Many long time practitioners of a Zero Carb diet have shied away from discussions on macronutrient amounts and ratios in an effort to keep things simple. The general recommendation is to eat as much fatty meat as you want whenever you feel hungry. I understand the pull of this advice. We all want things to be as uncomplicated as possible, and having to the calculate protein and fat content of one’s diet can put some people into a mathematical tailspin. While this basic advice works well for some people, it does not work well for everyone. Therefore, I am going to dive headfirst into this subject and try to explain why this might be the case.
I have been practicing a Zero Carb diet now for 9 months. Not as long as some have, certainly, but long enough to know how this diet affects my body. I have made it through the initial adaptation process that occurs when one eliminates all plant foods and carbohydrates from their diet, and so any unpleasant symptoms I may be experiencing from the diet now are probably not due to that.
I had many challenges when first starting this diet due to histamine intolerance, and it was difficult for me to even find a meat that was low enough in histamines that I could eat without getting a migraine and feeling generally awful. I had only one source of beef that was not aged very long and was low in histamines, but it was from grassfed cows and was also low in fat. When I tried to add other fats to it, I did not feel well. Any rendered fat (such as tallow, lard, or butter) caused serious digestive problems (like hours of nausea and burping).
However, I was experiencing enough benefits from this way of eating that I continued on with the leaner grassfed meat because I could not figure out what else to do. But the longer I ate it, the worse I felt. It did not satisfy my hunger even after eating 2 lbs of it, and I was constantly thinking about eating again. It also made me very tired and lethargic, as well as extremely thirsty. I really didn’t know what else to do.
Then, I decided to do a water fast with my dog to help with some of his health problems, and we ended up going for 16 days. After the fast was over, I found that my histamine tolerance was much improved. I tested steaks from both Costco and Sprouts and found that I could eat them without developing a migraine afterwards. This was a welcome surprise. Now I could eat meat with more fat on it, and I found that I felt so much better. The fat that is part of the meat itself did not create the same kind of digestive upset that rendered fats did.
Throughout all of this, I finally decided to read two classic works by individuals who were very knowledgeable and experienced with eating and recommending an all-meat diet: The Fat of the Land by Vilhjalmur Stefansson and Strong Medicine by Blake Donaldson. Both of these books should – in my opinion – be required reading for anyone who is interesting in trying a Zero Carb diet.
Stefansson was an anthropologist who spent 10 years off and on living with the Arctic Natives and eating their diet. He experienced their way of life first hand and wrote about it in many books. When he returned to civilization, however, his academic colleagues did not believe he was telling the truth about the Native diet, so Stefansson agreed to allow a group of doctors to supervise him for one full year while eating an all-meat diet. The details of this unique study performed at Bellevue Hospital in New York can be read here: “Prolonged Meat Diets with a Study of Kidney Function and Ketosis.”
The upshot of that study was that neither Stefansson nor his colleague Karsten Andersen, who also participated, showed any signs of nutritional deficiencies or other health problems as a result of eating an all-meat diet for an entire year. The most interesting part of this study for me was the macronutrient profile of their diet. These two men both ate an average of 100-140 gm of protein and 200-300 gm of fat, totally 2100-3000 calories per day. That amount of protein equals about 14-20 oz of meat (lean portion) per day. All of the rest of their calories came from fat. There diet derived 75-80% of all calories from fat. Clearly, their meat was much fattier in 1929 than most of the meat we have available to us in supermarkets today.
Stefansson also explains that when one first starts a high fat diet, they have to go through an adaptation period (in the same way that you do when you refuse or remove carbohydrates from your diet). It takes about 3-4 weeks for the digestive system to adjust, and one may experience nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite. He was surprisingly prescient in his understanding of why this occurred and states that the gut bacteria have to undergo significant alteration before we can effectively utilize the higher level of fat in the diet. In other words, he was talking about the GUT BIOME!
So, it is important for people new to a Zero Carb diet, or new to increasing the fat in their current Zero Carb diet, to understand this and be patient with their body. Lex Rooker, a long time raw meat eater, was very nauseated when he decided to up his fat from 65% to 80%. It took his body a while to adjust to the new level, but once it did, he felt much better over all. If you increase your fat percentage slowly over a period of days or weeks, you will experience less negative symptoms. It can be very helpful initially to eat 2-4 smaller meals, rather than one bigger meal, and reduce the amount of fat your digestive system must process at one time. When Stefansson lived with the Arctic Natives, they ate 4 meals per day; and during the Bellevue study, Stefansson and Andersen ate 3 times a day. They never ate all of their food for the day at one sitting.
Donaldson was a physician who practiced medicine from approximately 1900-1960. He stumbled upon the all-meat diet at some point during his career and began prescribing it to all of his sick and obese patients. He recommended 6 oz of meat (lean portion) and 2 oz of fat eaten 3 times per day, for a total of 3000 calories per day. This macronutrient profile is uncannily similar to what Stefansson and Andersen both ate during the Bellevue study. Fat provides about 75-80% of total calories with his recommended ratio of lean to fat. Donaldson said that if his patients ate less than this amount of meat, or skipped meals, their weight loss actually slowed down. He felt that a certain amount of protein was necessary to stoke the metabolic fire needed to burn body fat. He claims to have had a very high success rate with his patients. But since there is no study documenting his results, we can only take his word for it.
Another very interesting doctor who prescribed a mostly all-meat diet for his sick and obese patients was Dr. H.L. Newbold who practiced orthomolecular medicine from approximately 1940-1990. He had the good fortune to work with a brilliant doctor named Theron Randolph who taught Newbold how food allergies can cause serious mental and physical health problems. After many years of practice, Newbold wrote a little known, but very interesting, book called The Type A – Type B Weight Loss Diet. Like Donaldson, he recommended about 16-24 oz of very fatty meat per day, according to appetite. He found that his patients responded best to bone-in ribeye steaks.
Joe and Charlene Andersen have followed a Zero Carb diet for almost 2 decades now and have eaten very fatty ribeyes almost exclusively throughout this time. They also ate a lot of pemmican in the beginning of their journey, and that too is very high in fat. Here is a picture of the ribeyes they buy and eat on a regular basis.
So, what does all this mean for modern day Zero Carb practitioners who want to thrive on this diet?
It is my opinion, based on what I have read from the above authors, as well as my own experience of eating this diet for 9 months now, that recommending people eat as much fatty meat as they want according to hunger will only be successful if the meat they are eating is actually fatty, and their cooking method preserves the fat. I know that sounds a bit crazy, but there are others – like myself – who have been consuming large amounts (2 or more lbs. per day) of lean-ish meat on a regular basis for many months. The result is that some of them have gained weight, failed to lose weight, are still experiencing inflammation, and feel generally blasé. In short, they are not experiencing the “Zen” of Zero Carb.
I believe the main reason they are not experiencing the results they are wanting and expecting is because – in some cases – they are eating too much protein. Too much protein can raise insulin and prevent weight loss, as I describe in my post “Insulin, Glucagon, and Fat Metabolism.” Chronically elevated insulin can also lead to all kinds of health problems. Amy Berger has explored some of the many illnesses that seem to be a direct result of high insulin levels in her terrific blog post “It’s the Insulin Stupid – Part 2.”
When I was eating 2 lbs of lean-ish ground beef, my total protein intake was close to 250 grams a day. Not only is that amount of protein not necessary, it can even be detrimental over the long term. When protein is broken down during digestion, toxic by-products like ammonia are created. These toxins must be eliminated through the kidneys, and the kidneys need water to do their job. This explains why I was so unbelievably thirsty while eating 2 lbs of lean-ish meat per day. As soon as I reduced my protein to 100 gm (16 oz of meat) and increased my fat to almost 200 gm per day, the fierce thirst vanished almost overnight. So, if someone is eating an all-meat diet and they have already made it through the adaptation period (first 4-6 weeks) and they are still incredibly thirsty, I think they would be wise to take a look at how much protein versus fat they are eating.
For economic reasons, many people use ground beef as a staple food on their Zero Carb diet, and it is not always as fatty as they think. When raw, 80/20 ground beef is 70% fat, but after cooking, the fat percentage drops to less than 60%. If you pour all the fat from the pan back over your ground beef, you will be getting close to percentage of fat recommended by Stefansson, Donaldson, and Newbold. But if you do not add the fat back to your ground beef, then you will fall short. You can also lose a lot of fat from a fatty steak if you barbecue it and the fat drips off the meat during the cooking process. This, not only is the original fat content of the meat important, but so is the cooking method. If you lose a lot of fat during cooking, then you will need to add extra fat to your meal to make up the deficit.
How much protein does a person need for health? This is a very controversial subject. Dr. Ron Rosedale comes down on the side that less is better. He recommends 1 gm of protein per kilogram of lean body mass. You figure that out, you take your weight in pounds and divide by 2.2 and then subtract 10%. I weigh 115 lb —> divided by 2.2 —> 52 kg —> minus 10% —> 46 gm of protein per day to meet absolute needs. For a thorough look at the potential downside of eating TOO MUCH protein, read Rosedale’s post “Protein: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”
Now, it is important to understand that Rosedale is an endocrinologist who treats patients with severe metabolic derangement. The more insulin resistant you are, the less protein you can eat without it converting into glucose. Though many of us today do suffer from insulin resistance to one degree or another, as explained in Amy Berger’s excellent post “It’s the Insulin Stupid – Part 1,” it is unlikely that we all need to limit our protein intake to that low of a level.
In fact, low carb dietitian Franzka Spritzler argues that limiting protein too much could both prevent weight loss and compromise overall health. She has done an outstanding job of laying out the research in her post “In Defense of High Protein, Low Carb Diets.” Interestingly, her recommendations -based on the research she sites – fall somewhere between 100-120 gm of protein per day for most people, and this coincides almost perfectly with the practical experience of Stefansson, Donaldson, and Newbold.
If you simply follow these basic guidelines laid out by these three early Zero Carb pioneers, you will likely do just fine. But if you are very insulin resistant and want to gauge your upper limit for protein more specifically, you can do so by testing your morning blood glucose after a 12 hour overnight fast. If your glucose is higher than 90 mg/dL (5.0 mmol/L), then you are likely eating too much protein for your particular metabolism. You can inch your protein down 10 gm at a time until your glucose comes down to below 90 mg/dL (5.0 mmol/L). This process will help you identify your personal protein limit and tailor a Zero Carb diet in a way that will serve you best.
Many people on a Zero Carb diet are discouraged from calculating their macronutrient ratios. I feel this is a mistake. If one wishes to be successful eating an all-meat diet for the long term, I think it is imperative to have a basic understanding of how much protein and fat you are eating. This is not something that needs to become an all consuming obsession with every single meal calculated and tracked. The joy of a Zero Carb diet is – for many – the freedom it provides in that regard compared to the more complicated Low Carb Ketogenic diets they may have tried previously. But if you do not have epilepsy or cancer or some other potentially fatal illness that you are using a Zero Carb diet to treat, then there is no need to be that specific.
Once you have a concept of how much meat equals 100 gm, and how much fat needs to be added to that meat to achieve a ratio of 70-80% calories as fat, then it becomes very easy. After you do it a few times, you will develop a sixth sense for how much of each you need by the way it looks on your plate and how you feel after eating it. Michael Frieze – who has practiced a Zero Carb diet for over 5 years now – developed an intuitive approach that has worked very well for him. He simple eats all of the fat on his meat first until he is maxed out on fat. Only then does he begin to eat the lean portion of his meat. If there is not enough fat on the meat, he will eat butter straight until he has satisfied his fat hunger before proceeding on to the lean portion of his meat. He says he learned this from The Bear (aka Owsley Stanley) who practiced a Zero Carb diet successfully for 50 years.
Neither Michael nor Joe and Charlene ever track anything with their food. They just eat really fatty meat and place a high priority on the fat, and all three of them are thriving on this diet. So clearly tracking is not necessary if you have access to really fatty meat and can afford to eat it on a regular basis. However, if you are a bit of a nerd like me and enjoy tracking and calculating things, and you find it fun and interesting (rather than complicated and stressful), then of course you are free to do so. I personally use the free online program Cronometer.
In conclusion, while it is important not to eat too much protein, it is also important to eat enough. Based on the above discussion, 100 gm of protein (16 oz of meat) per day is a good place to start, and then you can fine tune – up or down – from there, depending on your personal needs. If you find yourself hungry after eating this amount of meat, then you may not be eating enough fat. Stefansson and Andersen ate 2 gm of fat for every gm of protein. So, if you eat 25 gm of protein (4 oz of meat) be sure to eat 50 gm of fat with it (as part of the meat itself or added extra to make up the difference). There is no hard and fast rule that will be perfect for everyone, but this is the formula recommended and practiced by people who were and are very experienced with this diet.
Optimal Protein on a Zero Carb Diet – Part 2
Is a Zero Carb Diet a Ketogenic Diet?
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