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Examination of the Carnivore Diet, aka the “Jordan Peterson Diet”, and whether an all-meat food philosophy is a valid traditional method of eating that can genuinely maintain health over the long term.
The world of food and nutrition has no lack of charismatic and entertaining personalities. At times, I’ve wondered if this is a relatively new thing born out of the Industrial Revolution’s global disruption of food production.
At least for the last couple hundred years, extreme diets coupled with extreme personalities have typically gone together.
The food philosophy that qualifies on both fronts is the carnivore diet.
Carnivore Diet Basics
The first time I read about an all-meat diet, it was because of an enigmatic man named Vilhjalmur Stefansson. A Harvard professor, he left his post to become an anthropological researcher on a polar expedition.
After this adventure in the Arctic, he began to champion an all-meat diet. He even went so far as to spend an entire year with another researcher to study the effects of an all-meat diet on the human body. (1)
One proponent of the modern version of the carnivore diet is Mike Fishbein. Given that Stefansson’s experience of the diet started with Eskimos and fish, I find this a bit of historical humor.
Here’s how Mr. Fishbein describes a meat-only diet.
The carnivore diet – also known as the all meat diet or the carnivorous diet – entails eating almost nothing but meat for every meal, every day. That means a lot of protein, a lot of fat, and almost zero carbs… The carnivore diet is based on the theory that our ancestors ate mostly meat because it wasn’t energy efficient to gather a lot of fruit or vegetables. As a result, our bodies have evolved to run optimally on a meat-centric diet. So the theory goes. (2)
Is this ultra-high protein, high fat, zero carb diet which even includes raw meat ever a good idea? Or is this way of eating something only a meathead would consider?
Is An All-Meat Diet Healthy?
The most well-known proponent of a carnivorous diet is Dr. Shawn Baker. He has appeared on shows such as Joe Rogan and has a book covering his approach to a diet of mostly meat.
Unlike Paleo or other diets, there really isn’t much variety to debate about the carnivore diet. Nor are there too many subtleties.
You eat animal foods like meat and eggs, period! Some versions also include dairy since this is an animal food as well.
Other proponents of the diet rightly point out that the world has yet to produce a civilization that followed a vegan diet from childhood through death for multiple generations.
This indisputable truth runs contrary to agenda-driven books such as The China Study and the documentary What The Health.
On the flip side, numerous examples exist throughout recorded history of healthy people from a variety of cultural, ethnic, and geographical backgrounds who lived for generations on mostly meat diets.
Anthropologically speaking, real-world examples of cultures eating all meat diets for long periods of time for multiple generations are much more instructive of the wisdom of such a practice than conventional scientific studies conducted over short periods of time in which one group of people eats a little more meat or a few extra servings of vegetables than another group of people. (3)
Carnivore Diet Menu Plan
An important aspect of a properly implemented carnivore diet is the need to embrace “nose-to-tail” cuisine in order to ensure optimal health. This is an extremely important and yet frequently overlooked point.
One reason eating lots of meat may be harmful today is because of the imbalanced way we consume animal products.
Modern people consume almost nothing but muscle meat, ignoring the skin, bones, and organs that provide vital nutrients and compounds and also balance out the protein and nutritional profile of muscle meat.
Over time, this leads to a systematic amino acid imbalance, which research has consistently linked to inflammation, lower life span, and other problems.
So a true carnivore diet isn’t just steak and eggs. It also vitally includes liver, bone broth, braunschweiger, and bone marrow among other non-muscle meat but still carnivorous options.
Carnivorous Diets. Historically Accurate?
As people familiar with the research of Weston A. Price know, when he set out on his work, he expected to find that the healthiest groups consumed the least animal products.
In fact, he was apparently disappointed that he failed to find a vegetarian culture that exhibited the same health and vitality as those that ate meat.
But unlike modern researchers, who tend to fudge things to fit their beliefs and expectations (or those of their corporate sponsors), Price soon realized that animal foods were crucial to human health writing about it in his book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.
Dr. Price came across two very healthy people groups that qualified as carnivorous cultures. The Eskimos ate almost exclusively meat and fat.
The African Maasai ate meat, milk, and blood with very few plant foods.
It is worth noting that the Maasai were dominated by the stronger, better physically proportioned Dinkas, who ate a more balanced diet of about 50% animal foods and 50% plant foods.
Does a Carnivore Diet Work for Everyone?
One point of criticism of the carnivore diet is the selective sampling of people groups used to justify it as an ideal diet for the rest of humanity.
Many of the all-meat or mostly meat-eating ancestral cultures often adopted (and thus adapted) to such a diet because of extreme environmental conditions – not because of choice!
The groups cited are either arctic, sub-arctic, or desert-dwelling tribal-type groups. Under these conditions, other foods are scarce with unpredictable availability.
When you look all across the world and its history, you find that all sorts of people groups enjoyed excellent health on mixed diets.
Some had more access to animal products than others, some with less.
But, there are NO healthy people groups that don’t consume at least some animal foods.
The big benefit of an extreme diet like the carnivore is that it smashes to bits the dogma about saturated fat and cholesterol causing heart disease, that while completely discredited, still haunts modern American nutritional advice.
Certainly, the decent bloodwork of those on a good quality carnivore diet is convincing enough to the average person of the folly of a lowfat diet.
In both the “surf” eating Arctic groups and the “turf” eating African tribes, heart disease and similar ailments were unknown until the introduction of modern foods. (4)
Carnivore vs Low Carb and Keto
The carnivore diet does overlap…but not much…with a ketogenic, paleo, or low-carb diet.
Indeed, a carnivore diet makes the carb restrictions of even the keto diet look rather mild!
While keto and similar diets are high in protein and fat with some carbs, the carnivore diet consists almost exclusively of protein and fat.
Keto now has a fair and growing body of research behind it. On the other hand, the carnivore diet, save the earlier work involving Steffanson, hasn’t been studied much.
Thus, not much research exists on how to set up ratios of fat to protein, etc. to give you guidance. (5)
The only exception to the carb intake is if you consume fresh dairy. Fresh and some fermented dairy products can contain a fair amount of carbs (unless the whey is removed a la Greek yogurt). Some carnivores embrace them while others don’t.
As I mentioned earlier, for those on this diet, it is vital to embrace a nose-to-tail approach to eating.
Balancing muscle meat with the rest of the animal and animal products – including eggs and milk is crucial.
If this is not done, the carnivore diet will be an unhealthy rather than healing experience.
Does Eating Only Meat Resolve Illness?
One of the most fascinating parts of this diet is talking to people who are on it. I have no less than half a dozen friends who consume a nearly all meat or animal product diet.
Often, much of it is raw!
While on this diet, a few were able to overcome chronic, quite severe health conditions such as Lyme disease and other autoimmune issues.
For example, Dr. Jordan Peterson claims that the Carnivore Diet (aka “The Jordan Peterson Diet”) healed him as well as his chronically ill, bipolar daughter. (6)
Achieving these almost unbelievable results had eluded them on any other diet or doctor-prescribed protocol.
Moreover, some have sustained this diet for over a decade or more with continued good results. No problems, deficiencies, or other issues emerge when following a nose-to-tail carnivore diet.
My experience within my circle of friends isn’t uncommon.
As one researcher put it, “I’m not sure that the carnivore diet is optimal for everyone, but in light of all the n = 1s, it’s hard to say it doesn’t provide amazing results for a lot of people.” (7)
As with so many things health and diet-related, what works for some doesn’t work for others. If the carnivore diet works for you, it can be a powerful way to protect and improve your health.
Dangers and Contraindications
If you go carnivore, I can’t caution enough that you need to eat good quality meat. Industrial meat is loaded with all sorts of problematic leftovers and residues.
The source of these toxins is primarily low-quality animal feeds laced with antibiotics, pesticides, GMOs, antibiotics, and other drugs.
Pasture-raised, grassfed (for ruminants), naturally or organically fed animals are absolutely a must on a meat-heavy diet.
Depending on the amount and type of animal products you consume, this will definitely increase your food cost.
If you are wondering how to cook these types of meats, numerous recipes for grassfed meat and pastured poultry dishes are found on this blog!
Another issue about overdoing it on animal foods according to Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride MD is that the body is not regularly “cleaned” as would happen when at least a portion of the diet includes plants. (8)
In other words, while animal foods are far more nutrient-dense per calorie than any plant foods and thus encourage faster healing, the downside is that toxic buildup in the tissues can occur when plants are excluded completely from the diet for a lengthy period of time.
Going Carnivore. Simple but Expensive
If you have a large family, going carnivore can quickly tally up. In any food budget, good quality meats are definitely some of the most expensive line items.
Be prepared for an easy doubling of your food bill on a monthly basis unless you have the ability to source and process some of the meat yourself.
Buying in bulk (i.e., buying a cow including bones and organs) will greatly reduce the cost as well.
At the same time, carnivorous eating certainly simplifies cooking. Many doing the carnivore diet report not just improved health, but a whole lot less time spent in the kitchen.
The reason is that almost all the foods that take a great deal of careful, traditional preparation such as grains and legumes or lots of cutting and processing are removed from the diet.
(1) Prolonged Meat Diets
(2) The Carnivore Diet. How to Survive the First Month
(3-4) The History of All Meat Diets
(5) The Carnivore Diet: Is Eating ONLY Meat Healthy, or Totally [email protected]#$ing Crazy?
(6) The Jordan Peterson Diet
(7) Dr. Shawn Baker’s Carnivore Diet: Pros, Cons & Nutritional Analysis
(8) Gut and Psychology Syndrome
Thanks for this informative article Sarah. I met someone recently who done their research and had been eating all meat for 15 days, and was liking it, so far. This diet is not for me, yet I do like to learn about the various ‘whys’ of different eating plans and health regimes.
“who had done their research”
Liliana Verd Rodriguez
How did the dinkas find 50% plants if they lived where the Masai lived. After all the masai ate that bc there was nothing else. And if you say dominated do you mean in battle or in longevity?
Here is more on that … Dr. Weston A. Price wrote about it in his book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.
During Dr. Price’s travels in Africa, he examined several five cattle keeping groups: The Maasai of Tanganyika, the Muhima of Uganda, the Chewya of Kenya, the Watusi of Ruanda, and the Neurs tribes on the western side of the Nile near the country of Sudan.
These groups were largely carnivores with their diet consisting primarily of blood, meat and milk. Fish was also eaten by some. The liver was highly priced and was consumed both raw and cooked.
Grains, fruits, and vegetables were consumed in small amounts.
These largely carnivorous tribes were very tall with even the women averaging over 6 feet in height in some tribes. All these tribes had marvelous physiques and perfectly straight, uncrowded teeth. Six tribes had no dental decay whatsoever.
On the other extreme, Dr. Price also examined largely vegetarian tribes such as the Bantu. This agricultural group’s diet consisted primarily of sweet potatoes, corn, beans, bananas, millet and sorghum. A few cattle or goats were kept for meat and milk and frogs, insects, and other small animals were also consumed.
These tribes were dominated by their carnivorous neighbors and they did suffer from low levels of dental decay – about 5-6% of all teeth.
The final African group Dr. Price researched were the Dinkas. The Dinkas followed a truly mixed diet of whole foods without the tendency toward the extremes of the carnivorous Maasai or the agricultural Bantu.
While not as tall as the primarily carnivorous, cattle herding groups, they were physically better proportioned and had greater strength.
The Dinka diet primarily consisted of nutrient dense, properly prepared whole grains and fish.
Dr. Price’s close study of these African groups convinced him that the best Traditional Diet – one that encourages optimal physical development in children – consisted of a balance of properly prepared whole grains along with animal foods (especially fish), and not tending toward extremes in either direction.
This is surely one of the most important lessons from Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. Avoiding of extremes particularly when it comes to the diet of growing children, is the best and most wise approach when their optimal development is the goal.
Talk to Kelly Brogan who did or is still doing a carnivore diet for 13 years.
Wow, great article John & thanks for sharing it with us Sarah!!
I’m thinking that the extreme weather conditions of the Massaii and the Inuit peoples, coupled with the fact that they were so much more physically active than most modern (fad?) dieters are… An all meat diet may have been what they needed and maybe too much for more sedentary dieters. I guess time will tell.
Kind regards, Geri
These extreme diets must be accompanied by a desire to eat that way, and a thorough enjoyment of the foods. Indeed, all food regimens must be satisfying. You can’t eat a certain way merely because you think – or someone has convinced you – that it’s “healthful”. It will all come roaring back at you if you eat out of some abstract or science-based theory rather than real enjoyment + a feeling that it’s right for you (at least for a certain period of your life). Elimination of symptoms is not a good enough definition of health. There is a man who ate nothing but potatoes and lost weight and felt good. But it was not easy for him. How much do you want to bet that down the road, he’ll go to the opposite extreme. Your body doesn’t lie to you.
There’s too much preoccupation with finding that perfect way to eat. And about eating any meat at all – it must be done with moral awareness. Sweep that under the rug and you will never truly get well. JMO.
Hi Sonia, great reply! I can’t fathom living a life of repetative meat meals (or a life eating the same of anything at every meal)– even with any clear evidence of it being ‘healthful’. There is already too much evidence of people living, long, healthy, happy lives in blue zones, on varied diets. I believe that food can be both nurishing and a of great enjoyment- and variety is a part of that. Just the thought of having one food at every meal would be enough to make me miserable!
Vitamin C is also missing on this diet and one of my favorite parts of Nutrition and Physical Degeneration was when Dr. Price asked the native Alaskans how they avoided scurvy and the cheif only told him because he “was telling them to avoid the white mans food” that it was the adrenal glands of the moose that helped! They also had berries during the months they were available.
I think because of vitamin C being an issue on this diet a lot of animal based diets are starting to include fruit.
I have worked as a herbalist for almost 15 years and I have seen people on the carnivore diet develop serious digestive issues when they stay on it too long – lack of fiber is likely contributing.
Seasonal eating is a great way to get some of the befits of more extreme diets without getting thrown too out of balance. Keto / animal based diets towards the end of winter and early spring seems to be helpful.
Sarah I appreciated your comment above on how men thrive more on this diet. Fun fact – men make more pepsin the digestive enzyme that breaks down proteins then women do. It is likely because men were the hunters and would often consume large amounts of meat before bringing the rest back while women would gather more grains, seeds, fruits etc.
Wow, this is actually a great diet but it would be better if you add amino acid supplement.
Sarah have you heard about glycation, a toxic process that happens when veggies are cooked at length with meats? As in for a bone broth that has veggies for added flavor? What is glycation? And why aren’t more people talking about it? Thanks!
This is interesting, but I’ve become very wary of “theories.” FWIW, vegan writers/researchers claim benefits identical to those cited above. From Paleo to Vegan, it’s all theory, no matter how good short-term results appear. I am more inclined to ‘believe in’ the diets reported by populations living in the “Blue Zones.” Heavy on plant foods, lighter on animal foods, moderate fat, emphasizing whole and unprocessed foods. Even modern hunters with their advanced weaponry don’t always have a successful hunt. Native Americans grew the “Three Sisters” to augment their diet and provide nourishment when hunting was unsuccessful. To my knowledge, there are no traditional, primitive cultures that are either exclusively carnivore or vegan. These cultures reportedly eat an enormous variety of different foods and spend less time “gathering” than hunting. I’m more comfortable trusting this kind of “evidence.” And BTW, in Nourishing Traditions, Weston Price is quoted as saying that his observations led him to believe the healthiest diet was a plant-forward one, with small amounts of animal foods added. Just my .02; to each, his/her own.
Don’t we have to get some minerals and vitamins from plant sources – or do we get that in the liver and other meat organs? Are there any current ‘long-time’ carnivores still healthy? It is so fascinating that there are very healthy people eating this way.
Yes, it is very fascinating. I should add that men seem to do better on a more meat heavy diet than women. Women really do need more carbs particularly if they are breastfeeding. Properly prepared carbs such as a bowl of overnight oats really stimulates lactation and was used by the traditional Scots for this purpose.
I don’t know of any long time carnivores personally that have eaten this way for many years, however, if you note Dr. Price’s research into the Maasai and Eskimo cultures, both men and women ate this way their whole lives and were extremely healthy. That said, I do believe genetics plays a big role here. If you are of Northern European ancestry, for example, and your ancestors ate far less meat than the Eskimo or Maasai cultures, then it would be wise to do so yourself unless you have a condition that needs resolution whereby a carnivorous diet would prove helpful.