How the Western Diet Changed the Lives of the Arctic People

If you like to read about nutrition then you’ve surely stumbled across the circumpolar people, often called Inuits or Eskimos, and how they have a low prevalence of cardiovascular diseases, despite eating a high-fat diet. Well, this has been altered in the past few decades due to some nasty changes.

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We’re living in an ever-more globalized village, and people in the Arctic weren’t exempt from this process. In the past few decades, their diet underwent massive changes. It has started to mimic certain aspects of the standard American diet (SAD). I’ve mentioned about how unhealthy the Western diet is on multiple occasions already. However, this case study shows us how the healthiness of an entire people deteriorated due to dietary changes in a relatively short time.

While their traditional diet wasn’t necessarily something one could recommend to everyone, it did serve them adequately and allowed them to grow old with lower percentages of physical and mental illnesses. Sadly, with the recent changes due to increased contact with the West, the tables have turned. There has been a notable increase in the prevalence of various physical and mental diseases. Both of which were largely unknown to them throughout history.

 

In the past

Their traditional environment provided them with a diet rich in animal-based proteins and fats, berries, roots, and certain tubers to a lesser extent. Hunting was widespread and so was the variety of animals which they were accustomed to hunting. Creatures from the sea weren’t spared either.

From the above-mentioned food groups we can extrapolate that their diet was high in protein and fats, and low in carbs. Mainly because the majority of vegetables, starches, legumes, and fruits couldn’t and cant grow in those conditions.

However, even with the mentioned diet, they had low levels of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. If you’ve read this blog or know a thing or two about nutrition, then that little factoid shouldn’t come as a surprise. Besides a rather healthy diet, their traditional lifestyle involved a ton of activity.

They had to hunt for food and bring it back to the place where they lived – this wasn’t an easy task when you think about it; carrying a huge walrus or an animal of a similar size surely wasn’t easy.

Another thing which they had to do was move around and find more hospitable living areas, after they depleted the resources of a previous one.

Both of these two groups of activities presented them with a lot of things to do. However, much of that has been changed in the recent decades.

 

Today

Since the increased contact with the West, the circumpolar people have saw a rise in obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes. When the two cultures started exchanging, food was exchanged as well. Unfortunately, the food which was brought into their life wasn’t the healthiest. The amount of carbs and unhealthy fats drastically rose. At the same time, they started eating less of their traditional food rich in omega-3 fatty acids and lean, animal-based protein.

I don’t think I need to even mention the decreased need for an active lifestyle because of technology and all the possible Western gadgets you can think of. Not that there is something inherently wrong with either of both, however, these changes, coupled with the introduction of a Western diet, did lead to the mentioned increase in physical diseases.

But there’s more to this story. In these areas, the most commonly observed mental illnesses these days are increased anxiety, depression, and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Because you’re probably familiar with the former two, I will briefly explain the latter. SAD is characterized by a heightened irritableness, frequent reports of anxiety, sadness, and depression during a particular time of the year, every year – hence the name seasonal.

It’s important to note that it’s more often found in people who move to such environments for a longer time period. The indigenous people, however, don’t experience SAD so often, possibly because they’re adapted to this environment.

With all that said, there has been an increase in depression, suicide rates, as well as SAD, in the populations from these areas, besides the increase in obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.

I must also stress that the saw changes don’t reflect only a change in their diet, they were most likely a by-product of the cultural and social changes which occurred with the exchange of cultures as well.

As we can see, the increased contact with Westerners wasn’t particularly fruitful, if we focus on their mental and physical health. It surely did bring certain positive technological changes, however, those leave a bitter taste when we look at the bigger picture.

References: [1]

About Author

Sebastijan Veselic

BSc in Psychology, currently doing a MSc in Cognitive science. Pursuing and interested in many academic and scientific disciplines and topics, as well as some less so. These include, but are not limited to, cute cats on the internet.

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