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The Inuit and The Paleo Diet

By Casey Thaler, B.A., NASM-CPT, FNS
September 25, 2015
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The Inuit have long been used as a shining example that low carbohydrate approaches to diet can work.1 2 3 4 In fact, traditionally they consumed very little vegetables or any other typically Western foods, and subsisted mainly on fish, sea mammals, and land animals.5 And despite this diet (which would horrify most mainstream dietitians) the Inuit traditionally had very low rates of disease.6

By contrast, the traditional Western diet has been correlated with a plague of health issues.7 8 9 As a further example of just how nutritionally poor the Western diet can be, one third of all cancer deaths have been linked to continued intake of low quality foods - which are everyday staples of the Western diet.10

Interestingly, when consumed in a very low carbohydrate version, a Paleo Diet looks very similar – if not identical – to the traditional Inuit diet. Since this way of eating is higher in fat than most North American diets, it is commonly presumed (erroneously) that high fat diets must somehow be “bad.”11 12 What gets (purposely) left out of these arguments is the fact that the type of fat consumed is very important.13 14 15 16 17 Consuming omega-3 fatty acids is highly beneficial for health - while consuming industrial trans fat is pretty much the worst thing you can do for your health.18

To bring all this background knowledge to a head, new research published last week, showed that the Inuit have special mutations in genes involved in fat metabolism.19 These genetic mutations may allow them to thrive on their very low carbohydrate diet. This is thought provoking because these genetic mutations are found in nearly 100% of the Inuit. By contrast, only a mere 2% of Europeans exhibit the same mutations. This means that those of us from European ancestry may synthesize omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids differently than the Inuit.

While the initial buzz of this paper was high, in practice it really doesn’t change anything we know about consuming a healthy Paleo Diet. Omega-3 fatty acids, like those found in wild-caught fish, are still extremely beneficial for our health. In fact, researchers have found that omega-3 fatty acids have widely beneficial anti-inflammatory properties.20 This proves beneficial for inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, in addition to maintaining good health for those without specific health conditions. The advice to consume omega-3 fatty acids is great for mitigating coronary heart disease, depression, aging, and cancer.21

Beyond this, arthritis, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis and lupus erythematosis are autoimmune diseases which may be helped by adequate omega-3 consumption.22 Of the omega-3 fatty acids available, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is the best, for a variety of reasons.23 24 Look for foods naturally high in DHA (such as wild-caught fish) and avoid inflammatory seed oils - like those commonly used by most major restaurants. This crucial step will help you stay healthy in the long term – no matter what genes and ancestry you may have.

References

[1] Dewailly E, Mulvad G, Sloth pedersen H, Hansen JC, Behrendt N, Hart hansen JP. Inuit are protected against prostate cancer. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2003;12(9):926-7.

[2] Bjerregaard P, Dewailly E, Young TK, et al. Blood pressure among the Inuit (Eskimo) populations in the Arctic. Scand J Public Health. 2003;31(2):92-9.

[3] Mulvad G, Pedersen HS, Hansen JC, et al. The Inuit diet. Fatty acids and antioxidants, their role in ischemic heart disease, and exposure to organochlorines and heavy metals. An international study. Arctic Med Res. 1996;55 Suppl 1:20-4.

[4] O'keefe JH, Harris WS. From Inuit to implementation: omega-3 fatty acids come of age. Mayo Clin Proc. 2000;75(6):607-14.

[5] Kuhnlein HV. Nutrition of the Inuit: a brief overview. Arctic Med Res. 1991;Suppl:728-30.

[6] Stefansson V. The friendly arctic. The MacMillan Co, NY. 1921.

[7] Manzel A, Muller DN, Hafler DA, Erdman SE, Linker RA, Kleinewietfeld M. Role of "Western diet" in inflammatory autoimmune diseases. Curr Allergy Asthma Rep. 2014;14(1):404.

[8] Myles IA. Fast food fever: reviewing the impacts of the Western diet on immunity. Nutr J. 2014;13:61.

[9] Simopoulos AP. The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomed Pharmacother. 2002;56(8):365-79.

[10] American Cancer Society. Cancer facts & figures 2004. Atlanta: American Cancer Society, 2004.

[11] Guldstrand MC, Simberg CL. High-fat diets: healthy or unhealthy?. Clin Sci. 2007;113(10):397-9.

[12] Schwingshackl L, Hoffmann G. Comparison of effects of long-term low-fat vs high-fat diets on blood lipid levels in overweight or obese patients: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2013;113(12):1640-61.

[13] Abumrad NA, Piomelli D, Yurko-mauro K, Merrill A, Clandinin MT, Serhan CN. Moving beyond "good fat, bad fat": the complex roles of dietary lipids in cellular function and health: session abstracts. Adv Nutr. 2012;3(1):60-8.

[14] Simopoulos AP. Omega-3 fatty acids in health and disease and in growth and development. Am J Clin Nutr. 1991;54(3):438-63.

[15] Daley CA, Abbott A, Doyle PS, Nader GA, Larson S. A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Nutr J. 2010;9:10.

[16] Loef M, Walach H. The omega-6/omega-3 ratio and dementia or cognitive decline: a systematic review on human studies and biological evidence. J Nutr Gerontol Geriatr. 2013;32(1):1-23.

[17] Swanson D, Block R, Mousa SA. Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA: health benefits throughout life. Adv Nutr. 2012;3(1):1-7.

[18] Ip C. Review of the effects of trans fatty acids, oleic acid, n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, and conjugated linoleic acid on mammary carcinogenesis in animals. Am J Clin Nutr. 1997;66(6 Suppl):1523S-1529S.

[19] Fumagalli M, Moltke I, Grarup N, et al. Greenlandic Inuit show genetic signatures of diet and climate adaptation. Science. 2015;349(6254):1343-7.

[20] Wall R, Ross RP, Fitzgerald GF, Stanton C. Fatty acids from fish: the anti-inflammatory potential of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Nutr Rev. 2010;68(5):280-9.

[21] Harris WS, Dayspring TD, Moran TJ. Omega-3 fatty acids and cardiovascular disease: new developments and applications. Postgrad Med. 2013;125(6):100-13.

[22] Robinson DR, Knoell CT, Urakaze M, et al. Suppression of autoimmune disease by omega-3 fatty acids. Biochem Soc Trans. 1995;23(2):287-91.

[23] Horrocks LA, Yeo YK. Health benefits of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Pharmacol Res. 1999;40(3):211-25.

[24] Conquer JA, Holub BJ. Dietary docosahexaenoic acid as a source of eicosapentaenoic acid in vegetarians and omnivores. Lipids. 1997;32(3):341-5.

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