Health Issues
Diet & Lifestyle Changes in Arctic People

Since the last International Polar Year, circumstances in the 8 Arctic nations have changed considerably. Interactions with southern countries have increased, affecting the social dynamic of indigenous communicates. This has impacted the diet and nutrition of indigenous communities.

Traditionally, many indigenous communities relied on the land for food—coastal communities ate marine mammals whereas inland communities hunted for animals such as reindeer or caribou. This diet was supplemented with other mammals, birds, fish, or plants.

Today, store bought items like white bread, pork chops, and beef are readily available, as are junk foods like soda pop and potato chips. This has impacted the amount of traditional foods that are eaten. In Greenland, the amount of traditional foods consumed varies by age group and residence—those in towns eat traditional foods less often than villages, and younger age groups also eat traditional foods less often. Similarly, in Nunavik, Canada, the consumption of traditional foods increases with age. Nutritionally, the result of these changes is that protein from the traditional diet is being replaced by fat and carbohydrates consumed in store bought foods. This dietary change is observed in all Inuit communities.

Another change in indigenous communities is the replacement of physical activity by a sedentary lifestyle. Modernization has resulted in Inuit societies becoming progressively less active, as traditional activities like dog sleds, hunting, and fishing are replaced by motorized vehicles and modern appliances. In addition, children are spending more time watching TV and in school and less time on traditional activities and household chores that enhance physical fitness.

Together, the changes in diet and physical activity since the last International Polar Year have contributed to the appearance of western chronic diseases, like diabetes, obesity, and dental caries. For this International Polar Year—the first to include a human health component—several projects have chosen to focus on how the changes in lifestyle and diet have impacted indigenous Arctic communities. One of these, the EARTH study (FP 271) is evaluating how differences in lifestyle and diet are related to a rise in chronic diseases of the Alaskan Native People. In Canada, researchers are creating a network to track Arctic communities’ response to change (FP 183). Swedish researchers are conducting a comparative study of how socio-demographic changes have influenced the health conditions of the Inuit and Sami since the 18th century (EoI 1184). Together, the results of these projects will broaden our base of knowledge concerning the health effects of the changing conditions in the Arctic.