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), some organ meats, and fat with just a little carbohydrate (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 with whom he had lived and of his own health, he postulated that such a diet was sufficient for good health. It was, 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 supervision of doctors at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, they volunteered to live for 1 year on meat and fat 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, for popular consumption, in Harper’s Monthly in November and December 1935. The balance of this blog post will be the report of W. S. McClellan and E. F. Du Bois, the lead investigators of the Bellevue study. Their paper was brought to my attention by Ginny L who was, in 2012 when this was written, a frequent poster and valued resource on 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 doctors:
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 twice president of the prestigious 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 [the] year. The results were published in the Journal, and both men were perfectly healthy on such a diet, without vitamin supplementation...."