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Historical Reenactment

Historical Reenactment

A great image from CrossFit Southie.


1a) Bench Press: 4×5

1b) DB Bench Row: 4×5 each arm HEAVY

MetCon – 5RFT:
20 Wallballs (20/14lbs)
50 Double Unders
2 min Rest

I had some questions just this week about cholesterol and special populations.  Chris Masterjohn just did a post on what we really know, and don’t know, about the Masai.  I will try to dig that up.  Here is an old post I did on the subject for all you hungry minds (2 people).

Begin old post:

Side note before we begin installment three of Paleo diet, cholesterol, heart disease, and YOU musings ($20 says I just lost all but 2 or 3 of you after just that):  Yet another member came in today telling me about their doctor being blown away with their blood work.  I’ve run out of fingers and toes to count all of you on!  It’s almost like this stuff works.  For those naysayers out there, go get some blood work done, go primal for 30 days, and then get some blood work done again.  Indeed, it only takes 30 days if you are doing it correctly.  And yes, you are correct that getting full blood work done twice in 30ish days is expensive, but think about the potential savings to future you, your progeny, and *gasp* the healthcare system.   Ok, enough of the same ole diatribe you hear from me; let’s put on our proctology gloves and explore some ideas.

Have you ever heard the argument for smoking that goes something like this: My great-grandfather smoked a pack a day and he lived to be 100?  This is what we call an n=1 or N of 1 trial where there is only one test subject.  While it is statistically possible, it is also highly unlikely.  Let’s run with it for a second though.  Does this disprove the common conception that smoking a pack/day is bad for your health and leads to an early and often gruesome death? Of course it doesn’t.  At best it gives you pause, and at worse you question the moral ethics of the person relaying said information.

Well what if I presented the argument that following the Paleo diet will not lead to elevated risks of cardiovascular disease (CVD) because the diet of people eating like their ancestors doesn’t –the Inuit, Masai, Kitavans, Samburu nomads, Australian Aborignes, and some tribes of Papua New Guinea to name a few.  These peoples have been heavily studied throughout the 20th and 21st century.  There are literally hundreds of scientific papers published in dozens of journals regarding the caloric quality and quantity, blood lipid levels, markers of disease, and several other factors germane to this blog series.  We will take a look at two of these populations.  Let us start with the Inuit.

Harvard anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson did a lot of research in addition to writing Not By Bread Alone while spending the better part of a decade with the Inuit of northern Canada and Alaska.  Stefansson noted that the Inuit took in almost zero plant material (fruits and vegetables) other than the occasional roots of the knotweed plant.  This flew right in the face of dietary advice to eat as balanced a diet as possible and to include many different types of fruits and vegetables.  It was thought at the time that an all meat diet would lead to scurvy, pellagra, beriberi, rickets, anemia, and other vitamin-deficiency diseases.  However, the Inuit fared quite well on their practically all meat diet.  There was zero incidence of ANY vitamin-deficiency disease.

A bit tangential, but every essential amino acid (building blocks of proteins) and 12 of the 13 essential vitamins are found in great quantity in meat.  Vitamin C is the only essential vitamin found in small quantities in meat and, therefore, it is thought that some other supplement, namely fresh fruits and vegetables, was needed in the diet to combat scurvy (lack of vitamin C).  What the Inuit, and many westerners who have lived for extended periods of time with them, have proven is not so much that we don’t need vitamin C, but instead our body’s need for vitamin C is probably greater when we are eating vast amounts of easily digestible carbohydrate and sugars.

(Understand that I am in no way saying the best diet is of nothing but seal meat and caribou; on the contrary, a diet should focus on protein and fat AND some carbohydrate mostly in the form of roots and tubers.  Remember, the Paleo diet is a nebulous term bantered by more and more people nowadays.  It is a framework for figuring out how best to eat by looking back and seeing what our bodies evolved to run on.  This is not a historical reenactment.)

It is curious to note that Vilhjalmur Stefansson and Danish explorer Karsten Anderson became the subjects of a yearlong nothing but meat diet.  For as wacky as it sounds, the experiment was run by a slew of much respected nutritionists from many different backgrounds to include Graham Lusk and Eugene Du Bois from Cornell and the Russell Sage Institute of Pathology.  Over the course of the yearlong experiment the two subjects’ daily caloric intake averaged out to be about two pounds of meat, or roughly 2600 calories.  79% was from fat, 19% from protein, and about 2% from carbohydrate.  WAIT! How did they get carbohydrates if all they were eating was meat?  Well, there is a little compound called glycogen which stores glucose (a carb) in the liver and muscles.  Glycogen is what we were using today in the Jackie-Helen MetCon combo.  This is where they got their trace amounts of carbohydrate.

Results: Stefansson (S) lost six pounds and Anderson (A) three; S’s blood pressure dropped from 140/80 to 120/80 and A’s remained low at 105/70; there was no kidney damage or vitamin or mineral deficiencies; S began the experiment with gingivitis but it cleared up soon after the diet began.  Fascinating.

The Masai are often cited when waging the cholesterol hypothesis war.  In 1962 our old friend Dr. Ancel Keys and his associates measured blood cholesterol levels of the Masai, Samburu, and Rendille nomads of Kenya.  The Masai and Samburu had some of the lowest levels ever measured, between 150mg/dl and 170mg/dl, despite their diet rich in cow’s milk, blood, and meat.  Their diet was reported to be around 3,000 calories per day mostly of saturated fat.  One insightful researcher, George Mann, used these numbers to refute Keys’ hypothesis, but Ancel explained that by living in nomadic isolation they evolved a unique “feedback mechanism to suppress endogenous cholesterol synthesis

[a gene(s) to stop their bodies from creating cholesterol]”1.  Mann rebuts this proposal by citing the move of the Masai in to neighboring Nairobi where once taking up a Western diet rich in flour and sugar their cholesterol raised significantly.

These diets are unique.  The Inuit ate a diet almost totally composed of meat (protein and fat).  The Masai and other nomadic tribes of Africa consumed what their cattle provided – namely raw milk and meat (of note, Zebu cattle of Africa have a much higher proportion of fat in the milk compared to your typical Jersey dairy cow).  If we were to believe the cholesterol hypothesis then we would expect these populations to have very high cholesterol and rates of CVD.  On the contrary, both population have low cholesterol (almost half of the typical American) and almost zero incidence of CVD, not to mention other diseases of civilization.

The takeaway is not to eat more cow, drink more cow’s milk, and occasionally splurge with some seal meat.  I am simply painting a different picture than what is commonly drawn.  At the least it will give you some more fodder when talking about your diet to friends and coworkers, and at most it will spur you on to new heights of self-learning.  We say it again and again, go read about this stuff if it interests you.  Or set up a time to sit down and talk with us if you have questions/comments.  The last thing we want is a gym that falls prey to group think.  Challenge us, keep us on our toes, but be respectful.  If we don’t know something, we will be the first to let you know!

Brevity who?,
Coach G

1: Keys A. 1975. “Coronary Heart Disease – The Global Picture.” Atherosclerosis. Sept. – Oct.; 22(2):149-92

Further reading: Mann GV, Shaffer RD, Sandstead HH. “Cardiovascular disease in the Masai.” Journal of Atherosclerosis Research. 1964; 4:289-312


By | 2017-04-25T14:38:37+00:00 June 13th, 2012|CrossFit Ktown Knoxville, Uncategorized|2 Comments


  1. Don June 13, 2012 at 8:06 pm

    I’d say it’s worth mentioning that when Stefansson and Anderson first went on the all meat diet they got very sick. They had started the diet with very lean cuts of meat, which is what most people in the U.S. typically eat. They did, however, quickly notice their mistake and switched to much fattier cuts of meat. You couldn’t run this diet for any extended period of time with just chicken breasts or lean beef. Good write-up though.

  2. Drake June 14, 2012 at 11:47 am

    This post is just to confirm that more than 1 person read the entire blog.

Comments are closed.