On Trend: Is the Carnivore Diet an Option for Arthritis?
It’s BBQ season, and while many get excited about what’s sizzling on the grill, what gets me hungry are all the sides! The zesty green salads, paneer and veggie kebabs, creamy potato salads, grilled pineapple, and pasta salads! I can’t imagine a family BBQ without them, but that is exactly what our next On Trend Series diet does. The Carnivore Diet eliminates all those delicious sides. It is what you are thinking: you eat animal products (and animal by-products) AND you don't eat plant-based foods such as vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, legumes, fruits.
Proponents of the diet claim that the introduction of carbohydrate foods (fruits, vegetables, and grains) into the diet of our ancestors is the cause of the high incidence rate of chronic diseases today, of course, they forgot to mention their short lifespan. They believe that eliminating all carbohydrates will promote weight loss, decrease symptoms of depression and inflammation, and regulate blood sugar levels.
The most renowned proponent of the Carnivore Diet is Shawn Baker, whose medical license was revoked in New Mexico due to concerns about competency. Baker believes that this diet has the potential to eliminate depression, anxiety, arthritis, obesity, and diabetes based solely on claims made by other followers of the Carnivore Diet, but robust research to support these testimonials are lacking.
This idea of eliminating all foods that breakdown into carbohydrates stems from the effects that have been produced by the Ketogenic Diet. In both research and in clinical practice, the Ketogenic Diet has been used successfully to treat epilepsy in some children, for weight reduction, and in reversing insulin resistance. There has been some research into how the Ketogenic Diet may reduce inflammation (1, 2), which may be the root of the theory that the Carnivore Diet eliminates the symptoms of many autoimmune diseases. However, there is no evidence from research studies using human subjects to support this theory.
While this diet is extreme, it may have some benefits!
Helps identify potential food triggers: this diet can be an effective way to eliminate all possible allergens if you are looking to discover what foods may be causing an allergic reaction or intolerance.
Eliminates most processed foods: foods higher in refined sugars and flours such as pastries, baked goods, chips, crackers and cookies are no longer consumed. However, processed meats are allowed.
Increases satiety: the diet has a high amount of protein and fat consumed at each meal, there is a general feeling of fullness that lasts for a long stretch between meals. This will translate into less snacking and as a result, fewer calories are consumed each day leading to weight loss.
There is no research supporting the benefits of the carnivore diet for people with inflammatory arthritis.
As with any restrictive diet, there are risks you need to be aware of with the Carnivore Diet:
Impaired gut health: by eliminating every food except meat, fish and some animal products, there are a number of nutrients that your body will be missing out on. Specifically, fibre! Fibre is found in plant-based foods and is necessary for maintaining gut health, immunity, and regular bowel movements. Fibre feeds the gut’s microbiome, which is vital in maintaining our immune health and decreasing inflammatory responses. Fibre is also important in reducing the risk of colon cancer.
Low antioxidant intake from foods: eliminating plant-based foods also excludes important vitamins and minerals found in fruit, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. These vitamins and minerals serve as antioxidants and support the functioning of organ systems, immune function, cellular development and repair.
Cardiovascular health risk: since there is little to no research currently available on the short and long-term effects of the Carnivore Diet, it is not possible to weigh the benefits against the known risks of consuming a diet that is high in animal products. What we do know is that any diet that is high in meat and low in plant-based foods can lead to the consumption of higher amounts of saturated fats, trans fats, and sodium, which can negatively impact cardiovascular health and ultimately exacerbate inflammatory conditions.
Psychological impact: Any diet that restricts groups of food can be difficult to sustain for longer stretches of time. Dieters can experience setbacks, or binging periods, where they deviate from the strict confines of the diet and feel guilt or find themselves in a constant state of yo-yo between the diet and binge periods. This diet can also be anti-social in the sense that dieters want to avoid eating in social situations due to the strict rules surrounding what they can eat, leading to social discomfort and isolation. If you have any history of food anxiety or disordered eating, please speak with a healthcare provider or Registered Dietitian before contemplating this diet.
Financial and environmental impact: In general, meat, fish and animal-based products can be expensive and if you are only consuming these products you will need to buy a lot of it! As for the environmental impact, the meat production industry produces more greenhouse gases and requires more land to grow than plant-based products. Animals require space to graze, in addition to the space required to grow grain crops that are required to supplement their diets. This all adds up to a larger carbon footprint than a diet that is either fully plant-based or a balance of plant and animal-based products.
In summary, as with any diet, you should always speak to your healthcare professional or a Registered Dietitian, but with the Carnivore Diet, I strongly urge you to do so. This diet is not recommended for anyone with kidney disease because of the high intake of protein that can place higher stress on your kidneys. If you have higher cholesterols levels or you are pregnant or lactating, this diet should also be avoided. While there may be some benefits to this diet for some, the numerous risks are high; and I don’t know about you, but variety is the spice in my diet!
Special thanks to Cheryl Anderson, 3rd-year nutrition student at Ryerson University who assisted with the research and writing for this post.
See other posts on this series: