Why people care about the inuit’s diet: A look at native tribes

What? you didn't know? People care about the traditional Inuit diet. Not the diet they have today, which is increasingly westernised, but the one before that, the one we don't really have much data on, because it challenges a lot of beliefs.

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First of all, quick reminder. The Inuit are the aboriginal people living in the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska. They have occupied this region of the world for an estimated 4,000 years, with very little contact with the rest of the world up until the late 1500s.

So why are we so interested in their diet? Well it would appear that they spent the better part of those 4000 years eating only meat, making their diet very low in carbohydrates and high in fat. This goes against the current national dietary guidelines in North America, According to the American Academy of Nutrition's material, the Inuit should have been massively obese and dropping like flies from cancer and heart attacks. Except they weren't, and they didn't. But since they have adopted our "southern diets" rich in carbohydrates and vegetable oils, they are and they do, at alarming rates.

Scientific bodies studying low carbohydrate and high fat nutrition, will simply explain that if htey were eating an exclusively carnivore low carb and high fat diet, then they were quite simply in ketosis most of the time, so utilising fat to metabolise ketone bodies, then used instead of carbohydrates in all organs, brain included.

But we're told that ketosis is a starvation mechanism, so how did they keep going as a civilisation for thousand of years in a constant state of starvation? Especially since we have testimony of them regularly living up to 70 years old.

The problem with the Inuit, when it comes to studying their "pre-contact" lifestyle, is that they didn't keep a detailed food log of their macronutrients, and didn't really write anything at all. So we have to base ourselves on accounts from early European explorers.

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One of these accounts is rather interesting.

In 1878-80, Dr. Frederick Schwatka traveled 3000 miles across the Canadian Arctic with two Inuit families. He kept a detailed diary of his time with them, which was lost and later published in 1965.

He ventured this far up North to find the log books of a Navy expedition that had disappeared in the Arctic (spoiler alert: he didn't find them).

Many explorers had preceeded him to find out what had happend to the expedition, and many of them had died doing so. Schwatka figured the problem with these previous expeditions, was they had tried to take all their food with them. And if you try take all your food for a year, you have to lug around a massively big pile food. So Schwatka told himself that since the Inuit new how to live in the Arctic, if he could eat like them, and eat their diet, then he could go where they went and just have them guide him. So he joined these two inuit family with 3 other caucasians, left the west coast of Hudson Bay in december of 1878, and were gone for 14 months, travelled 3000 miles over land and everybody came back alive. They found lots of artifacts, skeletons, small boats that had been beached on the shore, but they did not find the log books from the ships, and didn't find anybody alive.

What was interesting is something Schwatka wrote down in his diary.

"When first thrown wholly upon the diet of reindeer meat, it seems inadequate to properly nourish the system and there is an apparent weakness and inability to perform severe exertive, fatiguing journeys. But this soon passes away in the ocurse of 2-3 weeks." (source: Schwatka F. The Long Arctic Search. E. Stackpole, Ed, The Marine Historical Assoc. Mystic CT 1965)

Now we don't know exactly the specifics of the diet Schwatka followed when with these Inuit families. He was a US army surgeon, not a nutritionist so we can't really blame him for not detailing this, and the questions remain: Was this diet high in protein? or high in fat? how much meat did they eat?

You could argue that the inuit a very special kind of people, living in this desolate landscape, living only on meat and fat because there was nothing else to eat. a unique breed of humans with unique genetic mutations that allows them to survive without their daily ration of coco pops? But what if there were other populations?

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And as it turns out there is. The Masai in the great rift valley, Tanzania. The Masai were nomadic herders, and carried around these long spears, not so much to hunt, but to fend away big cats that would attack their cattle. And what is interesting is that they lived on meat, milk, and blood (which was their only source of salt), earning them to be viewed by Europeans as blood-thirsty savages. In 1931, British biologist John Boyd Orr, led an expedition to live with them for a year, and study both the Masai living up in the hills, and the neighbouring Akikuyu, farmer tribes that lived lower in the valley and along the lakeshore. There's common belief that a full meat diet would stunt your growth and not permit development, but the Masai were on average 6 inches taller for the males, and 3 inches for the females than the Akikuyu.

The physique ans health of two African tribes, 1931 The tribes were chosen because their territories were adjoining, but their dietary customs were different, “the Akikuyu being almost exclusively vegetarian and the Masai chiefly carnivorous.
— Orr JB, Gilks JL.

There's also interesting data from what is now the United States of America. In the 1830s, George Catlin traveled west of the Mississipi and panted hundreds of Native Americans while they still lived their pre-contact lifestyle. Black Dog and Tal-lee, Osage warriors who ate mostly buffalo, were both between 6'6" and 7' tall. These were nomadic people that didn't farm, they followed the buffalo heards year round. It was actually a point of pride for these people to never eat any plant foods, as it would have meant that had failed as hunters.

 
Caitlin G. Letters and notes on the manners, customs, and conditions of North American Indians. Reprinted by Dover Inc. NY, NY, 1973

Caitlin G. Letters and notes on the manners, customs, and conditions of North American Indians. Reprinted by Dover Inc. NY, NY, 1973

Caitlin G. Letters and notes on the manners, customs, and conditions of North American Indians. Reprinted by Dover Inc. NY, NY, 1973

Caitlin G. Letters and notes on the manners, customs, and conditions of North American Indians. Reprinted by Dover Inc. NY, NY, 1973

 

So what comes of all this? Well it sures has spilled a lot of ink. On one side you have people that are saying that all these tribes ate a lot more vegetables than the evidence we have, or that they suffered of disease and short life. And on the other side you have people studying how these diets contributed to their health.

But what I think we should be studying these occurences with more attention, because if people have lived for millenia on almost solely carnivore diets, we should really focus more on why and how, so we can learn more about the human body and how it works, in the hopes of applying it to our modern health.