Mumbai-based nutrition consultant Mahek Lokhandwala and her family swear by the carnivore diet (Photo: Haranish Mehta)
THERE ARE A HUNDRED-ODD NEW MESSAGES on the boisterous WhatsApp group since I last checked hours ago. There are also images shared—of a thick, eight-egg omelette consumed after a 32-hour fast and workout, chicken cooked in its own fat with raw liver on the side, reverse-seared lamb chops, a juicy steak for a loved one, mutton thawing on the counter, mutton slow-cooked in ghee. The 120 people in this chatroom are neither gourmands nor home chefs—in fact, they are just the opposite. These men, in their 20s, 30s and 40s, have embarked on an irreverent journey together. At the heart of their lifestyle and beliefs are long fasts and a meal or two a day of meat and eggs and little else. What may seem like a stodgy meal in this avocado-dipped, quinoa-crusted age is precious fuel to them. The fact that they call themselves carnivores, and not ‘meatarians’ or ‘pure non-vegetarians’, is proof they don’t care to be palatable to society. The carnivore diet is deceptively simple. You eliminate plants entirely and eat fewer and denser meals packed with fat and protein in the form of red meat, organs, eggs and the occasional bird. The cooking itself doesn’t demand creativity—meat is simply seasoned with salt and perhaps sprigs of rosemary, and thrust in the oven or pan fried till done. There are no elaborate sides, no sauces and gravies, no rice or breads. Some carnivores will add cheese or raw butter to their meal and wash it down with raw milk; a few indulge in a spoonful of honey or chug coconut water for electrolytes. Followers of the diet say they feel satiated and strong and that their gut has never felt better; many claim to have reversed metabolic and autoimmune disorders. Like the ketogenic and the paleolithic diets that came before it, the carnivore diet promises high return on investment—quick inch loss, a reduction in inflammation, healthier biomarkers. The carnivore diet, however, is controversial because it goes against not just conventional nutritional wisdom but also socio-cultural norms and beliefs, while battling advocates of plant-based food and present-day political currents.
“Eat your vegetables is bad advice. Plants contain anti-nutrients like oxalates and phytates which inhibit the absorption of nutrients by the human body. When I cut these out, my irritable bowel syndrome sorted itself out in months,” says 26-year-old Samar Sheoran, a six-foot-three-inch former professional badminton player who has cycled through many diets over the past few years. “Two months into the lion’s diet—eating much-vilified red meat—my autoimmune conditions were reversing. My body weight rose from 79 to 85kg, yet, I was slimmer than before and packed more muscle. I was playing better than ever,” says Sheoran. A UPSC aspirant from Faridabad who has been on the diet for over a year, Sheoran has become an icon for a macho brotherhood that swears by The Carnivore Code: Unlocking the Secrets to Optimal Health by Returning to Our Ancestral Diet by Paul Saladino, and The Carnivore Diet by Shawn Baker. While ruminant meat is their holy grail, they are into new-age life-hacks like grounding— where you maintain contact with the earth—and sunning, using tallow soap and blue-light-blocking glasses. (They lost me at sunning one’s privates in loose underwear.) Engineers, sportsmen, accountants and unemployed youth, they are not quite what you picture when you think of a carnivore, even if some of them have built menacingly big and muscular bodies and harbour delusions of evolutionary superiority. Almost none of them can kill an animal and butcher it. Those I spoke to over the phone admitted, in a lilting north Indian patois, to being admonished by their mothers at some point in their fitness journey.
“We are flipping the whole paradigm of food as pleasure,” says 29-year-old Karan Goenka, an IT professional who works for a startup in Bengaluru. “It is not just about building sexy bodies—that is a by-product. We are getting stronger and clearer in our minds. Today, because of over-exposure to estrogenic compounds, you see young men becoming soyboys—not us.” Goenka is a veteran carnivore —he went on the diet six years ago, much to the disappointment of his vegetarian parents. Over time, as he reversed his hypothyroidism, they came to accept his lifestyle, but social media trolls won’t leave him alone. “Vegans are a loud minority. It’s time people accepted the fact that early man survived on meat alone and therefore a meat-heavy diet is evolutionarily consistent.”
INCREASINGLY, STUDIES suggest that an all-meat diet may not be detrimental to our health. In fact, a 2020 study by Harvard University that involved 2,029 participants on a six-month carnivore diet found that “adults consuming a carnivore diet experienced few adverse effects and instead reported health benefits and high satisfaction”. Almost all diabetics who were part of the study came off their medication. People lost 10kg on average on the diet and reported feeling more energetic and happier. While there is consensus within the global medical community that increased dietary fibre consumption is associated with lower risks of cardiovascular disease, Type II diabetes and colorectal cancer, and that high red and processed meat consumption increases risk, newer studies are throwing up surprising results in favour of radical diets including keto and carnivore.
Arguments for the carnivore diet that channel human evolutionary dietary strategy, however, fail to account for the fact that cavemen’s life expectancy was nowhere close to the age we expect to live to today. They also gloss over the invention of agriculture and the incorporation of oats and barley into the human diet tens of thousands of years ago. “While people in the Arctic areas have depended mainly on meat and it may be possible to be completely healthy on a meat-only diet—unlike on a vegan diet, where you start to develop deficiencies after a while—you cannot disregard culture, economics and people’s value systems,” says public health expert Dr Sylvia Karpagam.
Two months into the lion’s diet—eating much-vilified red meat—my autoimmune conditions were reversing. My body weight rose from 79 to 85kg, yet, I was slimmer than before and packed more muscle, says Samar Sheoran, former professional badminton player
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The role of food in binding families is undisputed. Sheoran’s is a meat-eating household but his mother will not tolerate bloody organs marinating in her refrigerator. He cooks for himself and maintains a separate refrigerator. His typical meal is 700g of mutton keema cooked in ghee. “I crave organ meat now. Organs are the densest, most power-packed source of nutrition we have access to,” says Sheoran, who goes by the name ‘Carnivore Desi’ on social media.
It is not easy for vegetarians to cast aside their moral and religious values and start eating red meat overnight, says Ankit Mittal, a 35-year-old engineer and father of two who lives in Toronto, Canada. After making the switch in his mind to a meat-based diet, Mittal went to the butcher’s several times but dithered when it came to actually buying beef and came home empty-handed. He is visiting his in-laws in Gurgaon now, towards the fag end of his three-month vacation with family. At his parents’ home in a small town in north India—name withheld upon request—there is no question of eating meat. The only permissible “non-veg” is eggs, and they have to be brought from the car covered with a towel lest the neighbours should catch a glimpse. “For as long as I can remember, I have had acidity and migraines and after my second child was born, I found I had no energy to play. After a lot of research I went on an 80 per cent meat diet in September last year. In a month’s time, there were profound changes. I could dance with my toddler. My triglycerides were normal for the first time in years.” For the three months that Mittal has been on the standard north Indian diet, he has looked forward to gaining control of the kitchen again so he can go full carnivore. His wife, too, is ready to take the plunge this time.
“I will take it with me to the grave,” says Mahek Lokhandwala, a 47-year-old nutrition consultant from Bandra, Mumbai. She is talking about her carnivore lifestyle. Lean, muscled and forthright to a fault, Lokhandwala first tried intermittent fasting in 2018, after having failed to lose weight and fix her PCOD (Polycystic Ovarian Disease). “My life changed. I was not falling sick. I lost weight. But then, my cholesterol levels shot up and my doctor put me on statins, which wrecked my system. I gained 18-20 kilos in six months. I craved sugar all the way. Then in 2019, I decided to stop medicating and turned to nutrition as a cure,” says Lokhandwala, who has impacted 210 people over two-and-a-half years and turned her 50-year-old husband and 15-year-old daughter into carnivores. When people started reaching out to her on Instagram for consults, Lokhandwala changed her handle, where she posts inspirational advice, her own before-and-after photos and general health tips, to @indian_carnivore, inviting the wrath of right-wing trolls. “My aim is not to turn vegetarians into carnivores. I first check their blood reports and advise them to cut out all sugar and bad carbs and to start fasting intermittently, and eventually transition to as low carb a diet as they can. Only a few evinced interest in the meat-only diet.” About 20 of her clients have turned carnivores so far, Lokhandwala says. Among them is Arundhati Bhattacharya, a 36-year-old chartered accountant who has “put away” 20kg since July. “In this age of abundance, we feast but not fast. Once I discovered what fasting can do to the body, it was easier to switch to meat entirely,” Bhattacharya says.
“There were days when my family would say, we are going to a temple. How can you eat meat today? I’d tell them I’ll take a shower,” says 32-year-old Parvathy Vijayan, a lawyer based in Kochi, Kerala. “It’s as if my diet is the only thing happening in the universe for the past few months. I lost 25kg on a low-carb diet and I have never felt better. My overweight husband, my in-laws who have turned vegetarian of late, and my mother who worries that I will have trouble conceiving on what she thinks is a starvation diet, are all against my turning carnivore. But I stick with it because it works for me—I run in the morning and I am incredibly busy with work and travel. Not having to source a million ingredients from the grocer, and cooking with just a couple of cast iron pans and an air fryer are just great for my lifestyle,” Vijayan says. Her social life, like Lokhandwala’s, has tanked since she went on the diet. “I often lie to friends when they ask me to hang out with them. I say I am sick so I can’t make it. Because if I cheat it sets me back physically and mentally—it’s just not worth it.”
Being on the carnivore diet can be isolating unless one is part of a community, even a virtual one. Anand Nagu, a 29-year-old fitness athlete, says trolling doesn’t affect him anymore. Being carnivore has helped him manage his bipolar disorder—something that going vegan for over three years didn’t. “At the age of 80, my Kashmiri Pandit grandmother turned vegan after being influenced by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. I resisted at first, but when Virat Kohli, my idol athlete, went vegetarian and endorsed plant protein, I bought into the whole vegan idea. I dropped from 72 to 59kg and my bone density fell. Then I went back to my roots to the food I enjoyed the most as a child—which was red meat,” Nagu says.
No matter the initial benefits from cutting out oxalates and carbs from the system, any highly exclusionary diet is not going to be sustainable in the long term, says Dr Jacqueline Michael, a Sydney-based lifestyle medicine expert and founding member of the Indian Society of Lifestyle Medicine. “While I sympathise with people who are driven to extremes because of severe autoimmune conditions, they are only addressing one part of the problem. Recently, we have come to understand that an optimally functioning microbiome, along with vitamin D and good sleep, are key to good health. To grow the right kind of microbes in your gut, you need plant fibre. People who go on a meat-only diet sans fibre risk damaging their biomes.”
They risk a lot more. The wrath of society for one.