The Carnivore Diet: Pros and cons, nutritional analysis, recipes and food lists
There has been a lot of interest in the carnivore diet recently!
After dabbling with low carb, paleo, and keto, excluding all plants and ‘going carnivore’ is the next logical step for many people in their quest for optimal health, weight loss or diabetes control.
In light of all the n = 1s, and amazing carnivore diet before and afters, it’s hard to deny that the carnivore way of eating provides fantastic results for many people.
Carnivore diet results
Here, we highlight a few notable examples of people who have successfully followed a carnivorous diet, with some amazing results!
Joe and Charlene Anderson
Joe Anderson (60) and his wife Charlene have been eating nothing but fatty steak for twenty years, including through two healthy pregnancies.
But transitioning to a meat-only diet wasn’t 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 to stay awake, sleeping around seventeen hours per day. Mikhaila started with an elimination diet in late 2015 and eventually ended up on carnivorous approach.
Mikhaila is now thriving and passionately sharing her story of transformation.
Amber O’Hearn is another prominent carnivore 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 disorder symptom improved significantly! Amber has done a lot of thoughtful research and documented her journey at ketotic.org and empiri.ca.
Amber 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” and why the carnivore way of eating is the ultimate elimination diet.
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.
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, an animal-based diet seems to be worth a shot.
Much of 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 Paul Saladino
Dr Paul Saladino (aka Carnivore MD) is another passionate advocate for the carnivore diet and dives deep into the science. Paul likes to add plenty of organ meats to maximise his nutrient density with a nose to tail approach. Check out our full detailed analysis of Dr Saladinino’s diet here.
Dr Shawn Baker
Orthopedic surgeon Dr Shawn Baker is possibly the most well known and vocal proponent of the carnivore dietary approach.
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 people who become passionate advocates of a carnivorous approach, after experiencing digestive issues exacerbated by his poor diet, he progressively experimented, 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 meat-only. He has since gone to set world records in indoor rowing and continues to work out like a beast at the age of 51. Shawn has been interviewed on numerous podcasts and now has his own Human Performance Outliers Podcast with Ultra Runner Zach Bitter.
While there is not a lot of long term research on the carnivore diet, a lot of advocates point to the work of anthropologist and explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson.
During one of his expeditions, he observed that their diet consisted of 90% fatty meat and fish for most of the year. He also learned to eat like them and learned to love it!
In 1928, to demonstrate the benefits of a carnivorous diet, Stefansson carried out an experiment with a colleague demonstrate that he could thrive on meat only for what turned into a four-years with no adverse effects.
Pros of a carnivore diet
Getting adequate protein in your diet is central to both nutrient density and satiety. Getting enough protein is a primary driver of our appetite, and line with the Protein Leverage Hypothesis, it seems that we eat until we get adequate protein. The fact that a carnivorous diet contains plenty of highly bioavailable protein is no doubt one of the central reasons it works.
Our satiety analysis shows that foods with a higher percentage of protein tend to lead us to eat less, which is a great thing for the many people who are wanting to lose fat from their body.
Many people get great results on a carnivorous diet by just eating fatty steak. This is simple and provides plenty of energy to prevent hunger.
If you want to lose fat from your body, then it’s a good idea to progressively increase your percentage of protein, which is achieved on a carnivorous diet by eating leaner cuts of meat.
However, it is possible to take this too far because it is hard for your body to convert protein to usable energy (i.e. ATP). If you’re lean and very active, then you may need to focus on more energy-dense fat sources.
While most people don’t need to track their food on a carnivorous diet because it is so satiating, if you want to check what your protein vs fat intake, you can use our simple macro calculator here. Dial your carbs back to zero and select at least 1.8 g/kg LBM protein. Going forward, you can dial your fat up and down based on your weight loss/body composition/activity goals and progress.
Protein in animal-based foods such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy have a much higher bioavailability of than plant-based foods. Plant-based foods also tend to have a much lower protein density. Therefore you will have to consume a lot more calories to meet your protein requirement.
Using the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score, the chart below shows the weight of various foods that you will need to consume to get 100 g of protein into your system. Foods like cod, egg white and steak are much more efficient than plant-based foods.
This next chart shows the number of calories that you will need to consume to absorb 100 g of protein from different foods.
Vegan advocates often claim that it’s easy to get plenty of protein without eating meat. However, this is not the case once you account for protein density (in terms of protein per calorie and weight) as well as bioavailability.
In systems design, things get interesting when you take them to their limits.
In nutrition, the limits are macronutrient extremes (i.e. carbs, fat, protein) and of plant- vs animal-based food sources. We need to understand which parameters are still relevant and which ones may need to be adjusted.
But the Daily Reference Intakes (DRIs) for the essential micronutrients were developed in the context of an agriculture-based western diet. What’s more, they were designed to prevent diseases of deficiency, not promote optimal health. So, rather than thinking in terms of the minimum number of nutrients to avoid diseases, the analysis below compares different dietary approaches in terms of the Optimal Nutrient Intakes which have been designed as a stretch target to optimise health and satiety.
At the bottom of the chart, we see that we can easily achieve optimal intakes of phosphorus, sodium and iron. In contrast, at the top of the chart, we see that we need to work harder to get enough omega 3, vitamin A, vitamin E and B1 from our modern food system.
Rather than focusing on the foods that contain more of a single nutrient, we can use the ONIs to identify the nutrient-dense foods and nutrient-dense meals that contain more of the nutrients we are not getting enough of.
This next chart shows the nutrient fingerprint of the highest-ranking 25% of foods in the USDA database when we prioritise the harder to find micronutrients (i.e. calcium, magnesium, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, B1, B2, B3 and omega 3).
The Optimal Nutrient Score is calculated based on the area to the left of the 100% line that is filled. So if you could get 100% of the Optimal Nutrient Intakes you would get a perfect score of 100%. By focusing on the most nutrient-dense foods available we go from a nutrient score of 57% to 97%.
Plant based foods
The nutrient fingerprint chart below shows the nutrients we would get if we removed all animal, dairy and seafood from the USDA database to provide a “plant-based” diet. As you can see, simply avoiding animal-based foods doesn’t give us a great nutrient profile, with a nutrient score of only 45%.
When we optimise for nutrient density, we get a better nutrient profile. However, we are still lacking omega 3 and vitamin B12 and we are getting less than optimal levels of a number of nutrients.
It’s also important to note that many of these nutrients are not in the most bioavailable form, so they may not actually make it into our system. This becomes important when we are not getting these nutrients in large quantities.
This nutrient-dense selection of plant-based of food relies on vegetables that are hard to eat in super large quantities and nuts which many people experience negative responses to. In reality, the amount of vegetables in the typical western diet is very low, even on a ‘plant-based’ dietary approach. While vegetables may make up the bulk of the volume of food consumed, most people following a plant-based diet end up resorting to refined vegetable oils which are extremely nutrient-poor.
The chart below shows the best nutrient profile we can achieve when we omit vegetables and seeds. Once you remove vegetables and nuts, even the best version of the ‘plant-based’ diet doesn’t look particularly nutritious!!!
For comparison, the nutrient fingerprint chart below shows the nutrient profile of all animal foods and seafood in the USDA database.
While we get plenty of protein (50% of calories), there are several nutrients (such as vitamin K1, C, E, A, omega 3, folate, B1, magnesium and calcium) at the top of the chart that are harder to obtain in adequate quantities. We also get a much better nutrient score than the plant-based foods!
We can also boost the nutrient profile by focusing on the most nutrient-dense animal-based foods and get a very respectable nutrient fingerprint, as shown below.
Towards the top of the chart, there are a handful of nutrients that are we not getting in optimal quantities which we’ll discuss later. But first, let’s look at a real-life example with Dr Shawn Baker’s diet.
Shawn Baker’s diet analysis
To understand more about how Dr Baker’s diet worked through the framework of Nutritional Optimisation, I pinged him on Twitter to get a feel for his standard diet to analyse.
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).
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.
Can you get all the nutrients you need on a carnivore diet?
What do we make of the fact that Dr Baker and so many others appear to be thriving despite 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.
There is no point in telling someone to stop doing something if they are thriving. However, 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?
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 it’s still important to understand, as much as we can with the available data, how the parameters might change and what is still relevant.
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.
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.
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.
It will be fascinating to see the long term results after a lot of people follow a meat-only diet for a significant amount of time.
Can you thrive optimally on an all-meat diet?
Dr Baker isn’t going out of his way to chase micronutrients in the same way that Dr Saladino is with his nose to tail diet. However, the fact that he’s eating more than 4000 calories per day would offset the lower availability of some nutrients.
But is this an issue? Perhaps not if you don’t have symptoms of nutrient deficiencies relating to these nutrients, but they might be worth keeping an eye out for, including:
- Vitamin K is 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 and coronary heart disease.
- Vitamin C is used by the immune system and is a powerful antioxidant. While you don’t require as much vitamin C with your glucose is lower, 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 is needed for muscle, heart, digestive systems, bones, teeth and blood.
- Manganese helps to build bones and metabolise protein and carbs.
- Vitamin E is an antioxidant used in smooth muscle growth and has a role in eye and neurological functions.
But on the upside, there are many reasons that carnivores may not need to worry too much about nutrient 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 recent discovery. Hence, the USDA food database only contains data on the quantity of K1 (phylloquinone) in foods, not K2.
Most people can convert K2 to K1 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
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
The area of antinutrients is complex, and there isn’t a lot of data to understand the interaction of different foods on our digestion and absorption. But there are a few things we do understand.
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 significant amounts of animal-based protein.
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. For many people, grains just aren’t worth it, especially if they have digestive issues.
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.
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.
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 deficiency testing. Vitamin E has been on the rise with increasing vegetable oil usage, so the population average intake may not necessarily be optimal.
Nutrients that are still important
Without a lot of seafood, Dr Baker 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 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.
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 note that Paleo Medininca is big fans of using heaps of organ meats to ensure you get adequate amounts of folate and other essential nutrients from a carnivorous diet that doesn’t contain green leafy vegetables.
Although Shawn is 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 substantial amount of omega 3, though not enough to meet the RDI levels or achieve an optimal 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.
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 essential 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 electrolytes.
What nutrient is your diet missing?
To help you understand what nutrients you need to focus on (and which foods and meals contain them) we have created a simple free 7 Day Food Discovery Challenge.
Who should try a carnivorous diet?
One common thread of the people who seem to thrive on a carnivorous approach is some sort of gut issues (e.g. permeability or bacterial overgrowth) or an 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.
but 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.
Overall, it’s probably fair to say that a carnivore diet can benefit many, particularly if you have major digestive issues.
Carnivore diet food list
If you’re interested in optimising your carnivore diet, you can check out the free pdf food lists here optimised for weight maintenance and maximum nutrient density/fat loss. You can use this for inspiration for your shopping list.
We also have a food list optimised for low oxalates which are often a concern for people in the carnivore community. You can use these lists to build your nutrient-dense meal plan to suit your budget and preferences.
Our series of 22 recipe books optimised for different goals and preferences also includes a book of recipes that contain meat (i.e. steak, chicken, pork, etc.). These are the most nutrient-dense meat containing recipes available!
These are not necessarily purely carnivorous (they contain some veggies to round out the nutrient profile), but they demonstrate that you can get an amazing nutrient profile with a diet where the majority of calories comes from meat. If you’re interested in levelling up your nutrient density, you can check it out here.