Interest in the controversial carnivore diet (a.k.a. zero carb) diet is booming!
After trying low carb, paleo, and keto, for some people cutting out all carbs and plant foods is the next logical progression in their journey towards optimal health and diabetes control.
But, to some, this sounds counterintuitive!
Could eating only meat be healthy?
What about all those nutrients you get from plants?
Won’t you get too much protein?
What about fibre?
This article looks at the pros and cons of the carnivore diet through the lens of the Nutrient Optimiser.
I’m not sure that the carnivore diet is optimal for everyone. But in light of all the n = 1s, it’s hard to say it doesn’t work really well for some people.
Does the carnivore diet break all the rules of nutrition?
Thinking out loud.
My aim is to understand the common factors of nutrition that help people thrive so we can apply them in a systematised manner.
Why is the carnivore diet becoming popular?
Other than Shawn Baker, there are a few interesting examples of people who have successfully followed a carnivorous diet for a long time and seem to be thriving.
Joe and Charlene Anderson
Charlene (45) and Joe (60) Anderson have been eating nothing but fatty steak for nineteen years, including through two healthy pregnancies.  
Transitioning to a meat-only diet wasn’t all smooth sailing. Joe says:
Once I tried a specific, fatty, meat-only diet I felt miserable at first. Massive headaches, depression, fatigue and nausea were common.
By the end of two weeks, however, the veil lifted and I felt great! I discovered that eating this clean meat-only diet was very healing, and I had my own demons and ill health that had to be expelled.
Charlene’s path to healing has taken considerably longer. Although she felt great immediately removing all the fibers, vegetables, and grains that she had been eating for years, she also felt the effects of starving out her Lyme bacteria.
Her body would cycle back and forth from feeling great as the Lyme died off, to feeling horrible because the Lyme was dying off. She gritted her teeth, dug in, and stayed on plan.
Charlene looks to be doing just fine these days. 
You can read more about Charlene’s journey at Meat Heals or follow Joe on Twitter.
Amber is another prominent zero carber who progressed to a carnivorous diet after her success with low carb stalled. She cut out all plant foods (other than coffee) and found her bipolar benefited significantly and her weight loss improved!
Amber has done a lot of thoughtful research and documented her journey at ketotic.org and empiri.ca. She doesn’t claim that the carnivorous way of life is right for everyone, but she makes a good case for why we may not necessarily need fruit and “heart healthy grains” to be healthy.
Dr Georgia Ede
Psychiatrist Dr Georgia Ede on her Diagnosis Diet blog highlights anti-nutrients in plant-based foods (e.g. phytic acid, goitrogens, oxalates, and tannins) in not just grains and soy, but also cruciferous veggies such as spinach and broccoli, that also contain lots of vitamins and minerals. Georgia says:
Nutrient bioavailability from plants is in many cases significantly compromised. Just because a plant contains a nutrient does not mean we can access it. One example: due to the oxalate within spinach, virtually none of the iron within spinach is available to the human body. As a second example, the zinc in oysters is virtually impossible to absorb if the oysters are consumed with corn tortillas.
There are too many variables to consider in a mixed diet to be certain how foods will interact in various individuals. Recommended daily intakes for nutrients are based on faulty assumptions and the data used to generate them comes from people eating standard diets. Diets high in refined carbs deplete many nutrients, increasing our apparent requirements.
While some people may benefit from restricting these compounds in their diet, I’m not sure that it’s necessary or optimal for everyone.
Many stressors in life are hormetic and can make you stronger in the long term. While some people are delicate, we can’t always live in a bubble.
And plant compounds such as oxalates can affect availability you can’t absorb nutrients if they’re not actually available in the foods you are eating. There is a trade-off between quantity and absorption. It’s hard to quantify these things but the calculations that I’ve done based on the limited data available indicates that you should probably eat your spinach if you enjoy it.
While not strictly a carnivore, Dr Stephen Gundry has recently released The Plant Paradox where he speaks of the dangers of lectins and antinutrients in grains and legumes that many people struggle with, especially if they are prone to an autoimmune response.
While his book title may be a little misleading, Gundry still supports eating nutrient dense green leafy vegetables.
While many people are talking about meat causing cancer Paleo Medicina are using a carnivore diet to treat cancer, autoimmune and other chronic conditions. This Ketogeek podcast interview with biologist and clinical researcher Dr Zsofia Clemens is an intriguing listen!
There are also a number of large online groups of people who swear by just eating meat, including Principia Carnivora and Zeroing in On Health.
What I find fascinating is that these groups are every bit as passionate about their dietary approach as the plant-based vegans at the other end of the dietary spectrum who also claim that their diet was responsible for healing them of all their ailments.
While online groups are amazing for bringing together like-minded people to support each other on their journey, they are not exactly randomised trials and can suffer from confirmation bias, groupthink and survivorship bias (i.e. only the people that benefit continue to remain in the group and contribute).
I’m not accusing anyone particular of these traits, just nothing that online groups can be subject to these symptoms. It’s hard to separate the anecdote from the science.
Dr Baker has established the World Carnivore Tribe group which has a ton of positive anecdotes as well as Meat Heals which has been set up to gather n=1 experiences on a carnivorous way of life.
There’s no denying a LOT of people have found improved their quality of life when they simplified their diet to meat only.
It makes me wonder what the common factors of the optimal human diet are when people are zealous advocates of what appear to be polar opposite approaches. How do we identify what works and systematise it to help everyone to move towards optimal?
Rather than forcing vegans to be carnivores and carnivores to be vegan, how can we optimise your food choices while still respecting your preferences?
(If you’re interested, we dig into the possible fundamental principles of nutrition in the followup to this article – Optimising Dr Shawn Baker’s Carnivore Diet from First Principles).
Dr Shawn Baker
Dr Shawn Baker (@SBakerMB, shawnbaker1967) is the latest high profile proponent of the carnivore approach to nutrition to burst onto the scene.
Shawn is a strength athlete who needs a lot of food. In the past, this included plenty of cereals, low-fat yogurt, skim milk, pasta and grains to maintain weight with his high level of activity.
After experiencing digestive issues exacerbated by his poor diet (note the similar story with others who have benefitted from zero carb), he progressively experimented with his diet, moving from the typical high carb to paleo, then low carb, then a targeted ketogenic diet. However, he found that he would suffer gut distress when he added carbs back in on the cyclic keto approach, and eventually settled on a meat-only carnivorous dietary approach.
He has since gone to set world records in indoor rowing and continues to workout like a beast at 51.
He has been interviewed on a number of podcasts promoting nequalsmany, where he is trying to pool the experiences and test data from a range of people following a carnivorous diet.
Shawn saw a need to gather health and performance data from people following a carnivorous diet to try to understand why they seemed to be thriving in spite of cutting across a lot of mainstream health recommendations.
While I haven’t seen any analysis of the crowdsourced data yet, he recently carried out some testing on himself after a year as a carnivore, which we will look at later in this post.
I’m intrigued at how someone like Shawn could be thriving, so I pinged Dr Baker on Twitter to get his standard diet to analyse in the Nutrient Optimiser.
The Nutrient Optimiser is a tool designed to help people balance their diet primarily at a micronutrient level. It then identifies food that provides the nutrients that they need that they are currently not getting in adequate quantities.
As well as maximising micronutrients, the Nutrient Optimiser can manipulate macronutrients and energy density to help you achieve your goals, for example:
- if you are managing diabetes, we can reduce the insulin load of your diet to help stabilise your blood sugar levels or even further to achieve therapeutic ketosis,
- if you are fuelling for an endurance event, we can wind up the energy density to help you to get more energy in, and
- if you are looking to lose weight, we can reduce energy density to ensure you get the nutrient you need with foods that are more filling.
What I like most about the Nutrient Optimiser is that it removes the various conflicts of interest to demonstrate that the foods that we typically know intuitively are bad for us (e.g. hyper-palatable processed junk foods) provide minimal levels of nutrition and should be avoided.
Balancing your nutrition at a micronutrient level helps to cut through the confusion and commercial bias using widely recognised nutrient targets. Whether you want to eat only plants for ethical reasons or only animal-based foods because that’s all you can tolerate, the Nutrient Optimiser can help you find the food that will work for you.
My hope is that the Nutrient Optimiser be adopted widely as to help improve your diet regardless of your preferences or goals.
Limitations of a plant-based diet
In systems design, things get interesting when you take them to their limits.
You need to test how something performs at the extremes to iron out the bugs. In the case of the Nutrient Optimiser, the limits to be tested are macronutrient extremes (carbs, fat, protein) or extremes of plant- vs animal-based food sources.
One of the problems with the Daily Reference Intake (DRI) for essential nutrients is that they were developed in the context of an agriculture-based western diet. At the extremes, we need to understand which parameters are still relevant and which ones need to be modified.
In a previous post, we looked at the nutritional sufficiency of the recipes in Dr Greger’s How Not to Die Cookbook. As shown in the micronutrient nutritional profile below, a plant-based diet contains adequate quantities of most of the essential nutrients other than omega 3, vitamin B12, and choline.
However, as carnivore diet proponents will be quick to point out, not all nutrients provided by animal- and plant-based foods are the same. Although certain vitamins and minerals exist under the same name, their form and bioavailability differ between plants and animals.
For example, iron in animal foods exists in the form of heme and is more bioavailable than the elemental iron supplied by plants. Animal foods also provide forms of nutrients that the body requires, such as retinol (vitamin A) and EPA / DHA (omega-3s), whereas plant foods supply precursors to these nutrients (beta-carotene and alpha-linolenic acid, respectively).
Unfortunately, we don’t yet have enough data to quantify these variables accurately. I hope that in the next few years there will be more research that will help us quantify the effect of bioavailability and antinutrients on the amount of nutrients absorbed compared to just what goes into our mouth.
We do need to keep these limitations in mind when analysing a purely plant-based diet, especially if someone is displaying symptoms of deficiency in the nutrients that are borderline.
In a similar way, we need to understand the limitations that may apply to a carnivorous diet. The chart below shows the nutrient profile of a carnivore diet versus all foods in the food system USDA database. It seems to be harder to meet the Daily Recommended Intake levels of vitamin K1, calcium, vitamin E, vitamin C, and folate. magnesium and potassium just barely make it.
If you don’t mind some organ meats, you can get a very respectable micronutrient profile in real life. A great example is Amy, who comes in at #13 on the Nutrient Optimiser Leaderboard with her carnivorous diet with plenty of organ meats, and is meeting the daily intake levels for everything except vitamin C, manganese, vitamin K1, calcium, magnesium, vitamin E, and vitamin D (check out her full report here).
Not everyone likes offal, so the chart below shows the nutrient profile if we remove it. We would struggle to get adequate vitamin K1, manganese, folate, calcium, vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin E, and magnesium. The nutrient score drops from 75% to 67% (although, even without accounting for bioavailability, it is still better than the plant-based diet at 63%).
Shawn Baker’s diet analysis
Let’s look at what we learn from analysing Dr Baker’s diet. Shown below is Dr Baker’s average daily intake with lots of steak and hamburger mince with some cheese, eggs, shrimp, and salmon entered into Cronometer.
The micronutrient fingerprint of Dr Baker’s diet is shown below. You can check out his full Nutrient Optimiser analysis here.
At the bottom of the chart , we see that Dr Baker’s diet has a ton of vitamin B12, zinc, iron, and amino acids. However, at the top of the chart (see the zoomed in segment below), we see that Dr Baker’s diet is lacking in vitamin C, manganese, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin K1, folate, calcium, omega 3, and pantothenic acid (at least when you use the RDI as your benchmark).
However, what do we make of the fact that Dr Baker and a number of his friends appear to be thriving? Are the recommended nutrient levels just plain wrong? Which ones are relevant in this context?
In response to my preliminary analysis, Shawn commented:
As you point out, some of the micronutrients may become less of a requirement based upon overall dietary scheme.
Personally, I don’t necessarily believe the DRIs are relevant to a carnivorous diet in general and would look at clinical endpoints. For example, calcium deficiency has a clinical manifestation and developing signs of it should lead to deterioration of health rather than its enhancement as I’ve experienced and the same with countless other pure meat eaters.
It is relevant to note that there are many zero-carb people that have been going many years, to some several decades, on just muscle meats and no offal at all and who also maintain excellent health.
There is no point in telling someone to stop doing something if they are thriving. However, at the same time I can’t stop thinking of Dr Bruce Ames’ Triage Theory which suggests that, in the absence of adequate nutrients, the body will prioritise nutrients geared towards short-term survival rather than optimal health and longevity.
Dr Baker’s n=1 data
Dr Baker has been spearheading a nequalsmany crowdsourcing of a range of data from people following a carnivorous diet. While I’m eager to see the full analysis of the data when it’s available, Shawn recently discussed his own test results after fourteen months on a carnivorous diet with Robb Wolf. I highly recommend you have a listen to the interview on the Paleo Solution Podcast.
To my eyes, Dr Baker’s cholesterol values are fairly unremarkable other than to note that his TG:HDL ratio is 1.3 (which is good) and his total cholesterol : HDL is 4.6 which is OK.  However, I’m no expert in this contentious area.
Alex Leaf of Examine.com noted that “High LDL-p, low HDL to LDL ratio, low HDL to non-HDL ratio are All strong CVD risk factors”.
Meanwhile, while Dave Feldman of Cholesterol Code offered the following comments:
- LDL-C and LDL-P are both on the lower end for a low carber who is as lean and fit as Dr Baker is. I suspect this is due to his emphasis on resistance training, which can reduce LDL scores due to a higher rate of use for muscle repair.
- Small LDL-P is low at 283, and clearly very Pattern A.
- HDL-C — 40 mg/dL is low for a zero carber.
- HDL-P was highlighted as being low (out of range) at 28. However, I see this frequently with low carbers across the board.
- Triglycerides — 54 is certainly very correlative with a very athletic, insulin sensitive metabolism.
- Lipoprotein (a) — 2 nmol/L is one of the lowest scores I’ve ever seen (maybe THE lowest).
- The score I most care about is Remnant Cholesterol which is calculated by subtracting both HDL-C and LDL-C from Total Cholesterol. His score of just 11 mg/dL is extremely low risk and suggests he has a very efficient fat metabolism.
What is more interesting and puzzling is Baker’s HbA1c of 6.3% with a fasting blood sugar of 121 mg/dL.
This HbA1c level puts him on the borderline of prediabetes and full-blown type 2 diabetes, which I wouldn’t have expected. A HbA1c of 6.4% and a fasting glucose of 126 is the cut off for type 2 diabetes. HbA1c of less than 5.0% and fasting glucose of less than 95 mg/dL are typically associated with lower all-cause mortality. 
What is puzzling here is that, while Shawn’s HbA1c is high, he has a fasting insulin level of 2.6 mIU/L which is very low which either suggests he is very insulin sensitive or his pancreas is not producing enough insulin.
Since the release of the Robb Wolf podcast there has been a ton of speculation about his results. It will be interesting to see if he follows up on any of the gratuitous suggestions for further testing.
Some people point to HbA1c being an unreliable measure due to the fact that red blood cells live longer in healthier people, however, Dr Baker’s blood sugar values correlate with the HbA1c values.
Some will say that the 6.1 g/kg/LBM or 560 g of protein per day is driving gluconeogenesis. (This is a contentious and complicated topic that I have covered at length in the article Why do my blood sugars rise after a high protein meal?)
If you look at things from a total energy perspective you could say that Shawn is just eating a lot to fuel his activity (more than 4000 calories per day) and hence his blood sugars are staying high.
Perhaps it’s a case of extreme physiological insulin resistance where the body chooses to keep glucose levels higher where there is less glucose available and lower insulin levels?
However, I think it’s worth noting that essential minerals such as potassium, calcium, and sodium are essential for maintaining insulin sensitivity.   While the body does a pretty good job of maintaining acid/base balance, the kidneys still need enough substrate (e.g. alkaline minerals such as potassium, magnesium, and sodium) to be able to do this.
Once the kidneys stop being able to tightly regulate pH we can get metabolic acidosis which goes hand in hand with type 2 diabetes.    (This is another complex and contentious topic that I covered in Alkaline Diet vs Acidic Ketones.)
It’s interesting to hear in his discussion with Robb that Dr Baker is finding benefit from adding sodium and electrolytes. Many people on a low carb dietary approach find that supplementing minerals is important. The Nutrient Optimiser analysis typically finds that people need more potassium or magnesium rather than sodium. Sodium is fairly easy to get while potassium and magnesium is much harder for most people. There are a range of studies suggesting that a higher potassium : sodium ratio is desirable.  
At the same time, Dr Baker’s HbA1c could have been a lot higher before he started his carnivore diet due to the high dietary load to fuel so much exercise and bulking and the meat only diet could be improving his HbA1c. We just don’t know from the available data.
I look forward to the full analysis of the data from the nequalsmany participants. However, based on the results of Shawn’s n=1 it may be too early to say that zero carb is the cure for type 2 diabetes.
While there are anecdotes of an animal-based carnivorous diet raising testosterone levels, Dr Baker’s endogenous testosterone levels are lower than you might expect given his level of muscularity, leanness, and endurance.
As discussed in the interview with Robb he is experiencing no symptoms of low testosterone and suggests that, similar to TSH and insulin, he may be more sensitive to testosterone and hence the body doesn’t need as much of it. Others have been more sceptical of Baker’s testosterone results.
Are the nutrient recommendations relevant to someone following a carnivorous approach?
Given that the RDIs are designed to prevent nutrient deficiencies in most of the population, they will be conservative for most people when it comes to deficiencies. However, what constitutes optimal is a different matter.
The challenge in using the RDIs at extremes is that they have not been adjusted to cater for varying requirements of people following a vegan, keto, or carnivorous approach.
Many people are quick to dismiss the RDIs entirely in view of the numerous anecdotes of people thriving with no plant-based foods. But I’m eager to understand, as much as we can with the available data, how the parameters might change and what is still relevant and important.
While the DRIs are based on people eating a standard western diet, anecdotally many people seem to find they need to supplement electrolytes when they reduce or remove carbohydrates sources from their diet, so I don’t think we can say that someone on a carnivorous diet would have a lower requirement for electrolytes such as sodium, magnesium or potassium.
Does the carnivore diet break the Nutrient Optimiser?
Dr Baker isn’t going out of his way to chase micronutrients. I think the fact that he’s eating more than 4000 calories per day will help to make up for the lower availability of some nutrients in animal vs plant-based foods.
A fairer illustration of the potential of the potential of a carnivorous is the nutrient profile for Amy which is shown below, who is following a carnivore diet with heaps of organ meat.
Although Amy has gone out of her way to maximise her micronutrients as much as anyone practically could with a carnivorous diet she is still not meeting the RDI for vitamin K1, vitamin C, calcium, vitamin E, sodium, and magnesium.
But is this really an issue?
The Nutrient Optimiser has a zero carb/carnivore diet option for people who chose to eat that way for preference or due to other issues. This allows people who chose to follow this approach to help manage autoimmune or digestive issues to fine tune their micronutrients as much as possible within those constraints.
The question for me, then, is whether we need to worry about these possible deficiencies?
Vitamin K2 can be converted to K1
Vitamin K1 is primarily found in plants while K2 is synthesised by bacteria in the large intestine of animals and humans. Vitamin K2 (menaquinones MK1 through MK4) is only a fairly recent discovery. Hence the USDA food database only contains data on the quantity of K1 (phylloquinone) in foods.
The good news is that most people can convert K2 to K1 and vice versa depending on demand. Hence, low dietary vitamin K1 intake may not be an issue if you are getting plenty of K2 from sources such as eggs, butter, and liver.
Some nutrients are more bioavailable
As we mentioned before, vitamin A and omega 3 are more bioavailable from animal-based sources. However, I don’t think this is a real issue either way as it is quite easy to get plenty of these nutrients on a carnivorous diet.
The effect of anti-nutrients on absorption
Iron, calcium, and magnesium may be more bioavailable when there are no oxalates in the diet. Adequate iron is rarely a problem for someone eating adequate amounts of animal-based protein. Excess iron is often a problem in males. Shawn’s ferritin is within range but perhaps above optimal for males.
Calcium and magnesium do tend to be harder to find, but without plant matter in the diet, it may be more bioavailable.
Grains and legumes can contain lectins, glutens, and phytates that can affect the absorption of minerals like potassium and magnesium. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have enough data to calculate how much of the various nutrients are getting into your system from the food once you account for bioavailability.
Cooking vegetables also greatly reduces anti-nutrient levels, which adds another layer of complexity to figuring out how much we absorb in a diet of both cooked and raw foods.
For many people, grains just aren’t worth it, especially if they have pre-existing digestive issues. I’m not sure, however, that the same principle applies to all vegetables.
Personally, my digestion is pretty robust, so I’m not too worried about oxalates in spinach. I figure the benefit of getting all the vitamins more than offsets the negative impacts, at least for me. Some plant-based compounds (e.g. sulforaphane) may have a beneficial hormetic effect.   However, for some people, their gut is so messed up by modern processed foods that they find they need to cut out all fibre containing foods.
Essential nutrients we require less of when we eat less glucose
There is some evidence to suggest that Vitamin C is not as much of a priority for someone with less glucose to process. There are examples of plenty of people surviving with minimal vitamin C on a zero carb diet.
Vitamin C is also probably underreported from animal food and often assumed to be zero. If you want to dig into this more, you can check out Amber O’Hearn’s comprehensive article on vitamin C on a ketogenic diet.
Nutrients that there are is no deficiency testing for
There are also a number of nutrients that are based on population average intakes rather than deficiency testing, such as manganese.
Given that manganese is associated with carbohydrate metabolism, there may be a lesser requirement for people following a carnivorous diet. There may be limited use in chasing targets that are simply based on average intakes of people eating a typical western diet.
Manganese is high in organ meats, which are prized by cultures that do not have access to a lot of plant-based foods, so it is possible to get adequate quantities. While someone on a zero-carb diet may not need as much, manganese still seems to be a useful nutrient.
Similarly, the RDI for Vitamin E is based on median population intake levels rather than any deficiency testing, and it is possible that the requirements may be lower for someone not eating as much glucose.
Pantothenic acid (Vitamin B5)
Shawn is not quite meeting the RDI for Vitamin B5 but may not need more unless he has high intakes of alcohol or coffee or has high levels of stress. The target levels are based on the average intake from population studies, so there’s probably no need to chase the target here for someone on a carnivore diet.
Nutrients that are still important
Without a lot of seafood, Shawn is not getting a lot of Vitamin D from his food. However, a lack of dietary vitamin D is not unique to carnivores. The RDI levels for vitamin D levels are based on the amount required to maintain serum 25(OH)D levels with minimal sunlight. Interestingly, as shown in the test results, Shawn’s serum vitamin D levels are on the lower end of normal.
Shawn is getting lower levels of folate compared to the estimated average requirement. Again, folate can easily be obtained from organ meats which are prized in cultures that do not have access to plant-based foods.
Shawn is also not meeting the RDI for calcium. Calcium can be obtained on a carnivore diet from eggs and sardines or other bony fish. Target calcium levels are based on balance studies, and your calcium requirements will increase with age.
Shawn is getting a solid amount of omega 3, though not enough to meet the RDI levels or achieve ideal omega 3 : omega 6 balance. Again, omega 3 is not hard to get from animal-based products if they include some seafood.
Magnesium and potassium
Magnesium and potassium are two minerals that many people do not get enough of when they reduce their carbohydrate intake, particularly green veggies.
The keto flu is a common symptom that people experience early in their ketogenic journey that they can fix with supplementation of alkalising minerals.
I struggle to see that there is a lesser requirement for these minerals on a keto or carnivore diet. Though itis conceivable that bioavailability is improved when plants are removed from the diet, there is not really enough data to quantify this.
Don’t focus on just one nutrient
All in all, I think nutrients are important. However, getting wrapped up in chasing the absolute DRI for individual nutrients can be problematic due to the numerous factors outlined above. Our nutrient requirements will also change based on a range of things such as activity, life stage, the other things you are eating, your gut health and nutrient absorption.
Life is all about making the best choices we can with imperfect data. We can’t let the lack of perfect stop us from using the data that we have available. To smooth out the limitations of individual nutrients, the Nutrient Optimiser prioritises foods that contain a cluster of the ten or so nutrients you are getting less of and identifies the foods and meals that contain these nutrients in larger quantities.
So sure, maybe you don’t need as much K1, manganese, vitamin C on a carnivorous diet, the Nutrient Optimiser will help you find the foods that contain the other nutrients that can be harder with your preferred approach to finding the nutrients that are still important.
Historically, humans seem to adapt pretty well to a wide range of food environments over time. What we don’t seem to do well with is modern hyperpalatable nutrient poor energy-dense foods that are flavoured and coloured to make us think that they are good for us, but actually contain very little actual nutrition.
What about the Maasai?
Many people refer to the Maasai tribe in Africa, who survive on nothing but milk, meat, and blood from their animals, as a precedent for the carnivorous approach.
While they are a thriving, beautiful people, keep in mind that they are drinking blood from their animals and eating fresh meat, nose to tail.
This is not the same as eating only drained muscle meat that has been hung for a long time. It’s pretty hard to get fresh, undrained meat let alone fresh blood in the west.
Who should try a carnivorous diet?
One common theme I see for people who seem to thrive on a carnivorous approach is some sort of gut issues (e.g. permeability or bacterial overgrowth) or some sort of autoimmune condition, perhaps due to long-term exposure to processed low nutrient-poor foods.
If your gut is already compromised, then cutting down on fibre and other plant matter, particularly grains, nuts and seeds seems to work wonders for many people. If you have issues that you find are only healed by staying strictly carnivore then, by all means, stick with it.
You could also use carnivore as an elimination phase and then slowly reintroduce other foods back in to see if you can tolerate them. You may enjoy a diet that is less restrictive and makes it easier to get the nutrients you need from your diet. I recommend checking out Chris Kresser’s The Paleo Cure or Natasha Campbell McBride’s GAPS Diet if you want to follow this elimination and reintroduction type approach.
Some people find great success with a carnivore dietary approach. There are a ton of great testimonials at meatheals.com. At the same time, I have seen many others that carnivore didn’t work out for. One friend Samantha found that she became hypersensitive to the smallest whiff of flour and found improvement through a course of probiotics.
The general motto of the carnivore crowd is to just eat meat when hungry. This works well for many, but not all.
Ironically, during the finalisation of this article, I contacted Amy (who has the amazing carnivore nutrient profile shown above) and she advised she was no longer following a zero carb dietary approach and was now pursuing a nutrient dense omnivorous approach. She had found that she started to gain weight after 2.5 years on a carnivorous diet and her thyroid function diminished. Amy, who was previously an admin for a major carnivore Facebook group, says:
“All of these, coupled with my EXTREMELY high LDL cholesterol of 500 and my 7-year lack of menstrual cycle, points directly to a failing thyroid. ZC made it WORSE… MUCH worse. I went back to a mixed diet in January of this year. Within 2 weeks of this diet change, I regained all of my natural bowel motility. And, surprisingly, within 2 months my menstrual cycle returned after 7 years of absence!! I regained my energy, and I’m now walking daily again, doing daily hour-long sessions of yoga (which I used to love doing years ago), lifting weights 3 days a week, and doing 20 minute HIIT workouts 3 days a week. I’ve put on some weight, but I look and feel very healthy. I notice that I’m frequently hot now instead of cold, which I presume is a symptom of my thyroid upregulating to where it should be. I am scheduled to have a complete thyroid panel, lipid panel, and other hormone tests run at the end of March to see where I am. But I can clearly tell you that ZC did NOT do MY body any favors.”
Overall, it’s probably fair to say that a carnivore diet can benefit many, particularly if you have major digestive issues. However, I think it’s probably too soon to say it’s optimal for everyone.
If you do want to pursue a carnivorous diet, then the Nutrient Optimiser can help you identify foods to get as much nutrition as you can within that framework.
If you find that you want something with a little bit more variety and want to include some plants, then there are autoimmune, lactose-free, nut free, or shellfish free options are available to suit your allergies, preferences and intolerances
- Some people seem to benefit from a zero carb/carnivore diet, particularly if they have pre-existing gut permeability or bacterial overgrowth.
- Cutting out nutrient-poor processed inflammatory foods is a common denominator in many successful diets.
- It is harder to get some nutrients without plants, however, some of these nutrients may not be such a big deal if you are not eating a lot of carbohydrates.
- While there are plenty of anecdotes, there is not yet a lot of large-scale quantitative research into the long-term impacts of a carnivore diet.
- It’s still a good idea to maximise the micronutrients in your diet irrespective of your overarching dietary template.
If, like me, you’re intrigued by the carnivore diet then make sure you also read the followup aricle, Optimising Dr Shawn Baker’s CArnivore Diet from First Principles.
I have included some food lists that may be of interest if you want to pursue a carnivorous approach or have major digestive issues.
Carnivore / zero carb
The foods listed below will provide you with the most nutrients per calorie without plants. The food at the top of each section contains more of the nutrients that are harder to find per calorie.
The nutrient profile of these foods is shown in the chart below.
Carnivore / zero carb (diabetes friendly)
The problem with the nutrient dense carnivore approach is that it contains a lot of protein (63%). This may drive satiety (meaning it will be hard to get enough calories in) or potentially be problematic for someone dosing with insulin due to the insulinogenic nature of the protein. The foods below contain more fat which will make it easier to get adequate energy as well as reduce insulin requirements.
The nutrient profile of these foods is shown below (i.e. more fat, less protein and lower micronutrients per calorie).
Autoimmune & SIBO
Many people who benefit from a carnivorous have messed up digestion and/or autoimmune issues. If you don’t want to go full carnivore, the food list below removes the most inflammatory foods and foods that commonly cause digestive issues while still contain a lot of nutrients.
The nutrient profile of these foods is shown below.
Autoimmune (low carb)
The food list below will provide nutrients with more fat which will enable you to get enough energy.
The nutrient profile of these foods is shown below.
For comparison, the most nutrient-dense foods are shown below.
The nutrient profile of these foods is shown below. Keep in mind that these are the nutrients contained in the food and some of these nutrients will be less bioavailable.
Special thanks to Shawn Baker, Robb Wolf, Alex Leaf, Amber O’Hearn, Dave Feldman, Robin Reyes, Helen Kendall and Raphi Sirt for their input and review into this article.
Post updated April 2018.