Friday, February 27, 2009

Talking Nutrition with a Wild Man

At Winter Count, a primitive skills gathering in Casa Grande, AZ, I had an enlightening conversation concering nutrition with an amazing modern-day abo named Matt Graham. This is a man who lives primitively -- utilizing only what the land offers him -- for months at a time. Recently, in southern Utah, he stayed out for 6 months -- 3 months of which was living solely on the land with no packed-in foods. In a realistic primitive-living situation (the same situation that our ancient human ancestors found themselves in for more than 2 million years until the Neolithic era around 10,000 years ago) it has been my assertion that a person must procure animal foods to remain in good health. Not only that, but anybody in a primitive setting will crave the essential nutrients found only in meat and especially fat if they are out there long enough (animal forms of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and K). In other words, plants will not sustain any lengthy wilderness survival sojourn.

Keeping this in mind, I asked Matt how he sustained himself while in the wild. What foods did he eat? It was a very simple answer: most of his calories and nutrients came from trapped squirrels, rabbits, and rodents. He would eat watercress salads with other wild greens, as well minimal amounts of other wild plant foods. Yet animal foods were his main source of sustenance. When eating an animal, he ate the entire carcass (barring large bones, guts or fur). After cooking, he consumed the organ meats first, then the rest of the animal, crunching down any easily chewed bones along with it. When asked about fish in the area, Matt replied that he ate fish maybe one or two times a week -- no more than that, though. Why? Because he noticed that while he subsisted mostly off of fish he felt fatigued and not as strong as when consuming mainly squirrels. Apparently, the Apaches also avoided eating too much fish, according to Matt.

My guess as to why this would be (and Matt agreed) is that fish are not nearly as fat-rich as wild land mammals. Not only that, but I would add that fish consist of mainly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids and very little saturated fats. In a primitive living scenario where most of the calories are coming from animal flesh, it would seem important to get the right mix of fatty acids, including saturated fats, to meet the needs of the human body, which has a similar fatty acid content to pork: mostly saturated and monounsaturated. If starchy or sugary plant foods are available in abundance, then the body can make the saturated fatty acids it needs from those carbohydrates. But when only animal foods are being utilized -- which is more common than not in primitive living -- getting the wrong mix of fatty acids could cause problems in the long run.

I would hazard a guess, therefore, that Matt and the Apaches experienced fatigue from fish due to an over-abundance of mono and poly-unsaturated fats and a lack of saturated fats. This is important to understand because the body needs saturated fats to function properly and optimally. So, it would make sense that Matt felt better eating squirrels and rabbits than he did eating mostly fish, as the land mammals have a higher percentage of saturated and monounsaturated fats. It seems that these are the most likely fats that our human ancestors evolved on according to stable isotopic analyses of ancient bones which reveal a diet of terrestrial grazing animals and "freshwater foods" (the latter can indicate fish, shellfish, and/or waterfowl and other creatures that feed on aquatic plants and animals -- my guess is that waterfowl, with a more optimal fatty-acid profile, played a significant role in this type of food pattern).

Another intriguing tidbit that Matt offered me during our conversation was his discovery of -- and feasting on -- a deer carcass. It may have been left by a hunter or Matt himself may have trapped it -- I don't recall for certain. At any rate, he was able to procure a large deer carcass with plenty of meat and fat. When Matt came across this find, he had been living off of squirrels and rabbits and wild edibles for quite a while. He had lost a lot of weight, and he felt good in his leaner body, but he was unsure how long he could feel strong with his lower body fat percentages. The deer carcass provided him with much-needed calories, and he realized that he would have to take it easy and not gorge himself into indigestion and discomfort. Despite this intellectual acknowledgment, Matt ended up eating over ten pounds of meat and fat in one sitting. He exclaimed, "I thought I was going to feel horrible, but I felt great!" The meat was digested smoothly and efficiently, sparing him from losing more much-needed fat from his body.


Destroying Angel said...

wondering how rabbits play into this equation,as it's my understanding that one would starve if eating nothing but rabbits because they are so lean - "rabbit starvation", it's even got a name of it's own... are fish even leaner? does eating the organs, brains, eyes offset this dearth of body fat?



Ryan Koch said...

Hi D.A.,

Yes, I'm familiar with rabbit starvation. Stefansson (see links) has some great tidbits about this in his writings. It did strike me as odd that Matt ate so many rabbits and squirrels on his primitive living trip. One would think that such a diet would lead to rabbit starvation symptoms very quickly.

But Matt, being intuitive and paying attention to his body's needs discovered that he could survive and live quite well on small game by eating the entire animal. With squirrels, he chomped down bones, organs, skin, brains, and all. The whole carcass fat content (marrow included with that) must have been substantial enough to keep his health up. Some California Native peoples ate small game in a similar fashion, roasting and pounding the whole carcass and eating all the resultant powder.

As for rabbits, Matt ate the organs, brains, eyes -- every fleshy, edible part that he could sink his teeth into. Maybe he even cracked open the bones to suck out the marrow -- I don't know for certain. My hunch is that squirrels are fatter than rabbits, though.

Matt ate fish, too, and, yes, many fish are very lean, some are very fatty, depending on how cold the water is. I would think that he ate all the parts of the fish, too, getting adequate fat. But there is something about fish -- maybe the lack of saturated fats, as I posted -- that doesn't fully nourish a human body's needs. The Apache apparently knew this.

Anonymous said...

wow 10 lbs in one sitting! I have heard of the early explorers eating 6lbs of meat a day,Amazing. Nice blog by the way.

Ryan Koch said...

To be fair, Matt said he "must have eaten ten pounds of meat." He may have been overestimating. Or maybe not. After months of squirrels and rabbits, his body may have been primed and ready for the feast.

I recall reading about the mountain men and their meat-eating antics in Melvin Anchell's "The Steak Lovers' Diet." Interesting stuff. There was a part about these burly mountain dudes dipping rare liver in bile and eating it with gusto!

Thanks for reading, Scott :-)