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Unmasking the Carnivore Diet: 3 Compelling Reasons Why It’s Unhealthy and Unbalanced

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In recent years, the carnivore diet has gained popularity as a radical approach to nutrition. Proponents of this diet claim that it can improve health and promote weight loss.

However, this extreme dietary pattern raises significant concerns among nutrition experts. In this article, we will delve into the reasons why the carnivore diet may be detrimental to your health and highlight the risks associated with this fad diet.

What is the Carnivore Diet?

Carnivores eat meat, but on the carnivore diet, that’s not all you get. The carnivore diet is not strictly animal-based as its name might imply and it allows for full-fat dairy, butter, coconut oil, avocados, seeds/nuts, MCT oil, some berries, and some green vegetables.

PA Doctor, Paul Saladino, believes a meat-based diet may reduce inflammation and joint pain, improve sleep and mental clarity, and help you lose weight. After practicing cardiology as a PA, Dr. Saladino earned an MD at the University of Washington and later authored The Carnivore Code: Unlocking the Secrets to Optimal Health by Returning to Our Ancestral Diet.

What’s Wrong with the Carnivore Diet?

Nutrient Deficiencies

One of the primary concerns regarding the carnivore diet is its potential to lead to nutrient deficiencies. While animal products can provide essential nutrients like protein, fat, and some vitamins, a well-rounded diet requires a diverse range of nutrients including those found in plant-based foods. 

By taking the emphasis off of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, the carnivore diet may deprive the body of vital nutrients such as dietary fiber, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and essential vitamins and minerals. 

Vitamin C, E, magnesium, and potassium are abundantly found in plant-based foods. A wealth of research supports the beneficial effects of a vitamin-rich plant-based diet. A diet without adequate plant-based foods may lead to deficiencies that compromise immune function, increase the risk of chronic diseases, and hinder overall well-being.

Dietary fiber is crucial for maintaining a healthy digestive system and promoting regular bowel movements. Its absence in the carnivore diet increases the risk of constipation, diverticulitis, and other digestive disorders. Most adults need 25 g to 34 g of fiber daily.

Increased Risk of Chronic Diseases 

The carnivore diet’s heavy reliance on animal products raises concerns about its impact on long-term health. Numerous studies have consistently shown that excessive consumption of red and processed meats increases the risk of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and diabetes.

Red meat, particularly when processed or cooked at high temperatures, contains compounds like heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons linked to cancer development. Furthermore, the increased intake of saturated fat and cholesterol from animal products can raise blood cholesterol levels, leading to a higher risk of heart disease and stroke. 

Disrupted Gut Microbiome 

The human gut microbiome is a relatively new and poorly understood concept. It comprises trillions of beneficial bacteria and is believed to be crucial in digestion, immune function, and overall health. For example, animal studies suggest a potential role of the gut microbiome in obesity and diabetes.

Evidence also suggests that the gut microbiome has a role in cardiovascular disease in humans. Another substance, trimethylamine N-oxide which is formed by gut bacteria from nutrients in red meat, may also be linked to hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, kidney function, as well as all-cause mortality. 

Research suggests that a low-fiber, animal-based diet can significantly reduce microbial diversity and alter the composition of the gut microbiome. A diverse and balanced diet rich in plant-based foods, on the other hand, helps support a healthy gut microbiome. 

The carnivore diet may lack the fiber and prebiotics needed to nourish beneficial gut bacteria.

The Evidence-based Diets for Better Health

  • Mediterranean diet 
    • High in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, beans, nuts, and seeds. Lots of fish, little red meat.
      • One meta-analysis showed lower all-cause mortality in patients following a Mediterranean diet compared with controls.
  • DASH diet
    • Lots of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and two to three servings of low-fat dairy per day.
    • <25 percent of daily calories from fat
    • <2,300mg Na day
      • Not only is the DASH diet as effective as medication for lowering blood pressure in some, but it’s also been shown to lower the risk of colorectal cancer, cardiovascular disease, and gout. 
  • Plant-based
    • Whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts, with differing amounts of animal-based foods such as meat, eggs, and dairy products, depending on the type of vegetarianism.
      • A plant-based diet can help lower the risk of heart disease and the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes. It may also reduce all-cause mortality.
  • Low fat and low cholesterol
    • 10-30% of total calories from fat with low to moderate shellfish, low-fat dairy, and egg
      • This one is less clear. Some data support the beneficial effects of low-fat and low-cholesterol diets, while other studies found no effect. 
      • Low-fat diets are not even necessarily more effective for weight loss.

Just Skip the Carnivore Diet for Optimal Health

While the carnivore diet may offer short-term weight loss benefits for some individuals, its potential long-term risks outweigh any temporary advantages. Restricting the intake of plant-based foods and relying solely on animal products poses significant challenges to achieving a balanced and nutritious diet. 

The absence of essential nutrients, increased risk of chronic diseases, and gut microbiome disruption are all compelling reasons to avoid the carnivore diet and other popular fads that make unsubstantiated claims.

Instead of adopting extreme and potentially harmful dietary approaches, prioritize a balanced and varied diet that includes a wide range of plant-based foods. By doing so, you can reap the benefits of various nutrients, support a healthy gut microbiome, and reduce the risk of chronic diseases, all while promoting overall well-being and longevity.

The article was medically reviewed by Michelle Hanzély, DMSc (candidate), MS, PA-C, RDN.

Michelle Hanzély, DMSc (candidate), MS, PA-C, RDN

Michelle Hanzély has been a Registered Dietitian for 26 years and a Physician Associate for 22 years practicing in Emergency and Internal Medicine. She is currently a Doctoral Fellow at the University of Lynchburg, preparing to receive the Doctor of Medical Science degree. She is also Associate Professor at South College-Nashville.

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