Meats, no shoots, no leavesNew Scientist
29 May 2004
By Kurt Kleiner
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."