On the increasingly popular carnivore diet, people report miraculous results. It’s far superior to half-assed cousins like Atkins and Paleo and the ketogenic diet; not just low-carb but “zero-carb.” Of course mainstream media is skeptical and conventional dietitians scoff. How could it be that all carbs are evil, that plant toxins and “anti-nutrients” are the cause of most modern ailments? But results speak for themselves.
Pounds melt off. Stomach trouble vanishes. Joints gnarled by arthritis unfurl. #Meatheals doesn’t lie, and the world is listening. Joe Rogan recently introduced carnivore and orthopedic surgeon Shawn Baker to the masses on his podcast. Mikhaila Peterson, the daughter of Canadian psychologist cum bestselling self-help author Jordan Peterson, says she cured herself of depression by subsisting on only beef and water and now sells dietary consultations. Celebrity doctor Drew Pinsky told the New York Post, “I’ll be goddamned if within three days I didn’t feel unbelievable.” Some enthusiasts even claim to have acquired immunity to sunburn. (Others, apparently, have not.)
Since my next book will have a short section on carnivores, I wanted to give their diet a try. Starting on July 29, for thirteen straight days my wife and I got every last calorie from carnivory-approved animal products: eggs, seafood, chicken, pork, lamb, and mostly steak. Goodbye beer, wine, and my beloved bourbon. With the exception of butter, no dairy. No sauces, just dried seasonings, salt, and pepper. We peed on the strips and our urine was chock full of ketones by Day 2. This was the real deal.
I’ll start with the pleasant surprise: Carnivory did not give me the shits like everyone said it would. Instead, after a comfortable week of no shitting, my plumbing went right back to normal—actually, if I’m being totally honest, a little better than normal, since frequency and volume went down and who doesn’t want smaller, less frequent shits, right?
Bowels are what people tend to ask about first (“No fiber at all?!”), even if they’re most curious about weight loss. In our profoundly dishonest dieting culture, there’s an unspoken rule where everyone has to pretend health is their top priority while sharing inspirational selfies of muscles so unnaturally defined they make shirtless 30-year-old Marlon Brando look like a “before” picture.
So sure, happy to tell you. I lost seven pounds. And, after three days of normal eating, five of them came back. That’s because those were the bullshit pounds that low-carb diets use to hook their marks, like a con man giving away the first jackpot in a street hustle. Folks: you don’t leave the diet game with those initial winnings. If you stop eating low-carb, or “zero-carb,” the early loss—up to 12 pounds!—returns instantly because it’s not fat you’ve lost, just water released as your body burns through its glycogen stores. You shrink, but you aren’t any healthier than if you were wearing Spanx.
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Physiologically, there were only a few downsides: I like to row, but without carbs my non-keto-adapted body crashed after 10 minutes of continuous exercise; I developed a weird rash associated with ketogenic diets; and I got a bad sunburn, atypical for me, on day 14. (In all fairness, it would be unfair to blame that last one on the diet.)
Psychologically, though, I was a wreck. Not because meat makes me depressed, but because food and drink add so much to my life. Fresh fall peaches at the Charlottesville farmers’ market; cappuccinos at my favorite café; warm sourdough from the local bakery; Friday night beers: These weekly joys, often shared with friends, were now off limits.
My wife and I love to cook, yet despite trying to keep it up (Day 5: Smoked Paprika Meatballs, Day 12: Crab Omelet) we had to face reality: there’s not a single culinary tradition available to carnivores. French, Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Indian—hell, even Brazilian steak is traditionally served with toasted cassava flour called farofa. Whatever euphoria supposedly comes with ketosis was powerless against regular old despair.
After 13 days of the carnivore diet, I realized that focusing on physiology fails to capture what makes carnivory so extreme. One valuable lesson of the diet is that human bodies are remarkably resilient: You can shit without fiber and avoid scurvy without vegetables! But reducing food to physiology is as shallow as reducing culture to biology. It’s hard to overstate the sociocultural importance of culinary traditions. Breaking bread. “Comfort food.” Grandma’s recipe. Potlatchs. Wedding toasts. Birthday cake. Thanksgiving dinner. You don’t have to be a foodie for food to be meaningful—you just have to be a human being. And exponentially more than any other restrictive diet, carnivory isolates you from that meaning.
The true magnitude of this diet’s cost only hit me the day after it ended, when I was in colonial Williamsburg with my family eating “famous” peanut soup at the King’s Arms Tavern, once patronized by George Washington. There, enjoying what is essentially drinkable pad Thai peanut sauce, I remembered an interview I’d read with a carnivore woman whose staple food “is raw, frozen hamburger patties.” I know it seems trivial, but suddenly I felt tremendous sorrow that this woman would never, ever experience peanut soup at George Washington’s tavern, not because she was allergic to peanuts, but because somehow she’d been convinced to trade an entire galaxy of experiences for the promise of dietary salvation via communion wafers of frozen meat.
Seeking out alternative dietary practices makes sense. The so-called Standard American Diet—heavy on highly processed grains, oils, and sugar, and engineered for overconsumption—poses a serious threat to global public health, and no one has figured out how to fight it.
Our medical system does a wretched job dealing with dietary problems: Celiac disease is massively under-diagnosed, food intolerances are on the rise, and physicians often fail to consider dietary interventions for chronic conditions like psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis, instead prescribing pharmaceuticals with excruciating digestive side effects. Meanwhile, nutrition science lurches from one recommendation to another, leaving the public understandably skeptical of experts and government guidelines. Into the void step authorities of all sorts, underwritten by endless testimonials. Who wouldn’t want to give them a try in this age of polluted food and deteriorating bodies?
The illusion, however, is that this age is different from any other. Miracle diets, like the suffering they promise to resolve, are as old as religion itself. In the Book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon tries to feed Daniel and three of his friends on royal meat and wine. Daniel doesn’t want to defile himself, so, in what might be the earliest dietary trial ever recounted, he asks for his group to be fed for ten days on water and pulses (fruits, vegetables, and lentils). And wouldn’t you know it? “At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food.” Vegetarianism, endorsed by God and science.
When modern-day carnivores testify to the power of their diet, it’s essential to see it in the context of a long line of testimonials. Either you believe them all, or you consider the possibility that the latest might share traits with the ones that came before.
It may seem hard to explain miraculous arthritis turnarounds or sunburn resistance on the carnivore diet, but in truth it’s no harder than explaining miraculous arthritis turnarounds on a vegan diet, or the miraculous power of chewing your food 100 times per minute before swallowing it, or the miraculous power of juicing and coffee enemas to cure cancer. No doubt some of these diets are physiologically effective for some people. If you have undiagnosed celiac and go carnivore, you will experience a genuine miracle that might include remission of arthritis.
Science may one day vindicate the proposed biological mechanisms of carnivore sunburn resistance and arthritis remission, which would be terrific. They should be rigorously tested. But until then, scientific minds will acknowledge that proposed mechanisms are routinely falsified, and arthritis can spontaneously remit, just like cancer. Eliminating plant toxins may help treat depression and anxiety—but the thrill of immediate weight loss can also relieve anxiety in someone terrified of being fat, just as gaining it back can be depressing. History is replete with cases of the lame walking and the blind seeing, thanks to everything from diets to spiritual power. It’s simply easier to treat those cases critically when the people involved are no longer alive.
For as long as miracle diets have existed, people have also resented being told what to eat. They want to test the rules, as Eve did after God forbade eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. A tradition of Jewish midrash (commentary) on Genesis points out that Eve—or possibly Adam—adds rules to God’s original prohibition. When the serpent shows up and asks about the Garden’s nutritional guidelines, Eve tells him that God not only forbade eating from the tree, he also forbade touching it. In one midrash, which fills in the original story, the serpent pushes her against the tree. Eve doesn’t die, and so he convinces her that the prohibition against eating from it is equally empty. If one rule doesn’t hold, why not rebel against them all?
Carnivory is perfectly suited to our cultural moment. Finding out that an all-meat diet won’t cause scurvy, that your bowels can do well (maybe better!) on nothing but ribeyes—it’s as if the serpent pushed you against the tree, and you survived. There’s an exhilaration in successfully violating deeply held taboos, a profound sense of power and freedom, the rush that comes with occult knowledge.
I felt it myself when my wife and I walked into a BBQ joint and ordered two pounds of brisket, no sauce. “For here?” asked the owner. “Yeah, for here.” He looked at us for a few seconds with a mixture of horror and astonishment before replying, “Hey man, I like your style.” Today, there’s no better way to break dietary taboos than carnivory: only meat, the fattier the better.
Never mind the question of whether carnivory is healthy, or ethical, or good for the environment. None of those addresses its unique appeal, which lies in giving the establishment and its sheeple an unparalleled fuck you. To make it easier, advocates pretend the government recommends eating the Standard American Diet when in fact it explicitly calls for avoiding products with added sugar, just like Eve pretended that God forbade touching the tree.
They tweet photos of their abs but do not mention the awkward family holidays, how they used to visit the farmers’ market, the keto rash and the unfortunate sunburns, or the possibility that faith, not physiology, is responsible for at least some of the reported miracles. (Or maybe it’s cutting out alcohol, something carnivores have in common with Daniel.)
Sitting in the King’s Arms Tavern, I felt the omissions profoundly. Like any medical intervention, diets have potential side effects, both physical and psychological. Honest advocates would be open about them; evangelists can’t afford to be. And the worst side effect of carnivory is never discussed at all: the vampiric draining of meaning from food until nothing is left but nutrition.
So consider this the warning on the side of the bottle. Perhaps there is a cure for you in carnivory; perhaps the pounds will melt off and after 3 days you’ll feel “unbelievable,” just like Dr. Drew. But before you try it, remember the frozen beef patties and all the peanut soups you’re trading for them. As far as I’m concerned that’s a pretty raw deal, even if you throw in six-pack abs and sunburn immunity.
Alan Levinovitz is an associate professor of religion at James Madison University and author of The Gluten Lie, which examines the religious roots of common food fears. His next book, One Nature Under God, is about the modern substitution of "natural" for "holy." Follow him on Twitter @alanlevinovitz.
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