Being vegan has become trendy in recent decades and as a survival instructor, students and followers often ask if you can survive in the wild while not eating animals. Is it possible to be a vegan survivor? So, I thought I’d dig into that subject today and teach you some nutrition from the hunter-gatherer’s perspective. I’ll cut to the chase and give you the answer right out of the gate. Being vegan and surviving in the wild long term is impossible. You could be plant-based in some environments if you were there at the right season, but it’s impossible to be plant-based long-term in the wild without meat. So, let’s first dig into basic nutrition so you understand what you need in order to survive and why you need meat and fat to survive in the wild!
If you would love to watch, check the video “Can You Survive in the Wild as a Vegan” on our YouTube channel:
Macronutrients and Micronutrients
Think of your nutrient sources like this, macro is your fuel, and micro is what you’re made of. One is essential for energy and the other is essential for optimal health. In the short term, macronutrients are most important for survival but for long-term health, you must have a good balance of micronutrients. Because without proper micronutrient sources, you will become sick or have major health deficiencies.
There are 3 main macronutrients which include: fat, protein, and carbohydrates. Think of these 3 fuel sources like a fire and your metabolism being the flame and coals. Carbohydrates are fast-burning energy that is quickly metabolized, just like the kindling that goes on your fire. Protein is like your mid-sized logs that create the hot burning coals to keep the fire going. Fat is like large logs that you throw on to slow burn for hours throughout the night. Each has its uses and the human body must have all 3 types of energy to be healthy. But only two of those are necessary to survive! Without fat and protein, you will die, but you can live just fine without carbohydrates. Even though the body needs glucose to feed certain body parts, your body can create its own sugar from the fat or protein that you eat. This process is called Gluconeogenesis. It’s the process by which your body breaks down fats or proteins and turns them into glucose.
Of the 3 nutrients needed, only 2 are absolutely essential. In the wilderness, glucose/sugar is rare to find in the wild in any abundance anyway. There are only 4 primary sources of glucose and they include starchy tubers and fibrous plant parts, nuts/seeds, seasonal fruit, and honey. All 4 of these sources are seasonal and aren’t available in all environments. Tubers are difficult to find in abundance and usually are small and rarely worth the effort. Fruit is an amazing resource when you can find it, but it’s very short-lived seasonally and under fierce competition with bugs and animals. Nuts and seeds can be a great resource when they can only be found seasonally and will contain some glucose, but mostly they are fat and protein. Finally, honey can be found in many places in the world, but it comes with extreme risk to acquire without protection suits and this would be considered a rare treat and not a regular calorie source.
Micronutrients are extremely diverse and while plants carry lots of micronutrients, you don’t need to eat them in order to get all your nutrients. In fact, eating an entire animal from nose to tail can provide you with all the nutrients you need to survive. Animal-based sources also have much higher bioavailability of nutrients so they are easier to absorb from animals than plants. Plants contain anti-nutrient phytochemicals that can actually leach out certain micronutrients, but that subject is beyond the scope of this article. However, supplementing with plants is always optimal and will provide a greater amount of trace minerals and other nutrients that are in shorter supply in animal-only diets. We can’t dive too much into micronutrients in this article, but they are essential for long-term health and not short-term survival. Eat lots of meat and organs supplemented with fruits, tubers, nuts and you’ll be healthy as a hunter-gatherer.
Fat vs Glucose
There are three ways that your body stores energy for later use and that is fat, protein, and glucose. Fat is by far and away the greatest source of energy in your body and it stores 9 calories per gram vs. 4 calories per gram with protein or glucose. Your body has 10’s thousands of calories stored in fat reserves under your skin and around your organs. It is the preferred fuel for the body and you store more of that than anything else. The body will break down fat for its primary fuel and glucose for fast immediate energy needs. However, the body has a very limited capacity for glucose storage from carbs. You just can’t store that much of it, so from a living off-the-land perspective you will primarily be a fat burner, and sugar usage in the body will be rare. We as humans were designed to run off fat, not sugar. It is a more stable fuel source with better continuous energy throughout the day, whereas sugar only gives quick bursts of energy and then you get a resulting crash hours later. Finally, if the body is robbed of amino acids, which is the most important building block of all 3 micronutrients, it will break down muscle for energy.
Historically are any hunter-gatherer tribes entirely plant-based?
Have there ever been any primitive hunter-gatherers in history that have been totally plant-based? The answer to that is a resounding no. It is impossible to live off the land and not eat meat. Vegan and vegetarian-style diets are a product of modern industrial agriculture. There have been cultures in the past that were mostly plant-based, but never entirely plant-based. Without processed seed oils or grain, getting your daily requirements of calories is impossible. And those food types aren’t really available in abundance to the hunter-gatherer. Survivors must live off mostly meat and organs, then supplement with whatever seasonal plants are available. If you look at a culture such as the Inuit, they live almost entirely off meat and fat all year eating almost zero plants. And they have some of the lowest heart disease rates in the world.
How do herbivores eat entirely plant-based and get so big?
I won’t dive too deep into this subject. This is more of a fun fact to know, but most people think that herbivores are actually surviving off plants and that’s not entirely true. While they eat entirely plant-based diets, their fuel is actually not sourced so much from the plants they eat as much as they are from the bacteria inside them. Through the process of fermentation, these animals have gut bacteria that actually ferment these plants and turn them into fatty acids. So, in essence, even herbivores aren’t living off plants, they are living off the nutrients the bacteria are giving them due to feeding the bacteria plant foods. Really fascinating stuff that bacteria are actually what feed the largest herbivores on the planet and not so much the food they eat. The animals feed the bacteria and as a result, the bacteria feed them and make them huge.
Conclusion: While plant food is available in almost every corner of the planet, most of the plant foods available are very low calorie and high fiber which is hard on the gut. These plants also contain anti-nutrients and phytochemicals that can cause gut problems in many people. While eating meat has no negatives for the survivor and is available in every place on the planet. Everywhere you go, you will find animals that will run around and eat all the things you don’t want to eat, and store those plant nutrients in their meat and organs. As a survivor, we can get complete nutrition from eating animals from nose to tail, including the organs, skin, and bones. Plus, if we supplement with available plant sources that are nutrient-dense such as nuts and fruits, then we can have a well-rounded diet that provides all our energy and micronutrients.
In short, the hunter-gatherer primarily eats meat, fat, and organs and seasonally eats whatever he can find that has high-calorie counts with little effort in collecting. As a survivor, you have to always keep in mind that you can’t burn more calories getting food than the food holds in actual caloric value. So, you have to find the most nutrient-dense foods with the least amount of work. Hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering fruit and nuts is the most efficient use of energy for return on calories gained, while also providing all the micronutrients you need for health. Eating a paleo-style diet would be the closest thing to this mindset in the modern setting.
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