Jordan Peterson, clinical psychologist, intellectual, and the author of the elegantly written bestseller 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is arguably one of the most misunderstood and widely taken-out-of-context humans today.
When it comes to his own health and well-being, Jordan Peterson’s “antidote to chaos” involves eating an all-meat diet. The media, vegans, and doctors alike have had a field day with this. With factory farming, climate change threats, and chronic illness, how can one eschew veggies to pursue such an unsustainable regime?
Critics have taken potshots at Jordan Peterson, attempting to link his politics and psyche to rationalize his extreme dietary choices. Eating a solely meat-based diet can be classified as unhealthy, but not for the reasons most critics outline. Those who vilify Peterson’s carnivore leanings are oversimplifying the mechanisms that constitute “health” while failing to see the entire picture from a modern functional medicine point of view.
What’s Your Beef?
Back in July, Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist, and professor at the University of Toronto, and member of the “Intellectual Dark Web” appeared on comedian Joe Rogan’s podcast to partake in a long-form discussion. Toward the end of the three hour and 20-minute conversation, Peterson shared how his daughter Mikhaila convinced him to turn to a pure carnivore diet after she tried it and consequently witnessed major health improvements with her lifelong autoimmune issues.
Within six months of switching to ONLY meat, Peterson lost 50 pounds, no longer had hunger pains, no longer experienced sugar deregulation, and is now intellectually at his best. His lifelong depression, anxiety, gastric reflux, and associated snoring, inability to wake up in the mornings, psoriasis, gingivitis, floaters in his right eye, numbness on the sides of his legs, problems with mood regulation … all disappeared.
Incidentally, Rogan has also had Shawn Baker on his show, a doctor and athlete who eats nothing but meat and says he feels great. But there wasn’t much fanfare about Baker’s flesh-consuming ways. Yet, let’s just say, when it comes to Peterson, there is no shortage of nasty things being said about him.
For instance, Tabath Southey, a columnist for the Canadian magazine, Maclean’s, called Peterson the stupid man’s smart person. “Peterson’s secret sauce is to provide an academic veneer to a lot of old-school right-wing cant, including the notion that most academia is corrupt and evil, and banal self-help patter,” says Southey. “He’s very much a cult thing, in every regard. I think he’s a goof, which does not mean he’s not dangerous.”
Peterson became “a belle of the alt-right” practically overnight. Personally, I find the 56-year-old to be dignified, articulate, and prophetic. There are many lines in his book that are both poetic and poignant. He encourages mortals to question the things they do, step out of their victim narrative, and live responsibly so they can meet their latent individual potential. That’s some fine advice in an age of mediocrity.
As The Guardian reports “Peterson is not just another troll, narcissist, or blowhard whose arguments are fatally compromised by bad faith, petulance, intellectual laziness, and blatant bigotry.”
Rather, as American Academic Camille Paglia puts it, Peterson may be “the most important and influential Canadian thinker since Marshall McLuhan.”
And indeed he does have influence. But when it comes to a persuasion of the culinary kind, critics claim it comes with possible deadly consequences. Why? Because hundreds of fans have turned to an all-meat diet just because Peterson has experienced incredible results from it.
Now, Peterson is not telling anyone to switch to just eating meat. Rather, Peterson makes it very clear on Rogan’s show that he is not a health expert and is speaking as an “uninformed citizen,” simply sharing anecdotal evidence.
Nonetheless many felt the need to come to the defense of fresh fruit, beans, and veggies, even citing the dietary position of the World Health Organization — arguably a troubled United Nations organization “accused of lack of transparency, corruption, and even stifling press freedom,” according to the Cato Institute, public policy research organization — a think tank — dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace.
No one is vilifying veggies. Just because this is working for Peterson (right now), doesn’t mean you should clean the produce from your fridge or incinerate your kale. At least not just yet.
Surely, Peterson would agree that factory farms are unsustainable, unethical, and damage our health and earth in myriad ways. And there are already more than 50 billion farm animals.
The perception remains that if you buy organic and support grass-based systems that you are helping lower the carbon footprint versus consuming meat from intensive, confined systems. This is exemplified by a report from the Environmental Working Group that states “meat, eggs and dairy products that are certified organic, humane and/or grass-fed are generally the least environmentally damaging.”
According to this study, that is not the case. This is because conventional factory farms house fewer animals since they fatten them up and shorten their maturation time. They get more for their buck And yet animal welfare makes a difference and impacts the quality of what you are eating.
Therefore, there is a distinction between conventional livestock production where animals are pumped with hormones and antibiotics, fed grains, and forced to live in abhorrent conditions versus eating minimal organic meat with reverence to an animal that has been able to roam free and eat grass.
And when you’re sick and have a chronic illness, you will do anything to start living again, even it consists of giving up an animal’s life for your own. In Hungary, a group that goes by the name Paleomedicina has actual doctors prescribing a high-fat meat diet to successfully treat chronic disease.
“With hugely positive results (much more effective than medication), they’ve treated pregnant women, infants, and breastfeeding women as well,” writes 26-year old Mikhaila Peterson in her blog Don’t Eat That.
Peterson’s health miracles and those of others merit serious investigation, not to mention comprehensive blood work read by a functional medicine practitioner. Clearly, meat can have health benefits, but it can also be dangerous. Therefore it’s important not to be flippant and understand exactly why meat is both friend and foe.
Let’s break it down.
Lectins, Insulin Resistance, Leaky Gut, Inflammation, And Chronic illness
It’s very likely that after decades of eating a Standard American Diet mixed with possible genetic predispositions (this is based on the fact Peterson’s family has a history of autoimmunity issues), he developed and may have already had sensitivities to certain foods. Consequently, over time, he developed bad gut bacteria and leaky gut, which is when certain foods compromise the tight junctions of the intestine, eroding the lining and making it become porous, thereby allowing i.e., food particles, viruses, and bacteria into the bloodstream. This then causes more food sensitivities, inflammation, and a host of health issues that include many Peterson has lived with, including when the body starts attacking itself, aka autoimmune issues.
When Peterson first started his health journey more than two years ago, he first cut out gluten, which is found in many foods. This protein has been associated with inflammation, leaky gut, pathogenic bacteria proliferation, celiac disease, and brain fog, to name a few issues. It’s pretty safe to say, Peterson formed an allergy to gluten, a protein that many of us cannot digest.
“Gluten is just one kind of a set of plant defensive proteins against being eaten called lectins, which are present in all plants, including the greens that Peterson now proscribes,” explains Dr. Steven Gundry, MD, author of the NY Times bestsellers, The Plant Paradox, and The Plant Paradox Cookbook.
Peterson also lowered his intake of carbs, which in excess has been associated with obesity and insulin resistance. Within a week, many things improved: cravings went away; he snored less; he was less hungry; he had less of a hard time getting out of bed.
“Here’s a question, why is everyone fat and stupid? Because that’s new,” he tells Rogan. And yes, our carb heavy diets and poisoned food supply has something to do with it. Even Peterson, who has no nutritional expertise, has come to the conclusion so many health experts are lamenting: our society eats too much for simple mouth pleasure.
It also seems that Peterson’s body was negatively reacting to other chemical compounds that provide protection for plants against predators. I say this because he experienced even more health boons when he eliminated vegetables altogether.
“I’m certainly intellectually at my best,” he told Rogan. “I’m stronger, I can swim better, and my gum disease is gone. It’s like, what the hell?”
Indeed, what the hell?
“To me, it sounds like he has issues with oxalates, lectins, and severe (gut) dysbiosis,” says functional medicine practitioner Sachin Patel, founder of Living Proof Institute.
“By eating only one protein source, his immune system is likely not going into overdrive. The carbs he was eating were likely feeding his dysbiotic bacteria and he starved them out by not feeding them. Meat is digested higher up in the GI tract and produces less residue for his system to deal with.”
Oxalates are found in foods such as spinach, beets, and raspberries, and can cause kidney stones. Meanwhile, Jordan Peterson is also seemingly reactive to sulfites, which are found in dried fruits, bottled lemon juice, molasses, and kraut. This is because he was down for the count for a month after ingesting apple cider, which also includes sulfites.
Lectins, meanwhile, are also a type of protein, that are found in plants such as tomatoes, lentils, peas, legumes, grains, and certain dairy products. These carbohydrate-binding proteins can be difficult to digest and also increase gut barrier damage. Basically, lectins are the plant’s poisonous mechanism to ward off pests. Lectins are thought to have toxic and inflammatory properties.
“They are concentrated in grains, beans, nightshades, American cow dairy, and even healthy vegetables like cucumber and zucchini,” says Dr. Gundry.
“Lectins stink,” adds Dr. J. Philip E., D.C, an early adopter and leader in the area of functional health care and nutrition.
They’re one of six food compounds that can negatively impact immune function. I avoid them, and even though many folks think they can tolerate them, they’re often simply able to cope with the damage lectins can do for a time. The more your physiology is stressed the greater the impact of lectins can be.
Of course, what we really need to understand what is going on with Peterson is nutritional data.
“I want your blood profile,” Rogan says.
Other tests that would be helpful would look at food sensitivity, leaky gut, stool, and a profile of his gut biome. And then you’ll need someone who can properly read them all.
“Without any pre and post-testing it’s hard to know what direction his health is going in or what modifications he needs to navigate moving forward,” adds Patel.
For now, Peterson’s all-meat diet, which he’s been on less than a year, is not a matter of choice, but seemingly one of necessity. Negative reactions to foods can take up to four days to manifest, and the effects can easily last a month. Because of the possible deleterious impact of veering away from his regime, Jordan Peterson is diligent.
“I eat beef and salt and water. That’s it. And I never cheat. Ever. Not even a little bit.” (By the way, he also eats fat from beef too).
It’s not like it’s fun. It makes you a social pariah. ‘Let’s invite the Petersons. Oh yah, they don’t eat anything. Oh, we have other friends.’ That’s how it works. It’s not out of malevolence. It’s just that if you are a pain, no one invites you out. And so I am a social pain, an ideological pain, and now I am a nutritional pain.
The very thought of this diet makes Patel quiver. “But I do believe that our dietary requirements can change at different stages in our lives,” adds the Toronto-based consultant who has gone through phases of subsisting and thriving on only fruit. “This just goes to show you how simple or complex human nutrition can be.”
And indeed what is good for the goose isn’t necessarily good for the gander. Every person’s microbial profile is distinct, influenced by evolution, genetics, age, sex, upbringing, and diet.
Incidentally, the gut biome profoundly influences mental and physical health. The importance of digestion should not be underestimated.
As the Institute for Functional Medicine explains:
The intestine protects the body from external influences, based on three constituents that are in permanent contact and dialogue with each other: the microflora, mucosal barrier, and immune system. Dysfunction in this system can wreak havoc throughout the body, and has been linked to allergies, arthritis, autoimmune disease, chronic fatigue, and more.
The Very Act Of Elimination
When the gut becomes compromised and the autoimmune system becomes hypervigilant, sometimes the very act of elimination has benefits, because it gets rid of inflammatory triggers and calms digestion, which is the first step toward healing.
“Indeed, it is the elimination of these carbohydrates which contain lectins that is the reason low carb diets, like Atkins, Paleo, Keto all work in the first place,” according to Dr. Gundry. “It’s not the high protein, it’s the absence of injurious plant lectins that result in improvements.”
Studies have documented the benefits of restrictive eating or fasting, which includes enabling the body to repair or even reverse certain health issues. Those with arthritis who fasted, for instance, experienced a decrease in symptoms.
“I have clinically found that some people respond to dietary changes — like an elimination diet — because, perhaps, it simplifies digestion,” adds Gatra.
Meanwhile, removing recognized dietary triggers like eggs, dairy, sugar, and processed fats is arguably going to bring benefits to just anyone who has been eating conventional non-organic, GMO foods.
In a piece titled “The Jordan Peterson All-Meat Diet” in The Atlantic, James Hamblin pokes fun that Peterson’s restrictions provide a sense of order in a world of chaos. He hints that limiting one’s diet can border on a disorder.
The allure of a strict code for eating — a way to divide the world into good foods and bad foods, angels and demons — may be especially strong at a time when order feels in short supply. Indeed, there is at least some benefit to be had from any and all dietary advice, or rules for life, so long as a person believes in them, and so long as they provide a code that allows a person to feel good for having stuck with it and a cohort of like-minded adherents. The challenge is to find a code that accords as best as possible with scientific evidence about what is good and bad, and with what is best for the world.
Let’s deconstruct this for Hamblin, who is not only a senior editor at the reputable publication but an actual doctor, albeit 36 years old. This is not about a need for control and order. While these characteristics are welcomed in our current stressed-out-overworked-consumption-crazy-society, modern agriculture and our health system is what is sick. We’re poisoning the food supply, Doc, in a very real way. And today there are good (real) foods and bad (pseudo) foods, masquerading as nutrition when underneath the proverbial wrappers, they’re full of crap.
Furthermore, good foods can be bad for some people. And medical doctors are not necessarily nutrition experts. Nutritional education for a doctor — despite the Hippocratic oath of “food is thy medicine” — consists of an average 23.9 hours over four years of schooling. Dr. Hamblin is mired in a system that doles out band-aids and undervalues dietary advice.
While I don’t underestimate the power of belief and our subconscious — scientists show that most of our decisions, actions, emotions and behavior depend on the 95 percent of brain activity that is beyond our conscious awareness — certain foods can trigger an inflammatory response regardless of a person’s beliefs.
The Year of Meats
“The concept behind an all-meat [diet] is that as you ease the burden that anti-nutrients place on the GI system, you build up the gut, re-establish a healthy microbiome, and restore the intestinal permeability,” says Gatcha.
Once an inflammatory reaction is no longer present, Peterson could theoretically be able to reintroduce certain foods.
Because, while restrictions do provide benefits, eating one food for the remainder of your life is not advisable. Especially if like Jordan Peterson, you are not taking supplements. Over time the nutritional deficiencies start to wear on your health.
“We need variability. We need real food. So, to get to the point I’d be careful of a diet where you only consume one type of food long term,” adds Gatcha.
Gundry also disagrees with a meat-centric diet over the long term. He contends that regular blood work is needed since this diet induces “problems with rapid aging.”
[Eating only meat] is not a long-term solution to his problem. An elimination diet is just that; you begin adding small amounts of new foods, in his case, pressure cooked foods, until tolerant again. It’s just like allergy shots. The dose makes the poison.
From a microbiome point of view, many would also argue that only eating meat is not advisable. In light of his weight loss, it would seem Jordan Peterson achieved a state of ketosis, which is arguably a more sophisticated way we to burn fuel, by using ketones from fat versus sugar. But potentially, eating too much excess protein is anti-ketogenic as it can turn into sugar in your bloodstream through a process called gluconeogenesis. And when excessive amounts are consumed, it can stress the liver and kidneys — organs that play key roles in the metabolism of proteins — putting the body at risk for increased levels of ammonia, urea, and amino acids in the blood.
“Physiologically, it would just be an immensely bad idea,” Jack Gilbert, the faculty director at the University of Chicago’s Microbiome Center, told Hamblin in The Atlantic. Gilbert has studied how the trillions of microbes in our guts digest food.
Your body would start to have severe dysregulation within six months of the majority of the processes that deal with metabolism. You would have no short-chain fatty acids in your cells. Most of the by-products of gastrointestinal polysaccharide fermentation would shut down, so you wouldn’t be able to regulate your hormone levels. You’d enter into cardiac issues due to alterations in cell receptors; your microbiota would just be devastated.
“I’m not sure what I can say to counter this except that it seems to be working for him,” says Patel.
Jordan Peterson has been on a meat-centric diet for less than a year. However, it’s seemingly working on the long-term for scores of others. There are subcultures throughout the world of pure carnivores. Check out Dr. Baker’s site Meat Heals with testimonials from people who have found health via carnivory.
It seems further studies are needed and that someone would need to be on only meat for at least 10 years to determine the real health risks.
More Sizzle Than Steak
Most people benefit from eating fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and seeds because the fiber in plants is important for the flourishing of the gut microbiome. Yet there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all diet or magic bullet. There are those who do better on high carbs, some who can’t metabolize fat, and others still who have problems with grains. And for someone with autoimmune issues, which includes about 80 million Americans, certain plant compounds often add too much stress and confusion to an already stressed and confused system.
“You’re not going to be able to go to a doctor and have them tell you it’s a good idea,” says Mikhaila. “They’ll probably tell you you’ll die. Who knows. Everyone will judge you. Everyone judges you when you stop eating gluten or dairy. Try not eating vegetables and see what kind of judgment you get.”
Yet from a functional medicine point of view, there is no judgment. In the world of personalized medicine, it is crucial to support a uniquely personalized expression of health and vitality for each individual and their health goals.
You can watch the Joe Rogan podcast here.