Meats, no shoots, no leaves

New Scientist
29 May 2004
By Kurt Kleiner

During his long career, Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson travelled thousands of kilometres on foot and by dog sled, lived for years with the Inuit, survived months on an ice floe, and at least once was given up for dead. But when he entered New York's Bellevue Hospital in February 1928, he was about to try something medical experts believed would be even more of an ordeal. He was going to try to live for a year on a diet of meat.

Stefansson was not in the least bit worried. He had been telling people for years that while living with the Inuit he had eaten nothing but meat and fish for months at a time. Medical authorities were dubious; some accused him of lying. Finally, Stefansson arranged to be admitted to hospital, where someone would watch his every mouthful. One sceptic predicted he would last four or five days and then the experiment would have to stop.

THAT first winter in the Arctic, Vilhjalmur Stefansson learned lessons he would remember for the rest of his life. It was 1906, and he had come to the Arctic for the first time as a junior member of the Anglo-American Polar Expedition. The expedition was to spend the next three years charting the continental shelf north of Alaska. But Stefansson quickly broke away from his party, and by the autumn he was living with a group of Inuit on the Mackenzie river delta near the Arctic Ocean. His interest was in anthropology, and this suited him far better - except for one thing. The Inuit would subsist entirely on fish for the whole winter. And Stefansson had always hated fish.

At first his hosts roasted his fish for him, the way they knew "whites" preferred it. Eventually, though, Stefansson began to eat it boiled, as the Inuit did. And within three months, he began to prefer it that way. He also came to agree with his hosts that the head was the best part of the fish, that fermented whale oil made a tasty condiment, and that partially rotten fish was something to be savoured.

Most importantly, the experience taught him that he could stay fit and healthy living exclusively on fish. Over the course of three expeditions spanning 10 years he added caribou, seal, whale blubber and other meat to his diet. "By necessity at first, later by choice, I followed the rule of doing in Rome as the Romans do, which included living on Eskimo foods prepared in the Eskimo way. In that process my tastes underwent a gradual change, and I came also to realise that many of my former beliefs about the wholesomeness of food and about 'normal likes and dislikes' were due to the locale of my birth and upbringing; they were matters of social and not of biological inheritance," he wrote in his book Not by Bread Alone.

Stefansson put his new-found knowledge to good use. While other explorers hauled along their own food, Stefansson's midwinter expeditions over the frozen sea survived entirely on seal, and some polar bear, which they hunted as they went. Normally it took men three or four weeks to adapt to the diet. According to Stefansson, the men still had food cravings, but rarely for vegetables; they were more likely to hanker after ham and eggs or pancakes.

At the time Stefansson was exploring, scurvy was still an occupational hazard. No one knew it was caused by a deficiency of vitamin C; indeed vitamin C had not yet been discovered. Even so, most experts believed that fruit and vegetables were the only foods that would keep scurvy at bay. Most thought meat was either useless or actually harmful. So when Stefansson wrote articles in the medical press suggesting people could stay healthy and avoid scurvy by eating nothing but meat, he was contradicting conventional wisdom. His views were so radical that an official from the US Food Administration questioned him and sent a transcript of the interview to dieticians for comment. The response was disbelief. It would be a miracle if it were true, remarked one. And you were more likely to encounter a thousand liars than one miracle.

Eventually, tired of all the scoffing, Stefansson agreed to undergo testing at Bellevue Hospital in New York under the supervision of Eugene Du Bois, medical director of the Russell Sage Institute of Pathology. The study was funded, appropriately enough, by the American Meat Institute. Stefansson and fellow explorer Karsten Andersen spent three weeks on a typical American diet while researchers gathered data on their general health and basal metabolism. Then, when the two men switched to the all-meat diet, they were kept under constant supervision to ensure they didn't sneak in a slice of bread or a plate of carrots.

The only hitch came at the beginning of the trial. Stefansson had told the researchers about "rabbit starvation", a sickness he had seen among Native Americans when they were forced to live on the relatively low-fat meat of rabbits. It's odd, then, that the researchers decided to start the experiment by asking Stefansson to eat only lean meat. Within two days he was suffering from diarrhoea, nausea and weakness - all of which he had predicted. He recovered when he added fat to his diet, in the form of calves' brains fried in bacon grease.

Left to follow their own appetites, the two men consumed about 80 per cent of their calories as fat, savouring the fatty parts of a joint or a chop and polishing off any bone marrow. If their meat was too lean, they added bacon. They also developed a healthy taste for bones, and gnawed on them frequently, as the Inuit did. And they began to find, as the Inuit did, that the tender cuts of meat such as steak lost their appeal, and tougher, chewier cuts such as brisket became more appetising.

Stefansson continued under observation for just three weeks. He had business to attend to, but left hospital promising to stick to the diet. Andersen was kept at Bellevue for more than three months. Released from direct supervision, the two men were trusted to eat nothing but meat for an entire year.

Clarence Lieb, a New York gastroenterologist, wrote up the results for The Journal of the American Medical Association in 1929. Both men remained in good health. Blood pressure, kidney function and calcium levels remained normal. By the end of the experiment they had both lost about 2 kilograms. For Andersen, there was an unexpected bonus. Before the trial he had been losing his hair; on the diet it had stopped falling out. Stefansson's constipation was cured. As an extra plus, the men's faeces became "practically odourless" with only a slight vinegary smell. And there was more. "It seemed to me that I was more optimistic and energetic than ordinarily. I looked forward with more anticipation to the next day or the next job, and was more likely to expect pleasure or success," Stefansson wrote.

The parallels with our own time are striking. Then, as now, medical experts advocated a diet that included generous helpings of vegetables, and thought that the less meat you ate the healthier you would be. Stefansson, like Robert Atkins of Atkins Diet fame, bucked the trend by suggesting that a diet based mainly on meat, or fish, was perfectly healthy. But although the experiment was widely reported in the press at the time, Stefansson was no diet guru, and there was no mass movement towards an all-meat diet. As critics pointed out, the experiment proved nothing about the long-term effects an all-meat diet might have on health.

Seventy-five years later, little has changed. The best evidence tells us that limiting the amount of meat we eat is the healthiest choice. Yet there are millions of people who seem to be doing perfectly well on Dr Atkins's diet - at least in the short term - and that raises interesting questions about the conventional wisdom. The example of the Inuit, some of whom continue to live healthy lives on all-meat diets, raises more questions still. And yet the best advice is probably the same now as it was in 1928, when The Washington Post published an editorial on the experiment. "Until the medical profession can produce more conclusive proof than the Stefansson experiment that a varied diet is not necessary for a healthy life, the public will do well not to cast aside its present dietary habits."