Dr Shawn Baker MD’s Carnivore Diet: a review
There has been a lot of interest in the carnivore diet lately!
After dabbling with low carb, paleo, and keto, excluding all plants is the next logical step for some people in their quest for optimal health, weight loss and/or diabetes control.
But, to some, this sounds counterintuitive!
- Could eating only meat be healthy?
- What about nutrients from plants?
- Won’t I 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.
Carnivore diet results
In light of all the n = 1s, it’s hard to say it doesn’t provide amazing results for a lot of people. In addition to Dr Shawn Baker, there are a few notable examples of people who have successfully followed a carnivorous diet for a long time with some amazing results!
Joe and Charlene Anderson
Transitioning to a meat-only diet wasn’t always 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 fibres, 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.
Mikhaila was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at seven and severe depression when she was twelve. She had a hip and ankle replacement at seventeen and was put on Adderall in an effort to stay awake, sleeping around seventeen hours per day.
Mikhaila started out with an elimination diet in late 2015 and eventually ended up on carnivorous approach.
Mikhaila is thriving now and passionately sharing her story of transformation.
Amber O’Hearn is another prominent carnivorous diet proponent who progressed to this way of eating after her success with low carb stalled.
She cut out all plant-based foods (other than coffee) and found her bipolar benefited significantly and her weight loss improved!
She doesn’t claim that carnivory is ideal for everyone, but makes a good case for why we may not all need heaps of fruit and “heart-healthy grains”.
Dr Georgia Ede
Psychiatrist Dr Georgia Ede draws attention to issues with anti-nutrients in plant-based foods (e.g. phytic acid, goitrogens, oxalates, and tannins) in not just grains and soy, but also cruciferous veggies.
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 sure how foods will interact in various individuals.
Recommended daily intakes for nutrients are based on 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.
A growing number of people are experiencing amazing results with an all-meat diet to eliminate these stressors. If you have major depressive symptoms and digestive issues animal-based diet seems to be worth a try.
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.
Rather than mainstream dieticians, the momentum behind the carnivore diet seems to be coming from the online community (e.g. such as Principia Carnivora and Zeroing in On Health) that swears by just eating meat (i.e. mainly steak and water).
Dr Shawn 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?”
Dr Shawn Baker
Shawn is a strength athlete (previously rugby, strongman and lately rowing) who eats a lot of food. In the past, his diet included plenty of cereals, low-fat yogurt, skim milk, pasta and grains to maintain weight with his high level of activity and super heavy workouts.
As is the case with many who seem to have become passionate advocates of a carnivorous approach, after experiencing digestive issues exacerbated by his poor diet, he progressively experimented with his diet, moving from the typical high carb to paleo, then low carb, then a targeted ketogenic diet.
Shawn 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 approach.
He has since gone to set world records in indoor rowing and continues to work out like a beast at the age of 51 (as shown in this Instagram post).
Shawn has been interviewed on numerous podcasts promoting nequalsmany which is his effort to pool the experiences and test data from a range of people following a carnivorous diet. He has also kicked off his own Human Performance Outliers podcast with Ultra Runner Zach Bitter.
I pinged Dr Baker on Twitter to get his standard diet to analyse using Nutrient Optimiser.
The Nutrient Optimiser is designed to help you balance your diet at a micronutrient level. It identifies foods and meals that will provide the nutrients that you are currently not getting enough of.
As well as managing micronutrients, the Nutrient Optimiser can manipulate macronutrients and satiety 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 increase the energy density and decrease satiety to help you to get more energy in, and
- if you are looking to lose weight, we can increase the satiety score to ensure you get the nutrient you need with foods that are more filling.
Nutrient Optimiser tends to remove foods that we know intuitively are bad for us (e.g. hyper-palatable processed junk foods that are a combination of cheaps flours and vegetable oils). From there, whether you want to eat only plants for ethical reasons or only animal-based foods because that’s all you can tolerate, Nutrient Optimiser can help you find the ideal foods for you. In the past nutrients wouldn’t have been that hard to come by, however, today you need a BS detector to cut through the claims on the packaging, artificial colours and flavours, to identify the food that actually contain the nutrients you need to thrive.
Limitations of a plant-based diet
In systems design, things get interesting when you take them to their limits. You need to test ‘edge cases’ at the extremes to iron out the bugs.
In the case of the Nutrient Optimiser, the limits are macronutrient extremes (carbs, fat, protein) and the extremes of plant- vs animal-based food sources.
One of the challenges for the Daily Reference Intake (DRI) for essential nutrients is that they were developed in the context of an agriculture-based western diet. We need to understand which parameters are still relevant and which ones may need to be adjusted.
As shown in the nutritional profile below, the most nutrient-dense plant-based diet can provide 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, the nutrients provided by plant-based foods are the same. Although certain vitamins and minerals exist under the same name, their form and bioavailability differ.
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 nutrients in the form 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 subtleties accurately. I hope that before too long there will be more data that will help us quantify the effect of bioavailability and antinutrients on the number of nutrients actually absorbed as opposed to in the food we eat.
We do need to keep these limitations in mind when analysing a purely plant-based diet, especially if someone is experiencing symptoms of deficiency.
Similarly, we can look at the possible limitations of an animal-based carnivorous diet. The chart below shows the nutrient profile of the most nutrient-dense carnivorous diet.
It seems that it will be harder to meet the Recommended Daily Intake of vitamin K1, folate, vitamin C, calcium, magnesium and potassium. If you don’t mind adding in some organ meats, you can get a very respectable micronutrient profile in real life. However, not everyone likes offal.
The chart below shows the nutrient profile if we remove organ meats. The purple lines represent the nutrient profile of all of the foods in the USDA database. Without organ meats, the Nutrient Optimiser Score drops from 75% to 67%. It seems that without organ meats we could struggle to get adequate levels of vitamin K1, manganese, folate, calcium, vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin E, and magnesium.
We can use the Nutrient Optimiser to maximise your chance of getting the nutrients you need with a carnivorous diet. The most nutrient-dense foods tend to be quite lean and very high in protein. If you are looking to maintain weight and/or stabilise your blood sugars, then this nutrient-dense carnivore maintenance list will be more appropriate. The nutrient profile is shown below.
Shawn Baker’s diet analysis
Dr Baker’s average daily food intake is shown below in Cronometer (with lots of steak and hamburger mince with some cheese, eggs, shrimp, and salmon).
The micronutrient fingerprint of Dr Baker’s diet is shown below. You can see his full Nutrient Optimiser analysis here.
At the bottom of the chart above, we see that Dr Baker’s diet has plenty of vitamin B12, zinc, iron, and amino acids. However, at the top (see the zoomed in the segment below), we see that Dr Baker’s diet does not meet the daily recommended intake for vitamin C, manganese, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin K1, folate, calcium, omega 3, and pantothenic acid.
So, what do we make of the fact that Dr Baker and a number of his friends appear to be thriving in spite of not meeting some of the micronutrient DRIs?
- Are the recommended nutrient intake targets wrong?
- Which ones are still relevant for him?
In response to my analysis, Shawn commented on Twitter:
As you point out, some of the micronutrients may become less of a requirement based upon the 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 towards short-term survival rather than optimal health and longevity.
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 the extremes is that they have not been adjusted to cater for varying requirements of people following a vegan, keto, or carnivorous approach.
Many are quick to dismiss the RDIs because 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.
In this chat with Joe Rogan, Rhonda Patrick gets into the nitty-gritty of the nutrient requirements and whether they are still relevant for carnivores.
The reality is, many it’s early days for the carnivore diet. Not many people have been doing it for a long time.
While a number of people try carnivory to help them manage a particular condition, others are just curious.
Some people continue to thrive, while some experience cravings (nutrient depletion/deficiencies?) after a while.
In the end, it’s early days and it will be fascinating to see the long term benefits and downsides of a meat-only diet.
Can you survive on an all-meat diet?
Dr Baker isn’t going out of his way to chase micronutrients. However, 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. But is this really an issue? Perhaps not if you are not exhibiting signs of nutrient deficiencies relating to these nutrients, but they might be worth keeping an eye out for.
- vitamin K – used in the synthesis of protein and absorption of calcium. Low levels of vitamin K impairs blood coagulation, causing blood such as nosebleeds and heavy menstrual bleeding. Deficiency may lead to weakened bone and calcification of arteries, leading to coronary heart disease.
- vitamin C – used by the immune system and is a powerful antioxidant. While you don’t require as much vitamin C with your glucose is low you do need vitamin C to absorb iron in the gut. It may be that the lack of vitamin C with high iron levels may help to reduce your risk of haemochromatosis (too much iron).
- calcium – needed for muscle, heart, digestive systems, bones, teeth and blood.
- manganese – helps to build bones and metabolise protein and carbs.
- vitamin E – antioxidant used in smooth muscle growth and has a role in eye and neurological functions.
The Nutrient Optimiser has a zero carb/carnivore diet option. 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.
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 as it is quite easy to get plenty of these nutrients on a carnivorous diet, particularly if you include organ meats and seafood.
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.
Calcium and magnesium tend to be harder to find, especially if you are eating cooked meat rather than raw meat with the blood and juices which contain a lot of the minerals.
Grains and legumes contain lectins, glutens, and phytates that can affect the absorption of minerals like potassium and magnesium.
Unfortunately, we don’t have 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 reduce 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 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 in moderate doses. 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.
We need less vitamin 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 plenty of examples of people surviving with minimal vitamin C on a zero carb diet. Vitamin C and glucose are similar in structure and compete for the same receptor, so you may absorb vitamin C more effectively if you are consuming a diet with low levels of glucose.
Vitamin C is also probably underreported from animal food and often assumed to be zero. If you want to dig into this more, 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 value chasing targets that are simply based on the 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.
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. It’s also worth noting that vitamin E has been on the rise with increasing vegetable oil usage, so the population average intake may not necessarily be optimal.
Pantothenic acid (Vitamin B5)
Shawn is not quite meeting the RDI for Vitamin B5, though he may not need more unless he has high intakes of alcohol or coffee or has high levels of stress. Again, 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 diet. 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. Most people need to get heaps of sun to ensure they create adequate amounts of vitamin D (note: 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. It’s interesting to hear that Paleo Medininca are big fans of using heaps of organ meats to ensure you get adequate amounts of folate and other important nutrients from a carnivorous diet that doesn’t contain green leafy vegetalbes.
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. Ensuring you get adequate amounts of vitamin D is important to ensure you absorb calcium and that it goes where it’s mean to go (i.e. your bones and teach, not your arteries).
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.
The keto flu is a common symptom that people experience early in their ketogenic journey that they can fix with supplementation of alkalising minerals or foods that contain more of them (e.g. green leafy vegetables).
I haven’t seen any research that would indicate that there would be a lesser requirement for these minerals on a keto or carnivore diet. If anything, the need for these minerals is greater on a reduced carb diet.
As you can see in the charts below, our analysis of data from twenty-five thousand days of data from Optimisers suggests that we have a very strong satiety response to both magnesium and potassium. Both of these important nutrients tend to be hard to find in the food system and we tend to eat a lot less when we consume adequate amounts of foods that contain more of these important electrolytes.
Don’t focus on just one nutrient at a time
In the end, I think nutrients are important. However, getting wrapped up in chasing the absolute DRI for individual nutrients can be problematic due to the numerous interrelated factors.
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 limited and imperfect data. We can’t let the lack of perfect data 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, maybe you don’t need as much K1, manganese, vitamin C on a carnivorous diet, 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. But what we definitely 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 plant foods could you add back in first?
If you wanted to use the carnivore diet as an elimination protocol and start adding nutrient-dense foods back, the lowest risk approach would be to start with autoimmune friendly foods. As shown in the chart below, adding back will boost your nutrient profile while avoiding common autoimmune trigger foods.
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, these days.
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 or other environmental toxins.
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 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.
The general motto of the carnivore crowd is to just eat meat when hungry.
This works well for many, but not all. Overall, it’s probably fair to say that a carnivore diet can benefit many, particularly if you have major digestive issues. However, I think maybe 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 made it this far and want to learn more about the carnivore diet then make sure you also read the follow-up article, Optimising Dr Shawn Baker’s Carnivore Diet from First Principles.
- 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.
- Optimising Dr Shawn Baker’s carnivore diet from first principles
- Nutrient density 101
- Nutrient Optimiser
- The biggest trends in nutrition
- Nutritional myth-busting