Primitive Nutrition 27:
The Eskimo Model, Part I
Historical Eskimos, with their blubbery, meaty diets, are favorites of modern day cavemen and low carb promoters.
Weston Price. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.
Weston Price presented them as one of his models of nutritional wisdom. They do seem to have had good teeth on their traditional diets. As for the rest of their bones, we'll soon see.
Just like with the other cultures he documented, Price included the usual photos of what he felt were the effects of the consumption of junky industrialized foods rather than traditional foods.
Whenever an animal-food based primitive culture is shown to have had a health problem, predictably the low carbers attribute it to a carb here or there that was somehow sneaked into their diets, as though it were a powerful toxin able to obliterate all the great benefits of the saturated fats. That's why we're lucky to have this old issue of National Geographic.
It has an article about the discovery of two female mummies around 440 years old discovered near Point Barrow, far inside the Arctic Circle. If there had ever been a perfect time and place to be naturally low carb, this was it. One mummy had been in her early 40s, the other in her 20s.
Here are the remains of the woman in her 40s..
Just as we would expect of people living in such a hostile, frigid place, their remains showed evidence of stress. Despite their young ages, they showed evidence of atherosclerosis, a type of hardening of the arteries. They also suffered from osteoporosis, or the degradation of their bones. A painful parasitic infection was apparent as well. All this could be called the inevitable result of a diet of mostly raw animal carcasses.
This is the coronary artery of an even older female mummy than the two in that National Geographic issue, in this case from around 400 AD. We see pronounced atherosclerosis. This is natural cardiovascular health the low carb way, long before refined carbs.
What we have here are effectively long term studies of an animal-based "wise traditions" diet, and the results aren't pretty. We see evidence of heart disease, weak bones, and parasitic infections. Let's look at these three problems a bit more closely in Eskimos, starting with their cardiovascular disease.
Early in The Paleo Diet, Loren Cordain tells us the Greenland Eskimos were exemplars of heart health, referencing the work of Bang and Dyerberg.
This is a less-than-ideal reference for a man who argues that lower cholesterol is better. Bang and Dyerberg found that the Greenland Eskimos had what we would today call borderline high cholesterol levels.
To whatever extent they may have been protected from heart attacks, Bang and Dyerberg said it was likely because of the extremely high levels of omega-3 fatty acids they consumed. They thought the price for this protection was their higher rate of stroke, which Cordain fails to mention.
The myth of low cardiovascular disease among Eskimos was examined by these researchers. They found heart disease was not less common in Eskimos than in whites. Mortality from stroke was higher, however. I'll mention here that I will use the terms "Eskimo" and "Inuit" interchangeably in these videos.
Those researchers also found a reliable old testimonial indicating that cardiovascular disease was actually quite common for these people.
In addition to Cordain, another Paleo diet founder,
radiologist S Boyd Eaton,
references the supposedly low cholesterol levels of Canadian Eskimos to make his case for caveman cuisine.
Cordain cited Canadian Inuit for low cholesterol as well in this article. This is an interesting but totally misleading chart. Low blood cholesterol is definitely a good thing. However, this chart is wrong to imply a meaty diet is the best way to get you there. If you fact-check this chart, you'll see that all that meat didn't deliver low cholesterol for the Eskimos.
This website did the fact-checking for us. I recommend you visit it and read this blog post. I'll just borrow enough of their material here to show you that they certainly did not have low cholesterol and, more importantly, they had horrible life expectancy. The perspective of the authors here is that higher cholesterol is better, so obviously I don't agree with their take on this. I'll say more about this site later in my Playing Games With Your Heart videos.
Paleo promoters should also understand the Greenland Eskimos were consuming cereals at least as far back as 1855, and those were likely refined rather than whole grain and therefore unhealthy. Look at the bottom right at that radical increase in the consumption of sugar for the 1930 through 1933 period and you won't blame Weston Price for being troubled by the trends he was seeing back then. Of course, those old frozen mummies were not eating any sugar and they still had diseased arteries, so this doesn't get their blubbery diets off the hook for that.
For the Ancel Keys detractors out there, it's worth a mention that this pioneer of heart health was aware of the Eskimo diet. He was also aware of their tragically short life expectancy.
Here is more evidence of heart trouble among the Eskimos. Between 1956 and 1958 the bodies of Eskimos were autopsied for this study. Hardening of the arteries was observed to be quite common.
More recently a large cohort of Eskimos were studied. Despite favorable lipid profiles, rates of stroke and cardiovascular disease were high. Notice they carried a high pathogen burden. That brings us to another problem created by their traditional diet.
Parasitic infections. Eskimos certainly had them. Here you see a 1950 record of the prevalence of intestinal parasites among them. This is inevitable if you are routinely consuming raw untreated fish and meat.
These parasites would have had the effect of lowering their blood cholesterol. Drs Eaton and Cordain should have clued you in on this, don't you think?
Circumpolar natives had high infection rates of one notorious parasite, toxoplasma. The Inuit were the most afflicted group in this study with 72% of their pregnant women infected.
In the next part of this video I'll get back to their osteoporosis, and bring up a few other issues as well.
Primitive Nutrition 28:
The Eskimo Model, Part II
So far we've seen that Eskimos on traditional diets suffered from parasitic infections and heart disease.
What about the osteoporosis observed in those Eskimo mummies? This Paleopathologist attributed that to their high protein diet.
Extreme protein intake is fingered for blame here as well. Bone mineral content in Eskimos was assessed as deficient in a 1974 study. The Eskimos compared poorly to whites, who presumably were eating a lot more carbs than the Eskimos were.
So is their high protein intake really the best explanation for their weak bones? There are conflicting studies regarding the effects of high protein diets on bone health. However, the evidence is more clear that dietary saturated fat is highly damaging to bones.
This has been demonstrated through animal experimentation.
What were the traditional Eskimo diet and lifestyle like? First, as you could tell from that National Geographic article, Eskimos suffered serious privations. If you pause the video to read this excerpt from Captain Charles Francis Hall's 1864 book Life with the Esquimaux you can understand how other migrations to frigid climates might have failed. This is the real hardcore Paleo lifestyle you are not likely to see practiced by the modern fad dieters.
Under these conditions the Eskimo learned to not be overly picky about their meat. If it was rancid, they would eat it anyway.
They ate every part of their catches as well, including brains, blood, and feces. They even found a way to get a little fiber eating the partially digested moss in caribou stomachs.
Eskimo were known to eat outrageous quantities of meat. This is a good slide to remember when someone tells you meats promote satiety.
Such extreme conditions and foods left a mark on the genetics of the Eskimos, who sometimes display a rare sugar intolerance. They were not as good with carbs as you probably are. Your genome is probably much different, and in more ways than just this.
Eskimos have greater tolerance for cold than other races. No surprise there.
Also, circumpolar populations epitomize Allen's rule, having shorter relative limb length than other races. This is an adaptation to cold climate.
Cold environments produced an example of Allen's rule in Neanderthals, too. Here you see an analysis of the Neanderthal body shape that considered climate pressures, which would have favored less skin surface area for better retention of heat.
Eskimos are a curious choice of dietary model for Paleo dieters and Crossfitters. It is in the interest of those in cold climates to have more insulating body fat. Eskimos were long ago considered unusually short and overweight. They were not considered to be physically strong, either.
They were observed to age poorly as well. This is usually not an openly stated goal for fad diets.
Descriptions of Eskimo from the nineteenth century can be uncomfortable to read. These unflattering descriptions wouldn't be worth reviewing if Eskimos weren't presented as a model for us today.
Traditional Eskimos had other health problems as well. They have been afflicted by some cancers, for example. A century ago reports stated otherwise, but they were later shown to be inaccurate. Any observed low occurrence of cancer soon was understood to only be a result of infectious diseases which ended their lives before cancers had a chance to develop.
Eskimos actually have some of the world's highest rates of certain cancers.
Here is a graph for that.
A cancer was also identified in the remains of an extinct Paleo-Eskimo.
Perhaps some of that can be explained by the toxins in their food supply. Eating such fatty food so far up the food chain is bound to convey environmental contaminants into these people. Inuit milk contained up to 10 times the level of persistent organochlorine compounds as found in the milk of women in Quebec. These authors say Inuit women have the highest known body burdens of these pollutants.
I'm not sure what to make of Eskimo vitamin A levels. To briefly repeat what I presented in my Weston Price video, the Weston Price Foundation would have you believe vegetarians are deficient in vitamin A because they don't consume toxic levels of preformed vitamin A. Here again the price for this meaty, fatty diet is a body burden of heavy metals and other pollutants.
Despite obtaining their vitamin A in what low carbers says is a preferable, highly absorbably form, Alaskan Eskimos have been observed to have deficient levels in their blood. Maybe there is more to the vitamin A story than they will tell you.
More evidence that Eskimos of the old days aren't ideal models of health comes from this doctor's account from 1935 of his services to them. This is sometimes referenced to argue that they were especially healthy, but such a reading requires ignoring some key passages. In this one, children were said to frequently die after eating meat that had begun to spoil.
He said Eskimos also commonly suffered from appendicitis. Eskimos called this "rotten guts."
Higher rates of appendicitis in other cultures have been linked to increased meat-eating.
My final slide for the Eskimos brings us back to our mummies. Here you see that all those omega 3 fatty acids don't seem to help Eskimos keep plaque out of their arteries. For the Eskimos, just like everyone else, saturated fat causes atherosclerosis.
In the next video I'll look at the Masai of Africa, another fabled low-carb culture. They don't have to endure the icy conditions of the Arctic. Can they be a better example for us than the Eskimo? Join me and we'll find out.