Has the “Eskimo myth” been “exploded?

Vegan physician Neal Barnard writes in HuffPo: New Study Explodes the ‘Eskimo Myth’. The idea is that Eskimos (what happened to ‘Inuit”?) have more heart disease than has been recognized and that eating lots of omega-3 fats from fish does not protect them from heart disease.

But Eskimos today eat Western foods, drink plenty of alcohol, have high rates of suicide, and are, in short, living far from the way that their ancestors did. Any study that fails to control for that is a poor one.

It may be true that omega-3 fats do not offer a lot of protection if most other aspects of one’s lifestyle are harmful. But there’s solid evidence for a protective effect of omega-3: Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Disease: A Case for Omega-3 Index as a New Risk Factor.

The omega-3 fatty acids (FAs) found in fish and fish oils (eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids, EPA and DHA) have been reported to have a variety of beneficial effects in cardiovascular diseases. Ecological and prospective cohort studies as well as randomized, controlled trials have supported the view that the effects of these FAs are clinically-relevant. They operate via several mechanisms, all beginning with the incorporation of EPA and DHA into cell membranes…. In as much as blood levels are a strong reflection of dietary intake, it is proposed that an omega-3 FA biomarker, the omega-3 index (erythrocyte EPA+DHA) be considered at least a marker, if not a risk factor, for coronary heart disease, especially sudden cardiac death. The omega-3 index fulfils many of the requirements for a risk factor including consistent epidemiological evidence, a plausible mechanism of action, a reproducible assay, independence from classical risk factors, modifiability, and most importantly, the demonstration that raising tissue levels will reduce risk for cardiac events. For these and a number of other reasons, the omega-3 index compares very favourably with other risk factors for sudden cardiac death.

See figure below for dramatic evidence of the protective effect of omega-3 fats. The highest quartile of omega-3 index had about 10% the risk of heart attack than the lowest.

Update: Inuit (Eskimo) women had a very high rate of smoking: “Inuit women had the highest smoking rate among the Aboriginal population at 71%.” Source. H/T Neil J. Edmonson. It would certainly seem like this has more to do with heart disease and stroke than omega-3 levels.

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5 comments
Sam says June 13, 2014

It’s also noted that Eskimos aged very rapidly. Young Women looked very old. Diet is so confusing.

Reply
    bigmyc says February 20, 2017

    Don’t know how long that they lived under their normal diet but maybe that aging thing has a little something to do with the environment that they live in……They might just have an extremely weathered, yet protective exterior that shelters their robust internal physiology. Its quite cold and dry up there.

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