What is Carnivore Keto?
By Danny Vega
To say that the last eleven months have been exciting would be a gross understatement. If you have known me or followed along over the past two years, you already know that I am extremely passionate about learning new ways to optimize my health and performance by tweaking my diet and training. I have always been this way for as long as I know, but honestly, nothing really made much sense before I started following a ketogenic diet on June 12, 2016. It felt like a lot of what I tried before that time was guess work. One of the first observations I made after switching to keto was that I was just so much more in tune with my body and the effects that new stimuli would have on all types of measures—things like blood sugar, blood ketones, breath ketones, as well as subjective measures like mental acuity and focus. One of the first things I told Brian (Ketovangelist) describes this as accurately as I feel I can—Carbs are noise. Yes, this is a generalization. Carbohydrates aren’t completely evil. However, being able to take full advantage of them when you need them is pretty difficult unless you are knowledgeable enough to do so correctly, and more importantly, insulin sensitive enough to actually feel their effects without experiencing the possible drawbacks of consuming them.
Along with my self-experimentation, I have never stopped learning. From the moment I started keto, I did research—lots of it. I will let you in on a little secret. I try to read at least one article, blog post, research paper, or other educational piece every day. I have been extremely fortunate to meet some of the most knowledgeable people in this arena and learn from their writing and lectures, interview them for the ketogenic athlete podcast, and sometimes even just by asking them about subjects I thought were especially fascinating. Dozens and dozens of papers, books, you name it. I love taking what different subject matter experts present and tailoring it into something practical and relevant to me. When I hear about a new approach that may take my health and performance to the next level, I get EXTREMELY excited. So you can imagine how excited I was when I heard this one Ketovangelist podcast episode last June—when Brian interviewed someone whom I now consider carnivore royalty—Amber O’Hearn.
Here was this computer scientist and researcher with such an interesting story—raised as a vegetarian, long time low carb devotee, yet there were still a few unresolved health issues she was dealing with—the two main ones being weight control after several pregnancies, and a recent diagnosis of Bipolar 2 disorder. The first problem—the weight control—was accompanied by a difficulty to fight cravings, especially during pregnancies. Amber would struggle with weight gain, even on a low carb diet. How many of us find an improvement in this area once transitioning to keto, but not completely? We may shed some fat and find improvements in appetite control, but not to the extent that we want. Does this describe your situation? If it does, read on.
Amber found herself on a zero carb message board, where people were talking about how powerful this way of eating was at helping them push past these fat loss plateaus and finally having complete control over their appetite and cravings. So this former vegetarian decided that she would follow this way of eating for 3 weeks—just long enough to give it a fair shot and see if it would be a short-term solution to her weight control issue. This seems to be the case for a lot of us who try it. We start it for the fat loss effects, but we get so much more. Amber said that after a short period of time, along with the rapid fat loss came a profound regulation of her mood and overall feelings of well-being unlike anything she had ever experienced. She commented that this was a complicated thing to experience, as she didn’t really trust herself due to her bipolar disorder. She asked her husband what he thought, and he commented that he had not seen her this happy in a very long time. At this point, I’ll refrain from telling you this story and let Amber explain it in her own words. Check out this talk. The main point is that she got rid of all plant matter from her diet and these were the effects. I had never even considered such an extreme measure. After all, I was focused on getting the most from my nutrition, and I had made it a point to include fibrous vegetables and low sugar fruit into my diet to make sure I had all of my nutritional bases covered, so to speak.
You have to understand that I have ALWAYS loved meat. My favorite food was always barbecue. I had traveled all over the continent in search of the best barbecue—Kansas City, Memphis, Texas, all the well-known barbecue havens—the only difference between then and now was that I would enjoy my meat with a healthy amount of sugar-laced sauces that nowadays not only disgust me, but they also really get in the way of me enjoying the delicious taste of meat. Finding out that it was not only not harmful, but possibly beneficial to remove plants from my diet was a real game changer. I had finished my cut to 6.5% body fat with the help of my good friend, Robert Sikes, at the end of July. I knew weeks ahead of time that this would be my next big “experiment”. I’m chuckling thinking of all the menus I’d created for myself in advance, and all the day dreaming I would do of my new plantless life.
In July, the plot thickened. I had already been posting about my plans, and someone on Instagram suggested I check out some guy named Shawn Baker. Apparently he had been doing this for several months and going from genetically gifted athlete to superhuman from following this diet. Dr. Baker had broken all types of world records in several indoor rowing events after switching to this way of eating (this is one of the obvious reasons I decided to get back on the rower, besides the fact that I had always been pretty fast on it). So I checked out an interview he did with my now good friend Fahad Ahmad of Ketogeek. This interview was fantastic. Fahad was at the beginning of his own odyssey into exploring all of the aspects of carnivory—a several month “podcast tour” with some of the most knowledgeable experts on this lifestyle and the implications it could have for health, performance and even sustainability. However, Dr. Baker just ate all the meat he wanted. He didn’t care about ratios or protein limits, or any of that—just all the meat he desired. But that’s not my style, is it? I had just gone from a cut where during the last month, my protein was 75-85 grams a day, and in my ketogenic mind, I couldn’t wrap my head around messing with my beloved ketogenic ratios. I was going to try this, but I was going to do it my way.
The timing couldn’t be better, because at the time Brian had already told me that he wanted to try some experimentation of his own. He simply told me that he loved salmon and he loved beef, so for the month of August, with the exception of his coffee (with ballistic MCT powder, butter, and any other fat he would choose to put in it), salmon and beef would be the only items on his menu. I immediately started asking him questions about the parameters. What about this? What about that? Heavy cream? Cheese? No. Just beef and salmon, and the fats in his coffee. Simple enough. I was in. What better way to give this a shot than to eliminate everything but salmon and anything that came from a cow? It would be the ultimate elimination diet. Thus, “August Surf & Turf” was born. I was already lean, but I would soon find out that despite not really tracking the amounts I ate, I would lean out even more! And that was not the only benefit.
I would also experience appetite control beyond anything I had ever felt. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that the satiety and satiation I experienced from switching to a carnivorous diet was unprecedented. I honestly think that the difference between a standard ketogenic diet and carnivore was greater than the difference between the standard Western diet and keto. Them’s some strong words. I know. But here was the bonus—within a month of switching over, I would hit a lifetime PR in the 500 meter row sprint—something I had not done in years! And this was no small PR. I had gone from a 1:24.3 to a 1:21.9! I will add that since then, the PRs have not stopped and I am currently at 1:19.9 in the 500, which puts me at first in the state of Florida and in the top 15 in the country! I am also first in the state and top 10 in the country in the 100 meter sprint (14.5 seconds) and 1 minute for distance (389 meters).
“Are you freaking kidding me right now? Are you seriously telling me that it is possible to not only eat all the burgers and ribeyes I want and lean out and improve my health, but also improve my performance?” Yes I am. I’m not saying everyone will experience the same results. But this is what I experienced.
I thought about what would eventually become my own Carnivore Keto philosophy. What this meant for me was a higher protein ratio than I had previously been using. Like I have repeated ad nauseam for the past couple of years, I have always been a really big fan of Phinney and Volek’s protein recommendations—0.6-1.0 x lean body mass in lbs. However, I always liked being on the lower end of that range at around 0.6-0.7. I started to bump up that number since my main food source was now meat. I also made some small exceptions for myself after having added certain non-animal fats back to my menu after August Surf and Turf, and having no negative consequences. This was when I created the first iteration of the Carnivore Keto food pyramid as I see it. More on this later.
I think most people who have at least tried eating this way for over a month or two would agree with what I am about to say. If they get away from it for any reason, it’s not because it wasn’t enjoyable or effective. In my case, there was a lot going on for me in these months—getting back into online coaching, building the content and launching our membership site, and most importantly, the third month of a very stressful period for me at work. For this reason, I got off plan once. I made a bunch of fat bombs and crushed them. Something was triggered in my mind—I felt like I had failed, and pretty much stress ate this way the whole month of September. Before I knew it, I had gained about 15 lbs of pure fluff. It actually took me several months to get back to being strict with my carnivore diet. Things finally clicked for me when I decided to get back in the saddle in January.
Throughout the months of November and December, I realized my body was possibly sending me some signals that my dietary fat was possibly too high. Not only had I put on some weight around my midsection, but I also was noticing some other changes in my digestion that weren’t good. I decided that I would design an experiment for myself, and anyone at Ketovangelist Unlimited who wanted to join, where I would maintain my protein at a certain level and cut back on dietary fat over a period of several weeks. This was the genesis of what is now The Carnivore Keto Cutting program that will be out within the next week! Most of us saw some amazing results.
My key learnings from this period were that I could cut dietary fat and lean out considerably, without sacrificing my performance or my precious blood ketones. However, like most things I do, I had to go further. How low could I get my fat? How high could I get my protein? I was learning about the protein leverage hypothesis from listening to and reading stuff by Dr. Ted Naiman, and I was also riding this new wave of Carnivory becoming much more popular, thanks to Dr. Baker’s recent interview with Joe Rogan. You see, in the carnivore/zero carb community, many people scoff at things like moderating protein, testing ketones, intermittent fasting and pretty much anything associated with keto. I was trying to figure out which one worked better for me. Was it carnivore, or was it keto? The last experiment I did before I finally knew what works for me was my latest high protein experiment. It was pretty straightforward. I had seen my good friends Jimmy Moore and Dr. John Limansky try a very high protein and low-fat version of the carnivore diet. It was basically 1.5 x lean body mass for protein, and a 3:1 protein to fat ratio in grams. This seemed really extreme to me, but I followed along as I started thinking about my own version that would still be above typical ketogenic ratios, but not as extreme. I settled on 1.25 x lean body mass with a 2:1 protein to fat ratio in grams (260 grams of protein a day with only 130 grams of fat). I took a baseline bod pod at the beginning of April, and planned on getting scanned again mid-month, as well as the end of the end of the month. Other than that, I would monitor blood sugar and blood ketones, and subjective measures such as energy levels and training intensity. I kept the option open of adjusting as I went through this to find what would be best for me.
Long story short, this was a pretty terrible idea. The fat was too low, and my performance suffered. After three days, I was feeling hungrier than before, and my training had become a drag. Not surprisingly, I lost WEIGHT, but I also lost lean mass. I decided to bring it back to 1 x my lean body mass for protein, and a 1:1 protein to fat ratio, and I gained back what I lost in lean mass, and felt great.
So here we are now. What does “carnivore keto” mean to me? After thinking about this and tweaking things for almost a year, I have realized that sticking to ketogenic ratios and Phinney and Volek’s ranges is the way to go for me. For the most part, I eat only meat, with some dairy. I also do allow for the occasional low sugar fruit, such as avocado or zucchini (which are both pretty harmless, and versatile when it comes to what you can do with them). I think that too much protein doesn’t feel great, even if my blood ketone levels are still elevated and my blood sugar is still stable. As far as what my menu is made up of, I am adamant about not including vegetables, nuts or seeds, due to the risks associated with them. I try to avoid many vegetable oils at all costs (the main examples would be corn and safflower oil, soybean oil, etc), but I love MCT oil, and sometimes I will have coconut oil. I also allow myself the occasional avocado when it’s cheap (usually the summer), and possibly other low sugar fruit such as zucchini. Mind you, I don’t go out of my way to eat these. Practically speaking, I may have had either a handful of times in the past several months, but they are a safe option in my opinion. Other than that, the only real nuts and seeds I find do not affect me negatively are pili nuts and macadamia nuts. If my wife orders pili nuts or salted macadamia FBombs, I may have some of either as a treat. This is where I may be taken away by the “carnivore police”, but it is also why I call it “carnivore keto”. I think that this is a great way to get the best of both carnivore and keto. It’s also completely sustainable and may be easier for some to adhere to than just a strict carnivore diet. If I am trying to shed some fat, I make sure to cut all of these out. I have several other ideas on how to optimize this way of eating for fat loss, and I cover them in our upcoming Carnivore Keto Cutting program. If you are interested in benefitting from my experience and following a program that has been tested and proven to be highly effective, check it out when it launches! For the week of May 18-24th we will be having a pre-sale for anyone interested at www.carnivoreketoplan.com