Sunday, December 9, 2018

Inuit and vitamin D

Inuit mothers (Wikicommons - Ansgar Walk) - Inuit have low levels of vitamin D. Does this mean they're not getting enough? Or have their bodies adapted to an environment where it cannot easily be made in the skin or obtained from the diet?

Inuit people have "insufficient" vitamin D, even among those who eat a traditional diet and live a traditional lifestyle. There are consequently moves afoot to remedy this insufficiency by providing vitamin D supplements. In my opinion, this is a response to a largely nonexistent problem and will probably have adverse consequences.

My arguments are explained in an article I have just published in Inuit Studies. Here is the abstract:

Inuit have vitamin D blood levels that generally fall within the range of insufficiency, even when they live on a traditional diet of fish and game meat. Without this vitamin, bones soften and become deformed, a condition called rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults. Until recent times, however, this condition was much rarer among Inuit than among non-Inuit, even when the latter included people living near Inuit communities under similar conditions of climate and housing. This rarity was attributed to extended breastfeeding and a high-meat/low-cereal diet. The situation subsequently reversed, with Inuit becoming more at risk of developing rickets, first in Labrador during the 1920s and later elsewhere. To reduce this excess risk, researchers have recommended vitamin D supplementation, arguing that breast milk has too little vitamin D and that even a traditional diet cannot provide the recommended daily intake. We should ask, however, whether the problem is definitional. Inuit may have lower levels of vitamin D because they need less, having adapted culturally and physiologically to an environment where this vitamin is less easily synthesized in the skin. These adaptations include a diet that enhances calcium bioavailability (by means of ß-casein in breast milk, certain unknown substances in meat, and absence of phytic acid), as well as genetic changes that enable vitamin D to be used more efficiently. Although Inuit are today more at risk of developing rickets than are non-Inuit, this excess risk is nonetheless small and seems to have a dietary cause-namely, early weaning and abandonment of a high-meat/low-cereal diet.

Please feel free to offer comments or criticisms.


Frost, P. (2018). To supplement or not to supplement: are Inuit getting enough vitamin D? Études Inuit Studies 40(2): 271-291.

1 comment:

Sean said...

The interactions between calcium absorption, food, breast feeding, vitamin D levels and activity are clearly specialised to the Inuits traditional ways. First do no harm would seem to be the relevant consideration when considering blanket supplements. I have seen some things that indicate that extended exclusive breast feeding leads to problems, and yet the pre-chewing of food, let alone raw meat, is not very appealing nowadays.