For decades now, we have been hearing about cutting down on red meat and pumping up on veggies for improved health. Beyond that, radical “veganism” has become almost a kind of religion.
But fear not, meat-eaters, there is good news! The pendulum may be swinging back in the other direction! Proponents of the “carnivore diet” who eat only meat and animal products – the exact antithesis of “vegan” – say they are looking and feeling better than ever!
Similar to Keto and Paleo, the carnivore diet eschews carbs and grains in favor of high protein. But unlike those, it restricts veggies completely and is all meat and animal products.
Carnivore diets have gained traction in recent years on social media, popularized by celebrities like Joe Rogan.
People who follow the diet eat mostly animal products — no grains or vegetables, no processed foods, and no added sugars. Some dieters include dairy, honey, and fruit, while others are strictly meat, salt, and water.
While there’s little published evidence on the carnivore diet, advocates say they’ve lost weight after years of failed dieting, managed chronic health issues, and restored energy, according to a 2021 survey.
The diet is controversial, with concerns from some nutritionists and medical experts that it could spike cholesterol, endangering heart health. It may also deprive dieters of important plant-based nutrients like fiber and polyphenols, a lack of which may raise the risk of long-term illnesses like cancer.
“The carnivore diet is not what I would consider a healthy diet for the majority of people,” nutrition expert Layne Norton told Insider. “If you’re going to eat meat, I don’t necessarily think that’s a problem, but you definitely shouldn’t omit fruits, vegetables, and fiber.”
Proponents, including some experts, say meat-heavy diets are a nutrient-dense alternative to typical American fare that is high in refined grains and sugar.
But some nutrition researchers are skeptical about the alleged benefits, arguing anecdotal success stories are no substitute for rigorous science and that cutting out plants may do more harm than good.
Meat-only eaters have self-reported improvements to their mental and neurological health, and said auto-immune symptoms subsided while following the diet. But according to Norton, there’s no evidence for that.
He said without rigorous research to back up personal success stories, the alleged benefits of the carnivore diet aren’t convincing.
“I’m not saying people are lying about their experience or they aren’t having improvements, but probably more to do with factors other than some intrinsic magic to a meat-only diet,” he said.
For example, carnivore diets are virtually carb-free, which means they don’t spike blood sugar, perhaps helping to balance chemicals in the brain that regulate mood and cognitive function, which could explain the results being reported.
Carnivorous eating also works as an elimination diet by cutting out processed foods, Shawn Baker, a former orthopedic surgeon and one of the most high-profile carnivore advocates, said.
It’s not clear whether the anecdotal benefits of a carnivore diet are related to eating more meat or less of other foods, but both may play a role depending on what the diet is replacing, Baker said.
Norton says to approach the carnivore diet with caution.
“The overwhelming majority of evidence strongly suggests that fiber is not harmful and very likely beneficial,” he said. “I think meat is a great source of high-quality protein, but I don’t think it should be your only food.”
Some people may be sensitive to certain plants or types of fiber, but you can learn to avoid them without cutting out all plants, Norton said.
For now, the main issue with carnivore diets is that current information comes from anecdotal experience. No clinical trials have yet studied how a meat-only diet could help or hinder health, though experiments are underway.
However, it’s difficult to do rigorous, long-term studies on the health effects of any diet, so most of what we know about consequences is almost always based on observational evidence.
Health experts in nutrition and cardiology say diets high in animal fats and low in plant nutrients may harm heart health in the long run by increasing the risk of heart disease and cancer and raising LDL cholesterol.
“We have no evidence that this is a good idea,” Stanford professor John Ioannidis told Business Insider. “We have mostly indirect evidence that this is a bad idea.”