First came the Mediterranean diet, with its olive oil, fish, and colorful vegetables. Then came the Scandinavian diet, with fatty mackerel, cabbage, root vegetables, and hearty rye bread. Could the next diet on the horizon be the Inuit diet?
The Inuit diet is actually, to some extent, already on our plates. With gluten-free proponents popping up left, right, and center, and more versions of the Paleo diet than we can count, grains are disappearing (or at least being vastly reduced) on modern plates, and protein and plants are taking center stage. The Inuit diet, like most subsistence diets of the past, has no grains in it at all. Much like Paleo, it’s a high-protein, high-fat diet that centers on common foods in sub-arctic climates, but unlike Paleo -- or really any diet being labeled as healthy nowadays -- it centers principally on animal proteins: lots of meat and fish, some fruits and vegetables, no dairy, and little to no carbohydrates.
“We pretty much had a subsistence way of life,” Patricia Cochran, an Inupiat from Northwestern Alaska, told the Independent about the traditional Inuit diet. “We did our hunting and foraging on the Seward Peninsula and along the Bering Sea.”
So what, exactly, were these tribes foraging, and why should we care? After all, high-fat and high-protein reeks of the low-carb diets like Atkins, which seem like the opposite of good health. But according to many sources, Inuit who consumed this sort of diet were perfectly healthy, even with what seems like large deficits of certain key nutrients -- a phenomenon known in many nutritional circles as the Inuit paradox.
While most of us don't live in sub-arctic climates today, and even modern Inuit rarely eat an entirely traditional diet anymore due to increased proximity of towns and cities, the pattern and makeup of an Inuit diet is eye-opening with regards to our conception of balance. According to Harold Draper, a biochemist and expert in Eskimo nutrition, the Inuit diet illustrates that there are no essential foods, only essential nutrients. In other words, with the right kinds of foods prepared the right way, our bodies are equipped to absorb most, if not all, of the nutrients we need.
1. The Protein Paradox
The Inuit diet is rich in animal protein, including large game and game birds, as well as crab and fish, particularly fermented or smoked fish. With such a huge amount of protein being ingested by the Inuit, one might think that the risk for cardiovascular disease would be astronomical, and yet this isn't the case.
Research has shown that even protein-rich diets like this one exhibit a natural “protein ceiling,” something that is cited in many guides to Paleo diets. It shows that protein accounts for no more than 35 to 40 percent of the total calories of a traditional Inuit diet, which suggests that this is the maximum that a human can handle. This is the reason why animals with more fat – such as fatty fish like salmon – were a better choice than leaner animals for Inuit hunters: the protein-to-fat ratio was lower.
For modern low-carb or grain-free eaters, it's important to remember this protein cap. While the Inuit were far more likely to opt for fat as most, if not all, of the other 60 to 65 percent of their diets, the key to making this work for you is capping the protein -- vegetables and fruits can also be part of the rest of your modern plate.
2. The Fat Phenomenon
If you balked at a 60 to 65 percent fat diet, you're not alone -- after all, we've been told time and time again that too much fat is no good. Luckily, the new federal health guidelines are finally in line with what nutritionists have been saying for quite some time: the quality of your fat is just as important -- if not more so -- as the quantity.
The true key to the Inuit paradox is in the quality of the fat consumed. Wild animal fats, by and large monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, are far more beneficial than farmed animal fats, which are more saturated.
Luckily, you don't need to hunt your own caribou to take advantage of this. Eating grass-fed beef, wild game birds, wild fish, and plant sources of healthy fats like avocado and nuts is just as beneficial.
3. The Vitamin Vacuum
The Inuit diet notably features very few plants, given the freezing temperatures most of the year. Vegetables in a traditional Inuit diet included root vegetables, greens, and wild berries foraged in the short summers... and not a whole lot in the winter. So why weren't the Inuit deficient in vitamins A, C, and D?
The answer comes from the fact that while these vitamins are plentiful in plants and in dairy foods, they can be present in animal proteins as well. Vitamin A and vitamin D are both found in the oils of cold-water fishes and sea mammals, and vitamin C is plentiful in both sea kelp and organ meats, particularly when they are prepared raw, as they often were in an Inuit diet.
Now we're not saying it's a great idea to forgo plants in your diet. That said, to extract the most from your meat, consider raw preparations as a possibility, to help your body absorb even more of these key nutrients from sources you never would have expected.
4. The Key to the Inuit Diet: Waste Not
As with many subsistence diets, there is one key that we can definitely take into whatever diet we choose -- the waste not, want not mentality.
All parts of the animals that were hunted were used: organs, blubber, skin. “We used seal oil for our cooking and as a dipping sauce for food,” Cochran explained. The organs were important sources of some vitamins that you just can't get from eating muscle meats, and they're tasty too.
Today, organ meats are becoming more and more available, particularly with meat shares and CSAs. Choosing to consume all of an animal is not only a more sustainable way of living, but, it turns out, it's better for us too.
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Raw salmon image via Shutterstock