While a plant-based diet avoids animal products, a carnivore diet allows its followers to consume only meat and other animal products — a limit, some say, that comes with a host of health benefits.
Philip Ovadia, a Florida-based cardiothoracic surgeon is one of the diet’s avid proponents. Ovadia, who first went low-carb before transitioning to fully carnivore five years ago, credits the lifestyle change for helping him lose weight and increase his energy and mental clarity.
“During the eight years that I have been on various forms of low-carbohydrate diets, I have lost 100 pounds and greatly improved my overall wellbeing,” Ovadia says. “[I] feel better as I approach 50 than I did in my 20s and 30s.”
The carnivore diet first became popular around 2018 and is credited to a former orthopedic surgeon, Shawn Baker. It takes the concept of other low-carb meal plans such as the paleo or ketogenic diets and strips out the carbohydrates completely (along with all non-animal protein sources). Similar to the paleo diet, it attempts to replicate food sources available to our early ancestors with an idea that humans were built to eat more like lions and other predators and less like the largely plant-eating primates.
Ovadia says the diet — which may also include spices and seasonings for some — has shown to improve or even reverse a wide range of health conditions from diabetes, auto-immune conditions, and inflammatory bowel disease.
Research on the diet, however, is limited. In a 2021 study researchers gathered information on more than 2000 people who had been on a carnivore diet for at least six months. The most notable was the self-reported improvement in diabetes. Of the roughly 400 people affected by diabetes, 74 percent reported that the diet resolved their diabetes completely and another 24 percent reported that it improved their diabetes.
Roughly half of the participants reported being overweight or obese. Among those participants, 52 percent credit the diet for resolving their weight issues entirely while another 41 percent reported some weight loss.
Of the participants roughly 25 percent had mental health issues before starting the diet and reported improvement in psychiatric conditions. Among those participants, nearly all credited the diet change with at least improving their condition if not resolving it entirely.
Lipid abnormalities were the one category in the study with more mixed responses from the participants. Roughly 20 percent of the participants reported having lipid abnormalities before beginning a carnivore diet and while 56 percent of those participants said the diet resolved or improved those issues, the remainder stated that those abnormalities remained unchanged on the diet or got worse.
For decades, health professionals have encouraged humans to consume a variety of healthy food from the various food groups. And although dietary guidelines have shifted through the years, eating entirely from just one or two food groups flies in the face of these long-held recommendations.
“I don’t have anything good to say about the carnivore diet,” says Christopher Gardner, director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center. “There aren’t any carbs there, there isn’t any fiber […] and there’s lots of vitamins and minerals that you get from fruits, grains, beans, nuts, seeds that you wouldn’t be able to get and meet the recommended daily allowance.”
Gardner, who himself follows a plant-based diet, has conducted various diet-related studies over the years. In a recent study, Gardner and his colleagues compared the effects of a healthy vegan diet to a healthy omnivore diet by closely following 22 sets of identical twins over an eight-week period.
In the study, a twin in each set was randomly assigned to either a plant-based diet or an omnivore diet for the eight-week period. A team of health professionals coached the participants on how to exercise and eat healthy in their assigned diets. They also collected various health statistics from body fat, cholesterol levels and even more obscure factors such as libido and aging. The results spoke highly in favor of a plant-based diet.
Over the course of eight weeks, the bad cholesterol levels stayed the same for those following the omnivore diet but decreased an average of 10 percent for those following the vegan diet. The plant-based participants also saw a boost in their beneficial microbiome bacteria and, perhaps even more surprisingly, came out of the eight-week study biologically younger than their omnivore twin. They did this by lengthening their telomeres — protein structures that shorten with age and eventually lead to disease.
One of the criticisms often cast on the carnivore diet is the lack of fiber from eating only animal products. Ovadia says that fiber isn’t necessary to prevent constipation and points to a 2012 study to back up that claim.
“People on carnivore diets do tend to move their bowels less often,” Ovadia says. “However this is not accompanied by symptoms of constipation and is likely due to the body better utilizing the food and producing less waste from the digestive process.”
Red meat and especially processed red meat have long been linked to cancer. Ovadia points to a 2019 study which states that the risk is negligible. However, a more recent study highlights a link between red and processed meat consumption to various types of cancer.
Meat consumption can also increase trimethylamine N-oxide, which studies show may raise the risk of heart disease and other ailments.
Gardner says he’s been approached by carnivores about doing a carnivore versus plant-based study. But he says it’s problematic because participants would have to agree to be randomly chosen to follow either diet and typically they have a strong preference for one over the other.
“You can’t be in the study if you just want the one because that means you may be predisposed to something and I can’t generalize that finding,” says Gardner. “I don’t know a lot of people who’d voluntarily be vegan or a carnivore.”
But there is something carnivores and health-conscious vegans can likely agree on. Eliminating added sugars and white flours from the diet can only be an asset for a healthy lifestyle.
“I think one of the main things they’re doing on that carnivore diet is they’re getting rid of all their added sugar and refined grain,” says Gardner. “That is 40 percent of the American diet and getting rid of that has got to do good things for your health.”
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