The Inuit (“Eskimo”) Diet Causes Rapid Aging, Early Death

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.

Pho­to by Inter­net Archive Book Images

Omega-3 Fatty Acids Come From Green Plants

The food indus­try has been urg­ing me to eat fish. The sup­ple­ment com­pa­nies have been urg­ing me to take fish oil sup­ple­ments. They claim that omega-3 fat­ty acids pre­vent heart attacks. Some peo­ple even claim that a baby can­not devel­op a nor­mal brain unless its moth­er ate fish or took fish oil sup­ple­ments. In con­trast, nutri­tion sci­en­tists tell me that green plants are an excel­lent source of the only omega-3 fat­ty acid that is essen­tial in human nutri­tion. This could explain why pop­u­la­tions that rarely if ever eat fish can have healthy hearts and healthy brains. In fact, the health­i­est pop­u­la­tions are the ones that eat very lit­tle fat of any kind and lots of veg­eta­bles.

All of the omega-3 fat­ty acids in the food sup­ply came orig­i­nal­ly from the green plants and blue-green algae (cyanobac­te­ria) that are at the bot­tom of the food chain. An omega-3 fat­ty acid called alpha-linolenic acid is an impor­tant part of the thy­lakoid mem­branes that are involved in pho­to­syn­the­sis. No ani­mal can make an omega-3 fat­ty acid. Ani­mals do not have the enzymes that would be need­ed to put a dou­ble-bond in the omega-3 posi­tion in the hydro­car­bon chain of a fat­ty acid. How­ev­er, ani­mals can length­en the car­bon chain of an omega-3 fat­ty acid. Thus, fish and oth­er ani­mals (includ­ing human beings) can con­vert alpha-linolenic acid to longer-chain omega-3 fat­ty acids, such as eicos­apen­taenoic acid (EPA) and docosa­hexaenoic acid (DHA). For this rea­son, you can find EPA and DHA in fish but not in ordi­nary plant-source foods.

Accord­ing to the Food and Nutri­tion Board of the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences, there is only one omega-3 fat­ty acid that is essen­tial in human nutri­tion. It is the alpha-linolenic acid that is found in thy­lakoid mem­branes of the chloro­plas­ts of green plants. For this rea­son, you can get this omega-3 fat­ty acid from eat­ing green veg­eta­bles. Flaxseeds, hempseed, and wal­nuts are also good sources of alpha-linolenic acid.

You need only a lit­tle bit of alpha-linolenic acid from your food. The dietary require­ment for the two essen­tial fat­ty acids (alpha-linolenic acid and an omega 6 fat­ty acid called linole­ic acid) was dis­cov­ered only after hos­pi­tal­ized patients start­ed being fed fat-free solu­tions for an extend­ed peri­od. Yet even their need for these essen­tial fat­ty acids could be met by rub­bing a lit­tle bit of veg­etable oil on the skin.

For years, many peo­ple have been urg­ing the pub­lic to eat fish or take fish oil sup­ple­ments, to reduce the risk of heart attack. Pop­u­la­tions that eat a lot of omega-3 acids, from cold-water fish, do have a some­what low­er-than-expect­ed rate of fatal heart attacks. How­ev­er, this is prob­a­bly because of the blood-thin­ning effects of omega-3 fat­ty acids, which could also lead to more deaths from major bleed­ing. If you real­ly want to make your­self heart-attack-proof, eat a low-fat, plant-based diet to keep your total cho­les­terol below 150 mg/dL.

Some man­u­fac­tur­ers of baby for­mu­la have been adding DHA so that the for­mu­la will have a DHA con­tent sim­i­lar to that of breast milk. Yet whether the addi­tion­al DHA pro­vides real ben­e­fits to the baby is still unclear. How­ev­er, these stud­ies do raise con­cerns about giv­ing too much long-chain omega-3 fat­ty acid with­out also pro­vid­ing a sup­ple­ment of arachi­don­ic acid.

I do not know whether any veg­ans (such as preg­nant women or the elder­ly) would ben­e­fit from sup­ple­men­ta­tion with the longer-chain omega-3 fat­ty acids. If these sup­ple­ments are ben­e­fi­cial, it would be best for them to come from a plant source. Plants are less like­ly to be con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed by the pol­lu­tants that build up in ani­mal tis­sue.

Pho­to by albert­straub