My carnivore diet: what I learned from eating only beef, salt and water
Jordan Peterson insists his fad diet helps you lose weight and feel better. I tried it for a week, and let me tell you: it was truly, punishingly awful
A diet that consists solely of beef, salt and water? What could possibly go wrong? Photograph: iStock
When I started my carnivore diet, I had no idea what it would involve. I thought it could be fun. I wasn’t to know I’d started on a journey that would involve rapid weight loss, complete exhaustion, and a professor of nutrition telling me I was at risk of scurvy.
It had started innocently.
Jordan Peterson, the disaffected male’s favoured academic and bestselling author, had appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, the irreverent, current affairs-ish show on which Elon Musk recently smoked weed . The pair discussed Peterson’s self-help book, 12 Rules for Life, which created a stir when it was released in January. Rogan, a comedian and gym enthusiast who resembles a slab of corned beef, told Peterson how slim he looked.
Well, Peterson said.
It was because of his new diet.
“I eat beef and salt and water. That’s it, and I never cheat. Ever. Not even a little bit,” Peterson said. He’d been put on to the diet by his daughter, Mikhaila, and lost 60lb. What’s more, his anxiety and depression had lifted.
Weight loss? Improved mood? No side-effects? It sounded too good to be true.
Day one: bring on the beef
“I had digestive problems,” says Mikhaila Peterson. “The diarrhoea lasted six weeks.”
I’ve called her up, on the morning of my first beef day, to get some tips for my new diet. Mikhaila is a 26-year-old who suffered badly with arthritis as a youngster. She’s not a medical professional, but she tried self-healing by adjusting her diet. She began by cutting out gluten, then going on an “elimination diet”, which removes foods people are commonly allergic to before adding them back in. A period of self-experimentation followed before Mikhaila settled on a zero-carb diet – just greens and meat. The she took out the greens. Then all the meat; except beef.
Mikhaila put her father on the same diet in April. When she had started on the only-beef regimen, her arthritic pain had gone within two weeks, she said. So did unrelated pain in her wrist, big toe and knees.
After a month and a half, she said, she started to notice her anxiety had lifted, and she saw improvements in short-term memory.
“If someone told me a phone number, say seven digits, I couldn’t repeat back to them,” Mikhaila told me.
“I can do that now. I can remember a whole bunch.”
After Mikhaila and I chat, I kick things off with a trip to the supermarket. When I thought of an all-beef diet, a steady stream of steak had come to mind. But Mikhaila says she kept costs down by buying beef ribs and plenty of ground beef. She cooks the ribs, keeps the fat, then uses that fat to cook the ground beef. “Otherwise I don’t get enough fat in the ground beef,” she said.
I buy some beef ribs, some steak and some ground beef. I go looking for beef jerky, but the store doesn’t have it. It does, however, have “beef sticks”. I examine the beef sticks. They seem to be dried-out hot dogs, grass-fed, vacuum-sealed, and marketed at kombucha drinkers. I buy 12.
At home, I load the beef into the fridge. It looks like the fridge of a man with a grudge against cattle.
I try one of the beef sticks. It tastes like an extremely dry sausage. It’s not very filling. I eat three more.
There’s no time to cook any more, however, because I have to meet my friend Nina. She and I meet in a bar. I have a sparkling water, and she has a beer while I explain the diet. She doesn’t think it sounds very healthy. She asks if there are any side effects. I tell her it’s common to get the shits for the first six weeks.
Nina suggests we go for something to eat. She takes us to an oyster bar, which seems inconsiderate, but they do steak tartare. I have beef tartare, plain. She orders oysters and clams, and has two glasses of wine. Her meal looks delicious, incredible. Mine does not.
Day two: struggling bowels
It takes 24 hours for Mikhaila’s warning to come to pass. There is only one cubicle in the bathroom at work. Luckily it’s free. Unluckily for an innocent man who uses the facilities shortly after I’ve finished, there is no window in the cubicle.
I return to my desk and tell a colleague what has happened. She doesn’t want to know. Just stop the diet, she says. But what if the early explorers had simply stopped, I ask her. She calls me an idiot.
My struggling bowels aren’t the only side effect. This morning I am extremely tired. I’m wallowing at my desk, struggling to concentrate. Even more than usual. I’m also very hungry. I didn’t have time to cook any beef this morning, so I had three beef sticks instead.
At 11.30am I head out for lunch. A new bar has just opened round the corner from work. It’s not a very nice bar, but they do do steak.
The steak normally comes with a peppercorn sauce, according to the menu, along with “stuffed potato, bacon, broccoli and diamond cheddar”. I want only the steak, so I ask for a discount. The woman at the bar gives me $3 off.
Some years ago the UK government warned people – based on evidence from the independent Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition – not to eat more than 500g (about a pound) of red meat a week, to limit the risk of bowel cancer. So I don’t normally eat a lot of red meat. During my foray into the world of beef, salt and water, I never heard a rebuttal to the science, although one carnivore-focused Facebook group I joined – there are many – talked about “brainwashing forced upon us [at] on all levels by doctors, dietitians, governments, schools, media, corporations and religious and spiritual organisations … and vegans … that keep people from their true potential of health and happiness”.
An hour after eating, fatigue washes back over me. I go for a sit-down on a couch in the office and immediately fall asleep. For an hour. When I get back to my desk I discover that my boss saw me and took a photo.
I’ve never actually cooked a steak, but happily a friend offers to come and cook for me. My apartment isn’t very well ventilated and we manage to set the fire alarm off. I go to bed.
Day three: I lose some flab – but I’m tired
I wake up early. My skin is greasy – even greasier than normal – and my hair, clothes and kitchen smell of meat. This is my life now.
I open a window. It doesn’t do anything.
I’m still feeling drained, and I can’t face going out to buy more beef. I text my neighbour, Cindy, to ask if she has any beef in her apartment. She says she’s in Las Vegas, then sends me a stream of worried texts asking if there’s a smell of beef coming from her apartment. I tell her no: I’m simply on an all-beef diet. She says there’s some beef in her freezer if I want it. I leave it be and eat more beef sticks.
Weight loss seems to be one thing people frequently tout about the diet. Mikhaila Peterson told me she lost 10lb in two weeks when she started only eating beef.
I’ve only been on the diet for three days, but I feel less flabby around the middle. Whether that’s the beef, the fact I’m not eating very much, or my mind playing tricks, I’m not sure.
I didn’t particularly want to lose weight on some sort of crash-beef diet, but one thing that intrigued me was the notion that an all-beef diet could cure joint pain. I broke my left collarbone a couple of years ago and dislocated the other one in May. Accident-prone me seems to spend quite a lot of time in pain.
But if anything, my shoulders have got worse. Maybe I’ve just been sleeping in an uncomfortable position, but I’m having to take ibuprofen.
I’m also exhausted. Still. This is more than just being tired. I walk up one flight of stairs to my apartment and am out of breath at the top. My legs are aching. Mikhaila told me that hunger feels different on the beef-only diet.
“When I used to get hungry, I would feel famished and needed to eat,” she’d said. “Now hunger is: I slow down cognitively, and I’m like: ‘Oh, OK, I need something to eat.’”
I cook my biggest steak on the grill pan, filling the kitchen with smoke. Then I lie down and feel my heart beating quickly in my chest. I fall into an uneasy sleep, and my day ends at 8pm.
Day four: side effects and bovine dreams
I had a dream last night that I was a cow.
This morning I am asked to go to Vermont to interview a woman running for governor. “But I’ve got all this beef in my fridge!” I tell my boss. He asks what that’s got to do with anything. He hasn’t been told about my experiment.
I shove some beef sticks in a bag and get a cab to the airport. I fall asleep on the way, and when I wake up, I feel very sad. Nothing has happened to make me feel sad. But I’m exhausted, and I’m feeling sorry for myself.
At the airport there’s been some trouble with the airline’s computer system. I can’t check in for my flight. I wait in line for a long time to speak to someone. I miss the flight.
I feel like my world has caved in. I am filled with woe and anxiety. I’ve let down the woman I was supposed to interview. My boss is going to be upset. What if I get fired? Why is there so much evil in the world?
My boss does not fire me. I get put on a flight the next day.
I look at a website called Meat Health, which is devoted to carnivorous eating.
“Nearly always, when you start a carnivore diet, you will experience adverse symptoms and side effects,” Meat Health says. “It’s what I affectionately call the ‘trough of despair’, or the ‘trough’ for short.”
Meat Health says eating more meat and drinking more water will help to climb out of the trough.
I shuffle to the fridge and retrieve another steak. I cook it and eat it, joylessly. Then I drink a lot of water. It’s 3pm and I feel ready for sleep. I take a three-hour nap. When I wake the fog of depression has become more of a mist. A friend has promised to take me out for a steak tonight. It’s the last thing I want, but I get on my bike and ride the two miles to the restaurant.
We order a 40oz porterhouse steak to share. With nothing else. I have some water with it. This is the first time I’ve also noticed my craving for salt. I sprinkle it generously on every mouthful of steak. I go home and fall asleep immediately.
I still don’t see how this is sustainable if you want to hold down a job or a social life. Even if you eventually get used to it – which is meant to take a month – by that time you’d probably be unemployed.
Day five: sleep … and more sleep
It’s take two for my Vermont trip. I wake up at 6am because I had planned to cook and eat a steak first. It doesn’t happen.
Lunch is at a restaurant in Burlington. I have a steak, with nothing.
I interview the candidate for governor, then take a 45-minute sleep in my car. She and I have agreed to go for dinner tonight. The others order sandwiches and mac and cheese. The restaurant doesn’t do steak, so I ask for two hamburgers, with no bun, no salad, no sauce and no sides.
I have to explain the diet. “So how are your movements?” someone asks. I haven’t thought about that for a few days. I’ve been too busy sleeping and smelling my clothes to find ones that don’t smell of grease. I think back. There have been no movements since day two.
We go to see a talk together. Then I go back to the hotel where I’m supposed to be writing the article. I fall asleep instead.
Day six: the nutritionist goes to war
I phone a nutritionist. Lisa Sasson, a clinical professor in nutrition at New York University, had read about the diet already, and before I can ask her if it’s a good idea, she launches into a scathing review.
“It’s ridiculous. It’s absolutely ridiculous,” Sasson says. “The claims that are made are preposterous. Atkins was bad – this is 50 times worse. This is probably the worst diet I’ve ever heard and I’ve heard such bad ones.”
Sasson continues: “To me, it’s amazing anyone would think there’s any merit to something like this. We all know that fruits and vegetables are important. That’s where you get so many of your nutrients: plant-based foods. There’s absolutely nothing here.”
Sasson says the claims from people who say it has stopped pain or eased anxiety are because of the placebo effect.
“You could go on this diet and think, oh, that lump I had does seem smaller. The placebo is very powerful,” Sasson says.
I ask about the amazing claims of weight loss.
“Anyone would lose weight. You lose weight on chemotherapy. Weight loss shouldn’t be a criterion.”
After such a strong rebuke I feel embarrassed to tell Sasson that I’ve been on this diet. I tell her anyway.
“It’s truly lacking critical nutrients, which could have devastating effects,” Sasson says.
“You should know, you sound like you’re English. Look at scurvy. How was scurvy discovered? When people went on those ships and they didn’t have fresh fruits and vegetables, that’s when we knew it was related to vitamin C, which you’re not getting in that diet.”
Sasson says I shouldn’t stay on the diet.
“I’m telling you now there are so many other ways to feel good,” she says.
“Go out and have a beer and enjoy your life.”
No more beef
When I was eating a normal diet – chicken, fish, greens, bagels – I was also exercising a lot. It was a nice, non-vicious circle. I ate healthily, and it made me feel good. I then felt a little boost to go to the gym. When I came out of the gym, I was even more pleased with myself. I wanted to eat something healthy to, as they say, “maximize my workout”.
On the beef diet, I maybe lost a bit of weight. But I was struggling to ride my bike two miles and was falling asleep every four hours.
Maybe you do get used to it and experience a boost of energy. But, as Sasson said, this all-beef diet is ridiculous. It just isn’t healthy. By the end of my beef week I was exhausted, distraught, and was beginning to forget what a toilet looked like.
People asked me how I planned to break the diet. I thought maybe a green juice or some salad. But instead I take Sasson’s advice. I go out and have a beer. I have a lot of beer. I also have two packets of crisps. I wake up and I feel little better than I did on the beef. But at least this version of feeling terrible came with some joy.
And at least, I tell myself, I don’t have to eat beef ever again.