The Inuit of the Arctic
A Harvard trained anthropologist, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, was the first to study the Inuit, eating their diet while he did so. They survived on almost exclusively caribou, salmon and eggs, about 70–80% fat. The Inuit prized the fattiest parts, throwing lean meat to the dogs. He saw no signs of disease, instead remaking that they were “the healthiest people he had ever seen”. Upon his return, Vilhjalmur conducted a study under which he and a colleague lived on only meat and water. It started well, but when they tried to eat lean instead of fatty meat, they fell ill. This was rectified by a meal of fatty meat and brains. At the end of the year-long test, a committee of scientists could find nothing wrong with them. Vilhjalmur remained on the diet and in good health until he died at age 86.
The Masai and Samburu of Kenya
A similar story occurred when George Mann studied the Masai people of Kenya in the 1960s. He and his team found a tribe of healthy people living on just milk, blood and meat, feeding vegetables only to their cattle. A similar observation was made of the Samburu people by another researcher at the same time. Using their mobile laboratories to perform a variety of tests on live and deceased subjects, neither of these tribes had evidence of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or other chronic diseases found in Western societies. The idea that exercise was preventing these diseases was disproven, as their subsistence was relatively easy with minimal labour, and the sedentary elders had no signs of these diseases either. This stands in stark contrast to the Western recommendations to eat nearly vegetarian, focusing on fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes.
The Sikhs and Hunzas of India
In the early 1900s, Sir Robert McCarrison, the British government’s director of nutrition research in the Indian medical service, was arguably the most influential nutritionist of the first half 20th century. He was amazed by the health of the Sikhs and Hunzas living in the north of India, who showed no signs of the Western diseases, and lived long lives with good physiques. Their diets were mostly milk, butter, and cheese, with some meat. This was contrasted with southern Indians who had poor health, and lived on a diet of mainly white rice with very little meat or dairy. McCarrison ruled out non-dietary factors for these differences by replicating the results in a laboratory with rats fed similar diets.
The Native Americans
Aleš Hrdlička found similar results in native American tribes, who he studied between 1898 and 1905. He observed that their diet of primarily buffalo meat produced a spectacularly healthy population, and noted the incidence of people living to over 100 years old was over 40 times more frequent than in Western society. Hrdlička wrote that these native centenarians were “not much demented or helpless”. He was also amazed by the lack of chronic disease, stating that “malignant diseases, if they exist at all … must be extremely rare”.
Wild animals vs farmed animals
During the early twentieth century, explorers, colonialists and missionaries were repeatedly surprised by the health of the isolated populations they encountered. They found that these people would eat meat from every available source, only eating plants when no meat was available. It was hypothesised that these people were healthier than meat-eating westerners because the composition of the wild animals they ate was different to farmed animals. It was found that the amount of polyunsaturated fat was higher in exotic animals than in domesticated animals, and therefore the meat available to the western people was no longer as healthy. Unfortunately, the researcher concealed the data that showed the saturated fat content of all the animals was practically identical, and therefore the conclusion that the domesticated meat is unhealthy was false. The difference was actually that the domesticated animals contained mono-unsaturated fat (like found in olive oil) instead of polyunsaturated fat, something that is not considered to be unhealthy at all.
Lean muscle or fatty organs?
The western researchers focused on the muscle meat, but early humans did not consume this as their main diet. These primal populations valued the fat and organs (which are also high fat) over lean muscle, as do other carnivorous species. These tribes also had a deep knowledge of how to choose which animals are the fattest, and hunted for them preferentially. This is hard for modern people to understand, as it has become common to eat small portions of lean muscle meat, trimmed of its fat. How can these tribal populations eat so “unhealthily” and yet be so healthy? How could the nutrition scientists overlook this information? There must be an explanation for this paradox that has been overlooked. Surely all our modern experts, institutions and government agencies can’t be wrong?
This article was based on the incredible book ‘The Big Fat Surprise’ by Nina Teicholz. Her deeply researched book is filled with data and stories detailing the evolution of the ‘diet-heart hypothesis’, which is the basis for modern food guidelines and medical treatments. Please consider purchasing a copy from her website, a local book store, or Audible.