In 1968 young Danish physicist Jørn Dyerberg happened to read a newspaper article describing how Greenland's Inuit, or Eskimo, population survived on one of the most fat-laden diets known to man – fish and seal blubber. Yet despite this seemingly poor regimen, noticeably deficient in fruits and vegetables, these northerners had a remarkably low incidence of heart disease.
Dyerberg and a fellow researcher, Hans Olaf Bang, were fascinated by this apparent medical contradiction. Along with a third compatriot, bioanalyst Aase Brøndum Nielsen, they made their way to northwest Greenland in 1970. Impelled by data such as – forty percent of Americans succumb to heart disease but only five percent of the Inuit – they hoped that the key to the mystery would benefit not only the citizens of Denmark but people of other Western countries with high death rates from coronary disease.
Blood samples drawn from the 130 Greenlanders on which the Danes focused showed markedly high levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids EPA and DHA – the two prime components of omega-3 fish oil. The researchers concluded that the Inuits' low incidence of heart disease was due to the seafood-derived omerga-3 fats that they consumed in such abundance.
Following up with four more trips to Greenland during the 1970s and early '80s – relying on dog sleds and enduring some bracing weather conditions – Dyerberg today is rightly regarded as the pioneer and guiding light of omega-3 research. As a result of the work he spearheaded, the worldwide medical establishment has come to recognize the varied health advantages omega-3 confers. Not least among them is its connection to reducing high triglyceride levels.
Triglycerides are blood lipids, fats found in the bloodstream, that can lead to an accumulation of plaque inside the artery walls, restricting blood flow and sometimes causing complete arterial blockage. This buildup can be accelerated by LDL, the so-called “bad” cholesterol prevalent, for example, in certain foods that increasingly figure in our modern Western diet. And elevated triglyceride and cholesterol numbers constituent significant risk factors in coronary artery disease.
The last point is, ironically, one with which even the Greenlanders have become familiar. When Dyerberg embarked on his study more than four decades ago the Inuit were still large a hunting and fishing society. Since then, with their adopting a more Westernized lifestyle, their diet, once based almost entirely on marine-oil sources, has become more diversified. They are now experiencing an upsurge of such health problems as diabetes, obesity and coronary failure.
This is not to say that all aspects of our Western diet – typically rich in meat and dairy proteins – are detrimental. It is to suggest, however, that omega-3 fats available from cold-water seafood or from dietary supplements can go a long way in managing or minimizing some of the serious health risks our appetites may generate.