The carnivore diet is not for the weak of heart. Dubbed the “no-carb diet,” those who follow it eat only meat and occasionally eggs and dairy and, anecdotal evidence suggests lose weight. Where other diets have failed, could a meal plan that skips all fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, or grains really be the answer? If it seems too good to be true, it usually is. In this case, experts point to the risk of health issues such as heart disease and gastric cancer as reason enough to maybe just eat a bit healthier?
The carnivore diet was born of the controversial (read, overly simplistic and evolutionarily preposterous) idea that humans evolved to eat meat so that’s what we should be eating now. Anecdotal reports say the diet reverses stubborn diseases and conditions that no treatment has. The two biggest benefits proponents claim are to autoimmune disorder management and weight loss. The evidence of these claims is thin as paper.
To date, no scientific research has analyzed the health effects of the carnivore diet, and the person who is arguably most famous for promoting it doesn’t really bear the credentials to buck the lack of research. Former orthopedic surgeon Shawn Baker brought attention to carnivory with his 2019 book The Carnivore Diet. Baker’s medical license was revoked in 2017 by the New Mexico Medical Board due to concerns about his competency.
“In the short-term, a carnivore diet probably won’t hurt anyone. But it’s a fad diet,” Liz Weinandy, a dietician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Everyday Health. Some critics are harsher. “This diet is absolutely ridiculous,” specialist dietitian Nichola Ludlam-Raine told Insider. “Long term it could have some pretty serious health implications, not to mention a poorly functioning immune system leaving you more susceptible to catching coughs and colds.”
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Short-Term Effects of the Carnivore Diet
The carnivore diet is in some ways a more extreme version of the low-carb keto and paleo diets. People who attempt it have usually tried one of the other two in the past and didn’t find the results they were looking for. Although there is no one way to follow the carnivore diet, some practitioners recommend eating fatty meats and other high-fat animal products. Eating high-fat foods, in contrast to protein-heavy foods, is more likely to lead to ketosis — the process of burning fat for fuel instead of carbs, which can lead to rapid weight loss in the short term.
Eating foods high in fat can also make a person feel full. “Feeling satiated from consuming these food items can help reduce your caloric intake, as you won’t feel as hungry, likely leading to weight loss,” Hollie Zammit, a clinical dietitian at Orlando Health, told U.S. News. It can also be harder to snack on an all-meat diet. Though you’re used to popping chips in your mouth as you watch TV, you’re probably unlikely to do the same with pieces of chicken breast.
One other explanation for carnivores’ weight loss has nothing to do with eating meat. Instead, it has to do what you don’t eat: pastries and sodas and sugars. Cutting out these foods can help with weight management or weight loss. (But you can also cut them out of your life without eliminating foods that come from the ground.) Because there have been no studies on the carnivore diet, it’s impossible to say for sure why — or even if — it causes weight loss.
Besides lost pounds, other short-term effects are a lot less pretty. In the days or weeks after making the switch, some people report diarrhea. Comedian Joe Rogan tried the diet and although he lost 12 pounds, he had explosive diarrhea for weeks. And although weight loss is one of the biggest draws of the diet, some people who attempted it have reported rapid weight gain and bloating among other issues such as bad body odor, acne, and an upset stomach.
Long-Term Consequences of the Carnivore Diet
Following the carnivore diet for a prolonged long time could lead to a score of health issues. “It’s massively devoid in nutrients, carbs, and fiber which will most likely leave you feeling lacking in energy,” Ludlam-Raine said. Fiber isn’t found in animal products, and a lack of it could lead to constipation and upset in the gut microbiome. Avoiding fruits and vegetables can also mean missing out on key nutrients and vitamins, although supplements can help to make up for what carnivores lack in their diet. Plus, fruits and veggies are simply good for you. Eating plant-based foods is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic health conditions, according to Healthline.
Although the carnivore diet doesn’t provide enough of some nutrients, it provides far too many of others. Carnivores are at a high risk of overloading with saturated fats, which can raise LDL cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease. Processed meats, such as bacon, salami, and ham, have high levels of sodium. Eating lots of salt raises the risk of health dangers such as kidney disease and high blood pressure. Eating processed meats is also associated with increased rates of some cancers.
There’s also the oft-overlooked fact that the carnivore diet is extremely boring. The idea of bacon and steak all day every day may be appealing at first, but it gets old and can also trigger unhealthy feelings towards food. “Following any restrictive diet can often lead to loneliness and social isolation. It can build distrust with yourself, disconnecting the relationship you have with your body and food,” Zammit said. “All this can affect your quality of life in a negative way, especially if following long term.”
Talk to a dietitian or other health professional if you’re considering the carnivore diet or any extreme diet. Although one way of eating may be healthful for some people, it can be harmful to others. People with kidney disease and a history of disordered eating, for example, should not try the carnivore diet. And if you’re in it for the weight loss, remember that not all forms of weight loss are healthy — and being healthy is more important than being thin.