When Shawn Baker wakes up, there’s only one thing on his mind for breakfast: a medium-rare ribeye steak, just dusted in salt and pepper and consumed straight-up without any greens, potatoes or toast. If he’s especially ravenous, he’ll add a second steak for good measure. A few hours later, when lunch rolls around, Baker eats another ribeye, again just by itself. And after a day of tapping out another chapter of his book, working out, and a guest podcast appearance or two, he’ll retire to the kitchen to prepare his final meal of the day: another medium-rare ribeye steak, with salt, pepper and nary a fresh vegetable in sight.
“I’d say about 95 percent of my diet is just medium-rare ribeyes, and I can eat around four pounds daily,” Baker says. “You’d think I’d get tired of it, but I don’t. It’s been a lovely diet, really. I look forward to it every day.”
No one has been a louder or more influential preacher for the so-called carnivore diet in 2018 than Baker, an orthopedic surgeon and athlete who has been proselytizing about carnivorism online and on talk shows around the country. Despite being 50 years old, Baker cuts the imposing figure of the classic alpha male — tall, strong-jawed and thick with muscle, and quick to drop jokes about “limp weiner” vegans and Tom Brady’s pudge. The former Air Force major and weightlifting champ went on Joe Rogan’s massively popular podcast in December, and interest on the topic has snowballed since, peaking this summer, according to Google Trends. It’s even inspired people like philosophy snake-oil barker Jordan Peterson to try the diet with his family, a switch he claims has alleviated their health problems and changed his mood.
“The interest in it has grown rapidly, and it feels like there are four times as many people who are talking about this as when I first went on Joe Rogan’s show,” Baker says. “People reach out to me daily to either ask about it or show me their results.”
Baker stumbled into the carnivore diet while stuck and frustrated about his deteriorating health in his 40s. Even as a practicing physician, he couldn’t figure out his high blood pressure and weight gain as his metabolism naturally slowed. Baker felt sluggish at work, and suffered from sleep apnea at night. “I went through a whole bunch of restrictive diets — low fat, high fiber or just lean animal protein. I did lose 50 pounds in three months with that lean meat diet, but I didn’t feel that great. I didn’t perform well athletically,” he says.
Most recently, he tried out the faddish paleo diet, then a traditional low-carb diet, and finally, a ketogenic diet that aims to reboot the body’s metabolism with a combination of high fats and moderate protein. They came close but never achieved the results and satisfaction of a carnivore diet, which emphasizes eating both animal protein and fat in generous measure. He simply eats meat and water day after day, which Baker claims has made him a young man again, with measurable reductions in his nagging health problems.
Baker is the crest of a wave of advocates who aren’t just arguing for people to give the carnivore diet a try — they’re criticizing the entire foundation of nutritional science as we know it. Through online forums, podcasts, books and more, these carnivores claim the long-held idea that less meat, more vegetation is better for the human body is a faulty one, backed only by studies with biases or flawed methodology. “The idea that you need five servings of fruits and vegetables a day is simply unfounded,” says Amber O’Hearn, a decade-long adherent to the carnivore diet. “We’re today pushing the boundaries on saturated fat, with experts admitting that there’s no reason to vilify it like we have, and that it was never founded in good science. The assumptions about meat are the same.”
By 2008, O’Hearn had already spent a dozen years devoted to a low-carb lifestyle, so much so that cravings for breads and pasta barely registered in her mind. Two pregnancies in the previous decade, however, had led to some weight gain that O’Hearn couldn’t shake. As with Baker, her annoyance slowly grew into desperation. The bathroom scale blinked 200 pounds, far beyond her average weight as a younger woman.
Late at night, while clicking through websites about dieting, she stumbled upon a forum called “Zeroing In on Health.” The threads were littered with other low-carb dieters who had also hit potholes in their regimens. Some of them had taken to an extreme “zero-carb” routine that meant, essentially, eating only animal protein and fat.
O’Hearn, a former vegan, chuckled at the idea but kept scrolling anyway. She was dumbfounded when the stream of anecdotes from enthusiastic carnivores began to gnaw at her mind. Some lauded the fast, long-lasting weight loss, while others claimed their aches and pains had disappeared. Just try it, the voices urged.
She took a chance the following week, filling her fridge with beef, chicken, pork and seafood — and no vegetables or fruits. As the first two weeks on the carnivore diet passed, with O’Hearn feasting on crispy pork belly, fatty roasted salmon, sirloin steaks and lamb chops, she couldn’t deny something had changed. “I was losing a pound every day or two for the first two weeks,” she recalls. “Beyond that, my mood was changing. I was diagnosed with adult major depression in my 20s, and bipolar 2 when I was 30. I’d never considered a dietary change could stabilize my mood, but here it was obvious.”
The experience motivated the longtime data scientist to dive into the potential science behind a carnivore lifestyle, where she began to gather evidence of why and how the human body could thrive on meat and animal fat alone.
Carnivore dieters swear by a litany of benefits from an all-meat regimen, first and foremost that it leads to immediate and sustainable weight loss. While animal protein is calorically dense, Baker says that it’s better at satiating your appetite, meaning you’re less prone to snack or binge. Unlike other restrictive diets, there’s no calorie counting in the carnivore diet, nor do you supplement with specific micronutrients — you simply eat until you’re full, and there’s no command to stick with lean protein, either. Pork belly, bacon and ground beef are all fair game. “Go ahead and eat the fat! It’s delicious,” Baker deadpans. And while many proponents shell out the cash for high-quality grass-fed meat, Baker doesn’t think it’s necessary.
The sheer volume of weight loss advocates claim can sound like a mythical event: “I lost 30 pounds in 90 days and experienced no ill health effects or nutrient deficiencies,” notes writer Andy Lindquist in a blog about his carnivore experiment. “An important thing to note is that on a low carb diet, your body loses a lot of water weight, so it’s not as if I just lost 30 pounds of pure fat. But based on before/after pictures, the reduction in body fat was pretty significant.”
Beyond that are the bolder claims that a carnivore diet can trigger reversals of medical conditions, which smack of diet-cult bullshit but come from myriad voices. Baker claims his father, who had spent two decades on medication for high blood pressure, saw immediate relief after a few weeks. A different chorus sings the benefits toward mental health, with many mirroring O’Hearn’s experience and dropping psychiatric medications after eating exclusively meat. Others see improvements in joint health: “For almost a year, I’ve not slept well at all. My hips have been hurting as if I’m 90 years old! I have been [zero-carb] for 29 days, and a few weeks in, I noticed the pain was gone. I just can’t believe it,” wrote one woman, Amy Mills, on a carnivore-diet Facebook page full of similar comments.
“It sounds strange, but it’s simple. When you get rid of plants in the diet, for some people, they just have a better physiological response,” Baker says.
Suffice it to say, the medical research around such purported benefits is slim, though carnivore advocates use bits and pieces of evidence to back their claims. One comprehensive review in 2013 concluded that four diets — low carb, low glycemic index, Mediterranean and high-protein — improved “glycemic control,” in other words improving the blood-sugar swings associated with diabetes and poor health. The study noted that what all four diets had in common was a sharp reduction in dietary carbs, while maintaining a normal level of dietary fat. The bestselling book The Plant Paradox gathered other evidence that a protein found in plants, called lectin, can cause inflammation and autoimmune disorders throughout the human body (gluten, for instance, is a lectin). Others claim that dietary fiber is greatly overrated, noting studies that show benefits of ditching it altogether.
The carnivore diet first came to the American consciousness after Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a Canadian explorer and ethnologist who taught at Harvard, traveled to the Arctic to live with Inuit communities in Iceland in 1906. Over the course of multiple expeditions to Iceland and Alaska, Stefansson observed Inuit people consuming meat and fish for the vast majority of their diet, sometimes going months without a fresh vegetable or grain. His experiences trying a de-facto carnivore diet, which led to no illness in both him and the colleagues who travelled with him, inspired him to conduct a medical study, advocate for the diet in the pages of Harper’s in 1935, and eventually publish a book on his Arctic diet in 1956.
Others have tried to legitimize the carnivore diet over the course of the 20th century, but even in 2018, there’s little to no long-term, peer-reviewed research on carnivorism. In the eyes of Baker, O’Hearn and others, that’s exactly the problem with epidemiology and nutritional studies. Nobody really knows what the studies are supposed to mean, Baker says. He isn’t alone, either, as many nutrition experts acknowledge that studies on diets are prone to error because of an inability to randomize tests, control all variables, get honest answers in diet surveys and account for genetic differences.
“Simply by observing what people eat — or even worse, what they recall they ate — and trying to link this to disease outcomes is moreover a waste of effort. These studies need to be largely abandoned. We’ve wasted enough resources and caused enough confusion, and now we need to refocus. … Many doctoral and postdoctoral students are being trained to continue this pandemic of flawed designs and unreliable results,” Stanford professor John Ioannidis, an expert in health research, said in an interview this month.
Baker’s claims, while not new, have inflamed a response from skeptics who see his narrative as being scientifically misleading, or more critically, outright hucksterism. There are dozens of videos on YouTube of people calling bullshit on his claims (unsurprisingly, many of them are vegan-focused channels). One major point of contention in online forums is Baker’s own blood work, which shows pre-diabetic blood sugar levels and low testosterone. Naturally, Baker has addressed his blood work on a podcast, in an attempt to defend the figures and contextualize them, including noting that low-carb athletes often have higher-than-average “fasting” blood sugar levels and that a depressed level of HDL (the “good” cholesterol, versus the “bad” LDL) runs in his family.
Carnivore advocates sometimes warn prospective dieters of consulting dietitians, observing that the average nutritional expert will balk at the idea and shut it down. So it is with clinical dietitian Dana Hunnes of the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, a vegan who sees too many holes in Baker’s advice, ranging from the brain’s need for glucose from carbohydrates to the environmental harms of boosting livestock production to the marketing around carnivore lifestyles. “The only ones who benefit from this are the meat industry, and this doctor who is trying to sell a book or program,” she says.
“It’s only in the last 1,000 years or so, since we domesticated ourselves, that we’ve really started eating animals in any great volume. Prior to that, our primary foods were plants. Even today, traditional societies eat 90 to 95 percent of their calories as plants,” she continues. “There are no long-term studies demonstrating the lack of healthfulness of this type of diet, but epidemiology shows that this type of diet is not healthful in the long run.”
To parse out the back-and-forth arguments between the pro-carnivore set and the critics could take days, given that each side refutes the other on each point it makes. But those who eat only meat, especially those who first tried the diet out of desperation to fix a health problem, see themselves as fighting a battle against the status quo. “Meat is not the bad guy!” Baker concludes after a rant about the World Health Organization’s demonization of red meat. “It helps you heal, and it makes you feel good if you trust it.”
Baker’s own personal brand is bolstered by a legion of chunky men who swear by carnivorism, and historically, men haven’t needed much convincing to buy into the trope that meat isn’t just good for you, but a way to reflect your essential manliness. American men eat 57 percent more meat than the average woman, and the habit seems to be reinforced by the way our culture thinks about meat-eating, as evidenced in a survey that found heavy meat eaters were viewed as 20 percent more masculine, and 30 percent less feminine, than vegetarians. In her influential 1990 book The Sexual Politics of Meat, author Carol J. Adams argued that the male obsession with meat extends back even to Biblical times, as with the Book of Leviticus mentioning the importance of sacrificial meat being cooked solely for consumption by the priests and sons of the prophet Aaron. In other cultures, the scarcity of fresh meat makes it a prized commodity, a symbol of both dense nutrition and a family leader’s ability to provide.
In a sense, the excitement around the carnivore diet may be an extension of that cultural subconscious, though O’Hearn notes that she’s noticed far more women leading the zero-carb conversation in the last few decades, before Baker came into the debate. Regardless, it may take decades for us to understand the possibilities, and limits, of eating only animal protein day after day.
Ironically, the last ten years reminds O’Hearn of the time when she first adopted veganism. People initially talked to her as if she “was totally nuts,” she says, with little support from the broader public and blank stares from waiters at restaurants. “Now, in 2018, it’s something that’s discussed and understood by everyone,” she says. “We’re on the brink of a stage where the carnivorous diet will become known, too.”