Dr. Shawn Baker On The Carnivore Diet
Along with being the author of the 2019 book The Carnivore Diet, Shawn Baker is a doctor and an accomplished athlete. He earned his medicine degree from Texas Tech Health Science University in 2001, completed his orthopedic surgical residency at the University of Texas in 2006, and served as chief of orthopedics at various bases during his stint in the U.S. Air Force.
Athletically, he’s played professional rugby, won strongman competitions, set records as a Highland Games participant, and most recently, he became an indoor rowing world champion. Shawn has gained notoriety as a leading proponent of the carnivore diet—where participants get nutrition from animal-sourced foods and severely limit or eliminate all plants from their diet. Read ahead for our full interview with Dr. Shawn Baker’s dietary experiences and his unique take on nutrition.
Q Tell us about your athletic and medical endeavors.
A I went to medical school after attending the University of Texas for my biology degree. In my second year of medical school, I dropped out to play professional rugby in New Zealand. Then I joined the U.S. Air Force; I was a nuclear weapons guy and played for the armed forces rugby team. I went back to med school and graduated with honors, then went into orthopedic surgery and did my residency. I was still in the military at the time, so I served in Afghanistan and handled a bunch of trauma surgeries.
From an athletic standpoint, I’ve been an athlete my whole life for the most part, but I didn’t bloom until later after college, and that’s why I took up rugby. I had enough size, strength, and speed to play at a high level, then I transitioned over to powerlifting where I set a couple American records with a 772 pound deadlift. Then I went on to do some strongman competitions in my mid-30s, and I took fifth at the first ever strongman competition. I realized the writing on the wall was that if I didn’t take drugs, I wasn’t going to be very successful at sports because I was already 38. So I got into throwing, via the Highland Games, and I ended up winning the Masters World Championship in that; that brought me to my mid-40s. At that point, I was a pretty big buy; I was pushing 300 pounds. I’d had enough of that, so I decided to go on a dietary journey, and I changed sports and got into indoor rowing. I set 6 American records, 3 world records, and won one world championship—and did it all as a pure carnivore.
Q Tell us about your journey toward a carnivore diet.
A Up until my early forties, I though as long as I exercised and worked out hard, I could eat however I wanted and burn it off. That stopped working pretty abruptly for me as I transitioned into my forties. I found myself forty or fifty pounds overweight, I was developing sleep apnea, metabolic syndrome, back pain, joint issues, and just general wear and tear from a long and tough athletic career. I decided I was going to lose weight and get leaner. So I went on a nutrition journey; I cut calories drastically, ate low fat, ate high fiber, and a lot of vegetables, and that really worked for making me leaner. But I was absolutely miserable. I was grumpy, I was tired, I was irritable, and I simply wasn’t satisfied. I transitioned into a paleo diet where I included more animal foods. Then I went into this rabbit hole of reading about nutrition, and decided to try a low carb diet in general. After that I played with a ketogenic diet for a period of time. But I was reading about people who were only eating meat, and they were, by my objective observation, the healthiest group I’d seen.
I’m down with experimentation, so I tried eating only meat for 30 days. And nothing bad happened. People told me You’re going to get scurvy. Your arteries are going to seize up. Your colon’s going to fall out. Obviously none of that ever happened. I did the 30 days and then went back to the more varied diet. And I just didn’t feel as good. I started noticing digestive discomfort and my aches and pains came back. I decided that I like feeling good, so I went back to a fully carnivorous diet. I’ve been there now for over three years, and I continue to enjoy great health. My experience has been all win and very little lose. At 53 I feel 20 years younger than I am. I perform that way as well. And now there are tens upon tens of thousands of people who are trying this. And the vast majority of them are getting great results as well. I literally get a dozen to 20 people a day telling me that the carnivore diet has changed their lives. That should make people very curious. If you want to check to see if meat is healthy or not, study these crazy people who are only eating meat.
Q You’re also a proponent of people identifying the foods that work best for their body. Why?
A Take it upon yourself to figure out what’s working. We’re pretty arrogant to think we can predict the future—that we can tell someone how long they’re going to live based on their diet. What we can focus on is that we have a person who’s not healthy right in front of me today; what can we do to make them healthier or less diseased? We have this new company called MeatRX.com, and we have daily support meetings. We’ve had a guy, he’s been on the carnivore diet for 3 weeks, and he was taking 72 units of insulin a day, and in three weeks, he’s now taking zero. He’s inarguably less diseased, and I think that’s the best we can do. My suspicion is that when people are no longer diseased, they’ll generally live longer, and they’ll certainly have a better quality of life. So when we say this or that diet is going to make you live longer, it’s sort of like reading tea leaves. The goal is to make people who are sick today healthy.
Our nutritional science, particularly population-based studies, is really poor quality evidence. We’ve got all these low, relative risk nutritional studies that say this food is bad and this food is good, and that information changes every two weeks. One study contradicts the other. Even when you summarize them all up in meta-analysis, the risks are so tiny, that it doesn’t serve the individual at all.
Let’s take the World Health Organization’s 2015 statement saying that red meat is a type 2 carcinogen. They point out that based on the accumulation of evidence that meat increases your relative risk for getting colorectal cancer by 17%. But you look at the absolute risk, and how likely is that to happen to me personally? For the average person, maybe the risk is about 4½ percent for getting colorectal cancer, and now you’ve raised it up to like 5.3%. Not even a 1% increase. So does it make sense to give up an entire nutritious food group to reduce your risk of one particular disease by .8 percent? Those are just scare tactics. And this is assuming you believe that the study is credible.
We know these epidemiology studies are based on food frequency questionnaires, which ask you to remember what you think you might have eaten over the last six months. They’re notoriously inaccurate. I saw a study done in 2017 where they looked at a food frequency questionnaire and they actually measured and weighed everybody’s food for four days, and then they asked them to recall what they ate, and in 9 out of 25 cases, they got it 50 percent right or more. And in 16 out of 25 cases, they got it less correct more than 50 percent of the time. The conclusion of that paper was that this is good enough for epidemiology. Which is really a frightening thought. Can you think of any other career or metric where that would fly? That’s what we’re faced with. Then there’s all these animal studies that they try to extrapolate to humans and that doesn’t work. At the end of the day, it’s a bad system. I don’t think it’s good enough. I think there’s too much at stake to say we’re going to rely on really bad evidence to make those important conclusions. It certainly makes sense to test yourself what works for you. What are you looking for personally? Most of us have an idea of what it’s like to be healthy. It’s not rocket science to say my knee hurts today and it doesn’t hurt tomorrow, or I’m depressed today and I’m happy tomorrow. Or I’ve got 20 pounds of extra body fat and now I don’t have that. Nobody would argue that that person has gotten healthier with those changes. And that’s what we need to focus on.
The bottom line is it needs to be simple for most people. When we talk about diet, people are worried about losing weight. When it comes to long term adherence to a diet, if you’re constantly hungry, it doesn’t seem to work. If you don’t enjoy the food, you’ll fail as well. You have to find a diet that’s satiating, palatable, and it doesn’t leave you with hunger. More often than not, what I’m finding with person after person, when they go on a meat-based diet, they are satisfied, satiated, they’re not constantly craving the junk food we are so commonly exposed to. Meat is a vital part of that metric. For many people that have these severe medical issues with real bad sensitivities like auto-immune and GI diseases, a pure meat diet seems to work wonderfully to get out of this illness stage. Most people end up eating what we call carnivor-ish, so they eat meat about 90 percent of the time and they have other foods they enjoy the other 10 percent, and it works pretty well.
I’ve seen people get good results with just making meat a bigger part of their diet in general. The standard America diet, which we all vilify, is 70% plus plant-based. When you flip it around and make it more animal-based, when you make meat the focus of the diet, and you eliminate all the junk food, people get healthy. Some people have to continue to be more and more selective and restrictive to finally get full relief for certain things. I’ve seen cases where people were eating mostly meat and certain fruits and vegetables and they took out the fruits and vegetables and they got healthier. That does occur. Does everybody need to do that to get results? Absolutely not. It’s unique in that it really seems to help with cravings more than anything I’ve seen.
It has to do with intestinal permeability. Our GI tract limits what gets in and out. It’s technically outside of our body, and we’re formed around it. There are cells that are stuck together by compounds that don’t let things pass through the cells. When we eat certain foods, it opens those passageways up and stuff can get past our defenses so to speak, and that can cause auto-immune and inflammatory issues. We also know that eating a meat-based diet is profoundly stabilizing to our glucose level, particularly if you’re eating a high carb diet and you’re eating very frequently. Those people see rapid oscillations in their glucose numbers, and that can be physiologically problematic with people and we see that in mood dysregulation, too. Some people are very anxious and they’re emotionally labile, and after a few weeks of the carnivore diet, they just kind of get chilled out. They get calm. They call it the carnivore calm. Some people call it zero carb zen. And it lets people relax, and they can deal with things more because they’re on a more even keel.
We don’t have all the data in yet, and it’s going to be years before we do. I know we’re going to be doing a big study out of Harvard University looking at this carnivore population, so that will be the first sort of research that’s going to be out there, and hopefully much more will follow.
Q You’ve noted what you identify as dogma in the nutrition realm. Tell us about that.
A We have an assumption that we must eat a variety of foods that are balanced, and we have all these boxes to check. If you think about and look at the history of human beings, there’s never been a time in humanity where we’ve had the opportunity to eat the variety of foods that are being suggested today. They’re asking you to eat foods that aren’t even native to the same continent. How the hell would a human have eaten this way even 150 years ago? Balance is essential needs to be tested. Can you name another animal that has to eat a balanced diet? They eat what’s available to them locally. So where do you get your 5 or 10 fruits and vegetables a day? It’s ludicrous to think that’s the human requirement.
We know that carbs are not essential for human life at all. For someone who hasn’t had any for over 3 years, I’m not dead, so they’re clearly not essential. The same thing can be said about fiber. We have this magical reverence for fiber. We believe we have to have 2 or 3 bowel movements per day, and if we’re not having bowel movements every 3 hours, something is wrong with us. There’s no requirement to have any number of bowel movements. Why do we think that? It’s because we have this epidemiology that shows people who eat fiber tend to have healthier outcomes, but really that’s just a marker for people who have healthier behaviors. If I tell you that eating fruits and veggies and fiber and not smoking and drinking and wearing your seat belt is healthy, you’re going to do all those behaviors. If I tell you that eating meat is bad for you, and you listen to that, you’re also likely to do all these other healthy behaviors. So we’ve got this healthy user bias. The bottom line is nutrition science is really poor science. And the fact we hang our hat on it is a little bit concerning.
Q Your approach to nutrition is unique, to be sure. How do people react to your story?
A In the beginning people thought I was absolutely crazy. Now as more people have tried it and experienced great results, it’s sounding less crazy. People often think I’m saying everyone should only eat meat, but I’m not dogmatic about it. If there’s anything I’m dogmatic about it, it’s about finding what’s going to work for you.
This is how I’m often misrepresented: people think I’m saying people should only eat meat, and that’s what everyone should do, and that’s the only thing I recommend people do. I’m not dogmatic about it. If there’s anything I’m dogmatic about it, it’s about what’s finding is going to work well for you. I believe that meat has a huge role in that. For some people it might be 100 percent meat, for some it might be 90. This is one of the reasons I’m excited about this study we’ll be doing; we’re going to have people consuming different levels of meat and we’ll be able to divide these people out and see the difference between the groups.
Little by little, more and more people in the medical community are getting on board. The carnivore diet has been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. The difference today is we have such huge social media influence and connectivity that more and more people are finding out about it. Now we’re seeing on a mass scale what happens when people do the experiment. By and large, the results have been really good. If we were to assume that meat is toxic and bad for us, there’d be some sort of dose dependency. And since I am eating something like 20 times more meat than the average American, you’d think I’d be the most obese, sickest person on the planet. And yet here I am, 53 years of age, competing in world championships. You’d be hard-pressed to say I’m sick.
Q Tell us about the role of beef in your diet.
A We eat for two reasons. We need to replace structural materials that we break down and need to build up, and we need energy. Lean beef provides structure to the body. I think depending on where you are in your health journey, particularly when you physically want to get leaner and leaner, the more lean beef you turn to the better. You have to have some fat in there, you can’t eat purely protein. That’s one of the reasons I like Certified Piedmontese beef. It’s got this really nice tender flavor and isn’t dry at all, which is very surprising on a meat that’s relatively lean. It’s particularly good for athletes. But you also need to make sure you’re getting enough fat to fuel the energy system. When I want to get really lean, I’ll utilize leaner cuts of meat, and I’ll get some fat in there every four or five days. That works pretty well for me, and a lot of athletes do it that way.
Q What do you like about Certified Piedmontese beef?
A The first time I tried it I was literally shocked at how flavorful and juicy it was. I’m not being hyperbolic at all. When I ate it the first time, I decided to eat a sirloin, and usually sirloin for me is like meh, because I’m a ribeye guy. It was a really pleasant eating experience. The mouthfeel is very good. It was very flavorful. If you told me there’s a miniscule amount of fat in it, I would have not have believed you. It tasted like a much fattier cut of beef. To be honest, most people like that texture, flavor, and juiciness. That’s why people eat steak. And to get that in a leaner product is pretty unique. I’ve not seen that in any other beef. All the Certified Piedmontese products I’ve tried have been so flavorful and juicy without a high fat content. And the packaging is outstanding! I’m a really big fan. I think for anyone looking for leaner meat and wants to actually enjoy it, Certified Piedmontese is the answer.
Q Tell us about your book.
A I took a common sense approach to writing The Carnivore Diet, so that it’s accessible to as many people as possible. It starts with autobiographical information on me, then it goes into an evolutionary argument, then I talk about the diseases and health processes the diet seems to help with and why. It also covers why some people have problems with certain plant compounds, why meat is such a nutritious food, and how to implement the diet.
Note: Certified Piedmontese does not promote or endorse the carnivore diet.