Liver King and the "Nine Ancestral Tenets": Evidence vs. Philosophy
Authored by Elliot Reimers, M.S.(C), CISSN, CNC
Putting Liver King's Claims Under the Microscope
Brian Johnson, aka "Liver King," is a popular "fitness influencer" on Instagram, TikTok, and other social media outlets. At the time of writing, he has garnered a sizable 3.8 million followers, whom he refers to as "primals," on Instagram and TikTok combined.
Liver King's rise to social media prominence seems to stem from his contrarian takes on modern living, urging his followers to eliminate processed foods, seed oils, and whole grains. He insists that a "nose-to-tail" diet — how our ancestors ate — is key to our longevity and vitality. Now, does this mean you should eat testicles and brains from animals every day for optimal health? Well, not quite.
Let's take a look at some of Liver King's claims and whether they are compatible with the findings of contemporary research.
Note: This article is not meant to defame or libel Brian Johnson (aka Liver King) as an individual. Instead, the intent is to investigate and clarify some of his health claims from an evidence-based standpoint.
Who Is the Liver King?
"Liver King" is the social media persona of Brian Johnson, a 45-year-old male (as of May 2022) based in Texas. His impressively muscular physique and disheveled beard mesh to create what looks like a barbaric specimen of early human origin. Granted, it's doubtful that early hunter-gatherers were as muscle-bound as people like the Liver King, whose physique is comparable to modern pro bodybuilders. (We'll talk more about this below.)
The superficially captivating Liver King espouses nine "ancestral tenets" that presumably mimic how early humans (read: hunter-gatherers) lived. These so-called ancestral tenets range from simple, if not intuitive, daily habits like walking and getting sun exposure every morning to quirky "advanced" practices such as eating raw meat, avoiding polyester clothing, simulated hunting, and "finding one thing that scares the sh*t you and running over it."
The Liver King tribe continues to grow without bound as he spreads his "ancestral message" to followers (i.e. "primals"), who can't seem to get enough of his esoteric lifestyle.
Ancestral Living in a Modern World
What exactly is the ancestral lifestyle that Liver King preaches? Does it make sense for modern humans to adopt the survival habits of our early ancestors?
The crux of an ancestral lifestyle is living like "primal humans," which broadly refers to humanity during the Paleolithic era (i.e. early Stone Age). Research on hunter-gatherer and stone-age civilizations makes it clear that animal foods were a major component of early human diets, and would only eat vegetables to quench hunger in-between larger meat-based meals .
Hence, it's likely carbohydrate intake was relatively low in these diets. Whether the ketogenic effects of the primitive human diet contributed to survivability and longevity is speculative.
Neolithic diseases (e.g. cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes) are ostensibly due to changes in the human diet, lifestyle, and environment . Yet, modern humans are genetically quite similar to our predecessors in the Paleolithic era because widespread genetic adaptations take considerable time (think: thousands of years) . Numerous genes are implicated in non-communicable chronic diseases; it's suggested that adapting our lifestyle to our genetic heritage can effectively prevent and cure such diseases .
However, more recent data suggests that several small-scale hunter-gatherer populations thrive(d) on starchy plant foods while maintaining minimal rates of obesity and chronic disease . Epigenetic changes allow humans in specific regions of the world to adapt to food availability. For example, it's believed that Asian populations have favorable genes for tolerating rice grains .
The argument that modern agriculture led to poor public health and obesity is tenuous; several cultures consume large amounts of unsaturated fats from plant foods and whole grains while having a very low incidence of chronic diseases . Given the dramatic shifts in our environment, food availability, workplace, exercise habits, technology, home life, etc., since the Paleolithic era, it's uncertain if changes in the human diet over time are causally correlated with rising rates of disease.
Eating a theoretically "perfect" diet won't make your body immune to disease, especially if you're constantly stressed out, drinking contaminated water, not exercising, or barely sleeping.
Investigating the "Nine Ancestral Tenets"
Below, we will discuss the good, bad, and ugly of each "ancestral tenet." Note that the nine tenets Liver King lives by are his own constructs. They are not necessarily indicative of how our early ancestors ate or went about daily life.
Nonetheless, Liver King makes an effort to use science, sometimes speciously, to bolster his primal message. Granted, a few of his tenets are sensible, although gimmicky. Others are, well, laughable.
Here are Liver King's nine tenets, paraphrased for simplicity:
Tenet #1 — Sleep Adequately
This tenet shouldn't be an eye-opener. Sleep is well-known to impact our health and vitality . As Liver King says, aim for 7–9 hours of sleep per night. (He also thinks you should sleep on the floor.)
Tenet #2 — Eat Like a Feral Beast (i.e. Lots of Raw Meat)
There's no shortage of Liver King clips where he savagely tears his canines into a giant slab of raw liver covered in maple syrup (or some other ancestral secret sauce). One of his popular claims is that raw organ meats, like bone marrow and raw liver, are "targeted foods" that preferentially deliver nutrients to corresponding organs in the body. (There is no scientific evidence of this being the case.)
Liver King haphazardly cites a book from 1939 —republished in 2010 — as a source of seemingly nonexistent isotope studies showing that the raw material (e.g. peptides, growth factors, and hormones) in uncooked animal foods is absorbed intact and transported to specific organs of the body depending on the organ meat being ingested . There is absolutely no empirical data we're aware of demonstrating this to be true.
Contrarily, it's well-known that the body triages nutrients based on energetic needs and tissue maintenance . You can eat all the testicles and brains you want, but the raw materials in those foods won't make your testosterone levels skyrocket and turn you into a savant. It's concerning that this has to be stated.
Is Eating a Raw Organ Meat Diet Healthy?
While humans can meet all the essential nutrient needs through animal foods, controlled studies of organ meat-based diets are scanty . A recurring theme when Liver King mentions foods like bone marrow and raw liver is that the vitamins, enzymes, and peptides found within are optimally absorbed. This assertion is a wildly oversimplified take on nutrient digestion, absorption, and transportation.
Moreover, a recent meta-analysis concluded that people who consume raw or undercooked meat are 20–30% more likely to be infected by parasitic organisms than those who eat thoroughly cooked meat . In general, it's better to cook your meat/poultry/eggs before eating them, as it will help neutralize microbes. Use lower-temperature cooking methods to retain as many nutrients as possible .
Tenet #3 — Walk and Lift Heavy Stuff
Nobody will disagree that regular movement and intense resistance training are great for overall wellness and body composition. A sedentary lifestyle is associated with poor health outcomes, so Liver King's third tenet is reasonable, if not common sense .
Tenet #4 — Shield Yourself from Radiation and Toxins
The fourth Liver King tenet is all over the place, stating that you should only wear cotton or wool clothing and relocate to the outskirts of town to avoid urban pollution. Curiously, he notes to steer clear of acetate, the most common precursor of biologically essential molecules (e.g. fatty acids) .
Tenet #5 — Connect With Nature
Liver King is correct that connecting the body to the Earth's ground helps stabilize numerous aspects of our well-being. "Earthing" (also known as "grounding") may entail simple daily practices like walking barefoot in the grass or sleeping in the woods.
A recent literature review illustrates that Earthing can improve blood flow, sleep, perceived energy and mood, and reduce pain and inflammation. The Earth's natural electromagnetic forces are ostensibly responsible for these beneficial effects .
Tenet #6 — Take Cold Plunges and Contrast Showers
Cold plunges and contrast showers (alternating between hot and cold water) are forms of thermal "stress" that may help accelerate muscle recovery after intense training. However, evidence that cold exposure reduces delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after exercise is somewhat equivocal . Generally, heat encourages greater blood flow to muscles and, therefore, more oxygen and nutrients that facilitate recovery.
Cold therapy, on the other hand, has been shown to hinder muscle protein synthesis and impair recovery after training [18, 19]. Cold therapy may have other benefits for the nervous system and metabolic rate, but more research is needed on this matter [20, 21].
Tenet #7 — Get Some Sunlight
Liver King's eBook cites that bonobos and chimpanzees possess more relative lean body mass than humans as one reason great apes didn't rely on stimulants for energy . Ironically, humans evolved to carry more body fat than endangered great apes as it allows us to live significantly longer.
It's unclear how that ties into his tenet about getting plenty of sunlight daily, but we agree it's prudent. There's plenty of data to back the health benefits of regular sunlight exposure .
Tenet #8 — Fight for Your Life (Literally)
This tenet implores people to face their fears head-on, even if that means getting into a brawl with a stranger who scares them. Liver King also throws cold plunges and lengthy fasting periods into the mix here.
Basically, he wants you to push yourself and struggle. There's no disputing that life begins at the end of your comfort zone.
Stress is a healthy, normal part of life, in small doses. But it's anybody's guess whether facing your fear of heights or trying to kick someone's butt will make you a stronger, more vigorous individual. Overall, this tenet comes across as fatuous.
Tenet #9 — Socialize
Humans are social creatures. If socializing more comes as profound advice from Liver King, we've got a long way to go in society.
Intuitively, it's good for our mental and physical well-being to put down the phone from time to time and interact with others in person. The more supportive the community you surround yourself with, the better your life outlook tends to be .
Is Liver King Natural or "Enhanced"?
The contentious debate about whether Liver King is "natty" or "enhanced" prompted a response from Joe Rogan. The popular podcast host was quoted on a recent Joe Rogan Experience episode, saying Liver King's "full of steroids." Liver King fired back, stating he's never touched any steroids.
Liver King does appear to be well over the natural genetic limit of lean body mass for someone his height (5'7"), but we can't comment on his use of anabolic steroids or lack thereof. People will continue to speculate regardless of what he says.
The problem when you have a social media influencer with such a massive following is that, eventually, people start believing pretty much everything they say. Each time they make a post, they might bend the truth just a little more and never get called out. This surreptitious conditioning of their followers often leads to cult-like movements rather than disillusionment.
Once a fitness influencer has entrenched themselves as a de facto "authority" on nutrition and exercise, they can easily sell followers on their supplements, workout routines, etc. As you can imagine, Liver King's Ancestral Supplements line makes him plenty of cash.
To date, there are no human studies backing the merits of supplemental/powdered organs.
For further reading on "primal eating," check out our article on the Carnivore Diet.
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