While the food industry has caught on to the increased demand for low-carb, “keto,” or vegan junk food items, and has responded by slapping these terms on their products as a means to trick consumers into thinking these foods are healthy, a new dietary fad has emerged – partly as a response to rampant “healthwashing” and partly as a response to failed attempts to follow a predominantly plant-based diet and experience health benefits from it.
This dietary fad is appropriately named the carnivore diet, and its promoters claim that the plan produces miraculous health benefits because all plants are toxic and not fit for human consumption. Although this claim goes against everything science has ever shown us about nutrition, the diet is certainly appealing to anyone who loves bacon and juicy steaks but also wants to improve their health (and possibly even lose weight without “dieting”).
The popularization of a diet which consists solely of beef, salt, and water (the strictest version of the carnivore diet) perhaps owes itself to a media frenzy and series of interviews and exposes with the esteemed clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson, who claims the diet cured him of lifelong depression, and his daughter Mikhaila, who says the meat-only diet has cured her bipolar disorder, helped her lose weight, and put her autoimmune conditions into remission.
Although there have not been any epidemiological or randomized controlled trials on the effectiveness of this type of elimination diet in its ability to mitigate the symptoms of various health conditions – or whether the diet is safe to follow even for a short time period – there are numerous anecdotal stories written in online message boards and in facebook groups.
The most common anecdotal stories claim weight loss, healing from psychiatric disorders, and remission from autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, and psoriasis.
I believe it’s highly unlikely that the majority of these stories are fictitious (although some likely are). However, I also know that – based on both old and new scientific evidence – adherents to the carnivore diet are causing serious harm to their bodies that may not be immediately apparent.
If you or someone you know is currently considering or following the carnivore diet for weight loss or relief from chronic mental or physical health conditions, I believe there may be other solutions for you that will not put your long-term health at risk.
In this article, I examine some of the claims made by proponents of the carnivore diet to assess their scientific validity or plausibility. I also offer alternative solutions for tackling chronic disease without causing long-term harm to your health.
Myth #1: Vitamin C competes with carbohydrates for absorption, so a zero carb diet reduces vitamin C requirements to nearly zero.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing and provocative claims being made on some websites and YouTube channels is that there is no need for vitamin C on a zero carbohydrate diet. It’s claimed that the mechanism involved in this phenomenon is that glucose competes with the transport and absorption of vitamin C.
This idea comes from not understanding how to read a scientific paper that explains one of the mechanisms involved in causing kidney disease in people with uncontrolled diabetes. I’m not trying to be pedantic here, nor am I implying that it ought to be obvious how to decipher the meaning of a scientific paper rich in jargon. This particular paper in question can be difficult to understand, especially if you’ve been primed to read a meaning into it that’s not there.
Click here to read the paper on glucose competing with vitamin C.
Now here’s what that scientific paper actually means. High levels of glucose in renal (kidney) cells prevent vitamin C from being absorbed by renal cells. (It does NOT mean that carbohydrates in your food block vitamin C from being absorbed into cells through the process of digestion.)
Renal cells require vitamin C for normal function. Eating carbohydrates (which get converted into glucose by your body to be used for fuel) as part of a low-fat, plant-based, whole-food diet is the most effective way to prevent yourself from having high levels of glucose in your kidneys. A low-carbohydrate diet in general and a meat-centric diet, in particular, is known to raise glucose levels in renal cells.
Therefore, the study that is being used to support the contention that a zero carbohydrate diet negates the need for dietary vitamin C actually supports the opposite conclusion: a zero carbohydrate diet or a high-meat diet can elevate your blood glucose, increase the amount of glucose being dumped into your kidney cells for excretion in the urine, and lead to kidney failure by way of vitamin C deficiency within the renal cells.
For your further research into this issue, you may want to peruse the following papers:
Some research even supports the contention that animal-based nitrite combined with a low vitamin C intake is an independent risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
It’s extremely important to note that the early stages of type 2 diabetes and chronic kidney disease often do not produce any symptoms. It’s also highly likely that you could develop type 2 diabetes on a zero-carbohydrate or ketogenic diet and not know it until significant damage to your liver, kidneys, eyes, and nerves has occurred. Don’t believe me? Read this.
Myth #2: There is no risk of scurvy when you’re eating lots of meat because meat comes pre-packaged with the building blocks of collagen.
Tell that to the thousands of men who were sailors between the 14th and 16th centuries and lived on rations of beef, pork, and fish. More than 50% of sailors died of scurvy during long voyages. Some believed that the disease was caused by laziness because the early stages of the disease can cause lethargy and fatigue.
Since the advanced stages of scurvy manifest as a breakdown in the connective tissues in the body (including scar tissue), during the American Civil War some people held the belief that bone broth (which contains collagen) would treat the disease. Unfortunately, bone broth failed to mitigate the effects of scurvy and many soldiers died as a result of scurvy.
Now you could theoretically get enough vitamin C to prevent scurvy by eating 6 ounces of veal spleen, lungs, or thymus gland, 7 ounces of beef liver, or 9 ounces of chicken liver every day. However, this would also expose you to excessive amounts of copper – putting you at risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease – and high levels of cadmium – a heavy metal known to cause cancer, peripheral artery disease, and chronic kidney disease. This amount of liver on a daily basis would have the additional danger of causing retinol toxicity and iron overload.
The strange thing about scurvy and other diseases caused by a vitamin deficiency is that repeatedly throughout history, the underlying cause of the symptoms involved – and the corresponding remedy (a vitamin supplement or a food containing an adequate amount of the necessary vitamin) – is forgotten and then rediscovered over and over again.
Let’s not forget again that the only way to safely prevent or cure scurvy is by either obtaining an adequate amount of vitamin C from fresh fruits and vegetables or by taking a vitamin C supplement. Muscle meat, bone broth, and collagen protein do not prevent or cure the disease.
Myth #3: There is no risk of vitamin deficiencies on the carnivore diet.
While the carnivore diet is likely to supply you with an adequate amount of riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, iron, copper, phosphorus, selenium, protein, and fat, an all-meat diet does not provide the amount of thiamine, folate, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin K, vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, manganese, or potassium required to prevent severe long-term health consequences. Meat is also completely devoid of phytonutrients, antioxidants, and carotenoids that turn on longevity genes in your DNA and prevent cancer and other diseases.
Many nutrient deficiencies can take years or even decades to show up as a symptom or disease. When your diet is deficient in particular nutrients, your body begins to utilize nutrients that are currently being stored in your tissues. Your body also begins to conserve the usage of these nutrients by focusing only on using those nutrients for immediate survival.
The esteemed biochemist and molecular biologist Dr. Bruce Ames developed a theory called triage theory to explain why minor deficiencies in vitamins and minerals don’t cause outright diseases like scurvy and rickets, but can lead to the so-called “diseases of aging” like heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, etc.
Each vitamin or mineral is important for MANY different processes in the body. Some of these processes are needed for immediate survival and some of them are needed for long-term survival. Read this if you’re interested in learning more about that.
According to triage theory, if you’re deficient in a particular nutrient, all of that nutrient will be used for immediate survival ONLY – at the expense of processes required for long-term survival. The esteemed biochemist and molecular biologist Dr. Bruce Ames developed a theory called triage theory to explain why minor deficiencies in vitamins and minerals don’t cause outright diseases like scurvy and rickets, but can lead to the so-called “diseases of aging” like heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, etc.
A good example of this is what happens when you have a minor deficiency in vitamin K, a nutrient that is absent from meat but found abundantly in green leafy vegetables. The primary role of vitamin K is to help your blood clot so you don’t bleed out and die by bumping your knee on something or cutting your finger. But the secondary (long-term survival) role of vitamin K is to prevent minerals (such as calcium) from leeching out of bone tissue and building up in your arteries, causing heart disease and stroke.
Most Americans get enough vitamin K for immediate survival, but they are likely not getting enough of it for long-term survival. This is why you’ve got to eat those green leafy veggies every day if you want to have healthy arteries and bones beyond your middle-age years.
If you’re eating a carnivore diet, you’re getting absolutely no vitamin K in your diet – which means your body is using up all the vitamin K that’s being stored in your tissues (if you previously got an adequate amount of vitamin K in your diet) to ensure your immediate survival.
Any of the less immediate functions of vitamin K, such as maintaining your bone mineral density and keeping your arteries free of calcium build-up, are not being performed. When your vitamin K intake is low or nonexistent, your body is only interested in using vitamin K to produce proteins and enzymes that keep you from hemorrhaging and dying from bumping your knee on the coffee table.
It’s not hard to get an abundance of vitamin K in your diet if you eat leafy green vegetables. One head of lettuce has more than the RDA of vitamin K, 5 ounces of arugula has nearly twice the RDA, and 3 ounces of kale provides you with over 6X the RDA.
Myth #4: All plant-based foods are toxic to the human body.
Ironically, the most frequently cited paper that carnivore diets are using to argue that all plants are toxic to humans is a paper written by Dr. Bruce Ames – who we just mentioned in regards to triage theory. Click here to read that paper for
It should be made very clear that Ames’s paper, Dietary Pesticides, is NOT arguing that plant-based foods are harmful to the human body. The point of his paper is to explain that 99.9% of the chemicals in plant-based foods are natural in origin. Only 0.1% of the chemicals found in conventionally grown produce are human-made (synthetic) pesticides.
Ames does not believe this small amount of pesticide residue in conventionally grown produce is harmful, and he encourages people to eat a plant-based diet even if they cannot afford certified organic produce. The long-term damage to your body that occurs from NOT eating a plant-based diet is far worse than any theoretical damage that might occur as a result of consuming a minuscule amount of human-made pesticides.
A few of the natural pesticides or “toxins” found in plants include:
- Isothiocyanates: These are compounds found in cruciferous vegetables that are known to promote liver detoxification, prevent cancer, and turn on longevity genes that might extend your life.
- d-Limonene: This is a fragrant citrus terpene found in oranges, lemons, mangoes, and some varieties of hemp. It’s a potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant that has a therapeutic effect on the gastrointestinal tract, with the ability to help people suffering from conditions such as ulcerative colitis, gallstones, and acid reflux.
- Caffeic acid: This is an antioxidant compound found in coffee, wine, mushrooms, turmeric, and olives. It is known to prevent toxicity related to chemotherapy and radiation, reduce exercise-related fatigue, prevent neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and promote longevity.
- Kaempferol: This is a flavonol found in berries, grapes, apples, tomatoes, potatoes, and green tea that has been found to interrupt the growth of malignant cancer cells and induce apoptosis (cell death) of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, leukemia, bladder cancer, prostate cancer, colorectal cancer, stomach cancer, pancreatic cancer, and lung cancer, Increased levels of kaempferol in the diet have been found to reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, as well as prevent diabetes complications in people living with diabetes.
The 90-year-old Ames is still conducting scientific research and publishing peer-reviewed journal articles. He believes that a plant-based diet is so crucial for the prevention of age-related diseases that he’s developed a high-fiber nutrition bar made from cacao, decaffeinated coffee, berries, walnuts, wheat bran, and a variety of plant compounds, which he has used for a variety of clinical research studies. (He does not sell the bars.) His research studies involving this plant-based nutrition bar have shown that fiber and important plant compounds added to a normal diet demonstrate a tremendous benefit to the human body.
Check them out if you’re interested:
Why are so-called plant “toxins” – including lectins – beneficial to the human body instead of detrimental? At the low doses found in plant-based foods, these plant toxins exhibit what is referred to as a hormetic effect.
Hormesis is simply a process in which a low dose of a mild stressor causes a favorable biological response. Low doses of plant chemicals found in fruits, vegetables, tubers, grains, and legumes benefit us in the same way as the mild stress of exercise, intermittent fasting, sauna, or cold thermogenesis.
In order to make the claim that hormetic compounds found in plant-based foods actually cause, rather than prevent, disease, then you would have to also make the claim that the hormetic stress of exercise, intermittent fasting, sauna, and cold thermogenesis are also harmful and should be avoided.
Since none of the carnivore diet proponents are trying to make the case that hormetic stress from these activities is harmful to the human body, their belief that hormetic stress from low doses of plant “toxins” is illustrative of arbitrary inconsistencies in their reasoning.
It is also mathematically improbable that exercise, intermittent fasting, sauna, cold thermogenesis, AND dietary intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are the reason why we have an epidemic of obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and autoimmune disease that is spreading rapidly throughout the world as intake of meat and processed foods increases and physical activity decreases.
Myth #5: Dietary fiber causes damage to the gut and constipation.
A drastic increase in the insoluble fiber content of your diet, either from food or from fiber supplements, can cause painful constipation is some people – especially those with bowel diseases that cause narrowing of the intestines.
Foods that are especially high in insoluble fiber include whole grains, breakfast cereals, nuts and seeds, beans, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, celery, green beans, the skins of potatoes, apples, berries, and avocados. These foods help prevent constipation as well as diarrhea in most people by adding bulk to your stool.
However, if you have diverticular disease or severe inflammatory bowel disease that has narrowed your intestines and put you at risk for bowel obstruction, adding bulk to your stool can lead to discomfort, constipation, or bowel obstruction.
If foods high in insoluble fiber tend to produce symptoms for you, it’s entirely possible to eliminate these symptoms without resorting to a carnivore diet.
What is often referred to as a “low-residue diet” has proven to be an extremely effective way to mitigate the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome as well as inflammatory bowel disease during flare-ups.
While a low-residue diet can also be a low-fiber diet, it does not necessarily need to be a low-fiber diet if the majority of the fiber is coming from soluble fiber rather than insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber creates a gel-like texture when mixed with liquid in your intestinal tract.
This gel-like texture tends to soothe the gut (instead of feeling abrasive) as it passes through, and it can help those suffering from either constipation or diarrhea without adding bulk to the stool.
Foods that are low in insoluble fiber, but still contain some soluble fiber, include:
Potatoes without the skin
Santa Claus melon
Sweet potatoes without the skin
Well-cooked or pureed vegetables without skins or seeds
Cooking or pureeing vegetables for a lengthy period of time breaks down the plant cell walls, causing them to be more easily digested. Drinking the liquid or broth that cooks out of the vegetables can also be a great way to obtain any vitamins and phytonutrients that may have been released during the cooking process.