Is Jordan Peterson's carnivore diet really healthy?

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

Is Jordan Peterson's carnivore diet really healthy?
TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 6 - Profile of Dr. Jordan Peterson. The U of T prof at the centre of a media storm because of his public declaration that he will not use pronouns, such as 'they,' to recognize non-binary genders. (Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
  • 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.

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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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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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