What the Science Says About the Carnivore Diet for Strength Athletes

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What the Science Says About the Carnivore Diet for Strength Athletes


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If you’ve ever found yourself scrolling through social media (while resting between sets or otherwise), you’ve probably run across some extreme and divisive opinions about nutrition. After all, hot takes make headlines, and “everything in moderation,” while wise, is a bit boring and ambiguous. When it comes to making dietary choices as a strength athlete, specificity matters. 

The all-animal carnivore diet is no exception in this regard. This restrictive dietary practice seems to be all the rage lately and is touted by some as both a performance enhancer and a solution to numerous health issues, from hormonal “imbalances” to mood disorders. 

[Related: 9 Types of Diets Plus How They Work]

Your favorite powerlifter or weightlifter might be swearing by an all-meat diet. Even celebrities like Joe Rogan and Bear Grylls have tried it, but is the carnivore diet really worth taking a bite out of? 

Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.

What Is the Carnivore Diet?

The carnivore diet, much like other niche dietary practices, hinges on the idea that certain micro or macronutrients are unnecessary or even debilitating with regard to improving health outcomes or athletic performance.

Opting to eschew carbohydrates almost entirely, the carnivore diet is based on the consumption of animal flesh, organs, eggs, and small amounts of low-lactose dairy. Few to no vegetables, no processed food, and nothing that comes in a cardboard box or sealed in a plastic bag. 

[Related: Watch the Stoltman Brothers Tag-Team a 20,000-Calorie Breakfast]

In essence, the carnivore diet bears strong resemblance to some types of ketogenic diets, since both attempt to remove carbohydrate and processed foods as much as possible, though some carnivore proponents do incorporate scant amounts of carbs based on their personal tolerance. 

Influencers and fitness figures ranging from people like Dr. Paul Saladino to Brian Johnson (who goes by the moniker “Liver King”) go to bat for the carnivore diet on a regular basis. But do they have the backing of the scientific community? 

What the Science Says

Proponents of the carnivore diet claim that its tenets are supported by substantial evidence, but the fact is that research on the carnivore diet specifically — and its relevance to strength athletes or recreational lifters — is scant. However, there is an enormous amount of literature on dietary practices that closely mirror what the carnivore diet is all about. 

Weight Loss & Cardiometabolic Health

Scientific papers on meat-only diets date back almost a century to a landmark case study conducted on Arctic explorers in the 1920s who followed a meat-only meal plan for a full year.

For those explorers, prolonged meat exclusivity led to temporary insulin resistance, more uric acid in the blood, and less fecal biodiversity, which are far from being considered a perk package. However, they did also maintain healthy kidney function, experience reductions in body weight, and possess more physical “vigor.” (1)

Modern studies on low-to-no-carbohydrate dietary interventions do display notable weight loss and improvements in some markers of cardiovascular health (though these metrics aren’t significantly different from a more traditional diet). However, much of this research is carried out on subjects who suffer from chronic diseases or are obese, and thus may not be relevant for healthy, active athletes. (2) 

Self-reported data from an online survey of meat-only eaters showed improvements in health and well-being, reductions in Body Mass Index (BMI) values, a reduced reliance on diabetic medication, and elevated cholesterol. (3)

However, due to the research being conducted via survey rather than in direct clinical observation, there’s no way to empirically determine whether or not the diet itself created these effects. Respondents may have simply been reporting on things that happened to correlate with what they ate at the time.  

Chronic Disease & Mortality

Notably, some literature does draw a correlation (note: not a causative relationship) between high meat intake and mood disorders, incidences of colorectal cancer, and all-cause mortality. Although many studies do infer that consuming animal meat may not be harmful in large quantities, they don’t conclusively comment on meat-only diets. (4)(5)(6) 

How the Carnivore Diet May Affect Your Health

With little in the way of solid and specific evidence to fall back on, it’s hard to say exactly how the carnivore diet really affects your health as a strength athlete or dedicated gymgoer. 

Nutrient Deficiencies

Though the carnivore diet does provide many if not all essential nutrients your body needs to survive, it may fall short of meeting current dietary recommendations. Meat exclusivity may lead to deficiencies in vitamin C and calcium, which may create unwanted health outcomes such as chronic fatigue or fever. (7) As such, a comprehensive multivitamin could be of use in some cases. 

Relationship With Food

Many dietary habits that stigmatize, prohibit, or exclude certain foods or food groups may lead to a worsening of your relationship with food as a whole. While powerlifters and bodybuilders alike are familiar with what it takes to cut weight for a meet or prep for a big show, a rigid or restrictive approach to your diet long-term may cause undue mental stress. (8)

Heart Health

Low-carbohydrate diets (which the carnivore diet certainly counts as) have been repeatedly shown to improve certain markers of cardiovascular health. However, a highly-specific diet as a means of bolstering your heart may be overkill if you’re metabolically healthy. (2)

Credit: Anton Watman / Shutterstock

For healthy populations, paleo-esque diets — meal plans that omit foods not naturally found on Earth — do tend to create weight loss and improve blood lipid profiles, but this may be due to reducing the consumption of highly-processed foods, rather than the merits of the diet itself. (9)

Gut Health

The carnivore diet may have a negative impact on your gut health. By removing carbohydrates and fermentable fiber, you might experience lower amounts of protective postbiotics, which help manage internal bacteria. Plant foods have also been shown to have a positive influence on your risk of colorectal cancer later in life as well. (10)(11)

Conversely, one case study on the carnivore diet did showcase some potentially positive outcomes related to gut microbiome and bloating, but more research is needed to confirm this kind of finding. (12)

Following an all-meat diet may provide some relief if you experience regular bloating or gas, but there are also less-extreme ways of treating those conditions, such as adjusting your meal frequency or drinking more water.

Autoimmune Disease

Some proponents of the carnivore diet note that it can be used to treat certain autoimmune conditions, but these claims haven’t been substantiated in a clinical setting.

As many autoimmune conditions go through regular flare-ups and remission cycles, it’s possible to conflate a coincidental change in your food preferences as being the source of a temporary improvement. (13)

How the Carnivore Diet Affects Your Performance

If you enjoy lifting weights, you probably rely on the energy from carbs more than you think to bust through a squat plateau or squeeze out one last rep on the bench press. However, some athletes exhibit impressive feats of strength and muscularity while also claiming to follow a meat-exclusive diet.

protein sources
Credit: Kutsenko Denis / Shutterstock

While certain endurance-based activities (think everything from CrossFit to distance running) usually require carbohydrates to support performance at a high level, it is possible for strength athletes to perform well in their sport of choice on the carnivore diet (or a ketogenic diet).

Carbohydrates are great for fueling your expression of strength in the gym, but they aren’t an essential source of fuel for resistance training. (14)

For Bodybuilders

If you’re in the gym to change your physique or bulk up, the carnivore diet may prove to be a detriment to your training sessions. Diets that eschew carbohydrates may negatively impact longer workouts (think 45 minutes or more), or training sessions that contain high amounts of volume (in excess of 10 working sets). (14)(15)

That aside, if you can manage to adequately tax your muscles in the gym without the fuel provided by carbohydrates, you can still grow. Dietary protein and calories are the main nutritional factors when it comes to hypertrophy, so as long as you eat enough, the carnivore diet is fair game.

For Powerlifters or Weightlifters

Strength athletes who work with the barbell might fare a bit better on the carnivore diet than an intermediate or advanced bodybuilder. That said, it’s still not ideal in all situations. 

If you train more than once per day, for instance, you might find it difficult to recover enough muscle glycogen between workouts without relying on an external carb source. Should you require high amounts of volume to increase your lifts, the naturally longer workouts might run across the same conditions that would hamper a bodybuilder.

It can be hard to push through a two-hour session if you neglect carbohydrates or certain micronutrients. Further, adopting the carnivore diet early into a specific strength program might stymie your progress as you get deeper into a high-volume block that has you banging out a lot of squats or deadlifts in a single workout. 

The further you are into your strength career, the more volume (and higher intensity) you need to make progress. That benchmark might preclude you from adopting the carnivore diet long-term. (15)

The Meat of the Issue

The carnivore diet has a flashy name and, at a glance, may seem alluring if you’re after a no-frills dietary plan. After all, it’s easier and more convenient to stick to one food or food group exclusively. Your favorite lifter might even be going to bat for the carnivore diet on Instagram, which can certainly add to the appeal.

Remember, though, that a diet or workout someone follows now doesn’t necessarily mean they used it to get where they are. It’s easier to maintain muscle and strength than to achieve it in the first place, after all.

With a limited amount of specific research on the subject, the jury is out on whether the carnivore diet really sizzles for strength athletes. It may create certain beneficial outcomes by “accident” or help you avoid processed foods, but may run afoul of certain negative outcomes along the way.

The best way to separate the meat from the bone (figuratively and literally) is with your teeth — consider the evidence, think hard, and if the carnivore diet sounds appropriate for you, bite down. 

References

1. Lieb, C. W. (1929). THE EFFECTS ON HUMAN BEINGS OF A TWELVE MONTHS’ EXCLUSIVE MEAT DIET. JAMA – Journal of the American Medical Association, 9–11.
2. Kirkpatrick, C. F., Bolick, J. P., Kris-Etherton, P. M., Sikand, G., Aspry, K. E., Soffer, D. E., Willard, K. E., & Maki, K. C. (2019). Review of current evidence and clinical recommendations on the effects of low-carbohydrate and very-low-carbohydrate (including ketogenic) diets for the management of body weight and other cardiometabolic risk factors: A scientific statement from the National Lipid Association Nutrition and Lifestyle Task Force. Journal of Clinical Lipidology, 13(5), 689-711.e1. 
3. Lennerz, B. S., Mey, J. T., Henn, O. H., & Ludwig, D. S. (2021). Behavioral Characteristics and Self-Reported Health Status among 2029 Adults Consuming a “Carnivore Diet.” Current Developments in Nutrition, 5(12), 1–10. 
4. Dobersek, U., Teel, K., Altmeyer, S., Adkins, J., Wy, G., & Peak, J. (2021). Meat and mental health: A meta-analysis of meat consumption, depression, and anxiety. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 1–18. 
5. Mejborn, H., Møller, S. P., Thygesen, L. C., & Biltoft-Jensen, A. (2021). Dietary Intake of Red Meat, Processed Meat, and Poultry and Risk of Colorectal Cancer and All-Cause Mortality in the Context of Dietary Guideline Compliance. In Nutrients (Vol. 13, Issue 1). 
6. Zeraatkar, D., Johnston, B. C., Bartoszko, J., Cheung, K., Bala, M. M., Valli, C., Rabassa, M., Sit, D., Milio, K., Sadeghirad, B., Agarwal, A., Zea, A. M., Lee, Y., Han, M. A., Vernooij, R. W. M., Alonso-Coello, P., Guyatt, G. H., & El Dib, R. (2019). Effect of Lower Versus Higher Red Meat Intake on Cardiometabolic and Cancer Outcomes. Annals of Internal Medicine, 171(10), 721–731. 
7. O’Hearn, A. (2020). Can a carnivore diet provide all essential nutrients? Current Opinion in Endocrinology, Diabetes & Obesity, 27(5), 312–316. 
8. Himmerich, A. H. N. E.-H. (2020). Discretion or Disorder? The Impact of Weight Management Issues on the Diagnosis and Treatment of Disordered Eating and Clinical Eating Disorders (p. Ch. 10). IntechOpen. 
9. Frączek, B., Pięta, A., Burda, A., Mazur-Kurach, P., & Tyrała, F. (2021). Paleolithic Diet-Effect on the Health Status and Performance of Athletes? Nutrients, 13(3). 
10. Rondanelli, M., Gasparri, C., Peroni, G., Faliva, M. A., Naso, M., Perna, S., Bazire, P., Sajuox, I., Maugeri, R., & Rigon, C. (2021). The Potential Roles of Very Low Calorie, Very Low Calorie Ketogenic Diets and Very Low Carbohydrate Diets on the Gut Microbiota Composition. Frontiers in Endocrinology, 12, 662591. 
11. Schwingshackl, L., Schwedhelm, C., Hoffmann, G., Knüppel, S., Laure Preterre, A., Iqbal, K., Bechthold, A., De Henauw, S., Michels, N., Devleesschauwer, B., Boeing, H., & Schlesinger, S. (2018). Food groups and risk of colorectal cancer. International Journal of Cancer, 142(9), 1748–1758. 
12. Funmed, P. M., Sweden, G., Johansson, M., Ek, A., & Gothenburg, F. (2021). A Zero Carbohydrate, Carnivore Diet can Normalize Hydrogen Positive Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth Lactulose Breath Tests: A Case Report. 1–13. 
13. Enck, P., & Klosterhalfen, S. (2021). The Placebo and Nocebo Responses in Clinical Trials in Inflammatory Bowel Diseases. Frontiers in Pharmacology, 12(March), 1–8. 
14. Henselmans, M., Bjørnsen, T., Hedderman, R., & Vårvik, F. T. (2022). The Effect of Carbohydrate Intake on Strength and Resistance Training Performance: A Systematic Review. Nutrients, 14(4), 856. 
15. King, A., Helms, E., Zinn, C., & Jukic, I. (2022). The Ergogenic Effects of Acute Carbohydrate Feeding on Resistance Exercise Performance : A Systematic Review and Meta ‑ analysis. Sports Medicine, 0123456789. 

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