Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Nutrition Debate #61: Stefansson and “The Eskimo Diet”

About 100 years ago a Canadian ethnologist, Vilhjallmur Stefansson, spent 11 years living among the Inuit in the frozen North. For 9 of those years he ate substantially a diet composed of meat (including fish), organ meats and fat with just a few carbohydrates (only the glycogen contained in the muscle tissue and liver). In the summer months he ate a few berries. Upon his return to ‘civilization,’ from his observations of the Inuit population with whom he had lived and of his own health, he postulated that such a diet was sufficient for good health. It was, indeed, he averred, a complete diet.
Stefansson’s lectures on his experience with an all meat diet drew derision and cries of charlatan from the scientific and medical community. So, to ‘prove’ his hypothesis, he proposed a daring experiment. He offered himself and a colleague, Karsen Andersen, with whom he had shared his experience in the Arctic, as an in vivo experiment (n=2). In 1928, under the supervision of doctors at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, they volunteered to live for 1 year on meat and fat and offal alone. The results, which I first read in Gary Taubes’s "Good Calories -- Bad Calories," were fascinating.
Stefansson’s own account of his Arctic adventures was published in Harper’s Monthly in November and December 1935; In 2008 David Mendoza posted it at . But I want to dedicate the balance of this blog post to the report of W. S. McClellan and E. F. Du Bois, the lead investigators of the Bellevue study and among the authors of several papers published at the time that studied Stefansson and Andersen for that year. Their paper was brought to my attention by Ginny L who is a frequent poster and valued resource at Dr. Richard K. Bernstein’s Diabetes Forum,
The paper, “Prolonged Meat Diets with a Study of Kidney Function and Ketosis,” was published July 1, 1930, in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Herewith, in their entirety, are the conclusions of the previously skeptical authors:
1. Two men lived on an exclusive meat diet for 1 year and a third man for 10 days. The relative amounts of lean and fat meat ingested were left to the instinctive choice of the individuals.
2. The protein content varied from 100 to 140 gm., the fat from 200 to 300 gm., the carbohydrate, derived entirely from the meat, from 7 to 12 gm., and the fuel value from 2000 to 3100 calories.
3. At the end of the year, the subjects were mentally alert, physically active, and showed no specific physical changes in any system of the body.
4. During the 1st week, all three men lost weight, due to a shift in the water content of the body while adjusting itself to the low carbohydrate diet. Thereafter, their weights remained practically constant.
5. In the prolonged test, the blood pressure of one man remained constant; the systolic pressure of the other decreased 20 mm. and the diastolic pressure remained uniform.
6. The control of the bowels was not disturbed while the subjects were on prescribed meat diet. In one instance, when the proportion of protein calories in the diet exceeded 40 per cent, a diarrhea developed.
7. Vitamin deficiencies did not appear.
8. The total acidity of the urine during the meat diet was increased to 2 or 3 times that of the acidity on mixed diets and acetonuria was present throughout the periods of exclusive meat.
9. Urine examinations, determinations of the nitrogenous constituents of the blood, and kidney function tests revealed no evidence of kidney damage.
10. While on the meat diet, the men metabolized foodstuffs with FA: G ratios between 1.9 and 3.0 and excreted from 0.4 to 7.2 gm. of acetone bodies per day.
11. In these trained subjects, the clinical observations and laboratory studies gave no evidence that any ill effects had occurred from the prolonged use of the exclusive meat diet.

Stefansson was a very colorful character. He was an early member and twice president of the Explorers Club. He lectured in anthropology at Harvard and was Director of Polar Studies at Dartmouth College. His Wikipedia entry concludes:  Stefansson is also a figure of considerable interest in dietary circles, especially those with an interest in very low-carbohydrate diets. Stefansson documented the fact that the Inuit diet consisted of about 90% meat and fish; Inuit would often go 6 to 9 months a year eating nothing but meat and fish—essentially, a no-carbohydrate diet. He found that he and his fellow European-descent explorers were also perfectly healthy on such a diet. When medical authorities questioned him on this, he and a fellow explorer agreed to undertake a study under the auspices of the Journal of the American Medical Association to demonstrate that they could eat a 100% meat diet in a closely observed laboratory setting for the first several weeks, with paid observers for the rest of an entire year. The results were published in the Journal, and both men were perfectly healthy on such a diet, without vitamin supplementation or anything else in their diet except meat and entrails.” That may not be very appealing to the Wiki author, but it sounds pretty good to me.                                                               

 © Dan Brown 7/29/12


  1. Dan-
    I wonder if this precise experiment could be duplicated with the same protocol/paid observers and such for careful compliance of the pure meat/fat paradigm? Imagine the wealth of useful data obtained with our 21st century developing knowledge of the biochemistry and newer measurement capability.

    I was stunned at #7 (no vitamin deficiencies), though, again today we'd look at FA, and micronutrient disease deficiencies that were only conjectures or unimagined in 1920-40.

    I envy people of that era in that the availability of true-grass-fed livestock was the norm, but GMO, steroid/antibiotic, corporate/ USDA, widespread industrial farming were all in our, agricultural, bleak future .

    Your citation of that limited observation of Stefansson is important-- even with only the two participants it turns 21st c. nutrition advice/diets on its head. As you, I and many who read Taubes, Wolfe, Harris, Bernstein, etc. know, our own proof is not in the pudding--unless it's made without wheat and any known inflammatory substances.

    1. Good points all, Stan. Several other papers were written contemporaneously by colleagues of the principals at Bellevue. I haven't seen them, but I imagine they were also interesting.

      I agree that #7 is a stunner. On my VLCKD I take a multivitamin daily and at one time took 2.

      It should also be noted that the 'meat' they ate at Bellevue included organ meats, specifically liver, kidneys, brains and bone marrow. The report also mentions that when Stefansson travelled during that year he also ate some eggs and butter, but it was minimal.

      I hope you take a look at some of the links I provided. It makes interesting reading.

    2. Hi Dan--

      For years I have shuned wheat products and subsited mainly on meat, fish, eggs, and water. At 64 I am in perfect health and never had any vitamin deficiency-- actually i enjoy roy meat (ground round) and have for over 40 years.
      It's interesting that you have had such success beating diabtetes--I have always believed that processed carbs are the biggest enemy of the American diet.
      As for Steffanson-- I read the book The Fat of the Land--a good read..I also do well on a modified meat diet with a smattering of greens--and I do mean a smattering.

    3. I admire your discipline. I'm afraid I am far less disciplined so it is always (still?) a struggle for me. I like low carb veggies to accompany meat at supper, and my wife always prepares them with lots of butter or roasted after tossed in olive oil.

      But I think I could be a happy carnivore so long as I could include eggs. Have you read J. Stanton's "Gnoll Credo"? I am currently wearing his T-shirt that says, "Die biting the throat." It gets lots of comments.

  2. Naturally produced diets translate to "real food." What is important is 1) that they contain unadulterated ingredients and, equally if not more important, no adulterated ingredients. Adulterated = processed. Sorry, Tom, for the delay in answering. I didn't see your comment until now.