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.