The Carnivore Diet: Your Complete Guide To The Pros + Cons Of This Controversial Way Of Eating
There’s no shortage of different diets and nutrition philosophies in the world. In fact, if you’re trying to make healthy lifestyle choices, you may feel that there are way too many to choose from. You could spend weeks wading through the science from all the experts and at the end of it all, find yourself more confused about which diet is actually healthy than when you started.
That’s where I come in. At my functional medicine telehealth clinic, I act as a filter between all the conflicting nutrition information in the world and what will actually work for my patients in real life. We are able to look into your health background and discuss together what the best diet would be for you and your medical history.
One diet that’s been getting a lot of attention lately is the carnivore diet. So today, I’m going to dive into what this diet actually is, what foods to eat, how it works, whether it’s healthy or not, and how it may be helpful to you. I will also discuss the carnivore diet benefits and how this diet could be a good addition to your lifestyle.
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What is the carnivore diet?
The carnivore diet is very low-carb, but unlike other popular low-carb diets, a carnivore diet takes out all carb-containing foods instead of just limiting them. It also focuses on all things animal-based, meaning you are not allowed vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds, or anything else that is not an animal product.
If the thought of cutting out all fruits and veggies gives you pause, you’re not alone. As the author of a plant-based keto book, Ketotarian, I’m a huge fan of a veggie-centric way of eating. That said, after looking into the carnivore diet, I think it merits a second look, even from a plant lover like me. I have no food tribalism other than finding out what works for my patients to move them along on their health journey.
Carnivore Diet Benefits
Is the carnivore diet good for your body? The carnivore diet is relatively new, so it hasn’t been studied extensively, especially when it comes to the long-term effects of a mostly animal-based diet. However, the research that has been done on similar very low-carb diets has highlighted a few interesting benefits, which mainly have to do with metabolic health.
For example, studies show that very low-carb diets can lead to weight loss and healthier triglyceride levels. And when compared to moderately low-carb diets, very low-carb diets like the carnivore diet lead to greater improvements (1) in metabolic markers. In my patients, I’ve also seen that the carnivore diet can lead to steadier energy levels, fewer cravings, and better focus.
This may have to do with the fact that the carnivore diet provides essential nutrients that the typical standard American diet is lacking. This includes vitamin A, vitamin K2, vitamin D, methylated B vitamins, and bioavailable forms of iron, all of which are amply supplied with a clean, well-formulated nutrient-dense carnivore diet.
The Carnivore Diet Foods
So what do you need to eat in order to obtain these carnivore diet benefits? Followers of the carnivore diet believe that the increase in carb-heavy processed food in our modern diets has contributed to the rise of health problems like diabetes and obesity. They also believe that the solution is to eat mostly animal products similar to our ancestors, including foods like:
- Fish and seafood
- Bone broth
- Raw honey
As you can see from the list above, the carnivore diet isn’t JUST about meat — any animal product is on the table. Therefore, all of the following foods must be avoided as they are not considered animal products:
- Legumes (beans, lentils, peanuts, etc.)
- Gluten and Gluten-free grains
- Nuts and seeds
- Sweeteners (other than raw honey since it is technically an animal byproduct)
- Coffee, tea, juice, soda
It’s also important to note that when it comes to herbs and spices, including salt and pepper, this isn’t exactly black and white. While extremely strict followers of the carnivore diet eliminate these completely, others use herbs sparingly, or stick to just salt to enhance flavor and ensure electrolyte balance.
Is the Carnivore Diet Actually Healthy?
Reading the list of foods above, you might be thinking: Cheese, honey, BUTTER? Dr. Cole, I thought these were foods I was supposed to avoid?! It wouldn’t be abnormal to wonder “what is the downside of the carnivore diet?”.
The carnivore diet is definitely controversial. Overall, I think the carnivore diet can be a great tool to use for a period of time. I often suggest it for patients who are suffering from multiple food sensitivities or who are in an active autoimmune-inflammatory flare-up as a way to remove irritating foods. While they follow the carnivore diet, I work with my patients on healing their gut, rebalancing their immune systems, and reducing chronic inflammation. The carnivore diet does two things at once: It infuses the gut with the gut-healing benefits of bone broth while also eliminating harder-to-digest vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds. In other words, it still allows a person to get beneficial nutrients while giving the gut a break from working so hard.
Emerging research has even started to show what I have seen firsthand with my patients. A 2021 study published in Current Developments in Nutrition (2) found that men who ate a carnivore diet for 14 months experienced significant improvement in their overall health and wellbeing with very little (if any) side effects. But with that said, the research surrounding the carnivore diet is still extremely limited on its immediate effects, let alone how it holds up long-term as a sustainable diet.
Therefore, once my patient’s symptoms are improving, I still work with them to slowly reintroduce plant-based foods. With what we know now about nutrition and our biochemistry, I don’t believe anyone should cut out plant foods from their diet long term because of their content of polyphenols, antioxidants, and fiber that just isn’t available in animal foods. After all, studies have shown time and time again that a diet rich in plants has intensive detoxification properties, (3) can help fight cancer, (4) and also keep blood sugar under control. (5)
Things to consider
If you do choose to try a carnivore diet, the type of meat and animal products you consume matters a lot. For example, conventional processed meats have been linked (6) to cancer when consumed in high amounts. That also doesn’t take into consideration food intolerances and the extremely inflammatory nature of conventional dairy products due to the years of genetic modification, cross-breeding, and hormone and antibiotic overuse. Not only do organic, grass-fed and wild-caught animal foods typically taste better, they don’t have the negative side effects and their beneficial nutrients tend to be more bioavailable to your body.
A Day on the Carnivore Diet
Now that you know what you can eat and what you can't, let's talk about what a day in the life of a carnivore dieter might look like. The great thing about the carnivore diet is that a LOT of rich comfort foods are on the list of approved foods.
Breakfast: Bacon & egg omelet
Cook up a couple of eggs with nitrate and sugar-free bacon for a classic breakfast that is also carnivore friendly. If you are including cheese in your carnivore plan, add some in for a little extra zing.
Lunch: Buttered salmon
Wild-caught salmon is a delicious source of healthy fats that are essential for hormone and brain health.
Any type of jerky — salmon, beef, or turkey — is a great choice for its portability and shelf-life.
Dinner: Bone broth chicken soup and liver pate
End your day with a gut-soothing soup made with nourishing bone broth. Throw some chicken breasts in a crockpot with the bone broth and seasonings (if you choose), cook, shred the chicken, and save the rest for lunch or dinner the next day. Bringing in organ meats like grass-fed organic liver is a great idea from a mineral and nutrient-density standpoint.
What It Really Comes Down To
There are so many diets in the world, and each seems to promise to be the solution to all of our health problems. At the end of the day, I’ve learned that there isn’t just one diet that works for everyone — and not everyone should follow the same diet for their whole lives. Sometimes, switching things up for a short period of time can be extremely beneficial, and that’s what I think is the real strength of the carnivore diet.
At the end of the day, you need to choose what is best for you and your health. I want to be a source that you can turn to to make these decisions a little easier. As a health professional, I can assist you as you make choices that will benefit your health, and ultimately make your life more meaningful.
Schedule a health consultation with our professionals today. They are here to help you on your health journey. With them, you can learn even more about the carnivore diet, its benefits, and if you should implement it into your life.
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- Harvey, Cliff J D C et al. “Low-carbohydrate diets differing in carbohydrate restriction improve cardiometabolic and anthropometric markers in healthy adults: A randomised clinical trial.” PeerJ vol. 7 e6273. 5 Feb. 2019, doi:10.7717/peerj.6273
- Lennerz, Belinda S et al. “Behavioral Characteristics and Self-Reported Health Status among 2029 Adults Consuming a "Carnivore Diet".” Current developments in nutrition vol. 5,12 nzab133. 2 Nov. 2021, doi:10.1093/cdn/nzab133
- Cobbett, Christopher, and Peter Goldsbrough. “Phytochelatins and metallothioneins: roles in heavy metal detoxification and homeostasis.” Annual review of plant biology vol. 53 (2002): 159-82. doi:10.1146/annurev.arplant.53.100301.135154
- Perloy, Andy et al. “Intake of meat and fish and risk of head-neck cancer subtypes in the Netherlands Cohort Study.” Cancer causes & control : CCC vol. 28,6 (2017): 647-656. doi:10.1007/s10552-017-0892-0
- Virtanen, Heli E K et al. “Intake of different dietary proteins and risk of type 2 diabetes in men: the Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study.” The British journal of nutrition vol. 117,6 (2017): 882-893. doi:10.1017/S0007114517000745
- Jakszyn, Paula, and Carlos-Alberto Gonzalez. “Nitrosamine and related food intake and gastric and oesophageal cancer risk: a systematic review of the epidemiological evidence.” World journal of gastroenterology vol. 12,27 (2006): 4296-303. doi:10.3748/wjg.v12.i27.4296
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.
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