Will an All-Meat Diet Kill You or Cure You?
No fruits, no vegetables, no grains, just beef. What is going on in these people’s intestines and arteries?
Based on standard dietary recommendations, Peterson and the thousands of people like her who identify as carnivores — not omnivores, carnivores — should be dead from vitamin deficiencies, heart disease, colon cancer, or constipation alone. Yet according to Instagram and online forums like Meat Heals, they’re thriving. In anecdotal testimonials, people say that eating an all-meat diet helped them drop 10, 20, 40, 80 pounds and cured them of depression, fatigue, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, joint pain, and insomnia.
How is this possible? And what is going on in these people’s intestines and arteries?
Low-carb, high-fat diets are not new. Atkins, paleo, South Beach, Whole30, and the ketogenic diet all subscribe to the same philosophy of limiting carbohydrates and having the majority of calories come from fat and protein. Initially considered sacrilege among doctors and dietitians, this way of eating has gradually gained popularity and scientific support, particularly as the overly processed, sugar-heavy Western diet has come under attack.
Low-carb diets are very good at helping people lose weight quickly and regulating blood glucose levels, and some doctors will now recommend them to treat type II diabetes. But any benefits obtained from these diets likely stem from what you’re leaving out rather than what you’re putting in. “The advantage of such a restrictive diet is that you cut out a lot of the processed foods, so no sugar, no refined carbs,” says Amy Reisenberg, a clinical dietitian at Stanford Health Care. “Right there, you’re cutting out a lot of the things that can contribute to being overweight or metabolic syndrome.”
Reisenberg’s patients are typically being treated for diabetes or cardiovascular disease. She attributes any health benefits they experience on a low-carb diet to weight loss. “Once they stop seeing the weight loss, they also stop seeing the blood pressure benefits, they stop seeing the blood sugar benefits,” she says. “Everything plateaus when the weight loss plateaus.”
However, Dr. Shawn Baker, a former orthopedic surgeon and current health and lifestyle coach, believes there’s something special about meat itself. Baker has been following a carnivore diet for three years and credits it for improving his hypertension, body composition, sleep apnea, gastric reflux, mood, energy, strength, athletic performance, and libido. In his mind, meat, particularly red meat, is a practically perfect food source. It’s high in fat, protein, and calories so people won’t waste away on the diet, and it has high concentrations of nutrients, amino acids, and essential fatty acids that humans need. “It’s a much more efficient way to get that nutrition,” he says. “I pretty much eat red meat every day for every meal. That’s how I feel my best.”
She says her diet resolved her juvenile arthritis, hypersomnia, depression, anxiety, and skin problems and turned her into a “boss human.”
But why take the extra step of cutting out fruits and vegetables? Proponents of the diet say that there are compounds in many plants that people are intolerant to, and cutting them out can reduce levels of inflammation or help repair a leaky gut. While some plants do contain traces of natural toxins as part of their defense system, the amount consumed through a normal, balanced diet is negligible. Unless you have an allergy to a specific fruit or vegetable or eat pounds of green potatoes in one sitting, the nutritional benefits of produce — packed full of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants — vastly outweigh any health risks.
To dietitians like Reisenberg, the lack of fiber is the most shocking part of the diet. “I just can’t get over the non-fiber aspect of this diet,” she says. “In all of the long-term research that’s been done out there, pretty much if there’s one thing that nutrition researchers agree upon, it’s that a mostly plant-based diet is going to be pretty healthy. It’s going to tame inflammation and it’s going to promote regularity.”
Articles touting the health benefits of fiber are regularly published, although other studies have found no advantages to supplements of the nutrient. Baker pushes back on this cardinal tenant of nutrition. “Fiber is not essential for life. There is no biochemical need to have fiber,” he says. “For many people, it’s a gut irritant, and I think when people eliminate it from their diet, contrary to what people are told, we actually end up having very good [gastrointestinal] function.”
Fiber isn’t the only source of contention. The debate also rages on about the long-term consequences of a diet heavy in red meat. For decades, scientists have linked red meat and its high levels of saturated fat to cholesterol, heart disease, cancer, and premature death. But other papers claim these risks have been overblown. Eating meat has also been tapped as a major contributor to climate change, and there are concerns about the environmental impact of a carnivorous diet.
Even if the worst-case scenario about red meat consumption is true, most people don’t adhere to an all-meat diet long term, and they will start to incorporate other foods back into their diet after a few months. Reisenberg points out that when this happens, any benefits people may experience from such a restricted diet, particularly in regard to food allergies and weight loss, will be lost as soon as they return to their normal eating patterns.
“What happens on the other side? Once you do decide, alright enough’s enough, or a couple years down the line your cholesterol is through the roof or something else happens and you decide it’s not the right diet for you, how are you going to address the challenges that your body had previously?” she says.
To most dietitians, the best diet is one you can maintain long term, although virtually every nutrition expert agrees it should be low in sugar and refined carbohydrates. So pick the tagline that best suits your lifestyle: food writer Michael Pollan’s, “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” Or the one popularized by carnivore blogger Amber O’Hearn: “Eat meat. Not too little. Mostly fat.”