At 26 years old, Mikhaila Peterson says she’s finally been able to cure herself of depression, rheumatoid arthritis, and a myriad of other chronic illnesses.
Her solution: Eating meat. Lots of it.
Both Peterson and her father, Jordan Peterson — a renowned Canadian clinical psychologist and intellectual — swear by a carnivorous diet for turning their health and their lives around.
A self-described sick child, Peterson experienced juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at 7 years old. She was given immunosuppressive treatments, including injections of Enbrel and Methotrexate (typically used in cancer chemotherapy).
Despite the treatments, the arthritis eventually required her to undergo hip and ankle replacement surgery at the age of 17.
After years of pharmaceutical treatment to manage her symptoms, Peterson eventually took a drastic step of her own.
She eliminated the majority of foods from her diet, including all carbohydrates.
In 2015, at the age of 23, Peterson began a diet known widely as the ketogenic diet — and it appeared to be working wonders.
“That solved most of my problems instantly. It was like a month and my arthritis was gone and my skin had cleared up. But it was particularly good at controlling the depression. It lessened, but I still had severe anxiety, but my fatigue went away as well,” she told Healthline.
Cutting out the carbs
The ketogenic diet is based on the simple premise that when carbohydrate intake is drastically lowered, or stopped entirely, the body must find a new primary source of energy.
That source is fat.
However, the ketogenic diet is about more than just cutting carbs. Fat must become the primary source of calories.
To be done correctly, the ketogenic diet requires individuals to consume around 70 percent of their daily calories from fat.
To put that in perspective, current U.S. diet recommendations say that individuals should only consume 25 to 30 percent of their daily calories from fat.
According to Peterson, the benefits of the diet appeared to fade after she became pregnant. So after her pregnancy, she started on the next phase of dieting: becoming completely carnivorous.
If the ketogenic diet is on the extreme side of low-carb dieting, then the carnivore diet is on the extreme side of the ketogenic diet.
“So, it’s basically the ketogenic diet without the vegetables,” said Peterson. “I was eating meat and a lot of salad, so all I did was cut out the salad.”
More research needed
Not surprisingly, experts have pushed back against the carnivore diet.
They cite numerous potential problems, including scurvy, constipation, and inflammation of the colon.
And despite the Peterson family’s effusive anecdotal evidence of the diet’s ability to cure depression and autoimmune disorders, there have yet to be rigorous scientific studies to prove such claims.
Healthline contacted Jeff Volek, a professor at The Ohio State University and an expert on the ketogenic diet who has authored numerous peer-reviewed studies on the topic, to clarify where the science really stands.
On depression and mental health, he says there may be some merit to a meat-oriented diet.
“There is a growing body of work that links excessive sugar intake to abnormal brain chemistry that manifests in different ways such as depression. Thus, by virtue of cutting back on sugar and processed carbs, a ketogenic diet may improve mood state. The increase in circulating ketones may also directly benefit brain chemistry and function in ways that improve depression,” said Volek.
However, he notes that this has yet to be demonstrated in large, controlled studies. A 2017 review of the psychiatric effects of the ketogenic diet found that in several studies — on mice — the diet reduced both anxious and depressive behavior.
Evidence of the ketogenic diet’s anti-inflammatory properties has also been demonstrated in some prior animal studies.
In October, researchers at the University of California San Francisco said they had identified the mechanism by which the diet suppresses inflammation — potentially leading to new therapies for brain trauma, stroke, and diabetes.
However, clinical trials involving humans have yet to demonstrate this.
“Ketogenic diets have repeatedly been shown to dampen inflammation. Multiple mechanisms have been identified to explain this effect including specific effects of ketones on certain inflammatory pathways. There is strong reason to believe a ketogenic diet may be help in certain autoimmune disease, but humans studies are lacking and most of the evidence is anecdotal and testimonials,” said Volek.
Leaving anecdotal evidence aside, the ketogenic diet is an established therapeutic intervention for some conditions.
It’s currently recognized as part of treatment for seizures in children with epilepsy.
There’s also strong evidence that it can be effective for weight loss and reversing insulin resistance — a driving factor in developing type 2 diabetes.
“A large body of work now indicates that sustained ketosis over weeks, results in broad-spectrum health benefits such as decreased weight and body fat, improved blood pressure, lipid profiles, and more,” said Volek.
Still, the ketogenic diet — and even more so, the carnivore diet — remain polarizing in health circles.
“Keto diets should only be used under clinical supervision and only for brief periods,” Francine Blinten, RD, a certified clinical nutritionist and public health consultant in Connecticut, told Healthline.
“It can do more harm than good. It can damage the heart, which is also a muscle,” she explained.
Other nutritionists worry that with the diet’s growing popularity, it may simply become the next fad diet for those desperate to lose a couple of pounds.
The ketogenic diet has also been described as antisocial because of the profound limitations it places on what one can eat, making it difficult to share meals or drink with friends.
Because of the “antisocial” nature of the diet, some experts have called into question whether or not it’s sustainable in the long run — leading to starting and stopping, so-called “yo-yo” dieting.
But, for Peterson, and others like her, the benefits of the diet clearly outweigh the potential problems.
“It’s incredibly difficult socially. You can’t go over to somebody’s [house] for dinner,” said Peterson. “[But] I think most people feel better enough that it’s worth it.”