The traditional marine diet eaten by older Inuit seems to protect them from cardiovascular disease (CVD), but younger Inuit are shifting their diets away from these foods and may not be getting the benefits.

A new study has verified the relationship between omega-3 fatty acids and CVD risk for Inuit. It concludes the the traditional diet is probably responsible for the low death rates from heart disease among Inuit.

Researchers surveyed 426 Inuit men and women in Nunavik, northern Quebec about their diet and analyzed the fatty acid levels from their blood samples.

They found those who ate the most traditional marine foods had high plasma levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

Heart healthy omega-3 levels are associated with greater high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol concentrations and lower levels of triacylglycerols.

Heart disease mortality rate among Inuit half provincial rates

In several native populations, a shift away from traditional lifestyles and diets is associated with increased risk factors for CVD, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.

In this study, 41 per cent of the Inuit surveyed reported eating traditional foods the day before the survey. Older Inuit ate more marine foods and their omega-3 fatty acid levels were higher than those of younger Inuit.

The Nunavik Inuit omega fatty acid levels' were similar to those seen among Alaska Eskimos but were lower than those reported for Igloolik Inuit in Nunavut.

The researchers conclude the promotion of safe nutritional habits among Inuit poses a two-part challenge: the need to maintain or increase traditional food use and supporting efforts to increase the use of healthy market foods.

The researchers were from Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Quebec, Laval University and University of Guelph. Their study appears in the October issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.