Mon, Aug-06-18, 07:33
How an all-beef diet cured depression
From The Times
6 August, 2018
Carnivore diet: Jordan Peterson and his daughter, Mikhaila, say eating only beef cured their depression
The lifestyle guru Jordan Peterson and his daughter believe a ‘meat only’ diet has transformed their health. They’re not alone
For those familiar with the world of Jordan Peterson, it may come as no surprise that he is a red-blooded carnivore. I do not mean that as some kind of intellectual metaphor. Yes, the Canadian psychology professor turned lifestyle guru to millions of young men worldwide has always regarded intellectual pursuits as something of a blood sport, but now he has become evangelical about his diet. “I eat beef, salt and water. That’s it,” he says. Or rather, meat seasoned with the controversy he finds so appetising.
For Peterson has joined the new fashion for a “carnivore” diet, claiming it saved him from his lifelong depression. This comes just as mainstream medical bodies are becoming more concerned about our red meat intake, which is associated with cancer among other diseases.
The idea that someone would go to the other extreme and eat only red meat is so countercultural as to be somewhat delicious, and that is of course just the way Peterson, scourge of political correctness, likes it. You can imagine him being deeply suspicious of quinoa — thinking it some kind of liberal conspiracy. Or having a problem with salad — as being perhaps too feminist. Peterson is the kind of person who can make breakfast political. Of course, he dines in a manner that is radical and retrograde, but, in fact, his feasting like a tiger in a zoo opens up a fascinating and fast-evolving field of new medical research into the neglected area of depression and diet.
“I need less sleep. I’m not anxious, not depressed,” Peterson said last month with the air of someone reeling from a miracle, and in fact the beef and water diet is so ascetic as to feel semi-religious. “I am intellectually at my very best at the moment. The depression is gone.”
What do we know so far about diet and depression? I spoke to half a dozen medical researchers in the field and the consensus is that we do not know enough. What we are just learning is that diet probably will turn out to have a significant impact on mental health, be it because of foods that cause inflammation or starve a healthy gut microbiome.
Mikhaila Peterson is Jordan Peterson’s 26-year-old daughter and the inspiration for his radical diet. She has an Instagram account subtitled “Beef, salt, water and bourbon = cured” and a food blog called Don’t Eat That, subtitled “Many (if not most) health problems are treatable with diet alone”, in which she chronicles her and her father’s remarkable recovery from depression and anxiety. He now wakes without a feeling of doom, she reports jubilantly, and adds, in Peterson defiance mode, “F*** you, world — we won.”
This all makes Mikhaila the poster girl for the carnivore-diet movement, gaining traction among a similar crowd who already idolise Jordan, the highly influential bestselling author of 12 Rules for Life, whose YouTube videos have been viewed more than 50 million times. Mikhaila has also done a lot of YouTube interviews. Yet what I find so appealing when I talk to her is that she knows that what she is doing sounds weird and can laugh about it. “Sounds absolutely insane,” she says, and she knows there is no medical evidence to back it up. She laughs when I say her family have become “reluctantly kooky”.
“Yes. Totally. I was always really sceptical about diet. I thought it was for silly Californian girls. My father certainly did not want to get into this. He was always against diet as a solution because there was no hard scientific evidence linking to diet. At the beginning he was, like, ‘I’m not even going to mention this — it’s too weird.’ Now I’m literally eating the most extreme diet I’ve ever heard of. It’s absurd.” She laughs again.
She looks gorgeously healthy and has a baby daughter, who is nearly one year old (and, by the way, survives only on meat and breast milk), but from infancy Peterson was very ill. She had severe juvenile rheumatoid arthritis that degenerated to the point that she had to have a hip and ankle replacement at the age of 17 and suffered chronic, severe pain. Given the new research into the link between depression and inflammation, it’s no surprise that, as a sufferer of an inflammatory illness, she developed depression in her late teens. It became so crippling that she could not finish university. She became “desperate to try anything” and began eliminating food groups. She remembers typing “allergic to everything” into Google. Then “allergic to everything except meat”. She says that she discovered “beef is what makes me feel the best”. She fries strips of it with “just salt. Pepper doesn’t work.”
Oh, I say, not even a few grains of pepper? Some tea? “No,” she says. “Nothing else. Just sparkling water.” She reports that since January her depression and arthritis have resolved. Her doctors, she says, believe the results are a “placebo effect”. She, by contrast, thinks that her microbiome is unsuited to anything other than meat. She knows this goes against every “eat your greens” dietary guideline — “Completely, yes.” She has not yet got scurvy, she says, and adds that most studies showing meat to be unhealthy find it hard to get around the problem of meat-eaters generally living unhealthily in other ways.
So far, the results of research into the relationship between diet and mood look conflicting. In some, vegetarians were less depressed; in others, more. One study from Bristol University last year found vegetarian men were more likely to be depressed and an Australian study in 2014 found that women who ate little meat were twice as likely to be depressed as others. These were counteracted by a much larger meta-analysis last year that found that “meat consumption may be associated with a moderately higher risk of depression”.
Really, they tell you little until you start testing diet in the same way as you would a drug, with randomised control trials. It is universally accepted that there are way too few of these in the case of depression, but last year Professor Felice Jacka, the director of the Food and Mood Centre at Deakin University in Australia, randomly assigned depressed patients to either visits from social workers or the Mediterranean diet (their medications remained the same). A third of the diet group improved significantly, as opposed to 8 per cent of the non-diet group. The diet they followed was high in olive oil, nuts and vegetables, but restricted lean red meat to no more than three times a week. “The immune system, brain plasticity and gut microbiota seem to be central not just to our physical health, but also our mental health,” Jacka said.
What about the Masai and the Inuit, though? This is the cry of the meat champions, Michael Mosley warns me. Mosley is a doctor and broadcaster with a special interest in diet and health; he once put himself on an experimental high-meat diet. “Everyone talks about the Masai, but the idea that they exist on meat and blood is based on some very dodgy observations in the 1940s; it’s a myth,” he says. It’s the same with the Inuit, whose high-blubber diet gives them just as much or more heart disease as the rest of us. Mosley’s research for his new book, The Clever Guts Diet , shows that your microbiome feeds on fibre “and you are not going to get that from meat”. A healthy microbiome in your gut produces special fatty acids that are anti-inflammatory. “That depression and anxiety is linked to inflammatory foods is strong in animals and emerging in humans.”
James Hébert is a professor of epidemiology at the University of South Carolina who for the past decade has been researching the connection between health and the foods that cause an inflammatory response in the body. He told me that all of his and his colleagues’ studies showed that “increased meat intake led to a higher risk of depression. There was a dose response.” This, he says, came as a shock.
“Of course, colorectal cancer was the most strongly associated with inflammatory foods, which makes perfect sense,” Hébert says, “but I have to emphasise how surprised I was to find such a strong relationship with depression.”
His work aligns with emerging theories about depression and inflammation. Herbert now restricts his meat intake to special occasions. His team’s research suggests that “we can provoke the same outcome on mental health as stress by messing with diet”. By “messing” he means reducing vegetables and wholegrains and upping sugar and meat.
Emma Morano was one of the longest-living women in history; she died at 117, cheerful to the last. Her diet was surprising. She subsisted on biscuits and three eggs a day and, when she turned 100, added raw mince with a little pasta. She was famed for her good cheer, so is not a great example for the “anti-inflammatory” diet proponents, but Professor Valter Longo likes to tell her story anyway.
Longo is the director of the University of Southern California Longevity Institute and the author of The Longevity Diet. He is famous for his research into fasting, diet and longevity. “Meat is nearly absent from the diet of the longest-lived people in the world,” he says. Sardinians traditionally eat meat less than once a week, “and lead long, very happy lives”.
Drawing together what we know so far, Longo says that “a diet with a lot of meat is the worst you could follow” and as a result he gave it up decades ago. However, he acknowledges that individuals such as Jordan and Mikhaila Peterson, “with a particular genetic condition”, can buck the trend.
Longo says there’s a twist, though. Research shows that a low-protein diet is good for you up until the age of 65, he says. Then your inflammatory response to meat seems to drop, and the protein and iron may be useful. As an Italian, Longo is a friend of Morano’s doctor, Carlo Bava. Bava was the one who suggested to Morano that she up her meat intake in her second century. “When you get to 100, meat may start to be a really good idea.”