What Is the Carnivore Diet? Benefits and Risks

The carnivore diet has surged in popularity, with claims that it can offer physical and mental health benefits. However, the evidence is lacking.

A plate containing sausages and various cold meats
by
Chelsea Rae Bourgeois, MS, RD
— Signos
Health writer
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
May 20, 2024
April 11, 2024
— Updated:
April 11, 2024

Table of Contents

While research continues to highlight high-protein diets and their many purported health benefits, some influencers have taken it a step further and are promoting the carnivore diet. This elimination diet, sometimes called the meat diet, focuses on meat and animal products and eliminates all other food groups. It claims to support weight loss, mood issues, and blood sugar management, among other health benefits. But what does the research say?

Long story short, the research isn’t there. Very few studies have been conducted on the effects of the animal-based diet, and what research is available isn’t favorable. Carnivore dieters may experience adverse health effects and be at an increased risk for various chronic diseases. In this article, we’ll discuss the carnivore diet's ins and outs, review its potential benefits and risks, and explore its purported role in weight loss. 

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Understanding the Carnivore Diet

The carnivore diet has been discussed for decades, but it recently surged in popularity when Shawn Baker, an orthopedic surgeon whose medical license was revoked in 2017 and reinstated in 2019, published his book The Carnivore Diet. The book praises the carnivore diet meal plan as an evolutionary way of eating, claiming it can improve digestive health and stabilize mental health.

It developed out of the belief that ancestorial humans survived on diets of meat, fish, and animal foods like eggs and some dairy products. It blames high-carbohydrate diets for today’s high rate of health issues and aims to eliminate plant-based foods that affect blood sugar levels. Unlike low-carbohydrate diets, such as the keto and paleo diets, the carnivore meal plan promotes zero carbs. It prohibits fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.

However, very little research, if any, supports the claims surrounding the carnivore diet. The most recent study presents a conflict of interest as it was promoted by Shawn Baker, who has a financial interest in the diet’s success.1 Many registered dietitian nutritionists and other experts have raised concerns about the diet’s long-term safety and question the validity of the study above.2

What Can You Eat on the Carnivore Diet?

Two pieces of meat in a plate

The carnivore diet doesn't stipulate meal timing or portion sizes. However, it severely limits the types of foods you can eat. It is limited to animal products, specifically things that walk, crawl, fly, or swim. You’ll notice most of the foods on the approved list prioritize protein over carbohydrates and fat.

When following a carnivore diet meal plan, you can eat:

  • Fish: The meat diet permits any fish, but high-fat varieties are encouraged. Proponents of the carnivore diet often recommend fish like sardines and salmon.
  • Eggs: Whole eggs are often encouraged on the carnivore diet as the yolk adds calories and fat.
  • Meat: Grass-fed red meat is a staple for most carnivore dieters, but chicken and turkey are also allowed. Since dieters are not eating plant-based foods, diet proponents suggest eating fatty meats to boost overall calorie intake. Therefore, foods like tallow and lard are permitted and often encouraged on the carnivore plan. Processed meats like bacon and sausage are also allowed.
  • Bone marrow: Bone broth is often encouraged on the carnivore diet.
  • Organ meats: The meat diet allows organ meats, which are high in saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Dairy products: Some, but not all, dairy products are included in the carnivore diet. Since butter, milk, cheese, and yogurt are animal products, they are allowed. However, those who view the carnivore diet as an extension of the ketogenic diet typically avoid lactose-containing foods. Those pursuing ketosis may avoid dairy foods altogether.
  • Water/Coffee: Water and coffee are permitted, as they do not provide carbohydrates.
  • Seasonings: Salt, pepper, and seasonings with no carbs are permitted on the meat diet.

Interestingly, the list of foods that are eliminated from the carnivore diet is much longer than the list of foods permitted. Fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, alcohol, and supplements are restricted from this diet, as its supporters believe you can meet your macro- and micronutrient needs with animal foods alone. However, more lenient carnivore dieters allow some produce, such as avocados and cucumbers. 

Still, most people who follow a carnivore diet do not combine their meat-based foods with other food groups. Pasta dishes, mixed salads, and cream-based soups are not permitted. If it doesn’t originate from an animal source, it’s not allowed. 

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Also Read: </strong><a href="carnivore-diet-meal-plan">Carnivore Diet Meal Plan: Foods and Benefits?</a>.</p>

Carnivore Diet: Pros and Cons

The carnivore diet is often discussed on podcasts and social media platforms, but what do the experts think? Do the benefits of the carnivore diet outweigh its risks and side effects? The research is limited, leaving experts to make deductions based on the principles of the diet. Considering the types of foods allowed, the foods prohibited, and the recommended serving sizes, the carnivore diet may present more detrimental aspects than positive. 

Pros

  1. May help in weight loss: Increased protein intake has been linked to weight loss, leading some people to believe that the carnivore diet may help you lose weight.3
  2. May have anti-inflammatory effects: The research is limited regarding the carnivore diet specifically, but high-protein diets rich in amino acids may offer anti-inflammatory support.4 Still, several factors contribute to inflammation in the body, not just protein intake.

Cons

  1. Potential risk of heart disease: The carnivore diet may increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. It promotes foods that are high in saturated fats and cholesterol while eliminating nutrient-rich foods like fruits, veggies, and beans. Carnivore dieters may experience significant increases in their LDL cholesterol and other concerning heart health markers.
  2. Lacks fiber: Because the carnivore meal plan doesn’t allow plant-based foods, dieters miss out on fiber-rich foods. Decreased fiber intake can lead to gut health issues, which may contribute to other health concerns.
  3. Nutrient deficiencies: Plant-based foods are rich in vitamins and minerals, so eliminating them from your diet puts you at risk for significant macro- and micronutrient deficiencies.
  4. May aggravate other health conditions: Those with a complex medical history should only follow the carnivore diet under the care of a healthcare provider. Similar to the keto diet, the high-protein, high-fat carnivore diet may exacerbate other health concerns, such as gallbladder issues, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
  5. May increase the risk of cancer: The carnivore meal plan is high in saturated fats and low in antioxidants. Research has shown that a diet high in red and processed meats can lead to an increased incidence of cancer, especially breast cancer, colon cancer, rectal cancer, and lung cancer, among others.5

Carnivore Diet for Weight Loss

Avid supporters of the carnivore diet swear by its role in weight loss. The meal plan's advocates state that since everything you can eat on the diet is high in protein, you will feel full after meals and be less likely to overeat. And since carbohydrates are limited or restricted, you’re not consuming foods that spike your blood sugar and leave you feeling sluggish. However, there is little to no evidence that it actually works. While some people may experience weight loss in the short term, the evidence is primarily anecdotal.

Is the Carnivore Diet Safe for You?

Meat brochettes on a grill

The carnivore diet is often marketed towards those living with type 2 diabetes, obesity, and autoimmune diseases as a way to treat health concerns through diet alone. However, the restrictive diet is not suitable for everyone and may even present some serious safety risks.

Its long-term effects are wildly unstudied, preventing credentialed healthcare providers from endorsing the diet. Aiming for zero net carbs creates a significant risk, as low-carb diets can contribute to kidney disease, cardiac complications, and impaired physical activity. They also run the risk of negatively affecting your gut microbiome, as the lack of fiber and other nutrients may cause a shift in your gut’s microflora.

While many of the foods promoted in the carnivore diet can offer health benefits, they’re most influential when incorporated into a well-balanced diet. If you have questions about the safety of the meat diet and its impact on your medical history, consider meeting with your doctor or a registered dietitian. Together, they can help you navigate the many factors that comprise a healthy diet. 

Learn More About How to Improve Blood Sugar Health With Signos’ Expert Advice

While the carnivore diet may incorporate more protein into weight loss efforts, it lacks evidence-based research. Well-balanced nutrition is essential for overall health, and fad diets often present more risks than benefits. Sustainable weight loss relies on a holistic approach involving multiple lifestyle changes, including diet, physical activity, sleep, and stress management.

Choosing the proper medication is also vital for improving overall health, managing diabetes, and controlling weight loss. Signos' experts can play a pivotal role by offering personalized evidence-based recommendations tailored to fit individual needs. Curious how Signos can improve health? Learn more about glucose levels on Signos’ blog, and find out if Signos is a good fit for you by taking a quick quiz!

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn More: </strong><a href="low-carb-meatloaf">The Best Low-Glycemic and Low-Carb Meatloaf Recipe</a>.</p>

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References

  1. Lennerz BS, Mey JT, Henn OH, Ludwig DS. Behavioral Characteristics and Self-Reported Health Status among 2029 Adults Consuming a "Carnivore Diet". Curr Dev Nutr. 2021;5(12):nzab133. Published 2021 Nov 2. doi:10.1093/cdn/nzab133
  2. Kirwan R, Mallett GS, Ellis L, Flanagan A. Limitations of Self-reported Health Status and Metabolic Markers among Adults Consuming a "Carnivore Diet". Curr Dev Nutr. 2022;6(5):nzac037. Published 2022 Mar 23. doi:10.1093/cdn/nzac037
  3. Moon J, Koh G. Clinical Evidence and Mechanisms of High-Protein Diet-Induced Weight Loss. J Obes Metab Syndr. 2020;29(3):166-173. doi:10.7570/jomes20028
  4. Haß U, Heider S, Kochlik B, Herpich C, Pivovarova-Ramich O, Norman K. Effects of Exercise and Omega-3-Supplemented, High-Protein Diet on Inflammatory Markers in Serum, on Gene Expression Levels in PBMC, and after Ex Vivo Whole-Blood LPS Stimulation in Old Adults. Int J Mol Sci. 2023;24(2):928. Published 2023 Jan 4. doi:10.3390/ijms24020928
  5. Farvid MS, Sidahmed E, Spence ND, Mante Angua K, Rosner BA, Barnett JB. Consumption of red meat and processed meat and cancer incidence: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies. Eur J Epidemiol. 2021;36(9):937-951. doi:10.1007/s10654-021-00741-9

About the author

Chelsea Rae Bourgeois is a registered dietitian nutritionist with several years of experience working in the clinical setting. Once a track and field athlete on a competitive stage, she now finds joy in combining her passions as a health writer to help people embrace their wellness through nutrition and fitness.

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