Paleo, keto and Atkins are generally what come to mind when considering low-carb diets. But there's a new diet gaining popularity — one which takes low-carb principles to the most extreme level. The newest craze (judging from the thousands of posts on social media) is the all-meat diet.
Also known as the carnivore diet or the zero-carb diet, this way of eating prescribes red meat and water for every single meal — no fruits or vegetables allowed. Poultry, fish, eggs and dairy are acceptable, but consuming large amounts of red meat is highly encouraged.
Devotees of the strict plan promote eliminating plant-derived foods from your diet entirely. Despite its extreme nature, the all-meat diet is rapidly gaining popularity on social-media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. There are currently more than 30,000 posts under #carnivorediet on Instagram alone, with anecdotal stories claiming that ditching Meatless Mondays in favor of eating more meat can lower blood pressure, cure depression and help shed unwanted pounds.
Does the Carnivore Diet Work?
"The healthiest diets in the world all include plants," says science journalist Max Lugavere, author of New York Times best-seller "Genius Foods" and host of The Genius Life podcast. "Dietary fiber, which is completely lacking in meat, is associated with a healthier life. Furthermore, plants contain micronutrients and countless phytochemicals that we know are essential to good health."
But, Lugavere is also quick to add, the answer isn't completely black and white. In fact, it's far more complicated than we may initially think. "I believe the diet may be working by excluding a broad class of plant defense compounds, such as gluten and other lectins that have the potential to initiate molecular mimicry, basically activating the immune system, which then goes into overdrive and attacks the host's own tissues," he says.
"In a perfect world with robust immune systems, we would never need to exclude plants to feel optimal. On the other hand, we live in a time where there is widespread immune dysfunction, illustrated by the millions diagnosed with autoimmune conditions, allergies, sensitivities and other inflammatory conditions."
Whitney English, a registered dietician and nutritionist in Los Angeles, disagrees. "There is no evidence to show that this is the case," she says. "In fact, many studies show a benefit of plant-based diets in treating autoimmune disorders because of their ability to lower inflammation in the body."
Is the Carnivore Diet Safe?
In fact, English argues that eliminating plants and vegetables isn't just unhealthy, it can also be downright dangerous. "Diets rich in fruits and vegetables are consistently shown to reduce the risk of chronic disease. They contain powerful phytochemicals, which help fight oxidation and DNA damage and support immune functioning."
Nevertheless, some experts (including Lugavere) remain intrigued by the all-meat diet, even though there is no research supporting its claims.
"There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all diet," says Lugavere. "For someone with an atypical immune system, it may be the case that certain plant compounds provide too great a stress and ultimately confuse an already confused system."
In other words, it's not so much what people on the all-meat diet are eating as it is what potentially toxic foods they are not eating.
There are also plenty of anecdotal stories popping up online, with fans of the carnivore diet claiming that red meat has helped heal their chronic ailments. Take, for instance, 26-year-old Mikhaila Peterson, who suffered from severe depression, rheumatoid arthritis and bacterial infections since early childhood. Ever since the Don't Eat That blogger ditched fruit and vegetables in December 2017, she says she's never felt better. She's also off all of her previous medications.
"This is merely anecdotal," says English. "There are many stories about people curing cancer on whole-food, plant-based diets. Evidence-based practice requires that we make treatment decisions based on objective data and not subjective reports."
The Maasai Tribe: Carnivorous and Healthy
For more evidence of the positive effects of a high-meat diet, some supporters point to the Maasai tribe in Southern Kenya. The tribe's traditional diet of meat, blood and milk has baffled medical experts for years. Despite the fact that they consume 600 to 2,000 milligrams of cholesterol each day — twice the amount recommended by the American Heart Association — it is well-documented that the Maasai are among the healthiest people in the world.
According to researchers, a field study of 400 Maasai men conducted in 1964 showed low levels of serum cholesterol across the board, despite the population's high intake of fatty foods. Their average cholesterol levels are about 50 percent lower than the average American, and coronary disease among the Maasai is virtually undetectable.
Lugavere attributes this anomaly in part to the quality of meat they eat. Because the Maasai are a cattle-herding tribe, they do not consume the same inexpensive, hormone-laden beef that Americans often eat on a regular basis. "Meat quality is very important, for the sake of the animal, the environment and for us," he says. "I only recommend 100 percent grass-fed or grass-finished meat, which contains a plethora of fat-soluble antioxidants."
This type of meat is widely available in countries like Argentina and Uruguay, both of which are famous among chefs and foodies for exporting some of the most flavorful cuts of meat in the world. "Grass-fed beef contains threefold the vitamin E content of grain-fed beef as well as significantly more carotenoids stored in its fat tissue," says Lugavere. "It also contains less saturated fat and fewer omega-6 fatty acids, which most Americans overconsume today. Grass-fed beef is a much healthier option."
Eating Nose-to-Tail: Is Organ Meat Healthy?
Eating organs like liver, heart and pancreas is also popular among carnivore dieters. Scroll through your Instagram feed and you're likely to see everything from grilled sweetbreads to skewered beef hearts on your computer screen. Despite the initial "ick" factor, it's important to note that these cuts of meat are actually incredibly nutritious, not to mention especially environmentally sound. So if you do decide to trade steamed broccoli for burgers, it may be worth stocking your fridge with iron-rich organ meats instead.
"I believe we have a biological imperative to not be wasteful," says Lugavere. "Eating organ meats gives us a number of important nutrients not found, or found in much lower concentration, in muscle meat. These nutrients work synergistically to help keep the body's metabolism in balance. For example, in organ meats we get an amino acid called glycine, which may help us better metabolize the methionine, which is more concentrated in muscle meat."
English, however, is quick to point out that there can be too much of a good thing, including organ meat."Organ meat is typically richer in fatty acids and certain nutrients than muscle meat," she says. "However, it can also contain excessive amounts of certain vitamins like the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. For example, eating too much liver could cause vitamin A toxicity, resulting in bone thinning and liver damage."
Balanced Is Best
Despite the supposed health benefits, even Lugavere admits that adopting an all-meat diet definitely isn't for the faint of heart. Not only can your menu eventually become boring, but eating red meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner isn't really a viable option for most of us over the long term. "It's definitely not for everyone," he says. "For most people, the road to good health is assuredly paved with lots of colorful vegetables and low-sugar fruits."
In other words, a balanced diet. Remember to always check with your doctor before embarking on any drastic diet changes!