The meathead diet

The preachy new breed of carnivore

Food
“A Meat Stall” by Pieter Aertsen, 1551

For a week or two milkshakes splattered all over the country. The Five Guys banana and salted caramel shake which hit Nigel Farage cost £5.25. The man who threw it said he had been “quite looking forward to” drinking it. Farage, however, was only “milkshaked” (milkshook, milkshaken?) once. The unsuccessful UKIP candidate Carl Benjamin, best known for the police investigation into comments he made about raping the Labour MP Jess Philips, was hit four times. Why choose milkshakes when an egg or a tomato is more aerodynamic and cheaper? Was it just a hot week? Is the milkshake handy to carry in a public place and the egg carton not? Is the Five Guys serving size just too big? (It is.)

On one level the milkshakings seem like a response to the weird relationship  that dairy products have with the internet-enabled fringe and alt-Right. In 2017 an anti-Trump art installation—consisting of a camera on an external wall which anyone could stand in front of and, I guess, talk about their feelings—at the Museum of the Moving Image, New York, was shut down after being overrun by shirtless white boys chugging vast quantities of milk and declaiming neo-Nazi catchphrases. You can watch the video on YouTube. One guy holds up his gallon-sized milk bottle and says, “You may not like it, but this is the face of white nationalism.” There’s a lot of yelling about Vikings and testosterone. The museum shut the art project down due to “dozens of threats of violence and numerous arrests”. On the other hand, a rando on a website called “ageofshitlords.com” claimed the milk thing was “ironic meme shitposting”, so really, who knows?

Animal products don’t have to be manly or right-wing, but people keep trying to make them so. Alex Jones, the barrel-chested conspiracy theorist, once tweeted a picture of himself carrying a tray of miscellaneous raw meat. “Celebrating Americana with some Red Meat, f-you, Obama!” In an interview with Spiegel Online, Jones spontaneously tore his shirt off and started eating barbecue, offering the reporter a sausage: “Wanna suck?” I doubt Jones has read the 1990 feminist-vegetarian classic The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol J. Adams, in which she describes “the overt association between meat and virile maleness”. As a result, “our society equates vegetarianism with emasculation or femininity”. In fact, she points out, pregnant and nursing women have higher protein requirements than men.

One of the core alt-right insults is “soy boy”—a stereotypical young male leftie who drinks soy milk, probably because he’s worried about the environment. A contributor to the website UrbanDictionary describes him as “a feminist, nonathletic, has never been in a fight, will probably marry the first girl that has sex with him”. Another user offers a different definition: “Someone who beats a conservative in an argument.” But the basic idea is that he’s emasculated

This partly comes from the conspiracy theory that soy contains oestrogen-like chemicals which reduce male fertility. The evidence from medical studies is at best inconclusive and contradictory. It also comes from the belief that the ability to digest milk in adulthood (a mutation called lactose persistence) is something only white Europeans have. In reality, eating dairy is complicated: yoghurt, cheese and fermented milk have less lactose than fresh milk, and the ability to digest milk evolved in several different places, including east Africa. Ultimately, it’s an accusation that men are giving in.

According to Adams, there is an “ongoing superstition that meat gives strength and men need meat”. If you check the hashtag #MeatHeals on Instagram or Twitter you’ll find evidence of this: proponents of the “carnivore” diet who claim, that eating only meat can cure any number of long-term conditions. Mainly what meat “heals” appears to be a) fatness, which is entirely possible if you’re forcing yourself to only eat one thing for months, and b) vaguely defined “sensitivities”. Emasculation comes up repeatedly: the soy conspiracy theory gained acceptance via online bodybuilding communities. A man posting on “meatheals.com” says—as if quoting from Carol Adams—that before he took up the carnivore diet, “I felt like I had no penis or any balls.”

The carnivores claim a feeling of greater mental clarity, which sounds nice, if scientifically unmeasurable. The downside, apart from never enjoying food again, is that you have to make it through at least a month of unpleasant side-effects: diarrhoea, dehydration, nausea, fatigue, bad breath. And going off the diet even briefly sends you back to the beginning of the process, they claim.

Taking up carnivorism, or its parent, the “keto” (high-fat, low-carb) diet, seems to convince people that they’re medical experts. Carnivore evangelists weirdly like to claim that having a zero-fibre diet reduces bowel cancer risk, against all the medical evidence: fibre is known to have a protective effect.  Both carnivore and keto are suited to stats and encourage obsessive measuring, gram by gram, requiring elaborate explanations of any health test results which don’t show quite what you want them to. Shawn Baker, a high-profile body-building 52-year-old carnivore who doesn’t look a day under 58, posted blood test results after a year of a diet of ribeye steak: his blood glucose was in the diabetic range, his cholesterol was high, his testosterone vanishingly low, and his vitamin D was low. In every case he had an explanation which boiled down to: actually, this is fine. He claims to eat about 3kg of meat a day.

The underlying assumption is that steak is delicious—who wouldn’t want to eat it? But who on earth would choose this permanently? A clue: one of the highest-profile carnivores is Mikhaila Peterson, Jordan’s daughter. Peterson senior took up the carnivore diet on her advice, has repeatedly tweeted about it, and credits it with getting rid of his feeling of “doom”. Mikhaila suffered depression and juvenile arthritis from childhood—she went though a hip and ankle replacement as a teenager. Her main argument is that she has become healthy.

It’s hard not to have sympathy for her. But she advocates trying out elimination diets based on practically anything: “Muscle pain, fatigue, digestive issues, minor skin problems, the occasional mouth ulcer—all things people ignore. Don’t. These are signs.” Even if there’s no reason to,  “if you’re a ‘healthy’ person, cut out gluten and dairy. All of it . . . Cut it all out for 4 weeks and see how you feel.” We’re meant to take her proclamation of health at face value, but obviously not our own. 

The carnivores are boldly heading somewhere, even if it is to a place few others want to go. I guess we’ll find out in 20 years’ time if any of them are left.