The Inuit Paradox

Shaped by glacial temperatures, stark landscapes and protracted winters, the traditional Inuit diet had little in the way of plant food, no agricultural or dairy products, and was unusually low in carbohydrates. Most people subsisted on what they hunted and fished.

Patricia Cochran, an Inupiat from Northwestern Alaska describes her food culture:

Our meat was seal and walrus, marine mammals that live in cold water and have lots of fat. We used seal oil for our cooking and as a dipping sauce for food. We had moose, caribou, and reindeer. We hunted ducks, geese, and little land birds like quail called ptarmigan. We caught crab and lots of fish – salmon, whitefish, tomcod, pike, and char. Our fish were cooked, dried, smoked, or frozen. We ate frozen raw whitefish, sliced thin. The elders liked stinkfish, fish buried in seal bags or cans in the tundra and left to ferment. And fermented seal flipper, they liked that too.

These foods hardly make up the “balanced” diet most of us grew up with, and they look nothing like the mix of grains, fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, and dairy we’re accustomed to seeing in conventional food pyramid diagrams. Yet how can people who gorge on fat and animal protein be healthier than we are?

The micronutrient mystery

What the diet of the far north illustrates is that there are no essential foods – only essential nutrients. One might imagine gross vitamin deficiencies from a diet with scarcely any fruits and vegetables, but humans can get these nutrients from diverse and eye-opening sources.

For example, vitamin A, which is fat soluble, is also plentiful in the oils of cold-water fishes and sea mammals, as well as in the animals’ livers, where fat is processed.

These dietary staples also provide vitamin D, another fat-soluble vitamin needed for bones. Those of us living in temperate and tropical climates on the other hand usually make vitamin D indirectly from exposure to the strong sun, and by consuming fortified cow’s milk which the indigenous northern groups had little access to and don’t tolerate very well.

As for vitamin C, the source in the Eskimo diet was long a mystery. Most animals can synthesise their own vitamin C in their livers, but humans are among the exceptions along with other primates and oddballs like guinea pigs and bats. Scurvy – joint pain, rotting gums, leaky blood vessels, physical and mental degeneration – plagued European and US expeditions even in the 20th century. However, Arctic peoples living on fresh fish and meat were free of the disease. Native foods easily supply enough vitamin C especially when organ meats – preferably raw – are on the menu.

© Clinical Nature
In a study comparing the vitamin C content of 100 gram samples of foods eaten by Inuit women in the Canadian arctic: raw caribou liver supplied 24 mg, seal brain 15 mg and raw kelp more than 28 mg. Still higher levels were found in frozen whale skin and blubber. Wherever collagen is made, you can expect vitamin C. Thick skinned, chewy, and collagen rich, raw muktuk can serve up an impressive 36 mg of vitamin C in a 100g piece. Traditional Inuit practices like freezing meat and fish and frequently eating them raw conserve vitamin C, which is easily cooked off and lost in food processing.

Not often in our industrial society do we hear someone speak so familiarly about “our” food animals. We don’t talk of “our pig” and “our beef.” We’ve lost that creature feeling, that sense of kinship with food sources. You’re taught to think in boxes. In our culture the connectivity between humans, plants, the land they live on, and the air they share is ingrained in us from birth.

The ethnographic diet

The Ethnographic Atlas is a database on 1,167 societies coded by George P. Murdock and published in 29 successive installments in the journal Ethnology, 1962-1980. Dr Loren Cordain, professor of evolutionary nutrition at Colorado State University reviewed the macronutrient content (protein, carbohydrates, fat) in the diets of 229 hunter-gatherer groups from the Ethnographic Atlas, including some of the oldest surviving human diets. In general, hunter-gatherers tend to eat more animal protein than we do in the standard Western diet, with its reliance on agriculture and carbohydrates derived from grains and starchy plants. Lowest of all in carbohydrate, and highest in combined fat and protein, are the diets of peoples living in the Far North, where they make up for fewer plant foods with extra fish.

A protein ceiling

Equally striking, these meat-and-fish diets also exhibit a natural “protein ceiling”. Protein accounts for no more than 35-40 percent of their total calories, which suggests that’s all the protein humans can comfortably handle. Cordain thinks this ceiling could be imposed by the way we process protein for energy.

The simplest, fastest way to make energy is to convert carbohydrates into glucose, our body’s primary fuel. But if the body is out of carbohydrates, it can burn fat, or if necessary, break down protein from muscle. On a truly traditional diet, Arctic people had plenty of protein but little carbohydrate, so they often relied on gluconeogenesis. Gluconeogenesis is our body’s way of making glucose from protein and takes place in the liver. It uses a dizzying slew of enzymes and creates nitrogen waste that has to be converted in to urea and disposed of through the kidneys. Not only did the Inuit have bigger livers to handle the additional work but their urine volumes were also typically larger to get rid of the extra urea.

Nonetheless, there appears to be a limit on how much protein the human liver can safely cope with. Too much overwhelms the liver’s waste-disposal system, leading to protein poisoning – nausea, diarrhoea, wasting and death. Plenty of evidence shows that hunters through the ages avoided protein excesses, discarding fat-depleted animals even when food was scarce. Early pioneers and trappers in North America encountered what looks like a similar affliction, sometimes referred to as rabbit starvation because rabbit meat is notoriously lean. Forced to subsist on fat-deficient meat, the men would gorge themselves, yet wither away.

Protein can’t be the sole source of energy for humans, anyone eating a meaty diet that is low in carbohydrates must have fat as well. Furthermore, a normal meat diet is not a high-protein diet. In the traditional Inuit diet, three-quarters of the calories was coming from fat. However, numerous researchers point out that there are profound differences between the Inuit diet and our modern farm-raised meats and processed fats.

You truthfully can’t separate the way we get our food from the way we live. How we get our food is intrinsic to our culture. It’s how we pass on our values and knowledge to the young. When you go out with your aunts and uncles to hunt or to gather, you learn to smell the air, watch the wind, understand the way the ice moves, know the land. You get to know where to pick which plant and what animal to take.

All fats are not created equal

Fats have been demonised in the United States, says Eric Dewailly, professor of preventive medicine at Laval University in Quebec. In the Nunavik villages in northern Quebec, adults over 40 get almost half their calories from native foods and their cardiac death rate is about half of other Canadians or Americans. The heart of the Inuit paradox is that all fats are not created equal, more importantly the fats in Inuit native foods come from wild animals.

Farm animals, cooped up and stuffed with agricultural grains (carbohydrates) typically have lots of solid, highly saturated fat. Much of our processed food is also riddled with solid fats, or trans-fats, such as the re-engineered vegetable oils and shortenings hidden in baked goods and snacks. A lot of the packaged food on supermarket shelves contains them. So do commercial french fries.

Wild animals that range freely and eat what nature intended have fat that is far more healthful. Less of their fat is saturated, and more of it is in the monounsaturated form (like olive oil). Also, cold-water fishes and sea mammals are particularly rich in polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids. The polyunsaturated fats in most American diets are the omega-6 fatty acids supplied by vegetable oils. By contrast, whale blubber consists of 70 percent monounsaturated fat and close to 30 percent omega-3s.

It’s part, too, of your development as a person. You share food with your community. You show respect to your elders by offering them the first catch. You give thanks to the animal that gave up its life for your sustenance. So you get all the physical activity of harvesting your own food, all the social activity of sharing and preparing it, and all the spiritual aspects as well. You certainly don’t get all that, do you, when you buy prepackaged food from a store.

Food is a culture, not a diet

The subsistence diets of the Far North are not “dieting”. Dieting is the price we pay for too little exercise and too much mass-produced food. Northern diets were a way of life in places too cold for agriculture, where food, whether hunted, fished, or foraged, could not be taken for granted. They were about keeping weight on. Subsistence living requires hard physical work. The native diet and lifestyle provides a hedge against obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease, but the well-being of the northern food chain is coming under threat from globalisation, global warming and industrial pollution of the marine environment.

Prof Stephen Palumbi shows how toxins at the bottom of the ocean food chain find their way into our bodies. It has disrupted the food ways of the Inuit such that mothers can no longer breastfeed their own children.

No one, not even residents of the northernmost villages on Earth, eats an entirely traditional northern diet anymore. The Inuits have probably seen more changes in their diet in a lifetime than their ancestors did over thousands of years. And with westernisation, comes processed foods and cheap carbohydrates, as well as type 2 diabetes, obesity and other diseases of the Standard American Diet.

That’s why some of us here in Anchorage are working to protect what’s ours, so that others can continue to live back home in the villages. Because if we don’t take care of our food, it won’t be there for us in the future. And if we lose our foods, we lose who we are. The word Inupiat means “the real people”. That’s who we are. – Patricia Cochran