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What About a Zero Carb Diet?

Zero carb is getting (relatively) popular. A handful of valued MDA forum [7] 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 [8] and fat [9] and offal [10], 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 [11]:

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 [12] 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 [13] 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 [14] 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 [15], legumes [16], sugar [17], 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 [18] and gluten [19] 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 [20] 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 [21] 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 [22]. 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 [23], inflammation [24], 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 [25] (BAS) for lunch and some berries [26] 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 [27] 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 [28] – 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 [29], 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 [28]: 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 [30] 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 [31], 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 [32], like wine [33] or dark chocolate [34]. 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!