-By Sarah Boyd
The Inuit population is an indigenous group inhabiting Greenland, parts of Artic Canada, and the United States (Alaska). Following centuries old tradition within harsh and chilling conditions, the Inuit obtain food through hunting, fishing, and gathering. This includes hunting fish, seal, caribou, whale, walrus, polar bear, musk ox, fox, and wolf (1). “Because the Inuit in Canada and Greenland eat top predators such as beluga whales and seals, they are among the world’s most contaminated human beings” (4).
One often hears of contamination in reference to a water source or a food product. But contaminated human beings are not something you hear much about. Upon stumbling across this rather staggering statement, I felt inclined to learn more in order to better understand how this could be. I admit, at first I did not know very much about the Inuit, but from this claim, I became extremely intrigued by their culture and more specifically, eating habits and subsequent health outcomes. The Inuit method and choice of nourishment is truly primitive and uncommon to the majority of the modern world. After some investigation, I found evidence that this specific diet has both health benefits and negative risks to the Inuit population.
The Inuit diet is rich in game meat and fats, but is very low in vegetables and fruits, due to their unforgiving environment. At first glance, it could easily be assumed that this diet would be detrimental to Inuit health. But this idea is riddled by a common misperception that all fats are bad. The marine foods that the Inuit greatly consume are not mainly composed of bad fats, but instead are rich in n-3 fatty acids [eicosapentaeonoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)], which have been shown to be beneficial to cardiovascular health (2). These fatty acids decrease triacylglycerols in the blood, blood pressure, platelet aggregation, and inflammation, while also preventing arrhythmias, and overall favorably affecting cardiovascular disease risk factors (3). Due to this, there is a low mortality rate from ischemic heart disease in the Inuit population (2).
In addition, there are many beneficial vitamins and minerals (Vitamins E, A, D and selenium) present within whale and seal blubber and organs, which the Inuit consume (5). For instance, selenium, common in whale skin, protects against prostate cancer, explaining why it is almost unheard of among the Inuit population (6). These are outstanding factors, unique to the Inuit diet, that are protecting this group of people from heart disease and cancer, the leading killers in developed countries around the world.
On the other hand, there are new-found health consequences associated with this specific diet. Chemicals from natural and anthropogenic sources like lead, methylmercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) often travel north via winds or currents and accumulate in the artic food webs polluting the Inuit food supply and making the Inuit some of the most contaminated people in the world (4). Moreover, new research shows that exposure to these contaminants in utero have varying adverse neurological effects on infants, with implications on long-term cognitive development (7).
From this evidence it is apparent there is a wide range of major health benefits and consequences directly causal from the Inuit diet. But in this situation, it is important to examine if the benefits outweigh the risks. Or is protection from cancer and heart disease not worth the possibility of contamination? Perhaps future research will show one side is not as harmful or as beneficial as we understand currently. Maybe the contaminants are only harmful for babies and can be avoided by pregnant women. However, I am not sure what the correct answer is. Personally, I would take the safer route to avoid any harm from the contaminations, but I do not have the lifelong connection to the tradition and culture of eating these foods as the Inuit do.
Nonetheless, I do think that there are certain areas that can be examined further to help alleviate this debacle. Are there other foods with similar protective elements (vitamins, minerals, and n-3 fatty acids) to protect against heart disease and cancer? Are there ways we can eliminate or reduce the toxins traveling to the Inuit food web? Through these questions, we can search to find a solution to help the Inuit preserve their traditions while also maintaining their health.