The Risks of the Carnivore Diet: Experts Weigh In

Nutrition experts say the trendy diet based entirely on animal products carries significant health risks and has little benefit.

The diet, which also goes by the names lion diet, high-fat diet, and animal-based diet, has been rising in popularity. It primarily focuses on meat and eggs, while some proponents, like Paul Saladino, AKA the Carnivore M.D., also include seafood, raw dairy, and fruits.

Groups on social media are full of testimonials about quick weight loss, alleviated chronic conditions, and more energy than ever before — at least at the start of their meat-only journey.

However, these groups also reveal the darker side of the diet, as people report days of vomiting, insomnia, and cardiovascular events, among other health issues.

“People eating only meat is going to go down as one of the most harmful dietary trends in history,” Dr. Adrian Chavez, a nutritionist, wrote on Instagram.

Meat linked to increased mortality risk

Meat can be a good source of nutrients like protein, B vitamins, iron, and zinc, says Lauryna Nelkinė, MSc, a managing health content researcher at Healthnews.

However, a diet focusing primarily on meat consumption can increase the intake of saturated fats. The high consumption of saturated fats is a risk factor for high levels of LDL-cholesterol — the “bad” cholesterol — which can lead to clogged arteries and heart disease.

Nelkinė says that the high intake of red meat, both unprocessed and processed, has been associated with elevated risk of multiple chronic diseases, such as colorectal cancer and type 2 diabetes, as well as with increased cardiovascular mortality and stroke risk.

For example, a 2012 study led by Harvard University researchers that looked at the data from over 120,000 participants found people who ate most red meat were more likely to die younger and from cardiovascular disease.

Each additional daily serving of red meat was found to raise the risk of death by 13%, with a serving of processed red meat elevating the risk by 20%.

“If you have a personal or family history of cardiovascular disease and cholesterol, I would be very cautious of the carnivore diet,” Maria Lucey, a dietitian and nutrition blogger, tells Healthnews.

The high intake of processed meat, such as bacon, sausages, and hotdogs, can be especially problematic as it contains high amounts of added salt that may contribute to high blood pressure and stomach cancer risk, according to Nelkinė.

An average American eats about 3,500 mg of sodium daily, which is way above the limit of 2,300 mg — about a teaspoon of table salt — set by the American Heart Association.

Nelkinė says, “Certain harmful compounds can be formed during meat processing. Some examples are advanced glycation end products and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that have been demonstrated in the research studies to contribute to the increased disease risk.

Nutrient and fiber deficiency

Lucey says the diet that eliminates all fruit and vegetables raises the risk of nutrient deficiencies. For instance, the lack of vitamin C can lead to swollen and bleeding gums, loss of teeth, weakness, poor wound healing, and increased wrinkle formation.

Moreover, the diet is void of fiber, which is essential for normal gut functioning. Insufficient fiber can cause constipation and increase the risk of conditions like diverticular disease.

The lack of carbohydrates can result in low energy levels, affecting both physical and mental performance in everyday life.

Lucey tells Healthnews, “Carbohydrates are our brains’ preferred energy source, and eliminating it can lead to fatigue or mood changes. You might see relationships suffer or a drop in performance in work or sport.”

Does the carnivore diet have any benefits?

Lucey says the diet is rich in protein and fat, which benefits those trying to lose weight. As a restrictive diet that cuts out many high-calorie processed foods, it may lead to initial weight loss.

Any diet can work for weight loss if it allows you to achieve a sustained calorie deficit. The carnivore diet has no superiority over any other diet

Lucey

However, proponents say the animal-based eating pattern can be beneficial for people with diabetes as it can help with glucose control.

Lucey says although cutting out lots of processed and sugary foods can improve blood sugar management, there is no need to go to the extreme of a carnivore diet to achieve it.

She points to a recent study published in Diabetes & Metabolism, suggesting that a diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can reduce the risk of diabetes by 24%, even for those genetically predisposed to diabetes and individuals with other risk factors like obesity.

Lucey tells Healthnews, “If you have diabetes, you’re two to four times more likely to die from heart disease compared with adults who don’t have diabetes. And the carnivore diet is not ideal for heart health.”

With the second human avian flu case reported in the United States, a diet that swears by raw milk may cause additional health risks. Pasteurization kills bacteria and viruses in contaminated milk, meaning you may get infected by drinking raw milk from cows with avian flu.

So, is the carnivore diet good for you?

Nelkinė says this diet contradicts all of the official dietary guidelines and current scientific evidence suggesting that a minimal intake of meat and a high intake of plant foods high in micronutrients, antioxidants, and fiber is essential for our optimal health and longevity.

The final point against this diet is planetary health. Meat is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and current scientific evidence suggests that we should not only limit meat intake for health reasons but also to protect our planet

Nelkinė

Moreover, research shows that the vast majority of people following highly restrictive diets end up regressing toward their old eating habits.

Lucey warns, “If you have a history of eating disorders or yo-yo dieting, proceed very cautiously if considering this diet."


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