I grew up in an era when the Four Basic Food Groups was the norm that was taught in schools. There was the fruit and vegetable group, the dairy group, the meat group and the bread and cereal group.
We were supposed to make sure that we ate fruits from every food group and that was the “healthy” way to eat. When I was a kid I thought pizza was healthy since it had foods from all groups.
Since the Four Basic food Groups recommendation was introduced in 1956 the US government has changed their recommended serving size a few times. The exact numbers differed through the years, but the overall recommendation was to eat a lot from the bread and cereal and fruit and vegetable group.
Most people in the US, including myself, grew up thinking that the way to eat healthy was to load up on the starches and fruits and vegetables.
The government changed their 4 basic food group recommendation to the Food Pyramid in 1992.The Food Pyramid had 6 basic groups by adding a new oil and sugar group and separating the fruits and vegetables into two separate groups.
They still recommended that people eat a lot of carbs and to keep the fats, especially saturated fats, low.
In 2005 they changed the Food Pyramid to My Pyramid, which changed the pyramid into vertical sections. A little section was included for fats, but was not listed in the 5 main groups. Beans were added to the meat group.
The pyramids went away in 2011 when the government started the My Plate campaign. Their current campaign keeps the 5 major groups and disregards the fats altogether. The recommended serving size of starches is a little lower than their previous recommendations.
Even though small changes were made to their overall recommendations, the basic message has remained the same. Eat a most of your calories from carbs, keep the proteins low and avoid fats.
Changing the Status Quo
It was the late 90’s when I first heard of the low-carb Atkins style diet. This went against everything that I was taught in nutrition class. The name Dr. Atkins was not mentioned in any of my college textbooks so I hadn’t even heard of him.
These low-carb people had to be crazy. Most of your calories were supposed to come from carbs, and fat was evil and had to be avoided at all costs… or so I thought.
Well the more research I did, the more I learned that a low carb diet is not as unhealthy as I thought and was not just some clever marketing to sell diet programs. Low carb diets actually work well for weight loss.
Over the years there have been other low carb diets. The South Beach diet was very popular in the 2000s and the Paleo diet seems to be the latest craze now.
Most of these low-carb, ketogenic style diets are aimed at people who want to lose weight, but for some cultures it’s a way of life. There are even some that rely almost exclusively on animal meats for their nutrition. Yes, they have gone full carnivore… no fruits, vegetables or grains.
The All Meat Diet
When I first heard of people eating only meat, I was surprised. I just assumed that everyone in the world ate a balanced diet. I was also shocked when I learned that these people were relatively healthy and were not obese and dying of heart attacks.
If you think about the climate that these all-meat civilizations live in, their diets makes sense. Most live in places where it would be very difficult to rely on plants for a steady source of food. While some did eat an occasional berry or vegetable, it was not the primary source of food.
There are numerous hunter-gatherer cultures whose traditional diet is based on meat. These include, the tribes of the Mongolian steppe, the Sioux, and the Chukotka, but the two most talked about cultures are the Inuit and the Maasai.
The Inuit are people who live in Arctic regions of the United States, Canada and Greenland. Their traditional diet is primarily made up of fish and hunted meats which include seal, walrus and polar bear. While it was not the norm, they did gather berries, tubers and other plants when they were available.
The way the Inuit eat is very different than most Westerners would prefer. The meat or fish they eat is usually served raw, boiled or frozen with no salt or other seasoning.
Not much goes to waste after they kill an animal. Fat, organs, brain, bone marrow and blood are all consumed. These provide valuable nutrients such as Vitamin A, B, C and iron.
The prevalence of cold-water fish in the diet means that it is high in Omega-3s which deliver many health benefits.
Most of the calories come from fat. It is estimated that about 50% of the calories are from fat, 30% from protein and 20% from carbohydrates. The carbohydrates in their diet mainly comes from the glycogen in the meat they consume.
The modern Inuit diet has become much more “Westernized” and features non-traditional items such as flour and sugar.
The Maasai (also spelled Masai) is a culture which inhabits southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. Their traditional diet consists primarily of raw milk and blood from their cattle.
They also consume the meat from their cattle and also raise goats and sheep for food.
Most of the tribe incorporated honey, tree bark and other fruits and vegetables into their diet but males over the age of around 14 were considered warriors. While they were in their warrior years, until around age 28, they ate only animal products (milk, meat, etc.)
Over the years the diet of the Maasai has changed. The livestock population was significantly reduced in the late 1800s which is why their modern-day diet includes more non-animal products like maize and beans.
What do these diets Have In Common?
Some people may think that all-meat (or mostly meat) diets are high protein diets, but they are actually high fat diets.
Canadian explorer and enthnologist Dr. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who spent over 11 years living with the Inuit, reported suffering from nausea and diarrhea when fat levels were too low in his diet.
Many researchers, including Stefansson, who studied the Inuit before their diets became more “Westernized” noted that they were less susceptible to chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer and cancer. [1, 2]
Despite a high fat diet with a lot of cholesterol, the Maasai have low levels of blood cholesterol and atherosclerosis compared to Americans.[3, 4]
When the Inuit and the Maasai moved into more urban areas where sugar and flour are more available, the rates of chronic disease increased.
Both traditional diets are very low in fiber but the Inuit and the Maasai have relatively healthy digestive systems.
The Hunter-Gatherers are not alone
The most famous case of a Westerner adopting a meat-based diet is probably the previously mentioned Dr. Vilhjalmur Stefansson.
Stefansson first became a guest of the Mackenzie River Eskimos in 1906. He adopted their diet which was primarily made up of boiled or frozen fish. A typical breakfast and lunch would be frozen fish and boiled fish was the norm for dinner.
There are times when Stefansson and members of his expedition team go hunting and would eat nothing but seal. Some members of his team took a few weeks to get fully acclimated to the all-meat diet and once they did it was just a part of their normal routine.
During his time in the Arctic, Stefansson and his team experienced no signs of scurvy, atherosclerosis or high blood pressure.
Stefansson concluded his exploring in 1918 and began sharing his experiences with his colleagues, who all thought fruits and vegetables were essential for prevention of certain diseases.
After undergoing a full battery of tests, researchers failed to discover any negative effects of Stefansson’s all meat diet. Their results were published on July 3, 1926 in the Journal of the American Medical Association in an article entitled “The Effects of an Exclusive Long-Continued Meat Diet.”
Many of Stefansson’s colleagues were skeptical of his findings and a study was arranged where Stefansson would eat meat for an entire year while being carefully monitored.
Karsen Anderson, who accompanied Stefansson on some of his trips to the Arctic, would also agree to participate.
The diet in this study was even more extreme than a traditional Inuit diet. It consisted mainly of beef, but also includes lamb, veal, pork, chicken and sometimes eggs. The parts of the animals that were used included the muscle, liver, kidney, brain, marrow and fat. For most of the study, the meat these men ate was purchased at a market.
The men were given absolutely no fruits, vegetables or any other types of foods.
The test began in January of 1928 in Bellevue Hospital in New York. They ate a carefully measured mixed diet as a control for their first three weeks. After that, they went full carnivore.
The experiment ran into some problems initially. The doctors allowed Anderson to eat what he wanted but wanted to test the effects of a lean meat diet on Stefansson.
He knew he would react negatively because he experienced nausea and diarrhea in the Arctic when his diet shifted to lean caribou, but he agreed anyway. He experienced the same thing but his discomfort went away when fatty steaks, brains and other high fat foods were added to his diet.
Both men were able to eat as much as they wanted and, after the initial few days of Stefansson eating only lean meat, they were able to choose the relative amounts of lean and fat meats.
Their calories ranged between 2100-3000 per day. Researchers estimated 15-25% of the calories were from protein, 75-85% from fat and only 1-2% from carbs.
At the end of the experiment both men were in good physical and mental condition.
Although they were sedentary during the experiment they both lost weight during the first week, although this was attributed to a shift in water content. After the first week, their weights remained pretty consistent even with the high calories and no exercise.
Stefansson’s blood pressure remained pretty constant throughout the experiment and Anderson’s systolic dropped from 140mm to 120mm. His diastolic was unchanged.
Other than when the fat content was too low, both men had normal bowel functions. Not vitamin deficiencies were present, even with the lack of vegetables.
The acidity in their urine was a 2 or 3 times normal but tests revealed no kidney damage.
There was no evidence in lab studies or clinical observations that either man suffered any negative effects from the all meat diet.
The results were published in the 1930 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. (You can read the report here.)
The New Fad Diet?
Even though many cultures have adopted a diet based around meat and have shown to be pretty healthy, it’s not something that I would do or recommend for a few reasons.
I enjoy a good steak as much as the next guy but many of the cultures that eat only meat include a lot of other parts of animals that I would not want to eat. When Stefansson was studied he ate fat, brain and other organs that I would make me nauseous if I thought about it. These provided him with more fat and nutrients, but I could not bring myself around to trying these. My guess is that most Americans would feel the same way.
Most of the meat found in stores today is factory produced. The beef, chicken, pork and other meats you get is from sick animals that a pumped full of antibiotics and other drugs. One of the ways that nutrients are retained is by eating a lot of the meat raw. I would be very worried if my only source of nourishment is raw meat pumped full of chemicals and potential exposed to bacteria that was not killed by cooking. Even though Stefansson did his tests with meat from grocery stores, that was in 1928 and my guess is that the chemicals being used have changed a bit since then.
Not all meat is bad though. There is grass-fed beef, free-range chicken and other meat products available that aren’t full of chemicals, but then cost becomes an issue with the volume of food that I would need on a daily basis. And of course let’s not forget the eating brain issue that I just can’t overcome.
As far as a recommendation, most of the time people come to me for advice on losing or gaining weight. While an all-meat diet seems to reduce people’s risk for chronic diseases, it is not really shown to be an effective weight-loss or weight-gain diet. It might help some people to lose weight, but there are other plans that are more effective for long-term weight loss.
Even though we’ve been told meat is bad and fat is bad, they are not. Nomadic-hunter civilizations such as the Inuit and the Maasai prove that eating mostly meat and animal products is not just something they can survive on, but actually can be healthier than a typical Western diet.
Eating only animal products is not the only way to be healthy though because there are diets which have very little fat and protein and are very high carbohydrates, such as the Okinawan diet, and the people also have very little chronic disease and live a long time.
So the point it that humans are very adaptable to many foods. We can be healthy while eating mainly animal-based products and healthy while eating mainly plant-based products. What we have not adapted to though is an abundance of sugar and processed foods.
If you are looking for a healthy way to eat, choose real meat, fruits, and vegetables. Stay away prepackaged, processed foods and limit your intake sugar. Like I always say, if you can’t kill it or grow it…don’t eat it. If you aren’t sure where to start, check out my review of the most popular weight loss diet plans.
So would you switch to eating only meat. Let me know what you think. Leave a comment down below or visit the Muscle Building Foods Facebook group.