The Eskimo Diet for Heart Health


Not surprisingly, the best thing that an overweight or obese person can do to improve his/her health is to lose weight… but it appears that the next best thing might be to take fish oil!

A recent study conducted in the rugged Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in southwestern Alaska examined the diet of Yup’ik Eskimos, a native American people, many of whom have maintained a traditional lifestyle, including eating a diet that’s especially rich in fish. About 70% of the Yup’ik Eskimos in the study were overweight or obese — a percentage that is consistent with the rest of the US. But compared with overweight or obese folks in other parts of our country, these Yup’ik Eskimos have a far lower risk for heart disease and a lower rate for adult-onset diabetes.

Fishing for the Facts

The Yup’ik Eskimos consume about 30 times more omega-3 fats in their diet on average than do other American adults. This led researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle to design a study measuring the association between their fish-rich diet and their good health. Omega-3 fats, found mainly in saltwater fish such as salmon, halibut and herring, include docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which are the components of most fish oil supplements on the market today. If omega-3s help prevent adult-onset diabetes, the researchers figured that they might also reduce the risk for other conditions associated with being overweight, including heart disease, so the study was designed to measure the association between omega-3 fats and blood markers of chronic disease risk, including C-reactive protein (CRP) and triglycerides.

This is exactly the sort of research I want to know more about, so I phoned Zeina Makhoul, PhD, at the Hutchinson Center. She was the lead author of the study that resulted from the Center’s research in Alaska.

Results of the study were clear: In the 330 Yup’ik Eskimos studied, the more omega-3 fats they ate, the lower the levels of CRP and triglycerides. Importantly, this was so even in participants who were overweight or obese.

Fish Oil for All?

According to Dr. Makhoul, “It’s very possible that foods rich in omega-3 protect Yup’ik Eskimos from some of the harmful effects of obesity.” But, she said, this particular study was designed to measure only the association and it does not establish a cause-and-effect link between omega-3 fats and the levels of CRP and triglycerides. That, she said, would require clinical trials — and, as a result of the study, clinical trials are a likely next step.

If trials confirm what she and other researchers suspect, Dr. Makhoul said, the outlook is good that higher intake of omega-3 fats will be recommended for virtually everyone and most especially for people who are overweight. In the meantime, I’m not going to skimp on fish!

Zeina Makhoul, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher [[Dr. Makhoul: correct?]] in the Cancer Prevention Program of the Public Health Sciences Division at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

Is That a Food Allergy — Or a Different Problem?

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

An astonishing number of people now have food allergies — not. A number of recent studies have found that most people who believe they have food allergies actually don’t — one small study puts that figure as high as 90%! This state of affairs led the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, to release new guidelines to provide a uniform strategy for diagnosing and managing food allergies. I spoke with Matthew Fenton, PhD, chief of the asthma and allergy branch of NIAID, to find out more…

What’s Your Real Problem?

The new guidelines, which you can see on The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology Web site at, define a food allergy as “an adverse health effect arising from a specific immune response that occurs reproducibly on exposure to a given food.” Or, in easier-to-digest language, most food allergies result from a mistaken response by the immune system, which identifies something you eat as a threat and then creates antibodies to attack it and fight it off. These antibodies usually are what create the allergy symptoms. But, Dr. Fenton told me, what many (if not most) people call food “allergies” are actually more accurately described as “intolerances,” especially in the case of lactose, food dyes and chemicals such as MSG. (You may recall that we recently covered a similar phenomenon as it relates to fructose in the March 7, 2011, issue of Daily Health News.)

What’s the difference? Intolerances are not caused by the immune system, and they tend to be complex reactions (for instance, causing stomach upset and/or headaches) that worsen as you eat more and more of the food. Allergies, on the other hand, cause symptoms such as redness, itching, tightness in the throat, shortness of breath or anaphylactic shock. Both are troublesome, but it’s important to identify whether your reaction is an allergy or intolerance because the two have different consequences — allergies are dangerous while intolerances are merely terribly unpleasant. And they require different treatments.

What It All Means

If you suspect that you have a food allergy — or if you now suspect that you don’t have a food allergy, but rather an intolerance — discuss your concern with your doctor. A detailed medical history and perhaps a skin prick test and/or blood antibody test will help distinguish between intolerance and allergy.

Important! Tests are done on extracts, which are purified, as opposed to foods, which often contain multiple ingredients. Therefore, a negative result to a test using an extract is not really definitive. It is important to be aware that in the real world, foods may contain other ingredients that you may or may not know they contain. Meanwhile, a positive result does not necessarily confirm an allergy. It means that you have a sensitization to a food that could be either an allergy or an intolerance.

The True Test

For these reasons, Dr. Fenton suggests that people who believe they have food allergies should get confirmation by having a tightly controlled oral challenge performed by an allergist in a setting where he/she has access to medications and equipment to treat severe reactions. You will be instructed to avoid the suspected food for a certain length of time (usually an hour or two) before your appointment. Then, while you are in the doctor’s office, you will consume gradually increasing amounts of the food. Your doctor will monitor your reaction to determine whether you have an allergy or intolerance and, of course, will be able to provide appropriate treatment if your reaction veers into dangerous territory. Since there are no FDA-approved treatments for food allergy at present, you will then have to avoid the food that you are allergic to.

It’s good news to learn that foods you are intolerant of — but not allergic to — aren’t truly dangerous to your health but, of course, an intolerance produces unpleasant symptoms itself, so it makes sense to follow the very same advice — eat something else.


Matthew J. Fenton, PhD, division of allergy, immunology and transplantation, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda.

Can Pretzels Relieve Stress?

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

When you fly these days, the airlines ply you with salty snacks — pretzels, munchy mix, peanuts and chips. For nervous fliers, these salty snacks may be just what you need to feel less anxious and a little more relaxed. A new study reported in the April 6, 2011 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience has found that at least in rats, a temporary rise in sodium levels can directly reduce stress. Researchers at the University of Cincinnati found that when they gave rats large doses of sodium and then exposed them to stressful situations, the rats secreted fewer stress hormones and their heart rate and blood pressure did not go up as much as in rats in the control group, where sodium levels remained “normal.” The rats that were given sodium also recovered from those stressful situations more quickly, settling back into normal blood pressure and heart rates.

Salt helps stress? Wait a minute — lots of people consider salt the enemy! This study struck me as so unusual that I immediately called its lead author, Eric Krause, PhD, in the university’s department of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience to find out more about it. He explained that a temporary rise in sodium causes difficulty in regulating the body’s fluid balance, and this triggers two important shifts as the body goes into action to rebalance that fluid. First, the excess salt inhibits the action of the hormone angiotensin II, which plays a role in regulating blood pressure and is also a “stress hormone” that increases anxiety and drives the fight-or-flight response. Second, the fluid dysregulation prompts the release of the calming hormone oxytocin. So now, with sodium levels up, you have the stress hormone blunted — and with the soothing hormone on the rise, you have a group of much calmer rats.

Behind the Salt

Dr. Krause notes that certain kinds of drugs that many people take to treat high blood pressure called angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs) — including losartan (Cozaar) and valsartan (Diovan), among others — also have a calming effect because they inhibit the action of angiotensin II. Indeed, Dr. Krause said, there is good evidence from a number of studies that they provide the secondary benefit of stress relief.

As for eating pretzels and other salty snacks during anxious times, remember that a diet of salty foods is never good for health. And when I asked Dr. Krause if he would advise having a salty snack for comfort in times of stress, he responded frankly, “I work with animals, not humans. It may be that having a salty snack when stressed would provide a bit of relief.” But he added that salty food should definitely not be considered a treatment for anxiety — on balance, it’s just not good for us.


Eric Krause, PhD, research assistant professor, division of basic science, department of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience, University of Cincinnati.

Chocolate: Even Healthier Than You Knew

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

One of my coworkers has a secret stash in her bottom desk drawer. Where the characters in Mad Men keep bottles of Scotch, she hoards piles of chocolate bars, truffles and kisses that would make Willy Wonka envious. As we all happily know by now, numerous studies vindicate my friend’s sweet tooth — trial after trial confirms that healthful components in chocolate and cocoa can be helpful for everything from heart disease to brain function (assuming that we don’t overindulge, of course).

So, here’s the latest good news for my coworker and all you chocoholics — now researchers are finding that chocolate can help sharpen your eyes… and even cure a cough!

Sharpen Your Eyes and Mind

In a small study at the University of Reading in the UK reported in the June 2011 issue of Physiology & Behavior, dark chocolate beat white chocolate (used as a control) in tests of vision and memory and reaction time tasks. Researchers had 30 volunteers aged 18 to 25 consume two different candy bars — a 35-gram (about 1.25 ounces) commercially available dark chocolate bar containing 773 milligrams of cocoa flavonols and a 35-gram white chocolate bar with no flavonols on separate occasions one week apart. Afterward, investigators tested volunteers on tasks measuring vision, memory and reaction time.

When the volunteers ate the dark chocolate they experienced 17% enhanced visual sensitivity (the ability to see in difficult conditions) for up to two-and-one-half hours, as compared with when they ate the white chocolate.

In cognitive tests, compared with white chocolate, dark chocolate stepped up participants’ memory and reaction times — they were able to correctly identify more of a number of objects that had been switched from their original places.

Researchers speculate that cocoa flavonols achieve these effects by increasing blood and oxygen flow. Since the enhanced performance was just among those who ate dark chocolate and not white chocolate, researchers can rule out the “sugar buzz” as being the reason for improved performance.

Chocolate: The New Cough Medicine

What else can chocolate do for us? Produce a more effective cough medicine? Why not, say scientists at Imperial College London, who determined that theobromine — a key ingredient in chocolate — was one-third more successful in quieting coughs than the powerful narcotic codeine.

About the research: On three different occasions, investigators gave 10 healthy volunteers theobromine, codeine or a placebo. Next they exposed them to capsaicin, the spicy compound in red pepper that can make some people cough. Higher amounts of capsaicin (about one-third more) were required to produce coughs in the theobromine group, and theobromine proved more effective than a typical dose of codeine as a cough suppressant.

Theobromine directly affects the vagus nerve, which is responsible for coughs, and unlike codeine it does not cause drowsiness. Codeine is an opiate — so a cocoa-based cough remedy would be much safer for anyone driving, using machinery and so on. A theobromine-based drug is in clinical trials in the UK.

Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth… But in Moderation, Please!

Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, a professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition, finds chocolate research intriguing and believes it warrants further investigation. She says that if you enjoy chocolate, go ahead and eat it in moderation — but it should not be your only rich source of flavonols.

Dr. Lichtenstein’s recommendation: Every day, consume a wide range of flavonol-rich foods and beverages, such as blueberries, cranberries, pomegranates, grapes, grape juice, red wine, green tea… and if you like, a little chocolate.


Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, Stanley N. Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy, Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, director and senior scientist, Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory, Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Center on Aging Professor of Medicine, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston.