What’s the Carnivore Diet?
The carnivore diet is a dietary plan which recommends eating exclusively meats, fish, and animal products like cheese and butter.
Popularized in the late 2010s by proponents like Shawn Baker, the carnivore diet was based in part on a misguided hypothesis that prehistoric humans ate primarily animal products, based on incomplete research.
Though the term “carnivore diet” itself is simply a general description of all diets that recommend eating exclusively animal products, many popular advocates like Paul Saladino, MD prescribe unique versions of diet.
Some align these all-meat diets with other recent fads like the low carb/zero carb ketogenic diet and paleo diet, both of which make carbohydrates the enemy in an attempt to combat rising human health issues like obesity and diabetes.
Others place special emphasis on a high intake of saturated fat, red meats, organ meats, or fish.
However, despite how tempting these diets may seem to our taste buds, the research shows that they can be disastrous in the long term, especially for diabetes health.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the risks of meat-eating in general, and go into why carnivore’s proponents recommend it for diabetes.
Then, we’ll explain why the carnivore diet is not right for people with type 1 diabetes, touch on its negative effects, and then explain how the research about eating a plant-based diet for people with all forms of diabetes.
Not All Meats Are Created Equal, But All Are Risky
One of the problems with classifying a diet as ‘carnivore’ is that there are so many different types of animal products available, some of which are more problematic than others.
Processed meats including salami, bacon, sausages, and hot dogs were given a Group 1 classification which means that there is sufficient scientific evidence that they do, in fact, cause cancer.
Red meats including veal, pork, beef, lamb, horse, goat and lamb were given a Group 2A classification which means that they “probably cause cancer.”
6 High-Risk Compounds Within Meat
Leucine — Meat and dairy compounds contain much higher levels of leucine, an amino acid that is known to stimulate insulin production. Prolonged, consistent consumption of leucine can contribute to consistent overproduction of insulin, which can eventually lead to beta cell death and type 2 diabetes.
Heme Iron — Iron in food comes in two forms: heme iron (only found in animal products) and non-heme iron (only found in plants). The type of iron you eat matters. Heme iron is pro-oxidative, and high intakes of heme iron are associated with oxidative stress, and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
Nitrates and Nitrites — Nitrates and nitrites are found in processed meat products and can increase all-cause mortality. Nitrates from processed meat products increase the production of nitrosamine compounds which can increase your risk for neurodegeneration and insulin resistance.
The nitrates found in vegetables including beets, arugula, spinach, and fennel seeds behave differently from the nitrates found in processed meat products. Those from the plant world promote the production of nitric oxide (NO), which promotes vasodilation and lower blood pressure.
Sodium — There is little debate that excess sodium in your diet increases blood pressure and can damage blood vessels.
Food manufacturers often inject salt water into chicken and processed meats so that you’ll pay more money at the grocery store, and to act as a preservative.
Research suggests that excess sodium may increase the risk of type 2 diabetes by two-fold when added to prepared meals.
Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs) — AGEs are a wide variety of compounds that can be created during the cooking process, typically when frying, grilling, broiling, or roasting at high temperature in low moisture environments.
Though they sometimes occur naturally, high levels of AGEs in your blood interfere with the absorption of glucose into tissues, which can cause high blood glucose.
The foods that are highest in AGEs are beef, cheese, poultry, pork, fish, and eggs, where the compounds that are lowest in AGEs are grains, legumes, vegetables, breads, and fruits.
Saturated Fat — Saturated fats are found in nearly all foods, but are most common and most prevalent in meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, and dairy products, along with some fat-rich vegetables.
Though there are some proponents who believe that fats of all kinds are beneficial to your diabetes health, the evidence says otherwise.
Though consumption of a diet high in saturated may provide results in the short term, the research show that dietary saturated fat is the most potent trigger for insulin resistance in muscle and liver.
Note: For a more in-depth overview of each of these high-risk compounds found in meat products, pick up a copy of the Mastering Diabetes book.
What the Research Says
That being said, will adding a little bit of meat to your diet directly cause cancer or diabetes? Unlikely.
This holds true in the same way that one cigarette won’t cause lung cancer, nor will one scoop of ice cream cause obesity.
But the research shows that when eaten consistently, processed meat and red meat can dramatically increase your risk for these conditions.
Why Do People Think a Carnivore Diet Could Help Type 1 Diabetes Management?
However, “carnivore” as a general dietary concept is too broad to effectively study or discuss from a research perspective because there are too many variables. Instead, we’ll focus on the popular trend of carnivore diets that emphasize low-carb or zero carb nutrition.
These recent carnivore diets follow a nutritional profile similar to other recent popular diets, like the paleo and ketogenic diets. By reducing carbohydrate intake to less than 30 grams of net carbohydrates per day, the predominant macronutrients are protein and fat.
The main reason why people living with diabetes are drawn to the carnivore diet is that when you significantly reduce your carbohydrate intake, you can:
Each of these effects are great, but they may come at a large cost to your long-term health.
Quick, But Deceptive Short-Term Results
In order to understand these results, it’s necessary to understand insulin resistance, the underlying condition present in the majority of people living with type 1 diabetes, type 1.5 diabetes, prediabetes, and type 2 diabetes.
Insulin resistance results from the accumulation of excess dietary fat in cells that are not meant to store large quantities of fat, which inhibits the action of insulin.
If you’re living with insulin resistance, cells in your liver and muscle can’t uptake glucose from your blood efficiently, resulting in a “traffic jam” of both glucose and insulin in your blood, causing hyperglycemia and hyperinsulinemia simultaneously.
The low-carb diet’s answer to insulin resistance is to play the “carbohydrate avoidance” game, rather than restoring insulin action in liver and muscle.
Reducing carbohydrate intake often results in short-term improvements including:
These quick results are quite enticing, and they’re a major selling point of these low-carb diets.
However, it’s important to understand that even if your blood glucose and insulin concentrations decrease, a low-carbohydrate diet doesn’t reverse insulin resistance – it actually increases insulin resistance.
Low-Carb Diets May Be a Long-Term Disaster
A high-fat, low carbohydrate diet increases insulin resistance over time, which can worsen diabetes, promote the death of insulin producing beta cells, and long-term negative effects including:
So by eating a low-carbohydrate diet, you’re likely trading short-term results for increased chronic disease risk in the long-term. If you’d like to read more about the science behind this contrast, you can dive even deeper in our article debunking 7 misleading statements about low carb or no carb diets.
What are the Drawbacks of the Carnivore Diet for Diabetes?
The true results of a meat-based diet become more clear in the long term, with a significantly increased level of insulin resistance, high LDL cholesterol, and high fasting blood glucose values despite a low intake of carbohydrates.
Carnivore proponent and orthopedic surgeon Shawn Baker, MD released his blood work after 15 months of the carnivore diet.
Even though Dr. Baker refers to himself as “healthy,” his blood work shows quite the opposite:
This is a common thread among many carnivore advocates, who often share stories of rejecting conventional wisdom and striking out to share stories of positive personal results, even for those with type 1 diabetes.
And unfortunately, this is a common theme with many fad diets. Many are portrayed as cutting edge, individualist diets that “the masses” don’t know about, and when accompanied by quick, personal results, they can feel very rewarding.
The carnivore diet is tempting for many reasons, including:
But these temptations are grounded mainly in emotional reasons, not in evidence-based science.
What the Research Actually Says About Meat
Despite claims to the contrary, there is a lack of scientific evidence that the carnivore diet is sustainable in the long-term.
What there is instead, are countless studies that show the negative effects of high-meat diets compared to plant-based protein.
The EPIC Study
The EPIC study (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) is one of the largest investigations ever performed to investigate the connection between nutrition and chronic disease, involving hundreds of researchers, more than 500,000 participants, and twelve years of data.
What researchers discovered was very straightforward: Meat (especially processed meats like bacon, cold cuts, sausage, hot dogs, and hamburgers) increases your risk for type 2 diabetes, while eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables reduces your diabetes risk.
The EPIC study also revealed that replacing 5 percent of saturated fat with fructose (from fruits or refined sources) reduces your diabetes risk by 30 percent, and that replacing 5 percent of protein with fructose reduces your diabetes risk by 28 percent.
Even though mainstream recommendations suggest that eating glucose and fructose (from fruits) will increase your risk for type 2 diabetes, after studying more than a half a million people, EPIC researchers concluded that these monosaccharides actually decrease your risk for type 2 diabetes, especially when they are eaten as substitutes for saturated fat and protein-rich foods.
Adventist Health Studies
Members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church follow a wide range of diets, including omnivores, pesco-vegetarians, semi-vegetarians, lacto-ovo-vegetarians, and vegans.
An analysis of more than 8,000 people in this community over the course of seventeen years found extremely strong relationships between meat consumption and diabetes.
In comparison with people who ate zero meat, people who ate meat as infrequently as once per week were 29 percent more likely to develop diabetes and those who ate salted or processed meats were 38 percent more likely to develop diabetes.
Health Professionals Follow-Up Study
In 2002, researchers analyzed data from more than 42,000 male subjects over twelve years and found that men who ate more total and saturated fat developed significantly more cases of type 2 diabetes.
They found that men who ate processed meats (bacon, hot dogs, hamburgers, sausage, salami, and bologna) at least 5 times per week were 46 percent more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those who ate meat once a month.
Nurses’ Health Study
To this day, this study is one of the largest and most comprehensive on meat and diabetes risk ever performed. In 2011, researchers from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health performed an analysis of data from more than 200,000 men and women taken over the course of nineteen years.
Their results were tremendous. They found that both unprocessed and processed red meat consumption increased the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Eating just one serving per day of unprocessed red meat increased diabetes risk by 12 percent and eating one serving per day of processed red meat increased diabetes risk by 32 percent.
Women’s Health Study
The Women’s Health Study followed more than 37,000 women over 45 years old for 8.8 years and found that those who ate the most red meat were 28 percent more likely to develop diabetes, and those who ate the most total processed meat were at a 43 percent increased risk for diabetes.
Just the Tip of the Iceberg
Above are just a few of the studies focusing on diabetes, without even touching on other all-cause morbidities like cancer and heart disease.
In summary? In the long term, the carnivore diet isn’t just bad for your diabetes health, it’s bad for your overall health.
A Proven Approach to Type 1 Diabetes Management
Many proponents point to their own blood work in small cases as proof of type 1 diabetes management, despite the overwhelming research which indicates that high meat diets are unhealthy.
The Mastering Diabetes Method
This form of nutrition has been proven to dramatically increase insulin sensitivity, which also results in improved diabetes markers like:
Along with other benefits like:
We also look to the results. Not just to isolated results from single people, but to the many thousands of people in our community who have followed this method and seen long-term, sustainable results, not just short-term, isolated benefits.
For an extensive look at the research behind this diet, as well as some frequently asked questions, take a look at our definitive guide to the diabetes diet.
The Type 1 Diabetes Playbook
We get it. The meat diet is tempting. It’s tasty. It has charismatic supporters with compelling resumes and interesting stories.
What it doesn’t have is a solid nutritional foundation of randomized control trials, meta-analyses of randomized control trials, and large-scale epidemiological studies.
It may not seem as flashy, or bold, or defiant, but when it comes to nutrition, sometimes simple and reasonable is better. And when it comes to type 1 diabetes, the lifestyle playbook is simple:
Our program alone has proof in the form of hundreds of people with every type of diabetes, who have been able to transform their health and take control of their lives.
And that’s the best part. Diabetes health is simple, and it’s in your control.
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