“The true method of knowledge is experiment.” —William Blake
When Joe Rogan interviewed Dr. Shawn Baker back in 2017 about only eating meat for two years straight, increasing numbers of people began chatting about–and trying–the now somewhat trendy carnivore diet.
Since then, a cult-like following has developed on Instagram and Facebook as they share miraculous stories turning around medical conditions deemed unsolvable by traditional western approaches (#meatheals). People of all shapes, ages, and journeys seem to be finding significant improvements in their health and quality of life consuming solely meat and animal-based foods.
Former vegans, those struggling with extra weight, autoimmunity, brain fog, fatigue, depression, joint pain, insomnia, and severe gut dysbiosis have eagerly jumped on the beef bandwagon. In the research and medical realm, scientists and PhDs like Amber O’Hearn, Zsofia Clemens, and doctors such as Paul Saladino are finding exceptional results with plant-free diets and their profound ability to reverse issues related to autoimmunity and complex, inflammatory diseases.
As tends to be the case with most things extreme, most nutritionists and doctors would advise against a diet of purely meat:
“We have no evidence that this is a good idea,” said John Ioannidis, a clinical epidemiologist and professor of health research and policy at the Stanford School of Medicine. “We have mostly indirect evidence that this is a bad idea.”
However, the fact that people are reversing complex diseases such as Lyme, depression, and arthritis and even feeling fabulous and thriving on long-term carnivorous diet demands further attention and potential investigation into the nuances of context-based nutritional interventions.
I admit, I was skeptical, even disgusted, when I heard about this diet. Even as a self-identified BBQ queen, I could not wrap my head around eating meal after meal of brown piles of flesh and fat. I adored my veggies and in full honesty, craved all varieties of plants in (often times) massive amounts.
I never planned to give them up, either.
However, after a 90-day trial to sort out some extremely debilitating, infection-based gut paralysis, I can confidently say that the carnivore diet has allowed my previously disastrous gut health to stabilize and therefore, saved my life.
What makes the carnivore diet work?
We aren’t sure! Some speculate that it’s the bioavailability of necessary nutrients (like choline, Vitamin A, D, K, B12, glycine, carnosine, etc) found in bountiful quantities in meat and animal fats that provide the benefits. Others posit that it’s more about the removal of triggering foods such as gluten, gums, thickeners, preservatives, and even certain plants that cause systemic inflammation.
Most agree that success is due to the synergy of removing known offenders and maximizing absorption of desirable macro and micronutrients. While investigation sorts out the details, we cannot dismiss the fact that people are improving with this highly radical, seemingly blasphemous way of eating.
What is going on in the Gut?
Investigation links the benefits of this diet with its influence on the gut, specifically in terms of improving function of the gut-barrier and decreasing inflammation. At a high-level, leaky gut (or intestinal permeability) happens when the normally tight junctions comprising the gut loosen due to chronic stress, antibiotics, infections, and even allergenic foods and high intensity exercise. This allows undigested food particles, pathogens, and toxic by-products to leak into the bloodstream. In our bodies innocent–if not valiant and loving–attempt to protect us from these foreign invaders, it sets off an autoimmune response, which long-term, can lead to full blown autoimmune disorders and symptoms such as fatigue, chronic pain, depression, allergies, thyroid disease, idiopathic constipation, and everything else you don’t want to deal with.
To complicate matters, a leaky gut struggles to produce the necessary enzymes and neurotransmitters for digestion and optimal brain function, therefore leading to further malabsorption of necessary nutrients and an inability to properly balance everything from moods, energy levels, appetite, sex-drive, and sleep. In a state of depletion and constant physiological stress, the resulting systemic decline is–gasp!–inevitable. Yikes is right.
What about Fiber?
It is generally assumed that if you suffer from slow gut-motility or struggle with chronic constipation, increasing fiber will solve the problem. We also hear how resistant starch in unripe bananas, extra greens, cold rice and chilled potatoes will save the day, as it feeds the “good bug” in your colon. Unfortunately, for those with sensitive guts and disrupted microbiomes–myself included–fiber added more pine needles to the raging forest fire. Fiber and starches fed the good bugs, but also provided optimal fuel for the not so desirable critters, especially the ones residing in my small intestines. The traffic analogy works well here, suggesting that with a crowded intersection, the solution is not to add more cars into the mix; The road will only clear when the cars are removed.
Before going carnivore, eating a predominantly paleo diet, a meal with any fiber would literally send me back to bed with extreme abdominal bloating. Other carnivores share similar stories in regards to their response to fiber and worsening constipation. In my case, without the normal gut contractions known as peristalsis, fiber ended up sitting in my small intestines and provided bountiful nourishment for the bacteria that reside there. These dinner parties created copious amounts of trapped gas. Then, the gas bubbles trapped the fermenting food and prevented further flow of matter through the intestines, culminating in a balloon-like belly after any meal or snack away as the bacteria and parasites feasted with wild abandon.
To make matters even more exciting, hard clumps of old stool acted as plugs in my intestines, preventing the necessary bowel movements to rid my body of the leftover fibrous waste, which then invited even more opportunistic infections to make themselves at home in my gut: hello tapeworms!
After meals, flu-like symptoms enveloped my body, given the build up hydrogen-sulfide, methane, bacterial die-off and other endotoxins trapped in the gut…all thanks to fiber, resistant starches, and especially so to foods containing FODMAPS (a unique form of fermentable plant fiber present in the most popular foods, like apples, onions, bananas, wheat, and garlic). As much as I hated to admit it, plants were not appropriate for the terrain of my gut. When I removed plants and all fiber and just focused on meat and fat, the flu-like reactions to foods literally went away after 3 days of adapting to ketosis.
Why are we blaming plants?
I never wanted to blame plants. I love plants and to this day see extreme beauty–even sensuality–in a well-crafted salad covered in herbs or a perfectly caramelized onion atop a pile of polenta. But, the idea is that plants do not love us and especially do not want to be eaten. They cannot run away from predators and therefore have evolved chemicals to protect themselves from hungry critters. When consumed, these chemicals, or plant toxins, can severely irritate a sensitive gut. In an already compromised system, these compounds increase the toxic load and perpetuate further gut leakage, therefore activating an immune response every time we eat. By contrast, animals can run away from or even eat their predators, and thus lack these dangerous chemicals. By removing all plant foods from the diet, inflammation can settle and the gut can begin to repair itself.
What are some of the triggers?
Historically, nutritionists and many of those in the realm of alternative health demonized the supposedly pro-inflammatory toxins found in wheat, soy, corn, and even dairy, but recent interest is growing surrounding:
- Lectins: naturally occurring proteins common in grains, peanuts, lentils, potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants that poke holes in the gut
- Phytates: common in beans, grains, and nuts, which bind to minerals like iron, zinc, and calcium and prevents their absorption
- Saponins: commonly found in beans, peanuts, soy, seeds, and nightshades, like tomatoes and potatoes, known to damage the microvilli of the gut
- Oxalates: concentrated in leafy greens, cocoa, and seeds, which bind to minerals like iron and calcium and deplete glutathione production in the gut
- Enzyme inhibitors: common in nuts, seeds, and grains, which bind to enzymes and therefore disrupt digestion
- Pesticides: even plants that are certified organic have shown high levels of glyphosate, a known mutagen, carcinogen, and endocrine disruptor
- PUFAs: or polyunsaturated fatty acids, especially rich in nut and seed oils, are highly unstable and therefore can lead to oxidation and inflammation
- Mold: many grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and even the muscles of grain-fed animals, contain mycotoxins, which has an estrogenic and oxidative effect on the body, depleting glutathione as the body tries to detoxify.
I was shocked to find that even plant compounds we’ve celebrated, specifically curcumin in turmeric, sulforaphane in broccoli, and resveratrol in red wine, seem to have some unintended consequences. While applauded for their anti-inflammatory potential witnessed under the microscope when studied in isolation, we have failed to look at their pro-inflammatory, systemic, hormetic effects, which have actually shown damaging effects at the cellular level. Take curcumin, for example. When examined more closely, the compound given accolades for its anti-inflammatory actions can actually cause DNA damage and inhibit cellular repair. Sulforaphane in broccoli actually depletes our body’s master antioxidant, glutathione, as it binds to the sulforaphane to render it harmless and prevent any damage to our cells. A diminished level of available glutathione then leaves other cells vulnerable to further oxidative damage. With resveratrol, we celebrate its anti-cancer effects, while ignoring its estrogen mimicking activity and even the physiologically toxic and depressant effects of consuming alcohol.
These are not functions we want to introduce into a compromised system. These plant-induced phenomena shed light as to why a body that is already in an autoimmune state can react poorly to these supposedly helpful and assumedly healing plant compounds.
Context truly matters, so it seems.
What about the Brain?
In terms of the success stories, many of the carnivore meatheads I’ve read about or spoken with emphasize how their mental health struggles cleared up within days of switching to a meat diet. Amber O’Hearn shared her story overcoming treatment resistant depression and how transitioning from vegetarianism and eventually removing plants made all the difference. A friend from college overcame debilitating depression and suicidality, putting his Lyme disease into remission. Another friend found her mood and sleep improve when she switched to a predominantly raw beef and lamb diet. My nutritional therapy practitioner even shared how it felt like she was on happy pills when she tried it out carnivory eating for a month! I’ve joined the happy parade, and–to my disbelief–been able to access a level of joy, happiness, stability, and gratitude that SSRIs, exercise, a plant-based diet, and meditation couldn’t pretend to mimic.
By removing the triggers assaulting the gut, many of which are plant related, neurotransmitter production can resume and rebalance. We now know that the microbes in our gut produce 95% of our bodies serotonin, (a neurotransmitter influencing our mood, memory, cognition, and gut motility, among other things), and other critical neurotransmitters that influence the majority of physiological processes in our bodies. Therefore, it is not surprising that a happy healthy gut necessarily leads to a happy and healthy individual.
The more we understand about the influence of our microbiome on our overall health, the more realize how our microbiome determines our quality of health.
Researchers are still unsure of how a carnivorous diet changes one’s microbiome, since the majority of the microbes require fiber and resistant starch to survive. However, anecdotal evidence illustrating improvements in moods, anxiety, depression, sleep, and even an expanded capacity for joy hint to a favorable shift in microbiota, especially when a carnivore diet is used to prune back and overgrowth in unfriendly bacteria.
In addition to removing the assaulting triggers and allowing the gut health to restore, many of the benefits related to mental well-being derive from the plentiful supply of brain-friendly nutrients on an animal-based diet. Specifically, the brain is mostly fatty-acids and thrives on saturated fats, which are abundant in animals. For proper function, the brain needs adequate levels of B12, choline, vitamin A, K2, D3, and cholesterol, and flourishes with optimal levels of zinc, magnesium, and calcium, to name a few. Even amino acids like glycine (present in gelatinous meats and broths) have shown to have calming effects on the brain and help produce glutathione to carry out necessary detoxification. When combined with the optimal slurry of neurotransmitters and fat-soluble vitamins, the brain, and therefore the human, feels better. Luckily, and to the direct benefit of a carnivore, the necessary brain-supporting nutrients are not only in ample supply in meat and fats, but present in their most bioavailable form without any plant-toxins to block absorption.
Should everyone just eat meat?
Well, probably not. It’s highly individual and depends largely on the context.
As much as I love being a tiger and shocking the butcher with my weekly meat consumption, I do not plan to just eat meat for the rest of my life, nor do I think that ketosis is a healthy state to be in long-term given basic stress physiology and the damaging effects of chronic cortisol activation.
In just the last week, I’ve even added in a few low-toxin plant foods with great success, reflecting the profound healing effect of carnivory in terms of lowering inflammation and its ability to mitigate some of the stressors in my gut. However, the more I dive into nutritional research, specifically the work of Dr. Ray Peat, the more I realize how context-based and biology-based nutrition is necessary and critical to cellular function and optimizing health. It involves trial and error, working with our unique microbial terrains, our emotions, our current state of digestion and overall health, genetic variabilities, and of course, honoring the biology of stress and metabolism.
In the meantime, I plan to keep eating my pastured eggs and oxtail soup and I am eager and open to experimentation as it unfolds.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, I am a tiger. The information contained in this blog should not be used to treat or diagnose disease or health problems and is provided for your edification and delight only.
Photo Credit: Conscious Carnivore