I’ll be honest. When I first set up an interview with Dr. Shawn Baker to discuss his wildly popular Carnivore Diet, I assumed he was a pretty crazy dude. Granted, I had never met him, but I knew that his diet—which can be summed up in 10 words: Eat meat when you’re hungry, drink water when you’re thirsty—was about as far out and extreme as you could get in the nutrition world.
And I—like many of the people who are now converts to the carnivore way of life—had a lot of questions.
For example: What about vitamin C? In fact, what about all the vitamins and polyphenols and anti-inflammatories and antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables? And what about fiber, for goodness sake? How do you even go to the bathroom?
I figured this guy had to be one of those wild-man-in-the-woods Ted Nugget types who goes bow-hunting for wild caribou…an interesting character no doubt, but certainly—from a nutritional point of view—out to lunch.
Now, I’m not so sure.
Let’s get the basics of the diet out of the way because this is just about the simplest plan ever invented. You eat nothing but animal products. And though it’s not really limited to red meat—you can also eat dairy and eggs—it is limited to animal products.
Most if not all of the info we have on the carnivore diet is what’s known as “anecdotal” evidence. It comes from the experiences of people we hear about, know about, read about, follow on Twitter—but not from peer-reviewed, scientifically conducted studies. And while scientists consider anecdotal evidence unreliable, we should remember that anecdotal observations—especially when many people are making those same observations in a wide variety of settings—are the best material for forming and testing hypotheses. Which is why anecdotal evidence shouldn’t be ignored.
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The first thing you notice when you see a pic of Shawn Baker—go on, Google him, I’ll wait, I’m sure you’re curious—is that he looks like the guy a Hollywood director would pick if he had to cast a superhero to go up against Vin Diesel. Baker is 6’5″, around 240 pounds, and would be right at home shirtless on the cover of Muscle and Fitness. He’s also a world-class athlete who holds or set world records in the deadlift (772 pounds) and Concept 2 Indoor Rowing. In addition to his medical credentials—he’s an orthopedic surgeon who was chief of orthopedics at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan—he also won 1st place in the Texas Strongest Man competition, and 5th place in the USA Strongest Man competition. He’s been a drug-free athlete all his life, and, as of this writing, is 52 years old.
So when a guy like this talks about nutrition and performance, you tend to pay attention.
Baker doesn’t make any universal claims for his diet. He doesn’t say it’s for everyone, and—when you talk to him—you get the feeling he’s almost as surprised by the positive results as you are. Remember, most of what we know about nutrition is population-based. For example, looking at hundreds of thousands of people over many years, eating vegetables tends to be associated with good health. While data like that yields some good general “public-policy” generalizations (“eat your vegetables”) it tells you nothing about what how any given individual is going to do on any given diet. Baker—who was clearly focused on his own individual athletic performance and general health—simply found what worked for him, and is sharing that info with other people.
What he does not do is proselytize. “I am absolutely certain of only one thing,” he told me, “and that is that I’m wrong about something.”
Baker has meticulously documented his own personal journey online, frequently posting his own lab results on Twitter. He calls what he’s doing an “N of 1” study. (In scientific studies, N refers to the number of subjects; an “N of 1” means you’re basically documenting the results of one individual, so calling something an “N of 1” study is like making a disclaimer: “These are just my results, for whatever they’re worth.” “N of 1” or not, there are a fair number of people online doing exactly the same thing as Baker. I was surprised to see how many “zero-carbers” are documenting their results complete with lab tests. And I was equally surprised to find out how well they’re doing.
“I just figure that if I’m getting leaner, if my body composition is getting better, if my joints stop hurting, my digestion gets better, my mental health gets better, my libido improves, my sleep improves—well, that’s a good result. I think we need to drop the dogma about how we get there and just focus on the results. That’s ultimately what this diet is about.”
Baker points out that some of the benefits of his diet—and of keto or very low-carb in general—come because of what you’re not eating, what you’re getting rid of. “There’s really no junk food on a carnivore diet,” he says.
“Remember, there’s not a great, robust bunch of randomized control trials with fruits and vegetables showing a great benefit,” he told me. “And there are many compounds in plants that are just flat out deleterious, particularly as the dosage gets higher and higher.” He pointed out oxalates, phytates, phytic acid, lectins and gluten as examples. “I know for me, personally, removing these fiber foods from my diet has tremendously improved my digestive health, and I think that, if nothing else it has been a great benefit.”
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering if the Carnivore diet is a ketogenic diet. “I have never once checked my ketone levels,” Baker told me. “I never cared about that. My goal with a diet is not a ketone level. It’s how do I feel, how do I perform and how do I function.”
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This diet is obviously not for everyone. But it’s hard to deny how well it works when it does work. (The celebrity psychologist Jordan Peterson and his daughter Mikhaila are converts, and Mikhaila has documented her journey online, as have other enthusiasts) Baker told me that the diet is so satiating that he often only eats one to two meals a day. So a by-product of his diet is that he winds up doing an awful lot of intermittent fasting. And that comes with a benefit list of its own.
The Carnivore Diet—and the results that some people are getting with it—causes us to question some nutritional orthodoxy and re-examine some cherished beliefs about our diet. At the very least it should serve as an object lesson in the basic principle of biochemical individuality. Everybody’s different. And it’s undeniable that some people—we don’t know how many, but we sure know it’s more than a couple—are doing spectacularly well with this diet, by any metric you care to use. Unlike a lot of anecdotal evidence, many of these folks are documenting those results with objective data like medical tests.
For those reasons alone, it’s worth paying attention to.
Note: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher and editors of WholeFoods Magazine.
Note: This article was updated on 11/15/19, with a change to Shawn Baker’s height.