The Nutritional Benefits of the Inuit Dietby Nicola on 2012-09-27
The Nutritional Benefits of the Inuit Diet
By Dr Nicola J Davies
Earlier this year, we looked at the Inuit diet and, in particular, the importance of raw and fermented foods. Now let’s take a deeper look at the Inuit diet, with a focus on some of the specific nutrients within this diet – you will soon see that the Inuit diet possesses a treasure trove of nutritional benefits.
The Traditional Inuit Diet
The traditional Inuit diet is provided by nature, with the availability of food sources being dictated by the rotation of the seasons. Meat, fat and animal parts are the staple of their diet, and they rely on whatever wild creatures they can find for their protein. This is supplemented by the seasonal leaves, grasses, seaweeds, roots, tubers, wildflowers, mosses, grasses, lichens and berries Inuit can find and gather. Given the cold conditions in which Inuit live and the irregular supply of various foods, the big questions are, “How have Inuit survived and does their diet meet all of the nutritional needs of their bodies?
Protein, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and Vitamins and Minerals in Meat and Animal Fat
In the Western world, people are told to avoid animal fats. However, animal fat is a frequent component of an Inuit meal, and any adverse effects of consumption of fat is offset by the omega-3 fatty acids and the high level of monounsaturated fats found in wild fish, marine mammals and game. The cardiovascular problems so common in modern Western cultures due to high intakes of fat tend to be related to the ingestion of polyunsaturated fats, and so the Inuit diet offers another inherent advantage. In addition, the meat of wild animals such as caribou and seals is richer in thiamine, riboflavin, vitamin B12, and folic acid by comparison with the farmed animal meats consumed in the West. Liver, a favourite of Inuit, is a rich source of iron, while animal flesh provides protein from which the body makes strong muscles.
An Inuit elder preparing dried caribou.
Photo courtesy of David Ho
Vitamin C in Fresh Meats and Fish
Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, has an antiscorbutic function which is essential to the healthy growth and maintenance of connective tissue and the avoidance of conditions such as Scurvy (a breakdown of tissue in the body). The absence, in Arctic areas, of citrus and other fresh fruits and vegetables that grow so abundantly in temperate climates, is obvious. Indeed, it is well-known that seafaring explorers and migrants were afflicted by Scurvy and often endured terrible deaths as a result of a lack of this important vitamin. However, Scurvy did not afflict Inuit historically, raising the question of where the source of this substance can be found in the Inuit diet?
Vitamin C has been found in varying concentrations in the fresh meats and fish that are a staple food for Inuit, with increased concentrations in the internal body organs such as the liver and brain. Marine creatures such as seal, whale, and walrus, along with many species of fish and land animals including the Polar Bear, Musk Ox and Caribou, are plentiful, although capturing them requires great physical effort and skill. Inuit have developed efficient hunting and fishing methods, which has helped them maintain a healthy intake of Vitamin C. Furthermore, shellfish are available seasonally, and in warmer weather more obvious sources of Vitamin C such as wild berries, seeds, roots and flowers can be collected. Whale skin and the fish known as Muktuk, when consumed raw, are a particularly good source of Vitamin C.
The cutting of Muktuq, a traditional country food of Inuit.
Photo courtesy of David Ho
Vitamin D in Fish and Mammals
Lack of Vitamin D causes the defect in bone and skeletal development known as Ricketts, a condition from which Inuit have been protected by consumption of fish oils in their traditional diet. The main sources of Vitamin D for most of the world’s population are the exposure of the skin to sunshine and the consumption of dairy products, both of which are in short supply in the Arctic. However, the Inuit diet substitutes the oils found in the flesh and organs, particularly the liver, of cold climate fish and mammals as a source of Vitamin D, which are soluble in oil.
Carbohydrates and Fibre in Animal Fats, Fruits, and Vegetables
Carbohydrates and fibres in cereals, rice and seeds give the body energy and strength. In the Arctic, the grains and other crops on which modern civilisations rely as energy foods are scarce. The Inuit diet is therefore exceptionally low in foods from the carbohydrate group. It is correspondingly high in foods from the fat and protein groups, necessitating a more complex metabolic process, with increased liver and kidney function, to burn the fats and break down protein to convert the foods into usable energy in the form of glucose. Researchers agree that Inuit gain more than half of their calories from predominantly monounsaturated, natural wild animal fats, such as are found in whale blubber. In addition, fruits, berries and vegetables add fibre to keep the digestion working. They also contain the trace elements, vitamins and minerals necessary for good health generally, and in particular the eyes and skin tone, and to assist in infection control.
Minerals in Seaweed
Some of the mineral nutrients required to maintain the health and fitness of the human body are iodine, iron, zinc, copper, phosphorus, molybdenum, fluoride, magnesium, potassium, sodium, calcium, and sulphur. These minerals aid metabolism, and the functioning of biochemical activities in the brain and other systems and organs, such as the endocrine, digestive and nervous systems. Research has demonstrated the wealth of such minerals found in seaweeds, which are a staple of the natural diet of not just Inuit, but all coastal, cold-climate communities. Recognising this, scientists have developed a means of processing seaweed into food supplements for easy consumption in Western societies.
Preservation of Nutrients
It has been found that cooking can destroy the vitamins that occur naturally in foods. Since Inuit are obliged by the lack of easily accessible supplies of fuel to minimise cooking, they have an advantage in preserving optimal vitamin content in the high proportion of their diet, which is not cooked. Furthermore, traditional methods of preserving and storing food using fermentation methods assist in maintaining a mix of bacteria that aid the digestion of food in the human gut, thereby optimising the absorption of nutrients. Indeed, a digestive supplement is available to Inuit by the process of fermentation, which prolongs the life of foods, as it supports the levels of yeasts and certain bacteria in the digestive tract, assisting in the processing and absorption of nutrients into the blood. Again, as fermented food is usually eaten raw, the vitamin content is optimised.
Arctic char being filleted and dried in the open air.
Photo courtesy of David Ho
The Healthy Way of Inuit
As can be seen, despite the many differences between Inuit diets and that consumed by other cultures, Inuit’s have enjoyed a rich and varied diet that has provided all of the essential nutrients for the maintenance of health and well-being. The magical ingredients appear to be meat, meat fat, fish, and raw foods such as fruits, berries, vegetables and seeds, combined with reduced levels of cooking and digestive aids such as seaweed and the fermentation processes.
Dr Nicola Davies is a Psychology Consultant and Freelance Writer with an interest in health and well-being. Her publications can be viewed at www.healthpsychologyconsultancy.com. Alternatively, you might like to sign up to her free blog: http://healthpsychologyconsultancy.wordpress.com/