What is a Carnivore Diet?

Over the last 5 years we have seen a dramatic increase in the popularity of low carbohydrate and ketogenic diets.  Now the carnivore diet is one of the latest dietary trends that is beginning to take the world by storm in part due to advocates like Mikhaila Peterson, Dr. Shawn Baker, Chris Bell, and Dr. Anthony Gustin

The radical nature of the diet is also a contributor to the draw of attention of many in and outside of the low carb and keto dieting communities.

I first stumbled across the carnivore diet in early 2018. I gave the diet my first attempt just a few months later.  Since then I have used the diet as a tool several times. I have found that the carnivore diet gives me more strength in the gym, improves my productivity, decreases my hunger, improves my body composition, and even increases my ketone levels.

A concern about carnivore dieting is that we do not have enough research to support nor refute the diet.  Research moves slow. What we do have is studies to point us in the right direction and explain some of the benefits reported by those following the diet.

This is the first of a five part series on the carnivore diet.  The purpose of this article is to lay out what the carnivore diet is.  The rest of the series will include information debunking that we need plants, addressing the safety of carnivore, talking about the benefits and best use cases of the carnivore diet, and giving you instructions on how to actually follow the carnivore diet.  Let’s dive in.

What is Carnivore?

The carnivore diet, to no surprise, is an all-meat based diet.  While this does seem like an extreme diet to many, you may be surprised to know that many nutrition experts aren’t so quick to say the same. In fact, in a carnivore article published by Onnit earlier this year, registered dietician Brian St. Pierre was quoted saying, “We need protein, fat, and vitamins and minerals in certain amounts.”  As we will get into later in this article, all of these demands can be met by a properly formulated meat-based diet.

The concept of carnivore is pretty cut and dry, eat meat. However, there are several different variations of carnivore that can be practiced.  I have classified them into the following approaches:

Meat Only Carnivore: Likely the most popular variation of carnivore, only meat and typically primarily red meat is consumed.

Animal Based Carnivore: This variation of carnivore consists of eating only animal products including eggs and dairy sources like cheese and butter.

95% Carnivore: Many people following the carnivore diet tend to make an exception and allow for non carnivore oils like coconut oil and avocado oil or may even slide in an occasional avocado.  This is something I am terming 95% carnivore.  

Cyclical Carnivore: Consuming carnivore during the week but having vegetables and/or on the weekend.  Some people following this diet may choose to eat carbohydrate cheat meals on the weekend.  The best approach would be sticking to “cleaner” carb sources like sweet potatoes

Choosing the right variation of carnivore all comes down to why you are doing it.  If you are following carnivore to treat autoimmune disease, you may want to stick to meat only carnivore.  While if your main goal is weight loss, you will likely do just fine with 95% carnivore.  Here is an example of what a day of carnivore looks like for me:

Carnivore day of eating.jpg

Is Carnivore The Same As Keto?

You may have heard of carnivore also being referred to as “carnivore keto”.  This is due to the similarities between the two diets. While a ketogenic diet does allow for a lot more variety with the consumption of vegetables and certain low glycemic fruits, both diets fall under the low carb diet umbrella.

The main difference between carnivore and the standard definition of the ketogenic diet is the amount of protein consumed.  Ketogenic dieters have a tendency to fear protein consumption because of gluconeogenesis (GNG). GNG is the production of glucose in the body from non-glucose substrate.  Many keto dieters fear that GNG, as a result of consuming too much protein, will lead to lower ketone levels thus hindering ketosis, the primary goal for many ketogenic dieters.

While many low carb dieters fear the term gluconeogenesis, it is actually a necessary process required for maintaining proper bodily function. Certain cells in the body, like red blood cells, are unable to utilize ketones and fat for energy, requiring glucose to maintain energy production (1).  The process of gluconeogenesis is what allows these cells to get the energy they need despite little or no carbohydrate consumption. It’s also the reason why your blood sugar doesn’t go to zero on a low or no carb diet. 

It was previously thought that gluconeogenesis was a supply driven process meaning if excess protein is available then it will be converted to glucose.  However, research has not found this to be true (2). Let’s take a look at a few studies:

  • Study #1: 50 grams of protein fed to two subjects, one with diabetes and one without.  No change in blood glucose (3).

  • Study #2: consumption of 1.3 pounds of meat did not raise blood glucose (4).

  • Study #3: 50g of beef protein only lead to a 2g increase in glucose production in diabetic subjects who tend to produce glucose at greater rates than healthy subjects (5).  

These findings amongst many others suggest that gluconeogenesis is actually a demand driven process meaning that the body will only produce glucose if there is a need for it (6).

The point is that while carnivore is higher protein compared to a traditional ketogenic diet, the fundamental nature of a keto diet, low blood glucose and elevated ketones still occur on a carnivore diet.  Anecdotally, I have actually found that my ketone levels are higher and blood glucose is lower while following a carnivore diet. This is likely due to the virtual no-carb nature of a carnivore diet.

What Are The Benefits of Carnivore?

Later in the series I will dive deep into the potential benefits of a carnivore diet and talk about the research to support those benefits.  For now to keep you engaged, below are 8 of the potential benefits that can accompany a carnivore diet and why many people are turning to this dietary lifestyle:

8 best times to do carnivore.jpg

Conclusion

You may be have a lot of questions about carnivore at this point. Don’t you need vegetables? Is carnivore safe? To give you the short answer, no you do not need vegetables and yes carnivore is safe! But don’t just take my word for it, check out part 2 of this series on carnivore talking about whether or not we need vegetables to be healthy. To be notified when the rest of this series is posted, sign up for my newsletter below!

References

  1. Pelley, J. W. (2011). Elsevier's Integrated Review Biochemistry: With STUDENT CONSULT Online Access. Elsevier Health Sciences.Pages 109-117

  2. Nuttall, F. Q., & Gannon, M. C. (2013). Dietary protein and the blood glucose concentration. Diabetes, 62(5), 1371-1372.

  3. Harkness, J. (1962). Prevalence of glycosuria and diabetes mellitus. British medical journal, 1(5291), 1503.

  4. Conn, J. W., & Newburgh, L. H. (1936). The glycemic response to isoglucogenic quantities of protein and carbohydrate. The Journal of clinical investigation, 15(6), 665-671.

  5. Gannon, M. C., Nuttall, J. A., Damberg, G., Gupta, V., & Nuttall, F. Q. (2001). Effect of protein ingestion on the glucose appearance rate in people with type 2 diabetes. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 86(3), 1040-1047.

  6. Jahoor, F. A. R. O. O. K., Peters, E. J., & Wolfe, R. R. (1990). The relationship between gluconeogenic substrate supply and glucose production in humans. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology And Metabolism, 258(2), E288-E296.

Christopher Irvin