Carnivore Diet Vs Carbs | Which Diet Is Better For You?
Fitness enthusiasts and sports performance athletes love to look for that next magical pill. They scour the internet, fitness magazines and paper based publications for some secret to quick gainz, six pack abs and the strength to make Hercules, Atlas and Chronos look like small potatoes when squatting, deadlifting, cleaning or benching. They’re like addicts looking for that next quick fix. We hear the chorus now, “What can we do to get to that next level?”
Or even more often, the chorus calls, “What can we eat to lose as much weight as possible in the shortest time frame?” The internet beckons with a response of fad diets, in multiple, different forms. Which begs the question which diet is more effective? Low carb? High carb, low fat? Just focus on a balanced diet and keep rolling along with a normal diet over a long period of time?
All of these diet questions pop into everyone’s head. There is a lot of different information. It leads to a lot of frustration.
Well today we are going to compare a carnivore diet against a higher carb based diet.
Basic Premise Of Weight Loss
But before we can begin to compare a carnivore diet against a higher carb based diet, we’ve got to understand the basic premise of losing weight. In addition, we need to have a basic understanding of our bodies and how our bodies perform.
If we can think about what goes into weight loss and general health, we can start by thinking of Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). We are going to think of TDEE as our calories out. We first need to know that calories out is impacted by BMR (basal metabolic rate). BMR can be thought of this way: sitting on the couch, doing screen time and chill, binging some serial drama or just laying around for hours. While doing nothing, the body is using up energy. BMR is essentially how many calories does our body need to just lay there doing practically nothing.
The second thing we need to know about in regards to TDEE is non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). At its simplest, NEAT is the energy used from daily movement. From there, we need to consider the thermic effect of food (TEF), which can be thought of as how many calories a body utilizes to pull energy and nutrients out of food. Digestion takes work, and some foods require more work to get to nutrients and energy.
And finally, there is exercise activity (EA) that plays a part in our TDEE. Energy being used in intense physical activity is considered EA. This is lifting weights, going for a run, rolling around on the mat or a myriad of other sport and fitness related activities people use for fun, pleasure and sport.
With this remedial knowledge, we can start to think about the carnivore diet and carb based diet as means of bringing calories into the body to be balanced on a metaphorical scale against the body's means of performing TDEE for calories out.
Carnivore Diet & Carb Based Diet, What Are They?
A carnivore diet is technically not a ketogenic diet. The carnivore diet is a diet that is going to be a little bit higher in protein than a typically standard ketogenic diet. It is going to have almost no carbs whatsoever.
This means that almost all the foods to be eaten on a carnivore diet are going to be from meat-based sources. This means eating chicken, beef, bacon and eggs. All of these different foods that are solely going to provide fat and protein.
Now, if we’re talking about a carb-based diet, we are going to define a carb based diet as 25% fats, 35% carbs, and 40% protein. For the most part, that is a balanced diet. Yeah, it may be a little higher in protein for some people, but it is a pretty standard diet that we can use to compare to the carnivore diet (a diet a lot of people claim they get very lean on and feel really good on as well)
Let’s compare these two diets to see which one would win in a long term case study, like 6-12 months.
Sustainability Or Weight Loss
Something that is very interesting about the carnivore diet, or any low-carb, ketogenic diet, is that the practitioner of the diet is fully removing an entire macronutrient--they’re literally taking out carbohydrates. Immediately, this means less calories coming into the body. Right away, less calories into the body will lead to weight loss. The carnivore diet is betting all the chips on black and trying to win big. And it will. The carnivore diet is going to create weight loss in the immediate time frame.
But is this sustainable? Does it have longevity?
A sustainable diet supports the mindset of being healthy for the remainder of one’s life. Yes, it is great to lose fifty pounds real quick, but what happens in a year or two if carbs are reintroduced? Weight comes back on? Probably. Try another fad diet? Probably. Leading to some serious health concerns? More than likely.
On the other hand, when we talk about the carb diet, that well balanced diet that we are getting 35% of our calories from carbs, 40% from protein and 25% from fats, we find that the diet is easier to uphold because it is well balanced. This means the carb diet is more sustainable long-term. It isn’t bet it all on black, but it is holding a diversified portfolio of nutrient options.
Heck, look at it from a social situation even. Out with friends for some food, they order some samosas, and the carnivore diet person speaks out, “I’m not eating that.” Really? May not be said, but everyone is in agreeance that the carnivore diet person sounds like an idiot.
It also must be said, with a little work upfront tracking macros, the carb based diet can lead to weight loss as well.
A lot of people love to talk about how once they are on the carnivore diet that they are in ketosis. A person can say they’re in ketosis all they want, but they’re body still utilizes glycogen. The body needs glycogen to function. The body needs glycogen for certain parts of the brain. The body needs glycogen for red blood cells. The body has to have glycogen.
Eating a balanced diet, the carb diet, a person will have more glycogen in their muscle fibers. They will have more energy. There is also a lot of research that people who eat a low carb diet, the carnivore diet, will lose glycogen very early in a training session. So, maybe 15 to 20 minutes into a training session, their type 2 muscle fibers, the muscle fibers responsible for recruiting high-threshold motor units, have depleted their glycogen stores. Not good for performance.
Now if carbohydrates are being consumed, our body, our saliva, amylase, all of a sudden starts to break down those carbohydrates. Over time it gets throughout the body, into the liver, converted into glucose, goes through the bloodstream and is eventually turned into glycogen inside the muscles, then utilized more effectively in training.
There might be some benefits to being in ketosis, like ketones being utilized. That’s great. The carnivore will feel decent after about a week of being in ketosis.
Using carbohydrates and glucose is really, really effective for the body. It’s what the body uses to produce ATP. When it comes to fuel and training, glycogen is a key component to ATP.
Some carnivores notice early on in the diet that they are having diarrhea, making them feel like they are getting ‘cleansed’. Yeah, because diarrhea is synonymous with cleansing, as if it isn’t related to a stomach bug, dysentery or food poisoning either.
Justin Sonnenburg of Stanford University has done a ton of research on microbiota accessible carbohydrates, resistant starches, and what those types of carbohydrates can do for gut health, for the microbiome. We know that people who are leaner have a greater amount of microbiota inside their stomach. The microbiota is utilized to digest various forms of food.
We know MACs (microbiota accessible carbohydrates) and resistant starch play key roles in gut health. We know from Sonnenburg’s research, that with a lot higher fat content, there can be a negative response in the gut; it’s not huge, but it’s a lot more negative than if we were eating those carbohydrates.
What does this mean?
It means that gut health benefits from a balanced diet, the carb diet, simply based on MAC and resistant starch and the role those two factors play.
The reason we brought dairy into this conversation is because in Garage Strength’s neck of the woods, people grow up on milk. The whole and raw kind, locally sourced and locally owned. Besides anecdotal biases, there is a ton of research and meta-analysis that show that people who consume dairy tend to be leaner because they have adapted to consuming dairy.
However, drinking a gallon and a half of raw, whole milk isn’t necessarily ideal. Implement some control with dairy consumption. Maybe a half gallon?
Understanding TDEE as calories in, calories out, dairy can play a very important role, not only in one’s overall general health, but also in one’s general performance as an athlete. Consuming forms of protein like whey protein and casein protein are extremely effective for gaining lean muscle mass. If the body can tolerate lactose, dairy should be in the nutritional program because it helps with recovery, fueling oneself, and, let’s face it, it tastes freakin good.
Right up front the balanced diet, the carb diet, wins out. It wins big. It is more sustainable, provides better fuel for training and leads to a healthier gut. It also has the added bonus of dairy usage, particularly through whey and casein protein.
However, if the carnivore diet works well for an individual, and if it helps that individual keep their calorie intake lower, then by all means, do it. If that individual’s goal is to stay lean, they don’t care about eating carbs and they feel healthy, awesome. Better yet, if that individual finds their blood markers with inflammation show that they’re perfectly healthy, their c-reactive protein is low, their cholesterol is low in comparison to the HDL and the LDL ratio, awesome. If that carnivore diet has them feeling better leaner, just do it.
Just don’t spread hate and dogma about carbs.
Carbs aren’t evil.
Carbs help fuel workouts; weight can still be lost when eating carbs and the gut is healthier when eating carbohydrates.
In the end, do what is sustainable and best for your health over the long run.
Dane Miller is the owner and founder of Garage Strength Sports Performance. He works with a select handful of clients on building comprehensive programs for fitness and nutrition. Several times a year he leads a workshop for coaches, trainers, and fitness enthusiasts.