Can you really live on meat alone? Everything you need to know about the carnivore diet

By | December 2, 2018

Mikhaila Peterson eats just under one kilogram of beef per day, mostly chuck roasts fried in beef tallow.

The daughter of celebrity academic Jordan Peterson doesn’t use salt much anymore, she recently told Geoffrey Woo, CEO and co-founder of HVMN (pronounced “human”), a Silicon Valley company that sells supplements. The pink Himalayan rock salt made her excessively thirsty, therefore she lives on just beef and water now, and sometimes bourbon — a hyper-extreme diet she credits for putting her arthritis, chronic fatigue and occasional hypomania into remission. The carnivore cleanse has also “fixed” her father’s depression, fatigue and weight gain, Mikhaila Peterson reported on her blog, Don’t Eat That.

She’s now offering $ 120 per hour consultations, and has more than 6,500 subscribers. Meanwhile, a Facebook group called World Carnivore Tribe has reached more than 22,000 members since debuting last December. On Instagram, there are more than 41,000 posts with the #meatheals hashtag. And, in Silicon Valley, some tech workers are stocking the office communal fridge with rib eyes and steak tartare, the San Francisco Chronicle reports, in the belief going “carnivory” will give them a competitive edge.

While Jordan Peterson says he has dropped 23 kg on the diet, some people are asking how is it that people aren’t dropping dead? Why don’t they have clogged arteries or colon cancer? How are they not getting scurvy? The eating plan defies everything nutritionists have said about the importance of fruits and vegetables. Even Canada’s new food guide, due out in 2019, is expected to lean far more plant than cow-based. The National Post asked experts to explain what it would mean to eat nothing but meat.

What is the carnivore diet?

It’s an extreme extension of low-carbohydrate diets. “This is the keto diet on testosterone,” wrote Jonathan Jarry, of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society.

The carnivore food pyramid focuses on fatty meats, especially ruminant meat (cattle, lamb, goat, antelope, elk, deer). Processed meats like bacon, sausage and deli meats are permitted, and eggs and dairy if you can tolerate it (including lard, duck fat, ghee, butter, hard cheese and heavy whipping cream). Lots of water is recommended, as well as sodium to prevent muscle cramping. No fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds or plant-based spices, oils or seasonings.

Purists eliminate dairy. They also don’t take supplements.

What are the claims?

That it can help people lose weight, improve their cardiovascular health, increase mental clarity, alleviate autoimmune symptoms, clear acne and other skin issues and ease depression and anxiety.

Is it new?

No. One of the earliest converts was Harvard-trained ethnologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who was born in Gimli, Manitoba in 1879. Stefansson spent over 11 years exploring the arctic, nine years of which he lived, and ate, like the Inuit, almost exclusively on meat and fish. In 1928, he and a fellow explorer voluntarily agreed to live solely on meat for one year while they continued their writing and lecturing in the temperate climate of New York. The study was partially supported by a grant from the Institute of American Meat Packers. Despite initial bouts of nausea, diarrhea, constipation and an odd craving for calf brain, at the end of the year, “there were no subjective or objective evidences of any loss of physical or mental vigour” in either man, the researchers reported. The men lost weight during the first week due to a shift in the water content of their bodies as they adjusted to the low carb diet, but then their weights remained practically constant. The meat diet didn’t cause any elevation in blood pressure, nor was there any evidence of vitamin deficiencies.

One of the more popular apostles of going carnivore is Shawn Baker, a former orthopaedic surgeon and power lifter who, in 2017, voluntarily surrendered his licence, at the insistence of his New Mexico licensing board, over “incompetence to practise as a licensee.” According to Baker, who has railed against vegans and their “plant-based religious zealotry” on social media, prior to agriculture, humans evolved eating a highly carnivorous diet. “They were stronger, they had thicker bones, they even had larger brains,” Baker said in a promotional video. Meat isn’t causing health problems. “It’s the other stuff.”

Why no fruits and vegetables?

The theory is that lectins, gluten and phytic acid found in many plants are toxic to humans. Lectins, in particular, were singled out as demons in the 2017 book The Plant Paradox, by U.S. cardiologist Steven Gundry. Found in seeds, grains, skins, rinds and leaves, lectins protect plants from predators, but, according to Gundry, once ingested by humans they cause inflammatory reactions leading to weight gain and serious health problems.

However, Heidi Bates, director of the Integrated Dietetic Internship at the University of Alberta, told McGill’s Jarry that, while people can experience gas or stomach upset if they eat a lot of beans or other high-lectin foods, “there is no research to suggest that we should avoid all of these nutrient-rich foods.”

Celiac disease is caused by an immune reaction to gluten, but only one per cent of the Canadian population has this condition.

What about the evolutionary argument?

Modern meat isn’t like the meat our Stone Age ancestors ate, said Lisa Sasson, a clinical professor in nutrition at New York University. “When was the last time a woolly mammoth was in Whole Foods?” Meat from prehistoric times was very lean, unlike the processed, salty and high-fat meats many people eat today.

Our Palaeolithic ancestors also consumed a high-fibre diet from a variety of plant foods — wild plants, berries, or whatever they could forage. Their calorie needs were also very high (perhaps more than 4,000 calories per day) and they moved a lot more. They also died a lot sooner, with a life expectancy of around 30.

What are the risks?

Too much protein can be a problem for those with kidney disease. Excessive amounts of meat can also increase uric acid in the blood, which can crystallize in the joints, causing gout. There’s also evidence linking grilled meat and cancer. When muscle meat is cooked at high-temperatures, like pan frying or grilling over an open flame, chemicals form, including heterocyclic amines, which are mutagenic, meaning they cause changes in the DNA that may increase cancer risk.

“You see lots of pictures on social media where proponents of these diets proudly post pictures of these dark, charbroiled steaks,” said family physician Dr. Aric Sudicky. “There’s good evidence that if you eat charbroiled grilled meat multiple times a day it comes with a significant risk of cancer.”

What about nutrients?

Red meat offers zinc and iron, as well as a number of B vitamins, but not much calcium, and zero grams of dietary fibre, said Montreal cardiologist Dr. Christopher Labos. The carnivore diet permits eggs, which contain some vitamin C. So does raw meat, like steak tartar, as well as liver.

“It takes time for scurvy to present — you won’t notice this in a few weeks,” said Dr. Joe Schwarcz, director of the McGill Office for Science and Society. It took weeks or months at sea without any vitamin C for scurvy to develop. “It’s not an immediate effect, and we haven’t had enough people on this diet long enough. (But) maybe there are people out there who are developing scurvy.”

There are no carbs in meat, but the body can convert some protein into glucose, the main source of energy for the body and brain.

Can it really cure diseases?

It’s not that meat heals, but rather that some people end up eliminating foods they might be reacting to.

However, there are no randomized clinical trials to support claims the carnivore diet can cure autoimmune diseases, which can wax and wane. Other purported benefits are even harder to quantify or measure.

“Mental clarity? How do you prove that,” Sudicky said.

It’s true that saturated fats don’t come with nearly the same risk for heart disease that researchers warned of during the fat hysteria of the 1950s and 60s. But it’s a false claim to say saturated fats can protect against heart disease or stroke, Sudicky said.

Will you lose weight?

It’s not magic: People will lose weight because they’re removing multiple food groups, including the foods most people gain weight from — high-fat or high-sugar snack foods. The fat and protein in meat also helps satisfy hunger.

The “transition” period can be rough, with people reporting symptoms such as brain fog, chills, gut issues, constipation, foul breath, dry mouth, sore muscles, insomnia and nocturia — excessive nighttime urination.

Is it safe?

“Long-term research on the carnivore diet is simply absent — and no, that one-year study of two men in 1930 doesn’t count,” Jarry said.

The U.K. government recommends people limit their intake of red and processed meat to 70 grams per day, to reduce the risk of bowel cancer. But colorectal cancer doesn’t develop overnight.

“It may take years of being on such a diet to manifest problems,” Schwarcz said.

Why is it so popular?

Fad diets offer hope and a relatively easy solution to complex problems. Extremism in anything is never the answer, Schwarcz said, but extreme sells better than the boring, age-old advice: reduce your calories in a reasonable manner, and try to be more active.

National Post

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