The Stefansson/Anderson Story

January 02, 2007

Metabolic Syndrome:  Understanding the Fire Within #1: The Stefansson/Anderson Story 

 Competency # 20 Culture Lifestyles of the long-lived          ReferenceGood Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes,  Published 2007 

 “They are the healthiest people on earth.  They eat nothing but blubber and fish and have no diseases,” said Danish explorers Stefansson and Anderson after returning from a prolonged exploration of the Inuit peoples in the Canadian arctic.  How could any people be healthy eating only meat and blubber?  The scientific community of the 1920’s, a community that had just figured out vitamins and solved many deficiency diseases, couldn’t conceive that a diet of pure meat and fat could possibly be healthy.  Yet, here was an example of a whole culture that survived on a diet of fish, meat and blubber.  

The Inuit ate no fruits or vegetables.  None.  How could they be healthy? Stefansson and Anderson themselves had lived for a prolonged time in the Artic with the Inuit and had returned healthy.  To back up their claim of these amazing, healthy indigenous peoples of the north, S and A volunteered for a unique experiment.  They offered to eat the same diet for a year in New York City, being studied all the while to ensure they weren’t cheating and to see just what happened to them. 

 In 1928, the two were closely followed by the premier nutritionists of the era at Cornell on New York City.  Weekly urines were collected to ensure their compliance.   Two pounds of meat a day, 79% fat, 19% protein, 2 % carbohydrate from the glycogen in the muscle/meat composed their entire diet.  And nothing happened.  After a year, the two weighed 3 and 6 pounds less.  They had their blood pressure drop from 140/80 to 120/80.  No kidney damage, no heart damage.  No vitamin deficiency.  No scurvy.   Amazing.  

Even more amazing is that this story has been lost and forgotten.  It was clear to the nutrition community at the time that no vitamin deficiency disease developed on a pure meat diet.  Meat AND FAT is a good source of many vitamins, but not C.  Even scurvy did not develop.  This suggests that diet of meat can be completely healthy, in 1928 terms prior to the ability to understand all the nuances of fat and cardiac disease.  And their blood pressure dropped, their weight dropped and they felt fine. 

 Two components of the "metabolic syndrome", weight and blood pressure, got better on an all meat and fat diet.  Wow! We started the year talking about goals around “metabolic syndrome” and how to improve it.  To improve it you have to understand how it works and where it comes from.  I think a fair look at the scientific evidence will reveal to us many findings that will spark our imagination.  

The Stefansson – Anderson story has been repeated in many forms over the last hundred years around the world as primitive societies with very low rates of heart disease, obesity and diabetes, transitioned into the world of “western” food.  As soon as they did, they developed western diseases, like diabetes and heart disease.  The story is repeated in the Pima Indians, the Zulu in Africa.  Schweitzer, in Africa, was amazed at the lack of cancer he found.  

Hutton, a missionary in Labrador, wrote that he didn’t see a case of cancer or heart disease in the Inuit until they settled and started eating western foods, meaning biscuits, flour and sugar. Metabolic syndrome is a result of obesity and diabetes.  Sixty percent of us have it. I want to explore how we are all getting fat, or can't lose weight no matter how hard we try.  I want you to learn how to keep yourself lean and healthy and to prolong a fulfilling, optimally healthy life.  To do that, we need to sort out how metabolic syndrome happens.  And there was a time on this planet when it was virtually absent.  It is a new disease, a disease of “western civilization”.  If it’s new, it must have something to do with our environment.  And we can change that. 

 WWW:  What will work for me.  This is the first in a series of explaining metabolic syndrome.  I used this story because it suggests that eating red meat and saturated animal fats isn’t the problem we’ve thought it to be.  Yet, that’s what we teach when we tackle the enigma of metabolic syndrome.  Are we barking up the wrong tree?  Has organized medicine been going down the wrong path?  Do we need to refocus?   I’m taking as my guide the best book on nutrition I’ve read in 10 years: Good Calories Bad Calories by Gary Taubes.  It was published just last year.  He makes a very provocative premise that the enemy is not red meat, but rather white carbohydrates.   I’m not rushing out there to start eating meat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but I think it’s reasonable to try and sort out this “metabolic syndrome” puzzle.  Let’s look at the evidence.  

This column is written by Dr. John E. Whitcomb, MD, Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI. (262-the 784-5300)