“The Eskimo Myth”

Image Credit: Pixino. This image has been modified.

As I reviewed in my video Is Fish Oil Just Snake Oil?, the revelation that fish oil appears useless in preventing heart disease—in both heart patients and those trying to prevent heart disease in the first place—leads one to wonder how this whole fish tale began.

The common mythology is that in response to anecdotal reports of a low prevalence of coronary heart disease among the Eskimo, Danish researchers Bang and Dyerberg went there and confirmed a very low incidence of heart attack. The absence of coronary artery disease would be strange in a meat-based diet with hardly any fruits and vegetables—“in other words, a diet that violates all principles of balanced and heart-healthy nutrition.” This paradox was attributed to all the seal and whale blubber, which is extremely rich in omega-3 fish fat, and the rest is history.

There’s a problem, though. It isn’t true.

As I discuss in my video Omega-3s and the Eskimo Fish Tale, the fact is Bang and Dyerberg never examined the cardiovascular status of the Eskimo; they just accepted at face value this notion that coronary atherosclerosis is almost unknown among the Eskimo, a concept that has been disproven over and over starting back in the 1930s. In fact, going back more than a thousand years, we have frozen Eskimo mummies with atherosclerosis. From 500 years ago, a woman in her early 40s had atherosclerosis in her aorta and coronary arteries. And these aren’t just isolated cases. The totality of evidence from actual clinical investigations, autopsies, and imaging techniques is that they have the same plague of coronary artery disease that non-Eskimo populations have, and the Eskimo actually have twice the fatal stroke rate and don’t live particularly long.

“Considering the dismal health status of Eskimos, it is remarkable that instead of labelling their diet as dangerous to health,” they just accepted and echoed the myth, and tried to come up with a reason to explain the false premise. The Eskimo had such dismal health that the Westernization of their diets actually lowered their rates of ischemic heart disease. You know your diet’s bad when the arrival of Twinkies improves your health.

So, why do so many researchers to this day unquestioningly parrot the myth? “Publications still referring to Bang and Dyerberg’s nutritional studies as proof that Eskimos have low prevalence of [heart disease] represent either misinterpretation of the original findings or an example of confirmation bias,” which is when people cherry-pick or slant information to confirm their preconceived notions. As the great scientist Francis Bacon put it: “Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true.” So, we get literally thousands of articles on the alleged benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, a billion-dollar industry selling fish oil capsules, and millions of Americans taking the stuff—all based on a hypothesis that was questionable from the very beginning.

(Please note that our use of terms is based on what is written in the particular study we are referencing, for example, Eskimo. We acknowledge that Inuit is the preferred term.)

What’s this about no benefit for fish oil consumption and heart disease? See my video Is Fish Oil Just Snake Oil?.

What about fish oil for mood disorders? See Fish Consumption and Suicide. Is Fish “Brain Food” for Older Adults? Should Vegans Take DHA to Preserve Brain Function? Consumption of long-chain omega-3s (EPA and DHA) may be useful for forming and maintaining brain health, but there’s a struggle between Mercury vs. Omega-3s for Brain Development when coming from fish or fish oil, thanks to how polluted our oceans have become. In fact, this is the case even in “distilled” fish oil; see Fish Oil in Troubled Waters for more. The marine pollutants may explain the relationship between Fish and Diabetes and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease): Fishing for Answers. Thankfully, there are now pollutant-free (yeast- and microalgae-derived) sources.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

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