Thu, Jun-22-23, 03:24
‘I don’t eat vegetables and I’ve never felt stronger’: the rise of the carnivore diet
‘I don’t go near vegetables and I’ve never felt stronger’: the rise of the carnivore diet
The controversial diet has a growing following thanks to ‘meatfluencers’, who claim it has left them thinner, healthier and happier
‘The secret to my heart is bacon,’ wrote Jennifer Geissert beneath a recent Instagram video of sizzling rose-shaped bacon bites. This is no exaggeration: for Geissert, a full-time meat-eater, part-time physical therapist and ‘carnivore coach’, meat is everything.
Animal products form the entirety of her diet; a typical day might feature a breakfast of ground beef, ‘crispy fat’ and eggs, a lunch of rib-eye steak, and two cold burger patties for dinner.
To drink, it’s water or homemade bone broth. And when she’s not eating meat, Geissert is proselytising via ~delightedtomeatyou, through which she’s built up a sizeable following of fledgling carnivores – and sceptics, too, who question the diet’s proclaimed health benefits (more on which later).
Though Geissert’s regime is extreme, eschewing all the fibre and carbs found in plants and grains, she says it has transformed her life.
Speaking from her home in Kansas, the 39-year-old – who joined the carnivore club in February 2022, after first trying it as an elimination diet on the advice of a nutritionist, and having previously experimented with vegan, gluten-free and dairy-free diets – can’t sing its praises enough.
‘It’s truly the best change I’ve ever made for myself,’ she says, listing the differences offal living has made. Her psoriasis, which she’d struggled with since childhood, and vasculitis have disappeared; she no longer binge eats; her libido has increased; her mood is better; recurrent bouts of strep throat are a thing of the past.
She credits these changes to the ‘nutrient density’ of her diet, and has even placed her dog, Lucy, on a raw carnivore programme. The Doberman is ‘loving her life’, Geissert said in a recent social-media post.
She is determined to have an equally carnivorous family, too: her future children will be brought up ‘as meat-based as possible’, she says. ‘Eating this way almost makes me want to have a family more… I feel so good about it that I’m like, I want to have a baby so I can raise them like this, because I sure wish I had been.’
Geissert says the only major side effects she’s had were some initial digestive issues. ‘I had crazy diarrhoea for like three weeks… and you just have terrible, terrible cravings, especially if you’re a former binge-eater like me. But after about a month that’s all over and you feel better than you’ve ever felt. The only issue that I have now, a year and a half in, is the constant need to floss because of all the meat.’
Socialising as a radical carnivore can be tricky, though. When on holiday, Geissert will sip sparkling water – alcohol is a no-go – and pick out the meat from all-inclusive buffets. At the risk of raised eyebrows from restaurant staff, by now used to accommodating plant-based guests, when out to eat with friends she chooses carefully from the menu (think a burger and chips – minus the burger bun and chips).
What about dating? ‘I usually warn them ahead of time so that they have an idea, and that helps. I’ve probably been on dates with 10 different guys since I’ve been a carnivore and they’ve all been really accepting of it – or they’re on their very best behaviour.’
Geissert’s restrictive lifestyle is not as anomalous as one might assume. Though the extreme diet can be traced back to the late 19th century, it was popularised as a more mainstream fad around 2018, with psychologist Jordan Peterson and his daughter Mikhaila leading the charge.
The fringe carnivore movement has grown in recent years, attracting huge audiences on TikTok, where the hashtag #carnivorediet has over 980 million views and advocates share tips and daily meal plans.
Some are more radical in their approach than others: one ex-vegan turned ‘high-fat carnivore’ going by the username ~steakandbuttergal films herself snacking on lumps of butter and chewing raw steak, while Bali-based American Pauly Long rose to online fame consuming raw organ meat – testicles are his ‘favourite bedtime snack’.
Raw-meat consumers form the most extreme, often hyper-masculine subset of the wider movement (and, needless to say, health experts strongly advise against consuming such produce raw).
Some, like the self-professed Liver King – 46-year-old Brian Johnson – have built social-media empires upon their love of meat and the ‘ancestral lifestyle’.
Meanwhile, for other so-called ‘meatfluencers’, the way of life is ideologically motivated: some see themselves and their carnivorism as a necessary antidote to veganism. In the opposing vegan camp, many express visceral disgust at the meat-based lifestyle.
The broader carnivore arena encompasses various subcultures and approaches (some people follow the purist meat-and-salt Lion Diet, for example, while others are less strict, sticking with a more relaxed animal-product-based version or incorporating fish as well as meat). But the underlying health beliefs that underpin the extreme carnivore regime remain relatively consistent.
In May, the adventurer Bear Grylls announced that he was ‘embarrassed’ by his previous endorsement of veganism and that he had made a U-turn in favour of an ‘ancestral’ diet; though based on grass-fed red meat, it also includes fruit, honey, dairy and ‘a little potato or white rice’.
‘For a long time, I’d been eating so many vegetables thinking it was doing me good, but just never felt like it had given me any good nutrients compared to the nutrient density I get from basically blood or bone marrow – red meat,’ he said.
‘I’ve tried to listen to my body more, tried to listen to nature, and I don’t miss vegetables at all. I don’t go near them and I’ve never felt stronger, my skin’s never been better, and my gut’s never been better.’
Grylls added that red meat and organs had been the ‘biggest game-changer’ for his health. ‘I’ve found a counterculture way of living, of embracing red meat and organs – natural food just like our millennia of ancestors would have eaten for hundreds of thousands of years.’
Medical meatfluencers such as American orthopaedic surgeon Dr Shawn Baker, author of the 2019 manual The Carnivore Diet, claim it can treat conditions ranging from arthritis to diabetes. It has also been anecdotally linked to weight loss, although there has been limited clinical research into the long-term impact.
Recent research has indeed suggested that meat is important for our health: in response to an article published earlier this year in the journal Animal Frontiers, one scientist warned that ‘removing fresh meat and dairy from diets would harm human health’.
The article noted that meat delivers vitamin B12, retinol, minerals such as iron and zinc, and key compounds for metabolism. A 2021 Harvard survey, which looked at a group of adults self-reporting the results of their own carnivore diet, found that many reported improvements in chronic health conditions and energy levels.
Nevertheless, the restrictive carnivore diet flies in the face of much of the evidence, built over decades, that suggests the benefits of a varied diet that includes vegetables and seeds. Unlike the low-carb ketogenic and Atkins diets, the strictest form of the carnivore diet eliminates all plant foods, with some followers claiming that plants are toxic.
The carnivore diet lacks fibre and often sufficient vitamin C, and while the NHS advises that red meat is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals, it warns that eating too much red and processed meat – more than 90g per day – can raise the risk of bowel cancer.
Nutritionist Jo Foster says she would never recommend the diet to her clients because it is ‘missing many of the key foods that we need for a healthy microbiome’. Foster is concerned that it encourages disordered eating and creates unnecessary fear around foods we need ‘to provide antioxidants, reduce inflammation, and feed our gut bacteria’.
Medical doctor Aishah Iqbal is equally concerned. ‘Diets that call for the removal of large food groups run the risk of losing beneficial nutrients and are ultimately unsustainable and unhealthy in the long term,’ she says. ‘There is also no research to back up many of the claims that are made about the diet.’
Iqbal is not convinced that a meat-based diet itself is a quick fix for our bodily ills: ‘By default, the carnivore diet removes a lot of the ultra-processed, low-nutritional and high-calorific foods that have a negative impact on health in their own right – so I would question whether the reported transformations are from the carnivore diet, or simply the removal of other unhealthy foods.
‘There are nutritional elements we receive from plant-based foods that we simply cannot get from meat or animal-based products,’ she adds. ‘Each nutritional element has a part to play in our bodies and removing them completely can be harmful – that harm may not be seen in the short term, which can often lead people to feel the choice they are making today is the right one.’
Doesn’t it seem counterintuitive, I ask Geissert, to relinquish the parts of our diet we’ve been raised to prioritise? ‘Of course it seems so strange at the beginning, and because I work in healthcare – I have a biology degree and a doctorate degree in physical therapy,’ she says.
‘So everything I learned was all the mainstream, “Eat your fibre, eat your fruits and veggies, get a little bit of meat, but make sure it’s lean”… But that’s what I was doing and it wasn’t helping me. So when I was presented with an alternate option, while it seemed crazy, it seemed like, hey, this is something I haven’t tried yet, and so I dove right in.’
Some intrepid carnivores have reported more serious concerns about the diet. The singer James Blunt said on a podcast in 2020 that he tried an all-meat diet for about two months while at university – only to develop symptoms of scurvy, resulting from a lack of vitamin C.
There are also the obvious environmental issues, with a quarter of global greenhouse-gas emissions from food production said to result from beef alone. For Geissert, this isn’t a concern. ‘I don’t worry about the environmental implications because I believe that regenerative farming is actually the way to preserve our climate,’ she says.
Loyal members of the carnivore club remain keen to discuss the myriad ways in which they say it has transformed their lives. Michael Mason, 59, has been a practising carnivore for more than 20 years, having previously experimented with other diets, including veganism, which he tried in the 1980s.
It was only when he landed upon carnivorism that Mason felt he’d cracked the dietary code: ‘I just knew that I felt better… I had so much more energy.’
Nowadays, Mason describes his diet as ‘90 to 95 per cent meat-based’. It is less strict than Geissert’s – he seasons his food with herbs, breaking the plant-free clause, and will occasionally make a side salad to add ‘texture’ – but he is teetotal and only eats twice a day, most often meat or eggs. Sometimes it’ll be deer testicles, of which he’s a fan.
When I meet him over Zoom, he is planning his meals for the day: ‘Some venison loin, which I’ll have for lunch, and this evening I’ll either have more of that or some eggs.’ He says he enjoys sourcing his meat from local farmers. ‘I walk past the cows, I know where it’s come from.’
Mason looks half his age, muscular with taut, glowing skin. Perhaps he knows it. ‘Without sounding up my arse, I’m 59… I don’t understand anything about age and what you’re meant to feel like, but all I know is that I feel really good physically and mentally,’ he says. He adds that he sometimes looks at other people his age – ‘they’re all on statins, they’ve all got diabetes, they’re all overweight’ – and feels like he’s from ‘a different universe’.
This he credits to his diet. ‘I don’t mean this in any big sense, but you can only go on your own evidence,’ he says. Like Geissert, Mason has built up a career as a carnivore coach, advising clients on the meat-based lifestyle as well as strength training and breathwork.
A former ski instructor, since 2021 he has run a ‘carnivore retreat’ in Scotland where guests follow a ‘high-animal protein/low-carb’ diet, learn meat-cooking techniques, go on hikes and practise resistance training.
The next one, in October, is sold out, with guests paying £2,750 each for a meat-centric week. It is the only one of its kind in the UK, though others have taken place in Spain and Bosnia and Herzegovina, while Costa Rica plays host to an annual ‘animal-based gathering’.
Mason has been pleasantly surprised by the eclectic mix of guests who sign up. Expecting 20-year-old rugby players, he has instead found himself teaching attendees including a 70-year-old American woman, a Californian lawyer and a British tech investor. And, from his own experience, he believes the carnivore diet is on the rise.
‘Especially among people who are getting into their 40s and 50s… they’re starting to think, “I’ve done all these diets, and none of it is working,” and I think people want to do something that seems sort of radical,’ he reflects.
One such example is Rachel*, 41, a Hampshire-based office worker. After a heart scare last year, Rachel decided she needed ‘to do something extreme’ to improve her health. Having experimented with the keto diet in the past, she began looking into the carnivore diet. ‘I’ve done hundreds of hours of research, listening to podcasts, reading articles and books… and I started the carnivore [diet] at the end of January.’
In the months since she began the diet – which for her involves solely eating animal products, once a day – she says her health has improved ‘massively’, and she has lost two and a half stone.
She believes eating carbohydrates affected her mental health, whereas now her mind is ‘completely clear’; recent heart tests showed no problems, and inflammation in her hands has gone. Still, she says, ‘If you’re planning to do it, do your research, listen to proper medical doctors, read the books… what I do is not for everyone.’
None of Rachel’s colleagues know about her diet, as she’s a ‘private person, so I wouldn’t disclose that’ – hence the anonymity here.
Does a meat-based diet not become repetitive, though? Rachel says not: ‘I get so excited about mince and steak, it’s silly.’
Geissert agrees. ‘Every time I have a rib-eye, it’s my favourite thing, so I don’t get bored of it at all.’