The Inuit are the indigenous people of Greenland as well as northern Canada and Alaska. Since the 1970s, we have been told that the Inuit’s traditional high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet is healthy. Today, advocates of the “keto” and “Paleo” diets make false claims about the Inuit diet. In reality, the Inuit who were eating their traditional diet did not go into ketosis unless they were fasting. Also, the Inuit have always had a short lifespan. That fact was obvious to the earliest Europeans who studied them.
Inuit, Not Eskimo
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 Diet
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 protects against coronary artery disease. The goal of this propaganda is to encourage people to eat meat and fish and to take fish oil capsules and 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 ancient mummies and skeletons of Inuit people confirmed that the traditional Inuit diet caused atherosclerosis and osteoporosis.
Health Problems Among the Inuit
The Inuit have always had a remarkably short life expectancy. They were at risk for diseases of poverty and diseases of affluence. The diseases of poverty include starvation, exposure, accidents, and general lack of medical care and social supports. The diseases of affluence result mainly from a rich diet: a lot of animal protein, fat, and cholesterol. In tropical and temperate regions, only the rich could afford to eat a lot of meat and other animal-source foods. 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.
The Inuit Diet Was Not Ketogenic
Advocates of a ketogenic diet sometimes 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. The Inuit ate practically no plant material for months at a time. Thus, many people expected that the Inuit would have been in ketosis most of the time. Yet a study done in the 1920s found that the Inuit did not go into ketosis unless they are fasting.
By the 1980s, the explanation was clear. The Inuit had been eating far more carbohydrate than anyone expected. The Inuit ate a lot of raw meat that was fresh-killed or that froze immediately after being killed. This meat still contained a lot of glycogen (animal starch). Also, the Inuit would preserve a whole seal or bird carcass under an intact whole skin, with a thick layer of blubber. Some of the protein in the meat would then ferment into carbohydrates.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids and Heart Attacks
Back in the 1970s, some scientists from Denmark claimed that the Inuit of Greenland had a low risk of heart attack. They claimed that the Inuit were being protected 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. The causes of deaths among the Inuit were not being accurately recorded. In the 1970s, the Inuit in Greenland seldom got medical attention while they were alive. They seldom underwent autopsy after their death. So their true cause of death was often unknown.
The Inuit diet is a model for how Stone Age people can survive in the Arctic. It is not a model for living a long and healthy life in a modern industrialized society. The populations that live the longest, healthiest lives have two things in common. They have access to modern medical care, and they eat a high-carbohydrate diet based on starches and vegetables.
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