We are taught that meat is an unhealthy, artery-clogging, fattening, cholesterol-raising, heart-attack inducing, constipating, tumor-producing food that should be avoided like the plague, and that a plant-based diet is the holy grail of health.
To the best of my knowledge, the world has yet to produce a civilization which has eaten a vegan diet from childhood through death, whereas there are numerous examples throughout recorded history of people from a variety of cultural, ethnic and geographical backgrounds who have lived on all-meat diets for decades, lifetimes, generations. What exactly did these carnivorous cultures eat, and how healthy or unhealthy were they?
To my mind, examples of real people eating nearly 100% meat diets for long periods of time gives us much more powerful information about meat and health than conventional scientific studies conducted over short periods of time in which one group of people eats a little more meat or a few extra servings of vegetables than another group of people.
Meet the Meat Mongers
The Inuit of the Canadian Arctic thrived on fish, seal, walrus and whale meat.
The Chukotka of the Russian Arctic lived on caribou meat, marine animals and fish.
The Masai, Samburu, and Rendille warriors of East Africa survived on diets consisting primarily of milk and meat.
The steppe nomads of Mongolia ate mostly meat and dairy products.
The Sioux of South Dakota enjoyed a diet of buffalo meat.
The Brazilian Gauchos nourished themselves with beef.
How many servings of fruits and vegetables did most Arctic peoples eat most days of the year? Zero. How much fiber is there in a seal, or a fish, or an Arctic bird? None whatsoever. Physician Samuel Hutton, who treated Eskimos in the Canadian province of Labrador at the turn of the 20th century, wrote:
“I wonder are the Eskimos unique among the nations in their disregard of vegetable foods? I sometimes saw them getting young willow shoots and one or two other little bits of green, and eating them as a relish to their meat; but they make absolutely no attempt to till what soil there is, and they do not even make the most of the plants that grow. During the short weeks of summer the vegetation springs up in a perfectly marvelous manner… Surely among this wild scramble of plant life there must be some things that are good to eat! I know that there are plenty of dandelion leaves, and I have tasted worse things in my time, but the people never touch them…” [Hutton SK 1912]
By all accounts, these people ate little to no plant foods for most of the year (summertime was an exception):
“But though gardening is entirely foreign to the Eskimo nature, they do not entirely scorn the good things of the earth…In most years the scrubby bushes that crawl upon the ground are loaded with succulent berries—a truly marvelous provision—and the people gather them not only by the handfuls and bucketfuls, but by barrelfuls.” [Hutton SK 1912]
Their diets were therefore extremely low in fiber most of the time, and very high in animal protein and animal fat. These traditional ways of eating would terrify the USDA, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, not to mention the Harvard School of Public Health, which remains a staunchly anti-meat, anti-saturated fat, anti-cholesterol institution.
How in the world did these uninformed fringe types manage to get all their vitamins and minerals without the heaping helpings of colorful fruits, vegetables, and whole grains without which we are told we shall surely perish? Weren’t they cancer-riddled, heart-clenching, constipated, fat slobs who died young from scary deficiency diseases like rickets and scurvy?
Let’s look at the two groups of people for whom we have the most medical information available to see if we can begin to answer some of these very important questions. What follows is not meant to be a complete review; I am working on a book about food and health that will include a comprehensive chapter full of fun facts about meaty menus from around the world. I wrote this article because I was excited to share some of the fascinating things I am learning as I research the book.
A Tale of Two Cities
Well, cities is a bit of a stretch…in fact neither of these groups of people were city folk, but that is where the similarities end. The only thing these people had in common was that they ate few if any plant foods.
You could not ask for two more different cultures than the Arctic “Eskimos” and the East African herdsmen:
North Pole vs. Equator
Asian vs. African
Non-dairy vs. Dairy
Surf vs. Turf 🙂
Arctic peoples studied were living in the northernmost “circumpolar” parts of Alaska, Canada, Russia and Greenland. The diets of most Arctic people began changing in the late 1800’s as trade routes began providing access to European foods including sugar, flour, and dairy products, but prior to that their diet consisted primarily of animal protein and fat for most of the year.
East African herdsmen (Masai, Samburu and Rendille peoples) studied hailed from what are now Kenya and Tanzania, along the African equator. By tradition, males in these tribes ate only animal foods (meat and dairy products) from age 14 until at least age 28, when they completed their warrior years.
Kenya and Tanzania
These unique groups of people were the subjects of intense medical investigation several decades ago, and there have been numerous scientific articles written about their diet and health.
Meat and Heart Disease
More than 40 years ago, the remote region of Point Hope, Alaska (where a mostly-meat diet was still being consumed due to its isolated location) was the subject of a research study published in 1972:
“The Point Hope inhabitants represent one of the few remnants of the Eskimo whale, sea, and walrus hunting cultures in the world…Average total daily caloric intake was approximately 3,000 kcal [calories] per person, ranging from 2,300 to 4,500 kcal. Approximately 50% of the calories were derived from fat and 30 to 35% from protein. Carbohydrate accounted for only 15 to 20% of their calories, largely in the form of glycogen [animal starch] from the meat they consumed. Grain products were scarce and although sucrose was not unknown, the average adult ingested less than 3 g/day, primarily for sweetening tea or coffee.” [Ho KJ et al 1972]
Researchers found that the incidence of heart disease among Point Hope residents was ten times lower than in the general Caucasian population of the United States. Not only that—their triglyceride levels (levels of fat in the bloodstream) averaged 85 mg/dL, whereas the average U.S. triglyceride levels at that time averaged over 100 mg/dL.
[To read more about why carbohydrates are not necessary in the diet and how carbohydrates cause the body to produce extra fat, please see my carbohydrates page.]
Lest you think that these Alaskans were special–that their triglyceride levels were low because of genetic differences, or because they had become adapted over centuries to their meaty diet, and that it wasn’t fair to compare their triglyceride levels to those of mainland Americans–you may want to think twice.
A much more recent study conducted in remote areas of southwestern Alaska compared native people who reported eating the highest percentage of traditional animal foods to native people who reported eating the lowest percentage of traditional animal foods. Native Alaskans following a more traditional diet were eating much more animal protein and animal fat, yet had triglyceride levels on average 25 points lower than their more Westernized neighbors. [Bersamin 2007]
Even as recently as the 1980’s, only 3.5% of all deaths in Greenland Eskimos were due to heart disease, despite a life span of more than 60 years.
Now, some Arctic peoples did have some cholesterol buildup in their arteries, but this was apparently mild and primarily seen in those who were eating a mixture of modern and traditional foods:
“The rarity of ischaemic heart disease has been repeatedly noted, with due allowance for the life-expectancy of Eskimos. Rabinowitch, discussing the contention of others that arteriosclerosis was rare in Eskimos, stated that this was not the case in those he examined in the eastern Arctic of Canada where contact with white man had altered the diet, but in the most northerly parts there was no evidence of arteriosclerosis; total cholesterol in serum was low. 18 necropsies by Gottman between 1956 and 1958, and by Arthaud between 1959 and 1968, on Alaskan Eskimos partly on European diets, showed that atherosclerosis was mild and not a major cause of death.” [Lancet 1983]
Meanwhile, back in Africa…
As for our pastoral African nomad friends, heart attacks were essentially unknown among Masai males, despite living well into their 60’s. Researchers examined 600 living Masai men, more than half of whom were over 40 years old, and found that only one of them had ever had a heart attack. In fact, researchers went so far as to collect and examine the hearts of 50 Masai who had dropped dead, and found no evidence of a heart attack in a single one. Just as with Eskimos, they did find “fatty streaks” and some cholesterol deposits inside of their arteries, but not enough to cause any blockages.
It was estimated that these men obtained 66% of their daily calories from pure animal fat, eating about 300 grams of fat and 600 milligrams of cholesterol per day. Americans are advised to keep fat intake to 20 to 35% of calories and to keep cholesterol intake below 300 mg per day, therefore these men were eating twice as much cholesterol and 2 to 3 times as much fat as we are told to eat.
Meat and Blood Pressure
Once upon a time, there was a group of Inuit from Greenland who had been raised on a diet high in meat, fish, and animal fat, and very low in fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, some of them immigrated south to Denmark, and in the process, turned their diets upside-down. They started eating the way Danish people ate—adding lots more plant foods and dairy products to their menus, and eating fewer animal foods. This is the advice we are given by public health officials if we want to improve our health. So, did these transplanted Greenlanders become healthier? Researchers discovered that the Inuit who had moved to Denmark and changed their diets had blood pressures ten points higher than those who had stayed behind in Greenland. This was despite the fact that they weighed less, smoked less, drank less, and got the same amount of exercise as their Greenland brothers and sisters.
Unfortunately the researchers did not ask about junk food intake, so we don’t know if the Inuit were also eating more refined carbohydrates, salt, and chemicals after relocating to Denmark, although that would be a safe bet. My point is that simply eating less meat and eating more fruits and vegetables, which is what we are told we should do to be healthier, did not improve or protect their health–at least not when it came to blood pressure.
While back in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro…
Blood pressures among the Masai of East Africa averaged 120/80 in males ranging in age from 14 to over 55; only 1% of Masai men had high blood pressure. Among the Samburu, as well, blood pressures were excellent, averaging 112/76, with systolic (upper) blood pressure values tending to rise only a few points after the age of 60.
Meat and Obesity
The problem of overweight and obesity did not exist among the Masai, Samburu, or Rendille people. The average Masai male measured approximately 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 134 pounds. The average Samburu man was equally as tall and weighed 126 pounds. The typical Rendille man weighed only 121 pounds. Weights within all of these groups of people remained stable throughout their lifetimes.
Out of Africa…
I just adore these passages written in 1936 by noted Canadian anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson:
“…Eskimos, when still on their native meats, are never corpulent – at least I have seen none. They may be well fleshed. Some especially women, are notably heavier in middle age than when young. But they are not corpulent in our sense.
When you see Eskimos in their native garments you do get the impression of fat round faces on fat round bodies, but the roundness of face is a racial peculiarity and the rest of the effect is produced by loose and puffy garments. See them stripped and you do not find the abdominal protuberances and folds which are numerous at Coney Island beaches and so persuasive in arguments against nudism.
There is no racial immunity among Eskimos to corpulence. You prove that by how quickly they get fat and how fat they grow on European diets.”
I can relate…ich bin ein Eskimo…
If meat, saturated fat and cholesterol are supposed to cause heart disease, and if colorful, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables are supposed to protect us from heart disease, why didn’t these people, who were eating MUCH more meat and FAR less plant food than most of us ever will, suffer from heart disease and all of the health problems we associate with heart disease risk, such as high blood pressure, obesity, and high triglycerides?
This post was not designed to provide an airtight argument for meat and health, but I do hope that it has at least prompted those of you who remain skeptical about meat to rethink what you’ve been led to believe. If you’ve got a hankerin’ for more information about meat and health, take a look at my meat page. There’s so much more to say about this topic–what about Cancer? Vitamin C? Calcium? Bone density? Constipation? Overall health? What did Arctic and East African carnivores die of, then, if not from the things we like to die of?
And what about cholesterol levels in carnivorous cultures? It turns out that cholesterol is the most complicated topic of all…as usual…but ask a silly question…In the meantime, if you are worried that eating a high-cholesterol diet will give you high cholesterol, you may want to read my cholesterol page to see why this is not possible.