Lies, Damned Lies, and The Inuit Diet

Below is likely to be a last installment from “Duck Dodgers” on the true Inuit diet, a series of posts that began last March on the subject of “animal starch.” This only led to more and more revelations about the Inuit diet; about their purported high fat, ketogenic way of life. None of it turns out to be supported by the actual scientific literature in over 100 years of study—but only by the narratives of an adventuresome, self-promoting explorer with a love of poetry and poetic writings, who believed in blond Eskimos from some lost Scandinavian tribe.

It should be noted that an absence of ketosis in the Inuit—as the literature clearly shows—is not the same as saying that ketogenic diets are bad. That clarified, it ought be recognized that if you can’t demonstrate it in Inuit, you probably can’t demonstrate it anywhere, and that ought substantially raise the burden of proof that they are indeed healthy long term—that a survival adaptation is the optimal way to live all the time. That can now only be supported by long term research, not relying upon the observation of a—now—mythical population of people that don’t actually exist.

It is often assumed that since the traditional Inuit diet was highly carnivorous, the Inuit people must have been in chronic ketosis—a metabolic state that is typically obtained either through fasting or eating a very high fat diet while restricting protein and carbohydrates. However, those who subscribe to this conclusion apparently never bothered to read much of the published scientific literature on the Inuit. In fact, most proponents of that theory rarely cite works beyond those of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a controversial explorer who made embellished claims and abandoned his ship and crew of the Karluk during the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913-1918. Stefansson’s controversies and sensationalist claims were revealed in the documentary, Arctic Dreamer — The lonely quest of Vilhjalmur Stefansson. It is well worth watching. However, the documentary will make you wonder why anyone would ever choose to rely on Stefansson’s observations to support the performance or safety of a ketogenic diet.

It should be made abundantly clear that no researcher has ever found evidence of ketosis from the traditional diet of the Inuit. Furthermore, the published scientific literature clearly shows that the Inuit could not have been in ketosis due to the high levels of protein consumed and their conservation of fat for lighting and heating.

The first statistical survey of foods eaten by Greenland Eskimos was by Dr. Hinrich Johannes Rink in 1855. Even by that point in history, the Eskimos already had access to minimal amounts of bread and sugar that was imported by visiting Europeans. These Western foods were included in Rink’s figures and were also included in August and Marie Kroghs’ analysis and experiments during their a 1908 expedition to Greenland (Krogh & Krogh, 1914).

The Kroghs’ study was comprehensive, as the couple constructed a respiratory chamber in Greenland for their feeding experiments on the Inuits. The subjects were required to sit alone inside the chamber for up to 4 days at a time while being fed various meals, including bread, sugar on some days and almost exclusively seal meat on other days, as gas, feces and urine samples were measured, respiratory quotients were calculated, and food was weighed and analyzed as well. (Together, the Kroghs made groundbreaking discoveries in respiratory physiology and August Krogh would later win the 1920 Nobel Prize in cardiovascular and muscle physiology, for research establishing that blood flow is regulated through capillaries that open and close according to the tissue’s need for oxygen).

Krogh Inuit Respiration Chamber
Kroghs’ Inuit Respiration Chamber

Glycogen had barely even been discovered when Rink made his analysis in the mid-19th century, so Rink’s data on carbohydrate intake, which had been originally been attributed to small amounts of bread and sugar, was later adjusted by the Kroghs for the dietary glycogen they had observed. This was encouraged by Alfred Bertelsen’s 1911 discovery of significant glycogen stores in the skin of the narwhal.

Animalske Antiscorbutica i Grønland., Hospitalstidende, Bd. 54 1911, by Alfred Bertelsen

The epidermis of Narwhale and Whitewhale [Monodon monoceros and Beluga leucas] is 12—15 mm. thick. In the stratum corneum of 2—3 mm. thickness and also in the deepest layer round the papillae there is comparatively little glycogen. But in the middle layers the cells are filled with glycogen granulations.

Krogh and Krogh set out to Greenland to investigate.

A study of the diet and metabolism of Eskimos undertaken in 1908 on an expedition to Greenland, by August Krogh and Marie Krogh (1914)

“The skin of young whales is considered a special delicacy. It has been examined recently by Bertelsen and found to contain an extraordinary large proportion of glycogen…We have no direct determinations of the glycogen, but when we compare the heats of combustion of the samples with the amounts of N and crude fat found in them we find an excess of energy which must probably be ascribed to glycogen…

…From a comparison of the ascertained heat of combustion with the chemical analyses we find that [seal meat] must have contained a considerable proportion of glycogen varying from 1.1—4% (Average 2.5%)…The raw meat must therefore have contained 3.15% N. = 19.8% protein, 8% fat and 2% glycogen…

…The normal diet of Eskimos contains an excessive amount of animal protein (280 gr.) and much fat (135 gr.) while the quantity of carbohydrate is extremely small (54 gr. of which more than ½ is derived as glycogen from the meat eaten). Their dietary habits are very like those of the carnivorous animals.”

The Inuit’s consumption of dietary glycogen has been supported in the scientific literature ever since. Interestingly, it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that researchers began to discover that diving marine mammals had even larger glycogen stores than had been previously assumed—particularly in their organs, blubber and skin.[1][2][3][4]

Although the Kroghs’ Inuit subjects were supplemented with Western carbohydrates as part of their testing, the detailed measurements and analyses specifically showed that even without those carbohydrates the traditional Inuit diet was too high in protein and did not have enough fat to enable ketosis.

Over the next few years, published remarks from Graham Lusk (1914), Elliott Joslin (1917) and Philip Schaffer (1921) solidified the Kroghs’ findings, while postulating the mechanisms.

In 1928, Peter Heinbecker began a series of studies on the metabolism of Eskimos eating their traditional diet, echoing the earlier findings of the Kroghs:

Studies on The Metabolism of Eskimos, by Peter Heinbecker (1928)

“According to [Kroghs’] analysis the metabolism of the food contained in the Eskimo dietary would not be expected to cause ketosis, because the calculated antiketogenic effect of the large amount of protein ingestion was somewhat more than enough to offset the ketogenic effect of fat plus protein…Average daily food partition is about 280 gm. of protein, 135 gm. of fat, and 54 gm. of carbohydrate of which the bulk is derived from the glycogen of the meat eaten…During fasting the respiratory quotient falls to a level which may be interpreted as indicating a conversion of fat into carbohydrate.”

It was later pointed out by Sinclair (1953) that Kroghs’ analysis of meat intake could have been an underestimate, particularly when activity was higher in such an extreme environment. The Kroghs were actually aware of this and even mentioned it in their report.

Heinbecker’s 1928 study showed that the Inuit were not in ketosis while fed their traditional diet, using several methods—including urine testing of acetone, diacetic, and β-hydroxybutyric acid; acetone bodies in the breath; respiratory quotient; as well as their documented high protein intake. However, their lowered respiratory quotient, only upon fasting, was something Heinbecker wanted to explore further.

Heinbecker did additional studies on Eskimos in 1931 and 1932 with fasts lasting up to 7 days, which expanded on these findings. Heinbecker finally concluded, “The analyses of urine specimens collected from three Eskimo subjects during a 7 day fast demonstrate that these people develop a lesser degree of ketosis on fasting than do average white persons living in the temperate zones.”

Despite finding no evidence of ketosis while in their fed state, Heinbecker’s studies appeared to show evidence of an Eskimo adaptation to starvation ketosis, where the degree of their ketosis during fasting was not comparable to that generally reported for other human subjects. This conclusion was briefly mentioned in a 1969 Antarctic study of (non-Arctic/non-Inuit) polar sledgers.

Ketonuria In The Antarctic: A Detailed Study, by R. M. Lloyd (1969)

“”Adaptation to starvation ketosis has been shown in Eskimos (Heinbecker, 1928, 1931, 1932).”

Interestingly, Lloyd writes that long distance polar sledgers prefer very high fat rations to keep weight low and calorie yield high. This would explain why arctic explorers, such as Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka, packed such high fat rations on their sledge journeys and reportedly adapted to ketosis over a matter of a few weeks. Schwatka, who initially packed a month’s supply of food—mostly walrus blubber—noted that while tracking down the lost Franklin Expedition between 1878-80 he had made “the longest sledge journey ever made both in regard to time and distance” of eleven months and four days and 2,709 miles and claimed that it was the first Arctic expedition on which the whites relied entirely on the same diet as the Inuit. Low carb/high fat (LCHF) advocates often use the dietary adaptation reports from these long sledging journeys as proof that the Inuit diet is ketogenic. However, As Lloyd points out, high fat rations are simply “vital to good sledging logistics.” There is no evidence—nor is there reason to presume—that sledging rations are representative of a traditional Inuit diet.

It has also been suggested by LCHF advocates that early metabolic researchers were unaware of keto-adaptation. However, we can see from the literature that this is not the case. Elliott Joslin, the first doctor to ever specialize in diabetes in the US, had even suggested an adaptation to starvation ketosis, in 1917, after analyzing the Kroghs’ detailed study.

The Treatment of Diabetes Mellitus, by Elliott Joslin (1917)

“It is reasonable to conclude that the body of the fasting man adapted itself to the changed conditions and in some way restricted the output of acid bodies. This may be the explanation of the lack of acidosis among the Eskimos.”

And in 1928, McClellan, Spencer, Falk, and DuBois, demonstrated that the various tests available at the time were not only sensitive enough to detect an adaptation to ketosis, but that they were cognizant of keto-adaptation stating, “Possibly the body of the obese individual has become adapted to the use of large amounts of fat over long periods of time so that ketosis is produced with difficulty. As the arctic explorers are to continue on the exclusive meat diet for about 6 months longer we shall be able to report if any further adaptation occurs.”

Vilhjalmur Stefansson and Karson Anderson—the two arctic explorers mentioned in that 1928 study—continued their diet to complete their year of eating Western fatty meats, in what would become known as the highly publicized Bellevue Experiment. Again, ketones were observed in Stefansson’s and Anderson’s urine throughout the experiment. Observers McClellan and DuBois also acknowledged that their subjects were never consuming the macronutrient ratios observed in earlier studies on the Eskimos.

Clinical Calorimetry: XLV. Prolonged Meat Diets With A Study Of Kidney Function And Ketosis, by W.S. McClellan and E.F. DuBois (1930)

“During the first 2 days [Stefansson’s] diet approximated that of the Eskimos, as reported by Krogh and Krogh, except that he took only one-third as much carbohydrate. The protein accounted for 45 per cent of his food calories. The intestinal disturbance began on the 3rd day of this diet. During the next 2 days he took much less protein and more fat so that he received about 20 percent of his calories from protein and 80 percent from fat. In these two days his intestinal condition became normal without medication. Thereafter the protein calories did not exceed 25 per cent of the total for more than 1 day at a time.”

At the conclusion of the experiment, Edward Tolstoi tested Stefansson’s and Anderson’s glucose tolerance. Tolstoi observed that they were unable to reproduce the glucose tolerance found in Heinbecker’s Eskimos—concluding with Rabinowitch that the Inuit were obtaining sufficient carbohydrates from high levels of protein and some dietary glycogen.

The Effect Of An Exclusive Meat Diet Lasting One Year On The Carbohydrate Tolerance Of Two Normal Men, By Edward Tolstoi (1929)

“Heinbecker studied the tolerance of Eskimos to carbohydrate. His subjects, by necessity, lived on a practically exclusive meat diet for years, before their carbohydrate tolerance tests were made. In spite of the fact that their diets were low in carbohydrate, the results of the tests indicated that they assimilated carbohydrate well. The blood sugar curves were within the normal range and the urine remained free of sugar. Is it possible that Heinbecker’s subjects derived sufficient carbohydrate-forming substance from the protein in their diet to keep the insulin producing mechanism sufficiently stimulated to handle large quantities of carbohydrate? His Eskimos consumed about 280 gm. of protein, 135 gm. of fat, and 54 gm. of carbohydrate of which more than half is obtained from the glycogen of the meat. This seems a likely explanation.”

In 1936, Rabinowitch also referenced the Inuit’s dietary glycogen intake, but more importantly his observations confirmed the Inuit’s high protein consumption.

Clinical and Other Observations On Canadian Eskimos In The Eastern Arctic, By I.M. Rabinowitch (1936)

Eskimo catches a walrus he immediately opens the stomach and eats all of the clams, which have some glycogen. He also relishes the skin on the whale and narwhal, both of which are rich in glycogen, and he eats enormous quantities of meat. The Eskimos eat the livers of practically all animals, except that of the white bear. These are rich in glycogen. As stated above, when food is abundant a healthy adult will eat 5 to 10 or more pounds of meat a day, and, only when in need does he consume very large quantities of fat. Blubber is not regarded as a delicacy. It is also of interest to note that though whale, walrus and seal have enormous layers of blubber, the accumulations of fat in the musculature seen in some land animals are practically unknown; the meat is, therefore, lean. When consideration is given to these facts and to the additional fact that about 58 percent of protein is convertible into sugar, it is obvious that the ratio of fatty-acid to glucose is well below the generally accepted level of ketogenesis. I estimate that when food is abundant, the average daily diet of the adult Eskimo consists approximately of 30 to 40 grams of carbohydrate (which includes glycogen), 250 to 300 grams of protein, and about 150 grams of fat (FA/G=1.2). These amounts of meat are apparently not heroic, for it has been alleged that the Yakuts, on the Low Steppe, east of the Lena, eat as much as 25 and 30 pounds of meat a day.”

Rabinowitch co-authored two additional studies during the expedition. Rabinowitch and Smith made their observations in “Metabolic Studies of Eskimos in The Canadian Eastern Arctic.” Rabinowitch and Corcoran also commented on how Stefansson’s and Anderson’s tests—which were sensitive enough to detect an adaptation to ketosis—differed so much from the Inuit’s tests where ketosis could not be detected by any measure, other than their adaptation to starvation ketosis, while fasting.

A Study Of The Blood Lipoids And Blood Protein In Canadian Eastern Arctic Eskimos, By A.C. Corcoran and I.M. Rabinowitch (1936)

Also suggestive of an unusual mechanism for the utilization of fat is the absence of ketosis in these natives, whereas the urines of both of [Stefansson and Anderson] contained acetone. The explanation of this absence of ketosis is not entirely clear. As shown previously [Rabinowitch & Smith, 1936], though the small amount of carbohydrates in the diets may be more than balanced by the potential sugar production from the large amount of protein to keep the ratio of fatty acid to glucose below the generally accepted level of ketogenesis, the respiratory quotient data suggest another mechanism also. That the Eskimo possesses a very active fat metabolism is suggested from some of the data.

Corcoran and Rabinowitch were referring to the lowered respiratory quotients observed by Heinbecker when his subjects fasted (i.e. starvation ketosis).

In 1940, Cuthbertson, MaCutcheon and Munro concurred with Rabinowitch’s analyses, stating that it was likely the glycogen in their food that assisted the Inuit with their protein metabolism.

In 1952, Kaare Rodahl expanded on the earlier findings of high protein intake in the Inuit by investigating their basal metabolism on such a diet.

Basal Metabolism of The Eskimo, by Kaare Rodahl (1952)

It is well known that considerably higher amounts of protein are regularly consumed by the Eskimos (DuBois, ’28), who generally speaking, prefer a diet where approximately 50% of the calories come from protein and the greater part of the remaining 50% are derived from fat. August and Marie Krogh (13) report that the normal diet of the West Greenland Eskimos contained an excessive amount of animal protein—280gm daily—and they noted that there seemed to be a considerable delay in the metabolism of protein and excretion of nitrogen, only 60% of the nitrogen being excreted during the first 24 hours after eating large meals rich in protein. In East Greenland the Eskimos consume an average of 300 gm of protein daily (Höygaard, ’41). In Alaska a daily protein consumption of more than 300 gm has been observed among the most primitive Eskimos.”

A year later, Hugh MacDonald Sinclair—a professor at Oxford University—reviewed all of the available literature on the Inuit that had been published up until 1953, and remarked:

The Diet of Canadian Indians and Eskimos, by H. M. Sinclair (1953)

The skin (mattak) is greatly relished and tastes like hazel-nuts; it is eaten raw and contains considerable amounts of glycogen and ascorbic acid…There is in fact nothing unusual about the total intake of aliments; it is the very high protein, very low carbohydrate and high fat intakes that have excited interest. It is, however, worth noting that according to the customary convention (Woodyatt, 1921; Shaffer, 1921) this [Inuit] diet is not ketogenic since the ratio of ketogenic(FA) to ketolytic (G) aliments is 1.09. Indeed, the content of fat would have to be exactly doubled (324 g daily) to make the diet ketogenic (FA/G>1.5).

In 1980, professor Sinclair would unknowingly help Bang & Dyerberg augment their erroneous observations that the Eskimos were supposedly immune to cardiovascular disease, due to their high Omega-3 intake—an assumption that would help kick off the worldwide fish oil craze. Bang & Dyerberg’s underestimation of cardiovascular disease in the Inuit was outlined in a 2013 review of the literature (free access URL here) as well as in a recent Slate article.

Sinclair, who knew all too well that the Inuit ate very high levels of protein and significant amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids, came to the conclusion that eating like an Eskimo would be optimal for health. Lest anyone reading this still thinks that the Eskimos could safely eat 70% to 80% of their calories as fat from marine mammals, Sinclair soon experienced troubling health issues from his elevated Omega-3 intake.

Fine Wines and Fish Oil: the Life of Hugh Macdonald Sinclair, by Jeannette Ewin (2001)

“He went on to an ‘anti-coronary’ Eskimo diet of seal meat and fish with no vegetable or land animal material, his seal was sent to him by the Danish ambassador. I remember having dinner with Hugh at Magdalen high table, an excellent meal, but Hugh ate his piece of grilled seal. He enjoyed his diet, he said, but when he pruned his roses his boots filled up with blood because his clotting factors had been somewhat disturbed by the diet, and each scratch bled.”

We now know that the Inuit actually have similar instances of cardiovascular disease as Westerners and they are abnormally prone to cerebral hemorrhages.

The idea that Inuit obtained dietary glycogen was still evident in the literature in 1972:

Alaskan Arctic Eskimo: Responses To a Customary High Fat Diet, by Ho, et al. (1972)

“Carbohydrate accounted for only 15% to 20% of their calories, largely in the form of glycogen.”

In 1985, Yiu H. Hui, Ph. D., a food scientist who has published a long list of books for the food industry, wrote:

Principles and issues in nutrition, by Yiu H. Hui, Ph. D., p.91 (1985)

“Eskimos actually consume more carbohydrates than most nutritionists have assumed. Because Eskimos frequently eat their meat raw and frozen, they take in more glycogen than a person purchasing meat with a lower glycogen content in a grocery store. The Eskimo practice of preserving a whole seal or bird carcass under an intact whole skin with a thick layer of blubber also permits some proteins to ferment into carbohydrates.”

In 2003, seemingly unaware of the significant glycogen stores found in diving marine mammals (since they only refer to human glycogen values), VanItallie & Nufert wrote:

Ketones: Metabolism’s Ugly Duckling, by Theodore B. VanItallie, M.D., and Thomas H. Nufert, B.A (2003)

“”A low-carbohydrate diet is not necessarily a ketogenic diet. This is particularly true of diets with unrestricted content of meat and other protein-rich foods. Heinbecker reported in 1928 that Baffin Island Eskimos subsisting on their usual diet of meat (virtually the only source of carbohydrate in their food was the glycogen in seal muscle) showed minimal ketonuria…It is unlikely that these very small amounts of glycogen could have accounted for the absence of appreciable ketonuria. A much more likely explanation is that the glucose derived from catabolism of ingested meat protein was sufficient to prevent ketosis. McClellan and DuBois fed two human volunteers “carbohydrate-free” diets high in meat content (an Eskimo-type diet) for many months in a metabolic ward setting. Their findings led them to conclude that, in persons subsisting on diets very low in carbohydrate, ketosis varies inversely with the quantity of protein eaten. This occurs because approximately 48 to 58% of the amino acids in most dietary proteins are glucogenic. For every 2 grams of protein consumed in a carbohydrate-free diet, somewhere between 1.0 and 1.2 grams are potentially convertible to glucose. Therefore, to obtain a degree of hyperketonemia (approximately 2-7 mM/L) believed to be therapeutically effective in certain important medical conditions such as epilepsy, patients must rigorously restrict protein as well as carbohydrate intake and, when possible, increase their level of physical activity.”

Stefansson claimed the Eskimos had an oversupply of fat. However, the literature suggests that most Inuit had to conserve their fat, to burn it for fuel in their oil lamps. People seem to forget that it’s dark 24/7 during the Arctic winter, and if you run out of fuel, you’re cold, miserable, and risk death. So, they preferred to save their fats for the lamp whenever they could.

The lamp of the Eskimo,, By Walter Hough (1898)

“Seal oil is preferred for burning in the lamp, though any animal far may be used. Capt. E. P. Herendeen informs the author that the Ootkiaviemute carry for trading, seal oil put up in pokes of the skin of the animal itself, prepared for the purpose. These skins so made up contain about 25 gallons of oil. The interior natives and river tribes are dependent upon the coast people for oil to burn in their lamps, as the small amount of fat which the reindeer yields is insufficient for the long arctic nights.

The lamp eats like a native; successful hunting means cheer and comfort in the hut of these sociable people during the winter. The economy of oil is often forced upon the Eskimo, for starvation and darkness is a frequent and near-by exigency. Schwatka says that he has known cases where the Eskimo were extremely anxious to economize oil needed to melt ice for drinking water, in which six or seven wells were dug through thick ice, before they gave up the attempt or were successful. Every particle of fat is saved on principle.”

By 1887, there had been at least two sensationalist accounts (namely isolated reports from explorers Hall and Schwatka) of a few Eskimos drinking from an overabundance of oil, but it was considered to be an exception and was never observed during the Winter, when demand for lamp fuel has high.

Here is Frederick Schwatka’s claim of high blubber consumption amongst the Netschilluks during the Summer and Fall months.

The Netschilluk Innuits, by Frederick Schwatka (1899)

“They have an unlimited supply of seal and ookjook (great seal) oil for lamp-use, while they devour enormous quantities of seal-blubber. Their consumption of fat, even during the summer and autumn months, when I saw them, was noticeably greater than that of other tribes.”

Hall also found them with an abundance of food and fat.

Narrative of the Second Arctic Expedition Made by Charles F. Hall, by J. E. Nourse (1879)

“Oil was sipped, and tallow and marrow in considerable quantity eaten every day with the raw frozen venison.”

There are very few accounts of such behaviors. Often Eskimos were observed simply dipping their lean meat in oil, but not regularly drinking the oil, as if it were water.

Journal of a Second Voyage for the Discovery of a Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, By Sir William Edward Parry (1824)

“They certainly in general prefer eating their meat cooked, and while they have fuel they usually boil it; but this is a luxury and not a necessary to them. Oily as the nature of their principle food is, yet they commonly take an equal portion of lean to their fat, and unless very hungry do not eat it otherwise. Oil they seldom or never use in any way as part of their general diet; and even our butter, of which they were fond, they would not eat without a due quantity of bread.”

Eskimos had to thaw their frozen meats internally, so it was preferable to cook the muscle meat into a soup when oil could be spared. At any rate, by 1887, John Murdoch set out to quell the sensationalist accounts that had been repeated from Hall and Schwatka’s isolated observations.

On Some Popular Errors in Regard to the Eskimos, by John Murdoch (1887)

“The enormous consumption of fat, supposed to be a physiological necessity to enable them to withstand the excessive cold, is probably the exception rather than the rule, to judge from the accounts of actual observers. It seems quite probable that the amount consumed in most cases is little, if any, greater than that eaten by civilized nations, when we consider that the people who eat the fat of the seal with the flesh and use oil for a sauce to their dried salmon, have no butter, cream, fat bacon, olive oil, or lard.

We found, indeed, at Point Barrow, that comparatively little actual blubber either of the seal or whale was eaten, though the fat of birds and the reindeer was freely partaken of. Seal or whale blubber was too valuable,—for burning in the lamps, oiling leather, and many other purposes, especially for trade.

In 1953, Sinclair had clarified that the large yields of blubber were mainly reserved for fuel (unaware that in 1991, even day-old whale blubber would be shown by Lockyer to contain between 8-30% carbohydrates):

The Diet of Canadian Indians and Eskimos, by H. M. Sinclair (1953)

“The seal provides large quantities of superb fuel for lighting or heating (a 200 lb. seal provides nearly 100 lb. of blubber in winter) ; it is excellent food for men and dogs…The Eskimo eats most parts of the seal including the blood ; the blubber is not eaten in large amount except in emergencies.”

By conserving their fuel, what the Inuit were attempting to avoid was the following situation—as documented in the report from Stefansson’s own controversial expedition when he abandoned the Karluk and its crew:

Canadian Arctic Expedition, 1913-18: Volume XII: The Copper Eskimo; p. 107, by Mr. D. Jenness

“However much the Eskimo may look forward in summer and autumn to the winter life on the ice, with its comfortable snow-huts where the lamps, filled to the brim with seal-oil, reflect their light round the pure white walls, while beneath and behind the table the floor is littered with meat and blubber—winter, when the dance-house is crowded with friends and visitors who gather each evening to spend the hours in singing and dancing and in the performance of religious ceremonies—yet always at the back of their minds there is the lurking dread of hunger and of cold in those dark sunless days, when the huts perhaps are empty of food, the lamps extinguished for want of oil, and the people, driven indoors by the howling blizzards, huddle together on their sleeping platforms and face starvation and death…From Christmas until the middle of March one blizzard succeeded another. Often the Eskimos, unable to find the seal-holes on account of the snow that had drifted over them, sat and shivered in their huts, with their lamps extinguished, or burning so low that the heat they gave out hardly lessened the prevailing cold. The stores of food they had collected in the summer and autumn were exhausted, and the seals they caught from time to time were all too few to satisfy the needs of so many hungry mouths, even though they ate the skins and blubber with the meat.”

Those in the interior, without access to seal oil had it even tougher according to the report.

Canadian Arctic Expedition, 1913-18: Volume XII: The Copper Eskimo; p. 100-101, by Mr. D. Jenness

“During the winter, however, seal-meat constitutes their principal, and for several months their only food…A little raw blubber is nearly always eaten with the seal-meat, but most of it is consumed in the lamp or fed to the dogs…In reality the Copper Eskimo is afraid to leave the ice in winter, because it is there alone that he can obtain an ample supply of fuel for his lamp. It is only in the Coppermine region that caribou are numerous enough to furnish the back-fat that might take the place of blubber, and back-fat in any case is a very poor substitute. The Backs river natives use it, but their existence in winter is characterized by the Copper Eskimos as cold and miserable in the extreme.”

The importance of their oil lamps was detailed in a series of books and articles, all published between 1898 and 1899.

The lamp of the Eskimo, By Walter Hough (1898)

“Lieutenant Schwatka relates that “the Kennepetoo Innuits (around Chesterfield Inlet, especially north of it) use few or no lamps to warm their snow huts, and despite the high beds and low roofs, they are cold, cheerless, and uncomfortable beyond measure. These Innuits are essentially reindeer killers and eaters and lay in an insignificant stock of seal oil to burn in their lamps. Walrus killing is unknown to them. For light they use a piece of reindeer suet laid beside a piece of lighted moss, all being on a large flat stone.”


Through the gold-fields of Alaska to Bering straits, By Harry De Windt (1898)

“The sole furniture of an Eskimo residence is a seal-oil lamp for cooking and heating purposes, which is lit in the autumn and burns incessantly until the following spring.”


Eskimo and His Lamp, Fur Trade Review, Volume 27 (1899)

“Any fat does for burning, but seal oil is preferred. This is almost wholly employed, because the small quantities of fat taken from the reindeer are insufficient for the long darkness. The lamps eat voraciously, and the people often have to be very careful lest their oil run low when it is impossible to catch seals.”


The Eskimo about Bering Strait, By Edward William Nelson (1900)

“The blubber of seals, walrus, or whales is stored and often eaten in its natural form; or the oil may be tried out and stored in bags and used for food as well as for burning in lamps. When used as food it is placed in a small wooden tray or dish and the people dip their dried fish or other meat into it. The oil is never drunk by them except when desiring to take it as a purgative; at such times a large draft of seal oil is usually effective.”

Hall estimated in 1879 that a single continuously burning oil lamp could consume 15 pounds of blubber per week. Most Eskimos had multiple lamps for traveling, for hunting, for heating, and for cooking. Therefore, it would appear that families needed hundreds of pounds of blubber, just for fuel, to last them through the continuously dark and cold Winter. And as Murdoch and even Stefansson both pointed out, blubber was often sold to Inuit in the interior. Blubber was also needed for their dogs. It should be clear that oil was a commodity in the Arctic, something to be saved and used judiciously—not guzzled for ketones.

Incidentally, Stefansson admitted that fat for fuel was hard to come by in the interior.

The Fat of the Land, by Vilhjalmur Stefansson p. 31

“If caribou hunters could kill in August and September all the animals they need, and if they could preserve this meat to last them through the year, they would have enough fat to eat with their lean, but even then not enough left over for fuel. In practice most caribou hunters burn something else than fat, but they use a little tallow for lighting their houses in winter; in summer they have the midnight sun for light, and before and after that the bright nights. But, with the greatest economy of lighting, they do not have enough fat to go with their lean, since they are seldom able to kill enough bulls and fat cows in autumn to last more than half or two-thirds of the winter. For this reason most caribou Eskimos go to the sea coast each year to hunt the blubber animals; or else they purchase bags of blubber from the coast dwellers. These bags are made by casing a seal, and each will contain from 150 to 250 pounds of seal, walrus, or whale blubber.”

Despite the supposed ease of importing blubber from the coast, as Stefansson claims, he endured “weeks” without any fat in his 1913 book, “My Life With The Eskimo”—and specifically mentions eating only “lean meat” from the caribou. Yet, during the “Bellevue Experiment,” he only lasted two days without fat, while eating Western cuts of meat.

Harper’s Monthly Magazine, December 1935, article by Vilhjalmur Stefansson

For I had published in 1913, on pages 140-142 of, “My Life with the Eskimo,” an account of how some natives and I became ill when we had to go two or three weeks on lean meat, caribou so skinny that there was no appreciable fat behind the eyes or in the marrow. So when Dr. DuBois suggest that I start the meat period by eating as large quantities as I possibly could of chopped fatless muscle, I predicted trouble. But he countered by citing my own experience where illness had not come until after two or three weeks, and he now proposed lean for only two or three days. So I gave in…

…As said, in the Arctic we had become ill during the second or third fatless week. I now became ill on the second fatless day. The time difference between Bellevue and the Arctic was due no doubt mainly to the existence of a little fat, here and there in our northern caribou—we had eaten the tissue from behind the eyes, we had broken the bones for marrow, and in doing everything we could to get fat we had evidently secured more than we realized. At Bellevue the meat, carefully scrutinized, had been as lean as such muscle tissue can be…

…The symptoms brought on at Bellevue by an incomplete meat diet (lean without fat) were exactly the same as in the Arctic, except that they came on faster—diarrhea and a feeling of general baffling discomfort.

Up north the Eskimos and I had been cured immediately when we got some fat. Dr. DuBois now cured me the same way, by giving me fat sirloin steaks, brains fried in bacon fat, and things of that sort. In two or three days I was all right, but I had lost considerable weight.

Stefansson was experiencing the effects of rabbit starvation, also known as “mal de caribou.” The comparison of caribou to lean rabbit is no accident. His experience at Bellevue clearly suggests that he was unable to reproduce the diet of the Eskimos.

The USDA defines “lean” as < 10 g of fat per 100 g of beef and “extra lean” as < 5 g of fat per 100 g of beef. Only 5 cuts of beef meet “extra lean” criteria, the leanest has 4 g of fat per 100 g serving. However, caribou meat is extremely lean, with roughly 3 grams of fat per 100 g of caribou meat.

In fact, as Per Wikholm recently calculated, Stefansson actually admitted that Arctic caribou was too lean to support a ketogenic diet:

The Fat of the Land, by Vilhjalmur Stefansson p. 244 (1960)

“It is of special interest here, and fits in with the evidence presented in the chapter ‘Living on the Fat of the Land,’ that Richardson gives a smaller fat component for the most northerly native pemmican than is given by the usual authorities for pemmican as made in the section between Kansas and Manitoba. Note, also, that whereas the native Arctic pemmican, as described by him, had only a third of fat against two-thirds of lean, Richardson tells us, above, that when he himself was making pemmican in England he used nearly as much fat as lean, therefore perhaps 45 per cent. Thus he was following approximately the high-fat formula of the buffalo pemmican of the fur trade rather than the comparatively low-fat Arctic formula.”

It’s unclear if Stefansson was obtaining any glycogen in his caribou meat, much of it was “cached” after all. However, Stefansson was somehow able to last three weeks in the Arctic interior, with only extremely lean meat and no discernable fat.

Given his controversies and tarnished reputation north of the American border, it should not be surprising that Stefansson wasn’t well respected by his own colleagues. Rudolph M. Anderson, a zoologist and member of two of Stefansson’s expeditions wrote, “Stefansson is the outstanding humbug in the exploration world at the present time—a persistent, perennial, and congenital liar who for years has made his living by sheer mendacity and skill in handling words.” And Captain Robert Bartlett of the Karluk, who kept silent about Stefansson in public, wrote in a letter to Anderson, “Stefansson is a goddamned liar. A sly, vacillating, piece of flesh. Smart and oily as all limelight seekers are.”

Despite Stefansson’s conflicting and unsubstantiated claims, we can clearly see that it has been widely accepted in the scientific literature that small amounts of glycogen and excessive quantities of protein contributed to the Inuit’s carbohydrates in their native diet. And it was further compounded by the observation that they needed to curb their fat intake in order to conserve their fuel.

Promoters of very low carb diets have clearly ignored the published scientific literature and data on the Inuit and relied solely on Stefansson’s casual observations as a crutch, to prematurely claim the long term safety and efficacy of their extreme diets. As we can now see, their claims linking the Inuits to a ketogenic diet were not based on any hard data whatsoever. Rather, they used the Inuit as a foundation for an unsubstantiated narrative, that was crafted by Stefansson to promote his dietary theories.

It’s entirely possible that chronic ketogenic diets are well tolerated and beneficial to health, but the published scientific literature clearly shows us that the Inuit can no longer be offered as evidence for such a claim.


Not much to add here. Quite a piece of work, Duck. I encourage everyone to take an hour to watch this documentary that features lots of arctic film and photo footage, pictures of Stefansson, his eskimo wife, his son (that never saw him again after the age of 9), interviews of Stefansson’s grandchildren, direct quotes from Stefansson’s journals and letters, and interviews with historians with expertise in the matter: Arctic Dreamer – The lonely quest of Vilhjalmur Stefansson.

Later, I’ll be adding a list of links to all the posts in the series, for easy reference.

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More


  1. tatertot on October 9, 2014 at 11:07

    Nice job, Duck! The oil lamp thing has always been the confounder to me. Look at a sunrise/set chart for Barrow, Alaska on the Arctic Ocean:

    The sun sets on Nov 18th and doesn’t rise again until Jan 22nd!

    That’s a lot of dark (and cold).

    • R2D2 on October 9, 2014 at 12:09

      Tatertot – keep up the good work on Vegetable Pharm, great stuff.

    • pzo on October 10, 2014 at 07:59

      It’s always amazed me that the Inuit didn’t look at the postcards their departed relative sent from British Columbia and point south, and didn’t say, “Later for this (dark, cold) shit.”

      Looking larger, one of the problems I have with the “Out of Africa” theory of human evolution and migrations is WHY did they keep moving? Populations were so low that there was no food or resource competition, and many places they wandered into would have been downright less appealing than where they left. “Let’s go live at 15,000 feet above sea lever where you can hardly breath, nor grow much food. I mean, this warm fertile plain sucks, ya know?”

      For humans to have left Africa and reach Patagonia in some 40,000 years would mean an average migration rate of (ultra ball park guesstimating here) maybe a mile a day, a few hundred a year. Why pick up and move? And try to figure how to survive in a new place with new challenges.

    • Richard Nikoley on October 10, 2014 at 08:28

      pzo, have you seen the new research suggesting that before the migration into N America took place, they were 10,000 years on the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska?

    • Gemma on October 10, 2014 at 08:44


      Animals migrate, so why not people? The grass on the other side of the fence always looks greener, and people love adventure. And, you cannot always return to the place you have lived before, there might be somebody else, much stronger than you.

      But, certain discomfort is difficult to comprehend, I agree. I suggest everybody sends the most sunny postcard/image to Tatertot on November 18th.

  2. Tuck on October 9, 2014 at 12:33

    Boy I love fact-checking Duck.

    “…even day-old whale blubber would be shown by Lockyer to contain between 8-30% carbohydrates)”

    That’s sperm whale blubber. Eskimos don’t eat sperm whale blubber. They eat bowhead whale blubber.

    “Whale, subcutaneous fat (blubber) (Alaska Native), bowhead”

    “Total Carbohydrate 0g”,_subcutaneous_fat_(blubber)_(Alaska_Native),_bowhead_nutritional_value.html

  3. Gemma on October 9, 2014 at 12:56

    “The oil is never drunk by them except when desiring to take it as a purgative.”

    …I cannot stop laughing, Duck 🙂

  4. tw on October 9, 2014 at 15:58

    It’s too bad we don’t have access the the before and after blood values of Shackleton and his crew. After moving from regular rations to living on the ice flows, it would have been interesting to see what impacts this had besides the reports that all men were in perfect health after the adventure.

    I believe they used fat for lamps as well while stuck on the island.

  5. Per Wikholm on October 10, 2014 at 08:27

    Another amusing thing with Stefansson is what a louzy liar the guy was. He´s like an amateur burgler leaving footprints and fingerprints all over the place to convict him. In my LCHF Magasinet [Swedish in print magazine] piece I basically let Stefansson hang himself with his own rope/quotes.

    The book The Fat of the Land is something like 50 % about pemmican and the figure 80-90 % calories from fat keeps coming up again and again without any real effort to substanciate that claim. But for the Inuit diet to be ketogenic we need to prove 2 things:

    1. Pemmican was actually their main food source year round. Lean meat, lean fish, berries, seeweed, Angelica etc were just occational snacks on the side.

    2. The pemmican the Inuite ate was really 80-90 fat.

    So let Stefansson debunk himself, first regarding 1. Quote from page 198:

    The chief deterrent to the use of pemmican has always been its costliness, in labor and time. The only lean suitable was that which was so free of tendons and connective tissue that it would powder or shred easily, and the process was so
    long that some early writers say it required two buffalo to feed the Indian’s family and dogs while they made a single piece of pemmican, ninety pounds. The common figure is that a buffalo, weighing perhaps 1,000 pounds on the hoof, would make one piece.

    Naturally, then, pemmican was used only at feasts, on journeys, or in time of famine. The food cheapest, as measured by the labor required, was eaten first. This was meat that was fresh, either because recently killed or through frost preservation. Next in order came jerky and pounded meat, each supplemented with fat taken separately, as has been described. The longest hoarded, last to be eaten, was the

    Thanks for that clarification Stefansson! Pemmican was never their every day food source, just like the high fat Swedish Christmas smörgasbord isn´t for Swedes. Let´s go to 2.

    The recepie for the Indian pemmican from the Prarie is 50 % fat and 50 % lean, dried meat by weight. Not even that one is 80-90 % fat. It´s something like 70-75 % cal from fat. Slightly below ketogenic territory. The Inuit reindeer pemmican is only 1/3 fat and 2/3 lean as Stefansson kindly informs us on page 244. At best that would be 65 % cal from fat, well out of ketogenic territory.

    But Stefansson, if neither the Indians nor Inuits made 80-90 % fat pemmican, where does that figure come from? Stefannson gives us an answer on page 259:

    “The pemmican of the first Scott expedition, of which Shackleton was also a member, had the usual North American Indian proportions of half
    and half, by weight, rendered fat and dehydrated lean. Apparently both Scott and Shackleton came to the conclusion that this fat percentage was too low; for Scott provided for his own second expedition, and Shackleton for the first expedition he commanded, pemmicans that had by weight 60 per cent of rendered fat, 40 per cent of dehydrated lean.

    This is the highest fat percentage I have found in any of the exploration records and is considerably higher than that of any pemmicans recently made, so far as I known, by United States packers.”

    So the 80-90 % fat pemmican was the invention of white, polar explorers. That´s it folks!

  6. Duck Dodgers on October 12, 2014 at 13:07

    Here’s an interesting study on the dietary preferences of Inuit. It’s a survey on what they “preferred” and what was eaten “often” in each household.

    Use of and Preference for Traditional Foods among the Belcher Island Inuit, [Free Download] by Eleanor E. Wein, Milton M. R. Freeman and Jeanette C. Makus (1996)

    You can see that muktuk (sweet-tasting, glycogen-rich skin) and meat were eaten and preferred most often. Other than muktuk, blubber and fat scored much lower in preference and frequency.

    The authors also discuss how hunters in particular preferred to eat livers fresh and raw immediately after a kill, but mentions how this custom may have fallen out of favor with the younger generation—suggesting known parasite issues with caribou and other land mammals.

  7. Duck Dodgers on October 13, 2014 at 15:39

    The discussion about glycogen is a bit of a distraction since we can see from the published literature, above, that the Inuit still consumed too much protein to be ketogenic.

    Nevertheless, if anyone should think that researchers during the early half of the 20th century were somehow unaware of glycogen’s postmortem degradation, in fact, its rapid degradation observed in 1865 was how Bernard discovered glycogen in the first place.

    From: Claude Bernard and The Discovery of Glycogen

    Discovery of Glycogen
    At this time Bernard’s estimations of the sugar content of extract of liver tissue were made in duplicate by titration with copper reagent of Barreswil, a modified Fehling’s solution. He relates (Bernard, 1865, pp. 2291-295) how one day he was pressed for time and was unable to make his duplicate determinations simultaneously. He made one estimation immediately after the death of an animal and postponed the other until the following day. The second estimation gave a value very much higher than the first, and the difference was so great that Bernard investigated the reason for this discrepancy. Hitherto he had not ascribed significance to the length of time which elapsed between the death of an animal and the determination of the sugar content of the liver tissue. He now found that time was of great importance. Immediately after the death of an animal the liver was found to contain very little sugar, but within only a few minutes the amount of sugar had substantially increased, and at the end of two hours a large quantity had usually made its appearance.

    So, from day one, glycogen was known to degrade rapidly. But, interestingly, these early pioneering researchers also discovered that glycogen in many marine animals was observed to degrade differently.

    From: Observations On The Glycogen Content of Certain Invertebrates and Fishes By L.G. Kilborn and J.J.R. MacLeod (1919)

    Until recently very little information existed concerning the presence of glycogen in the fishes. That some at least is present in the tissues of marine fish had been shown by Cl. Bernard, Pavy, Brücke, and others. It was stated by Bernard that this glycogen is unusually resistant to the influence of post-mortem changes, and that it does not readily disappear during hunger. During asphyxia, however, the glycogen rapidly disappears.

    In 1952, Marsh found that glycogen depletion to rigor mortis took an exceptionally long time, even at warm temperatures.

    From: Lawrie’s Meat Science by R. A. Lawrie, David Ledward, p 92, (23 Jan 2014)

    A much delayed onset of rigor mortis has been observed in the muscle of the whale (Marsh, 1952b). The ATP level and the pH may remain at their high in vivo values for as much as 24h at 37°C [98.6°F]. No adequate explanation of this phenomenon has yet been given; but the low basal metabolic rate of whale muscle (Benedict, 1958), in combination with the high content of oxymyoglobin in vivo (cf 4.3.1), may permit aerobic metabolism to continue slowly for some time after the death of the animal, whereby ATP levels can be maintained sufficiently to delay the union of actin and myosin in rigor mortis.

    And in 1970, researchers found high levels of glycogen in some species of fish after 7 days on ice, at 0°C.

    From: Postmortem Glycolytic and Other Biochemical Changes in White Muscle of White Sucker (Catostomus commersoni) and Northern Pike (Esox lucius) at 0°C

    “…Glycogen content of pike was found to remain relatively high even after 7 days of storage in ice. This is in contrast to the findings with several other species, including white sucker, where the muscle glycogen is practically completely degraded in 3-4 days.”

    Despite all this, I suppose glycogen intake by the Inuit is extraneous when we consider that every scientific study on the inuit has clearly shown that they consumed far too much protein to be in ketosis while fed their traditional diet.

    • Duck Dodgers on October 15, 2014 at 12:30

      What’s interesting is that in 1865 Bernard found, “Immediately after the death of an animal the liver was found to contain very little sugar, but within only a few minutes the amount of sugar had substantially increased, and at the end of two hours a large quantity had usually made its appearance.” Which, again, is how he discovered glycogen and its rapid degradation. In this observation, Bernard discovered post-mortem liver glycogenolysis which caused the livers to increase their sugar content after death.

      A 1965 paper summarizes the initial rise in postmortem blood sugars:

      From: Postmortem Blood Sugar and Blood Urea Nitrogen Determinations

      A. Factors tending to raise postmortem blood sugar
      1. Liver glycogenolysis
      2. Bacterial breakdown of carbohydrates in the gastrointestinal tract and in the tissues

      B. Factors tending to lower postmortem blood sugar
      1. Oxidative glycolysis by cells still living
      2. Anaerobic glycolysis by dying cells and free enzymes
      3. Anaerobic glycolysis by bacteria

      C. Factors influencing A and B
      1. Time elapsed since clinical death
      2. Temperature of the body
      3. Amount of liver glycogen available (liver disease,
      4. Number of bacteria present at the time of death
      (septicemia, gas gangrene, etc.)
      5. Amount of food present in the gastrointestinal tract
      at the time of death, etc.

      So, we can see a combination of factors are taking place postmortem, and much of the liver glycogen is undergoing a transition to sugar. What we can see here is that if someone kills an animal and immediately eats its liver, they get a large dose of glycemic glycogen. Consider that a human liver contains roughly 100g of glycogen (animal starch), and keep in mind, a single cupcake has only 29g of sugar. If they wait a few hours to eat the liver, a lot of the glycogen will be converted to sugar, by liver glycogenolysis—some of which is spilled into the bloodstream, raising blood sugar postmortem.

      Although Bernard observed this in 1865, when he discovered glycogen, researchers were closely observing and scrutinizing the activity of postmortem liver glycogenolysis by 1931.[1][2]

      Interestingly, some fish don’t easily deplete their glycogen when they struggle.

      From: Alterations in Glycogen, Glucose and Lactate in Rainbow and Kamloops Trout, Salmo gairdneri, Following Muscular Activity

      Following 30 minutes of moderate activity, muscle glycogen remained high in the 1.5-year-old trout. Liver glycogen levels were not significantly lowered during either strenuous or moderate exercise. Blood lactate levels were markedly elevated during 15 min of strenuous exercise and continued to rise for 2 hours of post-exercise recovery in both groups of fish.

      So, again, that all explains the use of pancreatic amylase in fish to digest dietary glycogen. For Eskimos, they would have had even more time to enjoy the benefits of glycogen degradation, since the degradation is highly dependent on temperature. And, as we know, it’s freakin’ cold where they lived.

    • Duck Dodgers on October 15, 2014 at 08:59

      A few interesting tidbits about dietary glycogen… Apparently carnivores—who lack salivary enzymes, since they barely chew, and any protein-digesting salivary enzymes would just damage the oral cavity—use pancreatic amylase to digest the small amounts of glycogen found in animal tissue. Here’s a paper from 2014:

      From: Amylase activity of fingerlings of freshwater fish Labeo rohita fed on formulated feed, by M.P. Bhilave (2014)

      “In fish amylase is needed to digest glycogen, an energy source which is found in animal tissue.”

      …and, here we see how glycogen (animal starch) is digested very much like glycemic starch by carnivores…

      From: Studies of Genetic Variation in Murine Intestinal Disaccharidases, by R. Quezada-Calvillo, Page 10, (1994)

      Glycogen, which has an analogous structure to starch, is a polysaccharide used as a carbohydrate of storage in animal tissues [102]. Glycogen is a significant component of the human diet only when animal tissues are ingested fresh, raw or poorly cooked, since it is rapidly degraded in the animal tissue after death. The degradation of dietary glycogen follows an identical process to that described below for the degradation of starch.

      The digestion of starch is initiated by amylase contained in saliva…

      Pretty cool.

    • Richard Nikoley on October 15, 2014 at 09:46

      File that under: Obligate carnivores get more carbohydrate than ketogentic, VLC humans.

      What a fucking laf on so many levels, brought on by being unfamiliar with basic biochemistry….

  8. Diana on May 16, 2015 at 08:45

    I’m late to this but just want to say thanks. Another nail in the coffin to simplistic thinking.

    First rate. Bravo!

  9. On Carbohydrates in Evolution of Human Diet - A Sapient Ape on November 15, 2016 at 13:50

    […] no mistake, even those people go to great lengths gathering carbohydrate containing foods. They are NOT carnivorous, NOT in ketosis, or anything of […]

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