Just the thought of eating steak, eggs and butter for breakfast, lunch and dinner may make your stomach turn, but with 1 billion views on TikTok, the hashtag #carnivorediet highlights a new fad diet that’s akin to a souped-up version of keto. It’s called the carnivore diet, and it’s raising a lot of eyebrows.
Even if you love a barbecued hunk of meat, the list of ailments coming from followers of the carnivore diet could make you pause ― it reads like the jingle for Pepto Bismol (bloating, heartburn, indigestion, upset stomach, diarrhea!).
So what exactly is the carnivore diet? While there are more lenient and stricter versions, the originator of the diet, Shawn Baker, suggests enjoying a wide variety of proteins (from the more quotidien chicken wings and rib-eye to the less familiar organ meat like heart and liver) and enjoying in moderation any protein byproducts (eggs, bacon and low-lactose dairy, like butter). Verboten are veggies, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, sugar and alcohol. Baker, an orthopedic surgeon (whose license was revoked in 2017 and then reinstated in 2019), published “The Carnivore Diet,” and the idea took off after he appeared on the highly controversial and popular Joe Rogan podcast in 2017.
And what benefits does it claim to yield? From the benign to the bizarre and the outright dangerous, Baker’s website is full of “success stories” of folks who started the carnivore diet and were then healed of all manner of illnesses from Lyme disease to multiple sclerosis. It’s most popularly used as a weight loss diet, and the internet is full of before and after photos, YouTube transformation videos and Medium posts detailing the ups and downs of this restrictive eating plan.
But are any of these claims true? HuffPost asked health care professionals for their thoughts. A sneak peek at what’s ahead:
“There’s no benefit to this diet,” registered dietitian Sue-Ellen Anderson Haynes told HuffPost. On that cheery note, let’s dive in.
Issue 1: Toilet Business
Any parent knows that while their kid might not like veggies, the fiber that makes up those pesky greens is crucial to prevent constipation. Meat contains no fiber, so eating a diet that’s exclusively meat can cause “two weeks of rocket fuel coming out of your booty hole,” according to Rogan on his podcast. Mr. “just asking questions,” Rogan hosts one of the most downloaded podcasts on Spotify and courts controversy by interviewing science-denying guests. He, of course, tried the diet, and then detailed his extensive bathroom business in an Instagram post that you’d think would have made more people stop before they threw out their broccoli and corn.
Found in fruit, veggies, nuts and whole grains, fiber is the fuel your gut bacteria needs to thrive, producing short-chain fatty acids that protect and prevent everything from inflammation to colon cancer. It also helps you poop. According to McKenna Welshans, a registered sports dietitian at Lancaster General Penn Medicine, “Essentially, when you have fiber in your diet, it absorbs water, bulks your stool, and acts as a fuel source for beneficial bacteria in the gut.”
Bathroom misadventures aside, starting this diet can have serious health consequences, according to gastroenterologist Dr. Deepinder Goyal. “It causes a reduction in the fiber intake, which is essential in gut health. It can subsequently lead to alteration in the gut microbiota, constipation, increased risk of diverticulosis and diverticulitis,” he explained.
Issue 2: Scurvy
Illnesses we’ve all but eliminated in North America, like scurvy, could be a concern for any strict adherents to the carnivore diet. While you can pop multivitamins or other supplements, the body synthesizes nutrients better through food. Add to the list of concerns increased cholesterol levels from saturated fat, especially for those heavy on red meat, which raises the risk of stroke and heart attack. Baker’s website includes a section on potential side effects of the diet, including, troublingly, “heart palpitations.”
“It’s somewhat ironic that some of the potential long-term effects of this diet are the same symptoms that people are trying to avoid by starting it in the first place,” Welshans said. “It speaks to the idea that the strongest diet is the one with the most variety.”
Issue 3: Fueling Workouts
“Getting shredded” is the major selling point of the diet, with Rogan saying he “lost 12 pounds of just fat” on the plan. While building muscle requires protein, cutting out carbs could hurt your workout.
“While a low-carbohydrate diet is popular right now for the purpose of increasing our body’s ability to metabolize fat, carbs are naturally the preferred fuel source for the brain and working muscle,” Welshans said. “When we cut carbs out, insulin levels drop. As a result, our body gets rid of important electrolytes such as sodium, potassium and magnesium, causing headaches, dizziness and muscle cramps. During periods of physical exertion, performance may be compromised, recovery time will be longer, and injury risk higher.”
Issue 4: Hidden Hunger
Eating half a cow a week might sound expensive and potentially damaging to your health, but at least you’re full, right? While you might be eating enough calories or feeling physically full, it’s likely you’ll feel emotionally unsatisfied.
Welshans said: “Any diet that aims to cut out one whole food group (if not several, like the carnivore diet) is considered a restrictive diet. Restriction builds tension within us that quite often rebounds into episodes of ‘giving in’ and bingeing on the formerly forbidden food. In this place, we can feel like a failure and experience emotional havoc that creates a downward spiral in our physical and emotional health and self-confidence. Avoiding restriction in the first place and striving for that flexibility prevents tension that creates extremes in our eating habits.”
Issue 5: ‘But I Feel Better!’
Like a preacher at a revival church, folks selling this diet will tell you they can make Lazarus rise from the dead if you stick to beef and sea salt for a month. Jordan Peterson, an ex-psychology professor and inspiration for movie villains, went on the Rogan podcast to claim the many miracles of meat, including weight loss, clearing his eye floaters, eliminating snoring and relieving his long-standing anxiety.
“No randomized controlled studies support claims that the carnivore diet diminishes pain, treats depression or alleviates ailments,” registered dietitian Kim Rose Francis told HuffPost. “One possible reason for these self-reported claims could be the placebo effect. A 2018 National Institutes of Health journal states that patient “expectations were found to correlate with placebo highly. In other words, believing a treatment or diet will work ensures it works.”