In recent years there has been a new kid on the block on the fringes of the keto world. The consumption of meat, fish, and dairy tends to make up much of the content of many ketogenic diets. If you take carbohydrates out of the diet then what remains must be fat and protein. One of the most obvious sources of these two macronutrients is meat. Hence, the carnivore diet can be thought of as a logical extension of keto.
There have been cultures whose diet could, in modern terms, be defined as carnivore. The Masai people in Kenya would be an obvious example, with their diet of meat, blood, and milk. The Chukotka of the Russian Arctic lived on caribou meat, fish, and marine mammals. Another example would be the Inuit prior to their diet being bastardized through contact with other cultures, notably from the South. A fourth would be the culture that thrived in Mongolia. The language of these people originally divided food into just two categories: red food and white food. Red food was meat, while white food was dairy. Other forms of food weren’t considered worthy of inclusion (1).
Defining the Carnivore Diet
A carnivore diet can be easily defined as a diet that is based on animal products, particularly meat. A wider definition might include meat, fish, eggs, and dairy, though some forms don’t even include this last item. Specifically barred in this diet, at least for the most part, are such commonly consumed items as fruit, vegetables, peas and beans, grains, nuts, and seeds. There are many variations of the diet, some stricter than others, but all place a very definite emphasis on the consumption of meat (2). Technically, a carnivore is an animal whose diet is 70%+ meat. This seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable way to define a carnivore diet as it applies to humans. It also saves on needless discussions trying to decide if someone is following a carnivore diet or not.
Carnivore Diet and Ketosis
One of the pleasanter aspects of a carnivore diet, at least from the point of view of those who wish their main energy source to be ketones, is how naturally it creates a state of ketosis. If more or less all sources of carbs are cut out of the diet, as is mostly the case with carnivore, it’s almost impossible for the body not to be in ketosis. For many followers of the carnivore diet, it has been the natural extension of their journey into Keto.
Anthropology and History
Many cultures throughout history have put an emphasis on the consumption of meat over vegetables, or any other food source. There have been some vegan cultures, but only in relatively recent history and mainly restricted to the Indian sub-continent. Even today, in many Eastern cultures, access to good quality meat is looked upon as a very positive resource.
Although globalised/Western culture is increasingly taking over the planet, imposing its highly-processed diet wherever it goes, there are still examples of cultures that live a more natural lifestyle. Many such cultures tend to put the emphasis on a carnivore diet. The Masai and Hadza of Kenya and Tanzania would be obvious examples, the remaining Inuits of Alaska, Canada and Greenland would be another. These people often live long and healthy lives based on carnivore diets and suffer few of the problems that beset Westernised cultures (3).
On the other hand, once these cultures are exposed to Western lifestyles though, and particularly Western diets, their healthspan tends to shorten considerably. In a relatively short period of time, they tend to suffer all the ‘normal’ problems that we are all too familiar with. ‘Healthspan’, in this sense, means the amount of time one leads a healthy life. Although it may be true that people on Western diets can lead long lives, the second half is often beset by such common ills as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. All these make life very difficult and unpleasant. The underlying point is not just to try to live a long life but a healthy one too.
Can Carnivore lead to Deficiencies?
This question is perhaps the most pressing concern for those who wish to experiment with a carnivore diet. Fortunately, it has a very simple answer: ‘No’. In fact, following a carnivore diet will mean an excess of more or less every nutrient and vitamin your body needs to thrive. I recently wrote a blog on one solitary meat organ: beef liver. In it, I listed most of the nutrients a consumer would get from the devouring of this single item. In the end, the list was so long that I had to truncate it somewhat in order to keep the blog a blog and not a small book (4).
It seems that organ meat in particular comes with a wide range of nutrients. These are also in a very bio-available form, which is not the case for most plant-based sources. Generally speaking, most plants are much lower in the amount of vitamin/mineral they offer, gram for gram. They also suffer from the fact that they usually come with anti-nutrients. Mostly, these are in the form of lectins and phytic acid which bind to minerals and stop the body from absorbing even the relatively few nutrients that they do contain.
Long Term Health and Carnivore
The question of the long-term efficacy of the carnivore diet is much more difficult to answer. As far as I am aware, there are no studies on long-term health and carnivore diets in existence as yet. There are a few epidemiological studies but, essentially, they are not worth the paper they are written on. Much like such studies into nutrition in general, they rely on very flawed methodologies. They also come with results that are more revealing of the researcher’s bias than they are of reality. They are a world away from the kind of objective, scientific evidence needed to make informed statements on these subjects.
The 3,000,000-year-old ‘fad’
Sometimes, amongst the nutrition community, particularly those who favour plant-based diets, the carnivore diet is described as a fad or a trend. This seems strange, given that homo sapiens has had a default diet of cooked and uncooked meat for hundreds of thousands of years (even millions, if you go back beyond Homo Sapiens to Homo Erectus, etc.). In this sense, the carnivore diet is the species-specific diet for the human race. Agriculture has only existed for something like 10,000 years. In earlier times, easily the most nutritionally available food was meat. This was probably the case all over the planet but applies even more in Northern climes. Imagine people living in Northern Europe trying to survive year-round on a diet of fruit and vegetables … simply impossible.
Because a carnivore diet has this incredibly long history behind it, our bodies are well-adapted to extracting the essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients they need from meat. This is not the case for fruit, vegetables, nuts or seeds. Each of these come with a range of plant toxins that our bodies struggle to cope with.
Aging and the Carnivore Diet
Much of what we understand as aging occurs at the mitochondrial level. As we age, we gradually lose mitochondria. Even the mitochondria that we do have do not function as efficiently as previously. Many of the nutrients found almost exclusively in meat help us to address this problem. Selenium, Zinc, Carnitine, Taurine, B Vitamins and Coenzyme Q10 are all highly present in meats and are vital for mitochondrial health (5). Some of these nutrients play a key role in the body’s own antioxidant system, another key to healthy aging.
Given all the above, it is likely that a carnivore diet will add both to our healthspan and our lifespan. Evidence from those living the carnivore lifestyle would seem to support this conjecture. There are numerous exemplars of people who have followed a carnivore lifestyle for years. These folks seem to be in relatively good health for their age, often still well-muscled and vital into their sixth, seventh and eighth decade, occasionally even beyond. Such an observation is, of course, merely subjective, though really quite inspiring when you come across such people. I wish I could add more scientific evidence to demonstrate the objective reality one way or the other. As of the time of writing though, it simply does not exist (at least as far as I am aware. If you are aware of any such studies, please let me know!).
The carnivore diet is very controversial and tends to be much derided by those who advocate plant-based lifestyles. Conversely, the anthropological and historical evidence for it being the default diet for human beings is very convincing. Happily, the carnivore diet comes with a huge range of the nutrients our bodies need in order to thrive. The same cannot be said of more plant-based lifestyles with their reliance on foodstuffs that contain anti-nutrients and other toxins. In some ways, carnivore is a natural extension of a ketogenic diet, though the emphasis is more on consuming protein rather than fat. The jury is still out as to whether it is a sustainable and completely healthy lifestyle. Much of the evidence would seem to suggest that it clearly is. My own diet, since adopting keto, has become increasingly meat-based over time. Up to this point in time, I have not gone so far as to adopt this lifestyle. With every week that goes by though, we seem to be going further and further in that direction.