Carnivore diet

The bottom line

To understand the potential benefit of a carnivore diet on pain, follow a simple logic chain: pain often involves inflammation and/or autoimmune reactions. And inflammation/autoimmune reactions can be heavily influenced by what you eat. Thus, it makes sense to identify parts of your diet that might cause those reactions, leading to pain.

The simplest way to identify if your diet is impacting pain is to not eat at all. But prolonged fasting can be risky. The next simplest way is to eat a single nutritionally complete food, that doesn’t have additives or multiple ingredients. There is no single plant food that’s nutritionally complete (you can’t survive a lifetime eating just soybeans, for example). So the simplest diet, nutritionally speaking, is eating just meat. Carnivores may also consume eggs, dairy, seafood, organs, and connective tissue.

But does the carnivore diet actually help pain? There are no studies on carnivore diets in general let alone on pain (well, technically there is a 1929 study on two people eating a carnivore diet for a year, including carnivore godfather Vilhjalmur Stefansson, partly funded by The Institute of American Meat Packers). Anecdotes seem to support pain reduction or even pain elimination, but anecdotes are plentiful for a variety of diets. Absent trial evidence, there’s no way to find out other than actually trying the diet. There are some mechanistic reasons why it may help, and other reasons why it may not, but it’s probably dependent on your disease state and personal physiology.

What is the carnivore diet, and how'd it become so popular?

Humans are omnivores, but evidence is mixed as to how much plants vs animals we ate at different times in our evolutionary history. That being said, there are no tribes in the recent past that were fully vegan or fully carnivorous, and meat is likely one of the one or two biggest factors that made us big-brained humans.

The current interest in carnivore diets, though, stems from a few people on the Internet who tried the diet, found health improvements, and served as information sources and examples to others. These people include:

  • L. Amber Wilcox O’Hearn - having eaten a carnivorous diet for over a decade, found vast improvements to bipolar disorder.

  • Shawn Baker - a surgeon/athlete carnivore who appeared on the Joe Rogan podcast, which catapaulted the carnivore diet into the public eye.

  • The Bear - Owsley Stanley, former sound guy for the Grateful Dead, and multi-decade carnivore who appeared to be in good health before dying in a car accident at age 76.

  • Charles Washington - One of the earliest carnivores to record his experiences on the Internet, and founder of one of the big carnivore Facebook groups, Zeroing in on Health.

Speaking of zeroing … the carnivore diet is often thought of as a zero-carb diet, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Animal products technically include milk and honey. Most carnivore dieters eat mainly beef, due to its relative nutrient density compared to white meat, along with anecdotes of feeling more satiated than with other meats. Some regularly eat eggs, and fewer cheese.

Does the carnivore diet help pain?

This is the ten million dollar question. There are no trials on the carnivore diet, and there likely won’t be any (possibly ever).

So all we’re left with is theoretical mechanisms. But they do exist!

For example, wheat gluten can be a pain inducer for some, such as in these patients with possible gluten sensitivity. No plant foods means no gluten. For others, there’s a chance nightshade plants could cause pain. Still others experience pain from oxalates in certain veggies. You catch my drift: plants contain a startling variety of compounds (some meant to ward off predators) that can theoretically cause pain for some people … if you eliminate those plants, you may feel much better in short order.

The other potential benefit of a meat-heavy diet is providing raw materials for joint and muscle strengthening: high amounts of essential amino acids, collagen components, and micronutrients such as vitamin A in its highly bioavailable retinol form.

Can the carnivore diet worsen pain?

Red meat is also associated with having more pain in some studies, but it’s tough to know if it was the red meat at fault, or if the relationship is merely associative rather than causative. Other animal products such (eggs and dairy, namely) have a more frequent connection to adverse immune reactions, and taking them out of a diet can sometimes help with pain.

One component of red meat that may play a role in certain health conditions is Neu5Gc, which is a type of carbohydrate that coats cells. Red meat has it, while white meat doesn’t. Neu5Gc is associated with cancer in animals, and thyroid autoimmunity in humans, but not with rheumatoid arthritis. So could it play a role in other pain conditions? Nobody knows.