🎉  Our new cookbook is here: #PaleoIRL
Printer icon

Should You Try the Carnivore Diet?

Ham

If you’re not familiar with the carnivore diet, it’s exactly what it says on the tin: a diet of only animal foods and salt. Some versions allow eggs and/or dairy; others are all meat, only meat, all the time. For strict carnivore, there aren’t any plant foods at all – no vegetables, no herbs, no coffee, nothing. Some people go further and restrict to just one type of meat.

Why would anyone do that? Some people try it for really severe health problems or as a last-ditch weight loss effort. And other people do it believing they have no other choice, but they might not actually need to do it at all!

We’ve written about the carnivore diet before – that post includes a discussion of the explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who lived for an extended period of time with the Inuit, ate a carnivorous diet, and seemed to be perfectly happy that way. But even though that story is interesting, it doesn’t shed a lot of light on the options that people have today – how can you tell if this way of eating will actually be helpful, or if it’s just too extreme?

Is the carnivore diet too restrictive?Eating disorders

It’s absolutely true that some people have serious health problems that require very restricted diets and extreme lifestyle accommodations. But other people have less complex health problems that respond well to less restrictive diets.

Without denying that some folks are very sick and need a therapeutic diet, healthy humans are very adaptable omnivores and are not “naturally designed” to eat only meat and salt. A diet rich in plant foods is nutritionally rich and valuable for long-term sustainability, and most people can meet their health goals on that type of diet. All the hunter-gatherer societies we know of (yes, even the Inuit!) sought out plant foods as at least a small part of their diet. There is a point where trying carnivore is reasonable – but “I tried the Special K diet and only lost 1 pound, so I need to go full carnivore to have any hope of losing weight” is…not a realistic thought process.

If you’re thinking about trying a totally carnivorous diet, a good question to ask first is: “can I get the same results with less restriction?”

Here are some diet strategies to consider as intermediate steps before resorting to full-on carnivore:

Trying a carnivore diet: understanding adaptation/adjustment symptoms

With any diet change, it’s normal to have an adjustment period. If you suddenly increase the amount of fiber you eat, you may feel gassy and uncomfortable. If you were a vegetarian for years and start eating meat, you may feel off until your body starts producing the enzymes you need to digest animal protein again. Transient adaptation symptoms don’t mean that a particular diet is bad or even wrong for you, just that it’s different.

With a brand new all-meat program, you may experience digestive symptoms and/or the notorious “keto flu” (since most versions of the carnivore diet wind up being ketogenic and most carnivores wind up in ketosis). Keto flu is pretty normal and generally goes away on its own (drink lots of bone broth, electrolytes, and water!) But if the adjustment symptoms never improve, or if they’re totally unbearable, that could be a sign to either look into modifications to the diet or to quit completely.

Trying a carnivore diet: SupplementsPill bottles

A diet can be the only thing that works to solve your most pressing health problem, and at the same time, that “miracle diet” can be nutritionally incomplete for other reasons. To take an extreme example, a diet of only plain white rice would completely resolve all the symptoms of Celiac Disease (because it’s completely gluten free), but it’s also severely lacking in protein, fat, and most essential nutrients.

Think of all the foods that healthy hunter-gatherer societies ate. Meat (including every part of the animal), blood, eggs, insects, fish, herbs, vegetables, mushrooms, berries, seaweed, tubers, fruits…relative to that list, eating only meat, salt, and water is extremely restrictive by the standards of human evolutionary biology. Especially if that meat is all muscle meat in the tradition of the American supermarket, it just doesn’t fit all our nutritional needs.

If you’re going to try out a carnivore diet, you should know about the nutrients you’ll probably be missing. Here’s a short list –

As always, make sure to get high-quality supplements (more on supplement labels and finding the good stuff).

Three questions to ask before you try the carnivore dietQuestions

  1. Do YOU want to do it? Don’t try something this challenging because your friend is doing it and needs an accountability buddy and guilt-tripped you into joining them. Don’t do it because your coworker is doing it. Do it because YOU want to do it.
  2. Do you have a compelling reason to be this restrictive? Have you tried other, less restrictive options like the ones listed above (keto, intermittent fasting, Paleo, FODMAP elimination, or other gut-healing strategies)? As a side note – if you try keto and it doesn’t work, then you’re already halfway to carnivore, so even if it doesn’t work, it’s still a step towards a carnivore diet.
  3. Are you willing to approach it as an experiment, and not a religious conversion? Diet is not a religion. You don’t have to convert and then keep believing regardless of the evidence. After a reasonable amount of time for your body to adjust (say 4-6 weeks at the high end), if you’re not benefitting from the diet, don’t “have faith” and stick it out. Approach it with the mindset that you’re willing to drop the whole carnivore thing if it’s not working. Diet is a tool: try it out, keep it if it works, and try something else if it doesn’t. Bear in mind that your body may change in the future and something that worked well a year ago may no longer work well now.

This all sounds pretty hard on the carnivore concept – because the more significant the diet change, the more important it is to think things over carefully before you commit. It is a big step to take, and maybe it’s the step that some people need, but there’s no reason to try something like this just because it’s trendy or getting a lot of buzz. 

Do you love eating nothing but meat? Or did you try carnivore and ultimately decide on something else as your favorite way of eating? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter!