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Ultimate Guide to the Carnivore Diet

Evidence Based

It has been a crazy year for the carnivore diet! From Joe Rogan eating nothing but meat for 30 days to Shawn Baker MD Instagramming his daily serve (or three) of rib eye, everyone is talking about it! There are even health ‘experts’ on Twitter running around calling themselves Carnivore Aurelius. (Oh poor Emperor Marcus must be so thrilled). So you’re probably wondering…what the heck is the carnivore diet and how healthy can it be? Let’s find out!

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What is it? Yes & No Foods Different Versions Typical Meals Nutrition Is It Easy To Do? Why Try It? Cautions Our Summary & Verdict
Researched & Written by
Bailey Franzen MS, RDN
Bailey Franzen MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
Carolyn Quijano MS, RDN
Carolyn Quijano MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

Edited by Digest Life team

Last Updated: 7 April 2021

What is the Carnivore diet?

When a new diet comes on the scene to hack away food groups, usually plant foods are spared in the process.

With the carnivore diet, that’s not the case.  In fact, you can kinda think of the diet almost like a vegan diet in reverse.

Instead of only eating plant foods, carnivore dieters only eat animal-based foods.  This includes red meats, organ meats, poultry, fish, and sometimes eggs and dairy. All plant foods are excluded.

So if you’re trying to picture the diet…think Kramer went he went Kenny Rogers chicken-mad in Seinfeld!

The diet is a recent offshoot of the more popular and better-studied ketogenic diet. 1

Which is not surprising, since carnivore diets are likely to cause ketosis due to the very low intake of carbohydrates inherent to this way of eating. Ketosis is how the body produces energy during starvation or extreme carbohydrate restriction. 2

What Are The Health Benefits Of The Carnivore Diet?

Two major proponents of the diet are psychiatrist Paul Saladino, MD, and orthopedic surgeon, Shawn Baker, MD. Both are authors who have written books in support of the carnivore diet.

Saladino and Baker make the case in their books that an animal-based way of eating is rooted in human evolution. 3,4

This stance may sound familiar. You likely know that an evolutionary diet hypothesis formed the cornerstone of the paleo diet. However, carnivore diet advocates take this evolutionary stance a step further by telling us that plants have never been the human-preferred source of nutrition.

They suggest that animal foods are the most ‘biologically optimized’ foods for humans. Baker and Saladino warn in their books about plants having several toxic compounds, which they suggest, are best if avoided. 3,4

For this reason, carnivore diet advocates believe that plant elimination is a crucial piece of the diet puzzle, particularly for immune system related benefits. 2

Here at Digest Life, we put quality research above anecdotal evidence – no matter how mesmerizing the stories may be.
To date, quality studies showing benefits from a carnivore diet in humans do not exist—all promises of the diet stem from case reports and anecdotes.

Even still, the diet is promoted for an endless list of problems ranging from cocaine dependence to bipolar disorder. 5

More broadly, people try the diet to treat cognitive disorders, migraines, skin problems, digestive issues, or autoimmune diseases, to name a few.5 We’ve observed on social media and internet forums that many people use the diet for weight loss, too, with varying degrees of results.

Source: Screenshot of results on April 4, 2021.

Quick Summary

  • The carnivore diet is a diet that only consists of animal-based foods.  Meaning all plant foods are excluded.
  • Those in the carnivore diet scene feel that the diet is rooted in our evolutionary way of eating.  As such, the absence of plants is considered a critical part of the diet by its supporters.
  • Suggested benefits from the diet are wide-ranging and include weight loss, improvements in autoimmune disorders, digestive disorders, cognitive disorders,skin problems, and migraines.

What foods can you eat on the carnivore diet?

Following a strict carnivore diet requires only eating foods that come from the animal kingdom. This means that no fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, herbs, spices, etc. are technically supposed to be eaten on the diet.

Here are 15 foods most often given the green light…

Beef
Lamb
Goat
Elk
Deer
Poultry
Pork
Fish
Shrimp
Shellfish
Organ meats
Eggs
Dairy
Lard
Fish roe
Download carnivore diet food list (PDF)

Ruminant sources of fatty meats – especially beef – form the bulk of the diet, while non-ruminant meats are eaten to a lesser degree (chicken, fish, etc.).

Organ meats and other unconventional cuts of meat come highly recommended. Paul Saladino, MD especially recommends that animals be eaten from “nose to tail”. 3

As far as eggs and dairy are concerned, these foods can be eaten if tolerated, though some carnivore purists believe the diet should mostly be meat-based.

When dairy is part of the diet, it’s usually eaten as butter, ghee, hard cheeses, and heavy whipping cream.

Pictured: Red meat & charcoal is a carnivore diet staple combination.

What foods are most popular on the carnviore diet?

We’ve observed that carnivore dieters can approach the diet differently from one person to the next.

With formal studies and diet recalls not available, we opted to conduct a poll in a carnivore diet social media group to see how people are applying the diet.

What real-life carnivore dieters are eating (from our poll)

  • All meats, fish, eggs, dairy & organs - 44.7%
  • All meats, fish, eggs & dairy - 40.6%
  • All meats & fish - 14.0%
  • Red meats only - 0.7%

As you can see from the chart above we had 143 respondents to our poll, and the two most common ways of going about the carnivore diet were as follows:

  • 64 people said their diet consists of red meats, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, and organ meats
  • 58 people said their diet consists of red meats, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, but no organ meats
  • Less common variations of the diet from the poll included eliminating dairy, or eliminating both dairy and eggs.
  • One person reported eating no other foods except for red meats.

While the diet obviously is built mostly around meat, some carnivore dieters follow more loose interpretations of the diet.

4 different versions of the carnivore diet

1) Strict 2) Semi-Strict3) General 4) Meat-based diet
BeefBeef & other meatsBeef & other meatsBeef & other meats
SaltSalt & other spicesSalt, spices, mayo, mustardSalt, spices, low-sugar sauces
OrgansOptional: organsOptional: organsOptional: organs
EggsEggs & dairy (cheese, full-fat milk etc)Eggs & dairy (cheese, full-fat milk etc)
Some fruits+ vegetables as tolerated
WaterWaterWaterWater
Optional: black coffeeOptional: coffeeOptional: coffee

What about other foods and drinks on carnivore diet?

We found that carnivore dieters were split on their opinions about processed meats, with most giving bacon the green light. In contrast, others were less enthusiastic about bologna.

Salt is also used liberally. Members of carnivore diet forums recommend its use frequently for those complaining of a wide range of symptoms from the diet.

Water is the main beverage for carnivore dieters. Still, an exception seems to be made for coffee by many people on the diet.

In some cases, electrolytes are also supplemented. One trend we saw on social media was to drink something called “Snake Juice”. This is the name given to an electrolyte cocktail that carnivore dieters drink. Snake juice is made with water, potassium chloride, salt, baking soda, and magnesium sulfate.

Quick Summary

  • Carnivore dieters only eat foods from the animal kingdom.
  • Roughly 50% of the carnivore dieters we polled eat organ meats, whereas the other 50% do not.  Meanwhile, most people polled ate several types of meat and included dairy and eggs.
  • The carnivore diet appears to be practiced on a spectrum from strict carnivore to a less rigid, predominantly meat-based diet.
  • While water is the beverage of choice on the diet, coffee also seems to be popular.
  • Salt is used liberally and other electrolytes are sometimes supplemented.

What typical meals do you eat on a carnivore diet?

A typical day as a carnivore will involve a lot of meat!  Of course, the type and variety are up to you.

While dairy makes a frequent appearance in online forums, we excluded this from our example to stay in line with a “semi-strict” version of the diet.

Your menu may look different depending on:

  1. Which animal-based foods you include
  2. Your cooking skills
  3. And the amount of time and energy you have to prepare meals.

Unsurprisingly, some carnivore dieters keep it simple by going for common carnivore-approved foods such as eggs, steak, or chicken.

While other’s go full hunter-mode with wild game and exotic meats.

Some even mix it up a bit with “treats” like carnivore pizza. But no tomato sauce here — just a ground beef “crust,” cheese, and meaty toppings.

We opted to include some organ and high-fat meats in our meal plan. These are often recommended by carnivore diet supporters.

Here is a typical carnivore diet menu for breakfast, lunch & dinner

BreakfastLunchDinner
3 eggs, raw6 oz grass-fed steak, cooked with 1 Tbsp Ghee6 oz wild sockeye salmon, baked
2 slices bacon6 oz shrimp4 oz liver
SaltSalt4 oz pork belly
Salt

What nutrition is in these meals?

If you ate these meals in a day, here’s a quick look at what sort of nutrition your body would be taking in:

  • Calories – 2020
  • Fat – 142 g
  • Protein – 167 g
  • Carbs – 9 g *

*Small amounts of dietary carbohydrates come from sources such as the shrimp and beef liver. Nutrition information was compiled using ESHA food processor software.

Source of Total Calories

  • Protein - 36.6%
  • Carbohydrates - 1.9%
  • Fat - 61.6%

Source of Calories from Fat

  • Saturated Fat - 25.1%
  • Mon Fat - 24.3%
  • Poly Fat - 7.3%
  • Trans Fatty Acid - 0.4%
  • Other - 4.5%

How easy is it to do the carnivore diet?

The carnivore diet is probably one of the more tough diets to follow. It requires the elimination of virtually all foods that are not meat.

Plus, the side effects of this diet alone (hello ‘disaster pants’!) may be enough to turn away the average person.

Don’t believe us?

Here’s Joe Rogan – the Elk King and lover of all things meat – talking about not  being able to trust his “butt-hole” on the carnivore diet…

And here are some of the comments we came across in the Carnivore Diet forums on Reddit…

Carnivore diet diarrhea is no joke!

Regardless, people trying this diet can be desperate to find relief from health problems and may be willing to do or try anything.

From a budget standpoint, this diet will cost you. Looking at prices from online meat vendors suggests you’ll be shelling out $15-$20/day for food. Of course, much of this depends on the quality and types of meat you decide to buy, too.

Online forums suggest cutting down food costs by purchasing high-fat meats that are generally cheaper. They recommend getting >50% of your calories from animal fat to save money and promote ketosis. Organ meats–which are essential to getting adequate nutrients on this diet– are also more budget-friendly.

Obviously, the menu alone could make the diet hard to follow. Organ meats and really high-fat meat products are not something the average American is used to eating. Having the willpower to cut out all vegetables, fruits, grains, and beans is a massive hurdle for this diet.

The taste may also be challenging if only salt is used as a seasoning.

Side effects of the carnivore diet are probably the biggest obstacle you’ll face

If you’ve experimented with low carb or keto-type diets before, the carnivore diet may be a more comfortable transition.

Even still, you may experience side effects when completely eliminating plant foods. Some side effects include diarrhea or constipation, brain fog, headaches, chills, sore throat, dizziness, nausea, low energy, rapid heart rate, insomnia, and night sweats, to name a few.

This is not the type of diet to try for a few days or even a couple weeks if you are trying to ‘reap the benefits’ because it’ll take that long to get past the side effects.

And remember, we’re still waiting on science to verify those benefits.

Quick Summary

  • The carnivore diet may be challenging due to limited food variety, high cost, taste, and side effects.
  • Some side effects include diarrhea, constipation, brain fog, headaches, chills, sore throat, dizziness, nausea, low energy, rapid heart rate, insomnia, and night sweats.

Why do people try the carnivore diet?

In his book, The Carnivore Diet, Shawn Baker lists over 70 health problems, which he claims can be helped by a carnivore diet. 5

The list of conditions that anecdotally respond to a carnivore diet according to Baker are extensive.

70 carnivore diet benefits per Shawn Baker

ADHD, bipolar disorder, dental caries, alcohol dependence, boils, depression, amenorrhea, bulimia, dermatofibroma, anemia, candidiasis, diabetes mellitus, angina, carpal tunnel syndrome, diverticulitis, ankylosing spondylitis, cholelithiasis, diverticulosis, anxiety, chronic bronchitis, Dupuytren’s contracture, arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, eczema, asthma, COPD, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, Athlete’s foot, Cocaine dependence, Epicondylitis, Atopic dermatitis, Colitis, Epilepsy, Autism, Crohn’s disease, Erectile dysfunction, Fatty liver, Irritable bowel syndrome, Rosacea, Fibromyalgia, Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, sciatica, floaters, keloids, scleroderma, Gerd, lipoma, Synovitis, Gingivitis, Lyme disease, systemic lupus erythematosus, gout, Meniere’s disease, tinnitus, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, narcolepsy, trichotillomania, headache/migraine, kidney stones, trigger finger, hemorrhoids, neuropathy, ulcerative colitis, hidradenitis suppurativa, Parkinson’s disease, hypertension, PCOS, hypertriglyceridemia, psoriasis/psoriatic arthritis, hypothyroidism, quadriceps tendonitis, insulin resistance, rheumatoid arthritis. 5

While these purported carnivore diet results may sound impressive, there’s simply no quality evidence to support these claims. All promises of a health benefit from the carnivore diet are anecdotal and still need clinical trials.

That being said, we informally polled carnivore dieters in a social media forum to get an idea of why they chose to follow the diet.

9 popular reasons people try the carnivore diet

  • Carnivore dieters polled (out of 157)

As you can see from the above chart, out of the 157 carnviore dieters who responded to our survey…

  • 72 people started the diet to lose weight
  • 27 people started the diet due to an autoimmune condition
  • 24 people started the diet looking for general health benefits
  • 15 people started the diet for cognitive benefits
  • 5 people started the diet for relief from migraines
  • 5 people started the diet due to IBS
  • 4 people started the diet because of food allergies
  • 3 people started the diet for mental health
  • 2 people started the diet for joint pain

What we learned from this poll of carnivores

We were surprised to see that most responses (>45%) were from those looking to lose weight.

We also found it interesting that several people started the diet looking for general health benefits. Initially, we assumed people mostly started this diet while trying to manage a chronic health condition.

Here at Digest Life we err on the side of recommending strategies with more robust evidence.

Also, it’s important to note that several other diet strategies have shown clinical evidence of benefits for general health or weight loss.  The keto diet being a good example of this.

By comparison, such evidence is simply not available for the carnivore diet at this time.

Quick Summary

  • There is currently no research to back claims of health benefits from a carnivore diet.  All health benefit claims are simply anecdotal.
  • People follow the diet for several reasons – many are looking to improve autoimmune conditions, migraines, gut health challenges, weight loss, general health, and mental and cognitive wellness.

Why should you avoid the carnivore diet?

Many claims have been made about the carnivore diet being the “optimal diet for human health.”

Full disclosure — with no evidence outside of case reports and anecdotes– we don’t feel there’s proof to back this claim.

However, without getting too far into nutrition theory, we think it’s appropriate to consider if this diet can meet our bare minimum nutrition needs.

Let’s talk all things carnivore diet science related!

The most obvious point of concern is vitamin C.

Because vitamin C comes mostly from fresh fruits and vegetables, it’s no surprise that this nutrient will be in short supply on a carnivore diet.

While carnivore diet proponents argue that an overt vitamin C deficiency (AKA scurvy) doesn’t happen on the diet, anecdotal evidence points towards that not always being the case.

Recently, musician, James Blunt, stepped forward claiming to have developed scurvy after following an all-meat diet to ‘spite vegan women.’ 6

 

(Sorry James, but you are not!)

We also searched for the word “scurvy” on a social media forum and found others who reported having developed this deficiency from the diet.

So while carnivore diet proponents have theories as to why they may evade scurvy, we lean in favor of trusting the science.

We believe that scurvy is a clinically validated deficiency that can and does happen when insufficient amounts of vitamin C are eaten. Eating a meat-based diet devoid of good vitamin C sources most certainly would place someone at greater risk.

We also feel that avoiding scurvy is far too low of a bar to claim vitamin C adequacy. Vitamin C is essential for collagen production, immune health, antioxidant functions, metabolism of proteins, and the creation of certain neurotransmitters.7

To cover all of these functions, the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for men aged 19+ is 90 mg, while for women, it’s 75 mg.7  The amount needed to prevent scurvy is estimated to be only 10 mg or more per day.7

To put this in perspective, our sample day of meals provided a pathetic 2.49 mg of vitamin C for the entire day. Even this was probably an overestimation.

Raw pork belly instead of cooked was the only available option for our analysis. The uncooked pork belly contributed a small portion of the daily vitamin C total. This is relevant because vitamin C is heat-sensitive and diminishes during cooking.7

With vitamin C being crucial for so many functions, we should really pitch this question back to the carnivore diet proponent:

What clinical evidence in humans points towards it being acceptable to aim for minimal rather than optimal vitamin C intakes?

Notably, people on this diet may not even be achieving bare-minimum intakes from what we can tell.

Apart from vitamin C, what else potentially makes the carnivore diet dangerous?

Other points of concern include calcium, particularly for those who aren’t eating dairy, or softened bones from things like canned salmon. When we analyzed our dairy-free day of meals, it provided a measly 234 mg of calcium.

This isn’t much, considering the RDA for most adults ranges from 1,000-1,300 mg per day depending on age, gender, or pregnancy and lactation status.8 Anyone following a carnivore diet will want to be extra careful to take in adequate calcium to prevent complications over the long term, such as osteoporosis.8

Beyond vitamin C and calcium, the carnivore dieter may still not be out of the woods. As we lurked through forums, we saw mention of a thiamine deficiency and other mysterious skin and tongue complaints.

Reports of these physical symptoms sent off alarm bells for B-vitamin deficiencies in our dietitian-minds.

Those who aren’t eating liver routinely should be the most concerned. Liver is one of the best sources for many hard-to-get nutrients on this diet.1

We were concerned to find so many carnivore dieters bypassing this critical source of nutrition, and we believe most are at risk for multiple nutrient deficiencies.

Quick Summary

  • The carnivore diet is lacking in vitamin C, which is a problem since Vitamin C is essential for collagen production, immune health, antioxidant functions, metabolism of proteins, and the creation of certain neurotransmitters.
  • Calcium can also be a problem area when dairy or softened bones are avoided on the carnivore diet.
  • Eating liver is likely critical on this diet to ensure nutritional adequacy.
The Digest Life

Summary & verdict

The carnivore diet is 100% animal based

  1. Those in the carnivore diet scene feel that the diet is rooted in our evolutionary way of eating and the absence of plants is considered a critical part of the diet.
  2. Most carnivore dieters polled eat several types of meat and include dairy and eggs.
  3. Importantly, eating liver is likely critical on this diet to ensure nutritional adequacy. But only roughly half of the carnivore dieters polled eat organ meats.
  4. Salt is used liberally, and electrolytes are sometimes supplemented.
  5. Water is the beverage of choice on the diet, though coffee also seems to be consumed often.

We sympathize with people that want to try it

  1. Suggested benefits from the diet are wide-ranging and include weight loss, improvements in autoimmune disorders, digestive disorders, cognitive disorders, skin problems, and migraines.
  2. While we find claims of benefits from this way of eating intriguing, we want more research both from clinical trials and studies that look into the underlying mechanisms of the diet. Especially since it’s hard to distinguish supposed benefits from a meat-only diet versus those coming from the state of ketosis induced by the diet.
  3. Most importantly, you should keep in mind that there is currently no research to back the above health claims – i.e. they are all anecdotal.

But from all our research, the carnivore diet is a misguided approach

  1. For starters, the carnivore diet is tough!  You not only face limited food variety, but it is also expensive, easy to get sick off, and comes with many potential side effects.
  2. Some potential side effects include diarrhea, constipation, brain fog, headache, chills, sore throat, dizziness, nausea, low energy, rapid heart rate, insomnia, and night sweats.
  3. Importantly to us, the carnivore diet is lacking in vitamin C, which is essential for collagen production, immune health, antioxidant functions, metabolism of proteins, and the creation of certain neurotransmitters.
  4. Plus, calcium can also be a problem area when dairy or softened bones are avoided on the diet.

 

We suggest that no drastic lifestyle changes, such as the carnivore diet, be made without medical oversight.

References

  1. O’Hearn, Amber, Can a carnivore diet provide all essential nutrients?, Current Opinion in Endocrinology & Diabetes and Obesity: pages 312-316, October 2020 – Volume 27 – Issue 5 (link)
  2. Pete J. Cox, Tom Kirk, Tom Ashmore, Kristof Willerton, Rhys Evans, Alan Smith, Andrew J. Murray, Brianna Stubbs, James West, Stewart W. McLure, M. Todd King, Michael S. Dodd, Cameron Holloway, Stefan Neubauer, Scott Drawer, Richard L. Veech, Julian L. Griffin, Kieran Clarke, Nutritional Ketosis Alters Fuel Preference and Thereby Endurance Performance in Athletes, Cell Metabolism, Pages 256-268, Volume 24, Issue 2, 2016 (link)
  3. Saladino, P. and Sisson, M. The Carnivore Code. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2020
  4. Baker, S. The Carnivore Diet. Victory Belt Publishing Inc.; 2019
  5. Baker, S. Chapter 7: Let Food be Thy Medicine and Other Heresy. The Carnivore Diet. Victory Belt Publishing Inc.; 2019: pages 92-93.
  6. New York Post. 2020. James Blunt Got Scurvy After Going On An All-Meat Diet To Spite Vegan Women. [online]
  7. Ods.od.nih.gov. 2020. Office Of Dietary Supplements – Vitamin C. [online] Updated 27 February 2020; Accessed 17 November 2020.