to include meat, but quite another to say that we don’t need to include plants. Aren’t plants where we get all of our micronutrients? As we alluded to above, meat is actually an excellent source of macro and micronutrients. Not only can we get everything we need from animal foods, but it turns out that in almost every case, animal-sourced foods are better sources. Plants undoubtedly have interesting compounds not found in meat, but a physiologically essential compound found only in plants has yet to be discovered.

Most of the RDAs (Recommended Daily Allowances for micronutrients) can easily be met on a carnivore diet (especially if you are willing to eat liver, which is perhaps the most nutrient-dense food on the planet). There are a few micronutrients that are more abundant in plant foods. It’s actually challenging to meet the RDA without them or a supplement.

This is potentially a serious issue since nutrient deficiencies can lead to serious problems. Here again, we want to emphasize that those on this diet choose what level of risk they are comfortable with knowing that large studies have not been conducted. So they make it their responsibility to be aware of potential issues and to make only those tradeoffs they feel good about.

Nonetheless, the theoretical deficiencies in question would take time to develop, if they developed at all. This means that you have time to try a carnivorous diet without supplements if you want so you can tell what it feels like in the short term without the potential confounding factor of taking them. Then you will be able to introduce supplements if you decide to stick with the diet for a longer-term, and if that seems more sensible to you.

The interesting thing is that there are many people who have been following this diet for months, years, and in some cases over a decade without supplementation and with no signs of deficiencies. While it’s possible that these people are unusual or even dishonest, it’s very likely that nutrient needs actually change on this diet, and that the RDAs simply don’t translate. The degree to which this is true changes the degree to which they need for plants can be argued.

Carnivor diet and micronutrient@2x 1

Meat is very high in most nutrients, and those that are harder to get with meat are likely to be needed in lower quantities than generally believed. Given this fact, many carnivores skip the supplements. Others continue to take ones that they are worried about. It’s very much a personal choice. Note that taking supplements is not without risks, as some supplements have been shown in trials to actually worsen health outcomes [11,12].

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What to eat on a Carnivore diet?

Paleo, keto, carnivore…different people can mean different things by them, so lets be clear. The carnivore diet is in some ways more like a Paleo diet than a keto diet. For one thing, it’s defined by what foods you don’t eat. If you’re on the carnivore diet you don’t eat plants. Since meat and animal foods are more generally front and center in Paleo diets, the carnivore diet could be seen as a special case of the Paleo diet.

In fact, many advocates of the carnivore diet consider it to be the “true” Paleo diet, because they believe that plants were eaten infrequently as a last resort through at least some significant periods of our shared history [13]. Obviously, not all Paleo advocates agree with this. Some don’t even think that the Paleo diet was generally low-carb [14]! They think we ate enough fruit and starchy tubers to stay out of ketosis. Others of us don’t find that plausible at all [15].

So if you’re not eating plants at all – meaning fruit (e.g. bananas), vegetables (e.g. kale), flour products (e.g. bread), high omega-6 seed oils (e.g. sunflower oil) – what are you eating?

Carnivore diet food list

  • Pork chops
  • Ribeyes
  • Bacon
  • Shrimp
  • Mussels
  • Salmon
  • Chicken
  • Eggs

If you’re adventurous and looking for something more exotic, try the following:

  • Liver – usually from beef or veal
  • Roe – fish eggs, commonly from salmon or sturgeon
  • Brains – yes brains! Like lamb brains used in classic French cuisine
  • Kidneys – typically from beef or pork
  • Tripe – yes stomach! Like the classic Spanish dish from Madrid called Caillos Madrilenos

Foods to avoid

  • All plants (e.g. avocado, almonds, lentils, salad, blueberries, tomato)
  • Plant oils (e.g. soybean oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, rapeseed oil, cottonseed oil, peanut oil, canola oil). Coconut oil, olive oil and avocado oil aren’t part of a carnivore diet even though they’re commonly used on a standard (i.e. omnivorous) ketogenic diet
  • Flours (e.g. coconut flour, wheat flour, maize flour)
  • Syrups & juices (e.g. agave syrup, honey, maple syrup, fruit juice)
  • Low-fat dairy (e.g. skim milk)
  • Chocolate (e.g. dark chocolate)

What about spices and herbs? They’re usually used in such small amounts that they’re effects are negligible. An exception to this would be for those with strong autoimmune sensitivities to plant compounds. Since spices and herbs concentrate bioactive plant compounds these people may be better off avoiding them entirely as to maintain their carnivore diet as an elimination diet.

What about sweeteners? These aren’t commonly used amongst carnivores but they are an option. Read up on our post on sweeteners to figure out which options you may want to consider and which ones everyone should avoid regardless of their diet.

What are the benefits of the carnivore diet?

Carnivor diet heatlhy@2x 1

The main benefits that draw people to carnivorous diets and keep them there are not benefits that are currently supported by studies. That is, they are evident in anecdotal reports. But the reports share similarities and are growing by the day.

The most commonly reported effects of this diet are improvements in the following [16]:

  • Digestion, including from those who were suffering from IBS, IBD or Crohn’s [17]
  • Autoimmune conditions, including asthma, arthritis and psoriasis
  • Skin conditions, including rosacea, eczema and keratosis
  • Mood disorders, including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder
  • Diabetes, obesity and pathological insulin resistance more generally

Carnivor diet Benefits@2x 1

The carnivore diet tends to avoid the above pitfalls of keto and Paleo, while capturing many of the benefits of both. Unlike keto, it is almost always composed of high quality foods, and, perhaps surprisingly, is likely to be nutritionally complete even without planning. Like Paleo, it avoids all the plant toxins in grains, legumes, and nightshades, and even vegetable oils, and goes beyond that by cutting out all potentially noxious plant compounds, too. However, it’s not without controversy and criticism. Some of the controversy about optimal micronutrient intakes comes from within and is best represented by the two major variations.

The Zero Carb (ZC) version of the carnivore is more or less exactly what you would be left with if you took standard American fare and removed the plants from it: a lot of steak and burgers, some chicken and pork, bacon, eggs, fish, cheese, and cream, and not much else. Fatty cuts are recommended to avoid “rabbit starvation” — the illness that can develop if you try to subsist on only protein and insufficient calories from fat or carbs. In this version organ meat (offal) is not encouraged or seen as necessary.

organ meat@2x 1

The Paleolithic Ketogenic Diet (PKD) version of the carnivore diet includes offal  such as liver and tripe and is more culturally familiar to some people. In many places such as Spain and Hungary those items are still typically on the menu even on standard diets. But that’s not the only reason. Some carnivores are concerned about nutrient deficiencies that should theoretically occur on a ZC diet. They notice that hunter-gatherer societies, and even western societies until very recently usually ate “nose-to-tail”. They reason that it is probably wise to continue to do so and that there’s little to any downside to it given it’s very nutrient dense.

Nutrient deficiencies are surprisingly common – even today – in people on the standard American diet [18]. A notable benefit of the carnivore diet is the apparent absence of such deficiencies among its adherents. For instance, Dr.Tro Kalayjian never found a folate deficiency in his carnivore patients. Given how our gut microbes are able to make folate when eating a low-carb diet this may not be all that surprising [19].

For weight loss

The carnivore diet supplies lots of high-quality protein and very low levels of carbohydrate, both of which have interesting effects on appetite. Protein is well known for its satiating effect that remains notable up to about 20% of calories [20]. Ketone bodies, produced on carnivore diets because of their very low level of carbs, also have potent appetite suppressing effects [21]. Eating a diet where the carbs are negligible, the protein is about 20% and the rest is fat will put you into a deep fat burning state. This can be seen as your respiratory quotient (RQ) dropping down from 1 close to 0.7.

This doesn’t guarantee weight-loss but it is a good metabolic state to be in for that purpose. Appetite suppression may thus explain the explosion in weight loss anecdotes from many adherents of the carnivore diet.

Effect on inflammation

Inflammation is normally part of the body’s healing response to injury. However, if the source of the damage is ongoing, this inflammation becomes chronic and can then itself cause further damage. Weight loss is often accompanied by a reduction in chronic inflammation, as the excess fat mass we carry around is itself damaging, and therefore pro-inflammatory. For instance, as the protective fat we carry between our organs called visceral fat becomes larger, this indicates a larger need for protection and inflammation, but the increased inflammatory molecules produced there travel through the portal vein and can end up damaging the liver [22]. It’s not uncommon for people on the carnivore diet to report looking and feeling less inflamed, and suffering fewer symptoms like a puffy face or painful joints.

Crohn’s disease is a highly inflammatory state of the gastrointestinal system. There are clinical reports of the carnivore diet freeing a Crohn’s patient from all his symptoms [23]. There are reports like those from Mikhaila Peterson with verified medical histories showing that eating only beef, salt and water cured her idiopathic rheumatoid arthritis – a  condition with lots of inflammation.

Effect on hormones

As the carnivore diet is a subset of low-carb diets, it also favorably lowers insulin levels compared to higher carb Westernized diets. This is a crucial hormone that needs to remain low throughout many hours of the day so that your metabolism can run off of stored fat as intended. A fat burning metabolism, irrespective of your macros, is a healthy state to be in.

There’s a clinical case report of a young boy with type 1 diabetes who had favorable increases in the hormone C-peptide after adopting a carnivore diet [24]. C-peptide can be used to estimate insulin production, which is much too low in type 1 diabetes.

Another hormone found in the gut called ghrelin is part of our hunger response system. It’s favorably modulated by ketone bodies, something a carnivore dieter will most likely produce on their higher protein, very low-carb diet [25].

Ketosis on a carnivore diet

People on the carnivore diet tend to be in ketosis. Having more ketone bodies in the blood provides interesting properties, some of which we’ve already mentioned like appetite suppression. Another is the prevention of muscle breakdown (i.e. being anti-catabolic) [26]. Having ketone bodies is likely favorable in a weight-loss scenario for preserving muscle mass, since this lean mass tends to be lost when restricting calories whether on purpose or not. A person on a carnivore diet may thus more easily maintain lean body mass than on a typical Western diet, which produces no ketones, is high in carbs and not particularly high in quality protein.

Another interesting property of a carnivorous ketogenic diet is how differently your body handles Vitamin C needs. Vitamin C helps us form collagen, a crucial component of functional arteries and youthful skin. It also helps synthesize L-carnitine, a compound that helps us burn fat by transporting fats into our mitochondria. By eating a carnitine rich diet, less vitamin C will be needed to synthesize it, thus freeing more of carnitine for collagen synthesis and other crucial processes [27]. What foods are highest in carnitine? Animal foods of course! This may be one way carnivore diets are vitamin C sparing. Amber wrote about these vitamin C needs in the context of a carnivore diet in more depth here.

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What does science say about the carnivore diet?

Very few studies have been conducted specifically with plant free diets. The International Center for Medical Nutritional Intervention has published several case studies for Crohn’s, Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, and cancer [28]. These early clinical anecdotes lay the foundation upon which larger trials of the diet will hopefully take place. The carnivore diet is still in the pioneering stages. In other words, there haven’t been any large randomised controlled trials (RCTs) “proving” that “it works” or “it’s healthy” – or that it’s unhealthy. This is true of most diets actually, even government recommended diets that have been subject to RCTs like DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) have failed to perform well [29].

If we take a step back and consider the physiology of a healthy human brain, you see that it requires large amounts of energy to grow and function. It needs very specific nutrients in quantities that could only have come by predominantly eating animal foods [30,31]. These include essential fatty acids, DHA and arachidonic acid (AA), minerals, like iron, iodine, zinc, and selenium, vitamins A, D, and various B vitamins, especially vitamin B12 which doesn’t exist in plant foods at all. Even now, with access to supplements, vegans have to be very careful if they want to provide their brains with everything that’s needed. Not only did humans hunt, as a matter of observed historical fact, but it is believed that without meat, we would never have been able to evolve with the brains we did [32].

Science

The question of which modern diet is most representative of the one we evolved on is an important scientific question. To answer it, we will draw on studies of physiology, of micronutrient needs and of paleolithic skeletons with a dietary signature.

Are humans omnivores or carnivores?

Depending on how you define these words, either one could be correct. But if you’re not careful about what you mean, the choice can lead to different conclusions.

If you use the standard definition of carnivore meaning an animal that must eat meat to be healthy, regardless of whether they can or do also eat plants, then humans are definitely carnivores. In fact, most of the animals we think of when we think of carnivores, regularly eat some plants. There is a scale of carnivory from hypocarnivores, like bears, to hypercarnivores like felines, based on how much plant matter they eat in practice [33,34,35,36]. Nevertheless, all of these animals need meat to thrive, and humans do too.

Asking people what they ate is a very unreliable way of knowing what they actually eat. A better method used by paleoanthropologists who simply can’t ask our ancestors what they ate involves weighing special atoms that accumulate in the bones of skeletons. These special atoms are called ‘stable isotopes’ and serve as a sort of dietary signature. How is that? Plants contain different distributions of isotopes than animals, and scientists can read that distribution to build a picture of their diet. Amazingly, reading the isotope distribution in skeletons can do more than give us clues as to the plant to animal ratio we ate, it can also distinguish between different kinds of plants, and between marine versus terrestrial animals. So what does the stable isotope evidence tell us about human diets?

The stable isotope patterns suggest humans were carnivorous, if not more so than wolves and hyenas [37,38]! This is represented in the picture below where you can see humans grouped together with other carnivores in the red bubble. We also seemed to eat more terrestrial than marine animals.

Stable isotopes Neanderthal 1

It is mainstream knowledge amongst paleoanthropologists to classify humans as carnivores. This, however, doesn’t mean humans never consumed plants – quite the opposite actually. Other studies show that humans likely consumed plants in sufficiently large quantities to reflect omnivory [39]. How much of these plants were eaten versus used medicinally is debatable, but what isn’t is that humans are obligate carnivores but facultative omnivores.

What about fiber for gut health?

The gut’s primary job is extracting enough food for our brain, the most energy expensive organ we have. Consequently, our gastrointestinal system adapted by making the most of highly nutrient and calorie dense foods. We shifted away from fermenting fiber as a major source of calories. Indeed, in modern humans fibre has never bee