Diet programs come in all shapes and sizes, and one trending diet is the carnivore diet. Although it might boast success in helping you lose a few pounds (maybe gained during quarantine?), you may wonder if it’s safe to eat nothing but meat. And how is the carnivore diet different from other carb-limiting meal plans, such as the ketogenic (keto) diet?
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Dietitian Kate Patton, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD explains what the carnivore diet is and if it’s possible to indulge in too much meat.
What is the carnivore diet?
The carnivore diet might seem like just the ticket if you love meat enough to eat it for every meal (hello, Ron Swanson). In this diet plan, you do just that: eat meat or animal products for every meal. Unlike keto, which limits carbs to a certain number per day, the carnivore diet aims for zero carbs per day. You eat only meat, fish, eggs and some animal products; you exclude all other food groups — including vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
The carnivore diet boasts weight loss, improved mood, as well as blood sugar regulation. It was founded on the belief that high-carb diets are the cause of chronic disease. However, there are drawbacks to eating nothing but animal protein and zero carbs.
Carbs get a bad rap. When you digest carbs, your body turns them into glucose to be used for energy. But if you’re not exercising regularly to burn those carbs, they can quickly turn into fat. Therefore, too many carbs can pack on the pounds quickly.
“Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred energy source — what it’s accustomed to using for energy,” says Patton. “But if you don’t eat carbs, your next resort is burning fat. And that comes from burning fat in foods you eat or your own body fat.” She says people tend to feel good once they’re off carbs because they don’t have any wild swings in blood sugar, and eating meat is not as inflammatory. But she warns: Too much animal fat can cause inflammation too.
According to Patton, the absence of carbohydrates is what leads to the weight loss associated with the carnivore diet, but carbs are your body’s preferred energy source. And you can have some serious side effects living off a meat-only diet.
Not all carbs are equal (or bad)
Carbs in their basic form provide fuel for your body. And there are a lot of good-for-you carbohydrates that are loaded with fiber, vitamins and minerals. The best carbs are the ones that most closely resemble how they occur in nature — not processed or refined. Some to consider are:
- Fruits, such as apples, pineapple, strawberries.
- Vegetables, such as carrots, sweet potatoes and beets.
- Whole grains, such as quinoa and whole wheat bread.
Simple carbs — desserts, sugary candies, cakes and pies — are the ones to avoid. These are typically full of preservatives, white sugar and flour and are notorious for causing inflammation and weight gain — especially around your middle. These carbs are also known contributors to many adverse health conditions such as Type 2 diabetes (thus, the flux in blood sugar), obesity and high blood pressure. So of course if you cut them out of your diet, you’ll feel better with less weight and fluctuations in glucose levels. But you don’t need to omit all carbs for health benefits. In fact, you can do real damage to your body in doing so.
What are the risks of the carnivore diet?
The carnivore diet at its core is extremely restrictive. And when you omit entire food groups from your diet, there’s bound to be consequences.
“The carnivore diet is super low in fiber, which will cause a lot of constipation,” says Patton. And the risks become much more serious than a failure to poop.
“If you have a pre-existing chronic condition, like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, any history of stroke or other cardiovascular diseases, you should definitely not try this diet,” Patton says pointedly. “Even if you have digestive issues, this diet can make things worse with all that protein and fat, which takes a lot longer to digest.”
The carnivore diet is high in saturated fats which can cause elevated LDL or bad cholesterol and put you at risk for heart disease. What’s more, many different kinds of processed meats like bacon and some lunch meats are loaded with sodium and have been linked to certain types of cancer. And a diet high in sodium can cause kidney problems and high blood pressure.
Should you consider the carnivore diet?
Patton doesn’t mince words when it comes to this question.
“In my opinion, no.”
If you’re a believer in everything in moderation, this diet isn’t for you. The best diet is one that’s balanced and includes a variety of different foods from several food groups.
“It really is about finding a balance in what’s right for you.”