The carnivore diet has caught the attention of hungry meat-eaters that love the idea of enjoying their favorite meats and maybe losing some weight or gaining other health benefits along the way. The question with diets like this that eliminate so many food groups is if they’re healthy – both short and long term.
What Is The Carnivore Diet?
The carnivore diet is a restrictive diet that eliminates all plant foods, sugars, and processed foods, allowing you to eat just meat, with the addition of a few dairy products. For most who follow the diet, the end goal is weight loss, but others follow it for other health and personal reasons.
It isn’t easy to pinpoint the origins of the meat-only diet. One could argue that its roots date back to our earliest ancestors, who mainly ate the meat they hunted, and maybe a few plants they scavaged along the way. Throughout history, there have been resurgences of this type of diet, but in modern times we can credit the former orthopedic doctor by the name of Shawn Baker with the reemergence and soaring popularity of the carnivore diet.
The carnivore diet has plenty of proponents that say they reap multiple health benefits from eating meat and hardly anything else. They claim the diet has helped them lose weight while having more energy and mental clarity. Some also claim that they have experienced other health effects of the carnivore plan.
- What Is The Carnivore Diet?
- Carnivore Diet Menu Highlights
- Carnivore Diet Vs. Ketogenic Diet
- How Your Body Adapts to the Carnivore Diet
- Health Issues And the Carnivore Diet
- Carnivore Diet Side Effects
- Is The Carnivore Diet Right For You
While those who follow the carnivore diet swear by it, there’s another segment of the health community that strongly disagrees with any statement that the diet is healthy. When looking at both sides, the scientific evidence leans more heavily toward the side of those who oppose or strongly discourage following any dietary where you eat only meat.
If you’re trying to decide if the carnivore diet is a yes or a no for you, here’s a look at what exactly the dietary lifestyle is all about and the potential side effects of consuming such a heavily meat-based diet.
Carnivore Diet Menu Highlights
The daily menu of the carnivore plan is pretty straightforward. You eat meat and not much else. A typical day on the carnivore diet consists of eating animal foods like various cuts of red meat, poultry, fish, wild game, organ meat like chicken liver or beef liver, and a few other animal foods. You can eat things like beef jerky if it’s pure meat and not loaded with preservatives and hidden sugars, but otherwise, processed foods and processed meats are off the table – literally.
Some dairy is allowed, including eggs and low-lactose dairy. When all you’ve done is eat meat, the idea of boiled eggs as a snack is pretty welcoming. Bone broth is also allowed on the carnivore diet. In fact, the two beverages that you can drink to your heart’s content are water and bone broth. Most other drinks are off-limits, including coffee and tea, because these are technically plant-based foods.
Carnivore Diet Vs. Ketogenic Diet
Both the carnivore diet and the keto diet are restrictive ways of eating that significantly reduce carbs, at least compared to what’s found in the average American diet. Because of this, the two diets are often confused as being the same low-carb diet. This isn’t the case.
While keto is a reduced-carb diet, it doesn’t eliminate carbs entirely. Keto focuses on most of your calories coming from the macro-nutrients of fat and protein, with a much smaller percentage coming from carbohydrates. In contrast, the carnivore way of eating is a zero-carb diet that eliminates plant foods like vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
Both diets are said to help you lose weight, but the effects of the carnivore diet, which is actually an elimination diet, are much more extreme.
How Your Body Adapts to the Carnivore Diet
To understand the side effects of the carnivore way of life, we have to begin by understanding how the body adapts to an all-meat diet.
In a typical diet that’s more aligned with the food pyramid, you eat a variety of foods, including carbs and other foods. Your body utilizes these carbs as its primary energy source. Not all carbs are created equal. This is why you can eat a plate full of vegetables containing healthy amounts of carbohydrates and fiber and then have enough energy to carry you through the day. When you eat processed sugars or other types of “bad carbs,” this is when you get the blood sugar spikes and the “crash and burn” effect.
When you switch to an animal-based diet, which is the majority of low-carb diets, your body switches gears. It doesn’t have enough carbohydrates to use as fuel, so it starts burning fat for energy instead. This is called ketosis, and it’s the process behind the massive weight loss some see with low-carb diets.
The issue here is that this isn’t the way your body is accustomed to operating. Whether the human body is meant to stay in ketosis long term or eat such a carb-restrictive diet for an extended period is up for scientific debate. But, immediately, what starts happening is your body begins to try to adjust to your new way of eating.
This adjustment period is often referred to as the keto flu or carnivore flu. It’s called the flu because many of the symptoms mimic a bout of mild influenza. You might feel lethargic, headachy, nauseous, and just generally unwell. Typically, this flu period passes within a couple of weeks. This is the point that people claim to start feeling their best on the carnivore diet.
Health Issues And the Carnivore Diet
The flu-like symptoms are a pretty well-known side effect of diets that restrict carbs. Considering that this passes relatively quickly, you might be willing to suck it up and deal with it in hopes of reaping the rewards. The real issue with the carnivore diet and its side effects is that we’re not entirely sure of what this dietary style does to the body long-term.
Currently, most of the evidence in favor of the carnivore diet is heavily anecdotal. It can also be argued that any scientific study that is cited in support of the carnivore diet lacks the features that add credibility and merit to scientific research. It could be that the study was small, lacked a control group, the results weren’t followed for a long enough time, or enough factors weren’t taken into consideration. It’s essential to do your research about anything that affects your health and do it with an open mind.
Part of the issue here is that we just haven’t had enough time to thoroughly study the long-term effects of all-meat diets. You could say the jury is still out, mainly because there just isn’t enough evidence to say either way at this point.
In contrast, if we break apart the carnivore, we have a bounty of evidence to suggest it might not be the most health-conscious lifestyle. For example, we have sufficient evidence to say that fiber is important for most people, which you get none of with the carnivore diet. The carnivore diet is also loaded with animal fat, which has had more than a few fingers pointed at it for damaging our health in multiple ways.
None of this is said to provide a medical opinion on whether the carnivore diet is good or bad. It’s simply meant to provide a canvas for you to do your own research and make educated decisions on what is best for your personal health. Now, with all that said, let’s talk about some of the most common side effects and potential health concerns attached to the carnivore diet.
Carnivore Diet Side Effects
Headaches, Mood Changes, & Lack Of Focus
Headaches, irritability, and brain fog are among the top side effects reported in the early stages of the carnivore diet. This is all due to a physiological domino effect that happens when going down to eating zero carbs. Blood sugar levels are usually affected, and your body retains less sodium. This is why people tend to lose so much water weight in the early days because they lack the sodium that usually causes their body to retain it.
This can lead to headaches, lack of focus, brain fog, and mood instability. The best short-term remedy for this is to drink lots of water and help replenish your electrolytes by making sure that you include some salt in your diet.
Nausea is also quite common, at least in the first couple of weeks. You’re basically turning your way of eating upside down. The idea of eating a steak every day for breakfast might sound appealing, but in practice, it’s probably going to cause some stomach upset as your body adjusts to consuming more animal fat than it’s accustomed to.
Digestive distress is common in the early stages of the carnivore diet, but it’s also known to continue even after your body has adjusted some. Your gut is home to its own little microbial biome, and it relies on a certain balance to keep it healthy. For most people, this balance requires some plant foods that provide fiber and complex sugars.
When this microbiome gets disrupted, you can expect havoc on your digestive system. There’s also the issue that your gall bladder can have difficulty keeping up with the amount of fat that’s being pumped through your body. It’s not uncommon for those that follow the carnivore’s diet to experience regular bouts of constipation, diarrhea, and heartburn.
Muscle cramps are common but less talked about with the carnivore diet. Leg cramps seem to be the worst. This can be blamed entirely on a drop in sodium and potassium levels. The best thing to do here is to make sure you stay hydrated, increase your sodium intake, and take a supplement if needed.
If you’ve also decided to start a new exercise routine at the same time you started a zero-carb diet, it’s not a bad idea to slow down and give your body a chance to rest and adapt before going hardcore into physical activities.
Cardiac Side Effects
This is one of the more worrisome side effects of the diet and one that doesn’t typically show itself right away. Some people notice earlier changes, such as heart palpitations, when they start the diet. This is usually due to dehydration and electrolyte balance, so drinking plenty of fluids, increasing salt intake, and taking a magnesium supplement can help. If you’re concerned or have a history of heart disease, speak to your medical care provider immediately.
The carnivore diet is high in saturated fat, which boosts bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and decreases good (HDL) levels. This is something that is known to put people at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease. One body of research also indicated that eating red meat every day will triple the amount of a chemical called TMAO in your body. TMAO is a byproduct of digestion that’s created when you consume meat. TMAO has also been linked to cardiovascular disease.
While the carnivore diet includes a variety of meat, it’s meant to exclude processed meat. This doesn’t mean that everyone is following that rule, however. Consuming a lot of processed animal meat can increase sodium intake, which may put susceptible individuals at a greater risk of developing high blood pressure or experiencing a stroke.
Heavy Burden On The Kidneys & Liver
High protein diets are notoriously stressful and demanding on the liver and kidneys. Even if you’re taking measures to eat clean meats, such as grass-fed beef, such an extreme diet may cause extra stress and lead to such problems as kidney stones. Again, this is one of those areas where some people make experience little or no noticeable side effects, but for others, the side effects may be severe or long-lasting.
Not An Anti-Cancer Diet
There are two very passionate sides to the argument of whether this diet promotes or prevents cancer. There’s an argument to be made that you’re reducing inflammation in your body by not eating sugars, processed foods, and grains that you might have a reaction to. This is a good thing because inflammation plays a huge role in cancer.
On the other side of the issue is the concern that while the meat itself is not carcinogenic, people who consume large amounts of meat may be at a greater risk of developing a range of different cancers. With the carnivore diet, the biggest concern is gastro-intestinal or colon cancer. Healthy dietary fiber intake has been linked to a lower risk of colon cancer.
With a diet that eliminates all food groups containing high fiber foods, there’s a concern about the long-term consequences (including the development of cancer) of eating such a low fiber diet. This is one of those areas where we’re currently lacking long-term studies and research to say one way or another if a meat-only diet plays a role in overall increased cancer risk.
Of all the potential side effects of the carnivore diet, this is one that’s hard to dispute. Some might argue that the body doesn’t actually need all the nutrients we typically get from other types of food, but there is plenty of scientific backing that establishes the need for essential nutrients. This is why it’s not a bad idea to take a high-quality vitamin supplement, just to cover your bases when enjoying the carnivore lifestyle.
Rebound Weight Gain
Some consider the carnivore lifestyle to be more of a fad diet than a way of eating that will stick around for the long term. Of course, there are people who have followed this type of diet for years. Still, for most, these types of extremely restrictive diets often lead to a type of food burnout that results in “falling off the wagon .” This can lead to a rebound increase in body weight, which is something that seems even more common on low-carb style diets.
Is The Carnivore Diet Right For You
Some say the carnivore diet has brought about incredible changes in their lives, while others claim that it’s a less health-conscious lifestyle. Whether or not the carnivore diet is right for you is a personal choice, and it’s one that should be made with the help of a qualified medical care provider that is aligned with helping you meet your health goals.
If you like the idea of going carnivore but feel it’s too extreme, you might want to try a more balanced diet, such as paleo diets, that are healthy and include more variety from other food groups.