Since the 1970s, there has been a lot of hype about the diet of the Inuit, who were indigenous people in Greenland as well as northern Canada and Alaska. (The Inuit were often called Eskimos, but that name is considered offensive. The correct name is Inuit. The singular form of the word is Inuk.) The Inuit had managed to survive in a hostile environment: one that was frozen and covered in snow for many months out of the year. As a result, the Inuit’s traditional diet for most of the year consisted of meat and fish, often eaten raw. Since the 1970s, many food faddists have been claiming that the Inuit’s diet somehow magically protected the Inuit against coronary artery disease. The goal of this propaganda is to encourage people to eat meat and fish and to take fish oil capsules but to shun carbohydrates. Yet even the earliest outside observers of the Inuit noticed something odd about them. The young Inuit seemed hale and hearty, but the Inuit seemed to age quickly, and there were practically no Inuit older than 60 years. Studies of mummified and skeletal remains of Inuit who had died before the arrival of the Europeans confirmed that the traditional Inuit diet caused atherosclerosis and osteoporosis.
The Inuit have always had a remarkably short life expectancy because they were at risk for both of the major categories of causes of death: diseases of poverty and diseases of affluence. The diseases of poverty are the things that tend to afflict the poor: starvation, exposure, accidents, and general lack of medical care and social supports. The diseases of affluence are the things that tend to afflict the rich: mainly a diet that is high in fats and cholesterol. In tropical and temperate regions, only the rich could afford to eat meat and other animal-source foods on a regular basis. But in the Arctic, meat was the only available food for much of the year. Thus, the Inuit were poor people eating a rich diet. As a result, they aged rapidly and died young.
The Inuit’s traditional diet of fatty meats and fish can sustain a young person. Otherwise, the Inuit would not have succeeded in settling in the Arctic region. However, the Inuit diet is bad for your health in the long run, for several reasons:
- People can catch parasitic diseases by eating raw meat. (More than 12% of elderly Inuit in Greenland had trichinosis).
- The high fat and cholesterol content of the Inuit diet leads to clogging of the arteries.
- A high-protein diet increases the risk for liver and kidney disease, as well as osteoporosis.
- Animal-source food contains a concentrated dose of pollutants from the environment.
Advocates of a ketogenic diet often use the Inuit diet as a model. The goal of a ketogenic diet is to put someone into a state of ketosis. Ketosis means that the person has an abnormally large amount of keto acids in the blood. This condition normally happens during fasting or when the person is eating no carbohydrates. It can also result from insulin deficiency. Since the Inuit were eating practically no plant material for months at a time, many people assume that the Inuit would have been in a state of ketosis most of the time. Yet a study done in the 1920s showed that Inuit who were eating their traditional diet did not have ketosis unless they are fasting. By the 1980s, the explanation was clear: the Inuit were eating far more carbohydrate than you might expect. The Inuit were eating a lot of raw meat that was fresh-killed or had been frozen immediately after being killed. For this reason, the meat that the Inuit were eating contained far more glycogen (animal starch) than you would find in meat that you buy at a butcher’s shop or grocery store. Also, the Inuit had a way of preserving a whole seal or bird carcass under an intact whole skin with a thick layer of blubber. This method of preservation allowed some of the protein in the meat to ferment into carbohydrate.
Back in the 1970s, some scientists from Denmark wrote some articles that claimed that the Inuit of Greenland were being protected from coronary artery disease by the large amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in their diet. In reality, the Inuit have a high risk of coronary artery disease. The earlier research simply underestimated the number of fatal heart attacks because the causes of deaths among the Inuit populations were not being accurately recorded. In the 1970s, the Inuit in Greenland seldom got medical attention while they were alive, and they seldom underwent autopsy after their death. So the true cause of death was seldom recorded.
The Inuit’s diet is a model for how Stone Age people can survive in the Arctic. It is not a model for how to live a long and healthy life when you have many food choices. The populations that live the longest, healthiest lives are those who have access to modern medical care but eat a diet similar to that of peasants in the temperate and tropical regions: a practically vegan diet based mainly on starches and vegetables.
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