Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
13 Jan

What About a Zero Carb Diet?

Zero carb is getting (relatively) popular. A handful of valued MDA forum members eat little-to-no-carb, and several others probably imagine it’s ideal even if they don’t personally follow it. I wanted to address this because there seems to be some confusion as to how a zero carb eating plan relates to the Primal Blueprint eating plan. To begin with: I think zero carb can be a viable option for some, but highly impractical for most. If one had access to and ate different animals, all range fed and without pollutants, and if one ate all offal (and stomach contents) it’s possible to approach zero carb… but again highly impractical. If you really, really love meat and fat and offal, and get genuine enjoyment from eating nothing but meat and fat and offal, have at it. On the other hand, if you are looking for a wider variety – and gustatory enjoyment – of the foods you eat, zero carb may be unenjoyable, impractical, unnecessary, and at worst (if not done just right) downright dangerous.

Let’s take a look at just a few of the reasons why vegetables are a part of The Primal Blueprint:

First, it’s highly unlikely that early man would have consciously avoided edible, available vegetation. We already know that current hunter-gatherers take advantage of anything edible within reach – plant or animal. We are adaptive capitalists, ready and willing to exploit any situation to our advantage. Humans are survivors and they’ll eat whatever is available. If you subscribe to the “out of Africa” model of human evolution – as do most anthropologists – the bulk of our evolution took place in the lush, fertile Africa grasslands where both game and vegetation were plentiful. Grok wasn’t throwing together multicolored salads every day at noon, but the precedent for plant consumption is there. The opportunity certainly was.

People have ranged far and wide across the globe, living in a variety of environments and ecosystems, each with different sources of food. Looking at the fossil records, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact Paleolithic diet (whatever that means), seeing as how vegetable matter degrades and bone endures. But it’s safe to say that meat and fat have always been preferred by man, and our ancestors’ adoption of a meat and fat-heavy diet necessitated and prompted (in the cycle of positive feedback between culture and physiology that so often describes evolution) the smaller guts and bigger brains we enjoy today. Many like to take this point combined with examples of people surviving on animals alone as proof that vegetables should be restricted or avoided entirely. As I see it, when a carnivorous-predominant group does arise, like the Inuit, it is only out of necessity. They are an exception to the rule. The Inuit survived in a barren, arid environment by eating whatever was available: marine animals, fat, blubber, organs, and fish. It wasn’t by choice. They weren’t turning their noses up at bushels of berries and teeming fields of wild cabbage; the opportunity simply wasn’t there. In every other case, humans will eat both plants and animals if they are given the chance, and plant matter is mostly available all over the world, depending on the season.

The Inuit do, though, show us that an-all meat, zero carb diet has the potential to be healthy. It might even be desirable for certain people if (here comes the tricky part), as I said, they use organic range-fed whole animals – muscle meat, fat, organs, offal, stomach contents – to get the whole spectrum of fat-soluble nutrients and vitamins. All those thriving near-carnivorous traditional groups the zero carb crowd likes to throw around weren’t buying tubes of 80/20 Walmart beef and nothing else; they were eating spoiled organs, consuming stomach contents, fermenting full-fat dairy, drinking fish liver shooters, gnawing on still-beating bison heart, and feasting on a “guts and grease” diet. Stefansson’s oft-cited all-meat diet experiment wasn’t just muscle and fat; it was fried liver and brains, fish, and a whole host of animal products. As for the ground beef and water diets that seem popular in some ZC circles? You’re fooling yourself if you think that’s an optimum diet for health and longevity, and I’m not sure if some favorable lab numbers garnered after six months of eating nothing but burger mean much at all. Better than the standard American diet of chips, sodas, cookies, and rancid fats on top of the same burger meat? Maybe. Optimum? Not a chance. Let’s see what happens in thirty years. Staunch ZCer Danny Roddy’s strangely scurvy-esque symptoms following a purely pemmican diet should give you pause.

That sort of fear of macronutrients is silly and potentially dangerous. Avoiding grass-fed beef liver because it contains a few grams of carbohydrates is crazy (or did you conveniently forget that crucial aspect of the Inuit and Plains Native diets – organ meats?). Eschewing pastured eggs and all their yolky goodness because of a fraction of a gram of carbohydrates? Madness. Now, avoiding all carbs because you feel better without them? I can get behind that. Trying to maximize fat loss by going zero carb for short periods of time? Worth trying. Trying to prove your glucose-freebasing marathoner friends wrong by beating them on a ultra-low carb diet? I love a good self-experiment; do it! A complete zero carb diet is possible to get right, albeit a bit impractical and unwieldy for most people (if you think sourcing grass-fed beef is tough, trying finding a steady supply of pastured thyroid glands, kidneys, livers, brains, tripe, and heart!), but so is an omnivorous one. Which would you prefer? Which would enhance your quality of life? As long as you’re avoiding grains, legumes, sugar, and industrial vegetable oils, these are the important questions to dwell on.

But what of vegetables? Is there anything inherent to be feared? Most plants are, at the worst, harmless. Others, like the seeds of wheat and barley and legumes, really don’t want to be eaten and can cause problems. These guys employ various anti-nutrients, chemical defenses like lectins and gluten to prevent and dissuade consumption. Certain animal and insect species have developed tolerances, but we generally have not. It is necessary for proper health that we humans “deprive” ourselves of these foods. I get that. And people sensitive to nightshades should avoid them, just as the lactose intolerant should probably avoid even raw dairy, and people with a severe shellfish allergy should avoid shrimp. This is basic stuff. But to posit that humans are somehow wholly intolerant of all vegetables and fruits is nonsense. Leafy greens like spinach and kale, carrots, asparagus, broccoli, squash, even the occasional sweet potato – some people would have you believe these are poison. Unnecessary? Perhaps. Dangerous? No, and especially when eaten with plenty of fat, vegetables are excellent vehicles for delivering beneficial nutrients, vitamins, and minerals to the people consuming them (read a few of our Smart Fuel posts on vegetables for more info on this point). Leafy greens, for example, are great sources of magnesium and calcium. Sardines and mackerel are good sources, too, but do they negate the utility (or deliciousness) of a plate of kale, sauteed in garlic butter and topped with lemon juice? This, to me, isn’t a point not to be taken lightly.

There’s more to this picture. As long as you’re going to be cooking your meat there are good reasons to eat your steak with a side of veggies. A researcher named Joseph Kanner has spent a career looking at how the potential nastiness of cooked meats – oxidized fats, for instance – are neutralized in the “bioreactor” of the stomach with the inclusion of antioxidants from vegetables, red wine, and tea. Does this mean vegetables are required for safe consumption of cooked meat? Probably not, but unless you’re eating all your meat and offal raw, ultra-slow-cooked, or super rare, you may want to include a small salad, a bit of broccoli, or a glass of wine with that ribeye. Plant-based antioxidants (flavonoids, carotenoids, and other phytonutrients) in general provide a good line of defense against stress, inflammation, and the ravages of aging in the context of the former two conditions. A perfect zero carber who closely watches meat sources, gets plenty of sleep, good Primal exercise, and leads a low-stress existence is probably fine without piles of vegetables, but the average person who stumbles upon the PB and needs to drop a few dozen pounds, kick a few prescription meds, and maintain on inconsistent sleep? A Big Ass Salad (BAS) for lunch and some berries for breakfast (along with near carnivorous eating otherwise) will go a long way toward healing them – and they’d definitely be a huge improvement over what they were previously eating.

And this gets me to my final main point on the importance of plants. The Primal Blueprint eating plan supports vegetation in large part because it’s meant to be a sustainable regimen – for life. Our supportive stance on vegetation is meant to include, rather than preclude. I’m trying to positively modify as many individual eating habits as I can in my short time on this planet. My work is my work, but I’m passionate about it, and I don’t want to be a starving diet guru with an incredibly loyal but miniscule cadre of die-hard followers. I want to affect people on a huge scale. I refuse to water my message down (“drink diet sodas and avoid saturated fat”), but if including lots of vegetables attracts more people without detracting from the nutritional merits of the lifestyle, I’m going to keep doing it. I’m talking about the people who need our help the most. They are our parents, our friends, our neighbors, and they stand to gain the most from adopting a Primal eating plan. Excluding vegetables right off the bat would only turn people away and relegate us to “fad diet” status immediately. It’s already an uphill battle, folks, and we don’t need any more roadblocks. Please, though, don’t read this as some sort of vague admission that vegetables aren’t a critical part of a healthy eating plan. I only mean to note this added importance that veggies bring to the PB.

Before I wrap this up, let me speak specifically to how this relates to the official Primal Blueprint Food Pyramid – which is founded on vegetables, and to a lesser extent, fruits. Vegetation gets prime seating at the base as it makes up the bulk of an average PB meal, with meat and other animal products following up immediately after. When you take a look at the average Primal eater’s caloric daily breakdown though, fat and meat take the lion’s share. And when we publish a PB recipe, more often than not it features animal flesh proudly and prominently. Vegetation represents the foundation of the pyramid graphic but not the bulk of the caloric reality, which might seem designed to mislead.

It’s not, though. For one thing, the sheer volume of raw vegetation is immense. Three cups of raw spinach quickly become less than a cup’s worth when exposed to butter and a heated surface. A few cups of buttered broccoli might displace enough three-dimensional space to fill a plate, but it won’t fill you up; the ten ounces of steak to the left will take care of that. In that sense, vegetation can and often does form the foundation of a Primal eating strategy, calories notwithstanding, but it’s not a ton of calories derived from plants. That would take kilos of greens and pounds of carrots, and we aren’t lowland gorillas with immense fermentation chambers in our protruding guts. To really get a sense of how many or how few vegetables and fruits the PB prescribes, though, look to the Carbohydrate Curve: it’s totally open-ended. At the height, it’s 150 g/day of carbs, from vegetables and fruits and natural starches. Athletes can even extend that and go a bit higher, depending on activity level and glycogen needs. It goes as low as zero carb, which I characterize as an “excellent catalyst for rapid weight loss.” You’ll also note that while I don’t recommend it for prolonged periods, it’s not because I fear ketosis, or that excluding plant foods will kill you; it’s because I can’t support the “unnecessary deprivation of plant foods.”

In the end, the PB comes down to maximizing quality of life. I want to enjoy every bite of every meal. I want to stay out of the rest home, avoid hospital stays, and stay active into my twilight years. Hell, I want my twilight years to be inundated with beams of radiant light. I don’t want my life to be a heavily regimented procession of pills and white coats. I want to have my sensible vices, like wine or dark chocolate. I want to eat vegetables because I enjoy them – not because I’m under the assumption that they’re magic. I have the means and the wherewithal to eat a complete, totally ideal carnivorous diet, but I prefer variety. I like my steak and my eggs (a gram of carbs doesn’t scare me) and my asparagus.

Let me know what you think PBers, ZCers and everyone else. Thank for reading!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Just on that note…the fibre that you get from eating leafy green vegetables is actually a pretty important part of maintaining optimal health levels for your modern day human living in say, a first world country. (You can google all the fibre goodness info) Granted, you could simply eat a bunch of flax seeds for your fibre instead but they don’t really taste that great – I’d much rather have a fibre-full salad. Anyway – the true bushmen in Africa who still live relatively distanced from modern society and practise their traditional ways of living, will generally graze on vegetation for about 2-3 days at which point they will go out and hunt for meat. They generally are known for their good health and longevity. Personally I think eating totally zero carb is not very healthy, nor is it sustainable if we were all to eat that way. If you believe in evolution, then it’s pretty easy to at least consider the fact that we might still be evolving and may have already evolved enough to live at optimum health levels on a diet that includes vegetables & fruits.

    PosyBee wrote on November 12th, 2014
  2. Beth wrote on April 26th, 2015
  3. Agree! I am just finding my way into the PB way of life. I’m 4 months into this new found life style. It really fits my way of eating and I like it. I’m tracking everything with the “Lose It” app and tweaking as I learn more. There is too much info out on the web, too many opinions and youtube clips to the point of overload. The PB and MDA seems to be the most reliable source of reasonable information. You keep it in context!

    My 4 month macros are averaging out to Fats 104g, Carbs 18g, Protein 94g, Fiber 4g, Sugar 6g, Sodium 1533mg. Calories are currently 1310 until I reach optimal weight of 180 range. LBM is 160 range based on keto-calculator. Current weigh today is 208 down from 255 on 7/25/15.

    I am getting leg cramps at night so I’ve added 400mg of Mag at bedtime and have increases table salt on my food. I also take D3 10,000iu, and 2 GNC 1560 fish oil in the morning. Seems to have helped.

    My next goal to is start experimenting with blood Ketone and Glucose measuring. I want to be in optimal Ketosis of 1.5 to 3 and have glucose in the 70 to 80’s.

    Please email any feedback on my macro’s and tweaks to improve my numbers and progress. Thanks!

    steve wrote on November 15th, 2015
  4. So, several things here. First off I knew Bear personally, and he was flat out joking when he talked about the broccoli, and you could see the twinkle in his eyes every time he said it. So all you folks that bought into that line – he gotcha.

    Secondly, he was pretty clear that his throat cancer was either a product of an HPV infection that he picked up back in the day, or from all the second-hand tobacco smoke he breathed in all those years when he was the sound man and recording engineer for the Dead. He also thought the heart issues could have been left over from all that cigarette smoke as well. Interestingly, heart attacks among non-smokers drop by 30 to 50 percent in those cities where smoking in public is outlawed. We’ve seen that effect in every city around the world where it’s happened. He was convinced that being a pure carnivore significantly reduced both the progression of his cancer (a type that is normally highly aggressive, but which was very very slow in his case) and that his diet also mitigated the heart attacks.

    Thirdly, there are a lot of misconceptions about zero-carb. We all know that there is plenty of glucogen in muscle meat, so while we call it zero-carb, we know it is not really. And for those of us who eat this way, it seems that it doesn’t matter whether the meat is grass-fed, organic, or regular CAFO grocery meat. It all works and works well period. I probably get somewhere between 5 and 20 grams of carbs per day just from meat.

    Personally I object to CAFOs and I am also quite fortunate to live in an area surrounded by farms. I know all the farmers raising my meat. I do eat eggs (4 every morning with my slabs of bacon) but am lactose intolerant so I eschew dairy. I don’t bother with organ meats particularly but I don’t avoid them either. I’ve been in the ZC community for years and know a ton of people who just eat meat, fat and water and they (and I) are all robustly healthy. I just can’t handle plants. They do terrible things to my insides. It turns out, if it isn’t naturally present in meat then it’s not a nutrient I need.

    This is especially true with something like Vitamin C. It turns out that uric acid accomplishes the same function for zero-carbers. But if you eat even small amounts of carbs (such as the hardtack all those sailors ate, who then died of scurvy) you will absolutely get ill. I don’t know what the percentages are, but that’s never been an issue for me or my fellow Z-Cers.

    Personally, it doesn’t matter what anyone else eats. In fact the more you all are eating plants the better it is for me because then meat prices drop. Also, different meats have different nutrient sets, and my body is highly sensitive to that. If I eat half a chicken or a pound of fresh scallops wrapped in bacon, I’m starving in about 3 hours. If I eat a 1 pound ribeye, I’m good for 12 hours. If you are interested in this then there is a great web site with plenty of info and resources, including many testimonials. But hey, don’t believe me, see for yourself. It’s easy, healthy and delicious. Just eat meat and drink water for 30 days and see how you feel. You’ll be fine. :)

    Here’s that web site – hope you find it helpful: xerocarbzen dot com

    Thom wrote on March 21st, 2016
  5. Thank you for your wonderful thoughtful detailed posts! I was going down the zero carb rabbit hole and was thinking about wild blueberries… I can’t imagine anyone turning them down. You explained everything so well. I love your site and Thank you so much for all you do!!!

    corrie wrote on June 8th, 2016
  6. I have not seen Zero Carb proponents saying that a carnivorous diet is THE diet we were all meant to consume: but rather there are some of us who seem to be intolerant to plant foods. We react to salicylates and oxalates and fructose with pain, fatigue, irritable bowel, cravings and constant hunger. People have had amazing results with this way of eating. That’s what’s important. And with a beef dominant diet, they have not developed any kind of deficiencies. I have not seen any ZC advocating that every one should eat this way. The advice is to try it for 30 days.

    Sandra wrote on August 23rd, 2016

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2016 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!