Lost at sea: The story of José Salvador Alvarenga

    What can we learn about the extremes of human survival?

    In 2012, a fisherman named José Salvador Alvarenga was lost at sea. He continued drifting for a mind-melting 14 months. By the time he was rescued, he was still in a relatively healthy state, all things considered, save for dehydration and anemia from parasites.

    What can this edge case of human experience teach us about health and nutrition? And perhaps more importantly, what can’t it teach us?

    Did this really happen?

    Yes. Mr. Alvarenga sailed out with a fishing partner near Mexico and encountered a storm that flooded his engine. His fishing partner passed away after two and a half months, leaving Mr. Alvarenga alone.

    He initially ate turtles and (small) shark liver, then subsisted on birds as he drifted further and further away from shore.

    Why didn’t he die from scurvy?

    Over two million sailors are estimated to have died from scurvy during long distance sailing voyages between the 1500s and 1800s. How did Mr. Alvarenga avoid scurvy during the 14 months of his extreme diet?

    Fresh, raw meat contains some vitamin C, with organ meats having much higher concentrations than muscle meat. Cooking meat reduces and sometimes eliminates its vitamin C, but data isn’t available on the specific effects of different cooking methods and temperatures. Interestingly, fermentation seems to help preserve meat’s vitamin C, but I’m guessing not that many people partake of fermented meat.

    Technically, eating enough fresh, raw meat can get you up to vitamin C’s estimated average requirement (enough to meet the needs of half of the population) or more rarely even the recommended dietary allowance (enough to meet the needs of 97–98% of the population). Vitamin C requirements could theoretically be different in people eating mostly meat, though, due to the complex interplay of endogenous antioxidants along with myriad other factors.

    Lastly, note that it’s also possible Mr. Alvarenga consumed some seaweed or other aquatic plants while at sea, though he didn’t mention any when recounting his diet. He did mention once finding a floating trash bag containing a very small amount of half-rancid cabbage, carrots, and milk.

    So should humans only eat fresh, raw meat?

    No. But not for the reason you think.

    There is no “should” for most nutrition topics. Every choice of what you eat, drink, or supplement is a guess based on whether the pros outweigh the cons for you as an individual.

    When it comes to meat, humans have long taken to cooking it.

    Compared to raw meat, the cooked variety is easier to preserve (with food reserves being critical for survival!), makes some nutrients more bioavailable (but not vitamin C!), and is far less likely to kill you with a random pathogen. Cooked meat is also typically considered more palatable.

    That doesn’t mean raw meat should never be consumed. Again, it’s all a bite-by-bite personalized guess that weighs potential pros and cons.

    Some people live pretty healthy lives eating no meat at all, like my dear grandparents, whom I lived with as a kid, so I can certify they didn’t eat any meat or eggs. They passed away at 95 and 94 last year. And they were way smarter than me!

    Other people eat a ton of cooked meat and live long lives, while some people (many fewer, to be sure) have been eating most or all of their meat raw or lightly cooked for years. But just because some people seem to thrive on raw meat doesn’t mean you would. Namely, because …

    Nature is trying to kill you

    Fresh, raw meat is natural. And fresh, raw meat can kill or really hurt you. Just because Mr. Alvarenga did moderately okay (save for some parasites), doesn’t mean you will.

    Case in point: a couple months into the journey, Mr. Alvarenga’s companion may have died from eating a bird that had previously eaten a poisonous snake. And that’s a totally random non-germ example. There are a huge variety of possible pathogens in meat and water that can harm you.

    You might counter me with another point: “But Kamal, humans have long cooked meat over open fires. So it’s natural and totally healthy to eat cooked meat!”

    Alas, charred meat is carcinogenic, although that highly depends on how much you eat and what you eat it with. My point is that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Once you’re born, you start to constantly encounter natural things that can harm you, from the oxygen you inhale in each breath to the sun that shines above.

    The good news is that nature isn’t just trying to kill you. Natural exposures can also be very healthy (depending on the dose and the person), and most importantly, enjoyable. Just don’t go drifting in the ocean or hiking in the wilderness without having an emergency contact!

    Fasting is fine. Not fasting is fine. Fasting is not fine.

    Mr. Alvarenga went long periods without eating. Most people rarely (or even never) go even short periods without eating.

    The literature on fasting efficacy is mixed. If you’re curious, check out our pages on the 16:8 and OMAD fasting varieties. We’ll cover other fasting varieties in the coming months. But let’s zoom out and think about fasting with regards to survival versus surthrival.

    I borrowed the latter phrase from fairly terrible (but so entertaining!) survival shows I used to obsessively watch on TV. Humans can easily survive more than a couple days without food. That’s what our body fat is for! What, did you think our ancestors had access to grocery stores and restaurants? Of course we fasted, because of necessity created by famine, changing animal migration patterns, and other natural factors.

    But what does it take for surthrival? (Sorry, I’ll stop using that word now.)

    Nobody truly knows. Some people do great with one type of fasting, and poorly with another type. Others do poorly with all types of fasting. What I’m getting at is this: fasting effects are not one-size-fits-all!

    The tale of Mr. Alvarenga doesn’t tell us much more than we already know about fasting, since humans have purposely and nonpurposely fasted forever. Instead, what it tells us is that food availability is important, but not always paramount. For Mr. Alvarenga, greater challenges came in the form of crushing loneliness, incessant sun, and the ever-looming threat of dehydration.

    In other words, food is important, but possibly overrated as a lever to pull for health and happiness. Perhaps I shouldn’t say that as the co-founder of a website focused on diet and supplements. Or perhaps we should expand to other areas … like surthrival.


    Kamal Patel
    Co-founder, Examine