The Carnivore Diet vs. The Paleo Diet
Debates over the proper human diet tend to get heated, especially when it comes to eating meat. There are arguments about why humans should or should not eat meat based on various evolutionary, biological, or ethical considerations.
On one side, vegetarians and vegans believe that (ethical reasons aside) a plant-based diet is better for you because avoiding meat prevents various cancers and heart diseases . On the other end of the spectrum, those who espouse the carnivore diet believe that eliminating carbohydrates from your diet equalizes blood sugar levels , stabilizes your mood and energy levels, and reduces gastrointestinal issues. Plus, some research suggests that a high-protein diet can help lower LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) .
In the middle of these two extremes is The Paleo Diet®, which is based on emulating eating how our ancestors ate through human evolution [4,5]. This means following a natural, well-balanced diet that included both plants and animals.
So assuming you decide to include meat in your diet, let’s take a deeper look at both the carnivore diet and The Paleo Diet so you can compare the features of each and help you decide which one may be right for you.
What Is the Carnivore Diet?
The carnivore diet focuses just on meat. Period. This over-restrictive diet allows for zero carbs; you eat only meat, fish, eggs, and some animal products. All other food groups are excluded, including vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Drinking bone broth and water is encouraged, but beverages like tea, coffee, and other drinks made from plants are discouraged. The carnivore diet offers little guidance regarding calorie intake, serving sizes, or how many meals or snacks to eat each day. It’s also extremely low in fiber, which can cause a range of health issues.
Popularized by former orthopedic doctor Shawn Baker, who feels it more closely resembles the primitive way our ancestors ate than The Paleo Diet, it’s based on the belief that our ancestors mainly ate meat and fish. Fans of the carnivore diet say it has a range of benefits from weight loss to regulated blood sugar levels and higher testosterone levels, and they believe in its potential as an anti-inflammatory diet. However, there’s limited evidence to support those claims.
Carnivore vs. Paleo Diet
At first glance, the carnivore diet and The Paleo Diet seem congruent with each other because they are both high-protein, low-carb diets that emphasize the importance of eating whole, unprocessed foods, but there are some very marked differences between the two. The Paleo Diet encourages you to eat meat, but unlike the carnivore diet, it’s not the only thing on the plate. The carnivore diet abstains from all carbs, while The Paleo Diet allows room for plenty of complex carbs, like sweet potatoes, squash, and other fiber-rich fruits and vegetables.
And this is where the two diets really diverge.
The fact is, humans are omnivores. Research shows that, while there was a wide variance in what we ate, no society has been completely vegan or carnivore . This fits with the concept of hormesis—in simple terms, too much or too little of one thing isn’t good. We need to consume both animal products and vegetation, ensuring that all essential nutrients are consumed. The Paleo Diet not only looks at the foods our ancestors ate, but it also looks at what they didn’t eat: simple (processed) sugars, added salt, dairy, whole grains, and gluten.
The Beef with Red Meat
Diets that contain animal proteins have been over-stigmatized. Meat—red meat in particular—gets a bad rap. Past studies have tied it to the increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers [6,7]. But research shows that red meat contains important nutrients, including protein, vitamin B12, and iron, which the body needs to build muscle and bone, form red blood cells, and help the central nervous system function normally . In fact, humans require B12 in order to thrive, and it can only come from animal sources.
Meat also contains creatine and carnosine, which are beneficial to the brain and muscles . A serving of red meat is also a good source of zinc, which can help the body produce testosterone ; and selenium, a powerful antioxidant that plays a key role in metabolism.
There’s also mounting evidence that health issues arise not from the red meat itself, but from the quality of it. Some research suggests that the consumption of processed red meat may be associated with conditions like heart disease and diabetes . High-quality grass-fed meats, on the other hand, may improve the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio (both essential nutrients your body can’t make) and natural antioxidants [12,13,14].
So Which Diet Is Better?
There is some evidence that the carnivore diet can have short-term benefits for autoimmune disease, neurodegeneration, and cancer, but there are concerns about nutrient deficiencies in the long term [15,16,17]. Vitamin C, for example, is an essential dietary component that’s involved in protein metabolism, and the biosynthesis of collagen, a component of connective tissue. It’s also an important antioxidant that plays a huge role in immune health . Fruits and vegetables are the best sources of vitamin C. If you’re following the carnivore diet, oral supplementation will be required, but it may not provide enough .
Likewise with calcium. This mineral not only plays an important role in bone health, but it also plays a meaningful role in preventing blood clots and regulating normal heart rhythms and nerve functions. Commonly found in dairy (which both diets eschew), it’s also abundant in fruits and leafy greens, which are included in The Paleo Diet.
The carnivore diet requires very careful planning and likely some supplementation to avoid nutrient deficiencies. And ultimately, the health impacts of the carnivore diet are hard to determine because more research needs to be done.
This is why we feel an omnivore Paleo Diet is superior. It guarantees you get the nutrients you need and requires no supplementation. A long-term diet needs to be metabolically flexible and include both animal- and plant-based foods, making The Paleo Diet better for long-term, sustained health.
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