Fears over a vitamin c deficiency is one reason that people worry about when embarking on a ketogenic diet. However, it has been shown in several scientific studies that this fear is unfounded.
Here’s why: First, many fresh, low carb vegetables such as peppers and dark leafy greens like kale and broccoli have loads of vitamin C. Plus, eating less carbohydrate results in needing less vitamin C. This is because glucose competes with Vitamin C for access to the same metabolic pathways in the body (Reference here).
So if your carbohydrate intake is high, you will have to increase your intake of vitamin C containing foods or natural supplements to get enough vitamin C to overcome the high blood sugar. It’s only when eating the standard American diet which is high in carbohydrates and grain consumption that vitamin C needs are higher. Lowering your carb intake lowers the need to supplement with Vitamin C.
Because animals are able to make vitamin C internally, their flesh contains it. If you eat no carbohydrate at all, you can get enough vitamin C from lightly cooked meat and fat alone.
Don’t believe it? Read this:
While studying the Inuit people in Alaska, anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson documented the fact that the Inuit diet consisted of about 90% meat and fish. During his time there, he followed their custom, and he and the entire tribe would eat nothing but meat and fish for 6-9 months of each year. This was essentially a zero carb ketogenic diet. Stefansson survived on this ketogenic diet for 9 years while living with the Eskimo. When he returned to city life and described his experiences, doctors were amazed that his health had not suffered.
Stefansson himself wondered if his health had suffered during those years, so he agreed to an experimental study. He would live at the Bellevue hospital in New York City and eat nothing but fat and meat for an entire year. The doctors involved with this study came from Harvard, Cornell and other prestigious organizations, and they were convinced that he and another volunteer, Dr. Karsten Anderson, would develop health problems or at least vitamin deficiencies.
The volunteer’s food intake was kept under close scientific scrutiny, so cheating was out of the question. The food that they ate was analyzed and the end of the study, the daily totals were averaged and noted:
Total daily calories: 2000-3100
Daily Protein Intake: 100-140 grams (15-25% of calories)
Daily Fat Intake: 200-300 grams (75-85% of calories)
Daily Carbohydrate Intake: 7-12 grams (1-2% of calories)
At the end of the experiment, Stefansson and Anderson remained in perfect health – no vitamin deficiencies or serious health issues occurred. The results of the study were published by the Journal of Biological Chemistry in 1930. (Download from this site).
It’s kind of ironic.. eating fruits and vegetables increases your carbohydrate intake, which increases the danger of a vitamin C deficiency. Good thing that fruits and vegetables have vitamin C included.
There’s a great post here by the people at Break Nutrition on vitamin C needs for those on a ketogenic diet.
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant and Linus Pauling, one of my favorite scientists in history, believed it was the solution to all diseases of civilization. Together with vitamin E it reduces lipid peroxidation. It’s a cofactor in many enzymatic reactions – including those in the making of collagen and carnitine.
But what I was most concerned about was that inadequate vitamin C can result in scurvy.
Vitamin C is essential in the synthesis of collagen. Many animals can synthesize vitamin C out of glucose. But humans as well as primates like monkeys and apes lost this ability about 60 million years ago. We lack the enzyme (L-gulonolactone oxidase – GULO) that is required in the last step in the synthesis of Vitamin C from glucose. [r]
Because of this, we must consume our vitamin C or risk the consequences of scurvy – fatigue, weakness, gum disease, poor wound healing, and potentially death from infection or bleeding.
Looking through the lens of evolution has influenced my nutrition views as much as looking through the lens of microscopes. Evolution doesn’t tend to just drop things because they are no longer useful. It selects for advantages.
But what’s the advantage of not synthesizing an essential vitamin?
In our evolutionary history, we also loss the ability to break down uric acid. And there is a striking parallel between the loss of the ability to synthesize vitamin C and the loss of the ability to break down uric acid.
Uric acid is a major antioxidant, more potent than Vitamin C.
Losing the ability to break down uric acid resulted in higher levels of uric acid in primates. These high levels are thought to explain the relatively long lifespans of apes.
It’s entirely possible, if not likely, that increased uric acid took over many of the antioxidant functions of vitamin C.
Glucose-Ascorbate Antagonism Theory (GAA Theory)
When we look at animals that make their own vitamin C, we find they make less of it when carbohydrates are low.
Which is interesting – low carbohydrates would indicate a lower vitamin C intake from the diet and presumably a higher need to make it endogenously.
Yet we see the opposite.
The more carbohydrates/glucose an animal eats, the more vitamin C it gets from its food, AND the more it makes endogenously.
This suggests that more vitamin C is needed in a glucose-based metabolism.
It also suggests that Vitamin C requirements may be less in low-carbohydrate conditions. [r]
This makes sense though.
Glucose and vitamin C look very similar. There molecules are nearly identical. They even use the same pathways for absorption into cells. Because of this they directly compete with each other for uptake into cells. And glucose wins out preferentially.
This is why drinking orange juice doesn’t make sense (at least for vitamin C purposes). It may have a lot of vitamin C, but it’s high sugar content blocks that vitamin C from getting used.
This is also why diabetics with high blood sugar have strikingly similar symptoms that are seen with scurvy. They are vitamin C deficient even though they may be getting “adequate” intake from their diet or supplements. The glucose blocks out the vitamin C.
In fact, the benefit of vitamin C in disease may not have anything to do with its antioxidant properties. Rather, high dose vitamin C could sometimes compensate for the glucose overload and insulin resistance that is characteristic of many of the diseases of modern man.
Linus Pauling was on to something after-all.
Meat, Vitamin C, and Scurvy
Our food labeling would lead us to believe that meat doesn’t contain vitamin C. But it does.
And in the absence of carbohydrates far less vitamin c is needed. It doesn’t have to constantly compete with glucose for uptake.
The amount of vitamin C to prevent scurvy is just 10 mg/day in the context of a high carb diet.
In a low/no carb diet, even less is needed.
On the Carnivore Diet, the meat content plus the absence of carbs creates an environment that doesn’t result in scurvy.
Vitamin C’s role as a cofactor in hydroxylation reactions (transferring a hydroxl group to the amino acids lysine and proline), is what helps make the building blocks of collagen. But meat comes “pre-packaged” with hydroxylysine and hydroxyproline – further bypassing much of the requirement for vitamin C.
So even though the amount of dietary vitamin C consumed on a meat-based diet may be lower compared to that of a plant-based diets with fruits and vegetables, the former has a lower need for vitamin C with higher bioavailability.
“Well if we don’t need Vitamin C to prevent scurvy on a meat-based diet, surely we need its antioxidant properties, right?“
Endogenously synthesized uric acid and glutathione (natural human antioxidants) are much more powerful and take over much of the roles that vitamin C would play. Plus, in a low carb diet these powerhouses are up-regulated.
In essence, we “turn on” more of our most powerful antioxidants. In addition glutathione and uric acid spare vitamin C by recycling it.
So Do Humans Need Vitamin C?
Yep we do.
But how much is entirely dependent on the context of one’s diet. If you eat a high carb diet, you need a lot more vitamin C to compete with those carbs for uptake.
Contrary to popular belief, meat does contain vitamin C, and in the context of a low/no carb diet like the Carnivore Diet, very little vitamin C is actually needed to prevent scurvy. This environment also up-regulates our naturally produced antioxidants. It’s likely the loss of endogenously synthesized vitamin C was not detrimental to our hominid ancestors but rather conferred a competitive advantage (perhaps from the uptick of the likes of uric acid and glutathione) that coincides with our remarkable ability to recycle the vitamin c.
However, a mismatch, the “discordance theory,” between our current diet and ancestral physiology is likely the cause of vitamin C deficiencies and their association with disease.
As is seen time-and-again in research, the clinical manifestation (vitamin C deficiency for example) is the consequence, not the cause, that can only be understood in the proper context.
One of the most frequent arguments brought up against the Carnivore Diet or other low carb diets. That without taking in enough vegetables you will end up with scurvy, like the pirates and sailors of old. While this has no basis in facts the swirling winds of mistruth continue to spread themselves.
How Do Carnivores Get Vitamin C? There is Vitamin C in all meats but the levels have never been fully tested and validated. Instead due to the lack of carbs and anti-nutrients in plants we absorb the little we need without competition for the receptor meaning there is less need to consume more.
Let’s explore more about what Vitamin C is necessary for and why we believe that we have specific sources which can only provide this. As well as dive into why we need so much more Vitamin C when we eat vegetables.
Yes, each person needs Vitamin C, where the arguments come from is how much and where they are available for our body to use. We have long been told that only vegetables contain the levels of Vitamin C we need, the reason for this is that meat contains Vitamin C but not as high as most vegetables.
Vitamin C is required for your bodies correct functionality, instead of asking whether you need Vitamin C the correct question is more along the lines of:
Do we need much Vitamin C on a low inflammation diet?
You see what happens when you consume plants you get anti-nutrients which block absorption of Vitamin C and many other vitamins and minerals. So taking in a high amount of Vitamin C is required when the plants are also attempting to stop you from using them for food.
Vitamin C and Glucose are similar structurally and share the same uptake pathway in the body (link). They basically compete for the same receptor, which has a greater affinity for glucose. So the less glucose (carbs) you consume, the less vitamin C you actually need.
How to Get Vitamin C on a Carnivore Diet
For a carnivore diet you still have multiple methods of how you can add in Vitamin C to your diet if you feel you need to add more. The most common way is the same as you would approach it on your current diet which is to supplement with a vitamin or multi-vitamin. While not ideal this is a solid strategy but be aware that a high amount of what you consume through supplementation you will urinate out.
The preferred method on a carnivore diet to add additional Vitamin C into your diet would be to start eating liver, like our parents and their parents before them. Liver, in particular, pork liver contains a very high amount of Vitamin C and may be a key as to why our parents and grandparents thrived and we have started to stumble into this fast food generation.
In regards to “fast food” I am not only stating restaurants like Burger King, I am meaning grocery stores and pre-packaged junk frankenfoods which prey on our brains by making them hyper-palatable.
Is Vitamin C Found in Meat?
Vitamin C is found in all muscle meats in typically lower amounts than the vegetable sources. While this may appear on the outside to prove we want veggies for the content of Vitamin C, well you absorb the meat based vitamins much better than their vegetable cousins. This means that maybe by volume it is less but by functionality it is a far more usable in your body and also far less anti-nutrient issues.
What Is Scurvy?
Scurvy is a disease caused by a lack of Vitamin C and was named “sailors disease” due to the occurrence from sailors out in the ocean for months. Sailors would get this due to the lack of quality foods since they didn’t have refrigeration which caused them to need to bring long shelf life foods.
A disease caused by a deficiency of vitamin C, characterized by swollen bleeding gums and the opening of previously healed wounds, which particularly affected poorly nourished sailors until the end of the 18th century.
Scurvy occurs when there is a lack of vitamin C for a long duration. This deficiency eventually leads to symptoms of weakness, anemia, gum disease, and skin problems.
These issues occur as vitamin C is a needed part in our bodies ability to make collagen, an vital component in connective tissues. Connective tissues are essential for structure and support in the body, including the structure of blood vessels.
A lack of vitamin C will also affect the immune system, absorption of iron, metabolism of cholesterol and other functions. Vitamin C is also needed for synthesizing dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and carnitine, needed for energy production.
How Do You Get Scurvy?
If you are eating a very nutrient poor diet like the Standard American Diet you will have vitamin issues and will want to supplement to ensure there is enough in your body to facilitate functioning. When you eat a nutrient dense meal your body can take the nutrients from the food you eat making supplementation unnecessary and at best a waste of your money.
The way you get scurvy is only when your body has no more available vitamin C and you aren’t consuming enough foods with Vitamin C to negate this issue.
The onset of the symptoms from scurvy will depend on the length of time that it takes for you to use up your limited body storage of vitamin C. The human body isn’t able to make vitamin C on its own so it is vital to get from foods. On average the onset of symptoms related to the deficiency is about four weeks.
Why Carnivores Don’t Get Scurvy
Since Vitamin C is required to make collagen it is required for us to consume, you know what else has large amounts of collagen, meat, especially red meat. At some point our governments decided not to measure this amount and instead to set it as zero.
Which brings me to my final question. Since Vitamin C is known to prevent scurvy, which is an inability of your body to make connective tissue; doesn’t it make sense that an animals connective tissue would then contain everything you need to make your own?
When you aren’t consuming carbohydrates at the level of the standard western diet you don’t have the same issues of glucose fighting to be received. This allows for a better uptick on less levels of Vitamin C which is more than likely why a carnivorous diet works out so well for many.
Hopefully I have helped shed some light on the carnivore diet and your intake of vitamin C to ward of scurvy. There is no actual proof that we require fruits and vegetables to reach our needs of vitamin C, and hundreds and thousands of people who have been living over ten years without vegetables and fruit would agree with me on this thought.