Beef Joint

The men who ate nothing but meat for an entire year


Low-carb diets and paleolithic nutrition are all the rage these days, and for good reason. Compared to the Standard American Diet, both of them are superb.

Few of us would dare to take the two to their extreme, however. Giving up sugar and wheat is one thing, but what about giving up everything except meat? Yes, I’m talking about an ultra low-carb diet with even foods like nuts and berries removed. Unsurprisingly and understandably, studies on the long-term effects of such a diet are severely lacking.

There is at least one study that did just this, however. If the diet brings the Eskimos to mind, it’s no coincidence. You may have heard of Dr. Vilhjalmur Stefansson – the Canadian ethnologist who spent more than a decade with the Inuit during his arctic explorations in the beginning of the previous century. For nine of these years, he lived almost exclusively on fish and meat (you can read about his experiences here). At the time, this was considered heresy and life-threatening, just as it is today (note that Stefansson apparently refers to both fish and meat with the word “meat”):

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: Man was not intended to be carnivorous – you knew that from examining his teeth, his stomach, and the account of him in the Bible. As mentioned, he would get scurvy if he had no vegetables in meat. The kidneys would be ruined by overwork. There would be protein poisoning and, in general hell to pay.

To the surprise of many (including Stefansson himself), he suffered no health problems during his decade of pure carnivorism. When he told people of his amazing experiences, he was met with skepticism from medical authorities who asked him to undertake a study that would replicate the results. He and a fellow explorer named Andersen agreed to eat an all-meat diet for an entire year in a closely observed setting.

Prime rib

Composing a diet of nothing but meat and fat 

This time, however, the diet was even more radical than the traditional Eskimo diet, which is based on fish and includes a small amount of berries and vegetables – not a lot, but enough to keep them out of ketosis most of the time. Furthermore, since fish is high in omega-3 fatty acids, you could argue that it’s all those good fats that keep the Eskimos free of disease.

But how could anyone subscribing to conventional health wisdom explain thriving on a diet consisting solely of red meat? No vegetables, no fruit, no vitamin supplements. Nothing. Just meat and animal fat.

The results of this fascinating study were published in 1930 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (link). At the beginning of the experiment, Stefansson was given only lean meat at the request of his supervisors. This was to confirm Stefansson’s bad experiences with low-fat meat; during his explorations, there had been periods during which fat was not readily available and which lead to diarrhea and nausea in a few weeks. This time, the illness kicked in much earlier:

As said, in the Arctic we had become ill during the second or third fatless week. I now became ill on the second fatless day. The time difference between Bellevue and the Arctic was due no doubt mainly to the existence of a little fat, here and there in our northern caribou – we had eaten the tissue from behind the eyes, we had broken the bones for marrow, and in doing everything we could to get fat we had evidently secured more than we realized. At Bellevue the meat, carefully scrutinized, had been as lean as such muscle tissue can be.

After fat was added back into the diet, a full recovery was made in two days. The authors of the study describe the diet from then on:

The meat used included beef, lamb, veal, pork and chicken. The parts used were muscle, liver, kidney, brain, bone marrow, bacon, and fat.

Thus, fat played an important part in their diets. According to the authors, Andersen usually ate beef, while Stefansson often chose lamb. Both men ate about 800 grams of meat per day in 3-4 meals. The protein contents ranged from 100 to 140 grams, the fat from 200 to 300 grams, and carbohydrates from 7 to 12 grams. In calories, the percentages were 15-25% protein, 75-85% fat, and 1-2% carbohydrate. The carbs came solely from the glycogen of the meat, making this not so much a low-carb as a no-carb diet. In addition to water, coffee and tea were allowed throughout the period.


Seven years after the meat diet

In 1935, one of the authors published an article titled “A Year’s Exclusive Meat Diet and Seven Years Later”, in which he revisits Stefansson’s case. First, he summarizes the main points of his earlier article from 1926, titled “The Effects of an Exclusive Long-continued Meat Diet”. The following medical facts regarding Stefansson’s life during his explorations are listed:

  1. He spent altogether eleven and one-half years within the Arctic Circle.
  2. He lived for a number of days, totaling nine years, on an exclusive meat diet.
  3. He lived for nine successive months on an exclusive meat diet.
  4. He reached his maximum weight while subsisting on meat (fish).
  5. His sense of physical and mental well being was at its best during that period of his life.
  6. He found that the exclusive meat diet worked as well when he was inactive as when active, and as well in hot weather as in cold.
  7. Constipation was never present. One month’s entire absence from exercise produced neither constipation nor muscular weakness. (Stefansson avers that not a single case of constipation was observed in 600 exclusively meat-eating Eskimos for a period of three years).
  8. His hair thickened, and his scalp became healthier.
  9. Tooth decay was apparently much less rapid.

Seven years after the meat diet study, the author examined Stefansson again, who apparently had reacquainted himself with some aspects of the Western diet. Instead of eating only meat, he was now eating a breakfast of one egg, bread and coffee, and a dinner and supper consisting of a moderate amount of meat, vegetables, and some cheese. His fruit and milk intake remained negligible.

During this period, Stefansson had put on quite a bit of weight. He now weighed 84 kg, compared with 70.8 kg in 1922 and 72.5 in 1928. His hair was as thick as before, but his gingivitis had returned. Blood pressure was up to 120/80 mm. All in all, the author states Stefansson was in excellent general health. Looking at the numbers, however, it seems that he was doing better on his monotonous carnivore diet.

While it would be interesting to replicate the study with a larger sample size and have more health markers measured than the ones used in the study, it is quite remarkable to see that a diet consisting of nothing but meat and animal fat is both feasible and, apparently, healthy. It also lends support to the importance of having a sufficient amount of fat in the diet, especially when protein is present in significant quantities.

Read the entire article here:

Learn more about the health benefits of the ketogenic diet.