The self-proclaimed Liver King, a muscular and often shirtless TikTok star named Brian Johnson, amassed millions of followers by promoting an “ancestral” diet of beef brains, bull testicles and raw animal livers.
Bearded, with bulging abs and biceps, Johnson has been one of the breakout stars of social media this past year, rapidly building his following by claiming that one of the keys to strength, happiness and optimal health is a meat-heavy diet that prioritizes organ meats.
“I lied, and I misled a lot of people,” Johnson said to the camera. “Yes, I’ve done steroids and, yes, I’m on steroids.”
The admission of steroid use came after another fitness influencer posted a YouTube video exposing what he said were private emails in which Johnson described his steroid regimen. It included a litany of drugs and hormones, including regular injections of powerful anabolic steroids such as Winstrol, Deca-Durabolin and testosterone cypionate, as well as Omnitrope, a form of human growth hormone. Johnson did not respond to a request for an interview.
But to some of his critics, his admission of steroid use did not come as a surprise. “NO WAY you looked at the Liver King and thought he was all natural,” ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Robert Griffin III wrote on Twitter.
Johnson, who is 44 according to voter registration records, is the owner of Ancestral Supplements, which sells capsules of concentrated beef liver, organs, bone and other dietary supplements. In an interview with GQ this year he claimed that his business ventures have brought in more than $100 million a year.
Johnson first started posting as the Liver King on Instagram and TikTok in August of 2021, and has since enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity with more than 1.7 million and 3.6 million followers, respectively. He was a frequent guest of popular podcasts hosted by internet celebrities like Logan Paul, where he steadfastly denied allegations of steroid use.
He urged his followers to lead a lifestyle supposedly modeled after that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. He promoted nine “ancestral tenets” such as daily exercise, sun and cold exposure, proper sleep, social connection, and a controversial meat-heavy diet consisting largely of organ and muscle meats, “organic pastured egg yolks,” bone broth, raw full-fat milk and cheese, fermented vegetables and “wild caught fish eggs.”
“Ancient Primals evolved eating the whole animal, nose to tail, horns to hooves,” he said on his website.
The real eating habits of early humans
Meat-heavy diets have gained in popularity in recent years thanks to Johnson and a number of other fitness influencers. But experts say the characterization of an “ancestral” diet as consisting largely or solely of meat is misleading and inaccurate.
Archaeological evidence shows that humans evolved to eat a wide variety of foods, including many high-carbohydrate foods like fruits, vegetables, starchy plants and honey. And while modern hunter-gatherer societies that exist today include animals in their diets, they also tend to consume a lot of fiber and carbs, with some rare exceptions, said Herman Pontzer, a professor of evolutionary anthropology and global health at Duke University.
One such group that Pontzer and other anthropologists have studied extensively is the Hadza, a community in northern Tanzania who have hunted and foraged for tens of thousands of years.
The Hadza have low rates of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases. They consume what some experts call the world’s oldest diet, which consists largely of small animals, fibrous plants like tubers and berries, and large quantities of honey collected from local beehives.
Another group that anthropologists have studied in depth is the Tsimane, a community of farmers, hunters and gatherers in Bolivia. The Tsimane are known among other things for their impressive cardiovascular health: They eat a carb and fiber-rich diet that contains things like corn, rice, cassava, bananas and fish and wild game.
“There’s a lot of cherry-picking of the evidence that’s out there to suggest that all hunter-gatherer diets or past ancestral diets were carnivore-like, with a lot of meat and hardly any fruits and vegetables, and there’s just absolutely no evidence for that at all,” said Pontzer, who has lived with the Hadza and published studies examining hunter-gatherer diets. “The reality is that people ate and still do eat a wide variety of diets.”
Pontzer noted that some cultures around the world have historically eaten a meat-heavy diet, like the Inuit, who live in northern Canada, Greenland and Alaska, where it’s too cold for many plants to grow. Another group, the Masaai, a pastoralist community that raises livestock in Kenya and Tanzania, are known to eat a lot of meat and drink the blood of the animals that they butcher. But Pontzer said humans have been farming for a lot longer than they have been raising livestock.
“Farming is about 10,000 to 12,000 years old, and pastoralism is less than 10,000 years old,” he said. “Farming plants started long before people started farming animals.”
Pontzer criticized Johnson’s misportrayal of ancestral diets, and said that he was not surprised by his admission of anabolic steroid use, in part because his extreme bodybuilding physique “is not something you ever see when you work with hunter gatherers or farming communities.”
“The guy is being called out for being a fraud — and that’s a feel-good story if I’ve ever heard one,” he said. “It’s easy to draw parallels between the fraudulent way he conducted himself and the fraudulent way people talk about ancestral diets.”
All-meat diets can cause digestive tract issues
On TikTok, and elsewhere, fitness influencers and online celebrities have been touting near or all-meat “carnivore” diets for years. But, Nancy Oliveira, the manager of the nutrition and wellness service at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said there’s “almost no published research” supporting a carnivore diet.
A carnivore diet cuts out all sources of fiber, which can lead to constipation and detrimentally affect a person’s gut microbiome, the communities of trillions of microbes that live in our digestive tracts and influence our health, Oliveira said.
Many people are trying to cut out processed foods from their diets, which can certainly improve your health, studies show. Red meats, like animal organs, are great sources of iron and can be very nutritious.
But, Oliveira said, the body benefits from a range of different fruits, vegetables and fibers. She said that if someone came to her and expressed interest in eating nothing but meat, she would suggest instead that they try the Paleo diet, which includes fish, eggs and meat but also allows fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and other plants.
“I think Paleo is much healthier,” Oliveria said. “I don’t know why our country is so extreme, where they have to do all or nothing.”
According to the private emails allegedly sent by Johnson, he was at one point spending at least $11,000 a month on vials of the human growth hormone Omnitrope. In his apology, Johnson said he is still using steroids. Long-term steroid use can lead to an enlarged heart, kidney failure, liver damage and an increased risk of stroke or heart attack, as well as extreme mood swings, irritability and impaired judgment, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Johnson also acknowledged that Liver King was a public persona engineered to go viral “as an experiment” to spread his message of “ancestral living.”
Jonathan Jarry, a science communicator at McGill University’s Office for Science and Society who regularly investigates health information online, said that “even if the Liver King falls from grace” he will be replaced by yet another influencer. He’s one in a long line of influencers attempting to sell the secret to dieting and weight loss.
“Instagram and TikTok and all these other social media platforms are going to keep on churning out wellness influencers,” Jarry said. “They’re selling simple solutions to complex problems.”
Razzan Nakhlawi contributed to this report.
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