Driven by Curious Data
A Story of Fat
In 2007 we were part of a team that won a research grant from the International Polar Year research RFP for an integrated research program on arctic and marine fats and lipids. Fat is one of the most important elements of the Inuit diet as well as a key indicator of the health of arctic ecosystems – healthy animals have healthy levels of fat.
Inuit hunters were reporting a decline in the quantity and quality of fat in their traditional food resources that suggested a shift in the resource's ability to sustain itself indicative of a change in the environmental conditions.
Change in the arctic climate was one potential factor, but we knew through previous studies about elevated levels of pollutants present affecting animals' health status and reproductive ability.
Inuit hunters were observing this health decline across all levels of the food chain as well as noticeable shifts in environmental patterns that were directly impacting the arctic ecosystem.
The impact of environmental change, however, was only one part of the story.
Modern chronic diseases such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes were traditionally very rare within Inuit communities, but this rapidly changed with a shift away from the beneficial fats available in wild foods or ‘country food’ to a store-bought western diet high in omega 6 and trans fats.
The conclusions of this study were, as expected, multifaceted, but they highlighted the critical impact on human health of transitioning lifestyles. The shift to a more sedentary lifestyle with a predominantly western diet was compounded by a shift in the availability and quality of country foods – specifically in the realm of dietary fat.
The film UTSUK (meaning ‘Fat’ in the Inuit language) was conceived as a way to relate these findings to the communities. Rather than a flat, descriptive "show and tell", the initial edits by the Directors gave an intimate portrait of life today in the north coupled with a sensitive discussion of change and its effects on community health.
In times past the isolation of these communities both culturally and geographically created a net human health benefit. Today their connectivity has resulted in imparting knowledge that benefits millions of people outside their communities but which, in turn, has had a primarily negative impact on their health. We as researchers struggled with how to communicate this message while also imparting a sense of transitioning that would not be all negative but implicitly hopeful. The film eventually became a structure by which both Inuit and outsiders could learn about subjects that affect them both – that affect us all.
Philippe Max Rouja PhD