Learn how to eat from Survivorman

Look no farther than Discovery Channel to learn how humans were meant to eat.

The Survivorman show documents the (self-filmed) 7-day adventures of Les Stroud, who is dropped into various remote corners of the world to survive on little but ingenuity and will to live. Starting without food or water, the Survivorman scrapes and scrambles in the wilderness for essentials to survive in habitats as far ranging as the Ecuadorian rainforest to sub-arctic Labrador.

What does Survivorman have to do with your nutrition habits?

Everything. The lessons we can learn by watching this TV show are plenty.

Survivorman plays out the life we are supposed to be living: slaughtering wild game with simple handmade tools and his bare hands, identifying plants and berries that are safe to eat, trapping fish, scavenging the kill of other predators. He's even resorted to eating bugs and caterpillars, particularly following several days of unsuccessful hunting and scavenging.

What is notable from the Survivorman experience is what is absent: In the steppe, desert, tundra, or jungle, you will not find bread, fruit drinks, or Cheerios. You won't find farm-fattened, corn-fed livestock with meat marbled with fat.

Imagine the result of such an experience for us, drawn out over 6 months. Even an obese, diabetic, gluttonous, XXX dress size 350-lb woman would return a lean 105 lbs, size 0, non-diabetic, fully able to run miles in the wild tracking game.

Survivorman's quiet desperation of living in the wild, preoccupied with worries over where his next meal might be found, is a stark contrast to the bloated, shelves stacked floor-to-ceiling supermarkets, and our modern society's all-you-can-eat several times per day lifestyle.

Am I advocating selling the car and house and chucking modern society for the "safety" of the jungles of Borneo?

No, of course not. I am advocating taking a lesson from the clever experiment conducted by Mr. Stroud, a return-to-the-wild experience that should teach us something about how perverse our modern nutritional lives have become.

Comments (22) -

  • skylark826

    1/31/2009 4:53:00 PM |

    It is definitely true and I appreciate this article very much.  I've come to realize that our society has been brainwashed into this obesity epidemic.  We are bombarded with food at every turn in our day to day lives and I for one am tired of living like that.  I honestly, don't believe we should be eating as much as we do.  It's not natural and I plan to change.  Reading articles like this helps to cosign my own views about weight and society.  So thank you and keep up the good work>

  • Jenny

    1/31/2009 5:30:00 PM |

    A bit of romanticism here.

    Read The Last Gentleman Adventurer a memoir written in the 1920s but only recently published. It's by a man who lived with Canadian Inuit when they were still living a traditional hunting-based life.

    They ate their meat raw, which preserves many nutrients. They  ate the stomach contents of their prey which gave them nutrients from partially digested grasses which human stomachs unaided can't eat. Sometimes they starved.

    Humans eating a truly paleo diet eat a lot of things that would get you and me heaving. Lots of organ meats, brains, eyeballs, you name it.

    The paleo fantasy ignores the fact that hunter societies became agricultural partly because when prey were scarce they starved. There are only a few place on earth with climate where you can easily live a hunters life. Those are the areas where people kept hunting up through the 20th century.

    But The Native American populations that met Champlain in Canada in the 1500s, for example, were attracted to his settlements and began trading with him for food, because they experienced several years of deep snow where they were unable to find prey and where large numbers of their people starved to death.

    I'm a fan of low carb eating, but also a trained historian with an undergrad degree in Anthropology. My training in anthropology has kept me from getting quite as enthusiastic about the paleo concept as others, because too many of the concepts about that are bruited around in the diet world are mostly fantasy and don't mesh with the realities of how nonagricultural societies have really lived.

  • Anna

    1/31/2009 6:36:00 PM |

    Our family often watches this show (we far prefer it to the sensationalized Man vs. Wild show), and my 10 yo son has noted the difference between what one would eat in nature compared to what he sees eaten by our society.   That has really helped reinforce the perception our food supply at home isn't really "missing" cereals, sodas, packaged snacks, breads, etc.  

    And I want to scream at the TV whenever I see Man vs. Wild's Bear Grylls hawking trail mix cereal.  Sheesh!  My son called me to the
    TV and replayed the advert to clue me into that absurdity (the contradiction wasn't lost on his young mind).  If he has to use his celebrity status to hawk a food, couldn't he have found a jerky company to represent?  

    Somehow I doubt we'll see Les Stroud hawking boxed cereals.  I suspect he is far more principled.  We're going to miss his shows, now that production has ended.

  • Jeff

    1/31/2009 6:50:00 PM |

    Brilliant observation and well written, great post.  All the talk of "it's my genetics" just don't matter in the environment we evolved in.  Genetics or not, no one would be fat.

    I love the blog and read every post.  Keep up the excellent work.  I wish you were in my area so I could have you as my doctor.

  • Anonymous

    1/31/2009 9:27:00 PM |

    The other day, as I walked into the local supermarket, I noticed a male customer coming out carrying a plastic bag chock full of groceries.  Most prominent in it was a giant box of Cheerios.  Most prominent on the shopper? A giant, and I mean giant wheat belly.  Coincidence?  I think not.

    You can learn a lot about a persons health by taking a peek at what's in their grocery cart!


  • Gretchen

    2/1/2009 1:01:00 AM |

    I've always liked your blogposts, but I think this is ridiculous:

    "Even an obese, diabetic, gluttonous, XXX dress size 350-lb woman would return a lean 105 lbs, size 0, non-diabetic, fully able to run miles in the wild tracking game."

    Not all overweight people are gluttons, and blaming them doesn't help them. Furthermore, how healthy is it to lose 200 pounds in 6 months?

  • Kipper

    2/1/2009 1:21:00 AM |

    I hope he's not about to eat that cute little owl creature!

    I love Survivorman, but there's one very important detail missing from his adventures: community.

  • michaelgr.com

    2/1/2009 5:54:00 AM |

    I like the new look. Nice work!

  • Dr. William Davis

    2/1/2009 2:58:00 PM |

    Hi, Jenny--

    Valuable insights.

    I'd love to hear more on this track. I wasn't aware of your anthropology background.

  • Dr. B G

    2/1/2009 6:05:00 PM |


    I totally agree! Poor Les -- I think the monotony of loneliness counters many of the adventures he embarks on.

    Paleo man was very social. Our contacts and networking (like wolves v. lone coyotes) allow us to sleep at night -- pun intended -- and gain the restoration to be better hunter/foragers for the next day.


  • Scott Miller

    2/1/2009 10:43:00 PM |

    >>> The paleo fantasy ignores the fact that hunter societies became agricultural partly because when prey were scarce they starved. There are only a few place on earth with climate where you can easily live a hunters life. <<<

    Jenny, while this is true, it doesn't mean we shouldn't strive to eat a paleo-like diet as much as possible, even if it means we do our hunting-gathering at Whole Foods.

    I've yet to see anyone switch to a paleo diet and not have dramatic improvement in health (and fat loss).  This is a civilized paleo diet, to be sure, but still leaps and bounds better than the USDA sanctioned diet.

    My version of a paleo-diet is this: high-fat, moderate-protein, low-carb.  No grains, no fructose (except naturally occurring in fruits/berries), no oils with over 10% polyunsaturated fat.

    Latest lipid readings:
    HDL - 89
    LP(a) - 3
    tri's - 47
    CRP - .02
    (I have about 100 health markers I measure, all in an optimal healthy range for a 30-yr-old -- I'm 47.)

    It would be impossible to get similar values on a USDA diet. If anything, turn the food pyramid upside down and you'll get a far healthier diet.

    Do you ever have your health markers measured?  What diet do you follow?

  • Sonny

    2/2/2009 12:32:00 PM |

    I attended a talk by Survivorman Les Stroud in Seattle a week ago. He was asked what skill he recommends for a beginner at wilderness survival to learn. He said a good first thing to study and to practice is recognizing edible wild plants.

    He also said that he's not giving up and plans to do a lot more shows, including an idea for a show where he sets teenage survival students on survival challenges. He said that it was just a rumor that he was quitting.

    When the subject of the other guy came up, the whole room broke into laughter, and Les said, "What Bear Grylls does is just entertainment. What I do is real." (Everyone already knew that Man vs. Wild was all planned and Bear stayed in hotels at night with his camera crew when he wanted. Bear's show was never claimed to be real, they just let viewers assume that.)

    Survivorman diet results: He says the first few times he got really hungry by the second day, but after doing that so many times, his body seemed to say, "So that's how you're going to live?" and started to deal with it. Now he can go more days without food before getting as hungry as he used to get and he doesn't get as weak. Regarding mental fatigue, he writes notes to remind himself what to try filming, so when he's the most tired and lonely, he can still get something done in a day for the show. (Of course, since it's real, he might not get that bow fire going, or whatever he wanted to try on camera.)

    From what I've seen on the show, he recommends "protein" to stave off hunger pangs, that is, to "keep [his] strength up" by "getting something in [his] system" when he's actually eating very few calories. He recommends various wild plants for having a lot of "nutrients." He also believes it's worthwhile in cold places to try getting something hot, "even if it's just hot water," to "make you feel more human" to "keep your spirits up" because hope can make the difference for survival. He doesn't seem to have anything against eating fruit, and eats it when he can find it. He has said that that best he ever ate on the show was in the Cook Islands {where he laid out a banquet for himself including coconut and shellfish.)

    If you were starving, trying to survive with your family in Paleolithic times, and in the forest or jungle you found a tree with ripe fruit on it, would you listen to someone who says, "Don't eat carbohydrates, only eat fat, because carbohydrates cause cardiovascular disease eventually, and especially don't eat fructose because that causes hyperlipemia, high blood fat levels after ingestion, and that sounds especially bad for you," or would you just say, who cares, it's food, and eat the fruit?

  • mike V

    2/2/2009 1:03:00 PM |

    Do you think that modern man actually needs periods of starvation (fasting)? We appear to have no effective intellectual or metabolic defenses against persistent effortless plenty.

    (Perhaps we came up with recessions, depressions, and wars as a modern survival ploy?)

    Seriously, though, thanks for your comment which as usual, shows realism and insight.


    I have tried neither starving nor fasting. Nearest was growing up in Britain during WW2, with dad a 5 year POW.

  • vin

    2/2/2009 1:07:00 PM |

    Its great to know a modern day man can survive in the wildest areas of earth.

    I was just wondering what a paleo-man would select to eat if dropped in a supermarket or burger joint today.

    Would it be any different then what most americans choose?

  • Dr. William Davis

    2/2/2009 4:50:00 PM |

    Thanks, Sonny. Wonderful insights.

    I agree: In times of caloric deprivation, the composition of diet becomes much less important a factor. Just eat.

  • nonegiven

    2/2/2009 5:43:00 PM |

    DH watches one of those shows sometimes, it's gross.  He said that guy keeps trying to catch fish but isn't very good at it.

  • David

    2/2/2009 8:37:00 PM |

    I read this post with great interest. I'm a big fan of Les Stroud, and I've taught wilderness survival myself on and off for many years-- since I was in my early teens, if fact.

    I've done some wilderness trips similar to those on Survivorman. My last one was 10 days in length. In those 10 days, I traveled over 100 miles down a river to my destination. No food, no luxuries. I ate whatever I could find.  Crawdads, fish, frogs, snakes, turtles, insects... You learn to appreciate whatever you can find. Ate some vegetation. Watercress grew in springs along the river, which was a great treat, as it's tasty and packed with some good nutrients. Stinging nettle was also abundant, and could be eaten after boiling. For the most part, though, animals made of the majority of my diet, and that's what I was on the lookout for all the time. I was using an awful lot of energy every day, and the last thing I wanted was a salad. I wanted meat. Fat. That's the only thing that provided real satisfaction, but I did of course eat the vegetation when it was available. You have to eat whatever you can. When you're on the edge of starving, you can't be picky.

    The thing I appreciate about Survivorman is the high amount of failure that is reflected on the show. Stroud's ideas don't always work. They often fail, multiple times, in fact. And believe me, that is exactly how it is in real life. Gathering food and surviving takes time and effort, and you're not always successful.

    Let me tell you, if you want effective weight loss, this is the way to do it! In those ten days, I lost about 20 lbs. I was lean and strong. six-pack abs and not a shred of fat. I actually felt pretty good by the end, too. I could have probably eaten more/better if I hadn't been moving constantly (by allowing traps to do their thing, etc.), but I'm sure the results would have still been similar. It was far more effective than any "diet" I had been on up to that point.

    I've often wondered how popular it would be to start up a survival/weight loss school. A kind of "Paleo Camp," as it were. Take overweight people out for 2 weeks, teach them survival skills, and then have them test their skills in the wild to shed a few pounds (under a controlled setting of course). All the while, teaching them nutrition/how to eat, so they have principles to take home with them. Heh. It would probably be too intense, but it's a thought, anyway!


  • Dr. William Davis

    2/2/2009 10:35:00 PM |


    That is an absolutely fantastic idea! I predict that you would have a waiting list a year long if you did something like that.

    Please let me know if you pursued this idea.

  • David

    2/2/2009 10:53:00 PM |

    Dr. Davis,

    I'll sure let you know if I end up doing something like that. Thanks for the vote of confidence!


  • Anonymous

    2/3/2009 1:06:00 AM |

    As someone who prefers not to eat animal flesh I am so pleased to see Jenny's post.

    Doesn't a bit of Darwin apply in this case and maybe a little bit of physics; the conservation of energy.  If you eat more calories than you expend, you get fat.  Doesn't matter if it is wheat or pigs liver.  


  • Bruce W. Perry

    2/3/2009 7:49:00 PM |

    Have to jump in and defend Bear Grylls. He's the real deal; British special forces, climbed Everest, etc. even though he's churning in the hype machine right now. His show is based partly on artifice, but is full of gems. The information is very good, he's highly fit and strong, and very intelligent. My children and I watch survivorman for the laughs; he doesn't seem much better at surviving than we would be, and as for fitness, well...Suffice it to say they are very different, a somewhat larger than life character v. Everyman.

  • buy jeans

    11/3/2010 9:11:14 PM |

    Survivorman's quiet desperation of living in the wild, preoccupied with worries over where his next meal might be found, is a stark contrast to the bloated, shelves stacked floor-to-ceiling supermarkets, and our modern society's all-you-can-eat several times per day lifestyle.