Protein poisoning (also referred to colloquially as rabbit starvation, mal de caribou, or fat starvation) is a rare form of acute malnutrition thought to be caused by a near complete absence of fat in the diet.
Excess protein is sometimes cited as the cause of this condition, however when meat and fat are consumed in the correct ratio, such as that found in pemmican (which is 50% fat by volume), the diet is considered nutritionally complete and can support humans for months or more. Other stressors, such as severe cold or a dry environment, may intensify symptoms or decrease time to onset. Symptoms include diarrhea, headache, fatigue, low blood pressure, slow heart rate, and a vague discomfort and hunger (very similar to a food craving) that can be satisfied only by the consumption of fat.
Protein poisoning was first noted as a consequence of eating rabbit meat exclusively, hence the term, “rabbit starvation”. Rabbit meat is very lean; commercial rabbit meat has 50–100 g dissectable fat per 2 kg (live weight). Based on a carcass yield of 60%, rabbit meat is around 8.3% fat while beef and pork are 32% fat and lamb 28%.
Given the lack of scientific data on the effects of high-protein diets, the US Food and Nutrition Board does not set a tolerable upper intake level nor upper acceptable macronutrient distribution range for protein.
In U.S. Military Arctic Light Infantry Training (ALIT), it is taught that rabbit takes more vitamins to digest than it returns. It is recommended in survival situations to refrain from eating at all if rabbit is the only thing to eat. Though, instead of eating the meat (which consumes your fat and vitamins), you could simply boil the rabbit meat to extract the fat and some minerals and vitamins (some vitamins will be destroyed by temperature).
During the Greely Arctic Expedition 1881–1884, a harrowing experience of 25 expedition members, of whom 19 died, Stefansson refers to “‘rabbit starvation’ which is now to me the key to the Greely problem,” which was why “only six came back.” He concludes that one of the reasons for the many deaths was cannibalism of the lean flesh of members who had already died. Stefansson likens this to rabbit starvation.
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- “FAO: The Rabbit, Husbandry, Health and Production”.
- “FAO: Guidelines for slaughtering meat cutting and further processing”.
- US Food; Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients). The National Academies Press. Retrieved 2010-12-22.
- “Rabbit Starvation”.[self-published source?][unreliable medical source?]
- Charles, Darwin (2006). “Voyage of the Beagle: Bahia Blanca to Buenos Ayres”. In Wilson, Edward. From So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin. London, New York: W. W. Norton & Company. p. 121. ISBN 978-0-393-06134-5.
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- Speth, John D. (2010). “The Other Side of Protein”. The Paleoanthropology and Archaeology of Big-Game Hunting. Interdisciplinary Contributions to Archaeology. pp. 45–85. doi:10.1007/978-1-4419-6733-6_4. ISBN 978-1-4419-6732-9.
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- Michaelsen, Kim Fleischer (2000). “Are there negative effects of an excessive protein intake?”. Pediatrics. 106 (5): 1293. PMID 11061839.