How plant-free diets affect the brain
Last month, I had the pleasure of participating in the Boulder Carnivore Conference, the world's first meeting dedicated to the potential benefits of plant-free diets. For this special event, I created a new presentation exploring the nutritional differences between plant and animal foods, and summarizing the scientific arguments in support of all-meat diets for optimal brain health. Skeptical? You should be. This seemingly strange and extreme way of eating flies in the face of every piece of conventional nutrition advice we've been given, yet a growing number of people report remarkable benefits, including resolution of serious, chronic psychiatricsymptoms.
If you are completely new to the idea of all-meat diets, allow me to provide a bit of context, along with some additional links and resources should you care to dive a little deeper.
Have you heard? The so-called “carnivore” diet—a diet completely free of plant foods—has become something of a hot new micro-trend, thanks in part to several high-profile adopters who report that switching to an all-meat diet significantly improved their mental and physical health.
One of these ambassadors of carnivory is Mikhaila Peterson, a 27-year old Canadian woman who credits a meat-only diet not only for putting her juvenile rheumatoid arthritis into remission (no small feat, as JRA, is a serious and destructive autoimmune disease), but also for her complete recovery from the severe depression and anxiety she’d suffered with since the fifth grade.
Mikhaila first became aware of the carnivore diet after hearing Dr. Shawn Baker talk about the benefits of his all-beef diet on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. Dr. Baker is a California-based orthopedic surgeon and multi-sport elite athlete who actively promotes the carnivore diet on social media and explores its theory and practice on his popular Human Performance Outliers podcast.
Mikhaila’s experience inspired her father, well-known University of Toronto psychologist Professor Jordan Peterson, to try the diet in an attempt to alleviate his own depression. He has since reported alleviation of not only depression and anxiety but also of a number of bodily ailments including psoriasis and gastric reflux, as detailed in this article in The Atlantic.
The Boulder Carnivore Conference was the brainchild of Colorado-based Amber O’Hearn, a data scientist, nutrition science writer and public speaker who has adhered to a carnivore diet since 2009. She produces thoughtful, meticulously-researched articles about the science of animal-based nutrition on her website Empirica and is writing a book dedicated to this topic. In interviews such as this one, she explains how her unusual way of eating seemed to resolve her symptoms of bipolar depression, including suicidalideation, which psychiatric medications had failed to accomplish.
As a psychiatrist specializing in nutrition, I work with people to help troubleshoot, customize and optimize their diets to improve their mental health, with the goal of reducing or in some cases even eliminating the need for psychiatric medications. There are many different dietary strategies that can help people achieve this goal—removing processed foods, carefully supplementing whole food plant-based diets, ketogenic diets, etc. It's important to emphasize that most people probably don't need to go to the extreme of removing all plants from their diet in order to experience relief, and of course, no diet, including a carnivore diet, will work for everyone.
All that being said, I have consulted with many people who report significant mental health benefits on low-plant and plant-free diets. While I am not at liberty to share the details of these confidential cases, numerous compelling, public first-hand personal accounts of psychiatric conditions resolving on all-meat diets exist, including this interview with 58-year-old West Virginia-born musician Brett Lloyd and this conversation with Andrew Graf, a young entomologist in Texas, both conducted by Boston-based host Scott Myslinski on his CarnivoreCast podcast. Dr. Baker curates a wonderful collection of mental health testimonials at meatheals.com, which contains 110 entries to date.
I count myself among the believers. In 2008 I reversed symptoms of fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, migraines, and IBS by gradually removing most plant food from my diet. As a psychiatrist, I was fascinated to observe that my mood, energy, sleep, and concentration improved significantly as well. I share more about my story in this video interview with Ivor Cummins. [I switched from a very low-plant ketogenic diet to a pure carnivore diet in June 2018, long after this conversation took place]. It was that extraordinary experience that called me to question conventional beliefs about food and health, gave birth to my passion for the study of nutrition science, and led eventually to my first public presentation in 2012 Little Shop of Horrors: the Risks and Benefits of Eating Plants.
As surprising and powerful as these stories are, they are just anecdotes…they do not constitute formal scientific evidence. Perhaps all of these alleged improvements could be chalked up to exaggeration, wishful thinking, or coincidence. It is up to you whether you choose to dismiss them, become genuinely curious about them, or feel inspired by them.
If remarkable stories of chronic mental illness being put into remission through all-meat diets are to be believed, we have to ask why. Why might a diet completely devoid of the plant foods we are told to be so healthy for us be—at least in some cases— ostensibly healthier for the brain than one containing plants?
This is the fundamental question I address in my Boulder Carnivore Conference presentation.
If you are inspired to try a carnivore diet for mental health purposes, and you currently take psychiatric medications (or medications of any kind), please read my article Ketogenic Diets and Psychiatric Medications first. Just as with a standard low-carbohydrate or ketogenic diet, carnivore diets cause profound shifts in brain and body chemistry rather quickly. These changes are almost always positive and healthy, but they can have a major impact on medication levels, dosages, and side effects that require close medical supervision, particularly in the first month or two while your metabolism adjusts to your new healthy way of eating. It is very important to consult with your prescribing clinician before embarking on any low-carbohydrate diet.