It’s tempting to want to try the latest diet trends. Keto, intermittent fasting, high-protein, low-carb—each touts itself as the solution to having more energy and better health. But with so many options available (and so little time to research them all), it can be difficult to know which diets are good for you, and which are best avoided. Now, one gut health expert is warning about the dangers of following one popular diet trend. Read on to find out why eating this way wreaks havoc on your gut, and what that can mean for your health.
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There’s far more to gut health than just digestion. In fact, your gut microbiome plays a major role in your overall health and your risk of developing chronic diseases such as metabolic conditions, gastrointestinal disorders, and colorectal cancer. Your metabolism, immune system, hormonal balance, brain function, and mood are all connected to the health of your gut.
Eating certain foods helps healthy gut bacteria to flourish. A healthy gut can prevent—and in some cases reverse—chronic disease. In addition, a thriving gut provides the energy and mental stability you need to live your best life. On the other hand, foods that harbor harmful bacteria will wreak havoc on your gut microbiome and can lead to chronic disease, inflammation, sluggish energy levels, and mood swings.
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A recent diet trend is the “carnivore diet,” which consists almost entirely of meat, eggs, and dairy. Proponents of this diet advocate its health benefits, such as weight loss, blood sugar control, reduced inflammation, and improved mental focus. This sounds great—until you discover how the carnivore diet impacts your gut microbiome.
“The carnivore diet is bad for your gut, [and] your gut is responsible for so many key elements to health… [including] your immune system, mood, hormone balance, metabolism, and brain function,” Julia Zumpano, RD, LD, a registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition, tells Best Life. “The carnivore diet can also lead to increased levels of cholesterol and blood pressure due to its very high saturated fat and sodium content.”
In a 2014 study published in Nature, researchers monitored microbiome changes in healthy participants during a five-day period on a whole foods, plant-based diet versus five days on a diet composed entirely of animal products (now known as the carnivore diet). After only five days, the gut microbiomes of the carnivore diet participants began replacing “good” anti-inflammatory bacteria with “bad” inflammatory bacteria. Significant changes in the gut microbiota were detected less than 24 hours after starting the diet.
A major problem with the carnivore diet is that it contains zero fiber—and when it comes to gut health, fiber is key. Dietary fiber is found only in plants, so the more diverse range of plants you eat, the more variety of good bacteria you feed your gut. Since the carnivore diet is void of plant diversity and high in inflammatory bacteria, it’s no wonder eating animal products exclusively can cause serious harm to your gut.
“The carnivore diet tends to be very low in, or completely void of, fiber,” says Zumpano. “Fiber is essential for digestion and elimination. Pre-biotic fiber is food for your good bacteria, therefore it can increase the growth or production of good gut bacteria,” she explains.
When the beneficial microbes feed on fiber, they release short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which help to optimize immune health, reduce cholesterol, regulate blood sugar, and help cure symptoms of leaky gut syndrome. They’re also protective against heart disease, stroke, and cancer.
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The Nature study researchers observed that the participants who ate a carnivore diet experienced rapid growth of “bad” inflammatory bacteria (Alistipes, Bacteroides, Bilophila) and a decreased growth of “good” anti-inflammatory bacteria (Eubacterium rectale, Roseburia, Ruminococcus bromii). Bilophila in particular is strongly associated with inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
These participants were also found to have substantially lower levels of SCFAs and elevated antibiotic resistance in their gut microbiome, putting them at an increased risk of infection and illness. Eating only animal products was also found to produce more secondary bile salts in the gut, which are known causes of colon and liver cancer.
Want to boost your gut health? “Increase your fiber and plant diversity,” advises Zumpano. “Try to eat plant-based foods from each color of the rainbow on a daily basis… include various fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans. Increase probiotic foods, such as natto, kimchi, kombucha, tempeh, miso, apple cider vinegar, kefir, pickles, and sauerkraut,” she recommends.