Ribeye for breakfast, pork chops for lunch, roast for dinner: It sounds like a meat-loving foodie's dream, right? But after a mere four days of steak fried in butter, braised goat, and rich homemade paté, the prospect of a weekend spent indulging in more of the same is enough to make you long for a plain rice cake.
Take my word for it. For the past 14 days, I have eaten nothing but animal products -- mostly meat, along with a bit of butter, cheese, and heavy cream. That means close to zero carbohydrates, at most 10 grams in a day. Meanwhile, the average American woman in her 20s eats almost 170 grams per day of just grains, not even including other carb-heavy foods.
Why did I do this? To test firsthand the claims of a small group of cryptocurrency obsessives, the ones who prefer a juicy sirloin along with their financial revolution.
In the fall of 2017, I discovered that some members of the bitcoin community practice carnivory, in the radical sense: They eat only meat and drink only water. Coin Center communications director Neeraj Agrawal told me at the time, "You can't really work in cryptocurrency without an openness to weird ideas." Bitcoin and unusual diets are a perfect fit.
In late January, I made the impulsive decision to try out the diet myself. I was encouraged by Michael Goldstein, the president of the Satoshi Nakamoto Institute, which is named after bitcoin's mysterious inventor, and by my editor, who thought it would be hilarious. (Editor's note: This is true, and it was.)
In addition to patiently awaiting "hyperbitcoinization," Goldstein is a passionate evangelist for carnivory. He maintains a website full of resources for the curious. As my steak-pushing mentor, Goldstein suggested that I follow the closest thing the community has to a quickstart guide: a blog post entitled "Eat Meat. Not Too Little. Mostly Fat." (It's a play on food activist Michael Pollan's opposite formulation.) The post was written by Amber O'Hearn, a programmer and longtime prominent carnivore, and her ex-husband Zooko Wilcox, creator of the cryptocurrency Zcash.
O'Hearn and Wilcox's guide advises newbies to start out with a 30-day trial of literally only meat and water. As you already know, I diverged from this minimalist version of carnivory. Goldstein disapproved of my diversification into other animal products, as well as the shorter duration of my trial. What can I say? I'm a rebellious student.
I am planning to! There are going to be prominent disclaimers about ways in which I deviated from the suggested approach-- Sonya Mann (@sonyaellenmann) February 6, 2018
Before we get into the meat of the matter (pun extremely intended), I want to state a couple of disclaimers. Firstly, I am not a doctor, a biologist, or a dietitian. None of the following is medical advice. I approached the carnivorous "way of eating," as proponents call it, as a personal experiment rather than as a rigorous scientific endeavor. (Besides, every weird diet under the sun can point to supporting research and enthusiastic doctors, so I think it's best to figure out what works for you through trial and error.) Overall, I want to emphasize that your mileage may vary.
Setting the table
The day after committing to a fortnight of carnivory, I decided to find out more about these meat lovers beyond the cryptocurrency world. Michael Goldstein pointed me in the right direction. Soon I learned that another, more common name for the diet is "zero carb" (which sadly lacks the macho panache of "carnivory").
I spent nearly a full day poring over O'Hearn's blog Empirica and another popular blog, Zero Carb Zen. Fun fact: The author of the latter subsists entirely on raw ground beef! I joined the Facebook groups Zero Carb Health, World Carnivore Tribe, Principia Carnivora, and lastly Zeroing In on Health. The /r/zerocarb Subreddit was especially helpful, because I could use Reddit's filtering tools to find the most popular and most controversial threads. (Meat Heals is a new blog that looks promising.)
It turns out that approaches to zero carb vary. The general idea is to eat only animal products, and to restrict the eligible animal products to ones that are naturally low carb. Therefore heavy cream is allowed, but milk and yogurt are not. According to Zero Carb Zen's primer on the topic, "A more accurate way to describe this way of eating would be to call it a 'Zero Plant Foods' diet. That is a bit cumbersome, however, so 'Zero Carb' remains the dominant descriptive terminology."
Some zero-carb devotees are minimalist: meat, water, and nothing else. A few practitioners even restrict themselves to fatty cuts of beef, eschewing leaner meats. Goldstein told me, "There's just this awesome zen with the simplicity of eating fatty, juicy steaks." Others go with the relatively expansive "only animal products" definition and are fine with eggs, cheese, and heavy cream. That's what I decided to do.
In my view, meat is food and plants are drugs. Plants can be made into medicines, drinks, or brews, or consumed in various ways, with benefits and risks up to you to weigh. But quitting eating them is unequivocally good.-- Saifedean Ammous (@saifedean) January 3, 2018
It's common in the community to go without salt or spices, but equally common to use them. Although the central premise of the diet is to cut out plants and their derivatives, coffee remains widely beloved. Even coconut oil, most controversially, has stayed in some carnivores' diets. I used salt and spices, and drank coffee and tea, but stayed away from plant oils.
The attitude toward alcohol is that you should say no to carb-heavy drinks like beer, opting for very dry red wine or straight spirits instead, and pay close attention to how your body reacts. I decided to drink because it was socially expedient to do so at a couple of events during my two weeks. This was unnecessarily indulgent and probably a mistake, since my tolerance was lower than I was accustomed to.
At this point, you may be wondering, "I get the rules, but why do people do this zero-carb thing?" The answer is twofold: The zero-carb community believes that we evolved to mainly eat meat, and that ancient humans turned to plants only in times of near-starvation. The idea is that our bodies and minds will perform at their best when fueled by copious amounts of animal-derived fat and protein. It's a more extreme version of the better-known paleo diet.
The other reason for turning to zero carb is desperation about a physical ailment that hasn't responded to medication or other treatments. Obesity is one of them -- some people find that they can't lose weight on a less ascetic diet -- but it's worth noting that zero carb is a nutritional philosophy not oriented toward reaching or maintaining any particular weight.
Other zero-carb community members report relief from their autoimmune or digestive problems, such as Lyme disease, Crohn's, and IBS. (Again, I am not a doctor, and I also have no idea how many sick people tried zero carb and didn't get the desired results. A nutritionist that Vice tried to consult about carnivory called the diet "too ridiculous to be covered.")
A theory on two kinds of motivation for doing zero carb, from a poster in the Principia Carnivora Facebook group: https://t.co/Nvh9rJNQdB-- Sonya Mann (@sonyaellenmann) January 26, 2018
I didn't include their name since they might not want it broadcast. #sonyagoescarnivore pic.twitter.com/lkl7FAgetz
As for me, I am basically healthy. I've been losing weight gradually over the past nine months through calorie-budgeting (sometimes called CICO -- calories in, calories out) and have 20 to 30 more pounds to go. At 150 pounds, I am 40 pounds down from my high of 190, and expect to be happy with my weight when 2019 rolls around.
During my two weeks of zero carb, I continued to measure and log my calorie intake, because I thought that would be interesting information to share at the end. I used my beloved app Cronometer (which is miles better than MyFitnessPal and entirely worth paying for). But I tried to not restrict how much I ate, even though that made me anxious. The zero-carb community encourages newbies and old hands alike to follow their appetites: Eat when you're hungry, and keep eating until you're satiated.
Wanna know how it worked out?
For starters, I lost double the amount of weight that I would have under my normal omnivorous diet.
No fancy explanations about ketosis or gut microbiomes are required to explain that (although who knows, it's not impossible that they factored in). One of the primary ways that eating zero carb affected me is that I wasn't very hungry, so much so that I dropped four pounds over the course of two weeks rather than just two.
Is this because fat and protein are such wonderful fuels? Did my body somehow intuit that it could use its stored resources of flab? (That would be a metabolic instinct my body never displayed before.) Was I merely responding to lower insulin levels? Beats me. I can report what I felt, but the exact reasons remain a mystery.
Here's my weight fluctuation over the two weeks in question:
And here's my calorie intake -- Cronometer wouldn't let me set an exact date range for this chart, so it's missing January 23:
Green is protein, blue is carbs, red is fat, and yellow is alcohol. Can you tell which days I was at parties?
Cronometer also tells me that on average I ate 1,143 calories per day. My total daily energy expenditure is somewhere around 2,000 calories (although this is hard to nail down precisely and varies with my activity levels), so I had an average daily deficit of 857 calories, which is 11,998 calories over the entire fortnight.
The rule of thumb is that a pound of body weight is equivalent to 3,500 calories. In fact, 11,998 divided by 3,500 comes to 3.4, which is close to the amount of weight that I lost. Clearly, the numbers in the calculation aren't perfect -- I'm guessing TDEE and my calorie consumption, since there were times when I had to estimate without my food scale. But in general, the results make sense.
Aside from a much lower appetite, I experienced these "symptoms," so to speak, while eating zero carb:
- Higher than usual caffeine sensitivity and more noticeable post-caffeine slumps
- See above but for alcohol and hangovers; my tolerance went way down
- My overall energy levels and concentration were essentially the same; alas, I didn't experience the surges of sustained energy and focus that some practitioners report
- Black coffee tasted milder and more palatable
- Tea flavors were more intense and came across as sweeter than normal
- More sweat and noticeable body odor -- unwelcome but not unmanageable
My friends were worried that forgoing fiber would cause problems of the sort that shouldn't be mentioned in polite company, but after a couple of days my digestion was totally normal. Nor was I concerned about getting scurvy, especially since I ate liver (which has plenty of vitamin C).
Boredom was by far my biggest problem with zero carb, and likely contributed to suppressing my appetite. The only thing I was allowed to eat that seemed truly appetizing was juicy beef, as Michael Goldstein said. Again, I'm not sure why.
The carnivory / zero carb attitude toward food is completely counter to how I'm used to thinking about it. I didn't realize how much my food entertained and delighted me before I removed the variety. https://t.co/7bSwvrkGme #sonyagoescarnivore pic.twitter.com/FPQkMpXv8q-- Sonya Mann (@sonyaellenmann) January 26, 2018
On the bright side, eating zero carb was less expensive than I expected. Meat is pricier than other types of food by volume, but also quite calorie-dense. My partner joined me for about half of the experiment, so I can't tell you exactly how much I spent on just me. However, I saved my receipts, so I can tell you that overall we spent $164.41 on animal products over the course of two weeks. (If that seems really extravagant to you, remember the high cost of living in the San Francisco Bay Area.) Some of the meat didn't get consumed and remains in our freezer.
I'm off the bandwagon now, writing this article with a belly full of delicious pancakes and blueberries. From my experiment, I've concluded that I have no desire to continue the zero-carb way of eating, because I love variety. And yet I would do it again as a sort of "carb fast" if I needed to kick-start my weight loss, or just wanted to simplify my life. Someday, Michael Goldstein will get me to do 30 days of solely meat and water, and perhaps then I'll emerge as a full convert.