Albi Skenderi is speaking to Men’s Health from his studio apartment in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. A road bike leans on a wall, and a punch bag hangs in a corner. Beneath it are a yoga mat, a medicine ball and a few dumbbells. He’s wearing a Henley
shirt that accentuates his build: 6ft tall and a muscular 82kg.
The Meatpacking District is an aptly named neighbourhood for Skenderi to live in. “I switched to a carnivore diet a couple of months ago,” says Skenderi, who is 33 and works in finance. “One of my colleagues was heating up steak in the microwave at 8am. I was like, ‘Dude, what are you doing?’”
His colleague, who had heard about the diet on an episode of the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, replied, “Meat is all I’ve been eating for the last few weeks. I have so much energy and my body feels fantastic right now.”
Until then, Skenderi had exclusively been eating vegetables. “I’d become plant-based after watching The Game Changers,” he says, referring to the movie that catalogues the alleged perils of animal foods. “I felt good. But this guy made me wonder: am I doing this all wrong? I listened to a podcast and read The Carnivore Code by Paul Saladino. Then I went to Whole Foods and bought some steaks.”
This content is imported from YouTube. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.
This dietary U-turn may strike you as baffling. But even more confusing is the fact that scientists can’t tell us for sure which approach to eating is healthier. At the heart of the debate is saturated fat, which is most commonly associated with animal proteins – and whether or not eating too much of it is dangerous.
The best approach to red meat is to eat it less often, while indulging in higher-quality produce. M Restaurants are experts in wagyu beef, from the world’s most prestigious Japanese breeds, which also happens to be rich in flavourful, beneficial fats.
• Wagyu sirloin, 200g• Unsalted butter, 30g
• A pickling onion, halved
• Thyme sprig
• Parsnip purée, 75ml
For the purée
•Parsnips, 200g, peeled and chopped
• Whole milk, 100ml
• Butter, 50g
The secret is in the breeding, says chef Mike Reid, author of M: A 24-Hour Cookbook. It predisposes wagyu to impressive marbling in the muscle tissue. While this is partly made up of saturated fat, much of it is nutritious oleic acid, the kind of fat you find in olive oil. It’s also rich in zinc, which supports your immunity. But first, the parsnips: in a pot, heat the milk and butter with 100ml of water and a pinch of salt. Add the parsnips and cook until tender. Transfer the parsnips to a blender and blitz, adding some of the cooking liquid until smooth.
Reid favours Blackmore wagyu, which is “full-blood” – which means it’s not diluted by other breeds. Make sure your steak is at room temperature for at least half an hour before cooking. Heat your sauté pan over a medium heat, add half of the butter, then add your steak and season with salt. Add the onion and thyme with the last of your butter.
As the steak cooks, baste it with the butter from the pan. Reid recommends medium rare: four minutes on one side on a medium-to-low heat, then a further two and a half minutes on the other. Warm the puréed parsnips and plate up.
It shouldn’t be surprising that books, podcasts and documentaries can draw on countless research papers about meat and saturated fat but come to opposite conclusions. Nutritional science is less absolute than you might imagine, and warring camps are exploiting this uncertainty to promote polar-opposite agendas.
In the UK, the official advice is to cut down on all fats, and in particular to replace the saturated fat in our diets with the unsaturated kind. “Most people in the UK eat too much saturated fats,” NHS guidelines conclude. Some argue that this directive lacks nuance, while others complain that it doesn’t go far enough. The pressure is mounting on scientists and health-care professionals either to absolve or to decry animal fats, once and for all. But who makes the strongest case?
Setting the Rules
Until the 1940s, few men worried about whether certain foods would expand their waistlines or clog up their arteries, says Adrienne Bitar, a food historian and the author of Diet and the Disease of Civilisation. Dietary advice primarily focused on eating more to avoid malnutrition, rather than eating less to avoid illnesses of excess.
Then, in the 1950s, Ancel Keys, a physiologist at the University of Minnesota, noticed a paradox. Rich men were well fed but suffered from a higher rate of heart disease than those with more restricted diets. Keys believed that saturated fat was to blame. He concluded that if people ate less of it, they would reduce their blood cholesterol levels and, therefore, their risk of heart disease.
In 1955, the then US president, Dwight Eisenhower, had a heart attack. “That’s when public attention cohered around the idea that heart disease was an epidemic,” says Bitar. Eisenhower adopted a low-fat diet. Not long afterwards, the federal government started raising concerns about the levels of fat in the average American diet.
During the 1970s, a new theory emerged: that it was sugar, not rib-eye steak and brie, that was largely responsible for the Western world’s worsening health. This theory was pioneered by scientists in the south of England, including physiologist John Yudkin, whose anti-sugar gospel Pure, White and Deadly was published in 1972, and surgeon Thomas Cleave, who wrote The Saccharine Disease. A paper in the British medical journal The Lancet asked that the cure “not be worse than the disease” – that the animal fats that were then the daily staples of the British diet not be replaced with what they perceived to
be unhealthier, low-fat alternatives.
Nevertheless, Keys’s original findings eventually became the foundation on which nutritional lore was built. In 1983, the UK government issued its first set of national dietary guidelines, based on the American model. In both countries, these guides were underpinned by the idea that reducing saturated fat intake would lower incidences of coronary heart disease and save lives. This recommendation has remained unchanged ever since.
The Battle Ground
Nina Teicholz, 56, was “something of a vegetarian for 25 years”. She was constantly trying to lose weight and always “felt tired and depressed”. Then, around 2005, she began researching and writing The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet. And when she started eating more animal products, she says, her health improved.
“Saturated fat has been the rate-limiting factor in the consumption of animal foods,” says Teicholz. “Meat and dairy are principally foods that we depend on for essential nutrients and vitamins for human health. They’re the most calorically efficient way to get the vitamins and nutrients you need.”
Teicholz says there is evidence that these foods are healthy even at twice the current guideline recommendation. Suggesting that people avoid saturated fats, she argues, steers people away from whole foods such as red meat.
Teicholz is now the executive director of the Nutrition Coalition, a non-profit group that is supported by donations and grants. The coalition’s principal goal, she says, is to advocate for an outside review of the process for setting the American dietary guidelines. In the US, such guidelines are assessed every five years, with the latest update published in December last year.
La Gran Carbonara
Don’t squander your daily saturated fat allowance on sub-par processed snacks. This dish, from London’s retro Italian trattoria Gloria, is rich in health-promoting minerals such as calcium and selenium.
• Eggs, 3
• Egg yolks, 6
• Pecorino, 90g, grated
• Parmesan, 90g, grated
• Spaghetti, 400g
• Guanciale, 8 thin slices
As every good chef knows, real carbonara is made without cream – but is no less indulgent for it. In a bowl, mix the eggs and yolks with the cheese and a teaspoon of cracked black pepper. Egg yolk is a top source of vitamin B12, which helps to balance your mood and energy levels. Boil a large pan of salted water and cook the spaghetti al dente. Save the cooking water.
Heat a dry frying pan and sear the guanciale – Italian cured pork cheek – for five minutes, or until crispy. Add a teaspoon of the pasta water, then the spaghetti.
Remove from the heat, add the egg and cheese mix and stir. The eggs shouldn’t cook too much and the sauce should be creamy. At Gloria, chef Filippo La Gattuta swirls the spaghetti through a hollowed pecorino wheel to serve. You might have to make do with a bowl.
The Nutrition Coalition has argued that recommendations to avoid saturated fats are based on weak scientific evidence. “In order to continue the limits on saturated fat, health officials must show ample and consistent evidence that these fats damage health,” the coalition has stated. It points to some 20 review studies showing an inconsistent link between saturated fat and heart disease.
What’s more, the coalition has accused members of the US Department of Agriculture’s 2020-25 guidelines committee of having potential conflicts of interest. Three members of the most recent committee, it claims, have previously received funding from nut commissions or the potato industry, or were affiliated with Nestlé or Dannon.
It’s worth noting that the accusations fire both ways. Dr David L Katz is the founding director of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. He believes that the Nutrition Coalition is essentially “lobbying” for the meat industry. (There’s no evidence of suspect funding, though the coalition has supported the work of scientists who conduct research paid for by the dairy industry.) Critics of the Nutrition Coalition also lob another grenade: the lack of credentials. Many of those in prominent positions at the coalition have “no formal training in nutrition”, says Dr Katz; likewise, many on its board have no previous experience in the health sector, Teicholz included.
So, some scientists within the field have written Teicholz off. However, others in nutrition are becoming sympathetic to the idea that animal products aren’t as bad as science has made them seem.
Bones of Contention
In September 2019, a group of researchers published a series of six papers in the Annals of Internal Medicine, one of the most influential nutrition journals, reviewing the science on red and processed meats.
The team found that study participants who ate about four to seven servings of red and processed meats per week had approximately the same risk of cancer, heart attack or death from any cause as those who ate one to four servings. The difference between the two groups meant that for every 1,000 people who reduce their meat intake, only two would benefit from a lower mortality risk. Based on these findings, the group published its own dietary guidelines: you enjoy beef and bacon, so continue eating it.
It was controversial, to say the least. When pre-released copies of the Annals papers landed on the desks of Dr Katz and his colleagues, they “started calling one another and saying, in effect, ‘Holy shit, this is not for print,’” he says. “If they’d just published the [data] and not the guidelines, it would have been a yawn from us. But to devise guidelines directly at odds with your own findings and pretend like that’s business as usual… This is a provocation.”
There’s yet another complicating factor to all of this: though the saturated fat debate centres primarily on red meat, the nutrient is found in many other foods. “It’s not possible to eat saturated fat in isolation. Therefore, you have to question the significance of studies that study saturated fat, as opposed to the foods that contain it,” says Dr Marion Nestle, a food and nutrition researcher at New York University.
Perhaps the strongest statement suggesting a rethink on the guideline caps on saturated fat was published in the BMJ in 2019. Nineteen scientists concluded that the established guidelines “fail to take into account considerable evidence that the health effects vary for different saturated fatty acids and that the composition of the food in which they are found is crucially important.”
A team of Norwegian scientists took this sentiment a step further in January this year, noting that saturated fats occur naturally in a wide variety of foods, and concluding that there is “a lack of a logical biological and evolutionary explanation” for why they should then make us ill.
Roast Bone Marrow
St John’s celebrated marrow dish is a veritable superfood, providing collagen for healthy skin and adiponectin, which boosts insulin sensitivity. Second helpings encouraged.
• calf marrowbone 12 x 7-8cm pieces
• Flat-leaf parsley, a bunch, picked from stems
• Shallots, 2, peeled and thinly sliced
• Capers, a modest handful
• Lemon dressing (2:1 extra-virgin olive oil and lemon juice, salt & pepper)
• A good supply of toast
We owe a lot, says St John’s founder and chef Fergus Henderson, to Anthony Bourdain, who described bone marrow as “the butter of the gods”. For this recipe, which comes straight from Henderson’s book Nose to Tail Eating, ask your butcher to set aside some calf’s leg bones for you. Put them in an ovenproof frying pan in a hot oven, hole side down. Roast for about 20 minutes, depending on the thickness of the bones.
While they cook, lightly chop the parsley and mix it with the shallots and capers; dress the salad just before serving. Check on your bone marrow: it should be loose but not melting away – it will do so if left for too long.
Scrape the marrow from the bone onto the toast and season with coarse sea salt. Bone marrow is a good source of glycine, which has been linked to improved sleep quality. Top with a pinch of parsley salad and eat.
Lumping together all sources of saturated fats, some scientists now believe, may steer the food-marketing industry towards advertising foods that are low in fat, yes, but also unfortunately high in refined starch and sugar. This is often the effect when broad recommendations are made based upon single nutrients, says Trevor Kashey, a former cancer researcher who now owns Trevor Kashey Nutrition.
For instance, it’s happened in the recent past: the recommendation to eat more fibre is meant to encourage people to eat that nutrient from whole-food sources such as fruits and vegetables. “But then,” Kashey says, “bakeries started making bran muffins.”
So Is It Bad or Not?
It’s estimated that less than a third of the saturated fat we eat comes from proteins and dairy. The majority of it comes from multi-ingredient foods, including pastries, pies and desserts. Nestle posits that if people eat mostly whole foods and maintain an active lifestyle, saturated fat becomes practically irrelevant.
That meat and cheese are grouped together in the UK’s official Eatwell Guide with cake, ice cream and so on is “stupid”, says Martin MacDonald, a clinical performance nutritionist and the director of Mac-Nutrition. “Meat and cheese have essential nutrients, such as zinc, magnesium and iron – all of these things that are important for hormonal health.” He points to studies examining dairy intake, which consistently show that switching from full-fat products to low-fat alternatives doesn’t lead to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
But, though UK guidelines still advocate for reducing the amount of saturated fat we eat, the existing limit of 30g a day – or 10% of your calorie intake – isn’t especially restrictive. It’s equivalent to an 8oz rib-eye steak and three large eggs. This number was reviewed by
Public Health England in 2019; it concluded that there was “no need to change current advice”.
This is not, by any means, the equivalent of a dietary blank cheque. While it’s unlikely that we’ll ever have an infallible set of guidelines, the majority of the scientists and dieticians interviewed for this article suggested limiting yourself to four weekly servings of red meat.
But the experts also agreed that the best diet isn’t nutrient focused – it’s food focused. The best diet takes into account food preference, variety and enjoyment. It’s the sum of its parts. And the best diet, they all agreed, isn’t carnivore. It isn’t vegan, either. It’s where the warring sides of nutrition’s infighting can’t often meet: somewhere in the middle.
Sign up to the Men’s Health newsletter and kickstart your home body plan. Make positive steps to become healthier and mentally strong with all the best fitness, muscle-building and nutrition advice delivered to your inbox.
Enjoy Men’s Health magazine delivered straight to your door every month with Free UK delivery. Buy direct from the publisher for the lowest price and never miss an issue!