'Meat Is Magic': The Women Who Are Committed Carnivores

'Meat Is Magic': The Women Who Are Committed Carnivores

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There are dozens of photographs of bloody slabs of ribeye and shots of bacon strips sizzling in pools of fat, chunky piles of ground beef, glistening pots of butter, and tallow. These images of meat and fat aren’t much to look at, but to the members of the Women Carnivore Tribe, a Facebook group that has over 27,000 members, every single one of these posts is worthy of hundreds of likes and strings of heart-eye emojis.

That’s because the women who have joined this digital tribe are here to talk about eating meat. In just two years, it’s become one of the largest women’s only spaces dedicated to discussing the carnivore diet, a diet that focuses on primarily consuming meat. As curiosity about the diet has increased among women, online communities like this one have popped up to not only welcome that interest but, as group moderate Karen Foreman-Brown argues, help women overcome gendered notions about food. “Doing a carnivore diet goes against the flow of women should eat chicken breasts and salads,” says Foreman-Brown. “The stereotype is, men eat red meat and women eat garbage. It’s the support that’s needed to eat in a new way.”

Scrolling through the dozens of threads that go up each day, a clearer picture of this subculture emerges. There are memes, like one of a Barbie doll labeled “Carbie” surrounded by tiny toy donuts, ice cream, and chips, holding a PlantBased magazine, next to a carnivore Barbie flexing with tanned muscles and a plastic hunk of steak. There are recipes featuring lumpy, grayish-brown reinventions of meals, like pancakes made from bone marrow and biscuits made from pork rinds. The group even has its own lingo, with acronyms sprinkled throughout conversations: OMAD (one meal a day), SAD (standard American diet), WOE (way of eating).

Alongside these lighter posts, members ask candid questions about the physical symptoms they’re experiencing as a result of trying the diet. They apologize for being “TMI,” then dive into graphic descriptions of itchy scalps, hair loss, rashes in strange places, discolored pee, and unusual bowel movements. Members don’t bristle at these frank admissions or even appear alarmed. They jump in to reassure the original poster that they, too, experienced this or that symptom, and offer them advice on how they resolved it. “Carniversary” celebrations are also frequently announced, commemorating the date a member switched to meat-based eating. These are lengthy, emotional posts detailing their journeys with the diet, accompanied by closeups of the poster with skin flushed, eyes glowing, smiling wide. In response, commenters pour in to congratulate them on their progress, chiming in with their own stories.

Taken together, the posts at Women Carnivore Tribe portray a tight-knit group that values the personal testimonies of members who believe that the carnivore diet offers solutions to a range of issues, from medical mysteries to persistent health problems, self-esteem, and even depression. These personal stories of weight loss and healing are a standard component in the often gendered space of dieting where they form the connective tissue of community, more valuable than, say, another stale scientific study. That’s true at Women Carnivore Tribe, where the personal journey is held in high esteem. They quickly tread into hyperbole. Posters say things like “I’m feeling the healthiest I’ve ever felt,” that the diet “heals your mind, body, and soul,” and “meat is magic.” Radiant photos accompany these posts, of women smiling in mirror selfies with sports bras and biker shorts, casually laughing while leaning over a kitchen counter, or standing out on their front lawn, grinning in the sunlight. Personal accounts are the crucial proof point in these communities because positive photos and stories continue to drive the narrative that restrictive dieting is a good thing and trying one is OK.

This isn’t particularly unique to the carnivore diet, it’s part and parcel of the rhetoric of restrictive dieting that has become increasingly trendy in recent years. But restrictive diets themselves aren’t exactly new. In 1928, the concept of the elimination diet was introduced by Albert Rowe, an allergist and physician. In his book on the subject, he explained the basic premise: for food allergies that can’t be confirmed via a traditional skin test, a doctor should work directly with a patient to develop a plan that determines if their issues are caused by eating certain foods. The practical way to implement this, by his assessment, is to carefully remove food groups from a patient’s diet and observe if, once eliminated, symptoms go away. The initial purpose of the elimination diet was scientific—a method for a doctor to test a hypothesis. But some of these diets came with an unintended side effect: weight loss. There’s no better example of this than the now faddish keto diet.

In 1921, the keto diet was developed at the Mayo Clinic by Dr. Russell Wilder as a means of treating epilepsy, who then coined it the “ketogenic diet.” It was used in this context until the 1970s when, in 1972, Dr. Robert Atkins published the groundbreaking how-to The Atkins Diet. Unveiling his low carb strategy, Atkins’s regimen required eliminating certain food groups completely, then slowly reintroducing them over time. The first—and most restrictive—stage of the diet was positioned to induce ketosis, where the body uses fat for energy instead of carbs. The Atkins Diet was kind of the grandfather of today’s mainstream keto diet, where adherents eliminate carbs and work to keep themselves in ketosis for as long as possible.

Co-opted for weight loss, elimination diets are now more associated with glossy books and obsessive blogs than the doctor’s office. Take, for example, keto, Whole30, and paleo, all of which are focused on restrictive eating. Despite the lack of substantiated research for the long-term health benefits, elimination diets have become popular and, by extension, accepted. Though carnivore pushes the boundary to another level of restrictiveness, by the time many women reach the Carnivore Tribe, eliminating food groups to lose weight isn’t such a cognitive leap. Many who come to the diet have already been experimenting with their more commercial cousins for a while. “There’s all these different things I’ve tried over the years,” Foreman-Brown says, listing food combining and the raw food diet as examples. “So, nobody freaked out massively when they found out what I was doing.”

For some, carnivore is defined in the extreme. It means what the dictionary definition of the word means: eating only meat. That’s where Kelly Hogan, who runs the YouTube channel My Zero Carb Life, lands with her diet. For the last decade, she’s eliminated every single carb from her diet, including those from plants. “And this is where you lose a lot of people,” she says. Hogan explained that though she closely followed her doctor-prescribed low carb regimen, her carb cravings persisted. It made her wonder what would happen if she got rid of them entirely. So she typed into Google: “Can you live on only meat?” The results page led her to an online community that convinced her to step into the strictest realm of carnivore: just meat, for every meal.

Not everyone is as hardcore as Hogan. For others, carnivore can mean consuming animal byproducts as well, like eggs, butter, and cheese. This is where Foreman-Brown nets out, who’s at about “80 percent beef,” but consumes “some dairy like cream in coffee.” Overall, no matter what version of the diet they’re on, women doing carnivore eat zero vegetables or fruits, and little to no carbs.

Like all diets, there’s a gendered component. For men doing carnivore, the narrative is often about increasing protein intake and bulking up. Foreman-Brown and the other cofounders created the group because they noticed women weren’t posting as often to mixed-gender groups and seemed hesitant to share their own experiences. “There was definitely a need for somewhere where women felt more comfortable asking questions and not being slammed or joked at or judged,” she says. But a safe space can also mean safe from criticism, from challenges to their dieting framework, from concern for the safety of members who post that they’ve had negative reactions. The unspoken sense is that everyone ended up here as a last resort—because all other diets failed. I think a lot of people who come to carnivore are actually at the end of their tether,” says Foreman-Brown.

That was true for Cait Mizzi, a nutritional practitioner who says that she struggled with autoimmune symptoms for years. After she was diagnosed with two autoimmune diseases at the age of five, she began on a lifelong course to relieve the health issues associated with them. Early on, she singled out diet as the way to take charge over her symptoms, becoming a strict, whole foods vegan from her teens through her twenties. But she still kept getting ill: she described strep infections, anemia, a B-12 deficiency, and iron deficiency. “Over the course of that decade I actually became sicker and sicker and sicker,” Mizzi says. “And I started to question my own belief system.” Like others in the forums, she eventually found her way from veganism to carnivore, which seems paradoxical. She started the autoimmune paleo diet, which she says is “more restrictive than Whole30,” before finally landing on carnivore, limiting her diet to its furthest point yet. “I was so miserable in my skin and in my mind that I didn’t think it made sense not to try,” she says.

Stories like Mizzi’s are typical in carnivore forums, and they’ve recently been making their way into the public eye. The most visible version of this narrative is from Mikhalia Peterson, who recently became the poster child of the meat-eating movement, especially among women. She’s the daughter of Jordan Peterson, the anti-feminist Canadian psychology professor and YouTube personality whose views have made him popular with men’s rights communities. In the last couple of years, Peterson has taken up her father’s mantle of self-help philosophy and applied it to diet. After Jordan Peterson was featured in an episode of the Joe Rogan podcast zealously proclaiming the benefits of going carnivore the diet briefly went viral. Mikhaila Peterson was subsequently profiled by the Atlantic’s James Hamblin. The article isn’t particularly flattering, describing her as “one of the many emerging semi-celebrities with a miraculous story of self-healing.” It is skeptical of her claims that her body cannot tolerate olives or peppers, but is fine with vodka and bourbon. “What’s actually therapeutic may be the act of elimination itself,” Hamblin writes.

But what emerges in Peterson’s story is something familiar: She claims that her all-beef diet has healed a mysterious autoimmune disorder that was attacking her joints, telling the Atlantic that the elimination diet has been so successful that she’s quit all of her prescription medication. Peterson is undoubtedly influential in carnivore forums. Her name came up frequently when I asked women how they found out about the diet. “People like Mikhaila Peterson... ” Foreman-Brown says, “her story around the whole autoimmune thing [...] I think that’s been one powerful influence on a lot of people.”

In another mirroring of women in the forums, Peterson writes on her website about how she turned to diet as a way to take control of her health: “After years of desperate research, I started experimenting with my diet.” And like many of the women, she speaks passionately about her journey to carnivore, and her rhetoric values personal experience over scientific evidence. She doesn’t deny this, which you can find via a disclaimer at the bottom of her page: “Do not take this as medical advice. I am not a doctor. This is my story and this is what worked for me.”

There is value in these testimonials; they are powerful and these personal stories about self-healing and weight loss can be convincing to women looking for solutions, regardless of whether or what’s being offered is medically sound. “It’s like saying that this worked for me, so it must work for everyone,” says Dr. Vijaya Surampudi, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of Human Nutrition at UCLA. Surampudi elaborates that what’s alarming is that attempting the diet may negatively impact health in specific ways adherents can’t even feel, like their cholesterol or gut microbiome. “You don’t know what your body is going through at the moment,” she adds.

Clearly, it’s a method that Peterson herself endorses to justify the diet: she actively seeks testimonials to feature on social media.

But even as the carnivore diet grows in popularity, it goes against the grain of medical knowledge. The U.S. 2020 Dietary Guidelines developed by the HHS and FDA recommend a healthy eating pattern that incorporates a variety of foods, including vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, and protein. They have even suggested that Americans limit red meat in particular in favor of lean poultry and fish, since red meat has been linked to cardiovascular disease.

Why that is coming into question now, in these communities, may stem from public perception of nutrition research. After all, it is hard to forget the low-fat craze of the ’90s, which was later updated when guidelines started suggesting fats like olive oil and nuts could be healthy. For the last several decades, scientists have waffled on dietary guidelines, but all that back-and-forth is actually par for the course when it comes to validating nutrition recommendations. It’s something that isn’t obvious to people who only see the simplified, top-level results of these studies. “Science is not easy,” says Teresa Fung, a professor of nutrition at Simmons University and adjunct professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. She also serves on the panel of experts for U.S. News and World Report, which evaluates the health benefits of popular diets in a given year.

“We do know that fruits and vegetables are good for you, but for some other aspects of diet, we are still somewhere along this journey,” Fung says. “We have not made it to the end yet. So that is simply confusing, and doesn’t help to build a foundation of confidence.”

She acknowledges that the establishment of scientific facts is a windy road but stresses this is an important part of the scientific process: “Inconsistency is actually a very typical part of the scientific journey because scientific facts are not established in one single piece of research.”

Meat, in particular, is a contentious subject for scientists, because it seems to exist in this strange limbo on both sides of the health spectrum. “Based on the nutrient composites of meats, we see good things about them and we see bad things about them,” Fung continues. She mentions that they’re high in protein on the one hand, but on the other, they can contain saturated fats and processed sodium. Potentially, it is this duality in meat that has caused contention. In November 2019, a meta-analysis was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggesting the correlation between meat-eating and negative health impacts was weak. Essentially, it suggested they “were of poor quality, so we don’t need to believe the results,” says Fung.

This analysis caused an uproar within the scientific community. A rebuttal published by the Harvard School of Health said the conclusions were “contradictory to the large body of evidence” that meat is associated with health risks. They warned that the study might not only “harm the credibility of nutrition science and erode public trust in scientific research” but “result in further confusion among the general public and health professionals.” Later, a correction was amended to the study that the lead researcher had failed to disclose industry funding, adding potential bias of the results into the dispute.

But not everyone thinks red meat is worthy of the storms it causes like this one. “I actually didn’t think it was all that controversial,” Norrina Allen, an associate professor at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, says. “There’s been a history of red meat and its association with adverse cardiovascular effects.”

She is the senior author of a study that found that meat was linked with health risks, particularly for the heart. “If we adjust for all the other components of the diet and we just look at the meat consumption, these results would suggest that higher meat intake—particularly red meat—leads to a higher risk or is associated with a higher risk for heart disease and mortality,” Allen adds. When asked if there was potential that the carnivore diet could be good for you, she responded without hesitation. “We haven’t seen any positive effects of just eating red meat in our studies, no.”

Still, many in the carnivore community say their decision to eat only meat is, in fact, based on research. At Women Carnivore Tribe, members post articles and podcasts to the group featuring advocates who dig to find specific studies that validate the benefits of eating meat. But instead of coming from the realm of establishment science, these links are often posted by internet citizen scientists without the same background. Many women note that some of this research comes from doctors who have medical degrees, but that still doesn’t mean they are upheld to the same scrutiny and rigor that academic researchers are.

But for many carnivores, that doesn’t matter. They aren’t interested in peer-reviewed scientific studies or established academic sources, in large part because they feel misled by mainstream nutrition science. Mizzi is one of them. The shifting recommendations over the decades on sugar, low fat, and cholesterol have left her disillusioned with industry guidelines. “People are starting to just go, I’m going to do my own research,” Mizzi says. “And I’m going to start digging in here and formulating my own opinions and trying on different things for size to see what actually works for me.”

Encouraging women to experiment and find their own solutions is a prominent thread in the carnivore community. The Women Carnivore Tribe is full of raw, vulnerable stories of relying on intuition to know whether the diet is working for them or not, of wading their way through the dark. This vibe is intentional and meticulously cultivated. Like Mikalia Peterson’s story, where she claims that the diet cured her of both autoimmune disorders and depression, there are plenty of other women who wax rhapsodic about their miraculous healing of ailments. It crosses the boundary from simple positivity to another plane of intensity. “They see how it transforms them,” Mizzi says. “They basically grasp onto it as if it god, [...] it’s almost like a religious experience.”

This sense of fanaticism not only distills the complexity of nutrition into a simple answer, but it goes beyond diet to dogma. Many in the forums have even rebranded carnivore from a diet to a WOE, or way of eating, to signify this point. Some women I spoke with were convinced that certain elements in plants are toxic (which was vigorously disputed by every expert I talked to), and made claims about what the human body is able to process, or not. In some of the most extreme of cases, this pattern of eating can be diagnosed as orthorexia nervosa, or an eating disorder that causes one to fixate on certain foods as toxic and eliminate them. By dividing up food into moral categories—good and bad, or clean and toxic—everything they remove from their diets comes with a positive emotional association. Considering carnivore is “the ultimate elimination diet,” as Peterson calls it, it’s unsurprising that these stories take on not just an upbeat tone, but a fervent one.

This zeal for strict eating can come at a cost, according to Fung and Surampudi. The reason the diet’s adherents can eat so much meat and little else is because of the components that comprise meat, and how our bodies respond to them. “The carnivore diet is very satiating with all the protein and fat,” Fung says. “So people feel full very easily.” For Surampudi, the positive effects of the diet can be attributed to the elimination of processed foods and refined carbohydrates—not the elimination of fruits, vegetables, and other food categories with established nutritional benefits. Ultimately, she emphasizes that the simplicity of only eating meat comes at the cost of other important things.

“You lose a lot of the nutrition that your body needs,” she argues. “There’s a reason why we need protein in our diet, and then there’s also a reason why our body needs vegetables.” She stressed that with diets, like in life, nothing is ever truly that easy. “They’ll look for the silver bullet, right?” she asks. “We want this one thing that works like the magic pill. But when it comes to health and nutrition, it’s not as simple as that, because it’s about a bigger lifestyle.”

But lifestyle and community are precisely what draw women to digital spaces like Women’s Carnivore Tribe. Here, members don’t face criticism for going the route of extremely restrictive eating. Instead, they find empathy and commiseration for difficult-to-manage health problems. In the forums, they’re not alone, they are surrounded by women who offer encouragement and empathy. And when it does make a difference for them, many feel compelled to share and promote the diet not just within the groups, but on their own channels and blogs.

“I don’t ever want to come off that I’m dying for everybody to do it,” Hogan says. But, after years of searching for answers, the feeling is akin to religious conversion, finding truth in a rapturous discovery. Carnivores like Hogan are compelled to tell others: “To go around right now feeling so good, feeling like I have found the secret of life and not share it with people?” Hogan continues. “That feels just selfish.”

Kelly Anne Bonner is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Her work has been featured in VICE, Refinery29, Romper, and elsewhere.

DISCUSSION

This just seems like a new variety of disordered eating. One of my dear friends is obsessed with being a healthy eater. Everything she puts in her mouth is evaluated for its healthful properties and foods are frequently labeled good or bad, in a moral as well as nutritional sense. There is always a very strong element of self-denial in her choices, interspersed by throwing hands up in the air and eating three bags of candy corns. When we were teens she was bulimic, so it seems obvious to me that she evolved into a more socially acceptable way of being disordered.

I’m the opposite and feel like food/weight control me. I have been trying to drum up the mental and emotional fortitude for another “lifestyle change”, but it’s like contemplating climbing Mount Everest. I really hope that women and girls younger than me (mid 40s) have a less fraught relationship with eating. It seems like for most women my age, it’s pretty tough.