Sunday, August 12, 2012

A carnivorous diet

For almost 3 years, I've been eating an essentially carnivorous diet. By "carnivorous", I don't mean omnivorous, non-vegetarian, or simply including meat. I mean that I eat essentially only meat. I say "essentially", because I regularly consume a few non-meat products, including coffee, tea and herbal tea, and coconut oil. Rarely, at my discretion, I might eat a dill pickle, or the fancy leaf served with my sashimi, perhaps a square of unsweetened chocolate -- but these events are far from the norm, perhaps once every month or two. I consider eggs carnivorous, but I'm ambivalent about dairy products. In particular, while milk has a favourable protein and fat profile, it also has a lot of carbohydrate. I'm sensitive to carbohydrates, and so aside from butter, and small amounts of cream and cheese, I avoid it. In any case, carnivorous is not meant to be defining or prescriptive, but descriptive.

I eat this way because I have discovered that it significantly improves my health in several parameters. Most notably it keeps my propensity to fatness in check, and more importantly, my severe mood disturbances in complete remission. To you, Dear Reader, this is a mere anecdote, and that's fine with me. My intention here is not to persuade anyone of anything, but only to record my experiences.

One of the few scientific publications discussing carnivory came out of an experiment on Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a Canadian explorer and ethnologist. During his time with the Inuit, he had adopted their native diet of exclusively meat, and was so impressed with the health he enjoyed at that time, that he and a friend volunteered to live on meat for a year under medical supervision. There are two publications that I know of discussing the results:

The Effects on Human Beings of a Twelve Months' Exclusive Meat Diet Based on Intensive Clinical and Laboratory Studies on Two Arctic Explorers Living Under Average Conditions in a New York Climate by Clarence W. Lieb, M.D. in JAMA. 1929;93(1):20-22. Unfortunately, this paper is not open-access.

Prolonged Meat Diets with a Study Function and Ketosis. S. McClellan and Eugene F. Du Bois in The Journal of Biological Chemistry, 87, 651-668, 1930.

Stefansson wrote about his arctic dietary experiences for Harper: Eskimos Prove An All Meat Diet Provides Excellent Health, and also in Not by Bread Alone, which I have not read, because it is out of print, and a collector's item.

It was my understanding, though I forget from where, that Stefansson had not ultimately continued eating this way. However, I recently came across an edition of Richard Mackarness' s book Eat Fat and Grow Slim. It includes a preface written by Stefansson's wife, Evelyn, which I had never seen before. I reproduce it here because it is an interesting perspective from a wife and home-maker.


One morning at breakfast, the autumn of 1955, my explorer-anthropologist husband, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, asked me if he might return to the Stone Age Eskimo sort of all-meat diet he had thrived on during the most active part of his arctic work. Two years before, he had suffered a mild cerebral thrombosis, from which he had practically recovered. But he had not yet succeeded in losing the ten pounds of overweight his doctor wanted him to be rid of. By will power and near starvation, he had now and then lost a few of them; but the pounds always came back when his will power broke down. Doubtless partly through these failures, Stef had grown a bit unhappy, at times grouchy.

My first reaction to his Stone Age diet proposal was dismay. I have three jobs. I lecture, in and out of town, and enjoy the innumerable extracurricular activities of our New England college town of Hanover, New Hampshire. Forenoons I write books about the arctic, "for teen-agers and uninformed adults," to be able to afford the luxury of being librarian afternoons of the large polar library my husband and I acquired when we were free-lance writers and government contractors, which library now belongs to Dartmouth College. I take part in a course called the Arctic Seminar, and last winter was director. I sing in madrigal groups and act in experimental theater plays. Only by a miserly budgeting of time do I manage these things. "In addition," I thought to myself, "I am now supposed to prepare two menus!"

But aloud I said: "Of course, dear." And we began to plan.

To my astonished delight, contrary to all my previous thinking, the Stone Age diet not only proved effective in getting rid of Stef's overweight, but was also cheaper, simpler, and easier to prepare than our regular mixed diet had been. Far from requiring more time, it took less. Instead of adding housekeeping burdens, it relieved them. Almost imperceptibly Stef's diet became my diet. Time was saved in not shopping for, not preparing, not cooking, and not washing up after unrequired dishes, among them vegetables, salads, and desserts.

Some of our friends say: "We would go on a meat diet too, but we couldn't possibly afford it." That started me investigating the actual cost of the diet. Unlike salads and desserts, which often do not keep, meat is as good several days later as the day it was cooked. There is no waste. I found our food bills were lower than they had been. But I attribute this to our fondness for mutton. Fortunately for us it is an unfashionable meat, which means it is cheap. We both like it, and thanks to our deep freeze, we buy fat old sheep at anything from twenty-two to thirty-three cents a pound and proceed to live on the fat of the land. We also buy beef, usually beef marrow. European cooks appreciate marrow, but most people in our country have never even tasted it, poor things.

When you eat as a primitive Eskimo does, you live on lean and fat meats. A typical Stefansson dinner is a rare or medium sirloin steak and coffee. The coffee is freshly ground. If there is enough fat on the steak we take our coffee black, otherwise heavy cream is added. Sometimes we have a bottle of wine. We have no bread, no starchy vegetables, no desserts. Rather often we eat half a grapefruit. We eat eggs for breakfast, two for Stef, one for me, with lots of butter.

Startling improvements in health came to Stef after several weeks on the new diet. He began to lose his overweight almost at once, and lost steadily, eating as much as he pleased and feeling satisfied the while. He lost seventeen pounds, then his weight remained stationary, although the amount he ate was the same. From being slightly irritable and depressed, he became once more his old ebullient, optimistic self. By eating mutton he became a lamb.

An unlooked-for and remarkable change was the disappearance of his arthritis, which had troubled him for years and which he thought of as a natural result of aging. One of his knees was so stiff he walked up and down stairs a step at a time, and he always sat on the aisle in a theater so he could extend his stiff leg comfortably.

Several times a night he would be awakened by pain in his hips and shoulder when he lay too long on one side; then he had to turn over and lie on the other side. Without noticing the change at first, Stef was one day startled to find himself walking up and down stairs, using both legs equally. He stopped in the middle of our stairs; then walked down again and up again. He could not remember which knee had been stiff!

Conclusion: The Stone Age all-meat diet is wholesome. It is an eat-all-you-want reducing diet that permits you to forget you are dieting--no hunger pangs remind you. It saves time and money. Best of all, it improves the temperament. It somehow makes one feel optimistic, mildly euphoric.

Epilogue: Stef used to love his role of being a thorn in the flesh of nutritionists. But in 1957 an article appeared in the august journal of the American Medical Association confirming what Stef had known for years from his anthropology and his own experience. The author of this book has also popularized Stef's diet in England, with the blessing of staid British medical folk.

Was it with the faintest trace of disappointment in his voice that Stef turned to me, after a strenuous nutrition discussion, and said: "I have always been right. But now I am becoming orthodox! I shall have to find myself a new heresy."

Evelyn Stefansson

April 22, 1959.