Mysteries of the Inuit Diet

August 30, 2013


Most of us don’t know much about the Inuit, the northern people once known as Eskimos. Maybe you remember reading stories about igloos and seal hunts when you were a kid.

Those are good stories – but it turns out the reality of Inuit life is even more interesting. For one thing, the term “Eskimo” is archaic and some northern people find it offensive. They prefer the term “Inuit,” which encompasses the Inupiat people, the Canadian Inuit and Inuvialuit, native Greenlanders, and the Yupiks of Alaska and Siberia.

The Inuit Diet

Modern Inuit people eat much the same foods as the rest of the world. Trucks and trains readily deliver potato chips, cabbages, and breakfast cereal to towns north of the Arctic Circle just as they deliver them to the rest of the world.

The traditional Inuit diet, however, is still eaten in some areas. It’s a fascinating diet that nutritionists have always found more than a bit puzzling.

Most of us grew up planning our diets around some version of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food pyramid.

You know: bread, cereal, and rice on the bottom level, then fruits and vegetables, then meat and dairy products, and fats and oils on the top. It’s a simple way of determining the desired proportions of different types of foods.

The traditional Inuit diet does not acknowledge the existence of the food pyramid. The planet’s northernmost regions are not hospitable to farming, so there’s no wheat, no fruits, and no vegetables. No carbs, no sugar.

In their place, the Inuit eat meat and fish. Lots of it. And very little else.


A Nightmare for Vegetarians

It’s an overstatement to say the traditional Inuit diet includes no vegetables. Wild fruits and berries are consumed during the short Arctic summer, and Inuit who live near the coast harvest kelp.

But these vegetable products make up a very small part of the traditional diet.

According to conventional wisdom, the Inuit people’s high-protein, high-fat diet should put them at risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and early death.

A scarcity of fruits and vegetables ought to lead to scurvy. But these diseases are reportedly rare among the Inuit.

Biologists and nutritionists aren’t sure how the Inuit have historically thrived on such a diet. They speculate that their vitamin C needs are met via consumption of uncooked meat. The meat and fish available in the far north, they observe, are rich in monounsaturated fats and high in omega-3 acids.

These factors could account for the reduced rates of cardiovascular disease. But there hasn’t been sufficient research to turn any of this speculation into fact.

Researchers even disagree whether the Inuit have higher or lower rates of disease than populations who eat more traditional diets. There is simply a lot we don’t know.

Six Inuit Specialties

Should Inuit cuisine ever make its way to restaurant menus in the temperate climes, here are some of the delicacies you might sample:

Stinkhead. Inuit people from different regions prepare different versions of this popular dish. Meat or fish is wrapped in grass and buried for long periods.

Stinkhead made from fish heads and guts might rot in an underground barrel for just a few weeks, while walrus steaks require a solid year of decomposing, fermenting, and freezing.

Akutaq. This delicacy is commonly known as Eskimo ice cream. Wild berries are mixed with whipped fat from reindeer, moose, walrus, caribou, or seal. Some recipes call for a bit of fish as well.

Tolkusha. This dish, which hails from eastern Siberia, is a sort of variation on Akutaq. It’s a mixture of dried fish or fish eggs with fat and berries.

Sometimes plant roots or stems are tossed in as well, with all the ingredients pounded and ground into a paste.

Whale skin with blubber is a popular meal. The skin is sliced from a freshly killed whale and served raw with the thick, rubbery layer of fat beneath.

Raw meat and fish. The Inuit dried, smoked, and cooked meat sometimes, but they also enjoyed it raw, often digging into a carcass minutes after a successful hunt.

Raw organ meats provided a wealth of nutrients, and the contents of animals’ stomachs sometimes served as all the vegetables in an Inuit hunter’s diet.

Fresh blood. In traditional Inuit hunting camps, hunters sometimes drank the blood of their kills while it was still warm. Whale blood was considered a treat.

The Inuit believed animal blood fortified their own blood and made it thicker, better able to keep them strong through a long winter.

Modern-day Inuit don’t eat like this anymore, but they work to keep their culture and traditions alive. So don’t be surprised if you are one day invited to dinner at an Inuit restaurant.

Let us know how you enjoy the stinkhead!

One Comment

  1. Charlie Sommers

    November 12, 2015 at 8:37 pm

    Even though it is politically incorrect now I must admit that I ate raw whale meat many times in Japan years ago. I also ate defatted blubber which was dipped in a sweetened miso & vinegar solution. I thought both foods were quite tasty.

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