Heard of the Carnivore diet? Is it becoming popular due to promotion on social media? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Rebecca discusses the claims and the evidence.
In the 1990s and 2000s, the term ‘vegan’ was little-known. I grew up in these decades, and I don’t think I knew any vegans. Fast forward 30 years, and the vegan diet has taken the world by storm, with growing populations adapting to the plant-based lifestyle whether this be for health, moral or environmental reasons. Veganuary – whereby people try a vegan diet for the month of January – has experienced expediential interest, with 629,000 participants in 2022 compared with just 3300 in 2014.1 However, recent whispers amongst celebrities and the masses would suggest a growing interest towards a different, well, totally opposite, lifestyle. The carnivore diet!
WHAT IS THE CARNIVORE DIET?
I had heard about the carnivore diet through various sources including patients, friends and through comments on social media. I had heard of ‘celebrities’ promoting the carnivore way of life, such as ‘The Liver King’ (an extremely well stocked man who was recently busted for taking steroids following years of denial), and more recently Bear Grylls discussing in an interview his improvement in health and energy following switching from veganism to a carnivore diet. This inspired me to look into this emerging diet in more detail.
The carnivore diet ultimately involves consuming high-quality unprocessed animal products such as meat, offal and raw dairy, and also allows fruit and honey. One resource that appeared to be most prevalent was from Paul Saladino, a medical doctor turned ‘Physician Nutrition Specialist’ based in the United States.2 His website, which includes links to his podcasts and published books on the carnivore diet, claims that one of the reasons for the carnivore diet is that we as humans have been forced (like animals in a zoo) to consume a certain diet, to aid financial gain for the government and pharmacological companies.
The website also has a bullsh*t section, where it lists all the foods that should not be eaten, as they are essentially bullsh*t and damaging to health. This list largely consisted of vegetables, nuts, legumes and oils such as olive, seed and fish oils. The dietitian in me is screaming, but I tried to continue my research with an open mind. The carnivore diet claims that these foods should not be eaten, as they were not designed for human consumption, due to ‘defence chemicals’ that are released. A particular sentence I found interesting was ‘learn more about the dangers of broccoli here, which takes you to Saladino’s YouTube video Controversial Thoughts: How broccoli could be bad for you: https://youtube.com/watch?v=3yxlOKff3_E&si=EnSIkaIECMiOmarE
Using the animal-based diet calculator on the website, I was advised to consume between 1900-2500kcal (not inaccurate considering my weight and lifestyle), broken down into 126-152g protein, 101-126g fat (from fatty meats such as ribeye), 126-189g carbohydrates (from fruit and honey) and to have 0.5oz of offal per day.3 This is significantly more protein and fat, and less carbohydrate, than I currently consume (on average, as it’s not something I track religiously!).
DOES IT HAVE SIMILARITIES WITH A PLANT-BASED DIET?
Yes, I can’t believe I’ve written that title either, surely there are NO similarities between a carnivore and plant-based diet?! However, one thing that both diets do tend to agree on is the importance of reducing processed foods. Although technically a vegan diet does not need restriction of processed animal-free products (vegan biscuits, for example), in general those choosing a plant-based lifestyle also aim to reduce processed foods, as their meals are based around plants and wholegrains. Similarly, the carnivore diet states that all processed foods are bullsh*t, although uses slightly more scaremongering tactics by suggesting that this is because they contain deadly seed oils.
The two diets also, although may advocates may not like to admit it, can be viewed as ‘extreme’ as they cut out whole food groups: all animal products in a plant-based diet and all vegetables/starchy carbohydrates in a carnivore diet. However, it is important to note that the British Dietetic Association (BDA) has confirmed that, despite avoiding whole food groups, it is possible to achieve nutritional balance at any age on a vegan diet.4
WHAT IS THE EVIDENCE FOR THE CARNIVORE DIET?
The reasons behind the carnivore diet are certainly interesting concepts, but where is the evidence behind the claims? There were some links on Paul Saladino’s website to pieces of evidence to support the reasoning behind the diet. One example being components found within beans and pulses contribute to gut dysbiosis and inflammation. Click the link on his website to the evidence backing this claim and it takes you to a study conducted in 1988 on rats! I found that many of the claims appeared to be subjective rather than evidence-based and those with evidence behind them were small-scale studies used for bias in the argument.
Interpreting scientific evidence can be challenging, but we know that the most robust pieces of research come from systematic reviews and meta-analyses that pull together multiple scientific papers often over a long period of time to draw a conclusion.
One part of the carnivore diet I cannot fathom, probably due to my gastroenterology background, is the lack of dietary fibre in the diet. Yes, some will be obtained from fruits allowed in the diet, but it would be extremely difficult to meet the recommended 30g fibre per day.5 There are multiple sources of strong evidence demonstrating the importance of dietary fibre and its correlation with reducing diseases such as cardiovascular disease, digestive conditions and certain cancers.5-7
As far as additional research goes, I can’t help but refer to some of the strongest scientific research to date on diet and health outcomes. This comes from research looking at the Mediterranean diet – a diet based on wholegrains, plants, healthy fats and minimal red meats and processed foods. This type of diet has been researched long term, with early studies in 1980s suggesting its improvement in CVD risk8 and more recent reviews continually supporting earlier findings.9 The carnivore diet founders would argue that this research is not reliable as it is epidemiological and follows the narrative set by the government.2
I was unable to find any systematic reviews on the carnivore diet, but this was not really expected due to the diet being a relatively new phenomenon. That being said, there are many testimonials from people following the diet who suggest it has helped with energy, muscle growth and even improving chronic diseases. However, unfortunately, testimonials do not stand up against science.
I feel I have only scratched the surface when it comes to looking into the carnivore diet. I have tried to conduct my ‘research’ with an open mind but couldn’t quash the uneasy feeling that the extremes of the carnivore diet and its conspiracy-type promotion to the public left me with. From my point of view, some of the most robust pieces of dietary research indicate that a diet rich in wholegrains, plants, healthy fats and limiting red meats have the best outcomes for health.
And while I agree that dietary (and general health) advice may change as new research emerges, jumping to a diet that eliminates so many of the foods that have strong evidence behind their health benefits should not be taken lightly. I personally won’t be choosing to follow a carnivore diet, but will look with interest at any longer-term detailed research that comes from the health outcomes of the carnivore diet.
- Veganuary (2022). Veganuary saves over 2.16 million animals in just one month. Retrieved from https://veganuary.com/veganuary-2022-saves-over-two-million-animals/
- Carnivore MD, no date. Retrieved from https://www.carnivoremd.com/
- Carnivore MD, no date. Animal-Based quick start guide. Retrieved from https://www.carnivoremd.com/ab-guide#calculator
4. British Dietetic Association (2017). British Dietetic Association confirms well-planned vegan diets can support healthy living in people of all ages.Retrieved from https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/british-dietetic-association-confirms-well-planned-vegan-diets-can-support-healthy-living-in-people-of-all-ages.html
- Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (2015). Carbohydrates and Health. Retrieved from https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/445503/SACN_Carbohydrates_and_Health.pdf
- Threapleton DE, Greenwood DC, Evans CE, Cleghorn CL, Nykjaer C, Woodhead C, Cade JE, Gale CP and Burley VJ (2013). Dietary fibre intake and risk of cardiovascular disease: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ, 347
- Gill SK, Rossi M, Bajka B and Whelan K (2021). Dietary fibre in gastrointestinal health and disease. Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology, 18(2), pp 101-116
- Keys A, Menotti A, Karvonen MJ, Aravanis C, Blackburn H, Buzina R et al. The diet and 15-year death rate in the seven countries study. Am J Epidemiol 1986; 124: 903-15
- Guasch‐Ferré M and Willett WC (2021). The Mediterranean diet and health: A comprehensive overview. Journal of internal medicine, 290(3), pp 549-566