Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Inuit: Lessons from the Arctic

The Inuit (also called Eskimo) are a group of hunter-gatherer cultures who inhabit the arctic regions of Alaska, Canada and Greenland. They are a true testament to the toughness, adaptability and ingenuity of the human species. Their unique lifestyle has a lot of information to offer us about the boundaries of the human ecological niche. Weston Price was fascinated by their excellent teeth, good nature and overall robust health. Here's an excerpt from Nutrition and Physical Degeneration:
"In his primitive state he has provided an example of physical excellence and dental perfection such as has seldom been excelled by any race in the past or present...we are also deeply concerned to know the formula of his nutrition in order that we may learn from it the secrets that will not only aid in the unfortunate modern or so-called civilized races, but will also, if possible, provide means for assisting in their preservation."
The Inuit are cold-hardy hunters whose traditional diet consists of a variety of sea mammals, fish, land mammals and birds. They invented some very sophisticated tools, including the kayak, whose basic design has remained essentially unchanged to this day. Most groups ate virtually no plant food. Their calories came primarily from fat, up to 75%, with almost no calories coming from carbohydrate. Children were breast-fed for about three years, and had solid food in their diet almost from birth. As with most hunter-gatherer groups, they were free from chronic disease while living a traditional lifestyle, even in old age. Here's a quote from Observations on the Western Eskimo and the Country they Inhabit; from Notes taken During two Years [1852-54] at Point Barrow, by Dr. John Simpson:
These people [the Inuit] are robust, muscular and active, inclining rather to spareness [leanness] than corpulence [overweight], presenting a markedly healthy appearance. The expression of the countenance is one of habitual good humor. The physical constitution of both sexes is strong. Extreme longevity is probably not unknown among them; but as they take no heed to number the years as they pass they can form no guess of their own ages.
One of the common counterpoints I hear to the idea that high-fat hunter-gatherer diets are healthy, is that exercise protects them from the ravages of fat. The Inuit can help us get to the bottom of this debate. Here's a quote from Cancer, Disease of Civilization (1960, Vilhjalmur Stefansson):
"They are large eaters, some of them, especially the women, eating all the time..." ...during the winter the Barrow women stirred around very little, did little heavy work, and yet "inclined more to be sparse than corpulent" [quotes are the anthropologist Dr. John Murdoch, reproduced by Stefansson].
Another argument I sometimes hear is that the Inuit are genetically adapted to their high-fat diet, and the same food would kill a European. This appears not to be the case. The anthropologist and arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson spent several years living with the Inuit in the early 20th century. He and his fellow Europeans and Americans thrived on the Inuit diet. American doctors were so incredulous that they defied him and a fellow explorer to live on a diet of fatty meat only for one year, under the supervision of the American Medical Association. To the doctors' dismay, they remained healthy, showing no signs of scurvy or any other deficiency (JAMA 1929;93:20–2).

Yet another amazing thing about the Inuit was their social structure. Here's Dr. John Murdoch again (quoted from Cancer, Disease of Civilization):
The women appear to stand on a footing of perfect equality with the men, both in the family and the community. The wife is the constant and trusted companion of the man in everything except the hunt, and her opinion is sought in every bargain or other important undertaking... The affection of parents for their children is extreme, and the children seem to be thoroughly worthy of it. They show hardly a trace of fretfulness or petulance so common among civilized children, and though indulged to an extreme extent are remarkably obedient. Corporal punishment appears to be absolutely unknown, and children are rarely chided or punished in any way.
Unfortunately, those days are long gone. Since adopting a modern processed-food diet, the health and social structure of the Inuit has deteriorated dramatically. This had already happened to most groups by Weston Price's time, and is virtually complete today. Here's Price:
In the various groups in the lower Kuskokwim seventy-two individuals who were living exclusively on native foods had in their 2,138 teeth only two teeth or 0.09 per cent that had ever been attacked by tooth decay. In this district eighty-one individuals were studied who had been living in part or in considerable part on modern foods, and of their 2, 254 teeth 394 or 13 per cent had been attacked by dental caries. This represents an increase in dental caries of 144 fold.... When these adult Eskimos exchange their foods for our modern foods..., they often have very extensive tooth decay and suffer severely.... Their plight often becomes tragic since there are no dentists in these districts.
Modern Inuit also suffer from very high rates of diabetes and overweight. This has been linked to changes in diet, particularly the use of white flour, sugar and processed oils.

Overall, the unique lifestyle and diet of the Inuit have a lot to teach us. First, that humans are capable of being healthy as carnivores. Second, that we are able to thrive on a high-fat diet. Third, that we are capable of living well in extremely harsh and diverse environments. Fourth, that the shift from natural foods to processed foods, rather than changes in macronutrient composition, is the true cause of the diseases of civilization.

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