High-fat diets, such as the ketogenic diet, are receiving a great deal of attention in the health and fitness world. Keto has been given the “celeb-favorite” seal and, no doubt, all of the hype certainly peaks one’s curiosity.
Before you jump on the high-fat, high-protein ship, I want to share some of the risks associated with diets like this, which may make you reconsider your plan to go keto.
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The Debunked Inuit Diet
In the 1970s, two Danish physicians visited the Arctic region of Greenland to conduct research on cardiovascular disease risk. The Inuit residents of the area consumed a predominantly carnivorous diet, mostly fish, and whale and seal blubber. The data gathered by the physicians suggested that a diet very high in fat and protein and very low in plant-based carbs protected the Arctic natives from heart disease. (1)
Their research was published, and fish oil supplement sales absolutely soared as nutrition advisors began promoting fish oil supplements as heart-healthy.
Unfortunately, these findings were discredited over the past few years. Upon investigation, researchers discovered that the original study used hospital records and death certificates from rural areas at a time when few were actually admitted to hospitals, as access was scarce.
It turns out that the Inuit have the same incidence of cardiovascular disease as non-Inuit populations. (2) In fact, recent data conducted over the past few decades suggests that, sadly, Greenland’s Inuit population has higher incidences of heart disease than non-Inuit populations who eat the standard American diet. They found that strokes were common and the life expectancy was about a decade shorter than non-Inuit people. (5)
Follow-up studies were done to evaluate the effect of omega-3 fish oils on heart diseases, and the results were surprising. In a meta-analysis of 20 studies published in the Journal of American Medicine, researchers concluded that “Overall, omega-3 PUFA supplementation was not associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality, cardiac death, sudden death, myocardial infarction, or stroke based on relative and absolute measures of association.” (3)
While there are volumes of studies on the benefits of omega-3 fish oil supplementation in the Standard American Diet (SAD), the Inuit’s traditional high-fat diet did not offer them any real protection for heart disease.
The SAD has significantly shifted the consumption from fish-based omega-3 fatty acids to more plant-based omega-6 fatty acids. For thousands of years, humans consumed significantly more omega-3s than omega-6s, until the 1960s, when we began replacing saturated animal fats with plant-based, highly processed and refined omega-6 fatty acids. This is likely why, in an attempt to bring the omega-3 and 6 balance back, there are so many studies suggesting the benefits of omega-3 fish oil supplementation. (4)
So the question remains, how safe and/or effective is a high-fat, high-protein paleo diet, or high-fat, low-protein, low-carb ketogenic diet?
Interestingly, the Inuit people have evolved to have a gene that reduces their natural production of omega-3 and omega-6 fats. Just 2-3% of non-Inuit people have such a gene, suggesting that non-Inuit people are genetically mismatched for a high-fat, higher-protein diet. (6)
Extremely high-fat diets have not offered substantial health and longevity benefits to Arctic natives, but can a ketogenic diet or similar diets be strategically used to address certain health concerns, and to possibly reset fat burning in a culture that is addicted to sugar? Possibly, yes!
This is a topic I will dive into in great detail in my future articles. Stay tuned!