From 3/16/2020 to 4/15/2020, I embarked on the carnivore diet. I didn’t have any specific motive or goal beyond curiosity to find out how the highly restrictive diet made me feel and to see whether I could do it. I will summarize my findings here.
1. I can only eat animal products, excluding dairy
- Rationale – Animal product, similar nutritional composition to meat, crucial for boosting fat intake
- Rationale – Little-to-no nutritional or caloric content, will greatly boost palatability and taste
2. I can only drink water
- Water derivatives are allowed (ie. club soda)
- Rationale – Little-to-no nutritional or caloric content, worried about how ending caffeine consumption will interfere with dietary impact, I really like coffee
3. I eat until I’m full
4. I eat whenever I want
5. I record everything I eat
6. I measure my weight every night between 10-11PM
Over the Course of 30 Days, I Ate:
- 23.7 pounds of beef
- 78 thick pork bacon strips (approx. 5.5 pounds)
- 9 duck bacon strips (approx 0.2 pounds)
- 4.9 pounds of ham/pork
- 119 scrambled eggs (approx. 0.125 pounds per egg)
- 19 raw eggs
- 4 turkey eggs (approx. 0.156 pounds per egg)
- 9.9 pounds of chicken (including 3 rotisserie chickens)
- 1.3 pounds of venison
- 17 elk ribs (approx. 1.5 pounds)
- 3.2 pounds of lamb
- 1 pound of turkey
- 3.2 pounds of tilapia
- 0.7 pounds of salmon
- 0.6 pounds of cod
- 0.3 pounds of tuna
- 25 cups of coffee (black)
- 32 cups of coffee with butter (approx. 0.5 pounds of butter in total)
Approximation of total amount of meat eaten in 30 days… 74.4 pounds.
Of note – I’m a white male in my late 20s, 5’11” in height.
Massive Confounding Variable
I purposefully conducted this experiment at the start of the corona virus social distancing enforcement so that I could conveniently cook all of my meals at home. But I also stopped exercising. Prior to the lockdown, I lifted weights at a gym 3 times per week; during the lockdown, my only significant physical activity was occasional 30+ minute walks.
Being on the carnivore diet made me “feel good” in a way that is annoyingly difficult to describe. Unless I’m suffering from a massive placebo effect delusion, this feeling comes from putting my body in ketosis, which is considered the primary benefit of keto/carnivore diets. By my understanding:
The body can create energy by burning either carbohydrates or fat. But the body prefers to burn carbs because they are more easily used as energy and converted into fat storage. Unfortunately, (according to keto advocates) burning carbs as energy is somewhere between “unhealthy” and “the cause of all modern health problems,” mostly due to a host of secondary impacts caused by the use of insulin to process carbs. Thus the point of the keto/carnivore diet is to deprive the body of carbs (below 20% of daily caloric intake) to force the body to use fat as its energy source (AKA ketosis). Being in ketosis both stops the harmful effects of carb burning and creates an assortment of its own positive effects.
And that’s probably why I felt so good for most of the last thirty days.
I had significantly higher energy levels than usual. I generally felt up and bouncy. I never got tired in the afternoon or nodded off while watching tv (with a few exceptional times I’ll describe later). I nearly always slept well and I woke up quickly, with none of my typical morning grogginess.
To go more intangible, I’d say that ketosis gave me a greater clarity. Along with my physical energy levels, I felt more alert and awake all the time. There was none of that haziness or brain fog I occasionally feel after big carb-heavy meals. I’m not sure I’d go as far as to say that ketosis boosted my ability to focus, but it may have. According to keto advocates, the mental benefits of ketosis are due to the unique ability of ketones (the energy units of fat) to enter the brain, which simple carbs cannot do.
I’m tempted to describe the feeling of ketosis as like being on a low dose of caffeine all the time. I loved it, and it’s the main benefit that is seriously tempting me to go carnivore full time. However, in many online discussions, long-term carnivore/keto users report the ketosis feeling fading over time, usually after a few months. It’s not clear whether that’s due to the body adapting in some way to ketosis or if it’s a psychological adjustment.
Again, I know this all sounds super vague, especially since “more energy, alertness, and clarity” sounds like an advertisement for a snake oil supplement. Unfortunately, this is not something you can easily experience yourself by eating a whole bunch of meat in one day because before you can enjoy the benefits of ketosis, you have to go through the unpleasant keto flu. But if you want to get some sense of what ketosis feels like, I have a suggestion:
For one day, eat nothing but processed sugar foods. Cookies, doughnuts, brownies, only stuff like that. The way you will feel by the end of the day is the opposite of how ketosis feels. I know this because that’s exactly what I did the day after my carnivore challenge ended.
This is probably just another symptom of ketosis, but the carnivore diet made me feel and look leaner.
In terms of feeling, again, this is admittedly intangible, but I simply felt lighter and thinner on carnivore than normal. You know how you normally feel hungry, then you eat food, and then you feel full? That doesn’t happen on the carnivore diet. The full feeling doesn’t exist anymore. You just feel hungry, eat, and then stop feeling hungry. By extension, it’s impossible to feel bloated by only eating meat. Even if I ate 1.5 pounds of fatty beef in one sitting and couldn’t stomach another bite, I wouldn’t come close to that uncomfortably stuffed feeling.
My physical appearance has always been lean, but I believe my body and face sharpened a bit throughout the 30 days. My body especially retained muscle definition surprisingly well even as I shed muscle weight due to not working out. But I’ll grant that I didn’t take pictures over time, so I have fairly low confidence in this assessment.
The act of eating carnivorously feels good in yet another way that I can’t adequately describe. More so than ketosis, this might just be my weird quirk, but I found something satisfying about eating tons of meat. There’s a wonderful primal joy in devouring a huge chunk of flesh. I don’t have to switch between different foods on a plate, I don’t dip the meat in anything; I just tear into big, meaty pieces. I even began eating rotisserie chickens with my bare hands.
Although food boredom is a major drawback of the carnivore diet, I will miss the simplicity of it. With the exception of bacon and eggs, my meals nearly always consisted of one or two hunks of seasoned meat thrown into an oven. There was little thought or complexity involved, just a straightforward engorgement.
Coming to Terms with Addiction
I’m addicted to sugar. I was pretty sure of that before the carnivore diet, but now I’m positive. This is largely a negative, but at least now I am painfully aware that my body craves sugar to a blatantly unhealthy and unproductive degree, and I will try my best to deal with that in the future.
Ketosis is awesome, getting there is not.
For the first three days of the diet I felt like death. Or rather, I felt like I was starving to death. I was putting food in me, but clearly my body wasn’t doing anything with it. I was extremely hungry all the time, especially for sugar. I would feel hungry, eat an entire steak to the point where I couldn’t take another bite, and then still feel hungry. I felt light, but also weak and tired all day. I fell asleep immediately after lunch on days two and three as if I had consumed a tranquilizer. I’d say the effects were similar to fasting, but with amplified costs and reduced benefits.
On day four I felt much better. On day five, I felt good.
Apparently I went through a short and fairly mild keto flu. According to Googling, many people get it for weeks and can experience:
- Muscle cramps
- Poor concentration
- Stomach pain
- Muscle soreness
- Difficulty sleeping
- Sugar cravings
I mean… mine was bad, but it wasn’t that bad.
The keto flu is caused by the body’s adjustment process to ketosis. I don’t think it has been well-studied, but many people suggest the keto flu is essentially a withdrawal process. Bodies prefer to use carbs for energy, so they won’t switch to using fat unless you give them no choice. But that switch is a gradual process that takes anywhere from a few days (in my fortunate case) to a few weeks, and you’ll feel like shit as your body fights for its evolutionary adaptive preference for sweet, sweet carbs.
I’m currently concerned about how hard it is to return to ketosis after leaving it. I finished the 30 day carnivore diet a few days ago, but I’ve been eating pretty much nothing but carbs ever since. If I eat nothing but beef tomorrow, will I go straight back to the keto flu? I hope not.
The Fat Threshold
On my first day of the carnivore diet, I sat down for lunch and devoured an entire rotisserie chicken. This was a bad idea. As I soon found from more research, most carnivore dieters rarely eat chicken because it has far too much protein and too little fat. Carnivore dieters typically aim for 70-80% of daily caloric intake to come from fat (and all the rest from protein). Unfortunately, if you don’t hit the fat threshold, you’ll feel like shit.
The carnivore diet required me to rethink how and why I eat meat. In my standard diet, I thought of meat the way most people do – as a protein source. For any given meal, we typically get our energy from grains, our nutrition from vegetables, and our protein from meat. If you go to your standard grocery store’s meat section, you’ll find a lot of it is advertised as “lean” or “low fat,” even the beef.
But for the carnivore diet, meat needs to provide your energy. With no carb intake (as opposed to the keto diet which permits up to 20% carb intake), fat is the only energy source, so if you don’t get enough of it, you’ll feel like you’re starving. Because you will be.
I was going to get hit by the keto flu no matter what I ate during the first few days, but I learned in later weeks how important it was to watch fat intake. I’d occasionally sit down for a meal and eat another rotisserie chicken, or a nice lean fish, and then for hours afterward I’d be in sort of a daze and fall asleep. During the first two weeks, the effect was especially dramatic. Yet again, it felt like someone had dosed my food with tranquilizers.
Unfortunately, the fat threshold makes an already extremely restrictive diet even more restrictive. You can’t go crazy on your meat variety and eat every mammal, fish, and bird known to man. You pretty much have to pivot back to beef, pork, lamb, and eggs as your baseline, and fatty cuts at that; a lean sirloin tip steak can be just as bad as chicken. You can and should mix in different meats for taste and nutrient variety, but you need to be careful in how you do it. Lather that fish in pounds of butter, go for those relatively fatty chicken thighs, throw some bacon on that venison, etc.
Plus the fat threshold means that the carnivore diet has a strange, and rather distressing ongoing concern. You need to get enough fat in every meal. If you don’t, you pretty much crash and become useless until the next meal. This really isn’t a concern for a standard carb-filled diet where skipping a meal or eating an entire package of cookie dough for dinner might make you feel off, but you won’t pass out from exhaustion.
Food and Drink Boredom
I love meat. Aside from deliciously horribly unhealthy non-foods like cookie dough, skirt steak is probably my favorite food.
But yeah, eating meat every day for every meal gets boring fast. I messed around with the seasoning a bit, but there was only so much I could do to change the taste of ground beef similarly fatty steaks. I’ve never been a gourmand, but by the second week I was starting to dread meals.
I found dealing with drinks to be just as challenging. No tea, no soda (I only drink diet), and no alcohol left much to be desired. I found that taste wasn’t the issue with drinks as much as stimulation. I often drink tea and diet coke when I write as a bit of mental stimulation, and I enjoy a beer or glass of wine at night with video games or television. I have to admit that I felt something like alcohol cravings, though only in a mental “it-would-be-fun-to-have-a-beer-right-now” sense rather than a “desperate alcoholic” sense.
However, by week 4, I found that the taste boredom had significantly subsided. It wasn’t totally gone, but I felt pretty well accustomed to monotonous meat meals. Granted, I also became a better cook in the process and learned how to season to my tastes, but I still believe I mentally adapted somewhat to the diet.
My sugar cravings were fucking brutal.
I eat waaaay too much sugar in my normal diet. I cut out regular soda years ago, but cookies, brownies, and donuts are a huge weakness of mine, and it’s only by the grace of god and a freakish metabolism that I remain thin.
On the carnivore diet, my sugar cravings started on day two, probably peaked around week three, but never stopped. My willpower was genuinely tested every day because holy shit did I want to eat an entire box of cookies.
One of my highlights each day was consuming a chewable melatonin tablet each night. That little burst of artificial strawberry sweetness would leave my mouth watering for hours. I wish I was exaggerating.
I’m sure any diet with reduced sugar (which is most diets) would cause these cravings, but carnivore was likely worse since it is literally zero carb. No pasta, no bread, no sweet potatoes, no fruit, no nothing.
An interesting thing I realized about my clearly crippling sugar addiction is that I didn’t just crave the taste of sugar but the fullness feeling created by it. As I said, there is no such thing as feeling full on the carnivore diet. You just stop being hungry. And while that lack of fullness did provide a nice light/lean feeling, I often found it simultaneously unsatisfying. I felt a physical craving to reach that point of total satiety when my body would flood my brain with whatever chemicals scream, “THAT’S ENOUGH! STOP FUCKING EATING!”
The only thing that I found to slightly blunt the sugar cravings was to eat a ton of fat. Not the typical 70% fat target, but, pure fat, like on the tip of a particularly fatty t-bone steak. I used to find such pieces disgusting and I would avoid them entirely, but once I went carnivore, I craved them and found they gave me a sense of satiety I couldn’t find anywhere else.
It’s also plausible that my ongoing sugar cravings are evidence that my diet didn’t have enough fat. I was kind of shocked to discover in week 4 that eggs are only 50% fat, and I’m concerned that I wasn’t doing the diet optimally the whole time.
The carnivore diet is very, very inconvenient.
I chose to do the carnivore diet during the corona virus so I could easily stay home and cook all my meals, and I have no idea how I could have done it otherwise. For a standard meal I was eating 1-1.5 pounds of meat, so it’s basically impossible to eat in restaurants unless you’re willing to buy multiple meals, combine the meats, and throw out everything else. Or unless you live in a major city and can go to a cool trendy carnivore restaurant.
One especially annoying part is that you pretty much have to cook every meal. I did a lot of frying at first, but switched over to broiling which was both easier and produced better-tasting meat. One thing that I didn’t do but really should have was cook multiple meals at once. 1-1.5 pounds of meat is a lot, but with a large oven, or multiple frying pans and some very diligent frying, you can cook a whole bunch of meat and then refrigerate it for later. But even if I consistently cooked multiple meals at once, the carnivore diet would still require a ton of time-consuming and boring kitchen work.
Another difficult part of the carnivore diet is the lack of easy snacks. Again, almost everything is cooked, and you’ll mostly be buying and eating big hunks of meat, so it’s hard to find a convenient smaller piece of food. Cold cuts work, but are pretty unhealthy as far as meat goes. Same for jerky, which is both expensive and arguably a violation of the carnivore diet with its preservatives.
My eventual solution was to eat raw eggs. If I was still hungry after a meal, I’d crack open one or two eggs in a cup and take them like a shot. At about a 50:50 fat-protein ratio, eggs aren’t ideal, but they’re tasty and one of the only permissible foods in the carnivore diet that can be eaten raw. And according to Googling, only 1 out of 20,000-40,000 raw eggs have salmonella, so… it’s probably fine.
Meat is expensive for its caloric value, so the carnivore diet is quite expensive overall.
My average cost per meal was probably around $8, which isn’t that bad in and of itself until you factor in the time cost of cooking every meal. I bought nearly all my food from a local grocery store and purposefully avoided the more expensive cuts of beef and the more expensive meats (ie. salmon). The cheapest meat I could find was ground beef (hamburger) which was typically around $5 per pound.
Unless money is no object, being on the carnivore diet in the long run seems to necessitate hunting for bargains or bulk purchases. A lot of carnivore diet forums are filled with tips on how to find stuff like this, and Costco especially seems to be a carnivore’s best friend. Some maniacs even buy entire cows, though it surprisingly doesn’t seem that cost-effective:
As an example, buying half of a 1,200-pound cow would cost:
$1,800 to the rancher for the live animal
$95 to the rancher for the slaughter fee
$450 to the butcher for the aging, cutting, wrapping and freezing
$2345 total for approximately 300 pounds of finished beef, or $7.82 per pound. That is far cheaper than any individual cut of meat we sell; our steaks and roasts average $14 per pound at the farmers market and online.
Also, I did this whole diet while not regularly working out, so my caloric consumption was likely depressed. If I was lifting weights like normal, I suspect I’d be eating at least 25% more food, and would have to spend even more.
This is a minor complaint, but it was a little annoying to have to drink so much water on the carnivore diet.
Carbohydrates store water. On the carnivore diet, you consume no carbs and your body’s stored carbs are burned off in the first few days, never to be replenished. So you lose a ton of water weight very quickly and never gain it back.
A side effect of this process is that you need to drink and urinate a lot more water than usual. It’s not a huge deal, but I found myself tearing through water jugs and peeing a whole lot.
I found this experience illuminating and it will likely impact my ongoing diet even though I probably won’t go back to carnivore full-time.
The carnivore diet really does feel like a lifestyle. There’s a lot of cooking, a lot of food purchasing (it’s hard to buy in bulk, let alone store it), it’s almost impossible to eat out, and with the sugar cravings and fat threshold, I found myself thinking about food a lot.
Thus I don’t think this diet is sustainable unless you really are willing to commit to it like a lifestyle. There are serious, powerful benefits to eating carnivore, but for the vast majority of people, the sheer inconvenience is enough to make it a non-starter. I’m sure carnivore-advocates can present tips and guides and lots of advice on how to make the diet work, but I’m also sure doing so will feel like work. Unless you’re super disciplined, or love cooking meat, or you’re one of those who say the carnivore diet has cured their autoimmune disorders, the diet is probably not right for you, at least not over the long run.
One of the greatest benefits I got from the experiment was sharpening my sense of how different foods make me feel. I think most people aren’t taught about this concept to their great detriment. We tend to think of a food’s healthiness either in terms of how it impacts weight or as this highly-abstract long-term concept that impacts longevity. But food has significant short term effects on energy levels, clarity, and maybe focus. You will feel the difference in a day of eating only meat or sugar or fruits+vegetables. These intangible benefits are understudied and under-scrutinized, and I wish I had known about them before I started experimenting with diets in my 20s.
I will probably not go back to the carnivore diet, but I will eat more meat. I like the taste, and I like how it makes me feel, even without the full benefits of ketosis. I’m also a much better cook than I used to be (at least for meat), and I’ve found a reliable and healthy snack in raw eggs. I broadly recommend that other people at least try the carnivore diet for a month to understand its benefits and get a better sense of how their own bodies process and react to different types of food.