Low-carb diets have long ago become a fixture in the diet scene. Their high-protein meal plans often rely heavily on meat (although there are also attempts to adapt them for vegetarians, and the label “meat diet” is scorned by some low-carbers). Other approaches go even further and promote the idea of completely eliminating carbohydrates from the human diet. Living a “no-carb” or “zero-carb” lifestyle entails not only avoiding the usual “carb bombs” (grains, potatoes, rice, sugar) but also all kinds of vegetables, fruit, most dairy products – in short, almost everything except for meat (including fish), water and, for some “no-carbers” at least, eggs, heavy whipped cream and a little hard cheese. But many of them stick to just meat – day in, day out.
While this is certainly not a mainstream diet, it is neither just an isolated life choice by a few especially committed (or meat-loving) dieters: A quick google search leads to several zero-carb websites, facebook groups and food lists. What might, at first glance, look like a brand new trend, can actually be traced back to the nineteenth century: Between 1860 and 1900, several books were published in Europe and the US that advised readers to eat mostly or exclusively meat; the main goals were – much like today – weight loss or an overall healthier lifestyle. A close reading of the “meat diets” promoted during the last 150 years suggests that they are more than just a convenient excuse for meat-lovers who are looking for reasons to indulge – they tie in with broader discourses on nutrition, bodies, and health. I would argue that the ongoing allure of meat diets is based in part on the essentialist – and sometimes racist – notion of meat as an especially “natural” food that can cure the ills of civilization.
Today’s low- and zero-carbers frequently refer to some of their historical predecessors: In 1863, the British businessman William Banting published the Letter on Corpulence, in which he described his personal struggle to rid himself of the “parasite of obesity,” as he put it. After many failed attempts, a doctor recommended a new diet which finally helped him to lose weight. The so-called “Banting Diet” was not exactly zero-carb, but pretty close: On a typical day, Banting had generous amounts of meat or fish for every meal, including breakfast, complemented only by very small portions of biscuits or dry toast and, sometimes, vegetables. The “Salisbury Treatment,” developed a few years later by James Salisbury in the United States and popularized in Europe by Elma Stuart, went even further. In the first phase of treatment, only minced beef and hot water were permitted; even though patients were later allowed to re-introduce some other foods, many of them followed this extreme diet for several months or even years. Apart from the scientific reasoning, which has changed considerably since then, both Banting’s and Stuart’s pamphlets sounded remarkably similar to their current counterparts. The portrayal of meat as a healthy, natural “superfood” plays a major role in all of them.
One thing that sets meat-only diets apart from others is the focus on one single type of food. This leads to a rhetorical shift. Instead of emphasizing what needs to be excluded (carbs, or sugar), the positive qualities of the food that is allowed are highlighted. “Beef,” Stuart writes, “bore off the palm triumphantly as the food most easily digested, the most nourishing and sustaining, and that also on which we can subsist exclusively the longest, not only without injury but with positive good.“ This statement was more or less in line with the scientific doctrine around 1850. The famous chemist and early nutritionist Justus von Liebig had deemed meat the principal source of animal protein and, therefore, muscular strength; his ideas laid the foundations for several decades of protein-centered nutrition research and rapidly spread in Europe and beyond. Although at the end of the century, when Stuart published her book, the central role of meat had already been challenged both by the scientific community and the rising vegetarian movement, the idea of meat as a “superfood” remained strong. It persists even today.
One important source of this longevity is the ongoing portrayal of meat not only as nourishing and healthy, but also as the most “natural” food. The idea that there is such a thing as a clearly defined “natural human diet” – and that it consists mostly or exclusively of meat – can be found in most of the texts on meat diets. Salisbury and Stuart, for example, argued that humans had more “meat teeth” than “vegetable teeth” and a stomach that is “a purely carnivorous organ and is designed both in structure and function for the digestion of lean meats.” Therefore, the “natural human diet” had to consist mainly of meat. Similarly, today’s zero-carb community boosts the theory that meat was the primary source of nutrition for most of human evolution and that the human body has adapted accordingly.
To make such theories more credible, the authors use an assortment of recurring stories of peoples from different parts of the world allegedly surviving and thriving on an exclusive meat diet. For instance, a supporter of the Salisbury Treatment wrote in 1881: “An informant tells me that in the recesses of Central America there have been individuals who lived to extreme old age – even to 150 years – on animal food exclusively. They had not their savage lives influenced by civilization.” And William Harvey, the doctor who devised the “Banting Diet,” stated that “those tribes whose only means of subsistence is derived from hunting and fishing” had thin, muscular, and therefore healthy bodies. Today, many authors use similar cornerstones: A much quoted story about the Inuit, for example, reports that as long as they stuck to their “traditional” diet of only fish and meat, they lived long, healthy lives and never struggled with obesity.
The factual truth of these stories is controversial; but in any case, they are problematic. They are not only based on sweeping generalizations about the eating habits, health, and body shapes of large groups of people, but also maintain a racist rift between “civilized” and “uncivilized” cultures (which is reflected in the visual illustrations, as well). Following this logic, “primitive” cultures that eat a lot of meat have a more natural, healthy lifestyle and should serve as an example to modern, “civilized” societies that have strayed from the “natural human diet.” Criticizing modernity in this way was very popular around 1900, and today’s no-carbers are inscribing themselves into this tradition. Even more importantly, the proponents of meat diets can gain cultural capital by juxtaposing “civilized” and “uncivilized” cultures. The “primitive” meat-eaters from their stories are presented as lacking choice and free will: They eat meat either because there is nothing else, or because their “instinct” – unspoiled by the negative impact of civilization – tells them to. It is no coincidence that the protagonists of these stories are never white. By contrast, low-or no-carbers are portraying themselves as autonomous subjects who made a conscious and scientifically informed decision to eat mostly or exclusively meat.
Today’s meat diets are not a new idea; neither are many of the arguments and motives that frame them. They draw on scientific discourses on nutrition and health, but also on notions of “naturalness” and on racist concepts of civilization. It is the interconnection of these different aspects that lends stability to the discourses on meat diets and, at the same time, reinforces the high symbolic value meat consumption continues to have until today.