optimising Dr Shawn Baker’s carnivore diet from first principles

recent article looking at Dr Baker’s carnivore diet identified some micronutrient gaps.  This article looks at how we could make some small tweaks to fill these gaps and help him stabilise his blood sugars and naturally boost his testosterone levels.   

Rather than making radical wholesale changes that you probably won’t stick to, the Nutrient Optimiser helps you to make small improvements to your diet. 

This article is a ‘worked example’ of how the Nutrient Optimiser could help refine your diet to achieve your goals while working within whatever constraints you may have.

What are the fundamental principles of nutrition?

I don’t consider myself an advocate of zero carb/carnivore as the ultimate diet for everyone, but I’m intrigued.  I want to understand the fundamental principles of human nutrition. 

image14

There are plenty of anecdotes, zealots and firmly held beliefs when it comes to nutrition.

Everyone has an opinion, everyone has experience, everyone feels strongly about nutrition because everyone eats. 

However, while many people feel a lot of conviction about their way of eating, there seem to be people both thriving and doing poorly on a range of diets that appear to be polar opposites, whether it be carnivore, keto, paleo or whatever. 

While some people believe that diets work because you eliminate all plants (carnivore/zero carb) or animals (i.e. vegan), I’m sceptical about the “magic” of any specific dietary approach.  I want to understand the fundamental principles of nutrition. 

We have tried to make carnivore work in our family to try to help with my wife’s Type 1 and all the autoimmune issues that seem to surround it.  Eating a lot of beef tends to require a lot of insulin for my wife and it can be hard to dose the right amount of insulin to match it. We also found it to be pretty expensive, especially with two growing teenagers.  While I can eat just about anything I choose to, the rest of the family tend to like more variety, so we’ve never been successful going full carnivore. 

I’m currently reading Ray Dalio’s Principles where he describes the process of “backtesting” his theories over centuries of historical financial data to design the trading systems that enabled him to develop Bridgewater Capital into the world’s most successful hedge fund. 

image1

Not only has Dalio used backtesting to eliminate bias from his trading he has developed a company culture of radical honesty around an “idea meritocracy” where anyone in the company is invited to give brutally honest feedback on every member of the company to ensure that they continue to eliminate any biases from their culture.  

As someone who spent a while developing my own trading systems and an engineer who relies on data analysis in my day job, this sort of approach resonates with me.  It is this systems thinking that I have tried to use in the field of nutrition in the development of the Nutrient Optimiser algorithm. 

Nutrition science is quite a young area of research.  We only started to think in terms of nutrients around a century ago.  Humans are complex organisms.  Just like the financial markets, we find ourselves in a range of different environments with different goals and hence require different approaches depending on our situation and goal (e.g. athletes, bodybuilders, diabetes, weight loss, pregnancy, longevity etc.).  

Engineering has a range of safety factors while trading the financial markets requires an understanding of risk and dealing with probability and uncertainty.  Similarly, nutrition is about making the best decisions that we can base on the knowledge that we have.  I’m not claiming that the RDI are perfectly accurate, but as you will see we’re really talking about orders of magnitude differences in nutrients as a proportion of the recommended daily intake.  

I’ve been fortunate to be part of groups like the Optimising Nutrition Facebook Group which tends to be a brutal idea meritocracy when it comes to nutrition where you can learn a lot from smart people based on the latest research.   

Over the years I have identified the following principles of nutrition that can be quantified and used to create a systematised approach in the Nutrient Optimser algorithm.  I’m not saying these are the be all and end all and there will never be anything better, but these are the most useful parameters that I have found that can be quantified.  Before getting into how we can upgrade Shawn’s current diet, let me quickly touch on these.

Principle 1.  Insulin load

While the importance of insulin has been overstated by many people, the reality is that if you have diabetes, lowering the insulin load of your diet will help stabilise your blood sugar levels.  And even if you are not diagnosed with diabetes, keeping stable blood sugars is an important health marker.[1] 

If you are injecting insulin or taking other medications to control your blood sugar levels, then decreasing your dietary insulin load (which is a function of the non-fibre carbohydrates, and to a lesser extent protein) is an important first step. 

However, as shown in the chart below, we can lower insulin load too much to the point that we compromise the nutrient content of our diet.  We need to find the balance point between nutrient density and insulin load. 

image18

Unless you have type 1 diabetes, you can never take your insulin levels to zero.  Insulin is like a brake in your system that stops your stored energy from being used while external energy is coming in. 

While living on butter, bacon and oil might help you stabilise your blood sugars, your blood sugar and insulin levels will not decrease to optimal levels until you stop jamming excess energy into your mouth. 

Principle 2. Nutrient density

Maximising nutrient density means getting the nutrients you need to thrive without consuming too much energy. 

While the daily recommended nutrient targets have their limitations (e.g. bioavailability; anti-nutrients; and context such as activity levels, gender and food combinations), we can identify food and meals that have more of the cluster of micronutrients that you are currently not getting as much of. 

image22

Eating foods that are quantitatively nutrient dense tends to force out the processed junk food.  Foods that are nutrient dense are typically whole foods that don’t need to be coloured, flavoured and engineered to look and taste like they contain the nutrients we need.  They have them naturally in the form and quantities that we have come to thrive on. 

Principle 3.  Energy density

We can also quantitatively manipulate energy density to help us refine our food choices to help us get more or less energy in.  Athletes will want to be able to consume more energy while choosing more low energy dense foods will help you lose body fat.[2]  

Principle 3.  Energy intake (aka calories)

Just like insulin, there is plenty of controversy around calories.  

image20

Some think calories don’t matter. 

Some don’t think they exist. 

But most people acknowledge that energy balance matters. 

However, it’s reasonable to say that just focusing on calories is not the best way to control them or improve your diet.  Without trying to improve the quality of our food, we can end up missing out on the nutrition we need.  But if we dial in insulin load, energy density and nutrient density then satiety and energy intake naturally look after themselves and help you achieve a more normal body fat level. 

However, sometimes it’s still useful to actively manage our calorie intake.  Sometimes this is only required to help retrain our eating habits, or if you want to achieve really low levels of body fat.  Anyone stepping on stage in a bodybuilding competition with single digit body fat percentages is probably tracking their food to ensure they get the results they are after, dialling in calories while making sure they’re getting adequate protein to support their muscle mass. 

image12

Principle 5.  Food sensitivities

Whether it be due to toxins in our environment, excess refined foods, or whatever, food sensitivities are becoming more common.  Many people seem to benefit from eliminating certain foods from their diet, whether it be autoimmune triggering foods, wheat/gluten or whatever. 

This is where the zero carb/carnivore dietary approach seems to shine by removing plant-based foods that could cause an autoimmune or digestive response reaction.  However, I’m not sure everyone needs to eliminate all plant foods. 

Just to keep things interesting, Tommy Wood noted that:

“Neu5gc antibodies seem to be increased in Hashimoto’s (see Jaminet and Gundry), probably propagated by the gut microbiota. So eliminating red meat may help others with certain autoimmune conditions.

“When it comes to “real” food, I think we should be able to tolerate being the omnivores that we are. A true need for any hard eliminations (be that carbs, meat, or anything else) suggests that the underlying problem hasn’t been fixed. Almost all of it is symptom control.

“Though that doesn’t include allergies, obviously. And doesn’t mean you can always figure out how to fix the underlying problem. Good symptom control might be the best we can do in some situations.”

A carnivorous approach may work well for some people to eliminate most inflammatory foods.  You could then start to add back the most nutrient dense foods to see what you can tolerate while still getting all the nutrients you need.   This is basically what we’re going to do with Dr Baker’s diet in the rest of this post. 

Dr Baker’s baseline diet

To recap, the article Dr Shawn Baker’s Carnivore Diet: A Review looked at his typical diet of ribeye steak, mince (ground meat), cheese, eggs, shrimp and salmon. 

image19
Here’s what it looks like in terms of nutrients vs the daily recommended intake levels.  We can see from this that he is getting a lot of amino acids, zinc, iron, B2, B3 and B6 while a number of the other vitamins, minerals and omega 3s are relatively low. 

image15

Note: Shawn didn’t mention sodium in the Tweet above, so I haven’t included it in this analysis. However, I understand that he does salt his food and is now finding benefit from supplementing with sodium to support this massive activity levels.  Most of the time I see people not getting enough potassium and magnesium from their diet rather than sodium, and very few people achieve desirable potassium:sodium ratio.  

With about 4100 calories per day Shawn ends up getting about 6.1g/kg LBM of protein, and he meets the DRI for all but ten essential nutrients. 

However, keep in mind that the DRIs are based on an average male eating 2000 calories per day.  Someone trying to lose weight might only be eating 1200 to 1500 calories per day so they would be getting even fewer nutrients. 

For comparison purposes, the chart below shows Dr Baker’s diet in terms of nutrients per 2000 calories.  With a more normal energy intake, he would be not meeting the DRI for fifteen essential nutrients. 

image11

A lot of the time discussion about these issues degenerates into whether or not the DRIs are accurate.  Hopefully, this chart illustrates that there are multiple orders of magnitude differences in % DRI for some of these nutrients.  The goal of the Nutrient Optimiser is to rebalance this to some extent while still working within your preferences (e.g. zero carb etc).

It’s interesting to hear Shawn talking about supplementing with electrolytes which are often more important for very active people.[3]  Interestingly, it’s the electrolytes like potassium, magnesium and calcium that can be harder to get on a low carb/keto /carnivore diet with a lower intake of green leafy veggies.  I recently heard a 2 Keto Dudes podcast where cohost Carl Franklin was saying that he had developed a tremor in his right hand after a period of eating mainly porchetta that was instantly solved with magnesium supplementation.  Traditional cultures like the Masai would likely have obtained a lot more of these nutrients from eating nose to tail and even drinking fresh blood, rather than eating drained and aged muscle meat.

I’m happy to accept that you probably don’t need to supplement with vitamin C, manganese, vitamin E, calcium, vitamin K1 if you are thriving on a carnivorous diet.  However, it seems that magnesium, potassium and sodium are still very important and the RDIs are still quite relevant.

Scenarios to test

I realise that the DRIs have their shortcomings (e.g. bioavailability, context, antinutrients etc.).  I delved into these issues in the previous post if you want to check that out. 

In this article, I  want to focus on the scenarios below where we could fine tune Dr Baker’s diet to get more nutrients as well as helping him lower his blood sugar levels.   (Note: Robb Wolf has now published Shawn Baker’s full blood test results on his blog here if you’re interested in checking them out).  

There is plenty of discussions out there on the interwebs as to whether a HbA1c is really a concern for Shawn in his context.  Some people say that the excess protein is being converted to glucose.  Some think it’s just the higher energy levels.  Some think that it’s higher lived red blood cells which are causing the higher HbA1c.  Some think he might have an underlying autoimmune condition that is causing his pancreas to not produce enough insulin.  I’m not saying I know.

2018-03-15 11.06.29

Symptomatically he appears to be doing fine with his higher glucose and lower testosterone levels.  I just want to demonstrate how the Nutrient Optimiser would help someone wanting to lower the dietary insulin load to enable their pancreas to keep up.

So, putting the minutia aside, let’s assume we want to find foods that contain more of the nutrients that Shawn’s diet is not providing in large quantities.   I also want to test a couple of scenarios:

  1. with and without plant-based foods, and
  2. maximum nutrient density per calorie vs a more energy dense, higher fat, diabetes-friendly approach.

Shawn is currently eating 6.1 g/kg LBM of protein and has nearly diabetic blood sugar levels and HbA1c.[4]  Most of the time I’m the one banging on that you shouldn’t be afraid of protein.  However, I wonder whether Shawn might do better with a higher fat, lower protein, zero carb approach.  You can convert protein to energy, but it is hard for the body to do, compared to using fat or carbs for energy.

Very low protein diets tend to be low in other nutrients, however more than 1.8g/kg LBM  doesn’t seem to make a difference for most people in terms of building additional muscle mass.  Less protein and more fat might be gentler on his metabolism and help him fuel his activity levels.  Reducing the insulin load of his diet to the point that his pancreas can keep up and maintain normal blood sugar might be beneficial. 

Ted Naiman’s depiction of the protein : energy ratio below illustrates this concept.  A high protein : energy ratio may be useful for people who want to get nutrients and protein without too much energy and drive high levels of satiety that will help them eat less.  However, for someone like Shawn, trying to get more energy into fuel activity, a lower protein energy ratio might be more useful.  A diet with a lower protein : energy level is less nutrient dense but also less insulinogenic which may be helpful for someone like Shawn who has blood sugars and near diabetics HbA1c. 

image8

Ted suggests a protein : energy (i.e. protein / (fat + carbs) all in grams) of around 3:1 for someone trying to lose weight while with something closer to 1:1 for someone trying to maintain their current body fat levels or fuel a lot of activity.  Interestingly, Shawn’s current protein : energy ratio is 2.75 which is closer to the weight loss approach.   

Scenario 1 – Carnivore with max nutrient density

In this scenario, we will look to improve the nutrient content of Shawn’s diet while remaining carnivore, given that it’s working pretty well for him and helping his digestive issues. 

The table below shows the nutrients for which Shawn would fail to meet the DRI if he was eating a standard 2000 calories per day.  

nutrient

% DRI / 2000 calories

Vitamin C

0%

Manganese

2%

Vitamin E

13%

Vitamin A

17%

Vitamin D

19%

Vitamin K1

21%

Folate

27%

Calcium

35%

Pantothenic Acid (B5)

35%

Omega 3

37%

Thiamine (B1)

65%

Sodium

68%

Magnesium

71%

Copper 

77%

Potassium

89%

The chart below shows the nutrients that are associated with testosterone levels according to extensive research by Spectracell.   Shawn is currently getting plenty of zinc, carnitine and vitamin B6, however boosting the vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin D, vitamin K and folate in his diet may help him naturally boost his testosterone levels which are on the lower end.

testosterone.png

We can use the Nutrient Optimser algorithm to identify the zero carb foods that contain more of the nutrients for which Shawn is not meeting the DRI.  

Listed below are the top 20 foods that would provide nutrients to complement Shawn’s current diet.  (I have crossed out shrimp and salmon because Shawn is already eating these.) 

     liver

     caviar

     cod

     crab

     fish roe

     mussel

     lobster

     anchovy

     trout

     crayfish

     shrimp

     salmon

     lamb kidney

     Halibut

     egg yolk

     Haddock

     Pollock

     Perch

     sardine

     oysters

So let’s say Shawn added 30g of liver (I’ve only added 30g of liver, so we don’t exceed the upper limit for Vitamin A) a tablespoon of caviar, and swapped out some of his steak for cod (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson also eats a lot of cod) which is high protein and nutrient dense[5]. The table below shows Shawn’s updated daily diet.  

image9

The updated nutrient profile with Shawn’s refined diet shown below.  These additional foods give us a large boost in vitamin A, copper, omega 3 and magnesium, so we are now only missing the DRI for 11 nutrients rather than fifteen. 

image2

This scenario has a protein : energy ratio of 3.7 which is great if Shawn was trying to lose weight, but perhaps not ideal to support a lot of activity. 

Scenario 2 – Nutrient dense carnivore – diabetes friendly

As I mentioned earlier, Shawn may benefit from a higher fat, lower insulin load, carnivorous approach given his elevated blood sugar and HbA1c.   While most people probably need to be eating more protein, Shawn’s pancreas seems to be struggling to keep up with the insulin required to metabolise 560 g of protein per day or an insulin load of 300 g/day. 

Listed below are the higher fat foods that could provide the nutrients that Shawn is missing from his diet with a lower insulin load. 

     egg yolk

     mackerel

     caviar

     liver sausage

     cream

     liverwurst

     whole egg

     sweetbread

     lamb brains

     sour cream

     beef brains

     cream cheese

     bacon

     bratwurst

     butter

     salami

     limburger cheese

     camembert

     fish roe

     liver pate

The table below shows the updated Cronometer food diary with the lean ribeye steak switched for a fattier T-bone and fattier hamburger mince.  I have also added mackerel, bacon and liverwurst. 

image13.png

The chart below shows the nutrient profile of these foods.   Even though we have more fat, we are able to meet the DRI for all but eleven of the essential nutrients.  These foods contain 61% fat and 39% protein which is a more reasonable level for someone wanting to maintain weight and fuel a lot of activity.  With these foods, Shawn would not be missing the DRI for twelve essential nutrients.  These foods have a lower protein : energy ratio of 1.4 which is more appropriate for weight maintenance or to support a lot of activity. 

image4

Scenario 3 – Omnivorous with max nutrient density

So let’s say Shawn wanted to maximise nutrient density from all foods, including some plants, given his main goal is performance rather than just being zero carb.  However, given that Shawn seems to have some digestive issues from his previous high carb processed foods diet we will eliminate any inflammatory foods using the autoimmune protocol filter.  The top twenty foods are shown below:

     spinach

     watercress

     beet greens

     basil

     chard

     parsley

     turnip greens

     endive

     amaranth leaves

     lettuce

     chives

     broccoli

     arugula

     collards

     escarole

     kale

     radicchio

     celery

     cauliflower

     zucchini

     onions

     winter squash

     sauerkraut

     liver

     caviar

     cod

The Cronometer output below shows the updated intake with a little less ribeye and ground beef with some spinach, broccoli, sauerkraut and liver added in.  

image13.png

Shawn would need to test and see how he does with the addition of spinach and broccoli.  While some people don’t tolerate any fibrous foods,[6] I don’t think most people are suffering from excessive amounts of cruciferous vegetables.

From a macronutrient point of view, this ends up being only 2% net carbs which is low by most standards.  From a protein : energy ratio perspective these foods come in at 2.7 which is probably higher than we want for someone trying to fuel a lot of activity. 

The updated nutrient profile is shown below.  We are now meeting the DRI for all but six essential nutrients.   Overall the nutrient profile is more balanced.  We are still getting plenty of amino acids and other nutrients that were high before while we are getting more of the nutrients at the top of the chart.  

image3.png

Scenario 4 – Omnivorous diabetes friendly

In this scenario, we will look to fill the nutrient gaps with a lower insulin load and a lower protein : energy ratio.  The highest ranking foods listed below contain the nutrients Shawn is not getting while having a lower insulin load and more fat. 

     beet greens

     spinach

     turnip greens

     chard

     olives

     lettuce

     arugula

     mackerel

     broccoli

     avocado

     zucchini

     sauerkraut

     caviar

     liver sausage

     blackberries

     cucumber

     celery

     cloves

     liverwurst

     sweetbread

     radishes

     summer squash

     cauliflower

     raspberries

The chart below shows the updated Cronometer food diary with the following changes:

     fattier T-bone steak rather than ribeye,

     fattier hamburger mince

     2 oz liverwurst

     spinach

     olives

     avocado

     mackerel rather than salmon

image9.png

The chart below shows the updated nutrient profile for this approach.  Even though we have 60% fat, we are only missing out on six essential nutrients.  We are still getting heaps of protein, but the lower insulin load (i.e. 22% of calories rather than 34% of calories) could help his pancreas keep up and maintain more stable blood sugars.  This list of food would also give Shawn a protein:energy ratio of 1.3 which might be better to help him fuel his activity. 

image4.png

Comparison

The table below compared the scenarios in terms of:

     calories,

     target DRI levels not achieved,

     nutrient score,

     % protein

     % fat, and

     % insulinogenic.

scenario

calories

nutrient score

protein (%)

fat (%)

insulinogenic (%)

Protein:

energy

baseline

4122

60%

55%

45%

31%

2.75

baseline / 2000 calories

2000

60%

55%

45%

31%

2.75

nutrient dense carnivore

2000

66%

62%

38%

34%

3.7

nutritious diabetes-friendly carnivore

2000

62%

39%

61%

22%

1.44

nutrient dense omnivore

2000

75%

56%

42%

32%

2.71

nutritious diabetes-friendly omnivore

2000

70%

38%

60%

22%

1.33

The chart below shows the % of the Daily Recommended intake for the various nutrients that were not meeting the DRI in the baseline scenario per 2000 calories achieved. 

Screenshot 2018-04-02 13.27.50.png

Hopefully, this helps to illustrate how the nutrient optimiser can be used to refine your food choices while still working within the constraints (e.g. digestion, preferences) and goals (e.g. diabetes management or energy density). 

If you’re interested in fine-tuning your diet, the Nutrient Optimiser Free Report will suggest target macro ranges and foods suit your goals and dietary preferances.  

image21.png

 

 

11 thoughts on “optimising Dr Shawn Baker’s carnivore diet from first principles”

  1. Regarding beef and inflammation, yes beef (and all meats) that is grain-fed does cause inflamation to skyrocket, as grains promote inflammation.Grass-fed meats do not, as my 50-year case of rheumatoid arthritis can attest. Since switching to grass-fed meats, I now have my second wind, and can walk again.

  2. Sodium is a “harder to find nutrient”? I don’t buy that. A few of your scenarios say Shawn isn’t getting enough sodium. Do you think he doesn’t salt his meat? He has even said he does on Nequalsmany.

    And what is your reference for this statement: “I don’t think most people are suffering from excessive amounts of cruciferous vegetables.”?
    Seems pure speculation to me.

    1. Yeah. Fair point. He didn’t mention any salt in the Twitter chat so I didn’t include it. Most people are getting enough salt or they need more potassium (rather than emphasizing salt) to boost their potassium:sodium ratio.
      The statement was phrased as an optimism. I’d welcome any data to refine the extent of the impact of health impact due to excess broccoli consumption in the general population.

  3. Great work, Marty. I’d adapt it further, by saying that we can already take care of K1 via meat products and fermentation in the gut from things like pork crackling; folate can be easily had from chicken liver; Vitamin D from sun exposure or supplements, B5 from chicken liver; Sodium & Potassium from sprinkling on food; less Vit C needed on meat-only diet and obtained from the meat… so short only in 6: Mn, Ca, Vit E, B1, Mg. And B1 & Mg is easily supplemented. I mainly had to supplement those two, plus occasional D, when I played with the ZC way for 2-3 months. As a slight aside, I started taking some veg again hoovering up kids’ leftovers. Stomach was very uncomfortable and gassy. I still prefer how my stomach feels on ZCketo.

    1. Perfect. Good to understand where the gaps are that you may need to fill. It would be interesting to see if your gut adjusted and adapted to eating some vege over time. I understand that this doesn’t happen for some people.

  4. Excellent informative post. One issue is that you’ve equated the carnivore diet with a high protein diet. I started the carnivore diet a year ago with the help of info from websites such as zerocarbzen. It was emphasized that carnivore does not mean high protein which can be problematic (references to “rabbit starvation” abounded). In fact the suggested macro breakdown was 2g fat for every 1g protein. This has worked well for me as a 5 foot 10 inch 145 pound active male my average daily food intake is around 100g protein and 200g fat (if I’m very active or hungry I tend to eat more fat and keep my protein around 100g). This gives me a protein to energy ratio of 0.5 (or less). I think that higher ratios over 1.0 and certainly over 2.0 would be high protein diets which have been shown to be problematic. I know that when people hear carnivore they think meat eater, but the human carnivore diet is probably a lot less meat eater and a lot more fat eater.

  5. i see no value in your post unfortunately.
    your experiments come from a certain bias, that micronutrients are absorbed the same etc. and many others. its basically a waste of time.
    ur focus should be on measurable results, and determining that meat is the best nutrient for man or not. if we are carnivores or not )

Leave a Reply