Carniflex: The Carnivore Diet with Strategic Leniency

person eating steak and greensFlexibility is generally a positive attribute. While I would never suggest being flexible in matters of morals, loyalty, or self-dignity, in most other areas it is beneficial.

A person should have flexible joints — they should be able to move with fluidity and grace through many different positions, under load and unloaded.

A person should have metabolic flexibility — they should be able to utilize all forms of caloric energy coming in, regardless of macronutrient ratios.

A person should be a flexible dieter — they should be able to move through life without rigid adherence to some dietary prescription resembling dogmatism. Same goes for fitness dogma.

There are many reasons why this is the case. There are a lot of different foods out there, and to sample them brings pleasure and variety. A flexible eater is someone who can roll with the punches, adapt to different situations, and eat suboptimal foods without incurring any real damage. It gives you more freedom and resiliency.

I’ve spoken of metabolic flexibility, that metabolic region where you’re going in and out of ketosis without effort, eating some carbs here and there if the opportunity presents and effortlessly slipping back into ketosis afterwards. Being in the keto zone gives a person access to the benefits from ketones, fatty acids, and carbohydrates to use as needed. It reduces the stress of strictness while retaining most of the benefits.

 

Carnivore: Fringe to Mainstream

The carnivore movement has really changed and grown. Back when I first encountered it, carnivore or “zero carb” as it was known was a fringe movement. People were pretty much eating ground beef and drinking water, with few exceptions. I wrote about it back in 2010 and was highly skeptical. As it’s grown, and the anecdotes and (to a limited extent) studies have accumulated, I revisited it.

I developed the Primal Blueprint as a way to beat the ailments I’d wrought with my chronic cardio, high stress endurance athletic lifestyle: IBS, arthritis, chronic upper respiratory tract infections, general lethargy. Something wasn’t right, I knew. Humans weren’t supposed to be sick and in pain all the time. It worked, I got better, and I never looked back.

Meanwhile, carnivore adherents and enthusiasts were using the diet to beat many of the same ailments I’d beaten with Primal. What was going on?

I had to explore it myself. I had to experiment, so I began incorporating many carnivore principles into my own diet. Eating more meat and other animal foods. Emphasizing protein. Eating fewer vegetables. Choosing my plants with anti-nutrients in mind. But I’m not eating only animal products. I can’t call myself a carnivore, so what am I? What is this way of eating?

Since things need names, I’m calling it Carniflex: an animal-food-centric way of eating that doesn’t eliminate plants, instead selecting for the most optimal plants.

This is fairly close to how I eat most days, and it’s actually not far from how I’ve eaten for many years.

What is Carniflex?

Like I said, I don’t want to be dogmatic about ways of eating. So these aren’t hardline “diet rules.” These are loose guideposts.

Animal Foods

Animal foods form the basis of my diet. They provide the most calories.

  • Meat: steaks, burgers, chops, roasts
  • Seafood: fish, shellfish, shrimp
  • Eggs
  • Dairy: kefir, yogurt, cheese, cream

In other words, the bulk of my diet is standard carnivorous fare.

Plant Foods

I round out meals with vegetables and plant foods, rather than focusing on them. These foods aren’t the base of my diet. Carniflex uses plants as medicinal accoutrements. They enhance and provide micronutrition rather than huge caloric boluses.

I still have a Big Ass Salad quite often. I still have steamed broccoli dipped in butter. I still like berries and other fruits. I don’t shy away from roasted potatoes or a purple sweet potato with lemon turmeric vinaigrette, or butter and cinnamon.

  • Romaine lettuce. Great source of folate (a tough nutrient for many carnivores, especially those who avoid organ meats), very low in oxalates, an anti-nutrient that would compel carnivore dieters to avoid leafy greens
  • Fermented veggies. Fermentation and pickling reduce oxalates in vegetables like beets as well as increase the formation of probiotic bacteria
  • Spices, herbs, and sauces. These are a great way to protect the fats and meat you eat from oxidative degeneration and, if you worry about that sort of thing, inhibit the formation of carcinogenic compounds when cooking. High-quality sauces make meat taste better (which says something about their suitability) and help prevent boredom.
  • Cruciferous vegetables. Of all the standard vegetables, the cruciferous family has one of the longest histories of human cultivation and consumption. From cabbage to broccoli to cauliflower to kale. Yes, even kale, which is actually low in oxalates when cooked and whose consumption was so common in medieval Scotland that gardens were called “kail-yards.” I’m not suggesting you eat pounds of broccoli or kale. I’m suggesting that a little sauerkraut and roasted cauliflower aren’t going to hurt most people.
  • Alliums. Garlic, onions, and shallots are also some of the oldest cultivated vegetables, and they’re one of the best-studied. Long history of successful consumption by pretty much every cuisine on earth with modern research in support.
  • Colorful produce. Blueberries, blackberries, purple sweet potatoes, cherries. I’ve heard the arguments against polyphenols, that those plant polyphenol-induced hormetic pathways aren’t necessary for human health, that hard exercise and fasting and cold exposure and the myriad other environmental stressors provide all the hormetic input we need. I’m just not convinced. The literature surrounding consumption of blueberries, purple sweet potatoes, and the like is quite compelling. They do seem to provide special benefits to humans.
  • Clean starches. I’ve always said that clean starches like sweet potatoes, white potatoes, winter squash, and even white rice are acceptable sources of exogenous glucose for those who need or want glucose. They have none of the potential downsides of grains and legumes carnivores are trying to avoid, like unwanted fiber or anti nutrients that impair gut health. They are, for the most part, a source of starch for glycogen repletion and, in the case of sweet potatoes, squash, and potatoes, micronutrients.
  • Avocado, olive, coconut products. The “fruit” oils and products are not like other “plant oils.” They have superior fatty acid profiles, leaning heavily toward MUFA and SFA. They have a long history of use by people, and they can be processed with primitive technology. All you need to extract oil from a coconut, an avocado, or an olive is a mechanical press.
  • Fruit. Fruit “wants” to be eaten. If an animal doesn’t eat the fruit, the plant can’t disseminate its seeds. It’s in the plant’s best interest not to festoon its fruit with harmful anti nutrients that dissuade consumption and damage the consumer. The best argument against fruit in the modern human diet is that it’s been bred for sweetness and caloric density, not nutrition. But you can get around that issue by consuming less fruit, or by consuming fruit in the context of hard glycogen-depleting training—so the sugar as somewhere “to go.”

If that looks like a huge list, it’s really not. These are options. Choices you can make from meal to meal, not foods you must include every day.

But isn’t carnivore supposed to be strict?

First, strictness for strictness’ sake is a recipe for failure. If you’re working on discipline, there are ways to do it outside of what you’re eating.

Second, I had a lot of the ailments people are fixing with strict carnivore, like IBS and arthritis. I fixed them by eating like this, plants included. To me, the biggest factors are grains, seed oils, and excessive amounts of insoluble fiber. Of course, the more dire your situation, the stricter and perhaps more carnivorous you have to be.

My point in all this is that a strict carnivore diet might not be required, and I suspect it’s probably not the optimal way for most people to eat. And I think you can get most of the benefits while still incorporating plants in a smart, judicious way.

People have accused me in the past of picking and choosing what I like from different schools of thought and diet, that I’m “cheating” by agreeing with good arguments from otherwise disparate camps. To that I say: Hell yes I am.

This is the human way. We learn from other people. We develop culturally, not just genetically. We evolve within lifetimes, not only across generations. The power to do this gave humans supremacy over the world itself, and I fully intend to continue exercising it.

Carniflex is just the way that works for me. It’s something to keep in mind, something to try. And besides, I suspect many of you were already eating this way by default.

How do you eat these days?

About the Author

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.

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41 thoughts on “Carniflex: The Carnivore Diet with Strategic Leniency”

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    1. Definitely not exactly the same, but I was thinking the same thing. Lol

  1. Great post Mark, you have managed to very succinctly capture my exact same dietary philosophy. Great to hear that you are now in the ‘prioritise protein’ camp as opposed to your previous stance of ‘moderate protein’. I’d also add in a few other things – especially moderate amounts of raw honey (if at weight maintenance) and personally I’m not afraid of recommending nightshades such as peppers and tomatoes (especially cooked -for the lycopene) unless an elimination diet has highlighted them as a specific problem-area. Oooh controversial! And yes, I am with you on your take on polyphenols – Dr Saladino needs to work a bit harder to convince me on that one – although he has won me over on seed oils for sure (as if we needed any more convincing…)

  2. Great post! This is almost EXACTLY how I have been eating for the past year. I’ve called it carnivore-ish (albeit a looser version of Dr. Saladino’s definition). The newest thing for me is the addition of organ meats. For me, specifically, it’s deer heart and liver. I was fortunate to harvest 4 deer this year in bow season and saved the hearts and livers and have been enjoying those. Are you eating any organ meats?

    Question, Mark, are you going to revert back to the original Primal pyramid with animal products at the base as opposed to plants? Just curious!

  3. Great post. I have also gone from primal, to keto and now what I called carnivorish… which is like your carniflex, but with even less emphasis on plant matter.

    I probably sit on the 90% meat, dairy, eggs and the rest is mushrooms, onions, garlic. My main reason was to up-regulate ketones for the brain health benefit (dementia in my family).
    However, since not having to cook veges that much anymore (I can take or leave fruit)…. dinner prep time is just so much more easier, as is the weekly shopping.

    I’ve just bought lamb heart for the first time…. not too sure how to cook it though. I’ve heard it’s like steak… fingers crossed.

  4. Ok,well I LOVE this, it’s how I eat. I call it “Mostly Carnivore” because I will occasionally eat rice, sweet potato, nuts, leaves and a glass of wine. However, it’s NOT everyday since the leaves are not very friendly more than once in a while, white rice is a tiny bit with my hamburger gravy, sweet potato with carnitas meat twice baked is just too good to pass up, onions and garlic for flavoring are lovely……. However, the bloating that happens when you eat them even occasionally is enough to make sure you are careful to not hurt yourself very often. I’m hoping the more my gut heals the more I can add these into my diet. Last time I added a romaine leaf with carnitas (like a taco shell) it was NOT comfortable in there. I’ll try it maybe this summer again, love me a salad for lunch in summer!

  5. Yes, didn’t Pollan say it best?

    “Eat food. Mostly meat. Quite a lot”.

    Oh wait!

    1. LOL, I think you’ve quoted Dr Shawn Baker quoting Michael Pollan there 🙂

  6. You didn’t mention poultry. I’m curious about that cause I still eat poultry over red meat.

  7. I eat meat, fish, or poultry with every meal and have done so for years. But I don’t eat it exclusively. I love all kinds of colorful veggies and eat a lot of them. In addition, we have a mixed green salad with dinner probably 5 nights out of 7. I’m not a fan of what I can “winter” fruit (trucked-in apples, bananas, oranges), but I make up for it in the summertime with locally grown cherries, peaches, cantaloupe, plums, and watermelon. We also have blackberries growing in the yard, which are great just tossed into a salad or with some cottage cheese. This way of eating works well for me, although it might not suit everyone.

  8. Plant foods don’t give me any trouble (excepting seed oils) so for the most part I go for local meats and seafood, raw milk, eggs from my neighbor (I trade honey from my bees), all balanced with a big assortment of vegetables, nuts and fruit from the garden/home orchard. I’m a big time gardener and I find the best approach for my family and I are to eat vegetables and fruits as seasonally as possible. Makes sense since this would be the way people would have had access to plant foods before the advent of modern society. Animal foods (except for eggs and honey) are not really as bound by seasonal limits so it makes sense they’d be available year round. We tend to have more plant foods during summer and fall and less so in winter and early spring.

    1. Dave, I want your life! I completely agree with the seasonality of ratios of plant products. It makes sense in terms of human history (depending on where one’s ancestors survived/adapted.) Plus, WATERMELON. I wait all year for our local watermelons & other fruit.

  9. “People have accused me in the past of picking and choosing what I like from different schools of thought and diet, that I’m “cheating” by agreeing with good arguments from otherwise disparate camps. To that I say: Hell yes I am.” -Mark SIsson

    This is why I read Mark Sissons’s work so much. Love the honesty and his ability to question his beliefs and take what works. I would consider my diet Paleo/Primal/Vegetarian because it works for me and I feel awesome.

    Thanks Mark, great post!

  10. Great Tips!

    I personally still think weigh loss supplements are the way to go as all you need to do is take the tiny supplement before bed and it will boost your metabolism.

    We all know those few lucky people that can eat whatever they want and how much they want without having to worry about gaining weight.
    Why?

    Because they have a crazy metabolism.
    Luckily as of todays medical progress everyone can enjoy an amazing metabolism by using said supplements.

    I really recommend you guys to do a quick google search on the topic, you’ll find plenty of great products.

    I’ll also link to a short explanatory video here, as many of you might prefer watching over reading: bit.ly/3912nxk

    However, since I recommended those supplements to friends and family members that desperately wanted to lose weight, they’ve been effortlessly burning pound after pound. Without additional exercise, calorie counting or starving themselves!

    Trust me, you should try it out!

    1. Yikes! Shame. Don’t waste your time on this link. Pure nonsense.

  11. Potatoes are high oxalate. Ditching sweet potatoes was enough to start dumping oxalates for me. After that I quit tea and dark chocolate. At least I never got into the nut flours and such that are so popular these days. I’m looking forward to Sally K. Norton’s book on oxalates later this year.

    Some of us have to be way more careful about plant toxins than others. The 3.5g to 30g fatal dose range doesn’t mean that it doesn’t do cumulative damage below 3.5g/day.

  12. Thank you for mentioning your ability and desire to take information from different schools of thought and use them to your advantage as well as to change beliefs when appropriate. The world has become so strange in that we’ve stopped taking in new ideas if they conflict with our current beliefs and refuse to recognize new and valid information for what it is… a gift. I think it’s why our world is so dis-eased and our leaders so unwilling to change the narrative.

  13. You just described how I’ve been trying to eat most days recently. It’s working pretty well for me, too, as it seems to be for all the other folks commenting here. I think it’s a natural “evolution” as we get more fat-adapted and don’t feel the need to keep re-fueling with carbs all the time – we actually “need” fewer veggies as time goes on (and especially if we’re eating organ meats and/or supplementing properly).

  14. I love the Carniflex name and way of life plan. That is something I did for many years then other paleo experts kept using the example of “your plate”, half protein and half vegetables. I always felt like I was protein deficient.

  15. Thank you Mark for this discussion on eating meats as a primary source. There is something I’m trying to navigate these days. I was introduced to Keto when in my late 60s and am now 72. I’m wondering whether you have specific keto recommendations for people in my age range. The 2 areas that I don’t find easy are having the ability to easily go into and out of ketosis – which I seem to have little flexibility for – and the fact that if I eat an overload of protein (which earlier in life was no problem) suffer from acidosis. The other foods you’ve listed are what I eat to balance, but I’m wondering if you have any words of wisdom about metabolism at we age.

    1. I would assume Mark probably sticks to his tried and true macadamia nuts (that have no anti-nutrients) and probably mostly avoids other nuts.

      Or maybe he does what I do and soaks and dehydrates them to remove their anti-nutrients and make them just perfect for digestion and absorption. (Actually based on his older articles, I remember him saying he doesn’t want to waste his time doing that lol).

  16. I read your list with great curiosity, & was gratified to find that it is, essentially, identical to where I have ended up with my own diet. I arrived here after copious education & experimentation. Your blog has been such a help through the years (and your carnitas recipe made me kinda famous in my social group!) It is validating to see that you agree on its merits. At 53yo, with invisible autoimmune issues, a genetically compromised immune & detox system, perimenopause, & with a desire to function well in the world, it’s a welcome relief to have found rules that work for my body and flexibility that is personally sustainable. The environmental sustainability is a whole other subject upon which you, & others, have written.
    Regarding berries: I think they are to human food what walking is to human exercise.

  17. Whenever I drift from baseline this is what I default back to as a natural optimal balance that promotes steady energy levels, no cravings, and a happy digestive tract. It just works for me, and I suspect A LOT of people. Some may invert the meat/veggie proportions and specific foods incorporated into their diet. We are individuals genetically and epigenetically, so prescriptive diets are ridiculous but its good to share this experience as many may feel like a mostly meat is a negative due to many societal factors. If it works, it works!

  18. Thank you, Mark. I have come essentially to the same place with my diet. I’ve gone from paleo/primal to keto to carnivore to now which is carnivore-ish. I realize that I do better with some carbs almost everyday (maybe half a sweet potato with butter or a serving of white rice). I’ve combined what I’ve learned from Dr. Paul Saladino regarding carnivore with guidelines from Dave Asprey regarding eating plants lower on the toxicity spectrum as well as Gabrielle Lyon’s information about eating higher protein overall and larger bolus amounts of protein particularly for the first meal of the day in order to promote muscle protein synthesis. It is easier not feeling like I have to stuff myself with vegetables at every meal and becoming meat-centric has made meal prep simpler. I purchase Dr. Saladino’s desiccated organ supplement because I’m not that interested in preparing organ meats, however, I do regularly eat a ground beef, beef liver, beef heart blend from Force of Nature which is tasty. It just doesn’t have a very high proportion of organs in it. It is important that I am not too rigid about what I can and cannot eat and leave room for occasional indulgences. I’ve always appreciated Mark’s attitude on flexibility.

  19. I have been a Primal Blueprint follower for 10+ years, and, ironically, this “Carniflex” is what I naturally evolved to as what “worked” for me. As Mark admits, it is a departure somewhat from classic PB but acknowledges the need to continually experiment. I had the same ailments, but there were things in PB that just didn’t work for me, like broccoli, fermentable fiber, kefir, and anything more than a little bit of fruit. I found that when i ate mostly meat, my digestive issues were fine. I believe this article sums up the best of the movement. Having said that, I loudly acknowledge that different people react to different things, but for me, this is the the program that works! Thanks, Mark, for being willing to continually refine this life-changing program.

  20. You are one of the most level-headed guys I’ve come across. I always look forward to your emails and blogs. And I must say, I’m addicted to your mayonaise. Keep up the good work.
    Randy

  21. What macros breakdown do you use if you are following this “Carniflex” approach? Still targeting 50 grams total carbs; protein grams at about 0.7 to 1 times your body weight in lbs; and, fat to round out daily calorie intake?

  22. How often would you say you eat plants? I eat them once a day. Meat or fermented raw dairy the rest the time.

  23. I get it Mark. The primal blueprint focused massively on veggies and now you’re saying animal proteins become the staple with the other primal approved foods very secondary. Makes sense and I agree. Too much veggies and nuts and seeds can cause a lot of issues in people that are sensitive where as some bone broth and some Grassfed beef generally work for most everyone.
    Great article. Your flexibility is why you’ve been so successful unlike those who can only sustain their strict diets for short periods of time.

  24. Love this! Me too. My body and brain have been reignited by incorporating Carni-flex principles. Thank you for this thoughtful post.

  25. Hmm. Such an interesting article. Thank you.

    I tend to eat a lot of meat. I try to eat grass-fed, I try to eat with gratitude. I still have these questions …

    What is the impact on the earth when everybody – not just successful caucasian consumers, the planet’s 1% – decides to pursue an all (ok, mostly) animal product diet? In spite of the wishful thinking, the climate is approaching carrying capacity, in regard to how much carbon we can put in the atmosphere.

    And what about all the dead sentient beings? That’s a karmic boatload of pain and terror.

    Not trying to judge (I eat cheeseburgers too), just asking.

    I understand that nature is full of carnivores, that we are probably descended from carnivores. But I worry that it’s not going to work out at scale, really.

    Wendell Berry cautions us to pay attention to our role in the web, because that’s all we are, really – another interconnected piece of something larger.

    “Eating with the fullest pleasure — pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance — is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.”

  26. I appreciate this mainly because I am a similarly animal-product-emphasizing eater, and I often worry that I’m not eating enough plant matter. In fact, my diet (with some admittedly indulgent additions such as nuts and dark chocolate) looks a lot like what you have described here. My focus is first and foremost on avoiding grains and industrial oils, secondarily on choosing my animal product sources carefully, and then on balancing things out with a variety of veggies, fruits, and other things that add enjoyment and micronutrients.

    1. I do the same thing! And honestly, I think that’s what the Primal Blueprint has been about since it began. It’s more about getting rid of toxins then following any sort of super rigid structure. Emphasize those nutrient-dense animal foods and round everything out with plant foods that your body can handle and provide nutrition.

      For some, that will look like maybe 50-70%+ animal foods. Others may be more like 30-40%. I think the ratios don’t matter and it’s more about what makes each person feel their best.

  27. I tried this years ago. The trouble was this diet caused constipation. So, I eat more veggies and fruit along with protein to solve the constipation. Oh and running helps a bunch!

  28. Can someone please explain to me why poultry doesn’t make the list?