What is happening here? To people following mainstream nutrition advice it’s the exact opposite of what they’ve heard. The message has been to eat less meat (especially red meat) and fat for decades. Yet these people are feeling better than ever eating ONLY these things.
I did my own carnivore experiment a few times over the years and didn’t see any benefits over eating a Sapien Diet. My version of Sapien is about 90% of calories coming from animal foods. I eat most of the 10 plant foods listed below (except for squash) as side dishes. They all don’t provide many calories other than avocado (because of all the fat), so I’m getting the bulk of my nutrition from the more complete and bioavailable nutrition animal foods provide.
My theory is that eating well-chosen plant foods allows you to enjoy all the benefits of a carnivore diet, while also providing additional benefits to most people. I understand many people doing strict carnivore diets do so for specific health reasons, so will put a caveat there. If you can’t handle any plant foods due to autoimmune or other issues, read no further. For the rest of you, let’s see if we can add a bit more variety in your diet!
The 10 Best Plant Foods
While these aren’t exactly in order of best to worst, avocado certainly is a strong start. With some salt and pepper or as guacamole it’s one of the most delicious healthy plant foods there is. It also provides a solid punch of potassium that’s actually about 50% more than bananas provide (per 100g). Plus it has 0.3g of sugars compared to 12.2g for 100g of banana. They both have the same amount of Vitamin C and avocado has more total vitamins & minerals including another couple good ones like folate and Vitamin K1. So why are bananas supposed to be so great again?
They are also rich in monounsaturated fat (MUFA) and low in polyunsaturated fat (PUFA). It’s good to mix it up and get some more MUFAs in your diet and not always rely on saturated fats that animals are blessed with. It’s also probably a good idea to keep your PUFAs to only about 2–4% of your calories as advised by Dr. Cate Shanahan and many others.
Fermented foods like sauerkraut are amazing in many ways. The fermentation process not only gets rid of anti-nutrients that block vitamin absorption, but it also decreases the amount of sugar. Sauerkraut contains a variety of probiotics without the added sugar of things like kombucha. It also packs 23% of your daily value of Vitamin C that people may lack on the carnivore diet.
Humans have been consuming fermented foods like sauerkraut for around 10,000 years. So, they’re ancestrally appropriate and there seems to be little downside. It’s very low calories (not that anyone should track them) so it’s by no means reducing your animal-based nutrition. It adds to variety and flavor and gives savory meats a great accompaniment. Kim chi has similar benefits, but unless you’re making it yourself, it likely has added sugar.
Any variety of mushrooms or edible fungi are great additions to an animal-based diet. There’s a whole article outlining the benefits here (Healthline is a good source of balanced information that isn’t in any nutrition “camp”). They provide potassium, selenium, and antioxidants.
While some in the carnivore world think antioxidants and fiber are a scam, a small amount of them are likely to be beneficial. More on this here. Mushrooms provide a small amount of fiber that help the intestines transmit any undigested matter. They have even been said to have some antiseptic properties since they can absorb toxins and disinfect the bowels. Plus, having a side of delicious mushrooms to soak up leftover fat in the pan is a treat nobody should deny themselves of.
4) Pickled foods
Pickled foods like pickles, jalapeños, and pickled carrots are delicious, low anti-nutrient plant foods. Like Sauerkraut, they provide a source of probiotics which likely supports a healthy gut. Pickled foods are a great source of electrolytes which is important since many people on the carnivore diet experience electrolyte imbalance.
In fact, on any low carb diet, it can help to up your electrolytes. For decades, cyclists have been using pickle juice to aid them in their long rides and even to treat muscle cramps since it’s rich in potassium and magnesium.
Cucumbers are a good low-sugar fruit that most people consider a vegetable. They have seeds, therefore are technically a fruit, but don’t have all the sugar that most modern fruit contains. They’re made up of about 95% water so they are hydrating and quite satiating for such a low amount of calories.
Use them as a vehicle for dips or spreads instead of chips. Recently, we’ve been seeing creative cucumber boat recipes. Just cut them in half, hollow them out, and fill them with your favorite ingredients! Don’t forget to add bacon.
Onions are very delicious if cooked properly. They can take any dish to the next level in terms of taste, particularly ground beef or burgers. In terms of their nutritional value, onions are rich in potassium, Vitamin C, and they provide some prebiotic starch. Prebiotics feed our gut bacteria to create short chain fatty acids like butyrate that have been associated with a healthy gut. As we know, a health gut means a stronger immune system and enhanced digestion.
Squash, also known as summer squash, tends to have a bit more carbs than the rest of these items, but it is useful for people who want to include some starchy foods in their diet. Squash is commonly thought of as a vegetable, however, it is really a fruit. Fruits can definitely fit into a low carb framework for anyone who is very active or feels better on the higher end of the low carb range.
Besides being rich in potassium and magnesium, it is a good source of manganese. Manganese boosts bone strength and aids in the metabolism of both carbs and fats. Squash is the perfect seasonal treat for carnivores looking to try something different during the holiday season. While it’s carb content is frowned upon by many, it is definitely a healthier option than most vegetable oil-laden items on the dessert menu.
8) Dark Chocolate
Some people can’t imagine a world without chocolate. But dark chocolate is a double edged sword. On one hand, people are pointing to its health benefits. On the other hand, people are arguing that it contains harmful anti-nutrients such as phytic acid and lectins.
If you can tolerate it, having a hunk of dark chocolate now and then may be beneficial. It is rich in magnesium, a mineral that about half of Americans may be deficient in. Like onions, it contains some prebiotic fiber. It is also rich in important minerals like copper and manganese. Aim for a dark chocolate with a cacao percent of 85% or above. The higher the cacao percent, the more bitter the dark chocolate will be since the sugar is replaced with pure cacao.
Cacao certainly is an ancestral food. Amazonian tribes consume it during ceremonies. The Kuna of Panama drink up a few cups of hot cacao daily. Like other foods on this list, dark chocolate actually undergoes a fermentation process that makes it palatable and nutritious.
Don’t forget to check the ingredient labels for any hidden ingredients or additives! You can also make your own pretty easily with a quick google search.
Like chocolate, many people claim (with varying degrees of sarcasm) that life isn’t worth living without coffee. Perhaps we saved the best for last. Black coffee is a rich source of vitamin B2 and magnesium. Although we should be wary of epidemiological studies, they have repeatedly shown that coffee is associated with lower rates of cancer and alzheimers; they have also shown that coffee can improve symptoms of depression and diabetes.
Coffee doesn’t really have any magical properties, but it can be a powerful tool for some people. Its caffeine content can provide a boost of energy and ward off hunger in the morning. Even if you don’t drink it daily, having one in a social setting isn’t going to impede your progress on the carnivore diet.
This might be a bit exotic to some, but seaweeds have a high amount of hard-to-get nutrients. Some important ones are iodine and tyrosine which help your thyroid to function properly. Iodine is a key ingredient for proper thyroid function yet many people seem to neglect its role in a healthy metabolism.
Nori is the type of seaweed that is used for sushi. It has a lower iodine content compared to other types of seaweed such as Wakame, or Kombu. Wakame is used in miso soup, and Kombu is a brown seaweed that is often sold dried or in a powder. Just one gram of Kombu contains 2,000% of the recommended daily intake of iodine. Might be easy to overdue but clearly nutrient dense!
If you’re feeling adventurous or maybe there’s a special occasion, you could try some Sapien sushi. Take any cuts of sushi-grade raw fish and some avocado and wrap it in small sheets of nori to make hand rolls.
Why These Foods?
These foods were chosen for a variety of very specific reasons. They all have a few things in common, however.
They provide key nutrients not very abundant in common animal foods
They all have low anti-nutrients
They all are low in sugar
They’re traditionally processed (which is the opposite of harmful modern processing)
They are delicious!
Diet and food preference is a very personal thing and there is no single way of eating. If you don’t want to box yourself into a strict carnivore diet, these are some great plant foods with little side effects.
There’s also a social and ancestral component to these foods.
Humans have been bonding over different plant foods for thousands of years. Whether it’s drinking a ceremonial hot cup of cacao or fermenting vegetables, they are built into some cultures. Of course, we can bond while barbequing, but would it hurt to have a coffee on a first date? Probably not.
Stress is a big factor in your health, and you want to minimize it as much as possible. It might be important to loosen up and try a small amount of plant foods at a social occasion if it means you’ll feel more comfortable socially. You also don’t want to be in your head constantly and think it’s a big “cheat” to have some of these safe plant foods if you’re on a carnivore diet.
Some of these foods have been around for thousands of years. They are part of a tradition, and if you can tolerate them, they are probably worth trying and enjoying with friends and family.
Lastly, it also could be a good idea to keep the gut bacteria species around that deal with plant foods. Once you stop feeding them, they’ll die off. Some people have terrible GI distress when trying to add plant foods back in once they go strict carnivore for too long. I personally like to enjoy all kinds of foods on the weekends at social events. I’m very metabolically flexible and can easily handle carbs or other plant foods when I desire.
You want to be antifragile. You don’t want a little bit of cucumber to land you in the bathroom for an hour. I think it’s wise to keep your gut flora primed and ready for whatever you throw at it.
The last word
I believe it’s beneficial to have some flexibility and variety in your diet to achieve long term success. For the average person, a carnivore diet is pretty restrictive. The juice may not be worth the squeeze, as they say. You might find the exact same benefits with a 95% animal-based diet without the multiple downsides mentioned from strict adherence.
I too could eat a perfectly cooked ribeye every day, but I find it even better to add a little variation on the plate. All civilizations we know of include plant foods in their diet at some time of the year. Maybe it’s for good reason. Maybe it’s just for a bit of variety. Maybe I just want to hedge my bets and am looking for reasons to eat a bit of avocado.
So let’s not be like the vegans and fall into dogmatic thinking. Yes, I get it, plants have antinutrients. That doesn't mean we need to form a hysterical group of plant-phobic zealots. Even my good friend Paul Saladino, the Carnivore MD, is coming around to carbs and safe plant foods.
So grab some Nose to Tail meat, sautée up some mushrooms and onions, and enjoy living a healthier life than 99% of people out there!
by Brian Sanders Founder of Nose to Tail and Sapien