What Is the Carnivore Diet and Is It Healthy?
A lot of extreme diet fads have come and gone over the years, but the carnivore diet may take the (carb-free) cake for the most out-there trend that's circulated in a while.
Also known as the zero-carb or carnivory diet, the carnivore diet consists of eating-you guessed it-only meat. Followers of the diet consume only animal-based products like beef, pork, poultry, and seafood, says Mirna Sharafeddine, a registered holistic nutritionist and founder of Naughty Nutrition. Some, but not all, adherents may also eat eggs, dairy, and milk. (It's basically the opposite of being vegan-no plant-based food sources are allowed.)
The diet was popularized by Shawn Baker, a former orthopedic surgeon based in New Mexico, who published The Carnivore Diet in early 2018. However, in September 2017, his medical license was revoked by the New Mexico Medical Board, due to "failure to report adverse action taken by a healthcare entity and incompetence to practice as a licensee."
With that auspicious introduction, it won't come as a surprise that health experts deem the carnivore diet to be sketchy (to say the least), and maybe even downright dangerous.
The Reasoning Behind the Carnivore Diet
There is some historical precedent to the carnivore diet. "You can see similar diets dating back hundreds of years with certain cold-climate tribes, such as the Inuit or Eskimos," explains Sharafeddine. "They'd live off of blubber and animal fat throughout the year with little to no plants consumed-but this type of diet is very specific for their climate with little to no vitamin D."
Proponents of the carnivore diet also claim that consuming animal protein can help you feel full, provide you with adequate nutrients, help you lose weight and build muscle, and even help heal autoimmune conditions, she adds.
Finally, to its credit, it's a very simple diet. "People love structure and guidelines when it comes to dieting, and the carnivore diet is as black-and-white as it comes," says Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, R.D., founder of Tracy Lockwood Nutrition in New York City. "You eat meat, and that's all."
Is the Carnivore Diet Healthy?
To be fair, meat isn't inherently bad for you. "An all-meat diet will provide a surplus of vitamin B12, zinc, iron, and of course, massive amounts of protein," says Beckerman. "And if you only consumed lean proteins, it may help you lose weight and boost your heart health." (BTW, here's how much protein you actually need per day.)
There also may be some science behind the claim that a carnivorous diet can help heal autoimmune diseases. "When you eliminate any and all food intolerances, those with autoimmune diseases may begin to feel relief," explains Sharafeddine. Plus, fat is brain food. "If you consume a high-fat diet and remove all food triggers, it may help the health of your brain and have a positive effect on your mood."
However, you don't need to do the carnivore diet to experience these results, says Sharafeddine-and there's always the question of whether these results are coming from the diet itself or from the removal of highly processed foods and sugars.
Even more important: The drawbacks to the carnivore diet almost certainly outweigh any potential benefits. "Eating only meat prevents you from getting certain antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, and fiber in your diet," says Sharafeddine. Also scary: Due to the lack of plants and fiber in this diet, you could run the risk of cardiovascular disease from the high amounts of saturated fats.
Other side effects may include constipation due to the lack of fiber (which is common with the keto diet as well), low energy due to the lack of glucose (which your body uses for energy), and overtaxing your kidneys as they process the protein and sodium levels out of the body, says Amy Shapiro, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., founder of Real Nutrition NYC. Not to mention the damper it'll put on your social life-as well as your taste buds.
Plus, decades of research have proven that plants provide so much in terms of health and longevity for the human species, notes Sharafeddine. "While tribes may have survived on an all-meat diet, some of the healthiest tribes and communities are ones that live on predominantly plant-based diets." (Here's more on the health benefits of plant-based diets.)
Carnivore Diet vs. Keto Diet vs. Paleo Diet
The low-carb approach may sound similar to the ketogenic diet, but the carnivore diet is significantly more extreme since it eschews any foods that don't come from animals, says Sharafeddine. The keto diet forces you to restrict your carb intake but doesn't specify exactly how you need to do so. (That's why it's possible to be on a vegetarian keto diet.) On the carnivore diet, however, you can't consume things like coconut milk, veggies of any kind, or even nuts or seeds, which are all allowed (and encouraged) on a keto diet.
The paleo diet (which is all about eating like human Paleolithic ancestors) also supports eating certain animal proteins, that's not all they eat; it also supplies nutrients such as belly-filling fiber from fruits and veggies, anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats from nuts and seeds, and heart-healthy fats from avocado and olive oil, notes Beckerman. "I would side with team paleo over team carnivore any day of the week." (See: What's the Difference Between the Paleo and Keto Diets?)
The Bottom Line
"When it comes to weight-loss success and healing autoimmune illnesses, cutting out a major macronutrient would never be my first suggestion," says Sharafeddine. And carbs aren't the enemy: They're the primary source of energy for your brain, and they provide so many different types of nutrients. Even more importantly, a super-restrictive diet such as the carnivore diet isn't healthy-or sustainable-in the long run.
After all, are you prepared to ditch pizza for the rest of your life? Didn't think so.