In Defense Of Meat-Based Diets

I previously talked about how to thrive on a vegan diet.  But the opposite approach – a diet heavy in meat – may actually turn out to be best for me, or indeed many people. In this post I will try to outline what I am doing right now, and touch briefly on most of the arguments pro/con a meat based diet, which will then be discussed in much greater detail in future posts.

Disclaimer: This is what I eat – it is not medical advice for you. You can – and should – decide yourself what you eat. For the last 10 years I’ve been reading close to 50 books on the topic, watching countless presentations by experts, examining studies and meta-analyses, listening to podcasts … I’ve considered the opinions of mainstream authors and scientists, naturopaths (ugh), vegans, paleos, doctors, psychologists … to quote one of my favorite TV personas: “It’s a jungle out there!”. I don’t expect you to trust me on anything that I write, except for one thing: Every sentence is not just an opinion I adopted because I saw some isolated headline on the news, but instead the result of this vast process of gathering information and comparing different sources.

Take what you want from this, with a bucket of salt, do your own investigation and then decide what to do. It is your health that’s on the line. Especially if you have a couple of pounds to lose and you’ve never tried a diet like this before, you may want to consider giving it a try.

TL;DR: Meat is perfectly healthy food which humans are “designed” to eat.  In the last 50+ years meat – and animal-based food in general – has been maligned by the media, and science unfortunately took a huge step in the wrong direction in the 1950s with blaming saturated fat and cholesterol for many of the modern chronic diseases. As a result, the mainstream advice for healthy nutrition (a diet based on grains/carbs with some meat, vegetables and fruit) may be the opposite of what is actually healthy.

What Does “Meat-Based” Mean?

There are people who eat 100% meat and nothing else (except salt). The most common labels for this type of diet are “carnivore” or “carnivory”. I define my “meat-based diet” as one where the vast majority of calories (like 80%) comes from meat or other animal products.

Why “Meat-Based” and not “Animal-Based”?

Healthy vegan diets are typically also called “plant-based” – shouldn’t I call my diet “animal-based”? Perhaps, but most people find that for various reasons, having to do with nutrition, satiety and environmental concerns, the staple food on such a diet is red meat from ruminants (cow, bison, sheep). So “meat-based” is a better description of what people eat mostly on such a diet. For vegans, “grain/legume/tuber-based” would be most accurate, or “avocado/nut-based” if they’re doing some form ketogenic diet.

What are the Goals of the Diet?

In a nutshell:

  • Eating to satiety (no hunger pangs or blood sugar crashes)
  • Enjoying the food (delicious meals)
  • Optimal body composition (“look good naked”)
  • Optimal athletic performance (metabolic flexibility, fat-burning)
  • Overall health and longevity (nutritious diet, avoid anti-nutrients)
  • Protect the environment (sustainable (animal-)agriculture)
  • Avoid orthorexia (keep it simple)

Which Foods are “Allowed”?

I think that for any eating pattern to be sustainable it must allow room for exceptions. So instead of outlawing and demonizing certain foods, I will simply list the foods the diet ideally/typically consists of:

  • Red meat from ruminants (cows, bison, sheep)
  • Eggs
  • Dairy (Cheese, Yogurt, Cream, Butter)
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Seafood
  • Other red meat
  • Vegetables and mushrooms (low-starch/sugar)
  • Nuts
  • Fruit (low-glycemic like berries and citrus, or very small portions)
  • Salt (liberally)

This list is loosely in descending order of caloric contribution to the diet. This may vary from person to person, for example some people might hate red meat, but love poulty. Some might have allergies or other problems with specific foods. Any combination is fine, provided that 70-80% of the calories are coming from animal food. There is no restriction on salt.

Which Foods are “Forbidden”?

These are foods which are best avoided or at least minimized:

  • Processed food products
  • Grains
  • Sugar
  • Industrial seed oils

Do I Track What I Eat?

Yes, but only occasionally. Every once in a while I will try to track a complete day of eating on Cronometer and check if what I’m eating is in line with what I would intuitively expect.

Are There “Cheat” Days or Meals?

Yes. Sometimes I eat whatever I want, like cake, or ice cream, or even ultra-processed food products. I don’t consider them to be “cheats” though, as long as they don’t undermine the goals of the diet in the long term. This is a “slippery slope” though – some people might do better avoiding these exceptions completely. What definitely doesn’t work for me is the concept of a weekly cheat day. A chocolate sundae every month might be a good solution for some people. If nothing else, consider these exceptions an antidote to orthorexia.

How Could Someone Transition Into This Diet?

Either change everything at once (difficult, but fast), or make simple swaps that reduce carbs and increase protein and fat:

  • Two slices of bread + two slices of ham
    => one slice of bread + two slices of ham + 1 slice of cheese
  • A sandwich or a burger
    => eat everything except the bread, or order without the bread so to waste no food
  • Steak, vegetables and a boiled potato
    => Steak, vegetables, garlic butter + avocado
  • Carb rich cereal bar
    => low-carb protein bar
  • Grain based breakfast
    => eggs and bacon or left-over steak
  • French fries on the side
    => low-carb veggies or salads on the side
  • Bread on the side
    => extra meat or cheese
  • Cake for dessert
    => Berries for dessert
  • Ice cream
    => (full-fat) yogurt without added sugar + berries

In each case you are not necessarily trading a deadly poison for a perfectly healthy food, but you are improving things however slightly, increasing your intake of protein from meat and decreasing your intake of empty calories, particularly from carbohydrate, which your body has no choice but to immediately burn for enery or store as fat. Total energy stays roughly the same, and satiety increases, since protein is ultimately the most satiating macro-nutrient.

What Are The “Macros” On This Diet?

Many people think of diets in terms of macro-nutrient distribution – as you may know, there are basically three macros: Carbs, Protein and Fat. Technically those all provide energy (calories). However, protein is special because the body uses it primarily as a  structural material.

Since one of the goals of the diet is to optimize athletic performance and body composition, it aims for a much higher protein intake than the average in western populations of about 14-15% of total calories. A better way to quantify intake is in relation to body weight. I aim for about 1.5-2g per kg of desired body weight, while the common recommendation is 0.8g per kg. This puts me at around 30-40% of total calories, or twice as much as the average intake. The bulk of my calories come from fat – that follows automatically from the selection of foods preferred on the diet, which are all low in carbohydrate. So a typical macro distribution might be 30% protein, 60% fat, 10% carbs. Higher carb percentages are possible by focusing on very lean cuts of meat, but may negatively affect satiety in some people. Typically, the leaner one gets, the more one craves fat in the diet.

Won’t the Animal Protein Damage Your Kidneys?

No. Many studies show that protein intake even higher than 30% does not affect the kidneys.

What About Calories?

Good Question. I do track calories from time to time. I don’t think that there is any magical benefit on this diet when it comes to calories – if you eat more than you expend, you will gain weight, if you eat less, you’ll lose weight. But since it is impossible to accurately track intake and expenditure, I prefer not to care too much about those numbers. Ultimately it’s your body composition – measured by DEXA, impedance scale or waist circumference – which will show whether you are eating the proper amount of food.

Is This A Ketogenic Diet?

At its core the diet is ketogenic in nature, since meat contains virtually no carbohydrates. But the diet is also heavy in protein and technically the remaining 20% of calories could come from carbs (vegetables and fruit), which means that ketosis is not guaranteed on this diet – it is not the goal. Another way of putting it is that this diet does not rely on dietary carbohydrate to feed the brain or other cells which may require glucose – instead, it aims to optimize metabolic flexibility so that those needs can be met by using fat, ketones or gluconeogenesis.

So It’s a High-Fat Diet – Does That Mean Adding Butter And Oil To Every Meal?

No, not at all – in fact rather the opposite! Butter, oil and cream are mostly empty calories and should be used sparingly. I use butter (ghee, to be precise) when I cook steak, to get a better sear and because I like the taste. But on this diet I try to get the fat (which is necessary as an energy source) mainly from meat, cheese and fish. I find that much more satiating and rewarding, and it also makes the diet much less “greasy” and more tolerable for people who can’t stomach oils and fats.

Won’t (Red) Meat Increase Your Risk Of Cancer?

No. There is this persistent myth that meat causes cancer, but it is not supported by the best available scientific evidence. There are some studies which incriminate meat, but there are many others which exonerate it, and many of the incriminating studies can be shown to be seriously flawed. In my opinion, which is shared by more and more researchers, meat is not a problem – but sugar and industrial seed oils may be.

Won’t the Lack of Fiber Cause Colon Cancer?

No. Again, there is much discussion and misinformation in the media. A lot of flawed science exists which goes back to the beginning of the 20th century and people like Dennis Burkett or Harvey Kellogg, who were pushing a fiber-rich diet for various unscientific reasons. Fiber may actually be an anti-nutrient in many cases, causing problems like bloating, flatulence, IBS and aggravating serious conditions like Crohns Disease or diverticulitis.

But Don’t You Get Constipated On A Diet Low In Veggies And Fruit?

No. People on 100% meat diets commonly report no constipation. This makes sense, since meat is almost completely digested in the small intestine and doesn’t even make it to the colon. The human digestive system is very similar to that of dogs, which also thrive on a fiber free diet. As an interesting side note, dogs also tend to become diabetic if fed a diet higher in carbs and fiber (some dog foods contain potatoes and legumes).

My first hand experience, which is consistent with other meat-eaters, is that increasing veggies and fruit intake leads to bloating and having to go to the toilet more frequently and unpredictably/explosively, while removing them entirely leads to completely “regular”, but less frequent (a good thing) bowel movements. Ok, maybe that was a case of “too much information”, but frankly, it makes quite a difference in one’s every day life, so it is important to speak about.

But The Saturated Fat and Cholesterol Will Clog Your Arteries?

No. This myth is the most pervasive of all – the biggest scientific mistake in the field of modern nutritional science. Fortunately it is also the one which by now (2018) is mostly on its way out, with articles about the health benefits of high-fat dairy and animal products coming out on an almost weekly basis.

Shouldn’t We Eat As Little Salt As Possible Though?

No. 5-10 grams per day is perfectly fine, more if you’re doing a lot of sports in warm weather. Especially on a diet which is low in carbs, ensuring proper salt intake is important. Eat too little salt, and you won’t feel good in terms of mood and energy – on any diet.

What about Vitamins and Minerals?

Not a problem. Since the diet allows for vegetables and fruit and because, despite misinformation to the contrary, meat does contain a decent amount of minerals and vitamins, I typically get plenty of everything. Some minerals will be lower – for example, potassium or manganese. Feel free to use supplements (for example vitamin D), but there are people who thrive on a 100% meat diet which is technically deficient in some vitamins or minerals. The fact that people thrive anyway suggests that the vitamin/mineral requirements change when you are on a largely meat-based diet. It may even be the case that when you eat only meat, requirements change completely, but that is a highly speculative hypothesis.

Why Meat – Can’t You Get Everything From Plants?

The obvious nutrient not found in plants is vitamin B12. Other than that, there are a number of nutrients which are not officially listed as essential (because our body can make them from other nutrients) which are only available in animal based foods. Carnitine is one obvious example. Another big topic is bio-availability. Nutrients in plants often come along with anti-nutrients which block absorption, or the plants might only provide a precursor of the actual nutrient which then has to be converted in the human body, which may or may not work efficiently. Example: vitamin A (beta-carotene).

What About Ethical Concerns?

This is the main concerns that many vegans have. Some of them argue based on nutrition, but when push comes to shove, what motivates them most is avoiding the suffering of sentient animals. That is why I argue for eating mostly ruminant meat, eggs and dairy: Cows and chicken can be grown responsibly, with minimal suffering, and they are also the key to sustainable agriculture.

What About The Environment?

Sustainable agriculture is largely about protecting the topsoil. The only way to do this are perennial plants – like grass. Only they have roots deep enough to ensure that the soil stays healthy. Ruminant animals live in harmony with grass, chicken as well. Now, if you also take into account that much more land supporting pastures exists on our planet than the small amount which is suitable for the monocrops required to feed the world the vegan way, it becomes clear that a meat-based diet is completely sustainable. Or at least, every bit as much as the opposite.

 

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