From Dr. Phinney:
"Although high-carbohydrate diets might be more effective in short-term tests of high-intensity exercise, there are multiple clues in the published literature that the debilitating effects of ketogenic diets are overstated. Not only is there the demographic evidence that whole populations of people lived for millennia as hunters, but there are many reports of Europeans crossing over to live within the cultures of these hunting societies without apparent impediment.
One of the earliest documented demonstrations of physical stamina during a ketogenic diet was the Schwatka 1878â??80 expedition in search of the lost Royal Navy Franklin expedition. The Schwatka expedition, sponsored by the New York Herald and the American Geographical Society, departed from the west coast of Hudson’s Bay in April of 1879 with 4 Caucasians, 3 families of Inuits, and 3 heavily laden dog sleds. Totaling 18 people, they started out with a month’s supply of food (mostly walrus blubber) and a prodigious supply of ammunition for their hunting rifles. After covering over 3000 miles on foot over ice, snow and tundra, all 18 members of the original party plus their 44 dogs returned to Hudson’s Bay in March of 1880. Once their initial provisions were depleted, the expedition’s only source of additional food was hunting and fishing, as there were no other sources of supply along their route.
The leader of this expedition, Lt. Frederick Schwatka, was a graduate of both West Point and Bellevue Hospital Medical College. His summary of the expedition was published as a news article in the New York Herald in the Fall of 1880, but his written diary was lost for 85 years until its discovery and publication by the Marine Historical Association of Mystic CT in 1965 . This fascinating 117-page saga describes how Schwatka, a frontiersman and U.S. Army surgeon, collaborated with his Inuit guides to accomplish a remarkable feat of physical endurance.
In one notation, Schwatka provides an interesting insight into his weaning from their initial supply of carbohydrate-containing food.
“When first thrown wholly upon a diet of reindeer meat, it seems inadequate to properly nourish the system, and there is an apparent weakness and inability to perform severe exertive fatiguing journeys. But this soon passes away in the course of two or three weeks.”
This observation, written a century before the current author first came to grips with the issue of “keto-adaptation”, offers an early clue to resolve the dichotomy between impaired performance with low carbohydrate diets in the laboratory and their lack of debilitating effects when taken among people practiced in their use. That Schwatka was not impaired by his prolonged experience eating meat and fat is evidenced by his diary entry for the period 12â??14 March 1880, during which he and an Inuit companion walked the last 65 miles in less than 48 hours to make a scheduled rendezvous with a whaling ship and complete his journey home.
Twenty-six years later, a Harvard-trained anthropologist named Vilhjalmur Stefansson entered the Arctic with the purpose of studying the Inuit language and culture. Having been born in 1879 in Manitoba and grown up in North Dakota, it is unlikely that Stefansson was aware of the Schwatka expedition or its reported technique of extended dogsled travel while living by hunting. However when separated from his expedition and thus his source of supply over the winter of 1906â??7, Stefansson was taken in by a group of Inuit on the Canadian Arctic coast. With the arrival of spring in June of 1907, he both spoke their language and had acquired their skill of living and traveling by dogsled on a hunter’s diet.
For the next decade, Stefansson traveled extensively over the arctic mainland and among the islands to the north. During this period, he was away from the outposts of European settlement for periods of up to 18 months at a time, and in the remote regions of the Canadian Arctic he lived with groups of Inuit for whom he was the first European they had met.
Stefansson wrote extensively about these experiences in both the scientific literature and in books for the lay public . One of the main themes of his writing was the adaptation of the Inuit culture to survive as nomadic groups in the arctic on a diet consisting solely of the products of hunting and fishing. Coming as it did in the same time period that the science of nutrition was blossoming with the discovery and characterization of vitamins (eg, the first vitamin to be chemically defined was thiamin by Funk in 1911), Stefansson’s claim that one could live and function well on the products of just one food group caused tremendous controversy .
Subjected to great criticism and even scorn, Stefansson agreed to recreate the Inuit diet under scientific observation. Therefore, for the calendar year of 1929 he and a colleague from his arctic explorations ate a diet consisting of meat and fat for 12 months. This experiment, supervised by Dr. Eugene DuBois, was conducted at Bellevue Hospital in New York. For the first 3 months of this study, the two explorers were under constant observation to guarantee dietary compliance, after which they were allowed more freedom of movement but with frequent tests to document that they remained in ketosis. This study was reported in multiple peer-reviewed publications, the primary reports being published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry in 1930 [9,10], As noted by DuBois , the study results were essentially “negative”, in that both subjects survived the 12 months in apparent good health, having no signs of scurvy (which was predicted to occur within the first 3 months) or other deficiency diseases.
It is interesting to note from the careful observations published from the Bellevue study that Stafansson ate relatively modestly of protein, deriving between 80â??85% of his dietary energy from fat and only 15â??20% from protein . This was, and still remains, at odds with the popular conception that the Inuit ate a high protein diet, whereas in reality it appears to have been a high fat diet with a moderate intake of protein. In his writings, Stefansson notes that the Inuit were careful to limit their intake of lean meat, giving excess lean meat to their dogs and reserving the higher fat portions for human consumption .
It is also interesting to conjecture that the vigorous defense of his arctic observations by Stefansson may have led indirectly to the development of the carbohydrate loading hypothesis. Stefansson was a polarizing influence in the field of nutrition, and his advocacy of pemmican as an emergency ration for troops during the Second World War led directly to the Kark study quoted above, which in turn was a predecessor to many comparative dietary trials performed in Europe and the U.S. in later decades."