The Heart-Healthy Traditional Inuit Diet
The ingenuity of the traditional Inuit culture is simply astounding. They fashion kayaks to brave the surging waves of the often-ruthless Arctic Ocean. They domesticate dogs and build sleds to help traverse the harsh snow-covered terrain, and they make coats out of animal hides to protect themselves against the icy bite of the Arctic winds.
However, impressive as these feats are, perhaps the most fascinating observation that can be made about this unique culture is their abnormally low rates of heart disease compared to others around the world.
This curious phenomenon is known as the Inuit Paradox and is largely considered to be the result of the Inuit’s unique dietary habits.
Like many indigenous groups, living off the land is a major part of their culture. However, the frigid climate and ice-covered land blanketing the Northern reaches of Canada and other Arctic regions prevent sufficient plant growth, resulting in the traditional Inuit people consuming an animal-based diet that is very high in fat.
Ironically (hence the paradox), a high-fat diet directly contradicts the World Health Organization’srecommendation that we should receive fewer than 30 per cent of our calories from dietary fat if we want to limit our risk of heart disease – the leading cause of death worldwide.
So, how do those who follow a traditional Inuit diet rich in animal fat and containing few vegetables remain one of the healthiest populations in the world?
As it turns out, it’s the type of fat that makes the greatest difference, not the quantity. For example, many of the foods that make up the traditional Inuit diet come from marine life. Animals like seals, fish, and whales have very high levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids like omega 3’s and 6’s.
These are widely accepted as “healthy fats” which are considered by Health Canada to be some of the most important nutrients for reducing bad cholesterol (LDL) and increasing good cholesterol (HDL) in the blood to promote a healthy heart.
The experts employed by Nunavut’s Department of Health recognize the overwhelming benefits associated with regular consumption of these healthy fats and have reflected this value in the NunavutFood Guide and Country Food Handbook.
These resources provide information on many of the traditional heart-healthy foods that have been a part of the Inuit diet for hundreds of years and may hold the key to reducing the prevalence of health issues like heart disease. Here are just a few of the staples:
Beluga — the Inuit have hunted the mighty Beluga as a food source for hundreds of years. They utilize all parts of this majestic mammal in their diet, including the skin, blubber, oil, and even the intestines! Although there are different ways that Beluga can be prepared, one of the most popular is called maktaaq — an Inuit delicacy that consists of frozen skin or blubber.
Maktaaq can be eaten raw or fried, making it a great option for a meal or a convenient choice for a snack on the go to help sustain the demanding energy requirements of the physical Inuit lifestyle.
According to the Nunavut Food Guide, Beluga helps promote a healthy heart and fight infection by providing essential nu- trients like omega-3 fatty acids,selenium, and vitamins A, D, E, and C.
Just one Beluga can provide as much as 44 pounds of meat, 110 pounds of maktaaq, and 66 gallons of oil.
Seal — Ringed seals are the smallest – yet most plentiful — species of seal in the Arctic and make up a major component of the traditional Inuit diet. Much like Beluga, seal meat is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, helping to prevent heart disease and stave off infection.
Seal meat is also high in iron and folate — two nutrients that play an essential role in the circulatory system and the promotion of healthy blood.
Fish — Over two hundred species of fish have been discovered in the diverse waters of the Arctic Ocean, making them another staple of the traditional Inuit diet. One of the most popular is the Arctic Char, which is the number one source of omega-3 fatty acids for the indigenous residents of Nunavut -the second most populated Inuit region in Canada (behind Nunangat).
Not only are these fish rich in omega-3’s, but they also contain significant amounts of calcium, zinc, and an entire day’s worth of vitamin D in just asingle serving.
Fish like Arctic Char can be consumed as a fillet roasted over a fire, a dried and salted snack, or even in the form of pre-hatched eggs.
Mussels — Mussels are considered an Inuit delicacy and are often eaten raw, boiled, steamed, or fried.
Crustaceans (like mussels) are a fantastic source of minerals including zinc, magnesium, iron, and selenium. They also contain heart-healthy fats and are a great source of protein.
The Inuit harvest mussels from underneath the ice during low tides which means that this process usually takes place during the full moon. Timing and efficiencyare paramount as only a small window of time is available to maximize the harvest before the tide returns.
In addition to mussels, the Inuit also harvest and capture a variety of clams and shrimp — both of which are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids and minerals.
As you can see, the traditional Inuit diet is primarily composed of animal meat, however, that’s not to say there is a complete absence of plants. For example, they consume a moderate amount of seaweed, small wild green plants, and berries which provide a mix of important nutrients, fibre, and antioxidants.
How can you learn from the Traditional Inuit Diet to improve your health?
If you don’t have access to beluga or seal meat, you can choose to incorporate more omega-3 fatty acids into your diet. Great sources for this nutrient include fish, oysters, walnuts, hemp, flax and many other foods.
Like the Inuit, you may also consider selecting foods that undergo minimal processing. For example, the Canada Food Guide recommends fresh,frozen, or canned fish that have not been breaded, battered, or excessively salted. In this way you’ll be able to ensure your food is free of chemicals, unhealthy fats, and other harmful ingredients.
Lastly, although not a dietary recommendation, be sure to get your daily recommended intake of physical activity. In combination with a diet that is rich in healthy fats, exercise can strengthen your heart muscles helping to further protect against heart disease.
With the rapid expansion of the western diet to all corners of the globe, we’ve seen a steady increase in the levels of heart disease and other dietary-related conditions. It’s important we take a step back and recognize the abundance of knowl- edge that can be gained by observing the traditional dietary practices of cultures like the Inuit.