A Beginner's Introduction to the Carnivore Diet
What is Carnivore Diet?
The carnivore diet is characterized by its focus on meat, as the name would suggest. Many of those following the diet have proven its efficacy in promoting weight loss and addressing specific health issues.
The carnivore diet is particularly valuable for individuals aiming to reduce excess body fat without experiencing persistent hunger and for those seeking to manage conditions like type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. It also meets the definition of an elimination diet, as most foods that could trigger inflammatory or autoimmune reactions are avoided on the diet.
In the context of the carnivore diet, a significant reduction in carbohydrate intake is realized, encouraging the body to utilize fat as its primary energy source. This can result in burning fats instead of carbohydrates for fuel, which is known as being “fat-adapted.” It’s also possible to eat enough fat and cut carbohydrates sufficiently for a carnivore diet to be ketogenic. In this mode, the body turns fats into ketones and uses those for fuel, which is known as being “keto-adapted.”
Within this introductory guide, you will learn some of the details of the carnivore diet, ensuring a safe and effective start to your journey.
Eating on a Carnivore Diet
A carnivore diet involves the elimination of all plant-based foods, an increase in protein intake, and the inclusion of fats to enhance flavor and satisfaction.
Being on a carnivore diet means that all meals are meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs. Dairy products can also be added, as long as they are full-fat. This version of a carnivore diet is typically called an “animal-based” diet, and can include butter, sour cream, cream cheese, and similar full-fat dairy products. A carnivore diet, by definition, has no plant foods.
Benefits of the Carnivore Diet
Although the carnivore diet is generally considered safe, it’s crucial to be aware of potential side effects. These are often related to discontinuing carbohydrates and plant-based foods, which can cause some temporary symptoms in susceptible people. Specific precautions may be necessary for certain individuals. The process of helping the body convert to being “fat-adapted” also reduces how the kidneys retain sodium. This means that following a carnivore diet will raise the requirement for salt and water compared to a standard diet.
Understanding the Carnivore Diet
Exploring Ketogenic Carnivore Diets
Ketosis refers to the metabolic condition in which the body primarily relies on fat and ketones, instead of glucose (sugar), as its primary energy source. If your carnivore diet includes sufficient fat macronutrients, you may enter into ketosis. Intermittent fasting also helps promote ketosis.
Stored glucose in the liver serves as an energy reserve, but when carbohydrate intake remains exceptionally low for one to two days, these reserves become depleted. While the liver can generate some glucose via gluconeogenesis from amino acids, glycerol, and lactate, this process doesn’t produce sufficient glucose to meet the constant energy demands of the brain.
Fortunately, ketosis offers an alternative energy source which is particularly beneficial for the brain. Ketones, or ketone bodies, are produced by the liver from dietary fat and body fat. Three primary ketone bodies include beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB), acetoacetate, and acetone (with acetone being a byproduct of acetoacetate).
Ketone production by the liver is a regular occurrence, even when following a higher-carb diet. However, it significantly increases when glucose and insulin levels drop due to carbohydrate restriction. This heightened ketone production can supply up to 75% of the energy for the brain, as well as muscles and the heart. In fact, almost the entire body can burn ketones for fuel, except for the red blood cells and liver cells.
Attaining nutritional ketosis is indicated when the level of ketones in your blood reaches a specific threshold, usually a minimum of 0.5 mmol/L of BHB (measured in the blood).
It’s noteworthy that while both fasting and the carnivore diet can induce ketosis, the carnivore diet is obviously more sustainable over extended periods and can be a healthy long-term dietary approach. In addition, while being in ketosis confers specific health benefits, it isn’t a necessary aspect of the carnivore diet for most people. The nutrient density and bioavailability of meat, combined with the benefits of a low-carbohydrate diet, while avoiding plant toxins, provide substantial health benefits even if ketosis is not attained. However, a carnivore diet should be composed of fatty meat, and not very lean cuts.
Are carbohydrates necessary? Common wisdom has long dictated that carbohydrates are essential for health and normal function. Some dietitians even recommend a daily minimum of 130 grams of carbs to maintain a steady supply of glucose for the brain. However, this belief is unfounded. In reality, the brain remains healthy and functional even in the absence of dietary carbohydrates. The rest of the body functions quite well on ketones, except for red blood cells and liver cells. The liver produces a small amount of glucose for these cells, and supplies the brain with any remaining energy not provided by ketones.
This system allowed our hunter-gatherer ancestors to endure extended periods without food since they could rely on stored body fat as a continuous energy source.
When we consider the three macronutrients, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, the only one that can be completely eliminated is carbohydrates. Eating no protein at all is not sustainable, and neither is completely avoiding fat. The body requires protein to maintain structural integrity, grow new cells, and more. It also requires fat to create hormones and cell membranes.
Contrary to misconceptions, avoiding plant foods and carbohydrates does not hinder brain function. On the contrary, many individuals report heightened mental clarity while following a carnivore diet.
Is plant fiber necessary for health? While much has been written about plant fiber and health, research has also revealed that gut function is often improved in the absence of plant fiber. Irritable bowel syndrome, constipation and similar ills are worsened by the presence of dietary fiber, and completely relieved when a person stops eating fiber.
Precautions before Starting the Carnivore Diet
Despite controversies and myths surrounding the carnivore diet, it is generally considered safe for the majority of individuals. However, two specific groups may require medical oversight:
- Individuals taking medication for high blood pressure
- Those taking diabetes medications like insulin
This is because the elimination of carbohydrates on a carnivore diet results in rapid decreases in blood pressure and blood glucose levels. If combined with medications that also lower these values, the result can be dangerously low levels.
Medical oversight allows prescription modifications to prevent these low blood glucose and blood pressure episodes. In addition, some people should avoid the carnivore diet entirely, particularly those who are breastfeeding.
Potential Risks of a Carnivore Diet
Common Mistakes to Avoid:
Excessive fat intake can hinder the use of stored fat for energy. While adding fats to your carnivore diet can help with both satiety and maintaining ketosis, it is possible to add too much. If you find yourself eating a stick of butter per day, you might be going overboard with added fats.
Overconsumption of dairy products which aren’t high-fat is another issue, as their carb and calorie content can add up quickly. Some of the benefits of a carnivore diet happen because of its low-carbohydrate content, and eating or drinking regular dairy like milk can make those carbs add up.
Unwarranted fear of protein can be an issue, as studies suggest that it generally has a minimal impact on blood sugar levels. The recommended protein allowances seen in nutritional guidelines are really more like minimum daily requirement, whereas the optimum protein intake for an individual hinges on many other factors. Your satiety and hunger cues will let you know when you have eaten enough.
Intermittent Fasting and Carnivore
Many individuals combine intermittent fasting with the carnivore diet to enhance weight loss or help manage type 2 diabetes. Intermittent fasting involves cycling between periods of fasting and eating, which aligns well with the reduced appetite experienced by many on a keto diet. This naturally leads to fewer meals per day, potentially culminating in strategies like two meals a day or even one meal a day (OMAD).
Managing the Keto Flu and Side Effects
The initial transition to a carnivore diet can be challenging, often accompanied by a phase commonly known as the “keto flu.” Symptoms may include fatigue, headache, irritability, and changes in focus, among others. This occurs as the body adapts to using fat rather than glucose for energy.
To alleviate these symptoms, focus on replenishing fluids and salt. Temporary in nature, these side effects tend to dissipate as your body adjusts to its new energy source.
Carnivore Diet FAQ
Before embarking on a carnivore diet, it’s natural to have questions. Here are some commonly asked questions:
Just like a keto diet, most people experience an initial weight loss that is dramatic but mostly water weight. This is a healthy loss, and helps reduce blood pressure, but the rate of weight loss will seem to slow after that. Many people have lost 100 pounds or more on a carnivore diet. If your weight loss stalls, there is probably a reason. The other articles in this series will help to address some of those reasons.
The carnivore diet could also be called a keto or low carb diet, because it can be both of these things. If your carnivore diet includes enough fat, it is likely to result in ketosis. Additionally, a carnivore diet is very low-carbohydrate, unless it includes low-fat or regular milk, and similar animal-based foods that include significant amounts of carbohydrates. Including full-fat dairy will help make the diet a ketogenic carnivore diet. So, the major difference is the food ingredients themselves. A carnivore diet is based on meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and full-fat dairy products. A keto or low carb diet typically includes a lot of plant foods also. Many people find that omitting plant foods (ie, following a carnivore diet) provides health benefits over and above those attained from either a low carb or ketogenic diet alone.
Starting Your Carnivore Journey
Before initiating a carnivore diet, it’s advisable to consult with your healthcare provider, especially if you take medications for diabetes or high blood pressure. It’s important to have a discussion about significant dietary or lifestyle changes. For breastfeeding mothers, a strict carnivore diet may not be suitable, but limiting unnecessary carbs can still be beneficial.
As you embark on your carnivore journey, armed with knowledge and understanding, you can take the first steps towards achieving your health and wellness goals.
Help others regain health using the carnivore diet!