Diet and autoimmune disease: Is a carnivore diet a viable option?
By Dr. Rachael Bailey
While medication plays an essential role in living with autoimmune disease, many individuals seek alternative ways to relieve their chronic and often debilitating symptoms. Lifestyle changes and dietary interventions can drastically control disease activity for those with autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s Disease. But why are some people turning to an unproven, and even harmful, all-meat or carnivore diet?
When making any dietary changes, it is important to research your options carefully and find out whether there is any scientific evidence to support your choices. In this article, we will look at the carnivore diet in more detail and find out why individuals often wrongly turn to this diet to tackle their autoimmune disease.
WHAT IS THE CARNIVORE DIET?
The carnivore diet has been gaining popularity in recent years, with more and more people claiming it offers health benefits. If you’ve ever heard of the carnivore diet, you might wonder why anyone would choose to eat this way. After all, it’s a pretty extreme diet that requires eliminating almost all food sources aside from meat, animal-derived products, and fish.
As the name suggests, the key focus of a carnivore diet is meat. As well as red meat, followers of the diet can eat poultry, fish, eggs, animal fats such as lard, and limited amounts of low-lactose dairy. All plant-based foods, including vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, and seeds, are excluded from the diet. While similar to a ketogenic diet, a carnivore diet is even more restrictive – it is high in protein, high in fat, and preferably free of carbs.
WHY DO SOME PEOPLE TURN TO THE CARNIVORE DIET?
Recently, the carnivore diet has been brought into the spotlight, with anecdotal evidence suggesting it may help to keep autoimmune symptoms at bay. It has been popularized by individuals such as Mikhaila Peterson, who claims that a carnivore diet helped her overcome rheumatoid arthritis and depression.
There is no substantial scientific evidence to support such a diet for inflammatory arthritis. Instead, it is only backed up by self-reported case studies and individual testimonials. Proponents of the carnivore diet claim that reducing their intake of pro-inflammatory refined carbs and sugars and eliminating supposed toxins in plant-based foods helps reduce systemic inflammation that reduces autoimmunity.
So is a carnivore diet a smart choice for those with autoimmune diseases? Is there any real evidence to support these anecdotal reports?
THE CARNIVORE DIET AND INFLAMMATION
Inflammation is an important process in the body that helps protect us against infection and injury. However, chronic inflammation is associated with autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.
Despite reports on social media suggesting that a carnivore diet can reduce inflammation, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it actually does the opposite, increasing inflammation and exacerbating autoimmune symptoms. A systematic review of studies measuring a relationship between meat consumption and inflammation found that “Western-like” or “meat-based” diets positively correlate with inflammation markers such as C-reactive protein. While a recently published cross-sectional study reported an association between higher meat consumption, particularly processed meats, and higher levels of inflammatory markers.
On the other hand, vegetarian-based diets have been associated with decreased levels of inflammatory and immune biomarkers, such as C-reactive protein, fibrinogen, and leucocytes.
IS MEAT A CONTRIBUTOR TO AUTOIMMUNE DISEASE?
An autoimmune disease occurs when your body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells and tissues instead of attacking pathogens or foreign bodies. These diseases can vary in severity, but they are all characterized by chronic inflammation and pain. Some common examples include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and type 1 diabetes. Autoimmune disease is becoming more common, as reported in a recent study which showed that anti-nuclear antibodies (ANA), an important biomarker of autoimmunity, have increased considerably over the last 25 years.
Certain studies have suggested that there may be a connection between eating meat and developing certain autoimmune diseases. For example, one study published in Nutrition Journal found that individuals who ate higher amounts of processed meats were more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis than those who ate more fish and seafood. Other studies have shown links between eating large amounts of animal protein and developing inflammatory bowel disease and type 1 diabetes. New research also suggests that eating meat may put you at greater risk of multiple sclerosis due to its effects on the immune system and the community of healthy bacteria residing in the gut.
Diet is thought to directly impact the composition and activity of bacteria within the gut, which might lead to inflammatory and immunological reactions. Harvard University researchers have demonstrated how rapidly changing to an animal-based diet affects the bacteria that reside in the gut, with pro-inflammatory bacteria appearing to thrive in this environment.
Meat has been shown to induce pro-inflammatory processes, which can trigger inflammation in the body and lead to autoimmunity. Additionally, meat may contain environmental toxins that can further exacerbate the risk of developing an autoimmune disorder.
HOW AUTOIMMUNE FLARE-UPS ARE TRIGGERED BY FOOD
Eating the wrong foods can trigger flare-ups in those who suffer from autoimmune diseases.
Foods that may worsen autoimmune symptoms include:
- Dairy products
- Red Meat
- Refined sugars
The key to managing autoimmune conditions is recognizing individual food triggers and avoiding those that may exacerbate symptoms or cause a reaction. Eating a healthy diet can minimize the risk of triggering autoimmune flare-ups and help maintain our health and well-being.
AUTOIMMUNITY AND THE POWER OF PLANTS
While there is no evidence to suggest that a carnivore diet benefits individuals with autoimmune disease, plenty of evidence supports using a plant-based diet. For example, research has shown that a plant-based diet can help to improve the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Meanwhile, when a group of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) patients limited their intake of processed and animal-based foods and incorporated more plant-based foods in their diet, they reported a significant improvement in their disease symptoms.
Switching to a plant-based diet can provide many benefits, including alleviating inflammation and reducing symptoms like joint pain and fatigue. A plant-based diet eliminates all animal products, such as meat and dairy, so it is naturally free from foods that trigger inflammatory reactions. This means whole food plant-based diets are usually much lower in saturated fat than traditional diets, which can further reduce inflammation associated with autoimmune disease. Eating a wide variety of foods is always the best approach, and the carnivore diet is anything but balanced.
In addition to avoiding certain food triggers, plant-based diets also provide more fibre, which helps keep the digestive system healthy. Fibre improves gut health by aiding digestion and helping maintain an optimal balance of good bacteria in the intestines.
Individuals with autoimmune conditions are increasingly turning to vegan or plant-based diets to experience the plethora of health benefits. By eliminating animal products, these individuals can avoid common inflammatory compounds found in meat and dairy that may exacerbate their symptoms. With a diet free from such components, those with an autoimmune disorder can find relief through nourishing food choices. It’s important to remember that many of the most nutritious foods are plant-based, so it’s hard to imagine that a carnivore diet could be beneficial. If you are looking for a science-supported lifestyle approach to Rheumatoid Arthritis, see the Rheumatoid Arthritis Solutions website.
Dr. Rachael Bailey is an experienced Medical Writer with a Ph.D. in Cell Biology/Gastroenterology and a degree in Biomedical Science. She undertook a Postdoctoral role at the University of Birmingham (UK) within their Cancer Sciences department, where her research contributed to a better understanding of the final stages of DNA replication. She has since established a career as a freelance medical writer and scientific consultant. Her writing expertise includes cell biology, gastroenterology, immunology, HIPAA compliance, and ergonomics. She is a researcher and medical writer for the Paddison Program:
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