University of Minnesota

The Fat of the Land

High-fat diet fads seem to run in cycles of a generation, as in this plaintive cry from Stefansson, friend and adopted figure of the Inuits and their high marine-fat eating pattern. (HB)

The Fat of the Land

Early in this story came the question from many sides: “What about the Eskimo?”

What about the Eskimo, indeed? Did he really live on an exclusively high fat, seal and blubber diet? Was he, in fact, free of coronary  disease? Why not first look Northward for the more extreme natural experiment in diet and heart attack?

When Ancel Keys was casting about in the early 1950s for cultural variations in diet fat intake for his peripatetic pilot studies he contacted Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Nordic adventurer and author of Not by Bread Alone, about the possiblility of comparing Eskimo diet and disease experience with his preliminary looks at Mediterranean regions. Stefansson pointed out how few men of “coronary age” could be found, and at what effort, who still lived the traditional Eskimo lifestyle with a predominantly marine animal diet. Keys ran the numbers and quickly abandoned that expedition and hypothesis. Others, from Denmark, later took up the continuing question of the Eskimo.

In essence, the story of Stefansson is one of a once-famous Norwegian-American, a rugged anthropologist-philosopher, who inserted himself, beginning in the 1920s, into several Eskimo cultures, living with them, off the land as they did, for long periods,. He complemented his arctic observations with Bible scholarship about the righteouness of eating fat and concocted poorly designed but dramatic experiments in subjects subsisting on meats, including living a year himself (1928) with a colleague, in Belleview Hospital, eating an all-meat diet of 80% beef and mutton fat. 

“Never felf better!” he reported.

From the ‘20s to the ‘50s Stefansson was riding high as a popular figure promoting a meat-eating Neolithic lifestyle. He championed widely a series of high-fat eating patterns, long before Dr. Atkins: in sequence, the Eskimo Diet, the Friendly Arctic Diet, the Blake Donaldson Diet, the Alfred W. Pennington Diet, the Du Pont Diet, and the Holiday Diet (used in fashionable Manhattan “obesity” practices). The sensational publicity over high-fat, reducing diets, he recounts in his 1956 book, “Fat of the Land,”was at its height in December 1955 and January 1956 when Holiday Magazine was hawking its high fat reducing diet and Pauline Mack, Dean at Denton College for Women in Texas, announced results of her study of three fat level diets in coeds. She showed that “weight status was more easily retained, skin condition was superior, and fatigue resistance was better on the highest of the three fat levels,” about 35% fat. [The high-fat reducing fad seems to follow 25-year cyclic peaks.]

Stefansson marvels ecstatically, in Fat of the Land:

“ It seemed, then, a path of garlands for the high-fat regimens. My own skies were particularly rosy, for letters were coming in from the tropics and the Deep South where they liked my books for saying fats are good in warm climates: particularly I was set up when reports told that my works, issued as ‘popular,’ were breaking into the technical circles and were being mentioned, seldom with a sneer now, at medical conventions.” [They were being called “.  . a scientific milestone.”] High fat was riding high and so was I with it, proudly. But pride goeth before a fall; and what a fall was there, my countrymen!”

“The first cloud in the sky was no bigger than a man’s hand, in fact no larger than a brief and friendly personal note from Dr. Ancel Keys, head of the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene of the University of Minnesota, in which note he said he was sending me a copy of his latest paper on dietetic fats. He and I seemed to be pulling together on animal fats . . about 1944,” [when Keys had supported S. claims for 86% fat pemmican as an emergency wartime ration]. “But when I read his paper in 1954, I did not feel so sure any more that in him we still had a potential booster for [high-fat] regimens …”

“Doubtless the storm had long been brewing: but I was preoccupied, and despite the Keys paper I awoke to the changed situation only with the near tragedy of the President’s illness (Eisenhower) in Denver and the Babel of discussion which followed, where now I heard from all sides that we were a nation in terrible straits, that a deadly sequence had been established.” [high-fat diets-high blood cholesterol-heart attack]. (Fat of the Land)

Stefansson describes a charming correspondence with Paul White and their exhange of Biblical references, from “Never by bread alone,” to “Ye shall not eat the fat of the ox or the sheep or the goat.” [Then, as today, one could find scriptural authority for any view one wants to espouse or deride, from eating pattern, to male dominion over the wife, to the homosexual lifestyle!] He and White became friends and eventually met for family dinner parties to discuss the Dead Sea scrolls and such Biblical promises as: “A feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow.” This exchange led in time to cautious support from Paul White, dean of U.S. cardiology, and Fred Stare, Harvard professor of nutrition, both of whom wrote a foreword to Fat of the Land!

(Henry Blackburn)

Related Content

Bio Sketch(es)