An All Meat Diet -Why Not?

Today I came across this news article:

Please do not try to survive on an all-meat diet

It made me a little bit angry. Before I tell you why, let me point out that I am currently not on a 100% meat diet, and while I won’t rule out the possibility completely, it is unlikely that I will go on such a diet in the foreseeable future. I am however on a diet heavy in (red) meat, and I’ve read many, many articles, studies, blog posts and tweets on the topic. I’ve heard vegans bash the diet, carnivores recommend the diet for all sorts of reasons including some miraculous claims, I’ve heard mainstream scientists advising against it, and I’ve heard just normal people ridiculing it, demonizing it or praising it.

TL;DR: A 100% meat diet could be perfectly fine, there’s no reason why it by definition can’t work or would make you sick. That doesn’t mean that everybody should be on it. Some people might thrive on a diet low in meat, others might do best on a primal style diet which is high in meat but also includes some vegetables and fruit.

Let’s go through my biggest beefs (silly pun intended) with the article one by one.

 […] the proponents of the carnivore diet, including Shawn Baker, a former orthopedic surgeon […] [who] had his medical license revoked in 2017 in part for “incompetence to practice as a licensee”.

This is a good example of a combination of an ad hominem attack and quote mining. Yes, Dr. Baker had his license revoked, but the reason was that he wanted to suggest to some of his patients that instead of having their arthritic joints replaced, they might consider changing their diet first. His employer (a hospital) saw that as a conflict of interest (surgery is much more lucrative than nutrition counselling), so they found a way to strip him of his medical license in order to lay him off more easily. This is quite different from him being just an “incompetent” doctor. In fact, he is about to get his license back, and his competence as an orthopedic surgeon is not really in dispute. In any case, all of that has nothing to do with anything he says on the topic of nutrition.

Mikhaila Peterson has absolutely no scientific or medical qualifications, and while her father may be a psychologist, he has no training in nutrition.

Those two prominent advocates of the carnivore diet indeed have no training in nutrition. Which does (or at least should) not mean that they cannot speak on the topic. As long as they don’t claim to be certified nutritionists or dieticians (which they never did), nothing is wrong with them promoting any type of diet.

You need 13 vitamins in order to live, and though you can actually get most of them from eating a variety of meats, you’re going to miss out on some crucial ones if you totally forego flora. Folate, along with vitamins C and E, pretty much only come from veggies, mostly green leafy ones and citrus.

No. Dating back to Steffanson’s  famous experiment, it has been well documented that people can survive and even thrive in good health on a carnivorous diet without eating any plants. Fresh meat actually contains some vitamin C and the amount the body needs goes down when no carbohydrate is ingested. Vitamin E is an antioxidant first and foremost, and although to my knowledge no studies exist on it, the demand also seems to go down on carnivorous diet. Baker speculates that without the constant intake of plant foods the body makes more of its endogenous anti-oxidants like glutathione. None of this is proven scientifically, but as I already mentioned, none of the proponents of carnivory claim that it is.

This is why sailors used to get scurvy—not enough vitamin C in their largely fish- and other-meat-based diets.

These sailors actually got scurvy because they ate neither veggies/fruits nor fresh meat. They ate mostly dried meat (which actually contains no vitamin C) instead of fresh meat, hence the scurvy.

Plus, if you don’t get enough vitamin E your body can’t use vitamin K as well […]

No scientific study is provided to back up this claim, and since we need vitamin K for example to optimize calcium usage in bone and teeth growth and that is not an issue for people on the carnivorous diet (rather the reverse), we can at least speculate that on such diets the body may need less vitamin E. Since it is an anti-oxidant, and a 100% meat diet is by definition low in oxidative stress, this does not seem all that implausible.

And then there’s the issue of fiber. Meat has no fiber, yet we know that fiber is crucial to a healthy diet.

Ah, abeautiful example of an “just so” argument. In fact we don’t know at all whether fiber is needed or even useful in general. There are many studies which show a benefit with increased fiber intake for some hard outcomes, but it always depends on what people eat with the fiber. It appears like fiber acts as an antidote to processed food. For example, if you eat nothing but low-fiber cereal and skim milk, you might be more prone to diabetes and metabolic syndrome than if you eat high-fiber cereal. But what about people who eat no junk food at all? I don’t know any high-quality studies which show benefits of fiber in that type of situation. On the other hand there are studies which show that fiber causes digestive problems in many people, aggravating conditions like diverticulitis, Crohn’s disease and IBS. Which makes sense – when someone has a sick colon, increasing the amount of indigestible plant matter which gets passed through the colon can easily irritate the colon further. A 100% meat diet on the other hand contains no fiber at all, and virtually all the food is digested and absorbed in the small intestine. Which is why such a diet is recommended before colonoscopies and other similar procedures.

The Inuit stay healthy because they eat a wide variety of meats, most of which fad-dieters are not consuming. They stave off scurvy by feasting on collagen-rich, vitamin-C-dense whale skin and other fresh, uncooked meats.

Notice the revealing choice of words “fad-dieters”. The author clearly thinks that an all meat diet is a fad, and cannot resist this bias from showing in this article. First, although many outspoken carnivores say that they’re eating mostly beef, and Mikhaila Peterson pretty much eats 100% beef, many do mix it up. And none of them say that people should eat 100% beef. Also, the author now contradicts herself, establishing that some animal based foods in fact contain enough vitamin C to prevent scurvy. Uncooked meat is the solution to that, which carnivores typically consume – pretty much all of them like their steaks at least medium (rare).

And the flesh [the Inuit] consume often isn’t mostly protein—it’s about 50 percent fat, much of which is of the healthier, unsaturated variety. The meat you buy in a grocery store is largely saturated fat, since that’s the kind that develops on animals who get little exercise and eat mostly corn.

Sigh. No, and no. First, people on a carnivorous diet do prefer the fattier cuts of meat. This makes sense, because a diet which is too high in protein (over 50% of calories) is not sustainable. The meat they typically recommend is rib eye steak, pork chops, or ground beef, which is all reasonably high in fat. Second, virtually all the meat you can buy, independently of whether it is grass-fed, grass-finished or grain-finished, is mostly unsaturated fat. Google that for yourself if you don’t believe me. Dietary fat which is predominantly saturated is either butter or coconut/palm oil. All other sources of fat are predominantly unsaturated, including beef, pork, poultry and fish.

You could, arguably, take supplements for all of the deficiencies that eating only farm-raised animals brings on.

Arguably, supplements are recommended for most diets. They are essential for vegan diets, but on any other diet some people say they are beneficial, some say they are not. It is kind of unfair to single out the carnivorous diet and suggest that it in particular requires supplementation. A few paragraphs above, the author managed to name three nutrients that might be a reason for concern, which really aren’t.

Eating lots of red meat has long been linked to colorectal cancer, along with pancreatic and prostate cancers to a lesser degree. The World Health Organization report on red meats supported that link and backed it up with evidence that, when cooked at temperatures exceeding 300°F, flesh produces certain chemicals that are carcinogenic.

Yes, the red meat “controversy”. Georgia Ede shows beautifully how little cause for concern there is, and how much manipulation and unwarranted conclusions the WHO/IARC drew to arrive at the message which, sadly, has pervaded our society. In fact the (in)famous report showed a tiny increase in relative risk for red mead and colon cancer, which is little more than statistical noise. And that’s not just a rationalization put forth by meat lovers to justify their “unhealthy” habit. If we took every association with a relative risk increase around 20% seriously, we would really run out of food – practically everything would be off the table.

Animal meat also tends to push the balance of our good and bad cholesterol (called HDL and LDL, respectively) toward the bad end. You want more HDL and less LDL, along with low levels of triglycerides. Fatty red meats do the opposite: they raise your LDL and triglycerides while lowering your HDL.

If you replace bread and pasta with any type of meat, studies show that you will actually achieve what the author herself knows is favorable: HDL goes up, triglycerides go down. It has been known for at least a decade that any low-carb diet will have this beneficial effect on blood lipids. LDL does stay high on a largely meat based diet, but this is not necessarily a bad thing – in fact, there are many studies which show that higher LDL is associated with reduced mortality, as long as other, more important markers, like the HDL/triglyceride ratio, are favorable.

What annoys me the most about the current discussions on nutrition is that people can write such blatantly false statements and get away with it without any major outcry.

Again, you could try to combat this by eating less red meat and opting for healthier options, like lean poultry and fish, both of which have more nutrients than beef and seem to generally be better for you. Organ meats from all sorts of animals have plenty of vitamins, which can also help supplement your diet in small quantities. But if all you ever eat is meat, eating just fish and chicken could get pretty monotonous.

Poultry and fish are not “automatically” healthier than red meat, they do not have “more” nutrients. They do have slightly different nutrients compared to red meat, and people might simply prefer poultry or fish over beef. Obviously a 100% meat based diet is going to be monotonous compared to a “balanced” diet, which is why it is not for everyone. Personally I really like beef (steak) the most, but if for someone else pork chops, chicken breasts or salmon is preferrable, then that is fine as well.

This is, most likely, why you lose weight on any diet. Give someone rules that alter their eating habits, especially really strict ones that make it hard to find random things to snack on throughout the day, and they’ll probably end up consuming less overall. Protein is an especially satiating food, so the calories per meal will be much lower than any in which you consume carbs.

Yes, and this effect of intuitive/automatic caloric reduction is portrayed as a bad thing by the author, but it actually isn’t. Think about it: If you are overweight, it is because you are eating too much. And the reason for that is that whatever you are eating is not providing enough satiation – at the end of the day you might be satisfied, but you needed to eat too many calories. Which means that whatever you are eating is not optimal for you. Another diet, which – by whatever means – leads to you being satisfied with fewer calories, might be more optimal. This is why carnivorous diets work for many people – they contain more protein, which is more satiating, which leads to a lower caloric intake naturally, without any additional hunger.

If you’re looking to lose weight, cutting calories is obviously a good thing, but you need to do it in a sustainable way. […] . Nutritionists instead advise that you pick a way of eating that you can maintain for life.

No, cutting calories is not obviously a good thing – you need to find a way to cut the hunger as well. Only that makes it sustainable. The author is correct in pointing out that whatever diet you choose, you should be comfortable maintaining it for life. Carnivory may not be ideal in that regard, but most people manage to do well on a “80% carnivorous” diet which follows a primal template where you eat primarily meat, plus some vegetables and some fruit. Which is what many carnivores recommend as well – very few of them say that only 100% meat works for everybody.

Pretty much any extreme diet is going to be problematic. Fruit may be good for you, but if all you ever ate was fruit you’d end up with serious nutritional deficiencies. Even vegans, who generally still eat a diverse group of foods, have trouble getting certain nutrients like vitamin B12, which our bodies aren’t very good at absorbing from plant sources.

Finally a paragraph which is mostly correct, except that I am sure that there are some people for whom an extreme diet might be ideal. Penn Jillette comes to mind – he thrives on an extreme vegan diet. And Dr. Shawn Baker obviously thrives on a 99% beef diet. Mikhaila Peterson thrives on a 100% beef diet. It’s all fine, as long as nobody pushes their extreme diet onto others.

It’s not flashy, but panels of experts consistently recommend consuming a wide variety of foods, all in moderation. And yes, that can include meat. But you should sneak yourself a few veggies in there when you can.

Well, some people can surely eat “everything in moderation”. Others end up with such severe arthritis on a “balanced” diet that they need to have their hip and ankle joint replaced at the age of 17 (Mikhaila Peterson). I can only say that if these people then end up eating only beef and feeling fine, just accept that as a testament to how different we all are, even though we are all the same species.

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