You’ve heard the stories of people finding significant improvements on a carnivore diet with everything from weight loss, depression and anxiety, to autoimmune disease, and you want to give it a try! Well, this is the post for you. In this post I’ll talk about a few variations of the carnivore diet, and include some sample carnivore diet meal plans to help you get started.
The first thing you need to ask yourself is what your goals are for this way of eating, and what fits your lifestyle. For the purposes of this article, I’ll divide the carnivore diet into 5 different tiers. Based on your goals you can decide which tier is right for you. I talk about this in much more detail in my upcoming book, “The Carnivore Code: Unlocking the Secrets to Optimal Health by Returning to Our Ancestral Diet.”
One other consideration in the discussion of what to eat on a carnivore diet is WHEN to eat. I’ll do a whole separate blog post about intermittent fasting and time restricted eating. Here’s the short version: because a carnivore diet is so satiating, most people find that eating two times a day, or even once per day (known as OMAD) works better than three meals per day. This also makes time restricted eating much easier by allowing for a more compressed eating window with less meals. In the meal plans that follow, I have suggested breakfast, lunch, and dinner meals, but twice or once per day eating is totally appropriate, and perhaps even better!
Tier 1: Carnivore ISH (with discussion of low and high toxicity plant foods)
Also known as “carnivore adjacent”, this type of eating emphasizes animal foods, and consumes these as the majority of the diet, but allows some room for what I would consider the least toxic plant foods. Beginning with an appreciation of the fact that animal foods represent the most nutrient rich sources of bioavailable vitamins and minerals, these foods form the majority of such a diet, perhaps 80%-90%. These foods might include ruminant (beef, bison, lamb) meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy for those who tolerate (see discussion below for more information on this topic). In addition to these foods, “low toxicity” plant foods may be included for flavor, preference or texture/color. I will reiterate here that I see plant foods as “survival foods” and don’t believe they provide unique nutrients for humans that we can’t obtain from animals. Furthermore, plants have lots of toxins in them, many of which have been misconstrued as beneficial for humans, that irritate the gut and the immune system.
I see a whole foods animal based diet as the most basic diet that humans will thrive on. There does appear to be some genetic variability in human response to ratios of animal fats, however, and there are rare examples of individuals who do not oxidize fats for fuel well. For the VAST majority of people, however, an animal based diet is an ideal foundation. Genetic variability also appears to come into play regarding which plant foods a given individual will tolerate. In some individuals, any amount of plant foods and dairy appear to trigger the immune system, leading to resurgence of inflammation and autoimmunity. In others, specific plant foods may be tolerated without apparent detrimental effects. This is an individual idiosyncrasy, and will need to be determined on such a basis. For the purposes of this blog post, however, I will discuss a few foods that might be considered to be the “least toxic,” and that could be added to a “carnivore-ish” diet. The understanding here, of course, will be that much of this will be unique based on the individual.
Which are the least toxic plant foods? I generally think of these as the non-sweet fruits, and include things like olives, avocado, lettuces, cucumbers (without skin or seeds), and various squashes in this group. Squash, in particular, will have higher amounts of carbohydrates, and will interrupt efforts toward ketosis if that’s a goal. On the flip side, for those interested in incorporating carbohydrates into their diets prior to long, intense athletic efforts, squash might be a good option for this. Removal of skin and seeds of the squash would likely decrease lectins significantly in this case.
What about more toxic foods? At the opposite end of the spectrum I would place plant seeds. The category of plant seeds really includes seeds, grains, nuts, and beans. These are all plant seeds, and they are all very heavily defended by plants. They contain digestive enzyme inhibitors, lectins, high amounts of phytic acid- a molecule that binds phosphorus in plants, but can also bind other positively charged ions such as Mg, Zn, Ca, and Se, limiting their absorption. In addition to plant seeds, the nightshade or solanaceae family (tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, goji berries, peppers, paprika, chili peppers) is also known to be a common immune trigger.
Most fruits and vegetables lie between these two groups, and are difficult to qualify in terms toxicity. This will vary on a person to person basis. On a tier 1 Carnivore diet, you might start with the low toxicity plants and add in moderate toxicity foods to see how you tolerate them. Many people will do best with NO plants for some amount of time, however. When all plants are eliminated, we move to a Tier 2 carnivore diet.
Beverages: Many people ask about coffee. I’ll do a whole separate post on this topic. The short answer is that I am not a fan of coffee for a variety of reasons including caffeine (sympathetic nervous system activation, sleep disturbance, etc.), pesticides, mold toxins and acrylamide formed in the roasting process. If you choose to include coffee in your diet, know that my general experience is that most people feel much better without it once they have gone through the acute withdrawal phase. In place of coffee, I generally recommend high quality, purified water. Distilled water or Reverse Osmosis should be remineralized but is a good option. High quality carbon filters like the Berkey (no affiliation) are another option. The ideal water would be locally sourced spring water (findaspring.com), but this is not always available. Sparkling mineral water is fine – I’m a big fan of Gerolsteiner, which is particularly rich in minerals, and Topo Chico. Tea contains many compounds, like tannins, which may impair nutrient absorption and irritate the gut. I generally recommend against it. Sodas, fruit juices, etc. are clearly not ideal and should be avoided.
What a typical day of Tier 1 Carnivore looks like:
(All “typical days” will vary based on your goals, body composition and metabolic rate. Twice per day or once per day eating styles are also appropriate).
- 3 scrambled eggs with 1 tablespoon of ghee
- 1/2 Avocado with Sea salt
- 6oz grass fed ribeye steak
- Cucumber slices and romaine lettuce with olive oil dressing
- 8oz lamb chops
- 1/2 avocado
Tier 2: Meat/Water
This is the most basic, and simplest version of a true carnivore diet. It’s for people who want to experiment with a whole foods animal based diet for short amounts of time, like an elimination diet. In my opinion, this type of carnivore eating is not ideal for most people for the long term, but it could serve as a very simple introduction to this way of eating.
On a Tier 2 Carnivore diet “eat meat, drink water” is the classic adage which describes this way of eating best. It’s a pretty simple formula, and as an elimination diet it can be a very helpful tool. My concerns with this type of diet long term are nutrient deficiencies. I did a podcast with Amber O’Hearn in which we talked about nuances regarding RDAs on a carnivore diet. It’s pretty clear that our body’s requirements for many things changes in the absence of carbohydrates. Even meat has a small amount of carbohydrates but for the purposes of this discussion, they are essentially negligible. There’s a whole facebook group (Zeroing in on Health) dedicated to this type of diet, and there are many examples of people who appear to thrive eating only animal meat and drinking water. Examples include Joe and Charlene Andersen, and Charles Washington, who moderates the aforementioned facebook group.
While I do think a tier 2 carnivore diet can be very helpful for some people, adding even a few foods like eggs and occasional seafood can help fill in many of the potential nutrient gaps. Evolutionarily, I also don’t think that we would have only eaten the muscle meat of animals. There are numerous examples from anthropological literature to suggest that many indigenous peoples actually favored organ meats and fat, and ate muscle meat last, or even fed the muscle meat to the dogs. We’ll talk more about adding organ meats in Tier 4/5 carnivore diets, but first let’s talk about adding just a few more basic nutrient rich animals foods to the meat and water diet.
What a typical day of Tier 2 Carnivore looks like:
(All “typical days” will vary based on your goals, body composition and metabolic rate).
- 10oz grass fed ribeye steak with sea salt
- 8oz lambburgers with sea salt
- 8 oz grass fed NY steak
Tier 3: Basic Carnivore diet
The basic carnivore diet adds a few things to the Tier 2 Meat and Water plan. This where most folks start out, and then usually progress to Tiers 4 and 5 as they get more excited about eating organ meats. The Tier 3 meal plan includes meat, eggs, seafood, and dairy, if tolerated.
A few words about dairy: I’ve personally found that all types of dairy trigger my eczema, and in many clients I work with, exclusion of dairy allows for increased satiety, less inflammation, and easier weight loss. Generally speaking, I do feel that dairy can be triggering for many people. If you have an autoimmune issue or you are really interested in losing weight, I’d leave dairy out for at least the first 60 days of a Carnivore diet. There’s a bit a nuance here as well with regard to A1 vs A2 variants of casein, which breaks down into beta casomorphin. The name of that molecule looks like “morphine,” and it acts in a similar, though much less intense, way in the human body by activating opioid signaling pathways. I’ll do a whole separate blog post about A1 vs A2 dairy. The cliff notes version is that casein has two variants (gene polymorphisms, or SNPs), A1 and A2, which are broken down into different forms of beta- casomorphin.
The A1 variant of casein becomes beta-casomoprhin 7, a molecule that has been linked (1,2,3) to increased incidence of autoimmune disease and cardiovascular disease. The take home message here is that if you’re going to do dairy and don’t think it triggers your immune system, opt for A2 dairy rather than A1. All non-cow dairy including goat, sheep, and buffalo are considered A2 dairy. There are bovine species which are A2, like many Guernsey cows, but these will be noted on the labeling and are much more rare. If it’s from a cow, and doesn’t specify A2 on the label, assume it’s A1 dairy.
What a typical day of Tier 3 Carnivore looks like:
- 2 eggs cooked in tallow or ghee with bacon
- 4 oz striploin steak
- 3 oz king salmon with butter/ghee
- 6oz shrimp
- 8oz grass fed ribeye steak with sea salt
Tier 4: Junior varsity organ meat eating and real animal fats
This tier is for you if you are loving the carnivore diet and are organ-curious. You’ve heard me extoll the virtues of organ meats, like liver, and would like to incorporate this into your diet. You’ve also heard me talk about the amazing virtues of grass-fed fat trimmings or suet (beef kidney fat) and you’d like to jump on the fat train. A tier 4 carnivore diet will probably suit your needs very well, and I believe that you will notice improvements in mental clarity, satiety, and athletic performance by upgrading your diet in these ways.
Let’s start with liver! Isn’t this organ the body’s filter and full of toxins? Nope! It is true that the liver contains the majority of the enzymatic systems involved in detoxification. These are referred to as the phase 1 and phase 2 detox pathways. The liver doesn’t store toxins, however. It chemically transforms them with these systems to prepare the toxins for EXCRETION in the urine and feces. This is how we get rid of the bad stuff – we don’t want nasty chemicals and compounds hanging around our bodies. If you’ve heard me talk about phytochemicals like sulforphane or curcumin, you’ll know that these compounds are detoxified in phase 1/2 and then excreted. Yes, I did indeed call these compounds toxins, and I don’t feel they have any beneficial place in human nutrition. You can find much more in depth discussions of plant toxins on many of the podcasts I’ve been on. See the post on which podcasts I’ve been on [here]. Particularly in depth episode include Peak Human and Ben Greenfield.
So the liver isn’t a filter, you get it, but you didn’t grow up eating liver and the taste is different than what you are used to… Is it really that uniquely nutritious? In a word, yes! Muscle meat from animals is very rich in a lot of vitamins and minerals, but it doesn’t have all of them. Simply adding liver to a Tier 3 carnivore diet really helps fill in many of the possible nutrients that could be limited on this type of diet. Granted, eating eggs and seafood will provide more nutrients than a meat and water diet, but I think adding in liver will be even better.
What nutrients am I talking about here? Liver is particularly rich in a few minerals and B vitamins which complement those found in muscle meat. On the mineral side, liver is one of the best sources of copper, which we need for enzymes like Super Oxide Dismutase (SOD). SOD serves a critical role in the antioxidant management system in our bodies (I talk about this in the podcast I did with Dom D’Agostino, PhD) by converting the superoxide radical (02-) into molecular oxygen (02) or hydrogen peroxide (H202). Copper deficiency would result in accumulation of O2-, which could have disastrous consequences in terms of excess oxidative stress. Copper deficiency is rare, but it can occur if we consume too much zinc without some copper to balance it out. The most common situation for this to occur would be excess use of zinc supplements without a good source of copper in our diets, but it is also possible through diet if we get a lot of zinc in muscle meat without some source of copper. Clinical copper deficiency manifests with neurologic symptoms which mimic B12 deficiency (difficulty with balance, walking). Yikes! No fun!
Aside from copper, liver is also a great source of MANY other minerals including iron, selenium, manganese, and molybdenum. It’s also very rich in choline, which has been unjustly maligned in connection with TMAO (see the podcast I did with Tommy Wood, PhD in which we discuss this), and is a vital nutrient for healthy cell membranes and neurotransmitter production.
Looking at the B-vitamins, liver is just a powerhouse, on the order of the Incredible Hulk or another Avengers superhero. It provides significantly higher levels of almost all of these nutrients, and is an especially good source of folate, biotin, and riboflavin, which really are not that available in muscle meat. If you have an MTHFR or PEMT polymorphism (check out the podcast with Dr. Ben Lynch) you’ll require more riboflavin than the general population, and liver is just about the richest source there is! Other good sources of riboflavin are heart, kidney, and egg yolks, with muscle meat having some but not nearly as much as these special foods. If you are interested in eating heart and kidney, you are probably ready for a Tier 5 Carnivore diet!
What a typical day of Tier 4 Carnivore looks like:
- 4oz tenderloin steak
- 2 oz liver
- 3oz grass fed suet
- 8 oysters
- 3 oz king salmon
- 6oz shrimp
- 8oz grass-fed ribeye steak with sea salt
Tier 5: Optimal Nose to Tail Carnivore diet (varsity organ meats)
You are focused on optimizing your diet for best results in terms of resolution of inflammatory issues, weight loss, or physical/mental performance, and you want the Ferrari version of the carnivore diet. This is it! Tier 5 is basically how I eat day in and day out. This is the ultimate Carnivore MD diet. As I’ve noted earlier, this type of a carnivore diet may not be for everyone at all times. Traveling makes eating lots of high quality animal meats, organs and fat difficult from time to time, and I get this. It’s totally ok to use Tier 1-4 diets in your life when they are the most appropriate for your current situation. In these situations, desiccated organ supplements can help make incorporating organ meats in your diet more convenient.
So how do I eat, and what do I think is the BEST way to construct a nose to tail carnivore diet? There are a couple of pieces to this equation. The first thing I think of is the fat to protein ratio in terms of macronutrients. I’ll do a whole separate post on this. If you want to listen to me discuss the pros/cons of high fat vs. high protein with Ted Naiman, check out the Better, Stronger, Faster podcast I did with him here. I will also post a link to my Ancestral Health symposium talk on the unique nutrient value of animal fat once it’s posted.
My general perspective is that animal fat is a vital and valuable part of animals that humans have uniquely sought out throughout our existence, and which should not be neglected or undervalued. Just like how liver and the other organ meats have a unique nutritional profile, animal fat does as well and I believe that it should be intentionally included on a well constructed nose to tail carnivore diet. If you are eating grass-fed meat there’s some fat with cuts like ribeye and NY strip, but it’s not a ton. Most of the fat is now trimmed off our meat by butchers, so we have to specifically ask for trimmings or look for the fat around the kidneys (suet). Grain-fed meat is certainly fattier but as I talk about in this blog post, I have some concerns about grain-fed fat accumulating more toxins like estrogen mimicking compounds, pesticides and dioxins. Personally, I source grass-fed suet from US Wellness Meats or White Oak Pastures (no affiliation) and include this as a large component of my diet.
How much fat do I eat? Since I am at my goal body weight and composition, I am most interested in athletic performance. With this in mind, I aim for about 1.5-2g of fat per gram of protein that I eat on a daily basis. For protein, I aim for about .8g per lb of lean body weight per day. As a 170 lb dude, this ends up being about 140g of protein and 230-280g of fat per day! Are these macros causing me to lose lean mass or accumulate fat? I’d say definitely not, but I’ll let you be the judge.
All of this grass-fed animal fat I am consuming is a source of unique nutrients. What?! Fat has nutrients? You bet it does! Grass fed animal fat is a great source of fat soluble vitamins like vitamin E and vitamin K2. In the Rotterdam Study, increased consumption of vitamin K2, but not K1 (from plants) was associated with significantly improved coronary heart disease outcomes. Grass-fed animal fat is also a source of the omega-3 fatty acids, EPA, DHA and DPA. My levels of omega-3 are robust eating a tier 5 carnivore diet.
I also test my micronutrients, including vitamin E, regularly. The results below are from July 2019. As you can see, my CoQ10 is off the charts (this is common in clients I work with on the carnivore diet), and my B vitamin markers are all looking great. My homocysteine is 7, which is exactly where I would like to see it. Interestingly, I am homozygous for the 677C->T polymorphism of MTHFR, and I don’t supplement with any methylfolate. It’s clear from this lab result that I am getting enough riboflavin from the liver I eat. The folate in liver is also L-5 methylfolate, rather than dihydrofolate, as is found in plants. Check out the podcast I did with Dr. Ben Lynch for a full discussion of these polymorphisms. I’ll also do a whole podcast and separate post about all of my bloodwork eventually.
Looking at this section of my bloodwork, notice how high my vitamin E is. It’s actually above the range True Health lists as normal, but this isn’t a bad thing. I don’t supplement with any sort of vitamin E. This is exclusively coming from grass-fed animal fat! One of the critiques that has been leveled against the carnivore diet is that this diet could be low in vitamin E. My results, and the results of my clients, would argue strongly against this. Check out the whole podcast I did answering common critiques of the carnivore diet if you’d like to dig deeper into all of this.
A tier 5 carnivore diet also includes lots of organ meats. I personally favor these in my diet and usually end up eating a variety of them throughout the day. I do try to rotate the organ meats I eat throughout the week as I believe our ancestors would have. What I do may not work for everyone, and some of the organs I eat may be considered “gross” in terms of what is mainstream, but I find great value in making efforts to eat as much of the animal as I can. In a given week I will eat about 16 oz liver, 16 oz kidney, 16-32oz heart, 16oz testicles (yes!), and occasional spleen, pancreas, and brain when they are available.
You certainly don’t have to eat all of these organs to do a great version of a tier 5 carnivore diet, but they are worth exploring. This may also be a place where desiccated organ capsules can help us get a wider variety of organs. In the section below about a typical tier 5 diet I will describe what I eat so people can get a sense of this. Again, just because I do it this way does not mean it’s the only way to do it! The other disclaimer here is that while I eat many foods raw, this certainly presents contamination risks and it’s not something I recommend unless you know the quality of your sourcing very well.
What a typical day of Tier 5 Carnivore looks like for me:
I eat twice a day and usually don’t eat breakfast. I opt for an early “lunch” instead. This usually happens around 10am.
- 6 raw egg yolks
- 100g beef suet with sea salt
- 2oz raw liver
- 2oz kidney
- 6oz ribeye steak
- 4oz testicle
- 150g beef suet
- 8 oz ribeye steak
At this point you are probably saying, “Paul, you are crazy!” I’ve been called worse things! So people have a sense of another version of a tier 5 carnivore diet, I will offer a “non-Paul” version below.
What a typical day of Tier 5 Carnivore looks like for someone:
- 3 eggs
- 2 oz beef liver
- 1 oz kidney
- 6 oz NY steak
- 100g beef suet
- 4oz scallops cooked in tallow
- 100g beef suet
- 8 oz ribeye steak
- 6 jumbo shrimp
This has been a huge post! I hope it provides some context for the different versions of the carnivore diet that are possible. I also want to say clearly that ANY intentional dietary change is a step in the right direction and has great power. Let me know what you think of the tiers in the comments section and STAY RADICAL!