Should People With Diabetes Try the Carnivore Diet?

New meat diet proffered as an alternative for diabetics but experts say the long-term consequences are dangerous
By Sara Angle, Healthline
June 11, 2018 Last Updated: June 11, 2018

carnivore diet

When Anna C. received a diagnosis of gestational diabetes during her pregnancy at age 40, her doctor recommended a standard gestational diabetes diet. This diet consists of lean protein and about 150 to 200 grams of carbohydrates per day, divided between three meals and two snacks. “It didn’t take me long to see with my glucose monitor that this amount of carbohydrates—even the healthy, whole-food ones—were spiking my blood sugar quite high,” she told Healthline. Against medical advice, she switched to a low-carb diet for the rest of her pregnancy in order to control her blood sugar. She ate around 50 grams of carbs per day.But after she gave birth, her glucose levels worsened. She then received a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes.She was able to manage it at first with a low-carb diet and medication. But as her blood sugar continued to rise, she chose to “eat to the monitor” and only eat foods that didn’t cause spikes in blood sugar.

“If I avoid carbs and eat only meat, fats, eggs, and hard cheeses, my blood sugar rarely cracks 100 mg/dL and my fasting numbers are never over 90,” she says. “My A1c has been in normal range ever since eating zero carbs.”

How the Carnivore Diet Works

The carnivore diet has gained popularity recently thanks to Shawn Baker, MD, a U.S.-based orthopedic surgeon who completed his own low-carb, high-fat diet experiment and saw improvements in his health and body composition.

That led him to experiment with a 30-day carnivore diet. His joint pain vanished, and he never went back. Now, he promotes the diet for others.

 The diet consists of all-animal foods, and most people favor high-fat cuts. Red meat, poultry, organ meats, processed meats like bacon, sausage, hot dogs, fish, and eggs are all game. Some people also eat dairy, particularly cheese. Others include condiments and spices as part of the diet, too.

Anna’s typical meals consist of some meat, some fat, and sometimes eggs or egg yolks.

Breakfast might be a few strips of bacon, a slow-cooked egg, and a chunk of cheddar cheese. Lunch is a kosher hot dog mixed with mayonnaise and a side of egg yolk, rotisserie turkey, and a scoop of mayonnaise.

The Carnivore Diet’s Effects on Health

Proponents of the diet tout its ability to aid in weight loss, cure autoimmune diseases, decrease digestive issues, and improve heart health.

People with diabetes say it’s been able to help them stabilize their blood sugar.

“From a biochemistry standpoint, if you’re eating only meat, you’re largely not taking in glucose, so your blood glucose levels would not be affected,” said Dr. Darria Long Gillespie, clinical assistant professor at the University of Tennessee School of Medicine.  “But there is more to diabetes than just your blood sugar level.”

Measuring blood sugar looks at the short-term, immediate effect of food. But over time, eating a diet of mostly or only meat can have long-term health consequences, she says.

“When you go meat only, you’re missing a lot of nutrients, fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. And you’re getting very large amounts of saturated fat,” Long Gillespie told Healthline.

Most of the experts Healthline spoke to for this story advise against going fully carnivore, particularly if you have diabetes.

“We know from extensive research that people with diabetes are at a much higher risk for heart disease,” said Toby Smithson, RD, CDE, a spokesperson for the American Association of Diabetes Educators. “We also know that a diet high in saturated fat can lead to heart disease.”

Even if you’re careful to choose lean meat, a carnivore diet will still be higher in saturated fat, she says.

When Harvard researchers recently reviewed over two decades of data from more than 115,000 people, they found that higher intakes of saturated fat were associated with up to an 18 percent increased risk for heart disease.

Surprisingly, even replacing just 1 percent of those fats with the same number of calories from polyunsaturated fats, whole grains, or plant proteins lowered the risk by 6 to 8 percent.

Could Science be Wrong About Meat?

But not everyone agrees with the body of research that points to the negative effects of heavy meat consumption.

Georgia Ede, MD, a psychiatrist who specializes in nutrition and eats a mostly meat diet herself, says the vast majority of research suggesting that meat consumption is linked to cancer and heart disease in humans comes from epidemiological studies. These studies are done by administering questionnaires about food to people rather than in a controlled setting.

“At best, this method, which has been widely discredited, can only generate guesses about connections between food and health that then need to be tested in clinical trials,” Ede said.

Her argument is common among carnivorous eaters. But the large body of population-based research that’s linked overconsumption of meat to health conditions is usually enough to lead health professionals to advise against it.

2018 study also found that high consumption of red and processed meat is associated with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and insulin resistance, a concern that should turn heads in the diabetes community.

Anna notes that while she’s aware of the mainstream medical advice that fatty meats are dangerous, she feels like the risks of chronic high blood sugar are graver than any potential hazard from eating meat.

Should You Try the Carnivore Diet?

Most of the experts Healthline spoke to for this story advise against going fully carnivore, particularly if you have diabetes.

“After about 24 hours of fasting or no carbohydrate intake, the liver glycogen stores are not available,” said Smithson. “Our muscles need insulin for them to get glucose into the cells, so a person with diabetes may have elevated blood glucose readings when omitting carbs.”

Additionally, a person with diabetes who’s taking medication such as insulin may experience hypoglycemia, or low blood glucose levels, by eating only meat, Smithson says. To bring their blood glucose levels back up, they’ll need to consume a fast-acting carbohydrate instead of meat.

A Healthier Diet for People with Diabetes

If not carnivore, then what? “The DASH diet, or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, is a more beneficial diet for people with diabetes,” says Kayla Jaeckel, RD, CDE, a diabetes educator at the Mount Sinai Health System.

The DASH diet not only lowers the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, it can also decrease insulin resistance in people with diabetes. It’s high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and emphasizes leaner protein choices, such as fish and poultry, low-fat dairy, and beans. Foods higher in saturated fats and added sugars are limited.

For another option, recent research found that a low-fat vegan diet could improve type 2 diabetes markers in people who haven’t developed diabetes. This further suggests the importance of plant-based foods for diabetes prevention and management.

Sara Angle is a journalist and ACE-certified personal trainer based in New York City. She’s worked on staff at Shape, Self, and publications in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Rome. This article was originally published on Healthline.