Carnivore Diet for Type 1 Diabetes: What’s the Problem?

Article written and reviewed by Cyrus Khambatta, PhD
Published November 9, 2020

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.

There are some meats, like fish and organ meats that are less problematic than the processed meats that have recently been classified as Class 1 and 2A carcinogens by the World Health Organization.

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, eggs, 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?

Removing artificial products and sweeteners is very beneficial to your health, and the focus on natural, un-processed nutrition is a step in the right direction.

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:

  • Lose weight easily
  • Lower your A1c
  • Reduce your fasting blood glucose
  • Lower your fasting insulin concentrations

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:

  • Weight gain
  • Increased insulin use over time
  • Elevated LDL cholesterol
  • Increased risk for coronary artery disease (CAD)
  • Brain fog
  • Low energy
  • Digestive discomfort

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:

  • His Total cholesterol was high (194 mg/dL)
  • His LDL cholesterol was high (141 mg/dL)
  • His fasting glucose was high (127 mg/dL, which according to ADA guidelines indicates that he has type 2 diabetes)
  • His A1c was high (6.3%, which according to these same ADA guidelines indicates that he has prediabetes)

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:

  • Meat tastes good
  • Meat is often associated with being masculine
  • It is backed by charismatic advocates, often with advanced medical degrees
  • Eating meat is associated with strength and power, conjuring up images of powerful carnivorous animals like lions, tigers and sharks

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.

Most importantly, those who ate a vegetarian diet in the long term were 74 percent less likely to develop diabetes, even when compared with those who ate meat only once per week.

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.

We look instead to the evidence, and the numerous trials that show that plant based diets are far better for all forms of diabetes management, not just type 1.

The Mastering Diabetes Method

We’ve taken this research, with hundreds of sources, clinical trials, and studies, to refine a low-fat, plant-based, whole-food diet that’s high in whole carbohydrates.

This form of nutrition has been proven to dramatically increase insulin sensitivity, which also results in improved diabetes markers like:

  • Making it easier to control your blood glucose with precision
  • Reducing your insulin use (by 10-60%)
  • Reducing your oral medication use (by 52% on average)
  • Improving your time in range (TIR)
  • Lowering your A1c values (by 2.0% on average)
  • Lowering your LDL cholesterol
  • Lowering your blood pressure

Along with other benefits like:

  • Increasing your energy levels
  • Weight loss
  • A boosted immune system
  • And minimizing your risk for many chronic diseases

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.

Don’t take it from us, take it from over 800 scientific studies and thousands of people that have already experienced long-lasting results.

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:

  • Eat a low-fat, plant-based, whole-food diet
  • Move your body every day
  • Intermittent fast when necessary

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.

If you’d like, take a look at some of our coaching programs. From our Do-It-Yourself Program to private coaching to virtual retreats, you can find the plan that works for you.

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About the author 

Cyrus Khambatta, PhD

Cyrus Khambatta, PhD is a New York Times bestselling co-author of Mastering Diabetes: The Revolutionary Method to Reverse Insulin Resistance Permanently in Type 1, Type 1.5, Type 2, Prediabetes, and Gestational Diabetes.

He is the co-founder of Mastering Diabetes and Amla Green, and is an internationally recognized nutrition and fitness coach who has been living with type 1 diabetes since 2002. He co-created the Mastering Diabetes Method to reverse insulin resistance in all forms of diabetes, and has helped more than 10,000 people improve their metabolic health using low-fat, plant-based, whole-food nutrition, intermittent fasting, and exercise.

Cyrus earned a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University in 2003, then earned a PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry from the University of California at Berkeley in 2012. He is the co-author of many peer-reviewed scientific publications.

He is the co-host of the annual Mastering Diabetes Online Summit, a featured speaker at the Plant-Based Nutrition and Healthcare Conference (PBNHC), the American College of Lifestyle Medicine Conference (ACLM), Plant Stock, the Torrance Memorial Medical Center, and has been featured on The Doctors, NPR, KQED, Forks Over Knives, Healthline, Fast Company, Diet Fiction, and the wildly popular podcasts the Rich Roll Podcast, Plant Proof, MindBodyGreen, and Nutrition Rounds.

Scientific Publications:

Sarver, Jordan, Cyrus Khambatta, Robby Barbaro, Bhakti Chavan, and David Drozek. “Retrospective Evaluation of an Online Diabetes Health Coaching Program: A Pilot Study.” American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, October 15, 2019, 1559827619879106. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827619879106

Shrivastav, Maneesh, William Gibson, Rajendra Shrivastav, Katie Elzea, Cyrus Khambatta, Rohan Sonawane, Joseph A. Sierra, and Robert Vigersky. “Type 2 Diabetes Management in Primary Care: The Role of Retrospective, Professional Continuous Glucose Monitoring.” Diabetes Spectrum: A Publication of the American Diabetes Association 31, no. 3 (August 2018): 279–87. https://doi.org/10.2337/ds17-0024

Thompson, Airlia C. S., Matthew D. Bruss, John C. Price, Cyrus F. Khambatta, William E. Holmes, Marc Colangelo, Marcy Dalidd, et al. “Reduced in Vivo Hepatic Proteome Replacement Rates but Not Cell Proliferation Rates Predict Maximum Lifespan Extension in Mice.” Aging Cell 15, no. 1 (February 2016): 118–27. https://doi.org/10.1111/acel.12414

Roohk, Donald J., Smita Mascharak, Cyrus Khambatta, Ho Leung, Marc Hellerstein, and Charles Harris. “Dexamethasone-Mediated Changes in Adipose Triacylglycerol Metabolism Are Exaggerated, Not Diminished, in the Absence of a Functional GR Dimerization Domain.” Endocrinology 154, no. 4 (April 2013): 1528–39. https://doi.org/10.1210/en.2011-1047

Price, John C., Cyrus F. Khambatta, Kelvin W. Li, Matthew D. Bruss, Mahalakshmi Shankaran, Marcy Dalidd, Nicholas A. Floreani, et al. “The Effect of Long Term Calorie Restriction on in Vivo Hepatic Proteostatis: A Novel Combination of Dynamic and Quantitative Proteomics.” Molecular & Cellular Proteomics: MCP 11, no. 12 (December 2012): 1801–14.

Bruss, Matthew D., Airlia C. S. Thompson, Ishita Aggarwal, Cyrus F. Khambatta, and Marc K. Hellerstein. “The Effects of Physiological Adaptations to Calorie Restriction on Global Cell Proliferation Rates.” American Journal of Physiology. Endocrinology and Metabolism 300, no. 4 (April 2011): E735-745. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpendo.00661.2010

Bruss, Matthew D., Cyrus F. Khambatta, Maxwell A. Ruby, Ishita Aggarwal, and Marc K. Hellerstein. “Calorie Restriction Increases Fatty Acid Synthesis and Whole Body Fat Oxidation Rates.” American Journal of Physiology. Endocrinology and Metabolism 298, no. 1 (January 2010): E108-116.