Traditionally Eskimos ate only meat and fish. Why didn’t they get scurvy?

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Dear Cecil: Why didn’t Eskimos get scurvy before citrus was introduced to their diet? They have a traditional diet of almost entirely meat and fish. Where did they get their vitamin C? Kevin Carson, via the Internet


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

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

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

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

A few holdouts didn’t buy it. To settle the matter once and for all, Stefansson and a colleague lived on a meat-only diet for one year under medical supervision at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, starting in February 1928. The two ate between 100 and 140 grams of protein a day, the balance of their calories coming from fat, yet they remained scurvy free. Later in life Stefansson became a strong advocate of a high-meat diet even if you didn’t live in the arctic; he professed to enjoy improved health, reduced weight, etc, from meals consisting of coffee, the occasional grapefruit, and a nice steak, presumably rare. Doesn’t sound half bad, and one might note that until recently the Inuit rarely suffered from atherosclerosis and other Western ailments.

Vitamin C can be found in a variety of traditional Eskimo/Inuit staples, including the skin of beluga whales (known as muktuk), which is said to contain as much vitamin C as oranges. Other reported sources include the organ meats of sea mammals as well as the stomach contents of caribou. You’re thinking: It’ll be a mighty cold day in the arctic before they catch me eating the stomach contents of caribou. Indeed, you have to wonder whether the Inuit really ate such stuff either, since Stefansson describes it being fed to dogs.

Other aspects of the arctic diet also remain controversial. For example, some say the Eskimos could get vitamin C from blueberries during the summer months, while others say you’d be lucky to find enough berries to cover a bowl of Rice Chex. I say let’s not sweat the details of the menu, which varied from region to region anyway. We know Eskimos got enough vitamin C in their traditional diet to survive because obviously they did. Now it’s academic — most arctic natives live in villages and get their vitamin C from OJ and Juicy Juice, just like you and I.

Oh, and for all you vegetarians who’ve seen the error of your ways and were thinking of adopting the Inuit diet — think twice about the raw meat thing. Vitamin C might not a problem, but E. coli might.

Questions we’re still thinking about

Dear Cecil:

I read in a recent magazine that the ringworm parasite cannot stand anesthesia. So if and when a victim of ringworm is put under for any medical purpose, the ringworm has been known to use any means of escape possible, and it would not be unusual to see quite large infestations evacuating through a patient’s nostrils almost immediately upon anesthetizing. True? And are there any documented incidences of this? Can you find pictures?

— Morbid Curiosity in Providence

Cecil replies:

Definitely an interesting visual, Morb. Unfortunately (for you), ringworm is a fungus, not a critter. Guess you’re stuck with tapeworms, huh?

Cecil Adams

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