Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Experiences of a five-year carnivore: Part II

Part II: Eating, then and now

When I first was thinking about trying an all-meat diet (Part I), I worried about things like boredom, and missing favourite plants. In practice this hasn't been a problem, because...

...my concept of what constitutes food has changed.

You may have have experienced this if you don't normally eat "processed" foods [1], and then are offered some blue, grocery-store-birthday-cake monstrosity, or "fruit" punch. It's about as appealing as plastic.

When I started out, I avoided all spices, and ate plain meat. It was a little bland the first few days, but my tastes quickly adapted to animal foods. Even though I have always loved vegetables, I don't miss them. I can see that they are pretty, and I can imagine their sweetness or texture if pressed, but it's really no big deal.

Amber eats chicken bones

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I started appreciating meat more.

I've always liked meat, but I eat meat differently from when I started. The first thing that happened was that I started liking it cooked more rare. Brought up vegetarian, I'd learned pride in my palate for the exotic, but I was not a connoisseur of flesh. I preferred my steak well-done. When meat was the only thing I ate, I began to notice that I liked it more rare, sometimes even raw, though admittedly, I don't eat raw often.

I also eat all the fat and gristle, and as much of the bone as I can chew, and marrow as I can access, but this has always been the case. A trick I have learned on that front, is that boiling bones results not only in delicious broth, but often in bones that are soft enough to simply eat.

Changes in fat intake

When I started out, I ate fatty cuts, and I sometimes added fat in the form of butter, and later (though not now) coconut oil [2]. When I measured, the fat-to-protein ratio was usually at about 65:35 — 70:30. But back then I had a lot of excess body fat, which I was losing at a good pace. So the true ratio, from a metabolic perspective, was actually higher.

If you hear the argument that a carnivorous diet is too relatively high in protein to be ketogenic, remember that if you are losing fat, that fat counts toward your consumption.

After my weight stabilised, I started wanting even more fat.

This was a gradual process. At first, I started drinking more in my coffee. I had been ordering occasional lattés made with heavy cream, and butter melted in, since the early days, when a fellow carnivore suggested it. This was before the days of Bulletproof Coffee (BPC). When BPC started trending, I butchered it made it my own by blending butter and coconut oil along with heavy cream into my coffee at home.

At the beginning of this year, I reported that I had all but stopped eating cream, butter, and coconut oil, in favour of lard. As I mentioned in that post, I've also been drinking cups of blended, fatty, homemade broth [3], liberally salted. It emulsifies to a thick cream, just like BPC, but it's just animal fat, and the minerals extracted from the bones, along with small amounts of collagen, and related proteins. It feels more nourishing to me.

Before and after blending broth.


Over the summer, another carnivorous friend taught me how to make beautifully clear, pure bacon drippings by cooking bacon in the oven in a glass pan. It comes out so mild and creamy that I have been eating it not merely as a spread, but by itself on a spoon.

Oven bacon and drippings.


I am the candle. See me glow.

He also introduced me to tallow as a food. I had no idea that tallow was so delicious. (It's best at room temperature.) I also find that the satiety I get from eating tallow is superior to any of butter, coconut oil, or even bacon drippings.

An acquaintance seeing me eat tallow, said that people make candles out of tallow. I am the candle. See me glow.

These days, my total fat intake is more than it has been in previous years (once I stopped getting much from my own stores). The superior satiety effect I am getting also seems to be resulting in eating less protein generally, an effect I didn't personally experience with the BPC approach [4].

A typical day

Last time I described my eating was two years ago. At that time I mentioned having occasional pickles, baker's chocolate, or sashimi garnish. I rarely do that these days. It simply appeals less.

My appetite is stimulated by the presence of (what I consider) food even if I'm not hungry. That is, if I walk into a kitchen where bacon or steak is frying, I'm likely to want to eat it, and often will. However, if left to my own devices, this is the pattern I have been falling into lately.

  • Throughout the morning, I alternate cups of black coffee with cups of blended broth. The broth is usually made from bones from roasts, though I also buy beef bones. If it is not sufficiently fatty, I may add bacon drippings or butter.

  • Sometime in the afternoon, I often (but not always) start feeling hungry, and I will usually respond to this by eating some tallow, possibly followed by some cold leftovers from the previous meal.

  • Supper is usually one or two of these:

    • roast beef, leg of lamb, pork shoulder, or chicken thighs
    • broiled or fried fish, pork or lamb shoulder chops, or steaks.
    • hamburgers, or fried pieces of fat trimmings, if I can get them from the meat counter.

    I usually eat more tallow or lard with the leaner bites of these.

  • Every few weeks I get a hankering for liver, and eat that for a day or two until it no longer appeals.

  • I also keep a supply of homemade jerky on hand, in case I feel like nibbling while I wait for something to cook.


A recent breakfast: espresso, chicken broth, bacon drippings, and a little bacon.



Let's face it: almost all foods we eat are "processed". It's about as meaningless a phrase as "chemicals", or "real" in "Just Eat Real Food". What I mean here is a food product that is made by isolating specific components, usually from plants, in a way that typically couldn't be done by hand, studying chemistry until you can figure out how to mix them back together so they stay solid, and calling it "food". Think Twinkie.


Coconut oil is a plant, it turns out. I used it because it has a favourable fat profile: lots of saturates and monounsaturates. It even has medium chain triglycerides, which are known to be ketogenic, even under glycolytic (sugar metabolism) conditions. It also has a nice flavour, especially in coffee (my plant vice).

However, I had suspected it might be contributing to my rosacea, which has been in almost complete remission since I started carnivory. Coconut has salicylates, which may be incriminated in rosacea for me. This summer I went without it for a long time, and when I had it at last again, my face immediately flushed.

[3][Added 2014-11-16] To make broth, I just take the leftover carcass from a roast, throw it in a crock pot with water, and let it simmer for about one and a half to two days. I don't add anything else to it. Sometimes instead of leftovers, I buy beef bones, or shank. I have yet to try fish heads, but it's on my list.
[4]I haven't measured this. As much of my food is broth or whole cuts of meat, it is hard to get high accuracy on fat and protein intake. However, my ketosis readings would confirm this perception. More on that in an upcoming post.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The ketogenic diet as the default human diet: an energy perspective

The conditions under which the liver delivers optimal fuel on demand may be the conditions under which it evolved.

When you are on a ketogenic diet, the mitochondria in your cells — the parts of the cells that produce energy — actually switch from primarily using sugar for fuel to primarily using fat for fuel. They use fat mostly in a form called ketone bodies (or, commonly, ketones), thus a ketogenic diet.

(See Keto-adaptation: what it is and how to adjust for more on this process of switching fuels.)

Sugar-based living (from a diet with more than about 5% calories from carbohydrate)

When you are using the sugar-based system, all of the cells in your body constantly take sugar out of your bloodstream. It's hard for your body to keep up, and you need to frequently refuel by eating carbohydrate-containing food.

Getting sugar out of the carbohydrates that you eat is a blunt tool. Unless you eat in a trickling stream, you will consume more sugar than is safe to hold in the bloodstream at once. That sugar has to be quickly removed, because high blood sugar damages your cells. So a flood of insulin comes in to initiate the process of sugar removal. There is some limited storage space in the liver, but when that is full, the rest basically gets stored as fat.

Soon however, the job is done. Your blood sugar is back in a safe range. Your body cells are still demanding sugar, though, and your blood sugar starts to drop too low. Your liver can release some sugar back into the bloodstream, but not fast enough to keep up with demand, so you get tired and hungry, and the process starts all over.

  • People on carbohydrate-based diets typically have to "snack" every couple of hours.
  • Endurance athletes have to stop and eat sugar just to get through their events.

On a sugar-based metabolism, you swing between too little blood sugar and too much, and you have to constantly adjust it "manually" by eating.

Fat/ketone-based living

On the other hand, when you are using the fat/ketone-based system, there is relatively little demand on your blood sugar. There are only a few kinds of cells that don't have the ability to use ketones (or fat) for fuel, and have to use sugar. That amount can easily be supplied by the liver, which actually manufactures sugar out of protein on demand in response to changes in blood sugar.

The liver can do this at a rate that is more than adequate for normal energy requirements, when the cells that can use fat/ketones are doing so, and thus not putting extra demand on blood sugar. Your body makes significant ketones only when sugar levels are consistently low.

  • It is not uncommon for ketogenic adults to comfortably eat one meal a day. Even my children, when they are ketogenic, can go for several hours at a time without eating.
  • Endurance athletes on ketogenic diets don't "hit the wall". They have the ability to tap into fat stores for fuel; a supply that could last even a lean person for weeks.

On a fat/ketone-based metabolism, demand on sugar from the blood is gentle, and your liver refills it smoothly on demand as it is used, keeping it remarkably steady.

An argument for ketogenic metabolism as the default human state

Think about the role of the liver here. When you are not consuming sugar in food (from carbohydrates), your liver orchestrates fuel management precisely.

The liver makes ketones out of fat, thereby supplying almost all tissues with all the energy they need. At the same time, it makes a moderate amount of sugar out of protein. That sugar is stored right in the liver in the form of glycogen. Not much is stored, but it is plenty for the purposes of keeping blood sugar steady, because the blood sugar is depleted slowly: only a few tissues draw sugar from the blood. The rest are using fat or ketones.

This system is efficient and effective.

By contrast, on a carbohydrate-based diet, the storage capacity of the liver overflows. The excess sugar can be stored as fat, but that fat is not used efficiently as fuel. For fat to be used efficiently as fuel, the liver would have to be turning it into ketones at a high rate [1]. But ketones aren't produced much in a high sugar condition. It takes several days of low sugar intake to start producing significant ketones.

Considering how well the liver manages energy when you don't eat carbohydrates, and the disruption caused to this system by eating them, I would suggest:

The conditions under which the liver delivers optimal fuel on demand may be the conditions under which it evolved.


[1]As pointed out by Valerie and Ash in the comments, and by Carol Loffelmann on Twitter, fat remains an important fuel in its own right, increasingly so after keto-adaptation. I oversimplified here, but the point about efficient fat/ketone-based metabolism under low sugar conditions still stands.

Consider a popular alternative explanation:

Noticing that excess sugar can be stored as fat, and yet knowing that excess fat storage is not healthy in humans, some people have argued that excess fat storage in humans represents an adaptation gone awry:

The thrifty gene hypothesis supposes that we used to go through periods of feast and famine, getting fat, and then using it up. People who were well adapted got fat easily, and thus survived the famines better. Here and now, where famines are rare, those people would simply get fatter and fatter.

There are at least two problems with this idea. First, the evidence doesn't seem to bear it: famines may not have been particularly common in Paleolithic times, they don't appear to have occured at all in some populations that we know later developed obesity on modern diets, and modern hunter-gathers don't get fat in times of plenty. Second, even if this were essentially correct, that would mean that humans were adapted to go through regular periods of using up the fat. In other words, it would mean humans were adapted to regular periods of ketogenic metabolism! So, at best, this theory supports ketogenic metabolism being a regular part of life in some kind of alternation with carbohydrate-based metabolism.

There are animals that use this kind of strategy. Those animals hibernate. Humans can't hibernate. Even very fat humans need some level of protein to survive, to make into sugar for the few tissues that need it. If they don't get it, they will start tearing down essential muscle tissues such as heart, and they will die.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Experiences of a Five-Year Carnivore, Part I

Part I: How I became a carnivore

It took me about three weeks to get up the nerve to try an all-meat diet. I had been reading about it since before the New Year. It seemed extreme, but I was just so desperate about my weight.

An all-meat diet is, in some ways, just a radical version of a low carb diet. I had been an advocate of low carb diets for a long time: it was 1997 that I first read Drs. Eades' Protein Power, gave up my vegetarian diet, and finally (easily!) lost the freshman 30 that had plagued me for for several years. Still, after my second pregnancy, my body didn't seem so willing to drop the fat even with good adherence to low carb. (I had gained a lot of fat in both pregnancies.)

I knew that a low carb diet was healthy, and that the claims about dangers of eating animal fat, and benefits of eating grains were grossly mistaken. I had been following the relevant research since I first looked up the papers cited in the Eades' book. That body of evidence was ahead of its time, and has since grown enormously. Nonethless, much of it is still not recognised today, to the detriment of the health of many people.

It was demoralising being fat while eating a diet I knew to be not only healthy but the most effective intervention for fatness. Moreover, fair or not, I felt like I wouldn't be taken seriously telling others what I knew to be scientifically true when I looked the way I did [1].

So when I saw people on the internet [2] talking about eating a "zero-carb", all-meat diet [3], and the unparalleled success it was bringing them, I was filled with hope against hope, and I thought: "Why not?"

Not even a salad?

Still, I found it intimidating. Not even a salad? Wouldn't I be bored? Most importantly, would I be able to stick to it? There is little more demoralising than making a promise to yourself that you can't keep.

So I thought about it for the first three weeks of 2009. While I was thinking about it, I decided that I could definitely give my regular low carb diet its best chance. Having been a low carb dieter for over ten years, it was a long time since I measured every meal. Perhaps I had allowed some "carb creep". I made a New Year's resolution, and counted carbs to the gram, keeping it under 20 a day. In those three weeks, I think I lost 2-3 pounds of the 60 or so I wanted gone. In the meantime I planned out meals of just meat, kept reading about the successes of others, and I set a time frame I could live with: I would eat just meat for three weeks, taking me exactly to my 36th birthday. On my birthday I would eat cake as a reward.

That birthday cake was never to be, because by the time those three weeks were up, not only had I lost about 10 pounds, but my mood had stabilised. The major-depressive-disorder-turned-"soft"-bipolar that had been ruining my life at increasing speed since I was a teen was brought to a sudden standstill. It was utterly amazing, and no cake would ever be worth a return to that.

A short detour...

However, shortly after my birthday, I learned I was pregnant again. I was determined to have a zero-carb pregnancy, but for a variety of reasons, this didn't come to pass [4]. I did manage to keep my carbs low for most of the pregnancy (a first for me) and even had some zero-carb days in the third trimester.

...and a return.

A week or two after his birth, five years ago now, I restarted my carnivorous diet, and I've stayed on it since. It's easy [5]. My weight quickly normalised to about 130 lbs — some 60 lbs less than I weighed at the beginning of 2009.

Best of all, my mood has been stable without any medications since then, even under periods of enormous stress. For example, I have recently experienced intense grief due to life circumstances. Although the grief has been incredibly painful and difficult, it hasn't resulted in depression as I know it. While it hasn't been easy, it is simply incomparable to the emotional dysfunction of a psychiatric mood disorder. The difference between the normal mood variations I have now, and those I had then is physiological. It was correctable not by adding drugs, but by removing the drug-like components of my diet coming from plants.

(Continue to Part II.)


[1]See my rant about equating people's personal health with the quality of their theories.
[2]The forum I originally read is now lost, though it can be found in the Internet Archives. It's successor is here.
[3]The term "zero-carb" is not technically accurate; there are traces of carbohydrate in animal foods in muscle glycogen, and more than traces in others, such as liver, some shellfish, and cream. For this reason, I prefer to call the way I eat "carnivory". See A Carnivorous Diet for more on how I eat.
[4]One component was that I have a strong family history of hyperemesis gravidarum, and though I have been able to mitigate it with pyridoxine/doxylamine, I still suffered debilitating nausea throughout all of my pregnancies. Therefore, nutrition became a secondary concern after could I look at it without retching.
[5]It may sound like eating this way would be difficult; that it would take willpower to avoid eating things we consider delicious. However, I am rather a hedonist, and I love to eat. If this took hunger or deprivation, it wouldn't be for me. I never restrict the quantity of food I eat. It turns out than when I eat this way (and I am told I am not alone), that is, once all the sugar and fiber is out of my diet, including the low amounts of sugar in fibrous fruits and vegetables, and all low sugar sources of sweetness, I feel completely satisfied and satiated by my food. I simply don't want anything else.