Carnivores are much closer to Primal eaters on the dietary spectrum, The Primal Blueprint posits that animal foods—meat, fish, fowl, shellfish, eggs, and dairy—represent the most nutrient-dense, most crucial component of the human diet. Carnivore takes that and runs with it, to its logical conclusion: Animal foods are so nutrient-dense and so important that we should eat them to the exclusion of everything else.
I don’t exactly agree, but I see where they’re coming from. And there’s a lot we can learn from the carnivore movement. I’ve got 8 takeaways today.
1. That a Steak Really Isn’t Going To Kill You
I’ve covered these arguments dozens of times on these pages. But it’s truly heartening to see hundreds and thousands of anecdotal reports from people who are thriving while eating two, three, four ribeyes a day for months and even years on end. When you see that, even though it’s “just” a collection of anecdotes, it gets really hard to think that eating a big grass-fed ribeye whenever you want is really going to give you cancer or diabetes or whatever else malady they’re trying to pin on red meat.
2. That More Fiber Isn’t Always the Answer
Of all the food components out there, fiber is the one that really trips me up. I still can’t quite get a handle on it. Is it important? Is it harmful? Is it useless? There’s conflicting evidence at every turn. My hunch—and reading of the anthropological and scientific literature—tells me that some prebiotic substrate is a good thing for healthy human guts, but it also tells me that fiber can be harmful in certain situations and in certain gut biomes. After all, we aren’t living like the Hadza, eating antelope colon sashimi and never touching soap. We live relatively sterile existences. Our guts are not ancestral, no matter how many quarts of kefir we quaff.
What carnivore offers is evidence that fiber isn’t always the answer. And remember that animal proteins can offer prebiotic substrate in the form of “animal fiber” (bones, tendons, connective tissue, gristle) and—if you consume dairy—milk oligosaccharides.
3. That Oxalates May Be An Issue
You know that strange feeling you get on your tongue and gums after a big serving of spinach? Those are oxalates, an anti-nutrient found in many if not most plant foods. They can bind to minerals and form crystals, the most infamous being the calcium oxalate crystals which are the most common type of kidney stone. Yeah, not fun.
The carnivore movement has seized on oxalates as a reason not to consume plants. Many animals have the adaptations to digest and nullify large amounts of oxalates. Humans, by and large, do not. There are exceptions, such as the Hadza whose guts harbor oxalate-degrading bacteria, and likely others yet to be discovered. And there’s definite variation even among humans living in industrialized settings—not everyone gets kidney stones because they ate creamed spinach. But it’s a good idea for the average human to at least be aware of oxalates.
Thanks to your newfound awareness of oxalates, you can figure out ways to reduce their impact if you still want to consume them.
You can choose low-oxalate plants. Kale is quite low in oxalates compared to other leafy greens, as are collard greens. Same goes for others in the brassica family, like broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower: all low in oxalate.
You can improve your calcium metabolism. Eating enough vitamin A (retinol), vitamin K2, and vitamin D will improve your calcium metabolism and leave less of it hanging around to bind with oxalate and form crystals. Eating enough boron (or supplementing with it, as it doesn’t appear in many foods) can also reduce the formation of calcium oxalate stones.
Drinking about 4 ounces of lemon or lime juice in your water throughout the day will also reduce the formation of calcium oxalate stones.
I don’t mean for this to become a “what to do about oxalates” post. But without the carnivore movement’s broad transmission of the oxalate issue, many people wouldn’t even think about them.
4. That Meat Truly Is the Ancestral Foundation Of the Human Diet
I mean, we knew this. We knew that our hominid ancestors have been eating meat and marrow for over three million years. We knew that our meat-eating is probably what helped set us apart from our primate cousins, that calorie-dense and easily-digestible meat allowed us to shrink our guts and grow our brains. We knew that of all extant and known populations on earth, not a one was vegan.
But the carnivore movement makes you feel it. By eating exclusively meat and not just surviving but apparently thriving on animal foods alone, they force you into a reckoning of their historical primacy in the human diet. Now, not everyone thrives. The drop outs, well, they drop out. We only see the success stories—but that’s true for any diet, including Primal. The drop-outs from diets like Primal or carnivore tend to be less catastrophic and numerous than the drop-outs from veganism or fruitarianism, but they’re definitely out there.
5. That the Best Elimination Diet Might Be an All-Meat One
I wrote a post recently about the Autoimmune Paleo diet, a highly-restrictive but effective elimination diet used to identify trigger foods in autoimmune patients.
Going carnivore might just be a bare-bones version of the same thing. It eliminates all the same foods, plus more. And because it’s more of a scorched-earth approach, it’s simpler. You just eat meat and meat byproducts like bone broth, and nothing else. Such stark boundaries are somehow more digestible to a certain type of person. Less wiggle room, less to think about, less to get wrong.
That’s basically what Robb Wolf recently did to treat lingering gut issues: he ate meat and drank bone broth. For the full story, check out his recent appearance on Dr. Paul Saladino’s podcast.
6. That Phytonutrients Aren’t the Only Way To Induce Hormetic Stress
There are other ways to induce hormetic stress besides plant polyphenols. You can fast. You can exercise. You can expose yourself to cold or heat. You can expose yourself to “meat carcinogens” (yum). However, phytonutrients are good to have around. If you aren’t eating blueberries and broccoli because “those hormetic stressors aren’t the only game in town,” you’d better be doing the other stuff. You’d better be using the sauna, fasting, training hard (but smart), and going out into the cold.
7. That Strong Physical Performance Is Possible Without Tons Of Exogenous Carbs
You only have to look as far as Dr. Shawn Baker breaking rowing records, squatting 500 pounds for reps, and doing box jumps that would shame someone 30 years his junior to know that elite performance is possible—at least in one person—on a carnivorous, carb-free diet. It’s not “supposed” to be possible for anyone. Is Baker a genetic freak? Is he the only person for whom it’s true? I doubt it.
Now, glycogen is helpful. But you can manufacture glucose from amino acids and deposit it as glycogen, which you’ll be getting plenty of from all the protein you eat on a carnivore diet. This might not be the most efficient path for all elite athletes, but the carnivore movement shows that it’s at least possible for some.
8. How To Choose the Most Nutrient-Dense Animal Foods
There are the carnivores who eat steak and assume they’ve covered all their bases, and then there are the carnivores who eat steak and eggs and salmon and liver and kidney and marrow and mussels because they want to ensure they’ve covered all their bases. The former group will say something about “nutrient requirements going down on carnivore,” which may be true, but do all nutrient requirements drop across the board equally? Meanwhile, the latter group might agree with the former about nutrient requirements, but they’ll probably also want to be safer than sorrier. They can tell you all about the vitamin C content of fresh liver, the manganese in the mussels, the selenium in the kidney, the long-chained omega-3s in the salmon, the choline and biotin in the eggs, and the B-vitamins and creatine in the steak.
I’d listen to the latter group, personally. In figuring out the best way to obtain maximum nutrient density through animal foods alone, they can provide a roadmap to anyone who wants to include the most nutrient-dense animal foods in their omnivorous diet.
Diets aren’t ideologies. They aren’t religions. You don’t have to accept everything. You can pick and choose what works for you, especially if it actually works for you. You can heed these lessons contained in the post without actually going full carnivore, just like you could incorporate some of the lessons learned from vegans without going anything close to vegan.
Thanks for reading, everybody. What have you learned from the carnivore movement? Let me know down below in the comments, and have a good week.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.