The Carnivore Diet – the practice of solely consuming meat products – has grown exponentially in the past few years. As someone who has experimented with a range of diets, everything from all fruit to raw meat, it’s remarkable to see an all meat diet gain traction for the lifting community and the general populace. While Vilhjamur Stefannsson popularised the Inuit’s meat dominated diet in the early 1900s, an all meat diet for athletes or lifters appears to be a new development.
So being the type of individual that I am, I decided to go through the annals of bodybuilding and see if anyone had dabbled with a carnivore-esque diet in the past. Echoing the wonderful ‘nothing new under the sun series‘ produced by Chaos and Pain (definitely not safe for work!), we have a precedent for the current carnivore diet in the form of Vince Gironda and Rheo H. Blair’s ‘meat and water’ diet, a short term weight loss diet used by bodybuilders prior to a competition.
With that in mind today’s post examines the reasons behind Blair’s experiment, the bodybuilders he used it on and what lessons, if any, his meat and water diet holds for present day lifters.
Aside from Vince Gironda, Rheo H. Blair is, to my mind, one of the most fascinating bodybuilding characters of the 1950s and 60s. Pivotal in the popularisation of protein supplements, Blair’s milk based protein powders and vitamin tablets gained an almost mythical status among the lifting community. Blair counted bodybuilders, athletes, celebrities and ordinary individuals as his clients. His continual interest in nutrition was undoubtedly the reason for his success. It was this interest which resulted in his ‘meat and water’ experiment, a diet similar to Gironda’s ‘maximum definition diet’.
As retold by Steve Davis, who underwent a dramatic change on the meat and water diet, Blair wished to established whether an all meat diet was preferential to the meat and eggs diet promoted by Blair and Gironda, the latter of whom nicknamed it the ‘maximum definition diet’. Preparing for a photo shoot, Davis, then an aspiring bodybuilder, proved an ideal guinea pig.
At the moment I can only find evidence bodybuilders using Blair’s meat and water diet in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The first, Steve Davis, used the diet to cap off an amazing weight loss. As retold by Old School Bodybuilding, Davis was initially a powerlifter who wanted to try his hand at bodybuilding. Under the guidance of Vince Gironda and Rheo H. Blair, he underwent a remarkable weight loss journey encompassing nearly 100 pounds (285 to 195lbs.). Rheohblair.com even has an image comparing Steve’s remarkable before and after shots.
Speaking to Dennis Weis in Raw Muscularity, Davis recounted his not so happy experiences on the meat and diet program:
To lean up for these pictures I realised that I’d have to lose that minute layer of adipose tissue to really refine my body to the condition of a Larry Scott or a Gable Boudreaux …
At this point in the program Rheo said, “Steve, we want to help you get a little extra leanness to your body and there’s a social dietary program we can use to do this. It’s living only on meat and water…
Rheo explained, in order to lean up just especially for the pictures, just for two to five days at the very most I should live on nothing but meat plus a meat protein supplement…
I continued this type pf program for a period up to twelve days. And this is the sad part of the story. I became so physically exhausted, so high strung, so onerous and drawn that after Rheo had taken the pictures I was about ready to collapse
Now what’s important to remember about Davis’ testimony is that he embarked on a carnivore diet which was extremely low in calories – hence why he chose it for his photoshoot.
Was Davis Alone in Using the ‘Meat and Water’ Diet?
Nope, not by a long shot. Turning now to Heart of Steel, a wonderful biography of Dan Lurie whose inventiveness has been previously discussed on this website, we find mention of countless other bodybuilders using Blair’s diet, including Arnold’s rival in Pumping Iron, Lou Ferrigno. Speaking on the early 1970s, a time then Lou Ferrigno was still a hulking bodybuilder rather than THE hulk, Lurie commented that
He (Lou Ferrigno) was then placed on a special “meat and water” diet to reduce his weight, to achieve a ripped to shreds, competition look. Bodybuilders wanting to preserve muscle while losing fat frequently used the meat and water diet back in those days, and it had worked wonders for champions like Vince Gironda, Rheo H. Blair and others dating back to the 1950s.
It was a diet that featured meat of any kind, a few vegetables and water, which made it high protein, moderate fat with very little carbohydrate. And Lou made great progress on this plan.
So Davis was in good company during the Golden Age of lifting. On this point a few words are probably needed. Cutting body fat for competitions or photoshoots was often done in a straightforward way – reduce starches and increase activity. It wasn’t until the 1980s that lifters began to count their calories with a near obsessive quality. From the mid-century, one can therefore see the very obvious appeal behind the ‘meat and water’ diet, it was simple and effective. Furthermore it had the backing of some of the best coaches and athletes in the sport.
‘Meat and Water’ in the Modern Age
Before researching this article, I assumed that the Carnivore Diet for athletes was born of the modern age, more specifically Twitter where I first came across it. I’m no stranger to restrictive diets – I did strict Keto for nearly four years – but the Carnivore Diet seemed a bridge too far. I’m not fully converted to this way of eating, as I enjoy my oatmeal too much, but Blair’s ‘meat and water’ diet does give the Carnivore Diet a lot more credit than it is often given.
Rather than the brain child of Shawn Baker, perhaps the best known proponent of the modern phenomenon, it is a reiteration of a previously used diet. Where Blair and Baker differ is in their application. Baker, as far as I can tell, sees the Carnivore Diet as a lifestyle diet, meaning that it can be used for years without problem. Blair and Gironda preferred short term use. Gironda, for example, regularly appears to have rotated diets among his clients depending on their goals. So what can be learned from the ‘meat and water’ diet?
First that bodybuilders go to extreme lengths to get stage ready. I know this isn’t exactly revelatory but Steve Davis’ story provided a nice example of this. Second, it seems that the ‘meat and water’ diet worked for a number of bodybuilders, a point which stresses the need to listen to one’s own body and see what works from a food point of view. There are many paths to good health.
As always, Happy Lifting!