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