So last week I wrote a blog post about what can happen when someone takes a diet to an extreme. Since I have the priviledge of hanging out with smart people who love obscure bits of knowledge as much as I do, however, it means that I also get questions that sound something like, "Oh yeah? Well, what about those Inuit, who subsist on caribou and no vegetables, eh?"
First of all, let me point you all to an an excellent article published by Discover Magazine called the Inuit Paradox. And now, let me give my own answers.
1) You are interested in a way of eating other than your own. Good for you, prepare to have your eyes opened.
2) Unless you have known Inuit ancestry, this probably doesn't apply to you. Meaning that you can't look at a group of people that has certain genetic adaptations, like a larger liver to handle a higher protein diet, and extrapolate that to a Caucasian woman from Pennsylvania like yours truly. I am not saying we should completely dismiss the nutritional findings here, but not all of it will apply.
3) You don't eat like an Inuit. Yeah, yeah, I know some of you are careful to only eat grass fed beef, animals that you have killed yourself, and you might even eat liver on a regular basis. But are you eating raw muktuk? What about the raw livers of Beluga? Or the stomach contents of caribou who are kind enough to pre-digest those tough artic plants for us? No? Well, even if you find that appealing, because of restrictions on importing marine life you will probably have trouble finding that type of food if you live outside of Alaska and Canada. In other words, you are probably not getting those animal foods that actually appear to have vitamin C or are (not) processed in way that they retain vitamin C.
4) You don't live like an Inuit. I know some people are trying to engage in more exercise by lifting heavy things, but chances are you don't have the same stress levels, social interaction, or food access. People living a "traditional" lifestyle would not have had to deal with the constant lure of food that is tasty but not nutritious (of course the internet is full of people that claim they are above temptation, but not all of us are there yet.) The Inuit also engage in food sharing--those who can hunt and gather and have success at it take what they need for their families, and then the rest gets shared with elders who can no longer hunt or families that didn't have as much luck during their hunting/gathering. I would say that would definitely mean less reliance on poor quality food because of financial insecurity, wouldn't you.
Is there anything that we can learn from this lifestyle?
1) Sometimes we actually have to create our own version of scarcity to keep our weight under control and try to avoid the problems associated with obesity. Fill your fridge and freezer with healthy sources of protein, good fats, plenty of vegetables, fresh/frozen fruit, and don't buy the high calorie/low nutrient things. "Store up for the winter" buy using your modern appliances like slow cookers, etc to make food that can be frozen and reheated for quick meals, and stock up on jerky and other non-perishables snacks.
2) Fat by itself is not the "demon" that media reports make it out to be, but you still have to be careful what kind of fat you are eating. The fat that comes from grass fed beef, foraging pigs (nitrite free bacon!), or free ranging chickens (or seals, if you have access to that) is usually going to be higher in omega-3 fats and monounsaturated fats that feed-lot beef, etc. Now, I know that not everybody has access to or is willing to pay the price for that (your body, your finances, your choice), so you can still get your "good fats" by doing lean cuts of conventional raised protein and filling in with olive oil, coconut oil, etc.
3) People from different regions have adapted differently, and our evolution didn't stop 10,000 years ago. So if you tolerate "non-Inuit" foods like dairy, grains, and legumes, try to stick with with the most unprocessed versions possible so you can actually get some nutrition out of it. (So your cheese should not be flaming orange, your grains not powdery white, etc).
4) There are different ways to get the nutrients we need. Try to aim for as much of a variety of protein sources, good fats, fruits, and vegetables as you can, and be willing to try some things that are not part of your culture. There may be some things you love, and others you don't.
4) Exercise portion control. Put just enough on your plate to satisfy you, and either share the leftovers with someone else or store it up for later. Be creative with your leftovers--even if making fermented seal meal doesn't appeal to you, you could probably cook up a whole chicken and find ways to use the leftovers in other meals.
Take home message--Studying the eating habits of different cultures can teach us a lot. We have to be careful, however, of how we extrapolate that information to other populations.