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There has been a popular trend of late toward a new version of “paleo” termed the “carnivore diet.” It is an approach that focuses exclusively upon animal source foods, eschewing plant foods more or less entirely. As expected (and typical of pretty much any alternative to the Standard American/Western Diet, which – let’s face it – isn’t hard to improve upon), many individuals are claiming improved health. However, I have to state right off that I am not a fan of the carnivore diet for a few, not so trivial, reasons.
The idea of a mostly “carnivore” diet is certainly supportable from a human evolutionary standpoint. Innumerable studies based on stable isotopic analysis of prehistoric human bone collagen – showing us what protein sources we consumed almost exclusively throughout our evolutionary history – have clearly pointed to the idea that we didn’t get to where we are as a species by relying on plant-based nutrition. We have always been “high-level” (i.e., mostly) carnivores. There’s no question that our prehistoric ancestors operated far more as hunters than gatherers. We are superbly designed physiologically in a way that is unique among primates to get our primary nourishment from animal source foods.
The evidence also shows that we had a distinct preference for regularly and successfully hunting extremely large, fatty herbivores that less technologically adept carnivores simply lacked the capacity for bringing down. If we took down a woolly mammoth (purportedly having about 50% or more body fat), we likely gorged on it for days, never being completely sure where the next meal was coming from. We had the unique intelligence – thanks to our big, fatty brains and voracious appetites for the fat of wild animals, which is rich in arachidonic acid (AA) and, especially, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – to develop elaborate and increasingly sophisticated hunting technologies. Thanks in no small part to our pronounced taste for bone marrow, we also had developed the opposable thumbs needed for successfully implementing our innovative hunting practices. We were willing to regularly put out supreme effort and even put ourselves at high risk to obtain that nutrient-dense, fatty meat. By the way, we didn’t need fire in order for dietary animal fat to become the major structural and functional impetus for rapidly forging our extraordinary, uniquely sophisticated human brain.
In my most recent book, Primal Fat Burner, I made an exhaustive case for the idea that dietary animal fat served most fundamentally to make us what we are as a human species. I also made the case that a fat-based metabolism (as opposed to a glucose-based one) is the most natural and advantageous metabolic state for humankind. However, I am also regularly careful to say that just because our ancestors did something doesn’t necessarily mean we need to do the exact same thing today – or that their way of doing things was optimal or even beneficial. After all, there is no rational basis to assume that all “natural, whole” foods consumed by our ancestors in prehistoric times were equally healthful. Obviously, we were far healthier, more robust, and bigger brained back then, but it could just be that we were doing enough right to compensate for less-than-optimal food choices. We have nowhere near the same overall genetic robustness, pristine environment, or wiggle room today. So, this begs the critical question: How can we know what is optimal for us and what isn’t?
That’s why my Primalgenic® dietary approach* takes longevity research and foundational ancestral principles into account, as well as our unprecedentedly stressful and toxic modern world. The truth is, we need to compensate for things that our prehistoric ancestors would never even have conceived of.
Thus, I have argued that fibrous, nonstarchy vegetables – although never having been scientifically established as truly “essential” for us (as no carbohydrate is) – may have more to offer us today than during any prior time in our long evolutionary history. Many contain beneficial phytochemicals, antioxidant nutrients, and other useful compounds that are demonstrably helpful for badly needed detoxification and nutritional support in our modern world. Certain plant foods provide well-documented hormetic and even medicinal effects that may add to our potentially health-optimizing arsenal. For example, cruciferous vegetables – such as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage – contain beneficial sulforaphane, indoles, isothiocyanates, and carotenoids. Many brassica-based compounds profoundly aid detoxification, particularly of airbornepollutants and toxins such as cadmium, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, xenobiotics, and dioxins. They also offer significant anti-inflammatory and even anticancer benefits.
Any number of fibrous, nonstarchy vegetables can also provide dietary bulk and a satisfying sense of fullness – as well as fodder for our beleaguered gut microbiomes. There are some people within the “carnivore” camp who debate the value of plant fiber in supporting our gut-based microbial health, but the ability of our gut microflorato synthesize butyrate, which is critical for the health of the human colon, is well established in the literature. Is plant fiber essential for this? Absolutely not, but it can certainly help – and in today’s world, our chronically compromised internal bacteria need all the help they can get.
I fully recognize that some people simply cannot tolerate greens and other fibrous vegetables due to conditions such as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) or lectin sensitivities. However, as long as you don’t have pronounced issues tolerating them, fibrous vegetables can increase your dietary diversity, thus helping to:
- Reduce the potential for food-related immune reactivities. (Eating the same thing every day is a recipe for the development of food sensitivities for many.)
- Provide better nutritional synergy and amplified benefits from a wider range of nutrients.
- Increase gut microbial health and diversity, which is an essential component in cultivating a robust immune system. One study (Claesson et al.) involving elderly populations concluded that the strongest influence on the microbiome is the diversity and composition of the diet.
There certainly are microbially enhancing, highly fermentable “fibers” in animal source foods, as well. Collagen, cartilage, connective tissue, glucosamine, and chondroitin have been demonstrated to be on par with popular prebiotics such as fructooligosaccharides (FOS) in providing fermentable substrate and producing critical butyrate. Remember, connective tissues are glycoproteins, containing both carbohydrate and protein. That said, the prebiotic compounds from animal source foods could also potentially be problematic in persons having conditions such as SIBO.
Oral tolerance (implying reduced potential for food reactivities and greater ability to tolerate a wider variety of foods) is a heavily compromised aspect of our health nowadays. Many of us need additional support in this area, particularly as autoimmunity and infectious diseases/superbugs are on the rise. As part of the effort toward wider dietary diversity, we should all be increasing our intake of true vitamin A (retinol, not beta carotene) from foods such as liver. This can help us boost our levels of immunoglobulin A (IgA) – which plays an important role in immune function – and improve gut barrier integrity. True vitamin A, which is exclusively animal sourced, is vital for reclaiming oral tolerance and a resilient immune system, among numerous other health benefits. Most of us don’t get enough of this underappreciated, critical nutrient.
As biodiversity in any ecosystem leads to greater environmental stability, it isn’t too big of a stretch to extrapolate that the same is likely true of the gut microbiome – that increasing dietary diversity can improve microbial diversity and increase the health and stability of the gut ecosystem. In addition, low dietary diversity is a potential set-up for nutrient deficiencies, particularly in our depleted and toxic modern environment. There is growing evidence that limited dietary variety among many autistic children (who may selectively eat only a couple of specific foods while avoiding the rest) may be linked with notoriously nondiverse and unhealthy gut microbiomes and increased risk of poor health outcomes. One thing we do know is that our much healthier and more robust prehistoric ancestors generally attempted to eat as wide a variety of foods as was available to them. Of course, they were also exposed to far more beneficial endospore-forming organisms from the soil and other aspects of the natural environment than we are, which added to their healthy gut microbial arsenal.
As I keep saying, plant-based foods aren’t truly essential for us. However, if you can tolerate them, plants can provide antioxidant nutrients and unique phytochemicals, and can serve as a significantly beneficial adjunct to a diet containing ample nutrient-dense, animal source foods. Keep in mind that absorption of the extra minerals plants can supply us with (if we don’t greatly overdo fiber consumption) requires sufficient hydrochloric acid, which is primarily secreted in the presence of animal source foods. Moreover, many plant foods should be cooked as a means of minimizing mineral-binding anti-nutrients and excessive fiber. (Others can be occasionally enjoyed raw in salads or via some low-fiber, low-glycemic juicing, although cultured/fermented vegetables provide the most potential benefits and nutrition.) Also, fat-soluble nutrients from plant-based foods – such as beta-carotene and vitamin K1 – require the presence of dietary fat for their absorption and utilization. When plants are eaten alone, their benefits may be limited.
But don’t we really need plant-based foods?
Some people denounce the carnivore diet mainly due to its omission of plant-based foods. For me, that is a somewhat lesser concern. There is considerable, well-funded hype and “lore” around plant-based diets today – and most of it is based far more upon mythology, misguided ideology, economic/political interests, and religious doctrine than upon scientific substance. Although I personally see a potential value in the incorporation of certain types of plants into the diet, by no means are they to be considered indispensable to us. There is simply no basis for that anywhere in our evolutionary heritage or in the human fossil record (including evidence from all known Neolithic hunter-gatherer societies). Our unique digestive physiology is poorly designed for maximizing the extraction of nutrients from plants. We can make far better use of animal-based foods than plant-based ones. There is no credible scientific evidence indicating a human dietary requirement for any form of carbohydrate. In short, plant-based foods have always been a side dish for us
Every nutrient required by humans is technically attainable through a well-balanced, exclusively animal-sourced diet, including those nutrients commonly associated with plant-based foods. For example, there is four times more vitamin C in 100 grams of liver than there is in an apple, folate is richly present in liver, and vitamin E is abundant in exclusively pastured animal fats. Beta-carotene is also plentiful in exclusively pastured animal fats and egg yolks (while true vitamin A is found only in animal source foods). Vitamin K1 is present in small amounts in pastured animal fats, while the far more critical K2/MK-4 is exclusive to fully pastured animal source foods and is especially high in poultry fat, poultry liver, and certain genetic strains of emu oil. Important minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium are also significantly present in 100% grassfed and grass-finished meats, organs, and tissues. B-complex vitamins (including B12, of course) are abundant in a variety of animal source foods. The majority of our needed dietary minerals are frankly best and most efficiently obtained from animal source foods, as they are far more bioavailable from them. No human being can get all – or even most – of their fundamental nutritional requirements met through an exclusively plant-based diet. Whatever benefits one might experience from a vegetarian or vegan diet early on ultimately will lead to diminishing returns.
Protein and the mTOR pathway
The other (and, frankly, more primary) issue with a carnivore-type diet, in my view, has to do with the excessive amount of protein typically being consumed. It simply isn’t advisable to chronically provoke the protein-sensing mTOR pathway,† for multiple reasons – not the least of which is that we are living in an unprecedentedly toxic, mutagenic world in which cancer rates are exploding globally. The activation of mTOR via excess dietary protein leads to an abundance of “oncophilic” growth factors in highly concerning ways. Nearly all cancer cells exhibit elevated mTOR.
An Ancestral Health Symposium talk given by medical pioneer and metabolic expert Ron Rosedale, MD, (see bibliography) underscores this concern about excessive protein consumption. He rightfully describes cancer as “a disease of growth,” meaning it is not the cancerous cell that kills, but rather its unbridled proliferation. The proliferation of cancer cells requires growth factors – even more than it does sugar – and it is excess dietary protein that largely supplies them. Rosedale soundly trounces the recently popularized notion of cancer as a metabolic, mitochondrial disease (which I was frankly seduced by myself, for a while), while putting the emphasis more squarely on the subject of excess dietary protein and its generation of cancer-fertilizing growth factors.
This isn’t to let sugar – cancer’s favorite fuel – off the hook. Moreover, insulin is also a growth factor for cancer cells. Since no human ever needs to consume sugar or starch to meet their modest glucose requirements, to me it’s a no-brainer: Simply eliminate sugar and starch from the diet.
However, cancer cell fuel-sourcing and metabolism are potentially much more complex and variable from one cancer to the next, while mTOR activation remains the single most concerning, foundationally universal nemesis. The cheapest, easiest, and most reliable means of keeping mTOR at the end of a short leash and extending a healthy lifespan while thwarting cancer’s most lethal progression – metastasis – is by simply limiting your daily protein intake to just the amount you need.
The amino acid leucine is cited as the primary impetus for mTOR activation, but it’s not the only factor contributing to the potential for cancer promotion via higher protein intake. L-glutamine also activates mTOR, in addition to serving as robust fodder for cancer cells. This is not to say that either leucine or L-glutamine is inherently bad. They are not. We need a certain amount of them. However, in an era where environmental toxicity, genetic compromise, and mutagenic influences are virtually ubiquitous, consuming too much dietary protein – and, particularly, too much leucine and L-glutamine – is potentially harmful. It is important to keep growth factors such as insulin, leptin, IGF-1, and growth hormone at their minimum necessary levels for the long-term maintenance of health, and for any hope of longevity. Anything more is a modern-day recipe for an eventual bad diagnosis.
The current statistics are sobering: One in two men and one in three women will get cancer in their lifetimes. If you end up with that diagnosis, I can promise you that a high-protein carnivore diet will not serve you well. Moreover, a low-utilizable-carbohydrate, ketogenic dietary approach will only be useful insofar as it also limits your protein intake.
It has been suggested by some that it may not be advisable to remain in a chronic state of autophagy (a process by which dysfunctional cells are removed and parts of them are recycled) or mTOR suppression. However, a wealth of research into the long-term effects of modified caloric restriction – automatically leading to just such a demonstratively beneficial “chronic” state – simply fails to corroborate that negative supposition. Modified caloric restriction absolutely works, increasing longevity and freedom from disease across all species studied, including primates.
If you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, you don’t want to overly restrict protein. The same is true for babies, children, and growing teens. In these cases, growth and necessary cellular proliferation are the name of the game. If you happen to be an elite athlete, your protein requirement may be slightly higher than that of the average Joe – but nowhere near as much as you might like to think.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with moderating your protein intake to “merely” sufficient levels, as long as your intake is indeed sufficient – and as long as your digestive system either is functioning well or is being properly supported with supplemental hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes. This caveat cannot be emphasized enough.
But what about those for whom the Carnivore Diet seems to work?
In cases where a person feels some improvement with a higher protein intake but not a more moderate one, my concerns are as follows:
- At the moderate level, the protein consumed may not have been of sufficient nutrient density or included a meaningfully diversified range of animal source foods, including organ meats, to provide an adequate spectrum of nutrients. If you are restricting your protein sources to just “steak, fish, chicken, and the occasional egg,” you are bound to run into problems down the road from insufficient nutrient intake.
- Digestion and the potential presence of malabsorption may need to be properly evaluated through functional lab analysis and addressed. Persons prone to higher stress and/or anxiety levels are almost certainly lacking in digestive efficiency and frequently tend to suffer leaky gut issues. Digestion is a parasympathetic process, depending upon a calm and relaxed state in order for proper digestive secretions to occur. Also, as we age, our production of hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes often decreases and frequently must be compensated for through regular supplementation. Eating even more protein to offset compromised digestion simply won’t fix this.
- Those persons who have problems with things such as oxalates or nightshades, or who have immune reactivities to particular plant-based foods, may feel a sense of relief when omitting them. That’s legitimate. However, it’s ultimately better to figure out what the problematic foods are and then use a scalpel, not a shovel, to eliminate the actual offending dietary components. We live in an era where various dietary restrictions are a necessary reality for many people. Maintaining as strong a level of dietary diversity as possible – without compromising your health – is increasingly becoming a bit of an art. But making the effort to do so, as best you can, is ultimately worth it.
- Persons tending toward hypoglycemia who attempt to adopt ketogenic approaches by increasing protein and decreasing carbohydrate are only, in effect, trading one source of carbohydrate for another. Excess protein in the diet will have a tendency to convert, with anywhere from 36% to 58% efficiency (depending on whose research you look at), to glucose and get used the same way. So, hypoglycemic people who think they are on a low-carb diet but feel better when they increase their protein intake may be kidding themselves a bit.
How much protein do we really need?
It is worthwhile to consider how much protein is actually consumed by a breastfeeding infant, whose need for protein is arguably at its highest level to allow for rapid cellular division and growth. In an in-depth, scientific evaluation (Rigo et al.) of infants’ dietary protein requirements (taking into account total nitrogen and milk protein intake), the average daily protein requirement at six months of age was determined to be just 0.98 grams per kilogram of body weight. (The protein content in breast milk is about 1 g/100 ml).
It is not unreasonable to assume that for an average adult who is neither pregnant nor trying to become so, a goal of 0.75 grams per kilogram of lean tissue mass (Dr. Ron Rosedale’s recommendation) or 0.8 grams per kilogram of what I call “estimated ideal body weight,” which is much simpler for people to readily determine (see box below), can sufficiently meet daily protein requirements under all but the most demanding circumstances. Using estimated ideal body weight also allows for weight optimization strategies in a downward or upward direction based on individual goals. Of course, this calculation should take into account the quality and source of the protein consumed, as well as the individual’s digestive health, to obtain the best results.
In a person with cancer (or at very high risk for cancer), daily protein intake probably shouldn’t exceed 0.5-0.6 grams per kilogram of either lean tissue mass or estimated ideal body weight.
Also, older persons should generally be using hydrochloric acid and digestive enzyme supplements with their protein-containing meals to ensure the best possible utilization of the nutrients they consume. Hydrochloric acid is necessary for the effective digestion and utilization of not only protein but also vitamin B12 and many critical minerals.
The notion that anyone should require more protein daily than 0.8 grams per kilogram of estimated ideal body weight is not supported by any credible longevity research, much less any well-documented argument asserting improved health or freedom from disease. The whole reason caloric restriction has proven the most consistently effective dietary measure for longevity across all species over nearly 100 years of research has to do with the limiting of two primary factors: insulin and mTOR.
We have been conditioned in the Western world, especially in the United States, to feel as though we haven’t been fed sufficiently unless our plate is overflowing with food. In part, this is probably a remnant psychological construct from our wild past, when feast or famine was the rule. We still feel the impetus to feast when the opportunity presents itself, but acting upon that is no longer in our best interest. Neither is the practice of creating a bit of insulin resistance in the late summer by gorging on fruit to fatten us up for winter. These innately compelling, ancient impulses are effectively killing us – or, at least, unnecessarily shortening our lives.
We don’t need to eat anywhere near as much as we think we do in order to meet our foundational dietary requirements. We just have to be smart and more highly selective than our ancestors.
If a concern with protein moderation is based on the desire to ensure sufficient intake of micronutrients, then the quality, variety, sourcing, and nutrient density of our protein choices become even more crucial. Eating 100% grassfed and grass-finished meat, along with eating “nose to tail” (using virtually every part of the animal) and getting enough healthy fats, is the best way to obtain an adequate supply of both water-and fat-soluble nutrients. Critical fat-soluble nutrients – central to our immunity, brain function, and much more – are, of course, best gotten from animal fats (and organ meats) of uncompromising quality. The use of lower heat, non-oxidizing preparation methods is also important. High-quality, nonrancid, appropriately prepared fat does not increase the production of oncogenic growth factors or add to any other cancer or longevity concerns. In fact, fat-soluble nutrients exclusively found in animal source foods, such as vitamins A (retinol), D3, and K2/MK-4, might just be the most powerful tools for securing positive cancer outcomes and healthy genetic expression – that is, apart from restricting protein and minimizing dietary sugar and starch, in that order.
It’s worth pointing out that all purely carnivorous animal species, when allowed to eat more than their fill of protein every day, don’t tend to be particularly long lived – either in the wild or in captivity. By following the above guidelines, which are incorporated into the Primalgenic® diet, we can fully honor our dietary requirements for critical animal-sourced nutrients, along with our evolutionary and human genetic heritage, while minimizing the liabilities that come with unrestricted versions of popular ancestral dietary approaches. The inclusion of fibrous, nonstarchy vegetables in our diet, although optional, can be a welcome complement to our intake of quality, nutrient-dense animal source foods. However, for those who do not tolerate plant foods well, the answer does not lie in increasing protein intake beyond what is needed.
How Much Protein Is Right for You?
Here is the basic, general formula for an average adult:
Begin with your estimated ideal body weight in pounds. For instance, if you weigh 300 pounds now but know you looked and felt better at 130 pounds in college, use 130 as the starting number, instead of your current (excessive) weight. Then divide by 2.2 in order to determine your estimated ideal weight in kilograms.
Multiply that number by 0.8 (or 0.5 if you knowingly have or are at very high risk for cancer) to arrive at the number of grams of actual protein per day that you want to shoot for. Keep in mind that any source of protein is also going to contain other things, including water, fat, minerals, and other nutrients.
Now, here’s how you figure out portions:
There are about 7 grams of protein in an ounce (about 30 grams) of meat or fish. An egg contains anywhere from 6-8 grams of protein, depending on its size. A cup of bone broth has about 7 grams of protein.
In the beginning, I urge people to weigh their protein portions raw when possible. In time, you will get very good at estimating portion size, but it might be helpful to use a digital food scale when getting started. If the meat is already cooked, you will have to guesstimate – but always remember to adjust the portion size downward in that case, as there will be more protein per ounce of meat once the water gets cooked out of it.
It’s also important to mention here that you probably don’t want to exceed about 21 grams of actual protein (up to 3 ounces of meat or fish) in any given meal. Anything more than that is mTOR activating. So, you don’t want to get all your daily protein at once. Also, bear in mind that plant-based proteins, from foods such as nuts and seeds, count in the mTOR equation.
*The Primalgenic® dietary approach is a low-utilizable-carbohydrate, moderate-protein, and high-fat ketogenic diet based on foods of uncompromising quality (organic, non-GMO, and 100% grassfed and grass-finished) in alignment with our human evolutionary and genetic heritage. For more information, see primalrestoration.com and primalgenic.com.
†Mammalian target of rapamycin, or mTOR, is a protein kinase (a type of enzyme) that regulates protein synthesis, cell growth, and other cellular processes.
Adapted from the article “My Beef with the Carnivore Diet,” by Nora Gedgaudas, CNS, NTP, BCHN; available at primalbody-primalmind.com.
About the Author
Nora Gedgaudas is a board-certified nutritional consultant and clinical neurofeedback specialist with over 20 years of successful clinical experience. A recognized authority on ketogenic, ancestrally based nutrition, she is a popular speaker and educator and serves on the board of Price-Pottenger. Nora is also the author of several books, including the best-selling Primal Body, Primal Mind and Rethinking Fatigue. Her most recent book is Primal Fat Burner (Simon & Schuster, 2017). Nora’s accredited Primalgenic® health certification program, Primal Restoration®, is an invaluable source of unique, cutting-edge information benefitting those interested in furthering their nutrition knowledge and optimizing health. For more information, please see primalbody-primalmind.com and primalrestoration.com.
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Published in the Price-Pottenger Journal of Health and Healing
Spring 2020 | Volume 44, Number 1
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