University of Minnesota

‘If Eating Fat is the Issue, Why not Study the Eskimos’

“If eating fat is the issue, why not study the Eskimo?” Ancel Keys was often asked.(1) And in fact, he had early explored the idea with the Nordic adventurer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, an adopted member of Inuit tribes, author of Not by Bread Alone, and noted proponent of rugged, hunter-gatherer lifeways. The two biologists had met during World War II when Keys supported Stefansson’s proposal of fatty pemmican for a survival ration. Keys went on, however, to develop the useful, if ill-famed, “K (for Keys) ration.”

What about the Eskimo, indeed? Did he really live on an exclusively high-fat, seal-meat and blubber diet? Was he, in fact, healthy and free of coronary disease? Why not look northward for the more extreme natural experiment on the diet-heart question eminent in the late 1940s?

Keys was casting about at the time for wide cultural variations in fat intake to examine his diet and lifestyle hypotheses about the post-war epidemic of heart attack in men. But Stefansson estimated that there might not be more than a dozen men of “coronary age” in the whole of the Northwest Territories and Alaska who lived still in a traditional hunting lifestyle or ate a predominantly marine animal diet. An immense effort would required to locate and examine these survivors. And what real meaning would such a sample of a few men have?

Keys ‘ran the numbers,’ and, to the considerable relief of his crew, Arctic investigations of the diet-heart hypothesis were not launched from Minnesota. A Finnish-Mediterranean comparison seemed more rational and feasible.

Much later, intrepid Danish explorers, Bang and Dyerburg, took up the question among Greenland natives. Among the coastal men with modified lifestyles they found little convincing evidence about lower vascular disease frequency but much of interest about the salubrious effects of marine lipids on lipoprotein (LP) composition and coagulability of blood. (Henry Blackburn)

[footnote 1: The term ‘Eskimo,’ incorrectly thought to mean ‘eaters of raw meat,’ is nowadays considered derogatory. It is no longer used by officials or natives of the North Country, who prefer that Arctic peoples be identified by their tribal-language grouping, such as Inuit.]


Stefansson, Vilhjalmur. 1946. Not by Bread Alone. The Macmillan Company.