July 26th, 2010

Would you like the fish, or the fish?

And interesting question from an old article at The Straight Dope:

Why didn’t Eskimos get scurvy before citrus was introduced to their diet? They have a traditional diet of almost entirely meat and fish. Where did they get their vitamin C?

And the answer:

This calls to mind a question I’ve dealt with before: Why do the Eskimos (or Inuit, as those in Canada and Greenland generally prefer to be called) stay there? It turns out that the people of the north have a highly evolved physiology that makes them well suited to life in the arctic: a compact build that conserves warmth, a faster metabolism, optimally distributed body fat, and special modifications to the circulatory system. One marvels at the adaptability of the human organism, of course, but still one has to ask: Wouldn’t it have been easier just to move to San Diego?

Much of what we know about the Eskimo diet comes from the legendary arctic anthropologist and adventurer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who made several daredevil journeys through the region in the early 20th century. Stefansson noticed the same thing you did, that the traditional Eskimo diet consisted largely of meat and fish, with fruits, vegetables, and other carbohydrates–the usual source of vitamin C–accounting for as little as 2 percent of total calorie intake. Yet they didn’t get scurvy.

Stefansson argued that the native peoples of the arctic got their vitamin C from meat that was raw or minimally cooked–cooking, it seems, destroys the vitamin. (In fact, for a long time “Eskimo” was thought to be a derisive Native American term meaning “eater of raw flesh,” although this is now discounted.) Stefansson claimed the high incidence of scurvy among European explorers could be explained by their refusal to eat like the natives. He proved this to his own satisfaction by subsisting in good health for lengthy periods–one memorable odyssey lasted for five years–strictly on whatever meat and fish he and his companions could catch.

Read further at The Straight Dope.


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