This is a story about human carnivores – people who believe that the best diet is one comprised only of meat. No bread, no roast potatoes. No Caprese salads, no kale. Not even cheeseburgers. Just animal flesh. Or, in the case of Canadian psychologist Jordan B Peterson, 56, and his daughter Mikhaila, 26, just beef, salt, water – and the occasional glass of bourbon.
“I know how ridiculous it sounds,” Mikhaila conceded, when challenged about her eating habits by a reporter working for The Atlantic in 2018. But she credits her diet with easing the debilitating autoimmune conditions, depression and fatigue that had made her life a misery since she was a teenager. Her father, too, claims he has lost more than 20kg since following his daughter’s lead and says he now feels magnificent, even if it’s as “dull as hell”.
This is also a story about science and ideology, carbs and fat, and the line between healthy scepticism and conspiracy theory. But it begins with a few people slowly coming to the conclusion that the standard nutritional advice – that you need fibre, your five a day, your daily bread – isn’t working for them.
“Those who were going carnivore 10 years ago did so because they’d been chronically sick,” says 51-year-old Shawn Baker. A former orthopaedic surgeon based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Baker now sells books and diet plans to would-be carnivores. He has noticed a surge of interest among men who aspire to his apex-predator physique – he’s built like a cartoon henchman – but he tells me that carnivory initially developed as a niche diet for people who found eating “normally” made them feel awful. “They’d usually tried everything. They had been vegetarian and vegan. They had been on all kinds of medication. This was the only thing that worked for them.”
One thing the internet has done is allow people with niche interests to find one another. The carnivore “community” mostly came together on the Reddit forums r/zerocarb and r/carnivore. A computer scientist named Amber O’Hearn has blogged extensively about the subject at empiri.ca for the best part of a decade. Her strapline is: “Eat meat. Not too little. Mostly fat.” (A nice spin on Michael Pollan’s advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”)
That Baker was struck off the medical register in 2017 likely doesn’t help his cause. Nevertheless, he is careful to stress that the diet is not for everyone, and he encourages anyone interested in trialling it to do their own research. “It challenges what we’ve been taught about nutrition over the past half-century or so,” he says.
Faith and Medicine
When you mention the carnivore diet to an omnivore or herbivore, their reactions tend to fall somewhere between scepticism and anger. And understandably so: our hogwash-o-meters are on high alert when it comes to celebrity-endorsed miracle cures, and “Jordan Peterson’s Cow Plan” sounds like the bullshit bullseye.
That Peterson, a controversy-courting author and public speaker, is often portrayed as some sort of alt-right troll (not entirely fairly, but it’s not ungrounded, either) makes the diet sound as if it has ideological roots, too. After all, if veganism is associated in the popular imagination with environmentalism, progressive causes, the left, femininity and compassion, carnivory must surely stand for the opposite, right? It sounds like a parody diet for climate-change-denying, coal-rolling, gun-toting, toxically masculine gammons. Such is the age we live in: nothing can just stand for itself.
Certainly, we all know people who think it’s hilarious to taunt vegans. At the 2018 Conservative party conference, Brexit enthusiast Daniel Hannan complained that people who objected to US-style chlorinated chicken entering Britain were probably “anti-capitalists” who “don’t like meat”. But Baker seems confused by all of this. “In a number of interviews I’ve done, it’s been painted as some kind of political movement, like it’s an alt-right thing,” he says. “But that’s not what I’m seeing at all.”
Most of the British carnivores I speak to are shy about discussing their diets. Their friends think they’re mad. Many of them have scientific backgrounds. Intriguingly, many used to be vegans, having tried various food-elimination regimens to address illness or weight gain. Colin, 38, is a single father of two who manages property in Cornwall. He describes himself as politically on the left. “You can find plenty of right-wing vegans,” he says. “It’s more about health than politics.” He was motivated to try the diet as a way to cure his irritable bowel syndrome.
In a typical day, he eats a dozen eggs, a packet of bacon, three packets of beef mince, plus some liver or kidney. “I like a bit of pork shoulder and lamb shoulder, too. I have chicken occasionally, but it makes me lethargic.” He gets most of his meat from local smallholdings, where he knows the farmers personally. “I really care about animal welfare,” he stresses. And he isn’t out to convert anyone. “Vegans become incredibly angry at carnivores, but many carnivores have tried vegan diets,” he says. “I did for a while, and it made me feel much worse. I don’t have normal, healthy digestion, so I can’t say it’s bad for everyone, but I’m sceptical of the idea that it’s right for everyone, too.”
He seems as surprised as anyone that carnivory is working. “I tried lots of different diets and I realised that when I ate fewer vegetables, I felt better,” he says. “One day, I was on Reddit and I came across the r/zerocarbs group. I thought I’d try it. Within a couple of days, my IBS went away.” He experienced a little discomfort transitioning – “really loose stools” – but nothing worse than what he was already experiencing. “I’m way more active than I used to be. I have more mental energy. I don’t understand why…”
Chewing the Fat
Ryan, 29 (who asked that we change his name), a researcher at Liverpool University, had a similar experience. “Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money, so we’d mostly eat plain pasta, or tinned food,” he says. Many of his family are obese. Food was “entertainment” in his household: “If something good happened, we’d celebrate with ice cream. If something bad happened, we’d cheer ourselves up with a nice meal.” He had been plagued by poor digestion and weight issues throughout his life but, after turning carnivore in July, he finally has a functional relationship with food.
Like many carnivores, he made the transition in stages, gradually dropping his carbohydrate intake and then trying the ketogenic diet. “Keto” is a very low-carb, high-fat diet that was originally designed to help prevent fits in children with epilepsy. More recently, it has gained a cult following among factions of the fitness community. When deprived of carbohydrates, your body switches its energy supply from glucose to ketones, which are derived from your fat reserves. Many people lose weight on the keto diet, and its advocates claim that it eases the symptoms of a suite of conditions including Alzheimer’s and type 2 diabetes. But it also comes with significant risks, particularly to kidney and liver function, and is notoriously hard to maintain.
At first, Ryan says, the idea of eating all of that butter, cream and meat made him feel ill. However, he found his tastes changed over time. “Not everyone benefits to the same degree, but I experienced pretty much everything you could ask for: improved skin, energy, mood – to the point of feeling euphoric sometimes,” he tells me. It wasn’t much of a leap to drop the leafy greens. “I did a bit more research and came to the conclusion that it wasn’t something I needed. They were an extra hassle to cook, anyway.” He says he only eats when he’s hungry and often ends up “unintentionally” fasting for hours. “The body knows how to regulate itself. We’re just sending it confusing signals by upping our blood sugar a few times a day.”
Objections to carnivory generally fall into the broad categories of nutrition, ethics and lifestyle. Carnivores claim they don’t really miss the pleasures of baking, or snacking, or even applying a little Béarnaise to their steaks. “The less I had, the less I wanted,” says Ryan. “Now, if I’m preparing dinner just for myself, I’ll start eating some of the steaks while I’m cooking the rest and start cleaning up in between. That may sound sad to some people, but it’s been very freeing for me. I don’t have to consider things as much.”
As for the nutritional concerns, well, it seems fairly clear from my conversation with Ryan that he is alive, so it’s possible to survive on just meat. He also claims to feel great. “Even if it were conclusively proven that this diet would shorten my life by 10 years, I would take it, as the quality of my life is that much better,” he says. But people who like to lunch at McDonald’s and smoke 40 a day often claim to feel great, too. There are placebo effects and confirmation biases. Anecdote is not data. And it may take years for, say, colon cancer, to make itself apparent.
Nevertheless, dietary science is notoriously complex and poorly understood. That there are 3.8 million people with diabetes in the UK is not a ringing endorsement of the way we currently do things. British adult obesity has almost quadrupled in the past 25 years. And there’s a growing body of evidence that the standard advice regarding fats (which we’re told to limit) and carbs (which are seen as necessary) is back to front.
Plant vs Beast
Still, there’s a chasm between low-carb and nothing but meat. I consult Timothy Spector, genetic epidemiologist at King’s College London, and author of The Diet Myth. “Humans can exist on a wide variety of diets,” he says. “Some have adapted to eat high-meat diets, such as the Inuit, Masai or Mongolian people, but most don’t tolerate it. There may be rare people in the West who can, but it’s dangerous to recommend it as a long-term solution.” Spector cautions that the excess protein is likely to lead to problems such as gout and heart disease. “Most people will be constipated.”
An obvious objection concerns vitamin C. The carnivores argue there’s enough of it in fresh meat – particularly raw or offal meats – and that, anyway, the body adapts to reduce its base needs. Another is the lack of fibre. “There’s no absolute physiological requirement for fibre,” Baker argues. “Why do we think it’s necessary? The traditional argument is that it lowers cholesterol, which is true, but you don’t need low cholesterol to survive. People also say it mitigates blood-glucose spikes. If you drink a glass of apple juice, you’ll experience a much larger spike in blood sugar than if you ate an apple. But if you’re not taking in any glucose, that’s a moot point.”
So, he reasons, fibre is necessary if you’re eating plenty of toast and biscuits, but not if you’re eating lots of steak. His stool, he is proud to report, is excellent. “The vast majority of people on the carnivore diet will tell you that, after a transition period – maybe a couple of weeks – bowel habits become normal.”
Spector remains deeply sceptical. “To support a healthy gut microbiome, you need to eat fibre,” he says. He concedes that some gut complaints (such as types of IBS) can be exacerbated by certain plants in the short term. But when it comes to the general population? “Doubling our fibre intakes would help the vast majority of people,” he says.
The distilled advice of Spector’s book is that you should eat as wide a spectrum of foods as possible, because that’s what keeps your gut bacteria happy. He argues that our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate an enormous variety of foods: about 600 types, far more than are found in our modern diets. Baker argues, however, that given the choice between killing a nutrient- and calorie-rich mammoth that would feed a family for weeks and scrabbling around for nuts and berries that might easily have proved poisonous, an Ice Age hunter-gatherer would invariably have chosen the mammoth. That may be, but not all hunter-gatherers had access to meat, let alone mammoths, and mammoths are extinct because early humans killed them all (which should be a lesson in itself). And the best evidence we have is that early humans thrived by adapting to different food sources. Around two billion people eat no meat today. So, how Baker’s principle applies in the 21st century is debatable.
Then there’s the environment. If cattle-rearing is destroying the planet, a lack of vitamin C may well prove to be the least of our concerns. A much-cited report published in the journal Nature claims that we greedy Westerners must cut our beef consumption by 90% in order to reverse dangerous climate change.
But again, the carnivores contest this. Robert (not his real name) is a British academic in his forties who has been on a meat-only diet for the past four years. “For me, as a biologist, this [environmental argument] is the craziest part,” he says. “Is there anything more natural than a herd of ruminants grazing on marginal farmland? Should we turn this land over to intensive agriculture – pesticides, fertilisers and machines?”
Ryan is similarly sceptical. “With modern agriculture, you’re destroying millions of lives to plough one field. You’re destroying the topsoil, and you’re losing carbon capture because you’re not giving those long roots time to bed in before the crops get pulled up.” In an ideal world, we would “re-wild” our landscapes and use them for pasture-raised animals. But, of course, we don’t live in an ideal world. We live instead in a world of battery farms and chlorinated chicken.
“I’m not out to change the world,” continues Robert. “My wife is a vegetarian, as are our daughters. Everyone should make their own decisions. My fervent wish, however, is for state nutritional policy to be scrutinised more deeply.” That doesn’t seem so extreme, even if the message that many seem to have taken from the profusion of contradictory advice is: if you can’t trust any of it, you may as well just pick out the parts that suit you and ignore the rest.
But perhaps the most fundamental objection to carnivory is the evolutionary one. It challenges the whole idea of what it is to be human. It suggests that, perhaps, our species took a wrong turn with the development of agriculture. If you’ve been listening to your Jordan Peterson podcasts, you might hear an echo of this in the “Fall of Man” story in Genesis. When God casts Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, he condemns Adam to a miserable life of toiling in the field. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread…” At a time of great ecological and political uncertainty, the idea that we should have stuck to a hunter-gatherer existence – or, as the carnivores would have it, just the hunting – has a certain appeal.
Ever since Peterson came out as a carnivore, many complain that a certain “madness” has descended on what was once a quirky, little community. Many of the more bizarre posts link to a YouTuber named Sv3rige, who makes videos about his experiments with feasting on raw meat and drinking pig’s blood. Sv3rige’s channel also abounds in flat-earth conspiracies.
Some of the carnivores I speak to even suspect that the movement has been infiltrated by Russian disinformation bots. The idea that many of the more extreme carnivory posts are “fake” isn’t so far-fetched: Russian trolls were, after all, discovered to have been spreading anti-vaccination theories in the lead-up to the 2016 US presidential election. The wider aim seems to have been to undermine faith in experts and to foster division.
One Reddit discussion centred on these doubts. Even if, anecdotally, many carnivores feel better, shouldn’t the reality that their diet contradicts all of the established advice not give you pause? “I think doubts are a sign of healthy scepticism,” came one reply. “This goes entirely against what is currently considered healthy by the vast majority of people… That said, my doubts are very small. When I was eating what my doctor told me to, I felt terrible: gut pain, bloating, low energy, brain fog, heartburn and high blood pressure. Now I’m eating exactly the opposite, and I feel incredible… I’ll never go back to eating how I used to.” In times of uncertainty, it seems that people are ever more willing to trust their gut.