The Carnivore Experiment (and the cost of getting lean)

It has been 33 days since I tested out the carnivore diet, and this post will detail the good, the bad, and the ugly of my experience. Please keep in mind that this is entirely anecdotal. My experience may be indicative of what someone else may experience on a similar diet, but it is by no means proof of any outcome. It is just a story.

First, some context.

My day-to-day diet in the years leading up to this experiment is as follows:

  • Omnivorous
  • Protein centric
  • Low starch, no (added) sugar
  • Mostly above-ground vegetables and some berries for carbs 
  • No beans, legumes, grains (aside from a bit of oat)
  • Limited dairy
  • No processed food, fast food, or other junk (ever)
  • 1-3 alcoholic beverages per week
  • Highly active
  • 16-20 hours of time restriction in my eating 
  • Body Fat is usually between 8%-10%

I would say that I follow an ideal version of an omnivorous diet. I included high-quality protein sources; I rarely add any fat to my food (I limit oils, and I get my fat intrinsically in my animal and plant foods). Additionally, I eat nose to tail. I have bone broth every morning and consume a fair bit of organ meat. 

Attached is what my key blood markers are on such a diet- my apologies in advanced for American readers who will have to do some math

*I have included my bloodwork taken right before the Carnivore Experiment (first value), as well as my most ‘favourable’ readings taken from bloodwork in the last 5 years)

  • Total Cholesterol: 4.9 nmol/l (my lowest recorded is 3.25 nmol/l)
  • LDL: 2.85 nmol/l (my lowest recorded is 1.74 nmol/l)
  • HDL: 1.45 nmol/l (my highest recorded is 1.9 nmol/l)
  • Triglycerides: .41 nmol/l (my lowest recorded is .34 nmol/l)
  • Ratio: 3.3 (my lowest recorded ratio is 2.5)
  • A1C- 4.6 nmol/l
  • Fasting Insulin: 31 pmol/l
  • TSH: 3.3

I decided that I was going to give the carnivore diet a try in January. I have my opinions about the diet (which you can listen to here), but more so about the carnivore community. I had, however, never tried the actual diet. Even though I am very protein-centric in my food choices and consume a lot of animal foods, I have never taken a carnivorous approach. I changed my diet at the end of December to a strict carnivore approach. Since that time, here is what I have been eating.

  • Bone broth (homemade)
  • Beef, Chicken, Lamb, Fish, Crustaceans
  • Wild Venison
  • Smoked Salmon
  • Beef liver and chicken hearts
  • Lots of eggs
  • Skyr
  • Cheese
  • Ghee
  • Fish Roe

This is approximately what a day of eating would look like (give or take a few hundred calories) in nutrient and vitamin form

That’s pretty much it. The only plant foods I included in the entire 33 days thus far are occasional olive oil, horseradish a few times, and three glasses of wine over the month.

I decided to time restrict my eating window every day by 16-20 hours because that is what I have been doing for the past three years, and I didn’t want to change any other variables. I feel best with this eating/fasting window, so I kept it during this experiment.

My activity remained vigorous (although a challenge in the beginning), and I only took one day off of exercise over the month and change. Essentially, all I changed was the amount of meat and plant foods I ate. I went from a rough caloric split of 60% animal:40% plant foods to 99% animal:1% plant foods. Some Carnivore asshole out there will say that keeping less than 1% of plant food in my diet is still too much for an anecdotal conclusion. You can decide whether that is relevant or not. 

After eating this way for 33 days, here are the notable results of my recent bloodwork.

  • Total Cholesterol: 9.17 nmol/l
  • LDL: 7.36 nmol/l
  • HDL: 1.59 nmol/l
  • Triglycerides: .49 nmol/l
  • Ratio: 5.8
  • A1C: 4.8 nmol/l
  • Fasting Insulin: 23 pmol/l
  • TSH: 2.43

A few of these numbers are a bit alarming, particularly my total and LDL cholesterol. There is much debate over the value of LDL cholesterol in predicting associated disease, and I do not buy the lipid hypothesis of heart disease, but here is my stance on LDL. LDL alone is not sufficient to lead to something like heart disease. That should be clear. But there is no doubt a connection in specific segments of the population. Even guys like Dave Feldman who discuss the ‘Hyper Responder’ can’t be 100% sure of ‘LDL is safe, if not beneficial’ hypothesis. I am not suggesting that LDL cholesterol is causal of any disease, but at high levels (like mine after the carnivore diet) LDL appears to be problematic for specific demographics. The question is, which demographic am I in? I am an APOE-4 carrier, which is a bad start. An elevated LDL reading is not something I have ever been particularly concerned with, but to see my LDL more than double while my blood sugar and triglycerides slightly elevate and my HDL cholesterol lowers isn’t a result that gives me great comfort. My LDL/HDL ratio is through the roof. Other markers like CRP and liver enzymes are hovering around where they often are- basically unchanged. I don’t think any of that is sufficient to give me a heart attack, but it could be a necessary component of the perfect storm that does. Before forming your own opinion, I suggest you check out Peter Attia’s deep dive into cholesterol. 

My Oura ring and CGM data didn’t show anything notable. My liver dump of glucose during higher intensity exercise was lower on the carnivore diet, but that could’ve also been because I struggled to get into higher gears while exercising. My overall blood sugar average was slightly higher on the carnivore diet (4.8 nmol/l vs. 4.6 nmol/l on a mixed diet). I’m not sure that any of that is significant.

So the question for me is- is a doubling of LDL cholesterol without any other clear biochemical benefit a good thing, a bad thing, or inconsequential? 

Perhaps some insight into how I felt on the diet is necessary to include here. 

The Bad: I’m starting with the bad because that is how it began. First off, I had diarrhea for the first few weeks. Not the explosive kind that Joe Rogan noted in his experience, but more than any person would like to have. I believe the best explanation for this is an error in the bile feedback loop that results in over-production, and diarrhea- otherwise known as bile-acid malabsorption. I can’t say that is what I had, but that is my best guess. 

 I also struggled with my workouts in the first few weeks, and high-intensity exercise was a struggle. My day-to-day energy seemed fine, but I just didn’t have the higher gears I usually have. Lastly, the diet was incredibly dull. I am a reasonably binary person, so boring is ok with me. But I would’ve killed someone for a vegetable during many meals. I think this diet will be difficult for the average person to sustain for a long-term period. I could, however, say the same thing about Keto or any other diet in which someone needs to make significant changes. Carnivore is the most strictly limiting. I supposed this could be a benefit to binary individuals, but for most, a real challenge to sustain for a lifetime. It also makes it difficult to be social, and even in family situations, eating becomes a bit weird. When your wife and two kids are eating some green beans, and you can’t have any, it is hard to explain why that would be without sounding like a crazy person.

The Good: First of all, I lost a significant amount of weight, and I look great. Let’s be honest; this is going to be the appeal for most people. While I have no doubt lost actual weight and fat on this diet, let’s keep a few things in mind. First, my water retention and digestive weight are going to be lower, so not all the weight loss is going to be mass. Second, when you are eating only one grouping of food in a restrictive way, you are going to lose weight. Try eating only root vegetables without any fat for a month, or only berries, or only pasta without any sauce or fatty meat. You’re going to lose weight. Albeit with a carnivore diet, you are going to be much more nutritionally sound.

The other thing I noticed is that my skin did get clearer…for a while. After I recorded my podcast regarding my carnivore experience, my skin started to regress. At the time of this writing, it is clearer again. I can’t make sense of it enough to attribute it to anything at this point. Now it seems more random and indicative. 

Neutral: Most things didn’t change on this diet. I didn’t sleep any better than I usually do, I didn’t get more or less daily energy, and I didn’t notice a decrease in aches and pains or an increase in recovery. Most outcomes seemed to be equal on both diets. 

To summarize, I feel fine. I don’t feel ‘better,’ and I don’t feel ‘worse.’ I am a bit leaner, but I am paying for the leanness with, at best, an incredibly dull diet, and at worst, an increased risk of specific disease outcomes. I want to be clear here that I don’t believe animal products cause disease. I am suggesting that there is the potential for a very high saturated fat intake to be problematic for individual segments of the population. Whether that is me or not, who knows. It’s not like I went from a high carb, SAD diet to carnivore. I have eaten low-carb for almost a decade, so to see this sort of reaction in my cholesterol is surprising.

My biggest concern with the carnivore diet is that most people are going to seek it out as an obesity panacea. That never works out well. Those who are following the diet to heal gut issues or autoimmune suffering are likely going to have a great experience. The desperate North American who believes this restriction is going to be the silver bullet that saves him or her from a life of terrible eating behaviors is going to fail. That group of people will lose a bunch of weight in the short-term, go back to doing the things that got them fat in the first place, and end up heavy again without and change to the behaviors that are the actual issue. 

The carnivore diet has also become attractive for nut-jobs and attention seekers of all types. Vegan’s who pull a 180 and jump right into the carnivore diet are praised by the carnivore community. But what kind of person goes from eating no animal foods to only animal foods at the drop of a hat? I’ll tell you: a person who has legitimate mental issues, or a person who is so insecure and attention-seeking that s/he just couldn’t resist hopping on the latest dietary fad. I am on several widespread carnivore social groups, and many of the people inside are dogmatic at best and pathological at worst. It’s not about the diet. It is about groupthink and identity politics.

Carnivores are vegans- they just don’t know it. Join a popular carnivore facebook group if you want to see just how absurd it can be.

Phase Two

I’m wondering what kind of adjustments I would have to make to get the most out of the diet without the potential risk. I feel as though I need to give this another month, but with some adjustments. Perhaps I need to drastically cut down my saturated fat intake and focus mostly on monounsaturated fats. This would require that I cut out most dairy, limit fatty meats and butter, and increase my intake of fish and other seafood. I don’t say that to demonize saturated fat, but I do believe certain people, especially APOE-4 carriers, may suffer with higher intakes of sat fats. On the other end I believe polyunsaturated fats have their own potential issues. Monounsaturated fat appears to be the most beneficial and least controversial of the group. Would it be wise to add in just a little bit of carbohydrates? Some oats, berries, and root vegetables? Who knows. I will make some adjustments, repeat my bloodwork, and update any anecdotal changes I find.

Hang tight until then. Perhaps there is something to be learned here, and perhaps not. There is definitely something to be learned for me, but that shouldn’t necessarily turn into advice that you should seek. Again, my results are for entertainment and further questioning only. There aren’t any conclusions to be made here. 

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