Rabbit starvation and polar bear poisoning

If you happen to be living out in the wilderness, don’t rely on a diet of rabbit meat, and definitely don’t eat polar bear livers.

Polar bear
Alun Williams333, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1597, a Dutch naval expedition to find a Northeast Passage through the Arctic from Europe to China ran into dire straits. Frozen in place, running out of food, and beset by hordes of hungry polar bears, the surviving crew attempted to eat some polar bear meat. This, as recorded by the ship’s carpenter, turned out to be a very bad idea:

[the polar bear’s] death did us more hurt then her life, for after we ript her belly we drest her liver and ate it, which in the taste liked us well, but it made us all sicke, specially three that were exceeding sicke, and we verily thought that we should have lost them, for all their skin came off from the foote to the head.

The three voyages of William Barentz to the Arctic regions, (1594, 1595, and 1596)

The crew members had succumbed to hypervitaminosis. Polar bear livers contain exceptionally high amounts of vitamin A. It’s a side-effect of their own diets: polar bears hunt seals, which themselves have high levels of vitamin A because they’re also carnivores. So, eating a polar bear liver is like eating a hyper-concentrated dose of vitamin A, and the human body is not equipped to handle such high levels. The crew members of the Dutch expedition were fortunate to survive – although a lot of them ended up dying in the far north anyway.

But it’s not just exotic meat that carries risks to meat-eaters. People subsisting primarily on rabbit meat face a peril known as “rabbit starvation.” also known as protein poisoning. Rabbit meat is exceptionally lean; it’s nearly zero fat, all protein. This makes it very nourishing… but the human body requires essential fatty acids to function. Take all the fat away and you’ll get very sick very quick. Here’s an account from another polar explorer:

Rabbit eaters, if they have no fat from another source […] will develop diarrhea in about a week, with headache, lassitude and vague discomfort. If there are enough rabbits, the people eat till their stomachs are distended; but no matter how much they eat they feel unsatisfied.

Not By Bread Alone

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