The famous psychologist and his daughter swear by a regimen of eating only beef. Restriction can provide a sense of order in a world of chaos—but at what point does restriction become a disorder?
“I know how ridiculous it sounds,” Mikhaila Peterson told me recently by phone, after a whirlwind of attention gathered around the 26-year-old, who is now offering dietary advice to people suffering with conditions like hers. Or not so much dietary advice as guiding people in eating only beef.
At first glance, Peterson, who is based in Toronto, could seem to be one of the many emerging semi-celebrities with a miraculous story of self-healing—who show off postpartum weight loss in bikini Instagrams and sell one thing or another, a supplement or tonic or book or compression garment. (Not incidentally, she is the daughter of the famous and controversial pop psychologist Jordan Peterson. More on that later.) But Peterson is taking the trend in extra-professional health advice to an extreme conclusion: She is not doing sponsored posts for health products, but actively selling one-on-one counseling ($75 for a half hour) for people who want to stop eating almost everything.
Peterson seems to be reaching suffering people despite a lack of training or credentials in nutrition or medicine, and perhaps because of that distinction. Her Instagram bio: “For info on treating weight loss, depression, and autoimmune disorders with diet, check out my blog or fb page!” The blog, which is called “Don’t Eat That,” says at the top that “many (if not most) health problems are treatable with diet alone.” This is true, if at odds with the disclaimer at the bottom of the page that her words are “not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.”
I told her I’m surprised people need further counseling, in that an all-beef diet is very straightforward.
“They mostly want to see that I’m not dead,” she said. “What I basically do is say, ‘Hey, look at all the things that happened to me and brought me to where I am now. Isn’t it weird?’ And then let people draw their own conclusions.”
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Peterson described an adolescence that involved multiple debilitating medical diagnoses, beginning with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Some unknown process had triggered her body’s immune system to attack her joints. The joint problems culminated in hip and ankle replacements in her teens, coupled with “extreme fatigue, depression and anxiety, brain fog, and sleep problems.” In fifth grade she was diagnosed with depression, and then later something called idiopathic hypersomnia (which translates to English as “sleeping too much, of unclear cause”—which translates further to sorry we really don’t know what’s going on).
Everything the doctors tried failed, and she did everything they told her, she recounted to me. She fully bought into the system, taking large doses of strong immune-suppressing drugs like methotrexate.*
Her story took a dramatic turn in 2015, when the underdog protagonist, nearly at the end of her rope, figured out the truth for herself. It was all about food.
Peterson adopted a common approach to dieting: elimination. She started cutting out foods from her diet, and feeling better each time. She began with gluten, and she kept going, casting out more and more—not just gluten or dairy or soy or lectins or artificial sweeteners or non-artificial sweeteners, but everything. Until, by December 2017, all that was left was “beef and salt and water,” and, she told me, “all my symptoms went into remission.”
“And you quit taking all your medications?”
There is so much evidence—abundant, copious evidence acquired over decades of work from scientists around the world—that most people benefit from eating fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and seeds. This appears to be largely because fiber in plants is important to the flourishing of the gut microbiome. I ran this by some experts, just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything that might suggest a beef-salt diet is potentially something other than a bad idea. I learned that it was worse than I thought.
“Physiologically, it would just be an immensely bad idea,” Jack Gilbert, the faculty director at the University of Chicago’s Microbiome Center and a professor of surgery, told me during a recent visit to his lab. “A terribly, terribly bad idea.”
Gilbert has done extensive research on how the trillions of microbes in our guts digest food, and the look on his face when I told him about the all-beef diet was unamused. He began rattling off the expected ramifications: “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.”
While much of the internet has been following this story in a somewhat snide way, Gilbert appeared genuinely concerned and saddened: “If she does not die of colon cancer or some other severe cardiometabolic disease, the life—I can’t imagine.”
There are few accounts of people having tried all-beef diets, though all-meat—known as carnivory—is slightly more common. Earlier this month, inspired by the media conversation about the Peterson approach, Alan Levinovitz, the author of The Gluten Lie, tried carnivory, eating only meat for two weeks. He did lose seven pounds, which he attributes to eating fewer calories overall, because he eventually got tired of eating only meat. He missed snacking at coffee shops and browsing the local farmer’s market and trying out new restaurants around town, cooking with his family, and just generally enjoying food.
“I was psychologically exhausted,” Levinovitz told me. When he returned to omnivory, he regained the lost weight in four days.
Peterson told me it took several weeks for her to get used to the beef-only approach, and that the relief of her medical symptoms overpowers any sense of missing food. If even a tiny amount of anything else finds its way into her mouth, she will be ill, she says. This happened when she tried to eat an organic olive, and again recently when she was at a restaurant that put pepper on her steak.
“I was like, whatever, it’s just pepper,” she told me. Then she had a reaction that lasted three weeks and included joint pain, acne, and anxiety.
Apart from having to exist in a world where the possibility of pepper exposure looms, the only other social downside she notices is that she hates asking people to accommodate her diet. So she will usually eat before she goes to a dinner party, she told me, “but then I’ll go drink and enjoy the party.”
“Drink, as in, water?”
“I can also, strangely enough, tolerate vodka and bourbon.”
The idea that alcohol, one of the most well-documented toxic substances, is among the few things that Peterson’s body will tolerate may be illuminating. It implies that when it comes to dieting, the inherent properties of the substances ingested can be less important than the eater’s conceptualizations of them—as either tolerable or intolerable, good or bad. What’s actually therapeutic may be the act of elimination itself.
For centuries, ascetics have found enlightenment through acts of deprivation. As Levinovitz, who is an associate professor of religion at James Madison University, explained to me, the Daoist text the Zhuangzi describes “a spirit man” who lives in the mountains and rides dragons and subsists only on air and dew. “There’s an anti-authoritarian bent to pop-culture wisdom, and a part of that is dealing with food taboos, which are handed down by authorities,” Levinovitz said. “Those are government now, instead of religious. And because they are wrong so often—or, at least, apparently wrong—that’s a good place to go when carving out your own area of authority. If you just eat the ‘wrong’ foods and don’t die, that’s a ritual way to prove that you go against conventional wisdom.”
Peterson’s narrative fits a classic archetype of an outsider who beat the game and healed thyself despite the odds and against the recommendations of the establishment. Her story is her truth, and it can’t be explained; you have to believe. And unlike the many studies that have been done to understand the diets of the longest-lived, healthiest people in history, or the randomized trials that are used to determine which health interventions are safe and effective for whom, her story is clear and dramatic. It’s right there in her photos; it has a face and a name to prove that no odds are too long for one determined person to overcome.
The beneficial effects of a compelling personal narrative that helps explain and give order to the world can be absolutely physiologically real. It is well documented that the immune system (and, so, autoimmune diseases) are modulated by our lifestyles—from how much we sleep and move to how well we eat and how much we drink. Most importantly, the immune system is also modulated by stress, which tends to be a by-product of a perceived lack of control or order.
If strict dietary rules provide a sense of control and order, then Peterson’s approach is emblematic of the trend in elimination dieting taken to an extreme: Avoid basically everything. This verges into the realm of an eating disorder. The National Eating Disorder Association lists among common symptoms “refusal to eat certain foods, progressing to restrictions against whole categories of food.” In the early phases of disordered eating, as with bipolar disorder or alcoholism, a person may look and feel great. They may thrive for months or even years. But this fades. What’s more, the temporary relief from anxiety may mean that the source of the anxiety goes unsought and unaddressed.
I asked Peterson about the possibility that she may be enabling people with eating disorders. She said she would draw a line if a client were underweight or inducing vomiting. Otherwise, “it’s extremely disrespectful to people with health issues caused by food to be lumped into the same category as people with eating disorders. More of the same ‘blame the patient’ stuff that doctors and health professionals already do.”
The popularity of Peterson’s narrative is explained by more than its timeless tropes; it has also been amplified by the fact that her father has occasionally cast his spotlight onto her story. Jordan Peterson’s recent book, Twelve Rules for Life, includes the story of his daughter’s health trials. The elder Peterson, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, could at first seem an unlikely face for acceptance of personal, subjective truth, as he regularly professes the importance of acting as purely as possible according to rigorous analysis of data. He argued in a recent video that American universities are the home to “ideologues who claim that all truth is subjective, that all sex differences are socially constructed, and that Western imperialism is the sole source of all Third World problems.” In his book, he writes that academic institutions are teaching children to be “brainwashed victims,” and that “the rigorous critical theoretician is morally obligated to set them straight.”
It is on grounds of his interpretation of income data, for example, that he has spoken out against the idea of a wage gap between men and women being unfair, as it can be explained away by biological factors associated with certain personality traits that are more valuable in the capitalist marketplace. From arguments from social-science evidence, he has expressed uncertainty that lesbian couples can raise children without a male father figure. And it is academic evidence that leads him to write in his book that “the so-called patriarchy” is “an arbitrary cultural artifact.”
Yet in a July appearance on the comedian Joe Rogan’s podcast, Jordan Peterson explained how Mikhaila’s experience had convinced him to eliminate everything but meat and leafy greens from his diet, and that in the last two months he had gone full meat and eliminated vegetables. Since he changed his diet, his laundry list of maladies has disappeared, he told Rogan. 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 of it is gone, and he attributes it to the diet.
“I’m certainly intellectually at my best,” he said. “I’m stronger, I can swim better, and my gum disease is gone. It’s like, what the hell?”
“Do you take any vitamins?” asked Rogan.
“No. No, I eat beef and salt and water. That’s it. And I never cheat. Ever. Not even a little bit.”
“No soda, no wine?”
“I drink club soda.”
“Well, that’s still water.”
“Well, when you’re down to that level, no, it’s not, Joe. There’s club soda, which is really bubbly. There’s Perrier, which is sort of bubbly. There’s flat water, and there’s hot water. Those distinctions start to become important.”
Peterson reiterated several times that he is not giving dietary advice, but said that many attendees of his recent speaking tour have come up to him and said the diet is working for them. The takeaway for listeners is that it worked for Peterson, and so it may work for them. Rogan also clarified that though he is also not an expert, he is fascinated by the fact that he hasn’t heard any negative stories about people who have started the all-meat diet.
“Well, I have a negative story,” said Peterson. “Both Mikhaila and I noticed that when we restricted our diet and then ate something we weren’t supposed to, the reaction was absolutely catastrophic.” He gives the example of having had some apple cider and subsequently being incapacitated for a month by what he believes was an inflammatory response.
“You were done for a month?”
“Oh yeah, it took me out for a month. It was awful ...”
“Apple cider? What was it doing to you?”
“It produced an overwhelming sense of impending doom. I seriously mean overwhelming. There’s no way I could’ve lived like that. But see, Mikhaila knew by then that it would probably only last a month.”
“A month? From fucking cider?”
“I didn’t sleep that month for 25 days. I didn’t sleep at all for 25 days.”
“What? How is that possible?”
“I’ll tell you how it’s possible: You lay in bed frozen in something approximating terror for eight hours. And then you get up.”
The longest recorded stretch of sleeplessness in a human is 11 days, witnessed by a Stanford research team.
While there is debate in the scientific community over just how much meat belongs in a human diet, it is impossible for all or even most humans to eat primarily meat. Beef production at the scale required to feed billions of humans even at current levels of consumption is environmentally unsustainable. It is not even healthy from a theoretical evolutionary viewpoint, the microbiome expert Gilbert explained to me. Carnivores need to eat meat or else they die; humans do not. “The carnivore gastrointestinal tract is completely different from the human gastrointestinal tract, which is made up of a system designed to consume large quantities of complex fibers.”
What the Petersons are selling is rather a sense of order and control. Science is about questions, and self-help is about answers. A recurring idea in Jordan Peterson’s book is that humans need rules—its subtitle is “an antidote to chaos”—even if only for the sake of rules. Peterson discovered this through his own suffering, as when he was searching the world for the best surgeon to give his young daughter a new hip. In explaining how he dealt with Mikhaila’s illness, he writes that “existence and limitation are inextricably linked.” He quotes Laozi:
It is not the clay the potter throws, Which gives the pot its usefulness, But the space within the shape, From which the pot is made
Dietary rules offer limits, good or bad, that help people define the self. This is an attractive prospect, and anyone willing to decree such rules—dietary or otherwise—is bound to attract attention. Fox News recently declared Peterson “the left’s public enemy number one” in a segment where he discussed with Tucker Carlson “why the left wants to silence conservative thought.” Though to have lived through the last year is to have lived in a world where Peterson and his ideas have enjoyed near-constant amplification.
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.