Friday, December 22, 2023

Nutrition by-the-numbers

Three economists with twelve Ivy-League University degrees between them went hunting Cape Buffalo in Botswana one fine day. An enormous bull charged the group.

Two of the economists raised their .460 Weatherby Magnums and fired, one missing to the right of the animal and the other missing to the left.

"Cheers, gentlemen! We got him" crowed the third economist seconds before the bull gored the thee of them to a frothy, pink paste.

Many useful statistical concepts die an ugly death on the shoals of multi-modal processes.

One of those multi-modal processes involves the caloric requirements of human adults.


 In 2015, a 5th% US woman weighed about 110 pounds. A 95th% man weighed about 285 pounds or about 2.6 times more than the 5th% woman. The amount of energy required for "maintenance" is closely related to body-weight.


Along another axis, a sedentary woman of sixty might walk 800 steps in a typical day while an active man of the same age might walk 15,000 steps.

In one study of Amish farmers in Ontario, a male was recorded having 51,514 steps in one day (the equivalent of 26 miles of walking). When the researchers asked him what he had done on that day he told them he had been plowing behind his horses.

Think about this for a second. He was guiding a plow through damp ground and redirecting it after it hits clods, clumps of grass or rocks. He was walking on soft, slippery, ground while wearing clod-hoppers, ground that had no "spring" to it so his foot sank into it with each step. And he walked 26 freaking miles in a day.

Or think of it this way, a 16" wide furrow must be 262 miles long for it to cover 40 acres. If the farmer plows that field with a single-bottom, walk-behind, 16" plow over 10 days, that means he AVERAGED 26 miles per day.

Boats on canals were typically drawn by horses or mules before IC motors were common. Horses would not fit in the tunnels. The boats were propelled through those tunnels via human power. It was called "Legging it". It was not a glamorous job. Hat-tip to Lucas Machias for the photo.

If you look at older Industrial Engineering data (1930 vintage) they had a job classification called "Shunters". A "Shunter" was a human fork-truck. He manually moved material from storage areas to the production area and back, typically in steel-wheeled carts over wooden-block floors. His Calorie-burn was 500 Calories per hour. Men shoveling coal or working as lumberjacks have similar energy demands.

Now compare that to the idealized-to-the-point-of-useless number of 2000 Calories per day that we often see.

Two-thousand Calories a day is sufficient to keep MOST people from dying in a concentration camp from lack of calories as long as they spend 95% of their waking hours sitting motionlessly...about like most office workers.

That 2000 Calories includes roughly 65 grams of fat (about 2.5 ounces or two McDonald McDoubles and a large fries), the same amount of protein and about 300 grams of carbs. This is perfectly appropriate for a 150 pound woman who parks 50 yards away from her desk or works from home and who stares at a computer all day and vacuums the floors of her apartment once-a-week.

4500 Calories a day looks entirely different. The major difference is that the 30% calories from fat gets thrown out the window. It really needs to be 40% or more calories from fat or you just cannot get enough food down-the-hatch.

He needs at least 200 grams of fat, 140 grams of protein and 550 grams of carbs.

In English units, that is almost a half-pound of fats/oils and over a pound of carbs.

On a per-year basis, that is 160 pounds of fat/oils. That is 22 gallons of melted lard.


Larry Dean Olsen, dean of low-tech survival techniques in American is credited with saying that it is impossible for modern men to survive in the wilderness without some animal-based foods.

Humans have "plastic" bodies. We adapt to the stresses of our environment. We are MUCH more plastic when we are younger and much LESS plastic after we hit adulthood.

That is why somebody who spends their childhood at high elevation has more efficient lungs and vascular system.

Cavemen probably had enormous "beer bellies" because they were eating huge volumes of foods with low calorie densities. Foods like ground-up Acer negundo and Rumex and Polygonum and Setaria seeds are almost 50% fiber and they were as good-as-it-got for vegetable based foods except for some nuts and acorns.

Modern humans who grew-up consuming Hot Pockets, Tombstone pizzas and McD value meals do not have the volumetric capacity in their digestive systems to survive on prehistoric uber-high-fiber, very-low-fat diets. An analogy would be to compare a high-output motorcycle engine's displacement (small) to a steam-engine's (enormous). Apples and orangutans.

It is questionable if modern humans can consume 4500 Calories a day of pure carbs. That is three-and-a-half pounds of tortilla wraps (with no filling) or more than two, 24 ounce loaves of white-bread or ten pounds of potatoes.

You can make it as complicated as you want. Or as simple.

The bottom line is that if you are going to ask modern men to  burn 4500 Calories a day (on average) then you better find a way to supply them with 200-to-300 grams of fat per day.


Data from New Zealand where seasonal, pasture-based dairy is practiced.

In an austere environment, dairy is seasonal. In Michigan it can start in late-April as the grass just starts to grow and "dried off" in November. The cow will coast along on low-quality forage/hay and still pick-up body-weight until it drops her calf and when she will need large volumes of high-quality food again. That means there will be a gap in fat production from late-Fall until mid-Spring.

When she IS producing milk, even a mediocre dairy-cow (or even a beef/dairy cross) has the ability to produce 50 pounds of butter-fat per month. In the Copperhead Cove story, Sarah had a 1/3 share in the cow which was fine when it was just her, Lliam and Mary. Adding Blain to the dining-room table threw it out of balance especially since the cow was nearing the end of her lactation-cycle.

Wild sources of fats

Very few wild animals are high in fat. In late-Fall, the exceptions might include raccoons, waterfowl, salmon and carp. Domestic animals can include slaughter cattle, cull-sheep, hogs and geese.

Nuts like walnuts, hickory, hazelnuts, (and further south) pecans are high in fats.

Oil producing seeds like soybeans, canola and sunflowers (and others) merit discussion. Objections about the health consequences of those kinds of oils are dwarfed by the impact of not-enough-calories-to-maintain-98.6F-body-temperature.


  1. The northern people who survived - thrived - during the Ice Age ate the equivalent of today's "carnivore" diet, showing that carbs are not even needed in the human diet. I subscribe to the theory that the modern, carb-heavy diet is the primary cause of most of the chronic diseases of today. Imagine how much smaller a portion of the economy the "healthcare" sector would represent if people were as metabolically healthy as they were in the 1950s, when almost nobody was fat.

    1. While what you wrote cannot be disproven, it is difficult to prove because the data is deeply and inseparably confounded.

      For one thing, many of the foods we think of as 'carbs' also have very high fat content: French-fries, potato chips, Doritos, mac-n-cheese.

      Another factor, one that cannot be understated, is that work has become MUCH less physical even in the factory. The huge increase in working, head-of-household women means that all jobs must be configured so our 5th percentile woman can do them otherwise the employer is passively violating laws that prohibit discrimination.

      If a 110 pound woman can do the job (with the aid of power equipment) then it is half-a-job for a fit, 220 pound man.

      Not only have factory jobs become MUCH less physical, but the percentage of them in the economy shrank from +30% to less than 10% today.

    2. Look to the diets of the still remaining "hunter/gatherer" societies. I've spent time with some in Africa and Australia and ... their diet is (despite the media portrayal of those hard-working women "providing") almost entirely animal based (what little "plant-food' is gathered is mostly as a 'supplement', vitamins and minerals, and as an 'extender'. Most 'gathering' by women is in fact small animal and insect based to supplement that provided by the men hunting, or purely just to 'keep them going' until the men get back with the 'real food').

      Also, "sit-down meals" are rare, snacking/grazing on what you find, when/as you find it, is the order of the day. Large amounts are only eaten when/if a large kill is made. So what you'll get, instead of large digestive tracts (hint: it's an open system, push a lot in, a lot comes out) is one designed for continuous small amounts.

      I've lived with both Inuit and Sami, and in both cases their diet is massively fat-heavy, and contains very little plant-based (again mainly for vitamins and minerals). Extreme cold and physically demanding lifestyles demanding almost unbelievable (to pampered us) calorific amounts (and all is made up of animal, meat and dairy, with fats being especially prized).

      I have female friends who work in food retail, as well as nursing, in both cases the vanishingly few men (despite all the technology) get to do 'all' the heavy lifting (where in the past everybody, all male, there would do the job, now the few left get to do theirs 'and' the womens too. Rinse and repeat in almost every job available now). And that's not considering all the construction, military (I remember basic and selection - I ate upwards or 8-10 ... thousand calories a day), etc. jobs out there. Point? There are still almost as many physically demanding jobs around, it just appears that there are less, because there are now so many "jobs for the girls" that dilute the statistics (and, as I said, in every job with safe/clean/air-conditioned/no-heavy-lifting workplace you'll find the few guys ... doing even more dirty and heavy jobs than they ever did).

      We have a much distorted view of both a "healthy diet" and "what to eat in desperate need situations" because of 'biased' (bought and paid for) research, and because plant-based food is easier/cheaper to provide in large-scale amounts. A true Paleo diet would be 80% animal based, eaten irregularly in small amounts, supplemented by continuous grazing on nuts/berries/leaves/lizards/insects, with the occasional 'feast' (and every opportunity to eat fat, of any source, grabbed with both hands).

    3. Fat, at least animal fat, is great. The real poison is sugar.

  2. There was a study done in Britain ca. 1938 or 1939 when they were planning possible rationing for the coming war. I will try to find it again, but they were basically trying to test a nearly meatless diet in a heavy working environment. It was successful, if I remember correctly. The only major comments were the amount of time needed to eat the larger portions of food and the amount of gas produced as a result. I think it was Cambridge university, but I will search over Christmas, if uncle Alzheimer does not interfere.


    This describes the test roughly, perhaps I can find something more detailed.

  4. They "...follow(ed) this diet for three months."

    "To simulate the hardest physical work that might be expected of people during the war, some of the team headed to the Lake District for an intensive fortnight of walking, cycling and mountaineering."

    Any data is better than no data.

    It would have been interesting to learn how much weight they lost. One weakness of the study is that 14 days of heavy-work over a 90 day period is probably not enough to extrapolate vis-a-vis what would four years of working six-days-a-week result in.

    Incidentally, thanks for finding this!!!

    If memory serves, you might be in Austria. I would be thrilled to learn what German occupied lands planted in their emergency gardens during and after WWII.


    1. Okay, I have found something, but you will have to provide an email address for me to send it to. If it is here already and I am just too stupid to find it, then please accept my apologies, but send it anyway. It is mostly from Switzerland, but it is something.


      May I summarize the contents of your finds and how do you want me to "attribute" the post?

      Switzerland is landlocked so they had the same issues most of Austria, Czech, Slovakia, Hungary, etc faced. Very wide range of climates. It will be perfect.

      Thank-you for your diligence and follow-up. I am lucky to have readers like you!!!

  5. Ducks are high fat and easy to raise (with a side benefit of keeping down bugs). Is that part of why they used to be much more common?

    1. Roasted duck is unbelievably delicious!!!

      I think another part about ducks is that it was a way to make poorly drained spots productive.

      I think geese are more resilient in the face of predators. THey make good watchdogs.

      If people get really hungry, the 'coons and 'possum will disappear but the number of semi-feral cats will increase. That might end up being a "wash".

    2. Years ago, I read of an old guy living in a mostly abandoned part of a big city(Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland? IDK) who supplemented his income by trapping raccoons and selling them for food. I lost the article in a computer crash, so depending on my admittedly crappy memory.
      Stay safe


  6. FWIW the last major building project I worked I wore a pedometer for 30 days once and averaged 17 miles a day working on the cleanup crew.
    There were 295 steps from the basement to the top floor, made that trip a few times before lift access was available.
    I was on site 2 1/2 years.
    I lost 25 + lbs. and have kept it off since.
    Mrs. Neck says she can't understand how I can eat so much and stay so thin.
    She also hasn't been out cutting wood with me the last 2 weeks.

  7. I believe, but have no hard numbers, that possums have a high fat content. Ate one as a teen, can not recommend unless really hungry.

    1. One of those goofy, New-Age gurus (Lazaris, I believe) once said "Happiness is having your needs met. Joy is having your preferences met." If that is true, then some Gen Z types might be surprised find themselves happy to see a chunk of 'possum on their plate some time in the future.

  8. Wild animal high fat out west and in the mountains - when I was young, the family old timers would talk about going out bear hunting every fall (before hibernation.) Apparently it would make or break winter food expenses if you could bait one in for the meat and 'grease' for that season. And there were as many geese as dogs at every place out in the country.

  9. So much of what seems to be misinformation here. Our pre-agricultural ancestors ate very little plant material . This is not in question as studies of n15 in their remains show that they were apex predators. They didn't have big bellies to process plant material, gathering is secondary to hunting as the return on investment in terms of energy is upside down.There is no human physiological requirement for carbohydrates, there are only two essential nutrients for humans, fats and protein. Carbohydrates and agriculture became part of the human food system as the larger and fatter mega fauna died out.


  10. ERJ - In the lifting community (which, by default, you are now in) this is a matter of some discussion. In general, to gain muscle mass you need the minimum daily requirement plus additional building materials for the muscle. The question of what that is, somewhat similar to introducing politics at a holiday meal, guaranteed to start a "discussion".

    On the other end of the spectrum, Ascetic Tendai monks of Mt. Hiei have practiced kaihōgyō (回峰行), a physical endurance test which sees them finishing 1,000 marathons over the course of 10 years. Their average caloric intake is 1450 calories a day (and carbohydrate/vegetarian at that). The book The Marathon Monks of Mt. Hiei, if you can find it, is actually pretty interesting on this. (

    From the practical realm, when I came down with altitude sickness during my Mt. Goddard hike this year, I minimally ate soup and perhaps some oatmeal over the course of a day while hiking 12 miles. Even though I recovered, I still lost 10 lbs from that hike that has never reappeared.

    I had not thought of 2,000 calories being the estimate for a sedentary person, but it makes perfect sense.

  11. Just a few thoughts on carbs available to hunter/gathers. My youth in the Ozarks included a considerable amount of wild caught-gathered food. Some game, mostly rabbit and squirrel, with an occasional fat fall possum. Not much fish as no nearby water. We had a lot honey , both from hives and wild colonies. We often had gathered vegetables including poke in early spring, dandelion, dock, and lambs quarter. Granddad was a on a logging crew at the time. So he ate a lot of fat pork. While we didn't get a large portion of our food in this manner, it was a welcome addition to the diet.

  12. Another point to add. We 'modern' and 'civilised' types now only eat a fraction of any animal we harvest. in the past the rule was "eat everything but the oink". A lot of concentrated calories, hard to find vitamins and minerals in all that 'meat' (organs, bones and blood) we (most) now throw away.

    1. This is a very relevant point. Even when I was growing up, we bought whole chickens and turkey and ate the gizzard, hearts, and liver as part of the meal. I had yakitori this month with chicken hearts - first time I have had them in something like 20 years.

      Yes, there is a long way to go on how we use animal products.

  13. A sow after 5-6 litters weights 700lbs? Lots of lard. Woody

  14. A recall a national geographic article from 1940 that showed iowa corn farmers raising deliberately bred hogs, for the lard, to the weight of a ton.


Readers who are willing to comment make this a better blog. Civil dialog is a valuable thing.