Viljhalmur Stefansson and the Foodways of the Arctic - Part II

Viljhalmur Stefansson.  Image from PolarConservation.org

"The feeling that decisive controlled tests were needed began to spread after I told one of the scientific heads of the Food Administration in 1918 that I had lived for an aggregate of more than five years with enjoyment on just meat and water."

-From "Adventures in Diet" by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Harper's Monthly Magazine, November 1935


Prior to Ancel Keys, and his crusade against cholesterol and saturated fat (see Big Fat Lies), meat, defined as animal flesh and fat, was not considered "unhealthy".  This isn't to say, however, that carnivory reigned and that meat-centric diets were en vogue.

Fifty years prior to Ancel Keys and his seminal Seven Countries Study, turn of the century doctors and medical professionals considered a "mixed diet", one that combined relatively equivalent proportions of animal and vegetal material, to be necessary for the prevention of diseases of malnutrition.  Scurvy, a deficiency of vitamin C that causes the gradual breakdown of connective tissues, was particularly responsible for this assumption.

The actual mechanism by which scurvy develops wasn't understood until the 1930's with the discovery of vitamin C, but by the 1800's, the British Navy had effectively "cured" the disease by instructing their sailors to include citrus fruit, particularly lemons, limes, and oranges, with their rations (thus the moniker "Limeys").  This cemented the notion among Westernized nations that good health required the fortifying effects of fruits and vegetables.  It is understandable, then, that the stories and subsequent experiments of Canadian explorer Viljhalmur Stefansson, drew considerable attention and controversy.

According to his own estimations, Stefansson spent approximately five full years living on a diet exclusively comprised of meat (see Viljhalmur Stefansson and the Foodways of the Arctic - Part I) while living in and among the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, then known as Eskimos.  During this time, Viljhalmur found that he enjoyed exemplary health on a meat-only diet and observed the same positive effects in members of his crew.

Several years after he concluded his Arctic explorations, Stefansson had the opportunity to speak to a group of physicians at the original Mayo clinic.  Afterwards, he noted that, "One of the Mayo brothers suggested that I spend two or three weeks there to have a check-over and see whether they could not find evidences of the supposed bad effects of meat."  Circumstances prevented Stefansson from taking advantage of the offer, but another opportunity soon arose.

While visiting New York gastroenterologist Dr. Clarence W. Leib, Stefansson recounted the episode with the Mayo's and was assured that their were many "good doctors" in New York who could put him through a battery of tests "as rigid as anything (he) could get from the Mayo's."  A committee was formed to conduct the tests and, having "failed to discover any trace of even one of the supposed harmful effects" of a meat-based diet, the results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association's July 1926 issue in an article titled, "The Effects of an Exclusive Long-Continued Meat Diet."

While many were skeptical of the report's findings, one group in particular found the report to be good news, the Institute of American Meat Packers (IAMP).  IAMP requested permission to reprint the report so as to redistribute it to dietitians and medical doctors, but Stefansson and Leib refused, recognizing a greater opportunity.  One criticism of their original report was that the harsh environment and physical exertion of inherent to Arctic exploration was responsible for Stefansson's good health while "on meat". As Leib and Stefansson conceived it, a much better test would be "to live under modern conditions on the food of our more or less remote ancestors; the food, too, of certain contemporary 'primitive hunters.'"  The experiment was proposed, and, "after much negotiating," the IAMP agreed to furnish the money.

It was decided that the experiment would take plate at the Russell Sage Institute of Pathology, a research unit of Cornell University's medical college, and that a committee of scientific luminaries would oversee the project. The committee included Doctors from the American Museum of Natural History, Cornell University, Harvard University, the IAMP, John Hopkins University, the Russell Sage Institute of Pathology, and the University of Chicago. Dr Clarence Lieb, who had previously worked with Stefansson on the JAMA article, would also be participating in the experiment.

Determining, exactly, what constituted a "meat only" diet required some specification. If it were a matter of simply eliminating vegetal matter, it could be understood that milk and eggs would be included. However, Stefansson wanted to ensure that they "forestalled the possible cry that we were saved from the ill effects of a vegetable-less diet by the eggs and the milk", so eggs and dairy were eliminated along with fruits and vegetables. "All-meat", therefore, included "steaks, chops, brains fried in bacon fat, boiled short-ribs, chicken, fish, liver and bacon" in whatever quantity was desired and cooked to the preferred doneness. (After the experiment concluded, Stefansson noted that, "He (Karsten Anderson, the second experimental subject) leaned to medium cooking and I to well done.")

As plans were made and resources were gathered, it was decided that an additional study participant should be included as a fail safe in case anything were to happen to Stefansson.  Subjects with a preconceived bias against an all-meat diet were deemed unsuitable, they would likely report any malady as the fault of the meat, which limited the potential pool of candidates to former member of Stefansson's Arctic crew.  These men had all flourished "on meat" and had seen many of their comrades do the same. Karsten Anderson, a Dane who was living in Florida, was ultimately selected.

Considered by Stefansson to be "incredibly suitable for our test," Anderson had been living in Florida and was working in the citrus groves, "lightly clad and enjoying the benefits (such as they are) of a sub-tropical sunlight." He was also consuming significant quantities of fruits and vegetables and was concurrently suffering from "head colds, his hair was thinning steadily; and he had developed a condition involving intestinal toxemia such would ordinarily cause a doctor to look serious and pronounce: 'You must go light on meat.'"

With all the pieces now in place, attention could be turned to the initiation of the study itself.  The researchers planned to study "every aspect" of the results, paying special attention to the "common views" that "scuvy will result from the absence of vegetable elements, that other deficiency diseases may be produced, that the effect will be bad on the circulatory system and on the kidneys, that certain harmful micro-organisms will flourish in the intestinal tract, and that there will be insufficient calcium."

To establish a testing baseline, the researchers fed the participants measured quantities of a "standard mixed diet" for the first three weeks of the study. This included fruits, cereal grains, bacon and eggs, meats and vegetables. It was during this time that an unnamed "leading European authority", proclaimed, "solemnly", that the men should be "unable to go more than four of five days on meat."  This period passed uneventfully, and it was at this time that Andersen was put on the meat-only diet. Stefansson, however, had one more pre-test experiment to endure.

During one particularly daunting stretch of Arctic exploration, Stefansson and his Eskimo compatriots had nearly starved.  They were able to hunt game, but it consisted of gaunt caribou, who were themselves close to starvation.  As such, the carcasses were nearly devoid of fat.  To survive, the men resorted to eating "the tissue from behind the eyes," and scavenged marrow by breaking open the animals noses.

After the second or third week, on such rations, the group had begun to experience what is sometimes referred to as "rabbit starvation".  The condition derives its name from the observation that after a period of consuming lean animals, rabbits and other rodents in particular, state of dangerously elevated urea levels sets in.  If excessive protein consumption in the absence of dietary fat and/or carbohydrate continues, the afflicted person will eventually succumb to "diarrhea and a feeling of general baffling discomfort."

It was then by the suggestion of one of the researchers, Dr. DuBois, that Stefansson replicate this experience in the laboratory.  To do this, he would eat as much "chopped, fatless muscle" as he could.  Even before they began this lean-only regiment, Stefansson "predicted trouble", but he complied nonetheless. Within two days, symptoms set in and he had to be fed "fat sirloin steaks" and "brains fried in bacon fat" to relieve him of his symptoms.  He recovered several days later, albeit significantly lighter, as he reporting that he had lost "considerable weight".

The rapid onset of symptoms, days vs weeks while in the Arctic, was actually quite understandable.  When scavenging whole animal carcasses, he and his men had been able to acquire some fat, and, perhaps just as significantly, they had consumed a "great deal of bulk."  This "bulk" was made up of cartilage chewed off the "soft ends of bones", tendons eaten whole, as well as various other "indigestible" matter.  The net effect was that they consumed a far more limited quantity of lean tissue consume than they would have had they had access to the meticulously trimmed rations of pure muscle tissue served up in the laboratory.

With the initial tests out of the way, the study proper began for Stefansson. He recalled that, "Neither of us was permitted at any time, day or night to be out of sight of a doctor or nurse."  This close supervision was required so that the researchers could attest to their complete exclusion of any fruits or vegetables through first-hand accounts. The men's physical activity was also limited to that of "an average businessman", which primarily comprised of walking.

Occasionally, however, intense bouts of exercise were required.  One of the researchers would take the men out, have them run "around the reservoir in Central Park", run back to his house, and set upon the stairs "two or three at a time."  With their exertions complete, they would plump down on "cots" and have their "breathing, pulse rate, and other crude reactions" tested.

As a sought after speaker and public figure, Stefansson was required to leave New York after three weeks of close supervision. Anderson, however, was kept "under lock and key" for a full ninety days before being allowed to come and go. At this point, the researchers were quite sure that neither man would break the diet and if not, the "constant analyses of excretions and blood" when they returned to the hospital for check-ups would reveal if they had.

In his book, "The Fat of the Land", Stefansson described how he was able to stick to the all meat diet while traveling, dining out, and as a guest during "course" dinners .  He discovered that while ordering a single large steak, piece of boiled mutton, or broiled chicken, was easy enough, there were often considerable problems with his orders.  Despite his request to leave all of the fat intact, he would find that his mutton had been "Frenched" (fat trimmed off) and would have to supplement his fat intake by adding a side of bacon.

Stefansson broke from the strictest interpretation of the meat-only diet approximately a dozen times when circumstances necessitated that he eat and eggs were the only suitable option.  Both men also drank black tea and black coffee on several occasions, but most of the time they drank water or the hot broth from boiled meats.  Neither consumed any meat fried in vegetable oil, any breaded items, or any dairy for the entirety of the year.

The men's daily food consumption averaged "about a pound and a third of lean per day and half a pound of fat." This was likened to "eating a two pound broiled sirloin with the fat such as a steak usually has on it" each day and provided nearly two thirds of their calories from fat (calorically, this worked out to approximately 2,600 calories a day, 2,100 derived from fat, 500 derived from protein.) When the meat was butchered, they would eat cuts from one side of the animal and the identical cut from the other side was taken to the lab for chemical analysis.

During the course of the study, a deadly epidemic of pneumonia swept through New York city.  In the crowded hospital, the disease passed between staff and patients, and Andersen was infected. At the time, fifty percent of those infected at the hospital died, and the physicians were "gravely worried".  Fortunately, Andersen "reacted quickly" to treatment, the infection ran "an unusually short course", and afterwards, he "convalesced rapidly."

At the end of the year, which Stefansson claimed "went quickly" because of the enjoyable nature of the diet, the men were determined to be in "at least as good average health during the year" as they had been during the initiation of the experiment.  Subjectively, both men reported that their health was "a little better than average" and the results of their exercise tests showed a gradual improvement in stamina over the course of the study.  Andersen's hair loss had abated and his intestinal condition had not caused him any trouble.  Commenting on the "slimming", "slenderizing", and "reducing" qualities of the diet, Stefansson noted that prior to the study he was "about ten pounds overweight."  Over the course of the study, he "lost all of it."

One concern of the researchers was that the men were consuming far less than the "required" daily intake for calcium.  It was suspected that they would eventually suffer ill effects because of this, so an adjunct study was performed.  Eskimo skeletons from subjects who had consumed an all-meat diet for a lifetime were analyzed. It was noted that their bones did not show any malformation or evidence of disease, which was consistent across groups that habitually consumed bones (those with access to caribou) and those that didn't (groups living off seal).  In the context of the experiment, Stefansson mentioned that the laboratory analysis of calcium intake over the course of their year long experiment may have been off, however, as the two men followed the "Eskimo custom" of consuming fish bones and chewing the cartilaginous ends of the rib bones.

While Stefansson realized that the results of his experiment were difficult for the medical establishment to "assimilate", he continued to be a sought after speaker, political activist, and writer.  He later posited that the energy and optimism that he experienced while on the "stimulating" meat diet may partly explain why the Eskimo are sometimes referred to as the happiest people in the world.

Incorrect interpretations of the experiment, as well as his own experiences while on expedition, required that Stefansson dispute certain "provisos" that had emerged.  Namely, that the healthful effects of the Eskimos all-meat diet is due to the consumption of raw meat and that the entirety of the animal is consumed.

Stefansson's direct experiences taught him that the Eskimo often cooked or boiled their meats completely and that much of the organs, including the liver went to the dog teams.  The only organs eaten, outside of times of abject starvation, also the only time Eskimos would resort to eating available vegetable matter, was the kidneys, and they were reserved for the children.  According to Stefansson, the bulk of the Eskimo diet, and the one that allowed them to thrive for generations in the Arctic, was well-cooked meat, fat and tendon.

Almost 100 years later, entrenched beliefs regarding the healthfulness, or even dangers of eating meat persist (for ex. this recent headline).  Fortunately, there are cracks appearing in the facade (for ex. this thorough refutation of the previous headline) as new dietary explorers, in the spirit of Stefansson, challenge the conventional wisdom.

Resources:

"Adventures in Diet" by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, 1935-36 Harper's Monthly Magazine Parts 1-3,
http://drbass.com/stefansson2.html

"Diseases of Malnutrition" http://www.thirdplanetfood.com/malnutrition.htm

"Cornell University Medical College (Weill Medical College of Cornell University)" http://www.med.cornell.edu/archives/history/medical_college.html?name1=Cornell+University+Medical+College&type1=2Active

"Rabbit Starvation" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbit_starvation

"Inuit Diet" Wikipedia.com http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inuit_diet

"Vilhjalmur Stefansson" Wikipedia.com http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vilhjalmur_Stefansson

"The Fat of the Land" by Viljhalmur Stefansson http://owndoc.com/pdf/The-fat-of-the-land.pdf


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About Tony Fed

Tony is the host of the Paleo Magazine Radio podcast, author of "Paleo Grilling: A Modern Caveman's Guide to Cooking with Fire", and Cofounder of Powerful PT, an innovative information resource for Fitness Professionals. He has appeared on numerous local and national television and radio broadcasts and regularly hosts healthy cooking workshops and informational lectures. He is also a full-time Personal Trainer and Wellness Consultant who lives in Jacksonville Florida with his wife Jamie.
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