Carnivore & Cholesterol: Is a Carnivore Diet Bad for High Cholesterol?

You’ve likely seen the carnivore diet making waves on social media or know someone who’s adopted it. Naturally, this raises the question: wouldn’t a carnivore diet negatively impact cholesterol levels? The answer is yes, and in this article, I’ll explain why.

Understanding The Carnivore Diet

Before diving into the carnivore and cholesterol connection, it is important to understand what the carnivore diet entails.

So what exactly is the carnivore diet? Those following the carnivore diet only consume animal products, meaning their entire diet is made up of 

  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Poultry 
  • Dairy products

… while completely eliminating plant-based foods.

As you can probably guess, it is a very low carb, high protein and high fat diet. It can also be thought of as an extreme version of the keto diet (1). And the potential impact on cholesterol levels remain a critical concern to many.

Video Summary

How Does The Carnivore Diet Affect Cholesterol Levels?

One of the primary issues when discussing carnivore and cholesterol is the high intake of saturated fats, which are abundant in animal products. But first, lets discuss what cholesterol is, the different types of cholesterol and what foods impact which type.

Cholesterol is a substance that we all naturally have in our bodies, and it isn’t inherently bad, as our bodies use it for various functions such as building new cells and making hormones (2). However, it is important to distinguish between the different types of cholesterol. 

First, we need to differentiate between blood cholesterol and dietary cholesterol. Dietary cholesterol is found in foods like eggs and meat, but your main concern shouldn’t be with dietary cholesterol, but blood cholesterol (3). Blood cholesterol is the cholesterol circulating in your blood, and it is what we will focus on in the next section.  

There are two different types of blood cholesterol we will talk about. First, we have LDL cholesterol, which is referred to as the “bad” cholesterol. Having too much LDL cholesterol circulating in your bloodstream is of concern for heart health because it can lead to a condition called atherosclerosis. 

Atherosclerosis means the narrowing of the arteries which is caused by a build up of LDL cholesterol and other substances in the arteries. Atherosclerosis can increase the risk of heart disease by putting excess strain on your heart since it will have to work harder to pump your blood through the narrower arteries. It also increases the risk of stents, and/or stroke, since it may cause a blood clot to form which could make its way to the brain. 

Then, there is HDL cholesterol, the “good” cholesterol. HDL cholesterol helps to remove excess LDL cholesterol from the blood by transporting it to the liver where it will be broken down and disposed of. HDL cholesterol therefore can help to prevent heart disease by lowering LDL cholesterol levels, thereby lowering the risk of atherosclerosis. 

Foods high in saturated fats will increase LDL cholesterol levels. These foods include:

  • Red meat
  • High fat dairy (like cheese and cream)
  • Baked goods (that use butter and lard)

Foods that contain unsaturated fats will help to increase HDL cholesterol levels. This includes foods like:

Impact of Animal Products on Cholesterol

As mentioned above, red meat and dairy products are both high in saturated fat, and therefore may increase LDL cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease.

The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to around 5% to 6% of calories from saturated fat.

For example, if you need about 2,000 calories a day, no more than 120 of them should come from saturated fat. That’s about 13 grams of saturated fat per day.

In order to achieve this guideline it is recommended to choose whole grains,  fish, plant-based protein and a variety of fruits and vegetables.

While the carnivore diet can include fish, which contains unsaturated fat, the overall emphasis is on meats and animal products contribute to a high intake of saturated fat. 

Thus, the carnivore diet can contribute to a higher cholesterol level.

How Much Saturated Fat Is In These Foods?

Examples of Foods and Amount of Saturated Fat

Here are some common foods with their respective amounts of saturated fat per serving (from the USDA):

  1. Beef (Ribeye steak, 3 oz): 6 grams
  2. Pork (Pork chop, 3 oz): 3 grams
  3. Chicken (Breast, with skin, 3 oz): 1 gram
  4. Butter (1 tablespoon): 7 grams
  5. Cheddar Cheese (1 oz): 6 grams
  6. Whole Milk (1 cup): 4.5 grams
  7. Eggs (1 large): 1.6 grams
  8. Salmon (3 oz): 1 gram
  9. Ground Beef (80% lean, 3 oz cooked): 5 grams
  10. Bacon (1 slice): 1.1 grams
  11. Sausage (1 link, pork): 6 grams
  12. Cream Cheese (1 tablespoon): 3.5 grams
  13. Ice Cream (1/2 cup): 4.5 grams
  14. Coconut Oil (1 tablespoon): 12 grams
  15. Mayonnaise (1 tablespoon): 1.5 grams
  16. Half-and-Half Cream (1 tablespoon): 1.2 grams
  17. Pepperoni (1 oz): 4 grams
  18. Coconut Milk (1 cup, canned): 10 grams
  19. Dark Chocolate (1 oz, 70-85% cocoa): 5 grams
  20. Avocado (1 whole): 3 grams

Nutrients in the Carnivore Diet

Some essential nutrients will still be in abundance in the carnivore diet, however other essential nutrients will be lacking. 

Meat and animal products are high in protein, which is an essential macronutrient we all need. Proteins are made up of amino acids, which our bodies use for various functions, including tissue growth and maintenance, energy and different biochemical pathways.

Although it contains high amounts of protein, the carnivore diet contains very low amounts of carbohydrates, which are another macronutrient that we need. Carbohydrates are the main energy source for our bodies. Although low-carb diets are often followed for weight loss and can work for many people, carbohydrates like whole grains, fruits and vegetables can and should still fit into a heart healthy diet.

B vitamins are also found in abundance in the carnivore diet. There are a total of 8 different B vitamins that exist in our foods. Meat and eggs are excellent sources of B vitamins, which have various functions in the body, for example, they are important for certain enzymes and contribute to metabolism (4)

Although the carnivore diet is rich in B vitamins, it lacks other nutrients like fiber and antioxidants, such as vitamin C. 

Vitamin C is important for our immune system and there is some evidence to suggest that it may also play a role in heart health by reducing the risk of atherosclerosis (5). Vitamin C is an example of an antioxidant, which may also help to reduce inflammation (6)

Fiber is important for our digestion, and soluble fiber in particular may also help to reduce LDL cholesterol levels by binding to it in the digestive tract, thereby preventing it from entering the blood and instead, any that is bound is eliminated in our stool along with the fiber. 

Finally, some of the foods that may be eaten on the carnivore diet, like processed meats and red meats, can be high in sodium. Consuming too much sodium is linked to high blood pressure, which can increase the risk of heart disease. 

Research on Carnivore and Cholesterol

Much of the research that exists in favor of the carnivore diet comes from anecdotal evidence and long-term studies are lacking. For example, a study with just over 2000 respondents found that many had self-reported improvements from the diet but it states that further research is still needed. 

Since the results were self-reported, it can be hard to actually measure the results the respondents experienced or determine what exactly they consumed while on the carnivore diet compared to their previous eating pattern. 

It was also stated in the study above that many people follow the carnivore diet for weight loss. There is evidence that exists to support low-carb diets for weight loss, however most people do not need to completely cut out all carbs (7)

Following a low-carb diet can still include heart healthy options like fruits, vegetables and whole grains, however it can be beneficial to avoid carbs that are high in added sugar like baked goods and other highly processed foods. 

There are studies that exist on heavy meat consumption and heart health, even if they are not looking at the carnivore diet specifically. One study looked at the relationship between animal-based diets and heart health. It suggests that an animal-based diet may lead to increased LDL cholesterol levels along with a few other contributing factors to heart disease. 

Another study from the American Heart Association also found a correlation between the prevalence of heart disease and higher levels of meat consumption, especially red meats and processed meat. 

As we can see from looking at these few studies, we cant definitely provide anything about carnivore and cholesterol.

What we do know is the carnivore diet may be effective short-term for some people for weight loss or other health issues (as self-reported), however long-term, the effects are more unknown but evidence suggests it may pose a risk to heart health and increase the risk of heart disease. 

Alternative Diets for Heart Health

As mentioned earlier, heart healthy diets should include some carbohydrates like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. 

Some examples of heart healthy diets include the 

All of which include a variety of foods and focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, nuts, lean and plant based protein sources. 

Final Thoughts on Carnivore and Cholesterol

Although the carnivore diet is currently popular on social media, there may be significant impacts on heart health in the long run. 

It may be more beneficial to follow other more sustainable heart healthy diets like the Mediterranean Diet, DASH Diet or Portfolio Diet rather than such an extreme diet like the carnivore diet. 

Before making any changes to your diet it is recommended to consult your doctor or see a Registered Dietitian for more personalized advice. 

Image of Veronica Rouse with Free 7 day heart healthy meal plan freebie.

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