Where did the term Rabbit Starvation Come From?
Almost everyone that’s ever considered raising rabbits as a sustainable meat source has been cautioned by well meaning people that… “Rabbit meat isn’t a good source of protein because you’ll die of rabbit starvation!” That usually ends the discussion of raising rabbits (I mean who wants to die right?) and the person resigns themselves to buying their meat from grocery stores forever.
That’s really sad, because those well meaning people are quoting small nuggets of truth at best, and completely incorrect statements more often than not.
Rabbit starvation is also known as protein starvation and yes, protein starvation is technically possible. HOWEVER… no average person would ever come close to having to worry about such a thing in virtually any normal scenario. The primary way that these stories get started is from people who are stranded, ship wrecked, lost in the wilderness, or (more common today) on a Reality TV show about survival. If you aren’t in one of those situations… rest easy, you’re safe to eat rabbit freely.
No matter how cute and cuddly you may consider Thumper, people have been using rabbits as staples in their diets for thousands of years. Rabbits are found on every single continent except for Antarctica and are found in climates ranging from deserts to wetlands. Rabbits are food for a range of predators (including humans) and feature extremely high reproductive rates to keep their populations strong.
Long before modern rifles and shotguns were on the scene, people hunted rabbits with bow and arrows. Prior to that rabbits were commonly hunted using snares on game trails. Rabbits have been hunted commonly in Europe for centuries. Now, people mainly raise rabbits through farm animal husbandry as the primary source of rabbit meat. However, the European propensity to use rabbits as a food source is likely the reason virtually all of the domesticated rabbit species are descended from the European rabbit.
Is Rabbit Meat Unhealthy?
Quite the contrary, as rabbit meat is a high quality lean protein. It’s low in cholesterol but contains essential omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, and minerals like calcium and potassium. According to the USDA website, an 8 oz. serving of rabbit meat has 258 calories, 5.3 grams of fat, and almost 50 grams of protein. Here we dispel the first and most common misstatement regarding “rabbit starvation” right out of the gate. That same 8 oz. serving of chicken would have 250 calories, 6.1 grams of fat, and 46 grams of protein.
So the the argument for rabbit starvation has already failed the primary test. The difference in nutritional values between similar serving sizes of chicken and rabbit are negligible at best. Rabbit has slightly more calories and protein and only slightly less fat content that chicken and we NEVER hear of chicken starvation. In fact chicken is sought after and many people refuse to eat red meat such as beef in favor of only eating chicken and/or fish.
So why does everyone talk about Rabbit Starvation?
Many attribute the term “rabbit starvation” to Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson. He wrote extensively about about the native Inuit diet of Alaska and Northern Canada. Additionally, he was very focused on promoting the diet of these native cultures, but also pointed out a specific problem with one specific Native American group’s diet.
Stefansson indicated that forest Indians, who relied almost exclusively on wild rabbit meat during portions of the year would “develop extreme fat-hunger, known as rabbit starvation”. He contrasted it to the diet of the Inuit who ate a diet that included whale and seal blubber that did not experience the same phenomenon. However Stefansson’s writings were very limited in scope and apply specifically to the scenarios he was observing in those cultures.
When you compare to the average human’s diet today, this is nowhere near a similar concern. The Native American cultures that he wrote about didn’t materially farm and cultivate vegetables and starches like people do today. Potatoes for example provide significant amounts of starches (carbohydrates) as do commonly cultivated grains. In addition we grow beans and other protein rich vegetables. Dairy products (milk, cheese, and butter) and cooking oils (olive, vegetable, and peanut) in the average human’s diet provide materially more of the needed fats and nutrient profiles than is required.
Rabbit Starvation is Similar to High Protein Diets
If you remember the Atkins diet from the early 2000’s, the basic tenets are similar to rabbit starvation (protein starvation). It’s all very technical (I’m not a dietician), but proteins are the key because they are processed by the liver. In a normal diet, fats and sugars serve the function of energy for the body and brain.
When you jump into a high protein diet like the Atkins diet, your body notices there isn’t enough normal energy sources and directs the liver to start converting protein into glucose. However, this is a short term fix, as the liver can only provide about 1000 calories a day this way because it can produce a max of only 250 grams of glucose from protein, no matter how much protein you eat… FROM ANY SOURCE. So if you were to eat only chicken or even lean venison… you’d be similarly out of luck.
There’s a reason that both the older Atkins diet included fats and vegetables and the newer Keto diets are heavy on fats in addition to proteins (both focus on low or no carbs and sugars). Those diet originators knew that lean protein can help you lose weight, but you need other things to stay healthy. Some meats like beef, bison, or moose, are actually very fatty in comparison and aren’t as prone to protein starvation concerns if caught in a survival situation.
COVID has Provided an Unexpected Time to Reconsider Rabbit Meat
Regardless of personal opinions about COVID-19, it has exposed a material food supply chain weakness. Just in time delivery systems work great as long as everything works exactly according to plan. However, that process has major issues if there are delays, as in the case of COVID. Whether it’s ships sitting off the coast unable to port, trucks unable to move food, or worker shortages in processing factories, many people have started raising more of their own food in sustainable ways.
Chickens present their own challenges, as they require either live shipping or need incubators and other special equipment to raise and process. For suburban dwellers, sustainable chickens are often a non-starter. That’s because most sub-divisions and cities ban all roosters because of their incessant crowing. Most people don’t want to buy chicks several times a year instead of raising their own. That has them constantly depending on hatcheries and creates yet another supply chain issue.
That’s opened the door for people to reconsider rabbits again. They are silent, require no special equipment to breed or process, and 3-4 rabbits can produce almost as much meat per year as a steer. In addition, they are considered far more sustainable than virtually any other animal. Their waste can be used as highly prized organic fertilizer. It can be applied directly to gardens as a “cold compost” and they can even be fed at virtually no cost through the use of rabbit tractors for much of the year.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to raise your own rabbits, check out this video where we share some quick tips on our process.
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3 Comments Add yours
Thanks for the information. It’s always refreshing to see actual research and original thinking on an issue about which almost everyone just dutifully repeats a “well-known fact” without having actually looked into the matter.
Thanks for the comment! If you’ve read any of our other articles, we’re sure you’ve noticed that we do our best to research topics in addition to our own personal experiences. We’re very grateful you found this article helpful. Please feel free to share with others to help us out!