The Inuit (eskimo) diet: How did they survive?

by James Ploger

I gave a ride to an Inuit (Eskimo) man on the Alaskan highway as my friends and I were on our way to climb Mt. McKinley, Alaska. He said his older relatives, when they went to a restaurant, liked to eat their steak frozen – lightly seared on either side, served hot on the outside and frozen throughout. Thinking back to him, it got me to wondering about the Inuit diet in were the older generations of Inuit able to survive on their diet, one limited primarily to meat and fish, one that was almost devoid of fruits and vegetables? How did they get many of their essential nutrients? What other effects did their diet have on them?

A question that puzzled people in the first half of the 20th century was why didn't the Inuit get scurvy? Where did they get Vitamin C from? Some argued that they obtained vitamin C from plant berries, while others said that in some areas they could gather no more berries than would be sufficient to top a bowl of cereal. And what about in the middle of winter?
The explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson traveled extensively throughout the Canadian north between 1905 and 1916, living with the Inuit through the winters and eating only what they ate. After his travels, there were skeptics who did not believe an all-meat diet could be eaten without ill affect. So in 1928, he agreed to conduct an “experiment” in a New York hospital to demonstrate that a modified Inuit diet consisting of raw and cooked meats (meats more readily available in the U.S.A.) for one year could sustain him in good health. To the surprise of many, he did well on this high fat diet, which included various organ meat and raw steaks. We now know that raw flesh and organs, particularly liver, contains enough vitamin C to prevent scurvy. 10 to 15 mg per day prevents scurvy, about 100 mg per day is the recommended dose. Cooking destroys much of the vitamin C in meats. In the Inuit diet the skin of whales, which is known as muktuk, is chewed and partially eaten. Beluga muktuk is particularly rich in vitamin C, providing as much vitamin C per gram as an orange. It is still considered a treat among the Inuit elders, but the younger generations generally dislike it.

Where did some of their essential vitamins come from that we would not initially expect to find in their environment?

We think of most of our essential vitamins coming from colorful fruits and vegetables. For us, beta carotene comes from orange vegetables, but the Inuit gain their vitamin A from the oils of fish and marine mammals, as well as the liver. Another fat soluble vitamin, vitamin D, is obtained from the same sources. These sources of vitamin D are critical, since the Inuit have no opportunity during the winter to synthesize vitamin D in their skin, with the assistance of sunlight, the way we do at our lower latitudes.

Their diet was high in fat and blubber, so why did the Inuit have half the rate of heart disease of a typical American?

One reason is that wild (game) animals have high levels of monounsaturated fat. In contrast, their domesticated cousins that we eat here are high in saturated fat. In addition, the oils found in marine mammals are also high in monounsaturated fats. Also, whale blubber and some of the cold water fishes are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which protect against heart disease. Of course the Inuit way of life involved lots of strenuous exercise, which also improves heart health.

How did Inuit survive on almost no carbohydrates?
Since glucose is required for many tissues to survive, including the central nervous system, the conversion of protein to glucose through the process of gluconeogenesis in the liver is relied upon. However, too much protein in the diet causes protein poisoning, a phenomenon demonstrated by people who eat only very lean meat from animals such as those that are starving. Even though these people eat large quantities of meat, they still waste away and eventually die. To prevent this, it was very important that a significant portion of the Inuit's calories came from fats.

How has the Inuit diet changed, and what are its health effects?

In the town of Bethel, in Southwest Alaska, the changes in the native diet have been profound, as have been the health effects, as the outside culture and foods have become an established fact of life. Sugar has been a prime problem: Soda pop as been imported in great quantities, and children typically drink 4 to 6 cans a day. Deciduous teeth become highly decayed, with full mouth silver caps being applied under general anesthesia in the OR. Sugar, along with starches and trans-fats, have contributed to an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. On top of the changes in diet, all terrain vehicles, televisions and video games have made the population more sedentary.


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