The long-held assumption that the so-called “Eskimo diet” of high levels of marine animals helps reduce heart disease has been debunked by Canadian researchers.
A landmark 1970s Danish study had concluded that the diet eaten by Inuit in Greenland consisting of seal, whale blubber, and fish resulted in lower heart disease rates compared to Caucasian populations.
But researchers at the University of Ottawa’s Heart Institute now say that a review of studies conducted over the past 40 years shows that heart disease rates among Greenland Inuit are at the same level as the general populace.
“Their research focused on the dietary habits of Eskimos and offered only speculation that the high intake of marine fats exerted a protective effect on coronary arteries,” said George J. Fodor, the lead author and head of research at the Minto Prevention and Rehabilitation Centre at the institute.
The 1970s study is still widely cited today when recommending the dietary addition of fish oil supplements or oily fish to help avoid cardiovascular problems.
But the Canadian study, which was published in the periodical Canadian Journal of Cardiology, concluded that the link between low heart disease rates and the traditional diet of the Greenland Inuit doesn’t exist.
According to Fodor and his colleagues, the original study that made the claim relied on annual reports by the Chief Medical Officer in Greenland from 1963 to 1967 and did not actually examine local people’s heart conditions in the area.
The review also found the original research relied on death certificates and reporting from remote areas, which has raised reliability issues in the past. The researchers estimate that 20 percent of death certificates cited were completed without a doctor examining the patients or the body.
The life expectancy in the region also tended to be nearly a decade less than overall life expectancy rates in Norwat, Denmark.
It is a “cautionary tale that people who spend money on fish [oil] capsules cannot expect that this can provide any protection for heart disease,” said Fodor. “This is something that is proven now beyond any doubt.”
The researchers in fact found an analysis including a 2003 study suggesting a high level of cardiovascular disease among Inuit populations.
“Fortunately, there is no harm and there is no advantage” to the fish diet, Fodor adds. The researchers recommend a more balanced diet.
“A balanced diet that has a high intake of vegetable and fruit is probably a very sensible diet rather than using excess fish in a regular diet,” Fodor said.
Kaven Baker-Voakes is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.