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Adventures in Diet
By Vilhjalmur Stefansson
Harper's Monthly Magazine, 1935
COMMON BELIEFS ABOUT VARIED DIETS
Not so long ago the following dietetic beliefs were common:
There were subsidiary dietetic views.
Specifically it was believed, when our field studies began, that without vegetables in your diet you would develop scurvy. It was a "known fact" that sailors, miners, and explorers frequently died of scurvy "because they did not have vegetables and fruits." This was long before Vitamin C was publicized.
The addition of salt to food was considered either to promote health or to be necessary for health. ....
COMMON BELIEFS ABOUT MEAT-EATING
A belief I was destined to find crucial in my Arctic work, making the difference between success and failure, life and death, was the view that man cannot live on meat alone. The few doctors and dietitians who thought you could were considered unorthodox if not charlatans. The arguments ranged from metaphysics to chemistry:
With these views in my head and, deplorably, a number of others like them, I resigned my position as assistant instructor in anthropology at Harvard to become anthropologist of a polar expedition. Through circumstances and accidents which are not a part of the story, I found myself that autumn the guest of the Mackenzie River Eskimos.
ESKIMO FOOD TASTES
... In the morning, about seven o'clock, winter-caught fish, frozen so hard that they would break like glass, were brought in to lie on the floor till they began to soften a little. One of the women would pinch them every now and then until, when she found her finger indented them slightly, she would begin preparations for breakfast.
First she cut off the head and put them aside to be boiled for the children in the afternoon. (Eskimos are fond of children, and heads are considered the best part of the fish.) Next best are the tails, which are cut off and saved for the children also. The woman would then slit the skin along the back and also along the belly and getting hold with her teeth, would strip the fish somewhat as we peel a banana, only sideways where we peel bananas, endways.
Thus prepared, the fish were put on dishes and passed around. Each of us took one and gnawed it about as an American does corn on the cob. An American leaves the cob; similarly we ate the flesh from the outside of the fish, not touching the entrails. When we had eaten as much as we chose, we put the rest on a tray for dog feed.
After breakfast all the men and about half the women would go fishing, the rest of the women staying at home to keep house. About eleven o'clock we came back for a second meal of frozen fish just like the breakfast. At about four in the afternoon the working day was over and we came home to a meal of hot boiled fish.
Also we came home to a dwelling so heated by the cooking that the temperature would range from 85* to 100*F. or perhaps even higher - more like our idea of a Turkish bath than a warm room. Streams of perspiration would run down our bodies, and the children were kept busy going back and forth with dippers of cold water of which we naturally drank great quantities.
Just before going to sleep we would have a cold snack of fish that had been left over from dinner. Then we slept seven or eight hours and the routine of the day began once more.
After some three months as a guest of the Eskimos I had acquired most of their food tastes. I had to agree that fish is better boiled than cooked any other way, and that the heads (which we occasionally shared with the children) were the best part of the fish. I no longer desired variety in the cooking, such as occasional baking - I preferred it always boils if it was cooked. I had become as fond of raw fish as if I had been a Japanese. I like fermented (therefore slightly acid) whale oil with my fish as well as ever I liked mixed vinegar and olive oil with a salad.
EATING ROTTEN FISH
But I still had two reservations against Eskimo practice; I did not eat rotten fish and I longed for salt with my meals.
There were several grades of decayed fish. The August catch had been protected by longs from animals but not from heat and was outright rotten. The September catch was mildly decayed. The October and later catches had been frozen immediately and were fresh. There was less of the August fish than of any other and, for that reason among the rest, it was a delicacy - eaten sometimes as a snack between meals, sometimes as a kind of dessert and always frozen, raw.
In midwinter it occurred to me to philosophize that in our own and foreign lands taste for a mild cheese is somewhat plebeian; it is at least a semi-truth that connoisseurs like their cheeses progressively stronger. The grading applies to meats, as in England where it is common among nobility and gentry to like game and pheasant so high that the average Midwestern American or even Englishman of a lower class, would call them rotten.
I knew of course that, while it is good form to eat decayed milk products and decayed game, it is very bad form to eat decayed fish. I knew also that the view of our populace that there are likely to be "ptomaines" in decaying fish and in the plebeian meats; but it struck me as an improbable extension of the class-consciousness that ptomaines would avoid the gentleman's food and attack that of a commoner.
These thoughts led to a summarizing query; If it is almost a mark of social distinction to be able to eat strong cheeses with a straight face and smelly birds with relish, why is it necessarily a low taste to be fond of decaying fish? On that basis of philosophy, though with several qualms, I tried the rotten fish one day, and if memory serves, liked it better than my first taste of Camembert. During the next weeks I became fond of rotten fish.
About the fourth month of my first Eskimo winter I was looking forward to every meal (rotten or fresh), enjoying them, and feeling comfortable when they were over.
NO NEED FOR SALT
Still I kept thinking the boiled fish would taste better if only I had salt. From the beginning of my Eskimo residence I had suffered from this lack. On one of the first few days, with the resourcefulness of a Boy Scout, I had decided to make myself some salt, and had boiled sea water till there was left only a scum of brown powder. If I had remembered as vividly my freshman chemistry as I did the books about shipwrecked adventurers, I should have know in advance that the sea contains a great many chemicals besides sodium chloride, among them iodine. The brown scum tasted bitter rather than salty. A better chemist could no doubt have refined the product. I gave it up, partly through the persuasion of my host, the English-speaking Roxy.
Through this philosophizing I was somewhat reconciled to going without salt, but I was nevertheless, overjoyed when one day Ovayuak, my new host in the eastern delta, came indoors to say that a dog team was approaching which he believed to be that of Ilavinirk, a man who had worked with whalers and who possessed a can of salt. Sure enough, it was Ilavinirk, and he was delighted to give me the salt, a half-pound baking-powder can about half full, which he said he had been carrying around for two or three years, hoping sometime to meet someone who would like it for a present. He seemed almost as pleased to find that I wanted the salt as I was to get it.
I sprinkled some on my boiled fish, enjoyed it tremendously, and wrote in my diary that it was the best meal I had had all winter. Then I put the can under my pillow, in the Eskimo way of keeping small and treasured things. But at the next meal I had almost finished eating before I remembered the salt. Apparently then my longing for it had been what you might call imaginary. I finished without salt, tried it at one or two meals during the next few days and thereafter left it untouched. When we moved camp the salt remained behind.
It seemed to me that, mentally and physically, I had never been in better health in my life.
FIVE YEARS ON MEAT AND WATER
(III) During the first few months of my first year in the Arctic, I acquired, though I did not at the time fully realize it, the munitions of fact and experience which have within my own mind defeated those views of dietetics reviewed at the beginning of this article. I could be healthy on a diet of fish and water.
The longer I followed it the better I liked it, which meant, at least inferentially and provisionally, that you never become tired of your food if you have only one thing to eat. I did not get scurvy on the fish diet nor learn that any of my fish-eating friends ever had it. Nor was the freedom from scurvy due to the fish being eaten raw - we proved that later. (What it was due to we shall deal with in the second article of this series.) There were certainly no signs of hardening of the arteries and high blood pressure, of breakdown of the kidneys or of rheumatism.
These months on fish were the beginning of several years during which I lived on an exclusive meat diet. For I count in fish when I speak of living on meat, using "meat" and "meat diet" more as a professor of anthropology than as the editor of a housekeeping magazine. The term in this article and in like scientific discussions refers to a diet from which all things of the vegetable kingdom are absent.
To the best of my estimate then, I have lived in the Arctic for more than five years exclusively on meat and water.
If a man has been on meat exclusively for only three or four months he may or may not be reluctant to go back to it again. But if the period has been six months or over, I remember no one who was unwilling to go back to meat. Moreover, those who have gone without vegetables for an aggregate of several years usually thereafter eat a larger percentage of meat than your average citizen, if they can afford it.
BELLEVUE HOSPITAL MEAT-EATING EXPERIMENT
PART 2 (I) ... At the beginning of our northern work in 1906 it was the accepted view among doctors and dietitians that man cannot live on meat alone. They believed specifically that a group of serious diseases were either caused directly by meat or preventable only by vegetables.
The Russell Sage experiment then could not be made upon anybody controlled by any strong dietetic belief, such as that meat is harmful, that abstinence from vegetables brings trouble, that you tire of a food if you have to eat the same thing often. ... One man fortunately was available. He was Karsten Anderson, a young Dane who had been a member of my third expedition. During that time he had lived an aggregate of more than a year on strictly meat and water, suffering no ill result and, in fact being on one occasion cured by meat from scurvy which he had contracted on a mixed diet.
The experiment started smoothly with Andersen, who was permitted to eat in such quantity as he liked such things as he liked, provided only that they came under our definition of meat - steaks, chops, brains fried in bacon fat, boiled short-ribs, chicken, fish, liver and bacon.
(IV) The broad results of the experiment were, so far as Andersen and I could tell, and so far as the supervising physicians could tell, that we were in at least as good average health during the year as we had been during the three mixed-diet weeks at the start. We thought our health had been a little better than average. We enjoyed and prospered as well on the meat in midsummer as in midwinter, and felt no more discomfort from the heat than our fellow New Yorkers did.
We averaged about a pound and a third of lean per day and half a pound of fat (this is about like eating a two pound broiled sirloin with the fat such a steak usually has on it). That seems like eating mostly lean; but grow technical and you find, in energy units, that we were really getting three-quarters of our calories from the fat. ....
Note: The all meat diet in the Bellevue Hospital experiment was reported by Stefansson in his book, The Fat of the Land, to be 80% animal fat and 20% animal protein.
NO SIGNS OF CALCIUM DEFICIENCY
You study bones when you look for a calcium deficiency. The thing to do then, was to examine the skeletons of people who had died at a reasonably high age after living from infancy upon an exclusive meat diet. Such skeletons are those of Eskimos who are known to have died before the European influences came in.
The Institute of American Meat Packers were induced to make a subsidiary appropriation to the Peabody Museum of Harvard University where Dr. Earnest A. Hooton, Professor of Physical Anthropology, undertook a through going study with regard to the calcium problem in the relation to the Museum's collection of the skeletons of meat eaters.
Dr. Hooton reported no signs of calcium deficiency. On the contrary, there was every indication that the meat eaters had been liberally, or at least adequately, supplied. The had suffered no more in a lifetime from calcium deficiency than we had in our short year (really short, by the way for we enjoyed it).
SCURVY - THE ENEMY OF EXPLORERS
PART 3 (I) Scurvy has been the great enemy of explorers. When Magellan sailed around the world four hundred years ago, many of his crew died from it and most of the others were at times so weakened that they could barely handle the ships. When Scott's party of four went to the South Pole twenty three years ago their strength was sapped by scurvy; they were unable to maintain their travel schedule and died. Nor has scurvy been the nemesis of explorers only. Twenty years ago the British Army in the Near East was seriously handicapped, and last October an American doctor reported a hundred Ethiopian soldiers per day dying of scurvy. The disease worked havoc during the Alaska and Yukon gold rushes following 1896. Scores of miners died and hundred suffered.
Medical profession and laity equally believed for more than a hundred years that they knew exactly how to prevent and cure the disease, yet the method always failed on severe test.
The premise from which the doctors started was that vegetables, particularly fruits, prevent and cure scurvy. Since diet consists of animals and plants, the statement came to take the form that scurvy is cause by meat and cured by vegetables. Finally the doctors standardized on lime juice as the best of preventatives and cures.
THE NARES & NANSEN EXPEDITIONS
How stoutly the faith was kept is shown by the British polar expedition of Sir George Nares. When he returned to England in 1876 after a year and a half, he reported much illness from scurvy, some deaths, and a partial failure of his program as a result. In his view fresh meat could have saved his men. But the doctors, as we shall see when we consider how they later advised Scott, soon forgot whatever impression was made by Nares. They seem to have scared themselves with the old doctrines by a series of assumptions: that the lime juice on the Nares expedition might have been deficient in acid content; that some of the victims did not takes as much of it as needed; and that perhaps it was too much to expect of even the marvelous juice to cope with all the things which tended to bring on scurvy - absence of sunlight, bad ventilation, lack of amusement and exercise, insufficient cleanliness.
Particularly because Nares medical court of inquiry had closed on a note of cleanliness and "modern sanitation," you would think the medical world might have felt a severe jolt when they read how Nansen and Johansen had wintered in the Franz Josef Islands, (now Nansen Land) in 1895-96. They had lived in a hut of stones and walrus leather. The ventilation was bad, to conserve fuel; the fire smoked, so that the air was additionally bad; there was not a ray of daylight for months; during this time they practically hibernated, seldom going outdoors at all and taking as little exercise as appears humanly possible. Yet their health was perfect all winter and they came out of their hibernation in as good physical condition as any men ever did out of any kind of Arctic wintering. Their food had been lean and the fat of walrus.
Tens, if not hundreds of thousand of scientists in medicine and the related branches must have seen this account, for Nansen's books were bestsellers in practically every language and newspapers were full of the story. Yet the effect was negligible. The doctors and dietitians still continued to pontificate on meat producing scurvy and on the contributory bad effects of what they called insufficience of ventilation, cleanliness, sunlight and exercise. They still prescribed lime juice and put their whole dependence on it and other vegetable products.
Excuses for lime juice have persisted to our day. It was for instance, demonstrated with triumph recently that the meaning of "lime" had changed during the last hundred years, explaining the claim that it worked better in the eighteenth than in the nineteenth century - then the juice was made from lemons called limes; now it is made from limes called limes.
The antiscorbutic value of lemons may be far greater than that of limes per ounce, but that does not go to the root of the matter. For proof of this consider how Nansen's experience was re-enforced and interpreted by four expeditions during two decades, two of them commanded by Robert Falcon Scott, one by Ernest Henry Shackleton, one by me.
SCURVY - SCOTT VERSUS SHACKELTON
(II) Scott, in 1900, sought the most orthodox scientific counsel when outfitting his first expedition. He followed advice by carrying lime juice and by picking up quantities of fruits and vegetable things as he passed New Zealand on his way to the Antarctic. He saw to it that the diet was "wholesome," that the men took exercise, that they bathed and had plenty of fresh air. Yet scurvy broke out and the subsequently famous Shackleton was crippled by it on a journey. They were pulling their own sledges at the time so they must of had enough exercise. There was plenty of light with the sun beating on them, and there was plenty of fresh air. To believers in the catch words and slogans of their day, to believers in the virtues of lime juice, the onset of the scurvy was a baffling mystery.
The first Shackleton expedition, went with a hurrah. They were as careless as Scott had been careful; they did not have Scott's type of backing, scientific or financial. They arrived helter skelter on the shores of the Antarctic Continent, pitched camp, and discovered that they did not have enough food for the winter, nor had they taken such painstaking care as Scott to provide themselves with fruits or other antiscorbutics in New Zealand. Compared with Scott's, their routine was slipshod as to cleanliness, exercise, and several of the ordinary hygienic prescriptions.
What signifies is that Scott's men, with unlimited quantities of jams and marmalades, cereals and fruits, grains, curries, and potted meats, had been little inclined to add seals and penguins to their dietary. With Shackleton it was neither wisdom or acceptance of good advise but dire necessity which drove to such use of penguin and seal that Dr. Alister Forbes Mackay, physician from Edinburgh, who was a member of that Shackleton expedition and later physician of my ship the Karluk, told me he estimated half the food during their stay in the Antarctic was fresh meat.
In spite of the lack of care, (indeed, as we now see it, because of their lack), Shackleton had better average health than Scott. There was never a sign of scurvy; every man retained his full strength; and they accomplished that spring what most authorities still consider the greatest physical achievement ever made in the southern polar regions.
Scott began his second venture as he had begun the first, by asking the medical profession of Britain for protection from scurvy and by receiving from them once more the good old advice about lime juice, fruits, and the rest. In winter quarters he again placed reliance on that advice and on constant medical supervision, on a planned and carefully varied diet, on numerous scientific tests to determine the condition of the men, on exercise, fresh air, sanitation in all its standard forms. The men lived on the foods of the United Kingdom, supplemented by the fruit and garden produce of New Zealand. Because they had so much which they were used to, they ate little of what they had never learned to like, the penguins and seals.
Once more they started their sledge travel after a winter of sanitation. The results had previously be disappointing; now they were tragic. While scurvy did not prevent them from reaching the South Pole, it began to weaken them on the return and progressed so rapidly that the growing weakness prevented them, if only by ten miles, from being able to get back to the final provision depot.
Those who have ignored the scurvy have sometimes claimed that if Scott had reached the depot he would have been able to reach the base camp eventually. This becomes more than doubtful when you realize that the progressive decrease of vigor, both mental and bodily, was not going to be helped by even the largest meals, if those meals were of food lacking antiscorbutic value.
It seems strange, now, that a comparison of the Scott and Shackleton experiences did not fully enlighten the doctors on the true inwardness of scurvy; but of course part of the explanation is that the Scott medical information was suppressed. Therefore, it remained for my own expedition to demonstrate, so far as polar expeditions are concerned, and for the Russell Sage experiments to call to the attention of the medical profession, the most practical and only simple way of curing scurvy. For no matter how good the juice of limes (or lemons), it is difficult to carry, it deteriorates, and you may lose it, as by a shipwreck. The thing to do is to find you antiscorbutics where you are, pick them up as you go.
STEFANSSON'S CURE FOR SCURVY
On my third expedition it happened as circumstantially related in a book called "The Friendly Arctic", that three men came down with scurvy though disobeying the instructions of the commander and living without his knowledge for two or three months chiefly on European foods when they were supposed to be living chiefly on meat.
It seems to take from one to three months for even a bad diet to produce recognizable scurvy, but there after developments are rapid through the next few weeks. In the case of my men it was about three weeks ( as they later thought) after they noticed the trouble and about ten days after they complained of it to me, when one of them was so weak we had to carry him on a sledge, while the other was barely able to stagger along, holding on behind. By then every joint pained, their gums were as soft as "American" cheese, their teeth so loose that they came out with almost the gentlest of pulls.
We were 60 or 80 miles from land on drifting sea ice when the trouble stared, and we hastened ashore to get a stable camp for the invalids. It would have been no fun, with sick men on your hands, if the site of your camp started disintegrating under pressure and tumbling about.
We reached an island (about 900 miles north of the Arctic Circle) the coast of which was known although the interior had never been explored. We traveled a few miles inland, established a camp, hunted caribou (there were two of us well, out of four) and began the all-meat cure. Fuel was pretty scarce, so we cooked only one meal a day; besides, I thought raw food might work better. We cooked the breakfast in a lot of water. The patients finished the boiled meat while it was hot and kept the broth to drink during the rest of the day. For their other meals they ate slightly frozen raw meat, with normal digestion and good appetite. We divided up the caribou Eskimo style, so the dogs got organs and entrails, hams, shoulders, and tenderloin, while the invalids, and we hunters got heads, briskets, ribs, pelvis and the marrow from the bones.
On this diet all pain disappeared from every joint within four days and the gloom was replaced by optimism. Inside a week both men said that they had no realization of being ill as long as they lay still in bed. In two weeks they were able to begin traveling, at first riding on the sledges and walking alternately. At the end of a month they felt as if they had never been ill. No signs of the scurvy remained except that the gums, which had receded from the teeth, only partly regained their position.
By comparing notes later with Dr. Alfred Hess, the leading New York authority on scurvy, I found that when I was getting these results with a diet from which all vegetable elements were absent, he was getting the same results in the same length of time through a diet where the main reliance was upon grated raw vegetables and fruits and upon fresh fruit juices.
There is no doubt, as the quantitative studies have shown, that the percentage of Vitamin C, the scurvy preventing factor, is higher in certain vegetable elements than in any meats. But it is equally true that the human body needs only such a tiny bit of Vitamin C that if you have some fresh meat in your diet every day, and don't over cook it, there will be enough C from that source alone to prevent scurvy. If you live exclusively on meat you get from it enough vitamins not only to prevent scurvy but as said in a previous article, to prevent all other deficiency diseases.
MEAT & BETTER TEETH
(III) A bulletin conspicuous in the subways co-operated some time ago with the New York Commissioner of Health by displaying this notice:
FOR SOUND TEETH BALANCED DIET with VEGETABLES : FRUIT : MILK
VISIT DENTIST REGULARLY
During the same time the ether was full and the magazine pages were crowded with advertising which told you that mouth chemistry is altered by a paste, a powder, or a gargle so as to prevent decay, that a clean tooth never decays, that a special kind of toothbrush reaches all the crevices, that a particular brand of fruit, milk or bread is rich in elements for tooth health. There were toothbrush drills in the schools. Mothers throughout the land were scolding, coaxing, and bribing to get children to use the preparations, eat the foods, and follow the rules that insured perfect oral hygiene.
Meantime there appeared a statement from Dr. Adelbert Fernald, Curator of the Museum of Dental School, Harvard University, that he had been collecting mouth casts of living Americans, from the most northerly Eskimos south to the Yucatan. The best teeth and the healthiest mouths were found among people who never drank milk since they had ceased to be suckling babes and who never in their lives tasted any of the other things recommended for sound teeth by the New York Commissioner of Health. These people, Eskimos, never use tooth paste, tooth powder, tooth brushes, mouth wash, or gargle. They never take any pains to cleanse their teeth or mouths. They do not visit their dentist twice a year or even once in a lifetime. Their food is exclusively meat. Meat, be it noted, was not mentioned in the advertisement issued by Dr. Wayne.
MEAT & ABSENCE OF HEADACHES
(IV) ... One of the things we noticed in the general well-being of our New York year on meat and similar years in the Arctic was the absence of headaches. I used to have them frequently before going north and have them occasionally whenever I am on a mixed diet. The whys and wherefores are not clear and what we say on this point is more tentative than any other part of this statement.
It was noticed in the X-ray pictures during our New York meat year that we had far less gas in the intestinal tract when on meat than when on a mixed diet - practically no gas. The work of Dr. John C. Torrey showed that neither did digestion and elimination produce those offensive smells which are found in vegetarianism and on a mixed diet But whether the freedom from a certain kind of intestinal food decomposition was what led to the freedom from headache is no more than a working hypothesis.
The prevention of headache by abstaining from vegetables has been recorded in books. An outstanding case is that of Francis Parkman, the historian, who suffered with headaches all his life except, as he states, during one period when he was living with an Indian tribe chiefly or exclusively on meat. This testimony, though by an eminent man widely read, and though a fair sample of the testimony of meat eaters, commanded little attention for the physicians. It should be said in their defense, however, that Parkman himself does not proclaim the experience as a triumphant discovery. He rather puts it the other way about, that in spite of being compelled to live on meat, he was free from the headaches that plagued him the rest of his days. ...
(V) More than twenty-five years have passed since the completion of my first twelve months on meat and more than six years since the completion in New York of my sixth full meat year. All the rest of my life I have been a heavy meat eater, and I am now fifty-six. That should be long enough to bring out the effects. Dr. Clarence W. Lieb will report in the American Journal of Gastroenterology that I still run well above my age average on those points where meat has been supposed to cause deterioration. The same is the verdict of my own feelings. Rheumatism, for instance, has yet to give me its first twinge.
The broadest conclusion to be drawn from our comfort, enjoyment, and long-range well-being on meat is that the human body is a sounder and more competent job than we give it credit for. Apparently you can eat healthy on meat without vegetables, on vegetables without meat, or on a mixed diet.
While meat eaters seem to average well in heath, we must in our conclusion draw a caution from the most complete modern example of them the Eskimos of Coronation Gulf, when he was anthropologist on my third expedition, that the two chief causes of death were accidents and old age. This puts in a different form my saying that these survivors of the stone age were the healthiest people I have ever lived among. I would say the community, from infancy to old age, may have had on the average the health of an equal number of men about twenty, say college students.
Vilhjalmur Stefansson, 1935
Harper's Monthly Magazine
Originally from biblelife.org - Eskimos Prove An All Meat Diet Provides Excellent Health
- Eating red meat and natural animal fats while restricting carbohydrates is not only healthy but will prevent and cure many diseases.
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