While keto has established itself as the diet powerhouse of the past decade, the carnivore diet is relatively new, first gaining prominence in 2018 via the endorsements of athlete Shawn Baker and intellectual personality Jordan Peterson.
Because these two diets have a lot of overlap, the terminology can get a bit confusing. Today, we’re going to explain the similarities and differences between the two — that way you can make the best diet decision for yourself.
What is the keto carnivore diet?
The keto carnivore diet, also known as the carnivore diet, is a zero-carb elimination diet that eliminates all foods except for animal products such as meat, eggs, and fish.
That means no vegetables, no fruits, no seeds — just animals and the products they create. Some keto carnivores opt-out of dairy altogether as well because milk and cheese have lactose and other natural sugars, but all keto carnivores eat an extremely limited diet.
Keto carnivore is an extension of the keto and paleo diets, and proponents argue that some hunter-gatherer tribes of old ate exclusively meat, although all typically referenced groups like the Mongolian nomads and Sioux took advantage of plants and berries when they could[*].
Keto vs. carnivore — are they the same thing?
You can think of carnivore as a subcategory of keto. Because the carnivore diet is zero-carb, it is by definition a type of keto diet. If you just eat meat, you’ll almost certainly end up in ketosis.
So while you can say that carnivore is keto, you can’t say that keto is carnivore. Simply put, carnivore is a more extreme keto diet.
Because carnivore is derivative of keto, many dieters report similar benefits such as weight loss, improved bowel movements, and increased energy and focus.
What can you eat on the keto carnivore diet?
If it is or is from an animal, it’s fair game. That means beef, pork, lamb, chicken, fish, eggs, bone marrow, bone broth, lard, and more.
For a complete list of eligible foods and an easy, 7-day keto carnivore diet meal plan, go here.
Potential benefits of the keto carnivore diet
While these aren’t backed by the scientific community yet, there are plenty of anecdotes touting the benefits of the keto carnivore diet.
Weight loss, skin health, reduced inflammation, and more
While there aren’t long-term studies on the carnivore diet yet, people frustrated with a lack of progress with keto, those suffering from autoimmune diseases or other chronic pain, and hundreds of others have reported benefits such as faster weight loss, less eczema, better muscle growth and retention, and a reduction in inflammation[*].
Easier to follow than keto and other diets
You don’t have to count calories, track your macros, worry about what meals are okay, wonder if you’re over your carb limit — none of that. You just eat meat and go on with your day. This makes thinking about what you’re eating and shopping an absolute breeze.
Muscle growth due to high protein intake
Shawn Baker reported significant breakthroughs in his workout routine after switching to the keto carnivore diet[*]. This is presumably due to practically exclusive intake of protein and fats.
Downsides of the keto carnivore diet
Potential for nutrient deficiencies
Because there isn’t a lot of hard science around the keto carnivore diet, it’s hard to make educated claims about the nutritional upsides and downsides.
For example, your Vitamin C intake will drop significantly, which is a legitimate concern, but there is evidence that by eliminating your intake of glucose (which competes with Vitamin C in your body), your Vitamin C needs to drop as well[*].
Or take fiber. Fiber has been misconstrued by cereal companies and supermarket brands for decades, and the connection between fiber and digestive health is widely disputed. If we, as many studies are starting to show, don’t actually need fiber, then you should be fine.
Potential gut microbiome damage
While many keto carnivores report improved digestive health, some nutritionists fear that those benefits are temporary and mainly a result of eliminating inflammatory foods (i.e. eating a healthier diet in general).
If in a year or so you accidentally eliminate all of the good bacteria in your gut, you could be in for a nasty recovery process[*].
Potential for excess sodium and saturated fats
Eating only meat products and dairy can increase sodium intake, which can lead to headaches, swelling, and kidney disease[*].
You’ll also be eating more saturated fats, especially if you eat a lot of red meat. While fat is inherently healthy and not damaging like 20th-century diets claimed, eating an excess of saturated fat has been linked to an increase in the risk of a stroke[*].
Nutrition aside, eating a keto carnivore diet can be socially difficult and expensive. It is an incredibly restrictive diet. You can’t even have olive oil!
This means you essentially eliminate people cooking for you, going out to eat anywhere, and it means cooking separate meals for you and your family.
Strong cravings and boredom
Another aspect of eating such a restrictive diet is cravings. Your community won’t change their habits with you, and not being able to have any fruit or vegetables is difficult. Chances are you will repeatedly have to push back against wanting an apple or some spinach. And yes, this is true for any diet, but eating only meat is boring, it’s as simple as that.
May be overkill
If you haven’t tried other diets that are more widely studied, like the traditional keto diet, I recommend starting there. The carnivore diet is intense, and if you can get similar results from eating a less restrictive diet, why wouldn’t you?
Eating only meat is taxing and boring. You give up a lot of freedom and can’t enjoy food in the same way. So if you feel like you’ve tried everything and are at a dead end, then it may be worth a shot, but if you’re not there yet, it’s probably worth looking into more conventional options.
Best practices for trying the keto carnivore diet
If you’re sold on trying keto carnivore, then keep these best practices in mind as you begin.
- Eat grass-fed and finished meats. Grass-finished and pasture-raised meat means the animal eats more grass, which has more nutrients, which are absorbed into the meat, and then passed onto you when you eat the meat. For the best nutritional content, opt for higher-quality meats from a reputable company. Plus it tastes better, anyway!
- Include offal and other organ meats. Offal and organ meats such as liver, heart, and sweetbreads are some of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet[*]. Adding them into your diet will give you a bit more variety and make sure your body is getting its essential nutrients.
- Listen to your body. Nutrition is confusing, and if one thing is certain, it’s that people react differently to different diets. Your best bet is to pay close attention to how you feel. If it works for you, great, but if you are miserable, feel weak, and aren’t getting any of the benefits, then move on.
- Expect a bumpy start. Many people report an odd week of bowel movements before getting regular again. So with such a drastic change to your diet, expect things to get a bit weird. You may also get the famous meat sweats, which are when your body spends a lot of energy to break down all of the meat you’re eating.
- Treat it as a trial. Because we don’t have hard evidence on the long-term effects of the keto carnivore diets, there are risks. Carnivore may be healthy for 2-3 months but detrimental for longer periods of time. It could also be healthy in perpetuity. We really don’t know. With this in mind, give it a measured, careful shot and track how you feel — ideally alongside a health professional.
- Get your blood work on a regular basis. On that note, getting monthly or periodical check-ups on your blood would be smart. This will make sure you catch any alarming spikes (or benefits!) that may arise from switching your diet so dramatically.
- Work with a professional. With any big nutritional change, it’s best to consult a professional. They can monitor your health and nutritional progress to see if it’s worth it. Plus, having those check-ups can be their own source of motivation. It’s safer, smarter, and always worth it.
- When in doubt, take a multivitamin. If you don’t want to wonder if you're getting all of the minerals and vitamins you need, then you can always take supplements to make sure. This adds a bit of cost to the experiment, but if you’re going through all the trouble, it’s not a bad idea to spend a few extra dollars to make sure your bases are covered.
The bottom line on keto vs. carnivore
The keto carnivore, or simply carnivore diet, is a more restrictive version of the keto diet and is one of the most intense diets out there.
While many people report amazing results from carnivore and its heavy-handed elimination of many known irritants and foods, we simply don’t have the science to make a call either way. That means there are risks, but that’s the case for many experimental diets.
As always, it’s best to determine what works for your body through thoughtful experimentation and professional guidance.