The beefed-up diet 'changing lives' but cancer experts not so sure

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Beef for lunch, beef for dinner and perhaps a little bone broth for breakfast sounds like a foodie’s nightmare, but the so-called “carnivore diet” has been gaining traction — on social media at least.

Key points:

  • The carnivore diet allows the consumption of animal products and water
  • A growing number of people claim health benefits such as reduced inflammation
  • Experts warn eating five food groups daily is best practice

Expunging everything except meat and animal products, the carnivore diet has been heavily promoted this year by former United States military trauma and orthopaedic surgeon Shawn Baker, who has been eating up to 2.7 kilograms of meat daily since early 2017.

Dr Baker is in his 50s and attributes the zero-carb, high-protein diet for overcoming joint pain and tendinitis, improving his sleep, normalising blood pressure and returning his libido to what it was in his 20s.

The Instagram hashtag Mr Baker promotes, #meatheals, has more than 150,000 posts, while other hashtags such as #carnivorediet has 237,905 posts, #zerocarb has 186,124 posts, and #eatmeat has 128,809 posts.

The diet’s popularity is growing despite conventional attitudes towards meat consumption, including from the likes of the Australian Heart Foundation, which earlier this year updated its guidelines on what to eat to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

It suggested Australians should eat no more than three meals totalling just 350 grams of unprocessed beef, pork, lamb or veal each week, and it should be eaten together with vegetables and wholegrains.

“Processed or deli meats should be limited, as they have been consistently linked to a higher risk of heart disease and other chronic conditions,” the foundation’s chief medical adviser, Garry Jennings, said in August.

Petersons’ ‘lion’s diet’

Among influencers espousing a meat-heavy diet is outspoken Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, who adopted a meat-only diet thanks to his daughter, Mikhalia Peterson (although he has refused to recommend it to anyone else).

Ms Peterson only consumes ruminant meat, salt and water in what she calls “the lion diet”.

She attributes a “drastic dietary intervention” in 2015 to successfully “treating herself for multiple chronic severe idiopathic disorders” she had been suffering since infancy.

Deakin University’s professor for public health nutrition, Mark Lawrence, admitted meat was a nutrient-dense food.

“However, a healthy diet needs to be based on food consumption from all of the nutritious five food groups in amounts recommended by the Australian Dietary Guidelines [ADG],” he said.

Supported by the Federal Department of Health, these food groups include vegetables and legumes; fruit; meats, poultry and fish; and dairy products such as milk, yoghurt and cheese.

Professor Lawrence said he was not aware of any scientific evidence behind claims a meat-only diet improved concentration while decreasing lethargy or weight, and was concerned because it did not follow the health standards of the ADG.

Other critics believed a diet high in red meat increased the risk of diabetes and colorectal cancer, although the World Health Organisation (WHO) said higher consumption was yet to be established as a cause of cancer.

From keto to carnivore

Elsewhere on the internet, a “sub-reddit for carnivores” called r/zerocarb, has about 105,000 members.

It refers the diet back to the advice of Owsley Stanley, a key San Francisco counterculture figure from the 1960s who died in Queensland during 2011.

Many carnivores posting on such pages said they progressed from the ketogenic diet — a less extreme low-carb diet that also allows seeds, berries, cheeses, avocados, some fruits and vegetables, fish and certain oils — or the paleo diet, which is similar but seeks to mimic the diet of hunters and gatherers thousands of years ago.

Adelaide’s Mark Morella and his family did just that, having decided to try the carnivore diet for a month.

“I had some joint pains in my knee and my shoulders, and after three days [on the carnivore diet], that’s disappeared,” Mr Morella said.

“If I dig deep and push into the tissue, it’s [the pain] still there, but in the past if I’ve got my arm in a certain position and I try and turn over in the night, it would wake me up.”

Mr Morella added that his mental recall had also improved and he was feeling more energetic.

He ate two meals of meat a day, with the occasional bone broth thrown in, having bought “half a cow” from the Adelaide Hills, which worked out to about $11 a kilogram for the hormone-free, grass-fed beef.

“I feel amazing actually, but to be fair, I sort of started this four years ago when we did an elimination diet to work out what foods we were sensitive to, which took about a year,” Mr Morella said.

Climate change impacts considered

The proliferation of red meat in human diets has been linked to greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change — thanks to the large-scale livestock farming required.

Western Australia’s Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, for example, said livestock emissions accounted for about 70 per cent of the agriculture sector’s greenhouse gas emissions in Australia and about 11 per cent of national emissions.

It said livestock was Australia’s dominant source of methane (56 per cent) and nitrous oxide (73 per cent) emissions.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change earlier this year, recommended people boost their intake of plant-based foods and switch to more sustainably produced meat.

It suggested meat-eaters should think about where their protein came from and how it was raised.

Australian beef-production practices are relatively better than many from overseas because livestock is grass-fed, although Australian cattle still require a lot of water and land, and emit a lot of greenhouse gasses.

Meat and Livestock Australia believes a zero-carbon footprint is possible at a national level by 2030, largely through planting trees — carbon sequestration that works for as long as the trees stay alive — and changing feed sources to products such as seaweed and algae to reduce methane output.

Proponents of the carnivore diet such as Mr Baker and Mr Morella, however, believe grain production also contributes to global emissions thanks to land clearing, transport and processing, and believe monoculture and fertilisation is damaging to soils and environmental health.