The Mores of More Meat - A closer look at the carnivore diet
More and more people worldwide live according to a vegetarian diet and a growing number of people adhere to the vegan philosophy, meaning they ban all animal products from their dietary habits and lifestyle. For most plant lovers, the main reason for keeping meat out is the impact our food has on the climate. The regular production of meat and dairy products is often labeled as inhuman, resource-draining and polluting. Besides the impact on the climate, plant-based foods would be a lot healthier and eating too much meat may even carry significant health risks, according to scientific studies and trusted nutritionists. For example, a lot of red and processed meat could cause strokes, type 2 diabetes and cancer. But is glorifying plants really the royal way to good health and a sustainable world?
Meat is the new veggie
Supporters of the increasingly popular carnivore diet beg to differ. Their "meat diet" is almost at odds with all of the above; it essentially insults everything hard-nosed plants eaters believe in. In brief, this is a ketogenic diet based mainly on the intake of many proteins and fats via meat and dairy. Cereals, fruit and vegetables hardly make the menu. American physician Dr. Paul Saladino wrote a lengthy book, entitled The Carnivore Code, about the concept. In it he draws on many different studies and experiences in tackling 'the fables and myths that are trumpeted around the world' about how unhealthy the omission of vegetable food sources from our diet would be.
The dietary concept arouses aversion, but also curiosity, in many people. It is radical, but at the same time based on a lot of nutritional ideas worth investigating. The truth about healthy food is just as changeable as the wind, as the various dietary advice, books, products, gurus and scientists have proven in recent decades. In the world of food more than anywhere else openness to change and new insights is important. So let us give this diet our full attention below and consider some of Dr. Paul Saladino's experiences.
Back in time
Dr. Saladino's lifelong research revolves around the question, "What should we eat to be as healthy and fit as possible?" Saladino went looking for a diet that contains all the nutrients our body needs to function, in an optimal (biologically available) form and with a minimum of toxins. But how can we find out which nutrients our body craves? According to Saladino we find the answer in our 'user manual'—problem is, we have lost that manual over the centuries. Saladino urges us to start looking at the time when, in human history, we still owned this manual. And according to him that is the period in which we lived as hunters and gatherers: things went wrong when agriculture started to emerge and we started to more and more feed on plants and seeds.
Plants versus animals
Saladino’s book takes a detailed look at why eating plants is a bad idea for our body. The complex, chemical defenses that plants have developed over 450 million years can wreak havoc on our bodies, Saladino observes. Plants are difficult to digest, cause inflammation, contain harmful substances and contain a lesser concentration of nutrients than animal food sources do.
Saladino, on the other hand, argues that meat has often been wrongly marked as a culprit and causal agent of ailments and diseases; he carefully, one by one, addresses these 'meat myths'. Received knowledge about the value of vegetable fibers, vitamins, minerals and other substances is also seriously questioned. Saladino cites many (scientific) studies and compares data in tables and graphs. Ultimately, animal food sources emerge as 'true superfoods' while plants are exposed as poisonous, hard to digest and less nutrient-rich food sources.
Saladino's ideas about food importantly converge on the broader concept of ancestral food, whence the term ancestral eating: the concept the Paleo diet, body therapy and nose-to-tail eating are all based on. In brief, ancestral eating means that in order to achieve optimal health, we must return to eating real, whole, unprocessed foods. Eat like cavemen ate. The diet mainly includes meat, fish and eggs, and, in moderation, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables. The organs of animals are consumed as well because of the many nutrients that organ meat packs. It is the diet that we ate and evolved on for over 200,000 years, before agriculture emerged about 10,000 years ago and our brains slowly started to shrink again instead of further growing in size.
The carnivore diet goes a little further than the Paleo diet or ancestral eating. For the former also deletes most nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables. There are five variants of the diet, to be sure, the most accessible variant allowing a still considerable amount of plant foods (about 15% of the total nutrient intake). This variant Saladino therefore - jokingly - calls the 'Carnivore-ish Diet'. So he is not such a fan of plants and claims that our ancestors ate them, but only in times of meat scarcity; plants thus mainly served as "survival foods", confirming the larger point that our body is designed mainly for animal food sources.
A miracle diet?
The diet is pretty radical and extreme compared to what most people today are used to and it unsurprisingly evokes different reactions. The blogosphere is full of testimonials by people who have experienced miracles since following this diet. People report experiencing weight loss, clarity of mind, an sex drive boost and the disappearance of former joint complaints, stomach and intestinal problems, and allergies. While there is little good scientific evidence for the diet, many studies mentioned in Saladino’s book do provide food for thought. Have we really been wrong all these years and would we thrive much better on meat consumption than on plant foods?
It may well have been that we have overestimated plants, and unfairly vilified meat.
The book contains quite a few interesting studies and facts that will leave even the most convinced vegan doubting his or her beliefs. In any case, many people will look very differently at the nutritional value of meat and plants after reading the book and be much more critical about the information on food such as copiously available. On the basis of the book’s statements and the many good experiences many people have with the diet, it does seem that we have wrongly banished meat from our diet and that we have shortchanged it as the crucial food source it has been for humans for countless millennia.
An extremely one-sided diet?
Going all-in with the carnivore diet is probably too extreme for many people, however. Apart from the health benefits this diet seems to have, it is a fairly one-sided diet containing unusual food sources, often with a quite intense flavor. The original carnivore diet consists only of animal food sources: anything that has ever walked, crawled, flown, swum or at least has parents that did so, is potentially on the menu.
There are no restrictions when it comes to quantities or dinner times: you eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full. You will eat a lot of (fat) meat, including burgers, steak and red meat, to keep your calories and energy levels up. You not only eat processed meat and poultry, but also a lot of organ meat, which is important to get you sufficient nutrients. You also eat a lot of fish (the fattier the better), eggs, bone marrow (for collagen) and fatty meat products such as tallow and lard. However, you take a limited amount of dairy products such as milk and yogurt. This is because the carnivore diet is all about avoiding nutrients that your body cannot optimally digest, and dairy is an example of this. Spices may be used to a limited extent, but in this diet salt and pepper are largely used to spice up meat. The use of supplements is unnecessary with this diet.
Saladino gives an example of an average day in the life of someone following the Tier 5 Carnivore Diet (the variant Saladino himself observes daily and which is most focused on eating animal meat and organs). An average breakfast consists of 3 tallow-cooked eggs, 2 ounces (1 ounce = 1,417.50 grams) of beef liver, 1 ounce of beef kidney, 10 ounces of New York steak with salt, and 14 ounces of raw goat milk. Lunch consists of 60 grams of beef kidney fats, 4 ounces of sebum-cooked shells, 2 ounces of bone marrow and half a teaspoon of bone flour. Let's skip dinner: you get the point. You’ll also appreciate a common criticism of this diet: many people quickly tire of eating so much meat and organs and crave something like a simple serving of cooked rice after a few weeks – if not already just days.
The socio-cultural importance of food
Alan Levinovitz, an associate professor of religion at James Madison University and author of the book The Gluten Lie, in his article The Carnivore Diet Forgets that Food Does More than Feed Us described the carnivore diet as an "extremely restrictive diet that seems to view food only as a means to maintain your body and which ignores the socio-cultural importance of culinary traditions'. He does admit that this diet produced interesting insights: after two weeks of eating only meat his stools were just as good as, or even better than, before. Apparently you can go potty without much fiber. And even though he hadn't eaten vegetables for two weeks, he was not bothered by scurvy and he was physically fine.
Psychologically speaking, however, it is an especially difficult diet, writes Levinovitz. Not a single kitchen is designed for people who only eat meat, which makes it difficult to find good recipes, to allow variety, to eat out, and to participate in social eating moments. Your Christmas dinner, birthday cake, wedding toast, grandmother's recipe: all of this is out of the question. According Levinovitz the meat diet significantly alienates you from the socio-cultural significance of food, rendering it a difficult decision whether it’s worth to try. Here, too, carnivore is the new vegetarian: vegetarians will recognize all of the above social challenges and associated stresses.
Does the carnivore diet create nutritional deficiencies?
Many people will wonder about this but the studies done so far don't seem to indicate many problems. Several studies describe apparently normal bowel movements and reports finding no vitamin or mineral deficiencies. This is not very surprising: red meat alone contains copious amounts of iron and zinc, while fish and seafood provide a lot of vitamin D. Moreover, bones and organ meats in particular are packed with essential micronutrients and contain higher concentrations of them than do plants. Whether you follow the carnivore diet or not, organ meat is always a good addition to your diet due to the high nutritional value. With the high quality supplements of Ancestral Supplements it is very easy to enjoy a daily serving of organ meat.
Some dispute exists as to whether the diet provides enough vitamin C. However, you appear to require less of this vitamin by following this low-carbohydrate carnivore diet. As discussed in the article The Carnivore Diet: Is Eating ONLY Meat Healthy, or Totally F@#$ing Crazy?, the substance beta-hydroxybutyrate, produced by your liver with your body in ketosis, at least to a large extent obviates the physical requirement of vitamin C. In addition, vitamin C is used by your body to make collagen, but the amino acids that you take in especially through animal bones and organs, already ensure that your body gets plenty of it. Bone broth, as brewed by Broth of Life, for example, is an ancient, simple and nutritious way to increase your collagen intake and provide your body with powerful nutrients.
The ethics of the meat diet
Probably the main criticism of this diet is its ethical and sustainable aspect. At a time when we are going through a global sustainability revolution, this diet will shock many. Eating so much meat per person is totally unrealistic on a global scale; furthermore many animals will suffer and die in order to provide consumers with enough meat.
Saladino focuses on the ethical aspect of eating animals only in one short paragraph, tucked away somewhere at the end of the book. Where he devotes 43 pages to explaining why fiber is not optimal for your body, and 61 pages to reveal how red meat does not diminish your life expectancy, he devotes only two (!) pages to the ethical aspect of eating animals.
Hunting and disrupted ecosystems
According to Saladino, it is not cruel to eat animals when they are killed by a respectful hunting party and when as a human we feel and bear the responsibility of this hunting experience to honor the life of the animal just shot by being the best possible person.
Many may agree that the killing of wild animals on a hunt is more humane and more respectful for animals than the way many animals in the farming industry get to live and be slaughtered. Question is, how realistic is it to obtain all the meat we consume through wildlife hunting? And ethically, is it really sufficient to be "the best possible person" in honor of the animal just killed? Is that the meat and potatoes of the ethical problem?
Saladino argues that the number of animal lives lost by harvesting plants (for example, from large harvesting machines that kill insects, rabbits and mice) is much greater than the number of animal lives lost when we eat animals directly. In addition, entire ecosystems are disrupted by the construction and harvesting processes of huge monocultures. For example, Saladino comes – if very briefly – to the conclusion that the carnivore diet is ethically no worse, or even less bad, than a vegetarian diet.
But can you speak, precisely from an ethical perspective, of differences in 'value' concerning animals, and is man himself in the position to make moral calls about this? When it comes to the numbers, more mice die worldwide for our daily bread than cows for the meat industry. Regardless of whether we are in a position to make an ethical judgment about this, it seems far too subtle a problem to base such judgments on numbers and ignore the quality of animal life, the number of nutrients that an animal body supplies, how necessary it is to kill the animal in question, and how economically animal food source is being used.
Saladino’s all-too-brief ethical statement will not convince everyone. A tricky puzzle remains to be solved: which lifestyle, and more specifically dietary fashion, will imply the least CO2 emissions. You'd have to track and measure the emissions of all factories concerned, all farmers, animals, trucks and people. Also, it is impossible to see what distinct lifestyles cost in terms of animal lives and precisely how they must be weighed against the other (is killing one mouse as bad as killing a deer?).
Despite the evident ethical and socio-cultural concerns, the carnivore diet has kicked up a lot of dust in the world of nutrition. After reading The Carnivore Code we may cautiously conclude that it does indeed appear that we owe meat a revaluation. But it remains key to question how consuming meat can be done in a way that contributes to a more sustainable world. Of course, for various reasons, it is always better to opt for local, organic, grass-fed and certified foods that do not contain pesticides, herbicides or GMOs. That's something we can all readily agree on. It is also good to realize that nature is cyclical, more specifically seasonal, and that going along with that rhythm in your diet has important benefits for your health and for the world. Whether you've come to love the (or any) carnivore diet, or choose a different one: choosing quality always comes first when aiming for a better world and optimal health.