Is Jordan Peterson's carnivore diet really healthy?

Beef, salt, and water is all the Canadian professor eats. Is that sustainable?

  • Jordan Peterson began eating an all-beef diet after his daughter's health problems cleared up.
  • The human microbiome requires a diversity of nutrients and bacteria, making such a diet questionable in the long-term.
  • Neuroses caused by elimination diets could prove to be unhealthier than the ailments they purportedly cure.

Cats are uniquely positioned in the animal kingdom. While they can digest vegetables and other foods — ours love licking the caps of olive and coconut oils, and don't get me started on cheese — these killers were designed to exclusively consume meat. Obligate carnivores need plenty of it for optimal health.

Humans, relatively weak predators for most of history, are equipped with different digestive systems. For example, we need fiber. Yet we're adaptable: we can survive on a stark diversity of nutritive sustenance. From Arctic whale blubber feeders to the equatorial ital vegetarian diet, we turn most anything into food, for better or worse.

Vegans eschew any animal product whatsoever, up to and (sometimes) including honey. At the opposite end of the spectrum are carnivore dieters, or, as their preference has become known, carnivory. Forget low-carb; this clan eats no carbs.

The diet's most famous proponent is probably Jordan Peterson, the Canadian professor who already boasts of a long list of controversial topics in his resume. Inspired by his daughter, Mikhaila, who reportedly recovered from a series of autoimmune problems stemming from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. According to The Atlantic,

"Some unknown process had triggered her body's immune system to attack her joints. The joint problems culminated in hip and ankle replacements in her teens, coupled with 'extreme fatigue, depression and anxiety, brain fog, and sleep problems.'"

At 15, Mikhaila began an elimination diet, which is arguably the most reliable means for discovering food allergies. Starting with a popular target, gluten, she kept going until all that was left was "beef and salt and water." Noticing his daughter's progress, Peterson began the diet, which he claims helped him shed 50 pounds in seven months.

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Not that he's completely happy about it. While he stopped snoring, overcame autoimmune conditions, shed himself of psoriasis and gingivitis, slept better, cured leg numbness, and threw out his antidepressants, the diet is allegedly "a little hard on your social life."

I concur. When I first met my wife, she tried, gently, as people courting do, to explain why vegans, which I was at that time, are difficult to eat with. Like Peterson, switching to a ketogenic diet cleared up a number of long-standing health conditions. The dietary move also allowed my wife to be less gentle and more honest, the best course of action when discussing emotional issues. Some vegans are difficult to eat with.

Yet so are carnivorists, apparently.

Humans evolved by ingesting and digesting whatever nourishment was at hand. Trial and error — watch enough clansmen die from eating that type of mushroom, don't eat it. An archaic scientific brain emerges: learning through self-reflection. The other perished; I must not follow.

Yet with so many decisions now available we've become paralyzed. With everything right here in this aisle, I'll choose nothing, or just one thing so I don't have think too much about it. Yet thinking always comes, it's what our brains do, with a caveat: it requires justification. This food becomes the focus, so let's make of it a religion.

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Carnivory certainly has its acolytes. Health benefits certainly follow a severe change of diet, if you're eliminating the source of your ailments. Modern humans are carbohydrate junkies. The macronutrient exploits our brain's reward system, especially in the form of sugar. What was once a rare source of pleasure has become the major staple of our diets. Cut that out and you'll be healthier.

What replaces carbs matters. The ketogenic diet holds up in the short-term, but evidence that it's healthy over time is sketchy and sparse. Removing the constant assault by sugar on your microbiome is essential. Relying on beef and salt as the only forms of sustenance, however, looks equally foolish. University of Chicago's Microbiome Center faculty director, Jack Gilbert, breaks it down.

"Your body would start to have severe dysregulation, within six months, of the majority of the processes that deal with metabolism; you would have no short-chain fatty acids in your cells; most of the by-products of gastrointestinal polysaccharide fermentation would shut down, so you wouldn't be able to regulate your hormone levels; you'd enter into cardiac issues due to alterations in cell receptors; your microbiota would just be devastated."

Let me clarify the part about vegans being difficult. Food is a shared experience. The ritual of eating is an important bonding mechanism. There's a reason samosas are Indian and pizzas are Brooklyn: cuisine lives at the intersection of environment and culture. Cultures spring up, in part, from the food they produce and share. It is arguably our most sacred ceremony, as it is what gives us life.

Chefs devote their lives to exploring an infinite palette of flavor profiles. The very few that make their way onto your plate consist of what they believe to be the height of their passion. Then the person you're dining with sends it back because it has soy, or butter, or whatever fad toxin is being eliminated that day.

Joe Rogan - Carnivore Diet Fixed Mikhaila Peterson's Arthritis

We should applaud the creative genius and strong will many chefs displays when branching out into plant-based restaurants. Diversity is the mark of a powerful imagination, one of our brain's unique qualities among the animals. Simultaneously we must recognize the neuroses too much choice has created. An animal that starves itself due to the psychological chains of orthorexia is a creature suffering from the ravages of affluence. Let's not pretend otherwise.

Which can be as unhealthy as a gluten allergy, if not more so. While Mikhaila's body went into remission for eating a few dashes of pepper on a steak for three weeks (or her father's month-long remission from a bit of apple cider vinegar), she can freely drink bourbon and vodka. As James Hamblin writes,

"The idea that alcohol, one of the most well-documented toxic substances, is among the few things that Peterson's body will tolerate may be illuminating. It implies that when it comes to dieting, the inherent properties of the substances ingested can be less important than the eater's conceptualizations of them — as either tolerable or intolerable, good or bad. What's actually therapeutic may be the act of elimination itself."

What is likely toxic to the body is the idea that a particular food is toxic to the body. A 2018 study showed that just thinking you didn't have a protective gene against obesity changed the physiological response of volunteers, causing them to be inclined to eat more. Just as sexual arousal begins in our brains, not our loins, our connection to food is in our heads more than our bellies.

In 12 Rules For Life, Peterson writes that "Order, by contrast, is explored territory." The contrast was chaos, unexplored territory, "the domain of ignorance itself." As Hamblin notes regarding this extreme dieting, restriction brings with it order. Yet what it lost — the pleasure of sharing meals and exploring the world's unique contributions to cuisine — does not seem worth the sacrifice.

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Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.