J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

A Meta-analysis of Kooky Diets, Part I

In the 1930’s a dentist named Weston Price traveled around the world studying indigenous populations and their traditional diets.  He was interested in why some populations remained free of tooth decay (despite the lack of availability of toothbrushes and toothpaste).  Traveling far and wide, hitting every continent, he studied Swiss mountain people, Scots of the Outer Hebrides, Eskimos, South Pacific Islanders, Australian Aborigines, Native Americans, the Watusi of Rwanda, and dozens more groups.  After many years of field work he concluded that modern illnesses and degenerative diseases (everything from caries to cancer, heart disease, asthma, allergies, and even tuberculosis) were due to the poor quality of the modern Western diet (one based on refined sugars, refined flours, canned and processed foods, etc.).  He published his research in this book (a public domain version is available here).

Picture from Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston Price, with original caption: FIG. 7. Above: typical rugged Gaelic children, Isle of Harris, living on oats and sea food. Note the breadth of the faces and nostrils. Below: typical modernized Gaelics, Isle of Bardsey. Note narrowed faces and nostrils.

The most interesting thing, to me, is the wide variety of indigenous diets that Price discovered could support robust health and freedom from most degenerative diseases.  Eskimos ate a great deal of seal meat and blubber, but no fresh fruits or vegetables.  People living in an isolated valley in Switzerland subsisted mostly on whole-rye bread and raw, whole-milk dairy from pastured cows.  Scots on the Isle of Lewis ate primarily seafood and unsweetened oat-cakes.  Inland Australian Aborigines dined on kangaroo meat, ducks, wallabies, lizards, insects, berries, and wild bird eggs.  These diets could not have been more varied, but everyone was in excellent health (and had excellent teeth).

Dr. Weston Price concluded, and modern food philosophers like Michael Pollan would agree, that a healthful human diet can consist of a wide number of combinations of various plants and animals, so long as the food is whole, fresh, and relatively unprocessed.

So, that settles it, right?

These days the question of what we eat is anything but simple.  In the United States, there are no surviving traditional regional diets — immigrants come from hundreds of different dietary traditions and Native American diets have been degraded by modern foods like flour, sugar, processed meats, and alcohol (with some efforts to reverse this trend). Health-conscious modern society is in search of its ideal diet, a kind of nutritional holy grail.  We all want to be lean, strong, and energetic (with excellent teeth).  Unfortunately, the foods that are most readily available are of poor quality: fast-food burgers and fries, homogenized pasteurized low-fat milk from corn-fed cows, soft drinks and candy, and lots of bread and noodles made primarily from refined flour.  In response to these poor choices, we collectively invent alternatives — artificial dietary restrictions created to maintain our health (or, in some cases, to circumvent our scruples).  Lacto-ovo-vegetarianism, raw-food veganism, the Zone Diet, Atkins, the low-fat diet, etc.

I’m not going to write about any of these; they’ve all been covered fairly exhaustively.  What interests me are slightly more extreme diets, especially when accompanied by an founder (often an evangelist of sorts), and sometimes a popular movement replete with its own strangely consistent non-food related beliefs. (Why are most adherents of the Paleolithic Diet climate-change skeptics?  What’s up with that?  And are there any Republican vegans?)

Over the course of several blog entries, I’m going to do a Weston Price style survey of a number of unusual diets.  The practitioners don’t find the diets unusual of course — but most other people probably would.

DAVID H. MURDOCK’S FISH-VEGETARIAN WITH LOTS OF RAW JUICE DIET

I recently heard a radio interview with business mogul David Murdock, the 86-year-old multi-billionaire who owns Dole Food Company and the entire Hawaiian island of Lana’i.  Murdock founded the Dole Nutrition Institute, a kind of research-slash-PR company that works tirelessly to extol the health benefits of pineapples, bananas, packaged salads, and other Dole products.  Questions of research neutrality aside, Murdock does seem to have a genuine interest in spreading the word regarding the healthfulness of a plant-based diet.  After his first wife died of cancer in 1988, he changed his own diet, eliminating meat, dairy products, refined sugar, and refined grains.

David H. Murdock receiving his H.S. diploma

Murdock is an unapologetic fan of personal discipline, and espouses the typical conservative view that a person’s misfortunes can in almost all cases be traced to personal weakness, laziness, or ignorance.  This belief informs his style of nutritional evangelism, which can be summarized as “Eat fruits and vegetables, dumb-ass, so you can be healthy like me!”  Over the course of the interview, the British interviewer tossed mostly softballs at Murdock, but did press him on the possibility that some people might value “living the good life” over the promise of optimum health and longevity.  Murdock’s response was to recount a story about a meat-eating, cocktail-imbibing friend — the friend’s wife called Murdock in a panic, her husband had collapsed — what to do?  “Call 911,” said Murdock, “he’s probably had a heart attack from all the bad food and saturated fat he’s been eating!”  Never one to miss an opportunity for a lecture, apparently.

I found this video clip where Oprah interviews Murdock, goes shopping with him at Costco, and samples his baby-shit green health shake comprised of raw spinach, celery, grapes, tomatoes, carrots, kiwi, mango, red bell pepper, and a few other raw fruits and veggies (he drinks this concoction three or four times a day).  Breakfast is unsweetened oatmeal with fresh fruit.  Lunch is an egg-white omelet with vegetables.  Dinner is fresh fish and vegetables.

ANALYSIS: Murdock seems as fit and healthy as he says he is.  This means very little in itself; there are plenty of Scotch-swilling, chain-smoking 86-year-olds who are just as spunky.  However both modern nutritional science and traditional human diets back up Murdock’s approach on most counts.  His diet is incredibly high in vitamins, mineral, and phytonutrients, his meals have a low glycemic load, he gets plenty of protein and fiber, and his diet includes no processed or refined foods of any kind.

Murdock also restricts saturated fat to zero.  Nutritional science is split on this subject.  The latest research seems to point to the Omega-6/Omega-3 fatty acid balance as being more important than total saturated fat intake.  A number of studies have failed to find any positive correlation between saturated fat intake and heart disease.  Still — Murdock’s avoidance of red meat is overcautious at worst — human beings don’t need to eat a side of beef every week to stay healthy.

From the looks of the foods Murdock is tossing into his cart at Costco in the Oprah clip, it appears that he doesn’t give a fart about organic food, or sustainably-grown food (circle of jumbo prawns grown in chemically fertilized dirt pits — check!).  He also disapproves of supplements and medications of all kinds, considering them absolutely unnecessary for people who are eating correctly.

  • Driving philosophy:  live for as long as possible, as vitally as possible, by eating lots of Dole fruits and vegetables
  • Staple foods: fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh-water fish, egg whites, nuts, oatmeal
  • Not allowed: meat, poultry, dairy products, bread/noodles, most grains, refined sugar
  • Supplements: none
  • Importance of organic foods: unknown, but apparently not very high
  • Health advantages: high in food-based antioxidants, high in soluble fiber, low glycemic load
  • Possible health risks this diet overlooks or does not address: pesticides, some saturated fat intake may be healthful
  • Ecological impact: low (no meat or dairy, very little grain)
  • Cost: moderate (no meat, organic foods not required, no supplement costs, fresh fish is expensive, lots of produce)

Summary: Murdock is the type who’s “in it to win it.” Life is a contest, and Murdock is going to be the last one standing (and the richest too — with the most land).  Choking down four slimy green vegetable shakes a day is a small price to pay for that kind of glory.  May he live to be a thousand.

VILHJALMUR STEFANSSON’S ALL-MEAT DIET

Vilhjalmur Stefansson was an Artic explorer and anthropologist who extensively studied and lived with the Inuit Eskimo people for approximately eleven years.  During his first year he gradually adopted and came to enjoy the traditional Inuit diet of raw frozen fish and unsalted boiled fish.  At other times, engaged in Arctic exploration, he and his men would subsist for weeks on nothing but seal meat, caribou, and the occasional polar bear.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson, chillin' on the steps

Stefansson’s first-person account of getting used to this diet, in this 1935 article in Harper’s Monthly, is fascinating.  At first he refuses to partake of the boiled fish (steelhead trout, referred to as “salmon trout” in the article), and has his specially baked.  As a fish-hater, he only nibbles at it, and desperately misses salt.  Over time, he tries and enjoys both the boiled and semi-thawed raw fish, which the Inuit eat like a cob of corn, tossing the bones and frozen entrails to the dogs.  Eventually he comes to enjoy such delicacies as fermented whale oil and spoiled fish in advanced stages of decay.  “I tried the rotten fish one day, and if memory serves, liked it better than my first taste of Camembert.”

Stefansson considers his own health to be excellent during these long periods abstaining from the vegetable kingdom, and even notes an occasion where his “all-meat” diet (which includes fish, organ meats, and generous quantities of animal fat) cures cases of scurvy in his fellow explorers.

Upon returning to New York City, Stefansson encounters many skeptics in the medical and dietetic communities; nobody believes that a diet devoid of vegetable matter can support human health (at least in the “white man” — the Eskimos are widely believed to have special constitutions or mutations that allow them to thrive on this diet).  Stefansson disagrees; the crews of his exploring ships hail from all regions of the world, and men of European, African, and South Pacific descent have all thrived on the all-meat diet (after a period of considerable complaining).  Stefansson volunteers to take part in a rigorously controlled scientific experiment at Bellevue hospital, where he and a colleague (a Danish former crewman by the name of Karsten Anderson) will eat nothing but meat for an entire year, and will be under medical supervision or surveillance 24 hours a day (no cheating allowed).

Both men thrive on the diet, becoming considerably leaner despite consuming most of their calories from animal fat.  This is not a white-meat chicken diet; typical fare includes brains fried in bacon drippings, juicy lamb chops, and fat sirloin steaks.  Stefansson notes that he is free of headaches (which otherwise plague him when he is on a “mixed” diet), has no digestive problems, and has improved strength and endurance.  Both men generally feels strong, happy, and optimistic during both summer and winter months.  The only problem occurs when, as an experiment within an experiment, the researchers at Bellevue deprive Stefansson of fatty meats and feed him only lean meat, an experience he has also undergone during his expeditions when, at times, the only available meat was half-starved caribou.  In his own words: “The symptoms brought on at Bellevue by an incomplete meat diet (lean without fat) were exactly the same as in the Arctic, except that they came on faster – diarrhea and a feeling of general baffling discomfort.” When Stefansson adds fat back into his diet, his good health returns (and remains for the duration of the study).

The results of the study, when published, are met with much skepticism, as is evident in the tone of this 1930 article in Time magazine (aside: reading an article from 1930 online is vaguely surreal).

ANALYSIS: The biggest risk from eating a so-called “all meat” diet is eating too much meat and not enough fat.  Too much protein, more than about 25% of calories, does seem to be associated with kidney inflammation and digestive problem.  The Bellevue experiment concluded that about 80% of Stefansson and Anderson’s calories came from fat — it should really be called the “mostly grease” diet.

A secondary risk is scurvy, especially if meats are overcooked, and fresh organ meats are not included in the diet.  Stefansson does note, in Part 3 of the same article, that eating fresh meat as you go provides superior protection against scurvy during polar voyages than do canisters of stale lime juice.  Apparently there’s plenty of vitamin C in a fresh penguin to stave off scurvy, provided you eat the whole thing.

Provided the diet is sufficiently varied and fresh, the “all meat” diet seems to support vigorous physical activity, a lean body, high immunity, freedom from dental caries, freedom from diabetes and heart disease, and no problems with osteoporosis despite being low in calcium.

  • Driving philosophy:  ideal and most efficient diet for supporting health during Arctic explorations
  • Staple foods: frozen fish, seal, caribou, polar bear
  • Not allowed: fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, dairy products, nuts, seeds, sugar
  • Supplements: none
  • Importance of organic foods: 100% wild meats, no agricultural foods = no pesticides
  • Health advantages: zero glycemic load, high in essential fats, overeating unlikely with no carbs
  • Possible health risks this diet overlooks or does not address: scurvy, parasites from raw meat or fish
  • Ecological impact: high, especially if animals are conventionally raised (on the other hand, no land lost to agriculture)
  • Cost: high, unless you hunt it yourself

Summary: Stefansson concludes, at the very end of Part 3, that eating meat as a primary food probably does not prolong life, but rather contributes to a more vigorous life, in effect speeding up all metabolic process, including aging.

Stefansson himself ate a diet heavy in meat for most of his life, and lived to be 83.  He maintained his health and fitness throughout his entire life.


NEXT POST IN THIS SERIES: THE ALL-CANDY DIET, THE PALEOLITHIC DIET

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8 Comments

  1. Tim

    Having studied Weston A. Price, and being fascinated by metabolic typing and diet variation, I loved this post. Great writing, J.D. And great researching as well. As a personal trainer and health and wellness coach, I find nutrition to be the most interesting, and puzzling, part of the picture. As great as science can be at times it has the tendency to reduce complexity down in to parts it can manage and make sense of (marconutrients, micronutrients, etc..). While this might be a great way of getting to certain answers, it doesn’t translate very well when you try to add it all back up in to dietary advice. Living systems are more complicated than that, AND, not all living systems operate the same way.

    I look forward to the next post!

  2. I see the punchline coming…. I found your blog through a friend, Tim Sinnett (http://www.mydharmafitness.com). He trains a friend of yours I believe and is spending a lot more of his training education time on aspects of our diet that contribute to health.

    I like your approach and this is interesting if for nothing else to learn a little more about this interesting historical “health celebrities”. I wonder if one day someone will be talking about Michael Pollan the same!? As a physician I see the negative ramifications of the very inadequate nutrition education our health system provides. We are given almost no nutritional training and what we are given is party line. Deconstructivist nutrition, “evil nutrients” and “blessed nutrients” etc… Luckily I have a close friend with a farm and several friends with excellent scientific minds in research of various sorts that all noticed that these things don’t add up to scrutiny. Look at our advice and health system, look at our population!

    There is a fabulous discussion regarding raw foods and the impact of cooking food has made on us that you can podcast from KUOW (Seattle public radio). This guy is not a food guy, but found some interesting things studying primates! Check it out… http://www.kuow.org/program.php?id=19142

  3. Tim and Noel — thanks for your comments. I’ve heard of Wrangham’s book but haven’t read it — the fire/cooking/evolution hypothesis is interesting.

  4. I like the helpful information you provide in
    your articles. I’ll bookmark your blog and check again here frequently. I’m quite certain I will learn many new stuff right here!
    Best of luck for the next!

  5. Stumbled across your site today, and have a potential answer for your ideology/diet connection. If you’ve not read George Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” I think it may explain. I literally left the Whole30 fold on Day 8, not because I cheated or felt I would, but because the rhetoric on the site is what Lakoff calls “Strict Father.” The more extreme the ideology, the more wedded to it its adherents, the more likely the adherents are to have a “strict Father” mentality. http://georgelakoff.com/2011/02/19/what-conservatives-really-want/. By the way, Lakoff happens to write for the Ds, but there’s also a guy named Frank Luntz who does the same for the Rs.

    • I think you’re on to something there! I was recently discussing this topic with Dan Pardi of dansplan.com … he points out there is also paleo/libertarian overlap with an emphasis of “hands off my diet” (a sentiment against government regulation of raw milk, backyard chickens, etc. — and also “nanny state” recommendations against fat, cholesterol, meat, etc.).

      But yeah I agree there is also validity to the strict father/strict diet rules overlap — the attractiveness (to some) of the “just follow the rules and you’ll be fine” authoritarian, non-questioning approach.

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