The carnivore diet is the latest very low-carb eating plan, which pledges to boost fat loss, reduce inflammation and provide a host of other benefits. But what is a carnivore, exactly — and why should we eat like them?
In Latin, the word carnivore translates to 'meat eater', which is the simplest definition for a carnivore. Carnivores eat other living, breathing organisms in order to survive. Black bears, cheetahs, cougars and badgers are all examples of carnivores, whose diet is based on eating other animal-based products.
But this sparks the question: Are humans carnivores? Advocates of the carnivore diet state that in prehistoric times, humans survived primarily on fish and wild game — making them carnivores. However, critics and most conventional scientists state that humans are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of plants and animals to survive.
Below, we answer the question, "What is a carnivore?" and discover why following a carnivorous lifestyle could offer a number of benefits for humans.
What Is a Carnivore, Exactly?
A carnivore is an organism that only eats animals. Carnivorous creatures feast on the flesh, meat, bones and connective tissues of animals, but do not eat plants to survive.
Carnivores are often described 'apex predators' because they exist at the top of the food chain. Carnivores are predators, hunting other animals (their prey). In the food ecosystem, carnivores sit at the top, above autotrophs, herbivores and omnivores:
- Autotrophs: Autotrophs create their own food. Algae, grass and seaweed are examples of well-known autotrophs.
- Herbivores: Herbivores are organisms that feast on autotrophs and other plant matter. Rabbits, squirrels, zebras, cows and buffalo are examples of herbivores.
- Omnivores: Within the food ecosystem, omnivores have the most diverse diet as they eat both plant material and animals. Examples of omnivores include raccoons, foxes, insects, weasels and polar bears.
- Carnivores: Finally, there are carnivores. Carnivores eat herbivores, omnivores and even different types of carnivores. Carnivorous animals include sea stars, hyenas, vultures, lions, bats, alligators and most adult amphibians.
Carnivores are made to be predators. While there are different types of carnivores (discussed below), almost all have great strength and speed. They also typically have sharp teeth and claws, which allows them to capture and butcher animal flesh.
Carnivores can be invertebrates (animals without a spine) or vertebrates (animals with a spine). Examples of invertebrates include sea stars and spiders, while vertebrates include lions, snakes and sharks .
Different Types of Carnivores
All carnivores rely on a meat diet in order to survive. However, some carnivorous animals have the ability to digest plant material, if and when no animal food is available. This distinction divides carnivores into several categories, including:
- Obligate carnivores: Obligate carnivores have a digestive system that cannot process plant material and depend on a 100% meat diet for survival. All members of the cat family (including house cats, jaguars, lions and tigers) are obligate carnivores .
- Piscivores: A piscivore is a carnivore that eats fish as its primary food source. Sea lions, otters and some seals are examples of piscivores.
- Insectivores: An insectivore is a carnivore that eats a diet entirely of insects. One of the most well-known insectivores is the venus flytrap, which is a carnivorous plant that eats insects to survive 
- Hypercarnivore: A hypercarnivore can eat some plant matter in order to survive. Typically, a hypercarnivore will consume a diet that is made up of 70% animal flesh and 30% fungi and plants . Examples of hypercarnivores include dolphins, snakes and sharks.
- Mesocarnivores: Mesocarnivores depend on animal food for roughly half of their caloric intake. The other 50% of their diet will be made up of fruits, vegetables and fungi. Examples of mesocarnivores include skunks and coyotes.
- Hypocarnivores: Hypocarnivores depend on animal meat for 30-50% of their diet. When no animal meat is available, they will feast on roots, fish, berries and other plants. Grizzly bears, black bears and kinkajous are all hypocarnivores.
Hypercarnivores, mesocarnivores and hypocarnivores are known as facultative carnivores, which means they eat both plant and animal material. There is really no true distinction between facultative carnivores and omnivores, as they both eat similar diets.
Are Humans Carnivores?
As you just read, there are carnivores who exist in nature that eat both animal flesh and small amounts of plant material to survive. Therefore, by definition, humans would fall under the category of facultative carnivores. Our ancestors primarily ate a meat-only diet, but their digestive systems made it possible to digest plant material.
There are a few distinctions between humans and other facultative carnivores. Carnivorous animals have carnassial teeth — which are large, canine teeth used to tear animal flesh . Humans, on the other hand, have flattened molars which help to grind plant and animal matter into digestible food. In addition, we have short fingernails and toenails, compared to the claws of other carnivores. Lastly, human jaws move in every direction (up and down and side-to-side) while other carnivores' jaws can only move up and down.
With those physical distinctions aside, there are a number of similarities between the human diet and that of carnivorous organisms. In prehistoric times, humans hunted their prey — just like apex predators in the wild. In addition, our ancestors relied on animal flesh, bones and connective tissues as their primary energy source. Humans did not start relying on most plant matter (specifically grains, legumes and other inflammatory foods) until the agricultural revolution, roughly 10,000 years ago .
Is a Carnivorous Diet Right for You?
The carnivore diet is one of the most heavily debated and criticised diets. However, there's one thing dietitians can't argue with: Our prehistoric ancestors didn't have problems with obesity rates, diabetes and spiking blood glucose levels — all of which chronically plague us today.
Many people are returning to our ancestors' way of eating in order to fight inflammation, chronic autoimmune conditions and boost fat loss. By eating nose-to-tail (eating all parts of the animal, like our ancestors), foregoing processed carbohydrates and eating plenty of healthy fats and protein, humans have successfully adopted a modern version of the carnivore diet. On the modern carnivore diet, people eat eggs, fish, bone broth, bone marrow, collagen and meat products.
And frankly, whether you like it or not, humans are carnivores. Even if you don't follow the modern 'carnivore diet', humans are facultative carnivores, existing on an eating plan composed of plants and animals.
So, Should You Follow a Carnivorous Diet?
Carnivores are meat eaters, eating other (former) living, breathing organisms in order to survive. Carnivores sit at the top of the food chain, eating omnivores, herbivores and other carnivores in nature.
Most people don't know that you can eat some plant matter and still be classified as a carnivore. Therefore, by definition, a human who gets at least 30-70% of their daily calories from animal matter would be defined as a facultative carnivore.
The carnivore diet is a modern-day adaptation of our prehistoric ancestors' way of eating. Carnivore dieters eat eggs, meat, bone broth and other animal matter to boost fat loss and reduce inflammation. To learn more about this diet and whether it might be right for you, read our guide to the carnivore diet.
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