What Is Rabbit Starvation?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Rabbit starvation, better known as protein poisoning, is a dangerous health condition caused by the overconsumption of protein, in conjunction with a lack of fats, carbohydrates, and micronutrients.

"Rabbit starvation" is another term for protein poisoning. It refers to the effects of a diet entirely composed of lean game meat, such as rabbit.
"Rabbit starvation" is another term for protein poisoning. It refers to the effects of a diet entirely composed of lean game meat, such as rabbit.

The term "rabbit starvation" refers to the fact that this condition can be caused by a near-total subsistence on lean, wild game, such as rabbit. Unchecked, the disease can cause severe symptoms of malnutrition, and can lead to a fatal buildup of toxins in the bloodstream.

Overconsumption of protein can cause severe symptoms of malnutrition.
Overconsumption of protein can cause severe symptoms of malnutrition.

Discovery of Rabbit Starvation

The discovery of protein poisoning is linked to early health studies and observations of various Native American groups. Tribes in Alaska and the polar region subsisted largely on game with a high amount of fat and carbohydrates, such as seals and whales, and rarely suffered from this form of malnutrition.

By contrast, Native Americans stricken with so-called rabbit starvation tended to come from forested areas where harsh winters resulted in a diet of primarily lean game. Rabbit starvation was first described by Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefanssonn in the late 19th century, but it was also remarked upon by Charles Darwin in his journals.

Causes of Rabbit Starvation

The mechanics behind rabbit starvation are fairly simple:

  • Protein in the body is converted into glucose by the liver, and can be burned as energy.

  • The liver, however, can only safely process a limited amount of protein at a time.

  • If the body takes in more protein than it can safely turn into glucose, the resulting strain on the liver and kidneys can cause a buildup of ammonia and amino acids.

  • The liver then flushes these byproducts into the bloodstream, causing dangerous and even fatal consequences.

Symptoms of Rabbit Starvation

In addition to straining the liver, protein overconsumption also causes various symptoms of malnutrition, including:

  • fatigue

  • nausea

  • diarrhea

  • constant hunger

These symptoms occur because the body is being deprived of necessary nutrition that can only be provided by fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, and other micronutrients.

When an individual is experiencing rabbit starvation, symptoms will occur regardless of how many calories from protein he or she consumes, since the body is limited in its ability to process energy and nutrition from protein. Thus, a person can be eating an enormous amount of food, yet still experiencing weakness, hunger, and other malnourishment symptoms.

High-Protein Diets

The possibility of rabbit starvation leads many health experts to counsel against certain protein-heavy diets. Although the exact upper limit for safe protein consumption is not widely agreed upon, some nutrition professionals suggest that protein poisoning becomes a concern if protein comprises more than 35% of daily calorie intake. Some suggest that high-protein diets should be monitored by a doctor or dietician to prevent rabbit starvation from taking hold.

Because of conditions like rabbit starvation, many health experts counsel against protein-heavy diets.
Because of conditions like rabbit starvation, many health experts counsel against protein-heavy diets.
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments

anon1002570

Good info.

I'm on a primitive diet. I'm 72 years old with normal glucose and cholesterol levels.

My breakfast consists of half an avocado on toast made from oatmeal flour, and a liquid made using a large semi-ripe banana, 1 cup of any cold legume (no soy) and onion-garlic soup that's been left over from the previous lunch, 500ml fresh coconut water, 28 grams of the soft pulp from the same coconut, 4 grams of pulverized cacao nibs, 4 grams of desiccated and pulverized Irish Moss seaweed, and 4 grams of desiccated and pulverized lobster shell.

I only drink Hibiscus tea for refreshment during the day and with meals. I snack on homemade cheese during the day and eat as much fresh caught fish or shredded pork as I want for my main meal in the evening. Fat is flavor and is nothing to be afraid of.

Cacao nibs (28 grams) 175 Calories: Protein 1 gram, Fat 4 grams, Fiber 1.5 grams,

Sugar 1 gram, Iron 2% of the Reference Daily Intake (RDI), Magnesium: 4% of the RDI, Phosphorus: 3% of the RDI, Zinc: 1.5% of the RDI, Manganese: 7.5% of the RDI, Copper: 6.5% of the RDI

Coconut Meat 1/4 cup (20 grams) 70 calories: Protein: 3 grams, Carbs: 10 grams, Fat: 27 grams, Sugar 5 grams, Fiber 7 grams, Manganese 60% of the Daily Value (DV),

Selenium 15% of the DV, Copper 44% of the DV, Phosphorus 13% of the DV, Potassium 6% of the DV, Iron 11% of the DV, Zinc: 10% of the DV

100g of desiccated lobster shell contains between 20–40% protein, 20–50% calcium carbonate and 15–40% chitin, and all the essential amino acids with a nutrient value comparable to that of soybean meal.

stoneMason

@anamur-- I don't know about the percentage but yea, rabbit meat is the leanest meat available.

I don't think rabbit starvation can happen to animals that are carnivores like dogs and cats. As far as I know, they're meant to rely on protein completely. And their digestion system and metabolism is wired differently. You might want to ask your vet to confirm this. But I don't think your pets are at risk for it.

I also find it funny that at a time when we have all food sources easily available to us, some people can on purpose starve themselves on various diets. Native Americans used to suffer from rabbit starvation because they had no other choice. They had to rely on game meat to survive the winters. They would never do it knowingly.

serenesurface

This is interesting. Just out of curiosity, how lean is rabbit meat? There is no fat in it at all?

I'm actually glad this article has indirectly clarified that fat is actually good for us and that it's required for our body to function well.

I am confused and a little worried about one thing though-- is rabbit starvation also possible with pets? I have two cats and a dog and I feed all three lean meats. I don't give them grains at all but the meats do have a little bit of fat content from time to time. Are they at risk for protein poisoning?

fify

I can't believe this! I had no idea that a diet mainly relying on protein could be so dangerous! I also can't believe that there are fad diets that promote this kind of eating!

One of my coworkers is on a similar diet right now. She doesn't eat any grains as far as I know. She mainly relies on protein in the form of lean meats and protein shakes. The only thing that's probably saving her from rabbit starvation is that she does eat vegetables. So at least she's getting some carbohydrate and nutrients that way.

But I'm going to tell her about rabbit starvation tomorrow at work. Hopefully I can convince her to follow a more balanced diet before she gets sick.

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