The Traditional Inuit Diet Paradox: This Fat is Good

Fat has always been a huge topic of debate, particularly in America. You’ve probably spent most of your life under the belief that you should cut back on fat. Historically, fat has been villainized and deemed harmful for heart health. Yet, traditional Inuit populations thrived off of a high-fat diet and had low rates of heart disease. How could this be possible? The truth about fat isn’t as cut-and-dry as you may think.

The Traditional Inuit Diet

The Inuits are indigenous populations who inhabit parts of Canada, Alaska, and Greenland. Traditionally, the Inuits sourced most of their food from hunting and fishing, specifically fatty animal proteins from seals and walruses. Their diet also contained caribou, moose, reindeer, fowl, and fatty fish.

Inuits received over 50 percent of their calories from fat, with the rest being mostly protein. In the summers, Inuits foraged for ground plants and berries. For the most part, carbohydrate intake was extremely low compared to our traditional Western diet.

This traditional Inuit diet contrasts with much of the dietary guidelines in the Western world. Yet these populations were very healthy, with much lower rates of heart disease. One study showed that between 1968-1978, a district of 2,600 Greenland Inuits didn’t have a single death related to heart disease.  In the same study, cardiovascular deaths were reported in the more “Westernized” parts of Greenland.

In recent years, Inuit populations have moved away from their traditional way of life. Moving closer to towns, many have adopted a Western diet with more refined sugars and processed foods. As a result, these populations have seen a resulting increase in cardiovascular disease.

What Can We Learn From the Traditional Inuit Diet?

We’re not saying that you need to become a hunter-gatherer or start consuming large amounts of seal. Nor do you need to cut out carbs completely. But there’s still plenty to learn from the traditional Inuit eating method.

Low-fat is not the answer

The low-fat diet craze began in the 1970s, with doctors pushing this ideology to prevent obesity and heart disease. All fats became the enemy and were replaced by high-sugar alternatives. This led to a rise in processed and chemically-altered foods.

Supporters of the anti-fat ideology failed to realize that not all fat is the same. It’s true that the bad types of fats, known as trans fats, are disease-causing and contribute to obesity. But you actually need a certain amount of healthy fats to support essential fatty acids, known as omega-3s. Omega-3 intake is anti-inflammatory and protects against cardiovascular disease and mortality.

Scientists attribute the health of the Inuits to their high levels of omega-3 intake from healthy fats and fatty fish. Studies have also observed similar trends in Japanese populations who eat large amounts of fish.

While seal and walrus may not be accessible in our world, there are plenty of ways to get healthy fats in your diet. Olive oil, avocados, eggs, and fatty fish are all great options!

Eat real food

It’s important to notice what’s not included in the traditional Inuit diet – processed and refined foods. Most American pantries are full of processed foods high in sugar, additives, refined carbs, and trans fats. These cause heart disease and chronic conditions. Human beings aren’t built to consume artificial foods and chemicals. 

Insulated from the modern world, Inuits survived off wild-caught fatty animal proteins. Only once these populations started eating more processed foods did heart disease become more common. Fat consumption is not the root cause of cardiovascular problems.

Eat high-quality animal protein

It’s so important to choose organic, high-quality meat sources whenever possible. Not only is this best for your health, but it’s best for the animals as well. There’s a huge difference between the farm-raised meat common in most grocery stores and the wild-caught animals consumed by the Inuits. 

Much of the fish you find in a grocery store is farm-raised in overcrowded tanks. Farm-raised fish live in unnatural environments, consume unnatural processed feed, and are treated with antibiotics to prevent disease. Compared with wild-caught, farm-raised fish contain much higher levels of toxic contaminants.

Similarly, conventional farm-raised livestock are often kept in poor conditions. They’re given antibiotics, growth hormones, and processed feed. As a result, many of these toxic substances end up in your next meal.

While hunting for your next meal like the Inuits may not be realistic, you need to use discernment when purchasing meat. Go organic and grass-fed whenever possible. Not only is this the most ethical choice, but it will ensure the most healthy and high-quality meat.

Eat organ meats to boost essential nutrients

How were the Inuits able to survive on meat without essential nutrients from vegetables?

The answer is simple; traditional Inuits included as much of the animal as possible in their diet, including nutrient-dense organs. Organ meats are jam-packed with vitamins, minerals, essential amino acids, and healthy fats. In particular, animal liver, heart, and brain are nutritional powerhouses. 

Organ meats may be useful in supplementing the essentials that modern vegetables are lacking. Thanks to the uncontrolled use of pesticides, crops aren’t as nutrient-rich as 50 years ago. Our soil is becoming more and more depleted, leading to nutritional deficiencies. Organ meats are a great way to boost the essential nutrients you may be missing out on.

  • Liver is like a natural multivitamin. One serving can provide more than your daily requirement of vitamin A, which can help promote healthy vision and reduce the risk of cancer.
  • Heart can have amazing health benefits for your heart! It’s rich in CoQ10, a powerful antioxidant that is protective against cardiovascular disease and heart failure. Heart also contains high selenium, iron, zinc, folate, and B-vitamins. 
  • Brain contains large amounts of DHA, an essential fatty acid. DHA is anti-inflammatory, supports heart health, and improves learning and cognition. Brain is also a great source of choline, an essential nutrient that most people are deficient in.

An environmental perk of organ consumption – less food waste! Organ meats are often disposed of. You can often find organ meats through your local butcher or farmer. If you can’t stomach the idea of eating organs, many supplements are available that can provide similar benefits.

Get moving

The Inuits didn’t spend their days at a desk or in front of the television. The Inuit lifestyle required hard physical labor to hunt and survive in such harsh conditions. This contributed to their excellent heart health.

A sedentary lifestyle is a huge contributor to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. It’s so important to move your body as much as possible. Go for walks, lift weights, do some yoga – whatever feels good to you! As much as you can, exercise outdoors to boost vitamin D levels.

For your best heart health, get back to your roots

Modern lifestyle norms aren’t conducive to human health. We didn’t evolve to spend our days sitting in front of screens and eating processed foods. Inuit populations were so healthy because they lived like our primal ancestors. Though it isn’t necessarily possible to leave society and become a hunter-gatherer, there’s much to learn from the traditional Inuit diet. 

Next steps

Cutting out fat is not the key to heart health. It is actually harmful. More than anything, the nutrient-density of your food matters. It’s simple – eat more real food, less processed food, and move your body as much as possible. And don’t forget about healthy fat!

Eat Well · Live Well · Think Well 

Medical Review 2022: Dr. Lauren Lattanza NMD

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