Learning from Moose

Life adapts when necessitated by changing conditions that impact survival. These are evolutionary pressures, with nutrition being probably the strongest. Flora bend toward the sun and plunge rooty tendrils deep into soil in search of moisture and minerals, while mobile organisms walk, run, fly, crawl, scrounge, or swim for food. Herbivores prefer to go where the vegetation is the densest and most nutritious, while predators follow close behind. Life is in constant flux, then, with food availability as the invisible hand directing traffic.

Flux is great, exciting stuff, but it makes for difficult research into cause and effect. It heralds the introduction of myriad variables. So we often go to the lab for sterile, randomized controlled trials in an attempt to limit these variables and in a desire for scientific certainty. But real life is messy, complex and difficult to model. This is why isolated populations in actual, natural environments are so valuable.

Enter the moose of Isle Royale in Lake Superior, Michigan. Their ancestors swam to the island about 100 years ago, presumably in search of food. It’s the story of life, right? Food they found, but, with Isle Royale being an island and all, it was finite. Flux happens. Population rises, food becomes more scarce, population drops, and so on. Wolves, one of the moose’s few natural predators, get involved, of course. It was a situation ripe for research (isolated population, ability to account for most variables, etc.), and so a fifty-year (ongoing to this day) study was begun by a group of researchers.

As the moose population increased, the availability of food naturally decreased (because, you know, it was being eaten by all the moose). A shrinking supply of food was spread across a growing population of moose until the population stopped growing and it began to tip toward the other end of the scale. This is all basic stuff that you’d expect to see in an island population with a limited food supply.

There was more, though. Researchers also found (PDF) that osteoarthritis incidence increased in moose who were borne in times of population excess and nutritional hardship. Baby moose weaned on substandard amounts of food were more likely to develop osteoarthritis later in life. Arthritis, eh? That’s the classic wear-and-tear affliction. I know wear-and-tear. When osteoarthritis ended my promising running career many years ago the docs told me it was the high miles I was putting in day-in, day-out. So what about these moose? Why, I bet those moose were playing too much basketball on outdoor courts and were consistently failing to get properly fitted for quality athletic footwear. Or maybe they were going farther afield in search of food. Except that the arthritic moose had access to plenty of food as adults, so they weren’t moving any more than the moose with healthy joints. Or maybe they were obese moose, munching on too much lichen and moss, and their tender joints simply couldn’t take the added weight. That’s what seems to happen to humans, who, as they gain weight, also suffer from more osteoarthritis. Except that wasn’t it, since arthritic moose were, if anything, smaller than healthy moose.

They were also malnourished as youngsters. We can tell this by examining the length of the metatarsal bone in moose, which is a strong index of early nutrition in animals. The moose with osteoarthritis as adults had shorter metatarsal bones, which indicates poor early nutrition. Low metatarsal length is also strongly linked with poor longevity, so it may be that malnutrition early in life has even stronger ties to adult osteoarthritis; we’d never know since many moose with short metatarsal bones died relatively young, too.

The authors go on to propose a similar explanation for increased osteoarthritis in colonized Native Americans. Spanish colonization brought agriculture, especially corn-based agriculture, to ancestral hunter-gatherers. It also brought osteoarthritis, a relatively rare affliction for pre-colonial peoples living on animals and wild plants. Popular science has held that forced slave labor caused the well-documented increase in osteoarthritis through wear-and-tear, but the authors of the moose study suggest malnutrition – going from meat and plant-based nutrition to corn-based nutrition – also played a role. It makes sense, especially since the arthritic joints in the Isle Royale moose were identical to the arthritic joints in humans with osteoarthritis, suggesting a similar root cause. They even propose that malnutrition is at the heart of modern osteoarthritis.

Some might balk at that. After all, humans, especially humans in the US, don’t appear to be malnourished. They’re fat! Even the homeless are overweight! And, stats have shown, being overweight is one of the top risk factors for osteoarthritis in this country. Surely a fat guy isn’t malnourished, right?

Malnutrition is a bit of a nebulous word. What’s the first thing you think of when you hear it? I don’t think I’m alone in assuming “insufficient amounts of food.” Starvation. Children with bloated bellies and limbs like stick figures. Buzzing flies and lurking buzzards. Those are the commonest connotations, but the actual word can mean several different things. It can mean inadequate intake of nutrients. So, if a kid is stuffing him or herself with plenty of calories but failing to get any appreciable amounts of vital vitamins and minerals, that’s also malnutrition. It can also refer to an imbalanced intake of nutrients. Imagine a hyper-vigilant parent with a familial history of osteoporosis and a spotty understanding of how the disease works stuffing his kid full of large amounts of calcium supplements while totally ignoring the need for vitamin D and magnesium. That would also be malnutrition. At the heart of malnutrition is bad nutrition. Heck, it’s right there in the word itself: “mal,” which in Latin (and most of its offshoots) means bad or evil. You could be eating 4000 calories a day and still be subject to classic malnutrition if all you’re eating is candy, soda, and fast food. In fact, most people eating terrible modern diets are walking (or, rather, limping, driving, sitting, slumping) examples of malnutrition, even though they appear incredibly well-fed. Just look at the homeless in this country, who tend to be fairly overweight. They’re not lacking for calories, but they’re certainly malnourished. Eating convenience store fare and processed food will do that to you. You don’t have to be skinny to be malnourished.

I doubt wear-and-tear, except in the most extreme cases, is enough to explain osteoarthritis. Statistics consistently show that the more active you are, the less osteoarthritis you have. In my case it could be that the half gallon of ice cream and other carbs I was ingesting (on the order of 1000 grams a day) to fuel my insane volume of Chronic Cardio was enough to put me down the path of osteoarthritis gene expression, and that pounding away, mile upon mile, on the pavement was less of a contributing factor. Our joints are built to withstand duress. They’re meant to deflect it and mitigate it. A common fact mentioned online is that cartilage is several times more slippery than ice. Repeated incorrect usage of one’s joints can surely lead to articular degradation, but it’s not easy to do. You need to weaken the cartilage first. You need to really mess with the wiring, because the human joint is an elegant and effective setup.

What we’re dealing with is a perfect storm of joint stressors: poor form (when people do exercise); inactivity (like bones and muscles, you gotta put your joints to work or they’ll atrophy); poor childhood nutrition; and, in my opinion most importantly, poor overall nutrition. Next week, I’ll go into some other possible causes of osteoarthritis and outline some strategies for avoiding it, if you don’t have it, and improving it, if you do.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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41 thoughts on “Learning from Moose”

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  1. Great post, Mark. Gotta show this to my parents, maybe it’ll wake them up.

  2. Wow, this is a great post. One of the most interesting ones I’ve read in a while! Thanks Mark!

  3. This is pretty terrifying! If humans are anything like moose, then once the damage is done during childhood even an adulthood of healthy living won’t entirely undo the damage.

  4. Fantastic post, Mark.
    Stuff like this is the best of what you do.
    Keep throwing that spear,


  5. Weston Price has shown something similar with the teeth and cranial structure or children fed a natural vs westernized diet.

    It’s astonishing the amount of damage a bad diet does to a growing child.

  6. Thanks Mark. I’d show this to my mom, but she’s from the CW group and would not even consider that there could be a possible, alternative view.

  7. I was only conversing with my mother yesterday about my father’s improved knee situation since eating more primally over the last four months. He has lost 2 stone (28 lbs) so less weight helps BUT I’m convinced the low inflammatory diet is a factor too.

    Apparently his legs look visibly straighter and he has less pain and more mobility and that’s someone who has bad enough OA in his knees to qualify him for replacement surgery here in the UK.

    Fascinating stuff, thanks 🙂 as usual!

  8. Makes me feel better about the way I go … I don’t have much junk food in the house (BF needs his fix once in a while) When we eat out, I don’t allow my kids to have soda, candies and such and I always get tagged as the “bad-too-strict-freak-heartless-mom” by other moms. As if my kids “lack” something that is sooo normal and acceptable (almost necessary) for kids. But, really, they never ask for it and they choose fruits over candy by themselves. I’m proud of that.

  9. Pretty cool article. Especially since I am from Michigan originally. Didn’t see any moose, though.
    I have often figured that the general afflictions of our “modern” lifestyles from repetitive strain to cancer have more to do with nutrition than most “experts” are willing to admit.

    Not that just eating “the right food” will solve each and every problem. But it does help.

    With so many things in life that appear to be out of control, diet and activity level are two of the only physical things that we actually have direct control over. Plus, they affect every other aspect of our lives.

    Thanks for the good moose story.

  10. excellent article again. Especially well-written is this seemingly simple but very concise, precise line: “At the heart of malnutrition is bad nutrition”

  11. I am also from Michigan and still live here and did not know that Moose were common around Lake Superior – pretty cool.

    It is unfortunate that there are so many people who are malnourished but its not surprising due to the population. It is quite obvious that we can not feed 6 billion people the right amount of foods. This is why agriculture has done more harm then good.

    Because agriculture was able to produce so much food we began eating more of that easily produced food that we were not designed to eat and have suffered great consequences.

    While there are many people who are doing all they can do help turn this around – Mark, Jamie and us other primal bloggers – there is still too many people who have not a clue as to what healthy living is all about.

    As you stated with the moose – too many of them lead to many of them becoming malnourished because everyone was fighting for food. That is what is happening to the human population. We are living longer because of the medical advances among many other things but too many people rely on this to help them get through life instead of trying to live a healthy lifestyle.

    Its too bad but I still believe we can turn it around quite a bit.

    1. I agree we can turn it around but the population is predicted to be over 9 billion in 40 years. The earth can NOT handle this amount of humans, we are already overpopulated. I believe nature will balance itself out….because she always does.

  12. Seriously great post. We humans think we’ve come so far … if only we would pay attention to what nature has to teach us. There is an innate wisdom in the universe that nature (animals, plants) seems to be in tune with, and this research proves it. Given the choice, animals will eat very well, and exactly what they need for optimal function. Keep all this great Primal info coming!

  13. Very Interesting! I like how you went with Isle Royale as a case study instead of the ever-popular Easter Island.

    Have you heard about similar theories on the how malnourishment (as a result of overpopulation) impairs a population’s fertility–thus working as a sort of negative feedback mechanism for population control?

  14. I’d be interested to know more about nutrition and other factors in rheumatoid arthritis – does anyone have any info? Mark?

  15. Even CW sources have begun to recognize this.
    The other day in my wife’s orthopedidts office, I picked up the June / July issue of Arthritis.
    That;s right, there’s a periodical about arthritis.
    In one article it states bluntly that “inflamation plays a major role in Arthritis, Diabetes, and Heart disease.
    An “ask the experts” Q&A sheet, in a CW publication, mind you, states bluntly that “some vegetable oils, soch as corn and safflower oils, as well as hydrogenated and factory processed oils” are pro inflamatory.
    Too bad he didn’t also bust out with grains, and such,as inflamatory, too.
    Matbe not ready to fly in the face of CW that hard, yet.
    Big Pharm/Agra might get him

  16. Sometimes the difference between adequate calories and adequate nutrition is lost on people.

    There’s definitely a parallel here with human population. One of the biggest arguments against eating meat is that there isn’t enough room on the planet to raise meat for everybody. We’re already at the point where our nutrition is compromised by overpopulation, and we’re still growing.

    In college I we played around a little bit with computer population models, and every time I saw the inevitable population crash that comes after a peak, I wondered when that was going to happen to us.

    Another possibility is that instead of the population crashing, we’ll manage to make it level off at a population where there’s only enough room to grow enough food for sufficient calories, not optimal nutrition.

    1. “Another possibility is that instead of the population crashing, we’ll manage to make it level off at a population where there’s only enough room to grow enough food for sufficient calories, not optimal nutrition.”
      Isn’t this where we are at now?

  17. Back in the 1970’s, I had a very obese neighbor who died around age 30. As I remember, it was said that he mainly ate Twinkies or similar food. The doctor said he died of starvation. That really stuck in my mind.

  18. I have been primal for just under a couple of months now. I’m twenty four and a medium build but unfortunately have had arthritis from an early age. Before I went primal I was on right co codamol and two celecoxib tablets a day plus a methatrexate injection each week. Since going primal I have stopped all of the tablets and as of today the methatrexate too. I don’t feel fully recovered but I feel the best I have in five years. Before primal I was pill dependent and had trouble walking, now I’m drug free and can sometimes manage the weekly sprint, grok on!

  19. I went to the original report and found an intereting factoid that I’d like to share.

    I was skeptical about Mark’s characterization of native American diets. I know that not all native American peoples were hunter-gatherers. Didn’t some of them grow corn? They must have used traditional preparations that increased its nutritional value, right? Wrong:

    “A similar change [in skeletal remains] was documented for a mid-continental population of native Americans about 1000 years ago as they came to rely increasingly on cultivated maize.”

    This totally convinced me that paleo is superior to a Weston Price Foundation diet.

  20. I always agree with you Mark, but this time I have to point out this little snipet:
    “Spanish colonization brought agriculture, especially corn-based agriculture, to ancestral hunter-gatherers.”

    This is simply not true, as per wikipedia:
    Maize, known in many English-speaking countries as corn, is a grass domesticated by indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica in prehistoric times. The Aztecs and Mayans cultivated it in numerous varieties throughout central and southern Mexico, to cook or grind in a process called nixtamalization. Later the crop spread through much of the Americas.”

    Indigenous people were cultivating corn long before Spanish colonization began. And not only that potatoes are originally from Perú and Bolivia where they were grown for hundreds of years before the Spanish came.

    1. Seems like it could have been spanish colonization that spread maize from mesoamerica to north america…

  21. As a follow up post could we please get some delicious moose recipies?

    I would rather eat them then read about them.

  22. I am kind of glad the Primal Community is small because there wouldn’t be enough grassfed/finished meats for everyone. That is the main reason why we are where we are, the population increased so much animals had to be confined and crowded up in one place to leave room for other things. (What I’ve read about the east coast population).

    The future is only looking worse, they’re already talking about selling cloned milk in schools to children.

    As a woman I’ve always thought I was kind of lucky to be born into the 20th century. Now I’m not so sure. I think primitive tribes took very good care of their females (as Weston Price describes in his book)… making sure the females get plenty of nutrition at all times to have beautiful, healthy offspring.

    Grok and his male buddies worked very hard to keep Misses Grokette happy, that’s for sure.

    1. This is actually not true at least in the case of beef. CAFO animal production is largely the result of the invention of fossil fuel derived fertilizers and of government subsidies to the grain industry. We have plenty of “space” to produce all the meat we need on natural pasture, we just need to reclaim the land from fossil fueled corporate welfare grain production.

  23. This is great. I’ve been telling my patients (I’m a physical therapist) for a long time that osteoarthritis is NOT wear and tear. It can’t be, since appropriate movement and training improve the condition. Wear and tear does not improve if you use it more. The difference between a machine and organisms is that the latter live and adapt to stresses (especially if those stressors have been with us for a long (evolutionary speaking) time.

    Now this moose study is super! Thanks for bringing it to my attention Mark!

  24. When I was a kid(I’m 63 now)I thought we were somewhat deprived as we ate home grown vegtables and wild game a lot due to my families finacial circumstances. I see now that part of the reason I have had very little illness in life might be due to that early diet. It was easy for me to go primal in May of this year and have lost over 20 lbs. It was like “going back home”

  25. I spent some time in NYC last week and saw this first hand. The kids there are so fat and just look incredibly unathletic. Knees bending in, poor posture, etc.
    It’s sad really.

  26. Absolutely amazing. My knees were so bad I would lay awake at night or walk the floors in pain. I had knee replacement surgery scheduled. Then in August of 09 I eliminated carbs from my diet, mostly to lose weight. Shortly thereafter got connected with this website and have been a follower ever since. My knees still creek and crack a little but I am pain free. Exercise (bike riding, weights, stretching) is a priority and required supplements. I am a 55 year old female and couldn’t be happier with any aspect of my health, nutrition and life in general.

  27. Great stuff, but I think you may have confused moose with caribou in your commentary – moose are browsers and eat leafy stuff like alders and birch and your prized ornamental shrubs and your garden lettuce, switching to twigs and bark in the winter. It’s caribou that mainly live on moss and lichens.

    As far as cooking moose, it’s a super lean red meat (fat is under the skin, around the internals, in the nose and the the bone marrow, so if you kill one, take this stuff with you!!!), so is best cooked rare or braised for hours. Makes great burger (if mixed with fat) and sausage (ditto). Its taste is typical of venison, mild to gamy, depending on the animal. And of course, being so lean, it makes great jerky.

    Note that they run 600 – 1200 lbs on the hoof. Get a BIG freezer.

    Happy hunting!