Imagine a diet where bacon is on the breakfast menu and steak is the star of the dinner show—every single day. Meat-centric eating styles like the ‘carnivore diet’ may just sound like an ironic response to the plant-based everything craze that’s dominating the dialogue around health and wellness right now, but is there more to them than that? Read on for details on why meat-heavy diets are rising in popularity, the potential pros and cons, and how to tell if going all-in on the burgers (bunless, of course) is a good idea.
- ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Megan Hilbert, M.S., R.D.N., is a registered dietitian and coach for Top Nutrition Coaching. Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., is a registered dietitian and the author of Read It Before You Eat It.
What’s The Carnivore Diet All About?
The carnivore diet is a relatively straightforward approach to eating. Essentially, if a food isn’t derived directly from an animal, then it’s not on your plate. Instead of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, and other plant-based foods, you’ll sink your teeth into animal proteins like beef, chicken, and fish, as well as eggs, organ meats, and other animal products like bone broth.
The carnivore diet is the latest alternative eating style to take social media by storm, with books like The Carnivore Code and personalities like podcaster Joe Rogan touting the apparent perks of eating all the meat. Like many other trendy diets, it claims an ancestral origin.
Scientific research does suggest that humans relied heavily on low-carb, meat-heavy diets for survival when carbs were hard to find. (It also suggests that a quick transition to carb- and sugar-heavy eating patterns has brought on insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.) Therefore, proponents of the carnivore diet believe we should stick to a very low-carb lifestyle—at least for a period of time—and that doing so helps everything from inflammation to energy to weight loss.
Obviously, this eating pattern is pretty restrictive. In some ways, it’s similar to the Atkin’s Diet (which consists of eating mostly protein and fat with some low-carb veggies) that was popular years back, only even more extreme. Given that animal-derived foods are naturally rich in protein and fat but free of carbohydrates, the carnivore diet is basically zero-carb.
Comparing Carnivore To Other Meat-Heavy Diets
While the carnivore diet involves eating only meat and other animal parts, other popular meat-heavy diets—such as the GAPS (Gut and Physiology/Psychology Syndrome) protocol—prioritize animal foods while allowing a little more wiggle room, and still claim to support digestion, energy, mental focus, and more.
GAPS puts a spotlight on gut health, suggesting that many physical and neurological ailments stem from bacterial imbalances in the gut microbiome resulting from processed carbs, allergens, and inflammatory foods. Though the GAPS protocol is heavy on meat and other animal products (like meat stock), it also includes various fermented foods and certain fruits and vegetables. Compared to the carnivore diet, it incorporates a broader range of foods and is more nuanced in its approach.
Importantly, it’s also not specifically low-carb and is typically used as a temporary intervention to heal the gut, not as a lifelong eating plan. Some believers in the carnivore diet, however, choose to follow it indefinitely, which can increase the risk of issues (more on those soon).
Potential Pros of Eating a Meat-Heavy Diet
For many people, intentionally meat-heavy diets like carnivore are quite a departure from the picture of healthy balance we’re used to. Still, supporters of eating meat, meat, meat report a number of health benefits, some with more scientific backing than others.
Interestingly, in one study of more than 2,000 adults who followed a carnivore diet for an average of 14 months, 95 percent reported “high levels of satisfaction and improvements in overall health.”
Other purported perks may include:
1. Improvements In Certain Gut Issues
Carnivore advocates claim that cutting out fibrous foods can give the digestive system a break. This makes sense, considering some people react poorly to high-fiber foods that contain FODMAPs, which are types of carbohydrates that can contribute to bloating and IBS-type symptoms.
2. Lifted Mood and Energy
Fans of low-carb and keto diets (which carnivore can be) report a boost in mood and mental performance, including less lethargy, greater focus, fewer spikes and dips in energy, and even a more positive outlook.
3. Weight Loss Support
By cutting out refined carbs and added sugar while ramping up protein, carnivore eaters may experience positive changes in body composition. “For those looking to lose weight, increasing protein intake has been shown to have a significant effect,” says dietitian Megan Hilbert, M.S., R.D.N., a coach for Top Nutrition Coaching. “These diets also eliminate processed foods (such as cakes, cookies, soda, and pastries), which tend to contribute a significant amount of calories to people’s diets and increase inflammation.”
4. Improved Metabolic Function
Blood sugar control is another major perk highlighted by carnivore eaters. In general, research does suggest that low-carb diets can be effective for preventing (and even reversing) obesity and type 2 diabetes because they regulate the release of insulin, a “fat-storing” hormone that ushers energy into cells after you eat carbohydrates. And when it comes specifically to carnivore, some of the participants in that previously-mentioned 2,000-person study reported that they needed less diabetes medication post-carnivore eating.
Of course, while the carnivore diet might assist in weight loss, studies show it’s not the only effective approach to dropping pounds.
5. Greater Muscle Mass Gains
Pro-carnivore eaters on social media claim going heavy on the meat makes it easier to look jacked. Evidence, including some from clinical trials, does indeed suggest that high-protein diets can support a healthy body composition, meaning it might be easier to put on lean muscle when loading up on naturally protein-rich animal foods.
However, if eating lots of meat comes at the cost of eating ample carbohydrates, heavy lifters and other active people may feel weaker and more tired, suggests dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., author of Read It Before You Eat It. “A big mistake that people make is to think they’ll derive the same energy from protein as they would from carbs,” she explains. “Carbs are known for “sparing protein;” in other words, they provide energy so that protein can build and repair tissues.”
The Cons: Not Always a Meaty Paradise
Eating tons of meat and animal proteins is not all sunshine and steak. There are some potential pitfalls to be aware of, especially if you attempt to follow this diet long-term.
1. Risk of Nutrient Deficiencies
By saying “no” to plant-based foods, especially nutrient-rich types like leafy greens and berries, you might miss out on essential nutrients, namely fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, explains Hilbert. Though some people may choose to go easy on the fiber temporarily for gut health purposes, plant foods provide multiple types of fibers that are needed to prevent constipation, support healthy gut flora, and aid in cardiovascular health over time.
Vitamins C, E, A, and others are also abundant in plant foods that are missing from very low-carb, high-meat diets. “You need micronutrients found in plants, such as vitamin C, folate, and magnesium,” says Hilbert. “These play a massive role in the health of your nervous system, microbiome, and more.”
Case in point: One study of more than 300 adults following low-carb diets (LCD) noted that “insufficient intake was observed for fiber, magnesium, potassium and several other vitamins (vitamins A, E, D in both sexes as well as vitamin C in men and folate in women).”
A few supplements to consider if following a meat-heavy diet: Jarrow Formulas Shilajit Fulvic Acid Complex, Trace Minerals Research ZeroLyte Electrolyte Drink Mix, NaturesPlus Source of Life Gold Liquid, and The Vitamin Shoppe brand Ultimate 10+ Probiotics.
2. Heart Health Hazards
Meanwhile, a high intake of saturated fat from animal products such as beef and eggs can potentially lead to a higher risk for cholesterol-related problems and heart issues. Though the extent to which someone’s diet influences their cholesterol levels is up for debate, it’s generally accepted that a high-fiber, low-saturated-fat diet is helpful for reducing high cholesterol levels and promoting heart health.
“Meat-heavy diets may not be supportive of heart health since they are often higher in saturated fat than is recommended by the American Heart Association or our Dietary Guidelines,” Taub-Dix says. It’s worth noting that of those 2,000 adults surveyed in that study we mentioned earlier, many experienced increases in LDL “bad” cholesterol levels while eating a carnivore diet.
Similarly, that research of over 300 adults on general low-carb diets found that individuals “exceeded the recommendations for saturated fat, total lipid, and sodium intake.”
3. Kidney Concerns
Processing all that protein can put a lot of strain on your kidneys, especially if you already have kidney-related issues, as they work overtime to help you digest protein and eliminate waste. “The kidneys are involved in filtering waste products from the blood, including byproducts from breaking down protein,” says Taub-Dix. “Consuming a lot of protein means your kidneys have to work harder to get rid of those byproducts.”
Your kidneys, liver, and other digestive organs generally benefit from a diet that includes lots of antioxidant-rich plants, so gorging on meat may worsen kidney issues in some susceptible adults. “And, although a diet very high in protein may not pose a significant risk for those who have healthy kidneys, it’s still a diet that’s unbalanced,” Taub-Dix suggests.
Though cutting out potentially irritating foods like FODMAPs can do a sensitive gut good, eating only meat can ultimately cause digestive issues of its own. “Eating too much protein and not enough plant foods is linked with poor gut health and increased gut-derived toxins,” explains Hilbert. She adds, “In fact, research has shown that eating excess protein and not enough fiber can alter someone’s microbial environment and contribute to symptoms such as foul-smelling gas and constipation.”
That’s because, according to Hilbert, when gut microbes ferment too much protein (especially from animal products such as red meat), certain chemicals are released in the gut—and they’re associated with negative health outcomes as serious as higher risk for colon cancer and inflammatory bowel disease. Studies back this up, suggesting that “Western diets” high in meat and alcohol but low in plants are linked to gastrointestinal issues, including inflammatory bowel disease.
5. Social Side Effects
While not necessarily a direct threat to your health, dining out can suddenly become challenging if the majority of the menu becomes off-limits when following a carnivore diet. If you’re someone who enjoys cooking for others, socializing, and eating meals as a family, be prepared for your routine to change, at least somewhat.
So, Should You Try Carnivore?
Understandably, the carnivore diet is pretty controversial, so proceed at your own risk if you decide to take everything except meat off your plate.
Sure, it’s true that upping the protein while dropping processed foods and the like can support those with persistent health issues (such as excess weight that won’t stay off or insulin resistance), but going full carnivore isn’t your only option. Simply eating less processed foods, a more balanced diet, or more protein might do the trick, says Taub-Dix.
Read More: 9 Easy Ways To Increase Your Protein Intake
“For those looking to lose weight, increasing protein intake (to 0.9 to 1.3 grams per kilogram of body weight has been shown to have a significant effect when compared with those whose protein intakes are lower (0.5 to 1.0 gram per kilogram),” explains Hilbert. “But, one doesn’t need to eat only animal products to reach these protein goals!”
Whatever your motivation, because very low-carb or zero-carb diets do have drawbacks, it’s smart to talk to your healthcare provider before going all in, especially if you take medications or have a history of health issues.
Who Should Stick to a More Varied Diet Instead?
In Taub-Dix’s opinion, anyone with a history of heart disease, diabetes, kidney issues, or certain metabolic conditions should approach the carnivore diet with a lot of caution (or not approach it at all). For example, those who have a lipid profile suggesting they should be limiting saturated fat need to be careful about eating more plants and less fatty meat. This is important to note, given that many people with diabetes (who may find carnivore appealing on that front) also have heart disease, she says. Restrictive diets are also an obvious no-no for women who are pregnant, nursing, or planning a pregnancy.
Additionally, if you prefer a varied diet with a lot of different plant foods or are prone to constipation, then a diet that’s very high in animal foods probably isn’t for you. A modified GAPS diet might feel more accessible in the short-term, but something stricter may be off the table.
The Bottom Line on Eating Lots of Meat and Little Else
The truth is, while there’s anecdotal evidence out there suggesting that a short-term meat-heavy diet might have some benefits, scientific support is lacking. “There are no long-term studies on these particular diets, so claims are not well substantiated by the evidence,” says Hibert.
These diets can be a short-term experiment that may lead to weight loss or other perks, but they’re no one-size-fits-all approach for health. “We don’t need to cut out tons of otherwise healthy foods to see a positive effect on health,” says Hilbert.
“Balance is key when it comes to choosing a diet that you’re going to live with for a lifetime,” agrees Taub-Dix. “And frankly, any diet that contains the words ‘heavy’—unless you’re talking about a heavy emphasis on fruits and veggies—is not one that I generally recommend.”
In the end, whether you’re a carnivore, omnivore, or herbivore, the best diet is the one that makes you feel like the best version of yourself, inside and out. Monitor how you feel when trying different types of diets, including lower-carb and higher-protein types, to determine the best fit for you.