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Researchers Eye Link Between Diet, Depression
by Ned Rozell

January 24, 2004
Saturday - 1:10 am

During the last 50 years, Alaska Natives have eaten fewer seals from the Bering Sea and more steaks from Nebraska. The drastic change in diet that comes with the influence of another culture may be an overlooked factor in mental health problems of northern Natives, according to a team of researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Alaska Natives and other circumpolar people have experienced "a complete change in diet from marine mammals, salmon, eggs from marine birds," said Abel Bult-Ito, an associate


Red salmon, a traditional food high in omega-3 fatty acids.
Photo by Ned Rozell.
professor of biology with UAF's Institute of Arctic Biology. "Those have been replaced by steaks and Crisco, you name it. Plus soda--the consumption of those sort of sweetened beverages has skyrocketed."

Bult-Ito and UAF students Nancy McGrath-Hanna, Dana Green, and Ron Tavernier found what they believe is a connection between diet and mental health when they studied more than 150 journal articles dealing with northern people, diet, depression, and suicide. The International Journal of Circumpolar Health published their summary of those articles in 2003.

Aircraft, barges, roads and other 20th century developments brought non-traditional foods into Native villages. The easy availability of store-bought foods caused an abrupt switch in what people ate.

"These factors have contributed to the replacement of most of the traditional diet with a Western-style diet, which is high in carbohydrates and saturated fats, and low in essential nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids," the researchers wrote.

Traditional foods high in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants include fish, seals and other marine mammals, birds and their eggs, fur-bearing animals, and berries. Today, food packaged thousands of miles from village stores has replaced many of the harvested meals that were prevalent for years. When traditional foods were to some extent pushed aside, new diseases appeared.

"Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, mental health problems--from the information we were able to find, Native people didn't have these problems in the past," said Bult-Ito. "The sudden shift in diet and lifestyle really hit them hard."

The UAF researchers mentioned several studies linking depression to lower levels of fish consumption and omega-3 fatty acids. They also pointed out that the suicide rate for Canadian Inuit from 1987 to 1991 was 3.9 times higher than the rate for the rest of Canada. Many researchers have tied suicides to the poor mental health of people suffering from diseases; Bult-Ito and his colleagues suggest that dietary change should be part of the depression equation.

"There's not a lot you can do about Western culture taking hold, but diet is one thing you might be able to control," Tavernier said

Some Native communities that remained isolated in Iceland and northern Finland had lower rates of seasonal affective disorder and depression than those more entwined in Western culture, the UAF scientists wrote. They also pointed out that life before Western contact seemed to feature more death due to accidents, but "otherwise, as far as we could tell they were healthier than they are now, on average," Bult-Ito said.


Source of Story & Photograph:

This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute.


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