I was born in the late 50’ies in the Faroe Islands. At that time we pretty much had a subsistence way of life in this remote place on earth with a hostile climate and an environment that humans could never hope to survive in without eating animals.
In winter, our region is stormy and dark for months on end, and the summer is very short. There are no trees except some imported trees in sheltered areas inside the villages and just a few edible plants. And yet, somehow we, the Faroese people, have survived here for more than a thousand years, relying on an intimate knowledge and understanding of our environment for our survival, constantly walking a tightrope between life and death.
In my childhood we still harvested most of our own food, integrating healthy, wild edibles into our diet. Most of our food supply was right outside our front door, and we used time-tested methods for living off the land and the sea.
Our people were unencumbered, only depending on nature’s resources and the skill in our hands. Sudden food cost increases or empty grocery shelves caused by turmoil on the international market were not our biggest concerns. The only uncertainties were the whims of nature.
I remember the foods of my childhood. We ate mostly fish, some sheep meat and quite a lot of whale meat and blubber, served with homegrown potatoes. And afterwards we would have porridge made from homegrown rhubarbs, for instance. Our storage of dry and salted food and our new freezer were filled with fish, sheep meat and whale meat and blubber, my family had provided directly from natures larder. Our dairy products were from local farmers. But the grains, flours and sugar we used for baking bread and cakes were imported. And we only ate vegetables and fruits, if we could afford it. They were very expensive, because they came from far away, so they were luxury foods, we could not have everyday.
Times they are a’changing
But things changed. Our fishing became industrialized. We got money on our hands. And suddenly we were able to import exotic foods from countries far away, like oranges and bananas. When I was a teenager in the 70’ies, we probably already ate fifty-fifty, half traditional Faroese food, half regular European food. Today the division is more like eighty-twenty, at least for people living in the bigger towns, while people in smaller and less affluent villages still try to reduce food costs by holding on to the old traditional diet.
No one, not even indigenous residents of the northernmost arctic villages on Earth, eats an entirely traditional northern diet anymore. Not even the Eskimos—which include the Inupiat and the Yupiks of Alaska, the Canadian Inuit and Inuvialuit, Inuit Greenlanders, and the Siberian Yupiks––or the Sami people in the northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland. They have probably seen more changes in their diet in a lifetime than their ancestors did over thousands of years.(1)
But it’s very doubtful whether the modern foods replacing the traditional foods, are any better or healthier. The opposite is more likely. The closer people live to towns and the more access they have to stores and cash-paying jobs, the more likely they are to have westernized their eating. And with westernization comes processed foods and cheap carbohydrates—soda, cookies, chips, pizza, fries and the like. The young and urbanized are increasingly into fast food. So much so that type 2 diabetes, obesity, and other diseases of Western civilization are becoming causes for great concern in our country too.
An inadequate diet?
Up until the 60’ies the Faroese people mostly subsisted on what they hunted and fished. We were island people exploiting the sea and the little land we had in a sustainable way. The main nutritional challenge was avoiding starvation in late winter if primary meat sources became too scarce or lean. But how did people get along eating so much meat and so few vegetables and fruit? How could such a diet possibly be adequate? This diet hardly makes up the “balanced” diet most other people elsewhere have grown up with. It looks nothing like the mix of grains, fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, and dairy as seen in conventional food pyramid diagrams.
Still, Faroese people have been quite healthy––healthier than they are today now that modern foods have replaced much of their traditional food. Now, when almost everyone in western societies is on some kind of a fancy diet and nobody seems sure of what to eat to stay healthy, it’s surprising to learn how well northern people like the Faroese did on a high-protein, high-fat diet, even though this diet had little in the way of plant food, not many agricultural products and a few dairy products, and it was also relatively low in carbohydrates.
Well, it seems that there are no essential foods—only essential nutrients. (2) And humans can get those nutrients from diverse sources. One might, for instance, imagine gross vitamin deficiencies arising from a diet very scarce on fresh fruits and vegetables. People in southern climes derive much of their Vitamin A from colorful plant foods, constructing it from pigmented plant precursors called carotenoids (as in carrots). But vitamin A, which is oil soluble, is also plentiful in the oils of cold-water fishes and sea mammals, as well as in the animals’ livers, where fat is processed.
These dietary staples also provide vitamin D, another oil-soluble vitamin needed for bones. Those living in temperate and tropical climates, on the other hand, usually make vitamin D indirectly by exposing skin to strong sun—hardly an option in the long and dark winters in the north.
How to overcome vitamin deficiensies
As for vitamin C, the source in northern peoples’ diet was long a mystery. Most animals can synthesize their own vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, in their livers, but humans are among the exceptions, along with other primates like guinea pigs and bats. If we don’t ingest enough of it, we fall apart from scurvy, a gruesome connective-tissue disease.
In southern climes the people can get ample supplies from orange juice, citrus fruits, and fresh vegetables. But vitamin C oxidizes with time. Getting enough from a ship’s provisions was tricky for people living far away out in the ocean, like the Faroese, or in other not easily accessible northern regions. Scurvy—joint pain, rotting gums, leaky blood vessels, physical and mental degeneration—are known to have plagued European and U.S. expeditions in the arctic area even in the 20th century. However, natives in these arctic and subarctic areas living on fresh fish and meat were free of the disease.
If you have some fresh meat in your diet every day and don’t overcook it, there will be enough vitamin C from that source alone to prevent scurvy. In fact, all it takes to ward off scurvy is a daily dose of 10 milligrams (3). Native foods, like in the Faroes for instance, easily supply those 10 milligrams of scurvy prevention, especially when organ meats are on the menu. As you might guess from its antiscorbutic role, vitamin C is crucial for the synthesis of connective tissue, including the matrix of skin. Wherever collagen’s made, you can expect vitamin C (1). Traditional Faroese practices like freezing or drying meat and fish and frequently eating them raw, conserve vitamin C, which is easily cooked off and lost in food processing, so eating dry fish, sheep or whale meat and blubber is as good as drinking orange juice.
Hunter-gatherer diets like those of the Faroese and other northern groups, as well as other traditional diets based on nomadic herding or subsistence farming are among the older approaches to human eating. Some of these eating plans might seem strange to others—diets centered around milk, meat, and blood among the East African pastoralists, enthusiastic tuber eating by the Quechua living in the High Andes, the staple use of the mongongo nut in the southern African !Kung—but all proved resourceful adaptations to particular eco-niches.
Fat is very important
No people, though, may have been forced to push the nutritional envelope further than those living at Earth’s frozen extremes. In general, hunter-gatherers tend to eat more animal protein than people do in their standard Western diet, with its reliance on agriculture and carbohydrates derived from grains and starchy plants. Lowest of all in carbohydrate, and highest in combined fat and protein, are the diets of peoples living in the Far North, where they make up for fewer plant foods with extra fish.
The simplest, fastest way to make energy is to convert carbohydrates into glucose, our body’s primary fuel. But if the body is out of carbs, it can burn fat, or if necessary, break down protein. Arctic and subarctic people had plenty of protein but little carbohydrate, so they often relied on fat. Protein can’t be the sole source of energy for humans. (4) Anyone eating a meaty diet that is low in carbohydrates must have fat as well, or else they will weaken over time and eventually die even though they have lots of food, high in protein, but low in carbohydrates and fat.
No discussion about diet these days can avoid the “Atkins diet”. You can say that the northern way of eating is the “original Atkins”. Just like the diet in the arctic-subarctic area, Atkins is low in carbohydrates and very high in fat. But numerous researchers point out that there are profound differences, though, between the two diets, beginning with the type of meat and fat eaten.
Healthy and unhealthy fats
Fats have been demonized in modern western cultures. But all fats are not created equal. (5) This lies at the heart of a paradox. In the northern areas, people on a traditional fatty diet don’t die of heart attacks at nearly the same rates as other people in Europe or America. The cardiac death rate is about half as high in the arctic region as it is in the US or in most northern European countries. So what causes that reduced risk? It is intriguing because the arctic-subarctic diet is nothing like the famously heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, with its cornucopia of vegetables, fruits, grains, herbs, spices, olive oil, and red wine.
A key difference is that more than 50 percent of the calories in native foods in the arctic-subarctic areas come from fats. Much more important, the fats come from wild animals or domestic animals living in the wild all year round. Wild-animal fats are different from both farm-animal fats and processed fats. Farm animals, cooped up and stuffed with agricultural grains (carbohydrates) typically have lots of solid, highly saturated fat. Much of the processed food is also riddled with solid fats, or so-called trans fats, such as the reengineered vegetable oils and shortenings cached in baked goods and snacks. A lot of the packaged food on supermarket shelves contains them. So do commercial french fries. (5)
Trans fats are polyunsaturated vegetable oils tricked up to make them more solid at room temperature. Manufacturers do this by hydrogenating the oils—adding extra hydrogen atoms to their molecular structures—which “twists” their shapes. These man-made fats are dangerous, even worse for the heart than saturated fats. They not only lower high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL, the “good” cholesterol) but they also raise low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL, the “bad” cholesterol) and triglycerides. In the process, trans fats set the stage for heart attacks because they lead to the increase of fatty buildup in artery walls.
Wild animals provide healthier fats
Wild animals and / or animals that range freely and eat what nature intended have fat that is far more healthful. Less of their fat is saturated, and more of it is in the monounsaturated form (like olive oil). What’s more, cold-water fishes and sea mammals are particularly rich in polyunsaturated fats called n-3 fatty acids or omega-3 fatty acids. These fats appear to benefit the heart and vascular system. But the polyunsaturated fats in most Europeans and Americans’ diets are the omega-6 fatty acids supplied by vegetable oils. By contrast, whale blubber consists of 70 percent monounsaturated fat and close to 30 percent omega-3s. (5)
Omega-3s evidently help raise HDL cholesterol, lower triglycerides, and are known for anticlotting effects. These fatty acids are believed to protect the heart from life-threatening arrhythmias that can lead to sudden cardiac death. And like a “natural aspirin”, omega-3 polyunsaturated fats help put a damper on runaway inflammatory processes, which play a part in atherosclerosis, arthritis, diabetes, and other so-called diseases of civilization.
Needless to say, the subsistence diets of the north are not “dieting.” Dieting is the price people pay for too little exercise and too much mass-produced food. Northern diets were a way of life in places too cold for agriculture, where food, whether hunted, fished, or foraged, could not be taken for granted. They were about keeping weight on.
This is not to say that the Faroese or other people in the north were fat: Subsistence living requires exercise—hard physical work. Indeed, among the good reasons for native people to maintain their old way of eating, as far as it’s possible today, is that it provides a hedge against obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
The real threats to the food chain
Unfortunately, no place on Earth has escaped the spreading taint of growth and development. The very well-being of the northern food chain is under threat from global warming, land development, and industrial pollutants in the marine environment.
Global warming we don’t seem to have control over. But we could reduce the amount of plastics and other pollutants, we release into nature, and we could, for example, do cleanups of communication cables leaching lead into fish-spawning areas. And we can help communities make informed choices. A young woman of childbearing age may choose not to eat certain foods that concentrate contaminants. As individuals, we do have options. And eating our fish, our sheep and our whale meat and blubber might still be a much better option than pulling something processed that’s full of additives off a store shelf.
Kinship with our food sources
How often do you hear someone living in an industrial society speak familiarly about “our” food animals? How often do people talk of “our pigs” and “our beef.” Most people in the modern world are taught to think in boxes and have lost that sense of kinship with food sources. But in the Faroese hunting and farming village culture the connectivity between humans, animals, plants, the land we live on, and the air we share has not been lost––not yet, at least. It is still ingrained in most Faroese people from birth.
Many of our young people and people in bigger towns are quite influenced by western urbanized culture and food habits. They are slowly getting alienated to our old traditions. However, it is still not possible, really, to separate the way many of us still get our food from the way we live in this society as a whole. How we get our traditional food is intrinsic to our culture. It’s how we pass on our values and knowledge to the young. When you go out with your father, mother, aunts and uncles to fish in the sea, to heard the sheep, handle the wool, to gather plants, to hunt birds and other animals or catch whales, you learn to smell the air, watch the wind, understand the way the currents move and know the land. You get to know where to pick which plants and what animals to take.
This way of life has been an integrated part of our culture for so long, and it still is to a degree, especially in the smaller villages, where people share their food with the community. They show respect to their elders and the weak in the society by offering them part of the catch. They give thanks to the animals that gave up their life for their sustenance. They get all the physical activity of harvesting their 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 when you buy prepackaged food from a store.
That is why some of us here in the Faroe Islands are working hard to protect what is left of our old way of life, so that our people can continue to live and work in our remote villages, as independently as possible from polluting transport systems and a fraud-ful modern economic infrastructure. Because if we don’t take care of our food, it won’t be there for us in the future. And if we lose our foods, we lose who we are.
This blog post is inspired by the statements of Patricia Cochran, an Inupiat from Northwestern Alaska directing the Alaska Native Science Commission, in an article written by Patricia Gadsby for Discover magazine, October 2004, about “The Inuit Paradox: How can people who gorge on fat and rarely see a vegetable be healthier than we are?” (http://discovermagazine.com/2004/oct/inuit-paradox/article_view?b_start:int=0&-C=).
The scientific facts referred to in this post are based on quotes from the same article from the experts below:
- Harriet Kuhnlein, director of the Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment at McGill University in Montreal
- Harold Draper, a biochemist and expert in Eskimo nutrition
- Karen Fediuk, a consulting dietitian and former graduate student of Harriet Kuhnlein’s who did her master’s thesis on vitamin C (http://members.shaw.ca/karen.fediuk/VitaminCintheInuitdiet.pdf)
- Loren Cordain, a professor of evolutionary nutrition at Colorado State University at Fort Collins
- Eric Dewailly, a professor of preventive medicine at Laval University in Quebec