The Buzz: The Carnivore Diet

Grilled beef steak with spices on cutting boardWhat’s the buzz?
The carnivore diet (aka “no carb” to the extreme) is the latest magnet for those that love meat and fear carbs.

What does the science say?
What exactly is the carnivore diet? Pretty much what it sounds like: eat only animal products, avoiding all other foods. While simple can be good, this diet may have simplified things a little too much. Proponents of this way of eating have bought into the widespread theory that carbohydrates contribute to weight gain, but also a more fringe one that plant-based foods, many of which are primarily made of carbohydrates, contain anti-nutrients that are wreaking havoc on our bodies. Some anecdotal evidence (read between the lines: strangers on the Internet) has shown that people lose weight and body fat and “feel good” eating only a diet of meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and in some cases a little bit of full-fat dairy.

But that’s where the “evidence” stops. Sorry T. Rex, there is absolutely no science to show that this diet is beneficial. It also begs the question: What were type of foods were these people eating before they started the diet? If you replace a diet filled with processed and packaged foods or one already high in animal products (let’s be honest, someone trying this approach likely wasn’t following a plant-based diet beforehand) and replace it with an all-meat diet, it’s possible you may see some initial weight loss. But that weight loss is probably from eating less overall, not because the diet is better for your body. And while switching from an already unhealthy diet to this meat-only diet may not result in an immediate negative change in your health profile, that doesn’t mean it’s healthy!

In fact, there are multiple scientific studies showing that diets high in animal products, particularly red and processed meats, are linked to increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, weight gain, and many other health conditions. Diets full of plants like fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, meanwhile, have been linked to decreased risk of all of these conditions. Plant foods also contain essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber, all of which contribute to improved digestion, better immune systems, and overall health. While there is some truth to the concept that antinutrients like lectin or phytates found in plants may reduce absorption of certain vitamins and minerals, they also have been shown to have beneficial properties, and in most cases, cooking foods that contain these antinutrients — such as beans — can reduce or eliminate the effects of these foods.

What’s the takeaway?
Eating steak for breakfast, lunch, and dinner might appeal to some, but the long-term health effects of such a diet are likely negative. (Not to mention the impact on the environment.) Following a diet that excludes many food groups can also affect one’s social and family life and become very monotonous, which is hard to maintain. Animal products can be part of a healthy diet, but research continues to show that eating a variety of foods — centered on many plants — is the best for overall health.

Read one dietitian’s detailed take on the carnivore diet.