What is the carnivore diet?
What do you eat on the carnivore diet, and is it healthy? Dietician Emer Delaney breaks down the basic points, potential benefits and downsides to be aware of with this diet.
What is the carnivore diet?
Made up primarily of animal products like meat, fish, eggs, animal fats and small amounts of low-lactose dairy products, the carnivore diet is high in protein and fat, and very low in carbohydrates. As such, it excludes all other foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds.
Due to the lack of robust evidence proving otherwise, the carnivore diet is considered unbalanced, and as a result, unlikely to be healthy. Given the many healthy eating messages we hear today, such as 'eat more fruit and vegetables', 'focus on a plant-based diet' and 'limit red meat’, this diet is unlikely to be recommended for the longer term.
Read on to discover:
• How the carnivore diet works
• How to follow a carnivore diet
• Whether a carnivore diet is good for you
• The downsides of the carnivore diet
• What evidence supports the carnivore diet
• Our nutritionist’s view
How does the carnivore diet work?
The diet is a form of ketogenic diet, and works by eliminating all plant-based foods and solely eating meat, fish, eggs and small amounts of low-lactose dairy foods. Chicken, turkey, pork, lamb, beef, organ meats, oily and white fish, hard cheese, butter and cream are all allowed. Advocates encourage fattier cuts of meat to ensure daily energy needs are met.
Under normal circumstances, our body uses glucose from carbohydrate foods for energy. In the absence of glucose, a process called ketosis occurs. This is a state in which the body burns fats instead of carbohydrates as its main fuel source.
When we don’t eat carbs, such as while following the carnivore diet, the liver breaks down fat stores to produce energy – this energy is in the form of ‘ketones’.
How to follow the carnivore diet?
Foods that do not come from animals are completely excluded on the diet. Those that are included are high protein and low-carb, so are highly satiating. For this reason, many followers find they are consuming fewer meals, perhaps two over 24 hours.
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What can I eat on the carnivore diet?
- Red meats, including beef, lamb, pork and venison
- Offal, such as liver and kidney
- Bone marrow
- Lard, dripping, butter and ghee
- Some followers also choose to include milk, yogurt and cheese (low lactose)
Foods to avoid on the carnivore diet
- Nuts and seeds
- Grains, including food made from them, such as pasta and bread
- High-lactose dairy foods
- Drinks other than water, such as fizzy drinks, fruit juice etc.
Are there health benefits to the carnivore diet?
Contrary to expectation, a study reviewing a group of over 2,000 adults for a period of 14 months reported few adverse effects while following the diet, plus some health benefits and a high degree of satisfaction. The health benefits for those with diabetes included reductions in body mass index (BMI), reduced HBa1c (your average blood sugar levels over the last 90 days), as well as reduced use of diabetic medication. However, issues have been raised with this study, and experts believe the findings need to be interpreted with caution. To date, there have been no high-quality controlled studies analysing the effects of the carnivore diet.
What are the downsides to the carnivore diet?
The carnivore diet certainly contradicts most people’s understanding of a healthy, balanced diet, which typically promotes the consumption of protein, fat and carbohydrates.
From an evolutionary perspective, ketosis is a normal adaptive response that enabled humans to withstand periods of famine. Today, this mechanism has been exploited by a number of low-carb diet regimes, like the carnivore diet. Following such a diet means you will be replacing carbs with foods rich in fat and protein, and if followed over an extended period of time, this may have unfavourable consequences for some individuals. For example, if you are an athlete or keen exerciser and involved in high-intensity, short duration activities or sports, a diet such as this may have performance implications. Moreover, one study reported that a low-carb diet based on animal foods was associated with higher all-cause mortality in both men and women.
Problems with the limited permitted foods in the carnivore diet include:
- Lack of essential micronutrients and antioxidants found in fruits, vegetables, wholegrains and legumes
- Significant lack of fibre, which is essential for gut health and function, and is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, bowel cancer and type-2 diabetes
- Unsuitable for certain groups, including children, pregnant or lactating women, as well as those who have been diagnosed with impaired kidney function
Does the carnivore diet help with weight loss?
Followers of the diet may experience weight loss due to the high-protein and low-carbohydrate content. In one study of 105 adults, there was a higher reported weight loss from those in the high-protein diet group when compared to the standard group. This may be due to the fact that protein is highly satiating, and may lead you to consume fewer calories overall.
In another study, 59 participants followed a low-carbohydrate diet, and after one year, they showed greater weight loss than their counterparts who followed a low-fat diet. One explanation for this is that when the body stores carbs in the form of glycogen, it does so by binding glycogen with water in the muscles and liver. When our carb intake goes down, glycogen levels fall, and so too does the stored water – this often explains the rapid change in weight experienced during the first two weeks of a low-carb diet. With that said, it’s important to remember that eliminating carbohydrates completely is not necessary for weight loss, although reducing refined carbohydrates such as biscuits, sweets, sugar, pastries and fizzy drinks is beneficial.
Our nutritionist’s view
Although likely to aid weight loss in the short term, the carnivore diet is extremely restrictive, unbalanced and most likely unhealthy for the longer term. There is limited high-quality research to support its claims, and the long-term effects of the diet require further study. The diet lacks key micronutrients as well as fibre and protective plant compounds, and may be unsafe for certain groups.
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Emer Delaney BSc (Hons), RD has an honours degree in human nutrition and dietetics from the University of Ulster. She has worked as a dietitian in some of London’s top teaching hospitals and is currently based in Chelsea.
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