All meat diets contain much less Vitamin C than plant based diets, this is not controversial. A common argument I hear against my own “Zero Carb” diet which consists of only meat, eggs, cheese, butter, spices like pepper, paprika, turmeric and other common dried spices to flavor my meat is that a diet like that is too low in Vitamin C (also called ascorbic acid or ascorbate) and that I am going to get sick because of that deficiency. That certainly can’t be universally true since I have followed my diet for 914 days as of today (10/11/17) and I have never been healthier. The 2 most common reasons people think a diet low in Vitamin C is harmful are first because Vitamin C deficiency has been shown to cause a serious disease which we will talk about next called Scurvy and second that Vitamin C is a strong antioxidant and serves as an electron scavenger in several enzymatic reactions in the body and to prevent oxidative stress. I will also address this concern later in this post.
Scurvy which has mostly affected sailors whose diets were low in vitamin C but also low in meat and high in carbohydrate were the worst affected group. The disease can develop in a few weeks and cause weakness, muscle aches, loose teeth, bleeding gums, discoloration of the skin and poor wound healing among other things. It was also seen among early Arctic and Antarctic explorers for the same dietary reasons. The ability of Vitamin C containing citrus fruits to reverse the disease has been documented since the time of the Crusades. What causes scurvy is the inability of the body to hydroxylate the amino acids proline and lysine which are abundant in collagen the major connective tissue protein that holds our bodies together leading to weak collagen and the symptoms. Viljhalmur Stefannson was a Harvard trained Anthropologist who later became a professor at the same institution. He spent over 10 years living in the Arctic studying the coastal inuit before they adopted a western diet. He also led many Arctic expeditions. The Coastal Inuit at that time consumed almost no plant foods and were vigorous and healthy with almost no heart disease, diabetes, cancer and no problems with scurvy. He adopted the native diet and would lead expeditions on the ice lasting up to a year while living only on seal meat and polar bear meat with no supplements and claimed to have had the best health of his life. He helped other explorers learn how to do this and the only time he saw scurvy was when these “trainees” cheated and brought along sugary and carbohydrate laden foods which would often lead to symptoms of scurvy. So how could a diet so low in Vitamin C prevent Scurvy? Simple, the problem in the disease of scurvy is the inability to turn proline and lysine into hydroxyproline and hydroxylysine without Vitamin C as the catalyst. It turns out meat is rich in both hydroxyproline and hydroxylysine which can be absorbed from the gut and used by the body so much less hydroxylation needs to take place, hence less vitamin C needed. Here’s a quote from this scholarly article: ” Prolidase also hydrolyzes hydroxy-proline-containing dipeptides. These small peptides (containing proline or hydroxyproline) in the lumen of the small intestine can be directly transported into enterocytes (absorptive epithelial cells) by H+ gradient-driven peptide transporters”. When Viljhalmur returned to New York in the 1930’s and talked with local doctors about the benefits of an all meat diet, they refused to believe him and told him he would develop scurvy within 1-2 months. He and one of his sled drivers named Anderson volunteered to be monitored in the hospital and live exclusively on meat for 1 year allowing doctors to draw whatever laboratory studies they liked. He and Anderson remained healthy with no signs of scurvy or other medical problem for the year. The experiment was carried out at Bellevue Hospital. Below is a link to download a PDF of this study which was published in “Clinical Calorimetry”.
Here is a link to the full text of the book “The Fat of the Land” which is the autobiography of Stefannson’s sojourn among the Coastal Inuit Eskimos of Alaska.
After I explain why scurvy is not a problem, inevitably I hear but Vitamin C is such a good antioxidant and participates in several enzymatic reactions in the body. I counter by asking “if that’s true why did our line of the ape family tree decide to lose the ability to make it about 65 million years ago?” It was because we had earlier made another change and stopped producing uricase an enzyme that lets us break down the substance uric acid (aka urea) which is a breakdown product of DNA bases and Amino Acids that are burned like sugar. Because of this inability to further break down uric acid we have a ton of it around and it is an excellent antioxidant that can do the job of Vitamin C in these reactions. Glutathione which we also easily make can take Vitamin C’s place in these reactions. Uric Acid is the main ingredient in urine after water and give urine it’s name. Here’s an article about that.
Another reason that people on low carb, high fat diets don’t need as much Vitamin C is that the high blood sugars experienced by people eating a high carbohydrate diet make it difficult for Vitamin C to get into the cells of our body. Remember that 2 slices of dry whole wheat toast will raise the blood sugar of normal people to at least 140 mg/dl 90 minutes after consumption and much higher for anyone who is insulin resistant where an equivalant amout of calories in the form of meat is unlikely to raise the blood sugar to 100. This study shows that Vitamin C which is a very similar molecule to glucose and is made from glucose uses some of the same pathways as glucose to enter the cells. When a lot of glucose is around Vitamin C can have trouble entering the cells to do it’s work because the transport pathways are clogged with glucose.
But, you say, “I heard Nobel Laureate Dr. Linus Pauling say that high doses of vitamin C would prevent every known disease and help me live forever.” I would simply refer you to the Wikipedia article on Vitamin C. Here’s a laundry list of Vitamin C claims that have not been supported when scientific studies were done:
Studies have shown that Vitamin C failed to prevent lung cancer, prostate cancer, colorectal cancer (one meta-analysis found a weak protective effect for colorectal cancer no others did), or breast cancer.
No improvement in heart attack risk was seen with Vitamin C however there was a relationship where higher circulating vitamin C signified a small decrease in stroke risk.
There was no improvement when Vitamin C was used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.
There was no benefit to prevention or treatment of the common cold with Vitamin C except in individuals exercising vigorously in cold enviroments.
But Vitamin C also has downsides. This article published by Harvard Medical School reviews several studies that have linked Vitamin C supplementation with kidney stone formation. The bottom line is that numerous “Natural Experiments” like the Historic Coastal Inuit and the Maasai Warriors who eat only meat, blood and milk and are forbidden by religious tradition from eating any plant derived foods during their warrior years, that clearly show no evidence of harm from a relatively low Vitamin C, meat based diet and no evidence of scurvy.