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Nutrition Past and Future

32 The Eskimos Again 

In my previous videos about the Eskimos, a small portion of my material came from very old sources. I used those because the low-carb promoters selectively use old sources to make the primitive Eskimos seem to have been healthy. My point in looking at those old writings was that they had chosen a poor model of ideal health: an isolated people living in a harsh environment who suffered serious health problems, and who were sometimes reported to be overweight. I haven’t been satisfied with the way I left those videos because if you look back at enough accounts of native peoples by Westerners from long ago, you’ll notice there is often an undertone of racism. Anecdotes are not scientific evidence, especially very old anecdotes written by probable racists. I wouldn’t bother with such references were it not for the Paleo approach to nutrition. The Paleo crowd gives undue weight to speculative and unscientific arguments about past populations while denigrating good modern research created using standardized and legitimate methods. Correlation isn’t causation, they will say, unless they are talking about imaginary humans from a hundred years ago or a hundred thousand years ago. For this video, I decided to play this Paleo game just a bit more and see if I missed any useful old references.

The first question I wanted to settle for myself was, were they really overweight? If you look into this yourself, you might find an old account like this, which states that their fur clothing gave them “an exaggerated appearance of corpulence, whereas in reality they incline toward slenderness.” This would make sense, and one could imagine how an explorer who felt naturally superior to the Inuit might form an unflattering opinion of them without applying much thought. Maybe those old references to obese Eskimos I used were the result of their dress and their ethnicity and not their weight. This quotation came from a textbook so it must tell the whole story, right?

I looked for the full text from which that quotation came. There you see at the top of this paragraph the full text of this quote. Read just a bit further, though, and it says many of the children and a few of the adults were “distinctly pot-bellied, and no markedly thin person was seen by the expedition.” And later, “the average weight seems to be greater than that of the Europeans.” It seems to me that that textbook may have quoted just a bit too selectively.

Nevertheless, there are old studies out there stating that by measures of skinfold thickness, circumpolar people were not at all overweight. I looked up several references that lean in that direction, but I won’t go through those here. This is just one example to give you the idea. Here, it is said of Inuit boys, “even in late adolescence, the Eskimo boy remains thin.”

This same study also notes that at all ages, Eskimo children are shorter and lighter than their white counterparts. The boys were said to have less physical strength but more cardiovascular fitness than comparable white boys. And this, I believe, points us to the truth about them. They were probably not overweight on the whole. It’s hard to imagine how they could have been overfed in such a hostile climate.

Their great admirer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, said that when food was scarce, the Inuit would have lived for days on seal oil alone. You can imagine how terrible that must have been. I don’t see any fad diet books advocating that regimen.

John Murdoch wrote that “they have to work too hard and get too little to eat, except at rare periods of plenty, to grow fat.” He said winter always brought hard work and sometimes starvation. That’s the harsh reality.

They were also observed by researchers on multiple occasions to have a low caloric intake.

The same authors who wrote about the skinfold thickness of their boys checked back with them ten years later and found them to be much more out of shape. They attributed this at least in part to the increased use of snowmobiles, or “snow machines” as some prominent Alaskans call them.

Inuits are put forth as examples of low-carb living not just for their body composition but for their presumed lack of heart disease. I have talked about this in my previous videos and I will not repeat my old material here, but instead offer new material. Here is Loren Cordain claiming that the Inuit had a low rate of coronary disease as verified by autopsy studies. Remember, he thought there could be a meat-based, non-atherogenic diet. One reference here to support his claim is Gottmann, 1960.

This reference was also put forth by some of the original Paleo diet promoters, S Boyd Eaton and Melvin Conner.

Rather than take their word for it, let’s look at the actual paper. As you see, Gottmann is the author. His conclusion is, “Qualitatively, the pathological findings within the native Alaskan population do not appear to be significantly different from those found in the rest of the United States.” Realize this was written in 1960, right in the middle of the epidemic of heart disease that drove the urgently needed research back then into diet-heart. For the Inuit to be no better off than the Americans of those days is not saying much. I don’t think this supports any claim by the Paleo promoters that they were free of heart disease, and I don’t think a meaty paradox exists here. Gottmann commented that they were especially vulnerable to infectious disease. Deaths from infectious disease at younger ages would have reduced the number of people living to be old enough to die of heart disease. It seems that the Paleo promoters only saw what they wanted to see in this old paper.

Did Cordain not see the passage on the right? Gottmann says there was a 40-year-old woman with calcified arteries. 40 is way too young for such a thing, Dr. Cordain. Where do you get your low standards? This calcification is what happens during heart disease. Gottmann also mentioned a 41-year-old man who suffered a stroke due to plaque formation, and he, too, had diseased arteries. 41 isn't old to me, Dr. Cordain. Would Gottmann have guessed that his paper would be used one day to say that these people were unusually healthy?

Did Cordain not see his statement that “the conclusion of this author is that cardiovascular disease of an arteriosclerotic type is not uncommon among either Eskimos or Indians in Alaska”? How could S. Boyd Eaton use this reference to say that they lived life “in the fast lane”? I am continually astounded by the misrepresentation of the old research by these imaginative low carbers.

Gottmann cautioned against the use of his data for the purpose of generating statistics about disease prevalence as he knew his sample was too small. Nevertheless, Cordain has decided to use this paper to make a claim about their overall health anyway.

Here again, he said that his tables should not be used as a measure of disease incidence. He also said he was impressed by the frequency with which they suffered from infectious disease.

Gottmann remarked that the bodies he autopsied tended to be quite young. Only 5% were over 50 years old. Most were under 20. You can imagine how tough life must have been for them back then. Perhaps Boyd Eaton meant they died in the fast lane.

Gottmann also noted the high rate of birth defects among the bodies he examined.

Inuit have also been reported to have very high rates of perinatal and infant mortality in the more recent past.

Furthermore, notice on the right he talks about the likelihood that death statistics for these people were inaccurate and incomplete. This is a very important point and I think it was purposely overlooked by the Paleo founders. Just as they justify their claims by referencing ancient populations which cannot be systematically and reliably studied, they reference populations of the recent past with very soft data.

Gottmann was very clear about the reasons for this weakness in the historic health record and in fact, this is why he undertook his study. He wrote about the vastness of the land area in which the Inuit lived and the difficulty of travel there. The Inuit population was small and scattered. What would you expect of a population struggling for survival?

Other researchers have given similar warnings about the difficulty of ascertaining Inuit disease incidence. Their low numbers were mentioned in this paper as a barrier to finding appropriate age-matched controls.

Unsurprisingly, the great Ancel Keys also recognized this problem of sampling with such a small and isolated population. He had references stating that their heart disease rates were high and that these rates would likely have been even higher had they lived longer.

Cordain cites other references to support his claim that the Inuit had a low occurrence of heart disease. One of them is Arthaud.

Arthaud makes no comment at all on his impression of the frequency of their heart disease so this doesn’t seem to work as a reference for Cordain. You do see his accounting of all the types of cardiovascular causes of death right there in the middle. Read those and you will see that Cordain’s reference shows us that they most certainly were not immune from heart disease. Bear in mind that you wouldn’t expect the death rates for heart disease to be all that high in an autopsy series in which one third of the bodies were deceased children. I don’t think this study can be construed to support Cordain’s claim. He cited it anyway.

Look at the end here and he also cites Kroman and Green, for which he gives the date 1950.

Look at his bibliography and it is clear he meant 1980. Whoops! A mistake of caveman scholarship! He had another reference in there that I could not verify despite my attempts to find it – does it really exist? – but I’ll let that one slide for now.

If we look at this paper from 1980, we see that the authors remarked that yes, heart attacks were rare, but this plus for them was accompanied by the related observation that they had very high rates of stroke. Are strokes Paleo now, too, to go along with infection and anemia? You can see that these authors concurred with the common belief I shared in my Eskimo videos, which is that their very high omega-3 intakes prevented the clots that might cause a myocardial infarction but the tradeoff was that they were easy bleeders with high levels of stored toxins. Must we really choose between strokes and heart attacks today?

Another reference Cordain used to support his claim of a low rate of heart disease among the Inuit was Bjerregaard and Dyerberg, which is on the fifth line down.

This one also found a high rate of stroke. Like Gottmann, these authors cautioned that their research shouldn’t be over-interpreted. “The validity of Greenlandic mortality statistics is not high,” they said. We have yet more weak data and yet another weak reference. Can you believe the low-carbers think these studies are worth more than the China Study?

These authors were quite clear that they thought the marine diet of these Inuit caused a shift in risk away from heart disease and toward strokes.

This study is an especially odd choice for Cordain because it so directly contradicts his paper and his beliefs. The authors say clearly that any impression of a lower rate of ischemic heart disease among these Inuit does not give a correct picture because they die at such high rates from other things. In other words, other things happened to kill them first before heart disease could get its chance. But that isn’t the best part here. You see that their mortality from heart disease had actually declined as they left their Paleo lifestyle and lived in towns, eating non-Paleo foods.

Cordain also cites an author named Scott to support his claim that over the past 64 years, “anthropological research has consistently demonstrated relatively low serum cholesterol and triacylglycerol levels among indigenous populations that derive the majority of their diet from animal products.” Dr Cordain is not a cardiologist.

That is probably why he doesn’t think cholesterol scores in the 300 to 400 range at the high end are especially high. I can assure you, however, that that is high cholesterol. Mean cholesterol for all men over 20 was above 200. That’s nothing to crow about, Dr. Cordain. I guess you can say that that is “relatively low” since I can’t know what you are relating those numbers to. They definitely aren’t relatively low compared to vegans. By the way, please note the drop-off in cholesterol in the oldest group, which was only 50 to 53 years old. That’s not a good sign for their health.

A mean cholesterol level of 214 is also not all that low for a population that has to work hard to survive and that seems to lack elderly people.

The authors were quite clear about their findings. One very old report of low cholesterol among the Eskimos was never verified by later investigations, including theirs. Inuit cholesterol was found to be higher than what was seen in the United States, and remember, the United States was having a major problem with coronary disease then. Despite all this, Cordain used this as a reference to support his claim that they had low cholesterol. But you should give him a break for so brazenly misrepresenting this science. How else is he supposed to sell his idiotic fad diet?

In 1990 a study was done comparing native Greenlanders to Danes to try to account for the lower reported rates of heart disease among the Greenlanders. Using ultrasonography, they found that they had almost the same degree of atherosclerosis as the Danes.

Before any Paleo dieters object that these people were not living a traditional lifestyle, that is not true here. 72% said they were living a traditional lifestyle, and they would know what that means better than some trendy dufus at a gym in an American city. An additional 21% said they mostly ate traditional Inuit foods.

These authors also commented on the poor quality of the data available for such a scattered and isolated population. On the right you can see that they cited other evidence of heart disease among them, including a frozen mummy. I’ll come back to this point in a moment.

They stated that atherosclerosis was probably generally present among these Inuit to a similar extent as for Caucasians. They did find it plausible that there might be a factor in their diets which may have lowered their rate of infarction. You now know this was likely due to their high fish consumption, which also probably contributed to their higher rate of stroke.

All that fish consumption also explains why their bodily toxin burdens were high. In this study, one of the main predictors of high bodily contaminant concentrations was their markers of omega-3 fatty acids from fish. More fish, more toxins was the finding here.

There have been other papers reporting a lower rate of heart disease among circumpolar natives, but when you read these, check what the comparison population was. They were probably being compared to a population with a high rate of heart disease.

And if they were doing better, it was probably at least partially because their cholesterol was a bit lower. Again, these folks would have gone hungry more often than you probably do.

We just saw a researcher who made reference to observations of Inuit mummies. I have presented you with findings from mummies in my other videos about the Eskimos. Since then I found another book about this, referred to me by a helpful viewer. Here a detailed examination was conducted of several other mummies.

These dated from around 1475 and came from an area well inside the Arctic circle called Qilakitsoq. I am really thankful for these mummy finds. Like practically all archaeological finds, these mummy remains wouldn’t have been found without a huge dose of luck. Thanks to fortuitous discoveries like this, I can inform you about the preserved bodies of people who lived in environments as carbohydrate-free as is naturally possible. They were not eating any grains or beans that some excuse-making, special-pleading opportunistic podcaster can use to get his pseudoscience-based diet off the hook.

Here you see at the top left that arterial plaque was found in one mummy. He also had very weak bones, a common theme for these old mummies. Their diets seem to have been very damaging to their bone health. On the right, you can see that a child was also found to have poor bone quality, as well as possible birth defects.

At the top, you can see that their high-protein diets led to the development of a kidney stone in one mummy. Again, their lives must have been quite hard. I hear that kidney stones are awful.

On the right, you can see that this paleopathologist was certain he discovered evidence of a malignant cancer in one body. He said that this form of cancer was also common in modern times among circumpolar peoples. I remarked on this Inuit tendency to develop certain cancers in my older videos as well.

With all that said, I will affirm for the Weston Price Foundation fans that they had no tooth decay, if that happens to be your highest health priority.

Poor bone status has been observed among these people in more recent times. These researchers blamed their poor bone health on their high-protein, low-calcium diets. Read this and just imagine if something similar were to be found about vegetarians what the low-carbers would say.

These researchers thought a comparison with vegetarians was appropriate as well, remarking that vegetarians seemed to have better bone health than omnivores.

I learned about another interesting health challenge for the Inuit. Apparently they can suffer from a type of temporary mental health disorder called pibloktoq. Suffice it to say this seems to be a rather intense loss of composure. You can read a more detailed description of this problem if you like on this slide.

Various nutrient deficiencies have been suggested as explanatory of this condition, although none have been verified. Chris Masterjohn might note that one other hypothesis concerns their extreme vitamin A intakes.

Masterjohn apparently believes that toxic quantities of vitamin A are good for us.

When you put all this together, I don’t think the take-home message should be that these people were or are in any way lesser than anyone else. Historic circumpolar peoples were challenged in life in ways that very few of us are today. Their survival alone is to be admired. My point here is that there is no reason to look to them as models of good health for us. They have been engaged for millennia in a struggle to survive that most probably affected which genes were favored in their population. They have their own unique genetic inheritance.

This slide makes that point for me. Eskimos were here said to have a greater number of sweat glands on their faces than other people. They had fewer sweat glands on the trunks of their bodies. This would be a useful adaptation for people wearing heavy clothing in the frigid cold. It wouldn’t have been helpful for them to sweat inside their clothing.

I recall Les Stroud saying of surviving in the extreme cold, “if you sweat, you die.” Whether that trait is genetic or epigenetic, the Inuit are well-adapted to their environment. You should adapt well to yours. For practically anyone watching this, your genetic legacy is not Inuit. For all of us, even the Inuit, we are fundamentally African. Maybe this is why we do better fueling ourselves with carbs rather than animal fats. Low carbers don’t believe that, though. They think a carb is a carb is a carb, and that all carbs raise your triglycerides and cause diabetes. They think this way because they can’t let go of the false dichotomy between fats and refined carbs. There is another way to fuel your machine, and if you think about the way that machine was built, you’ll understand the fuel it needs to work the right way. An Evolved Fuel System is next.