Guest post by Nicole Nadeau
As we head into the depths of winter here in Maine, we find ourselves craving rich hearty dishes in hopes of adding insulation to our bones. It’s only natural that as this season approaches we crave an extra layer — whether that comes from a warm cozy sweater or a stick-to-the-ribs meal.
I think back to a professor I once had who did research with Inuit cultures. After a month of living in the extreme cold temperatures of the northern most region of Quebec, he found himself craving straight lard, a staple of the Inuit diet. He consumed lard by the spoonful. Many of us would shudder at the idea of essentially snacking on sticks of butter, or eating mother’s residual bacon grease with a spoon, but in such a harsh climate, with temperatures so unbearable, he not only desired it but went mad without it.
Recent research has shown that these diets high in fat and protein were less damaging than the recent influx of processed foods. Only in recent years have they seen type 2 diabetes, and obesity become a true concern of the inhabitants. There is a direct correlation between the admittance of Taco Bell, McDonalds and Stouffer’s frozen dinners and these recent public health outbreaks. It’s amazing that these foods were found to be more damaging to the system than hundreds of years of a high fat, high meat diet with little to no vegetation available.
Food of the traditional Inuit culture certainly did not follow along with “MyPlate” lacking complex carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables, and dairy. Though the sources of the vitamins that we would assume one would lack living in an extreme climate may be unfamiliar to us, they are in fact omnipresent. Vitamin A for example, being fat soluble, is as plentiful in fish oils as it is in carrots. Vitamin C can be found in the undercooked livers and other organ meats of the local animals; no citrus required. An overall lack of fruits and vegetation is a given, but the Inuits make up for this by eating more fish (high in omega-3’s and the good fats).
For fiber, the hunted wild game’s diet is rich in moss, and lichens. Though this fauna is difficult for humans to digest in it’s present state, the predigested vegetation found within the hunted game became this needed source of fiber. I can only assume these are an acquired taste, having never sampled them myself, or perhaps, it would be considered a rare delicacy. Not only would these greens be an excellent source of fiber, they would also be a great source of natural probiotics.
As much as we may demonize fats in the American diets, we are in the process of learning that there is a wide differential of quality in fats. Inuits in Northern Quebec are getting 50% of their diet’s calories from fat. Perhaps surprisingly, we don’t see an increased risk of heart disease in that population the way we do in more Westernized cultures. Looking at the source of their fats, we see that whale blubber (a dietary staple) is incredibly high in omega 3s. The wild animals they hunt feast on the vegetation that they scavenge for, making game organ meats essentially the Inuit “multi-vitamin.”
Of course, gorging on fats and organ meats isn’t really a concern, since foods that need to be hunted and gathered are by nature less abundant in supply. There is little danger of over-consumption of these foods. And in the extreme climate, a few extra pounds that may accumulate from such a caloric intake are likely a blessing. By contrast, the American diet has an overabundance of supply, and it is up to us to self-limit and to make the choices that best suit our needs and diet.
Though winters in Maine are perceived as harsh and unbearable, relative to Nunavut, we’re quite temperate. Though we may crave heavier dishes, we’re far from spoonfuls of lard. Food is ingrained in our culture, and what we eat (literally and figuratively) becomes a part of us. We eat for survival, and for pleasure. The foods we love, and crave are as much by choice as they are by necessity. The changing diets and culture of fast and processed foods in the northernmost regions are putting us at risk for losing a time honored culture, based not only on survival but of a digestive system finely tuned to adapt to the harsh climate.
“It’s part, too, of your development as a person. You share food with your community. You show respect to your elders by offering them the first catch. You give thanks to the animal that gave up its life for your sustenance. So you get all the physical activity of harvesting your own food, all the social activity of sharing and preparing it, and all the spiritual aspects as well. You certainly don’t get all that, do you, when you buy prepackaged food from a store”
Patricia Cochran – Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council.