Nutrition in Greenland – A first glance

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Last month I landed in Nuuk, Greenland full of excitement to get started on our dietary study examining a traditional Inuit diet vs a westernized diet on blood sugar and other cardiovascular health markers in the Greenland Inuit population.

As almost everyone landing in Greenland for the first time, the first thing you notice is the stunning nature which is everywhere and breathtaking. I heard about it and was told to expect something special, but it is really something you should experience in person. Incredible.

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However, as someone with a special interest in nutrition, the foods and dietary culture are also of special interest. So one of the first things, after landing and getting settled in our AirBnB, was to visit the local supermarkets. As always, a top attraction for someone with a nutrition background. One of the things you obviously notice (and somewhat expect) is the large assortment of fish, seafood and sea mammals (such as whale and seal) and also local meats such as reindeer and musk ox. However, it is also evident that a lot of imported foods have found their way here – as exemplified with the cereal aisle. What was also striking, but not surprising, was that the price of fresh fruits and vegetables is 4-6 times more expensive compared to Denmark. No wonder this is probably not a stable food at the family dinners.

The trip to the supermarkets gave the first indication of why this population has experienced a rapid increase in obesity and type 2 diabetes prevalence since transitioning from a traditional hunter-gatherer way of living.

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The second indication came when I tried out the local cafés and eating places. First thing I noticed was the big selection of ice coffee with various taste, caramel, ice cream and just loads of whipped cream in general. Apparently, ice coffee is still delicious even if its -10 °C outside… Besides this people also add a substantial amount of sugar to their coffee (we are not just talking one or two scoops). This explained why there is also a separate point just for sugar added to hot drinks in our dietary assessment method, something I found a bit strange to start with. This coffee often comes with cakes with cream. A lot of cream. While I agree that you need something to keep you warm up here, even I found that there is such a thing as too much whipped cream…

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As part of my interest in nutrition, I also enjoy food and trying out local specialties and fine dining. For our Easter dinner, my girlfriend and I tried out Sarfalik where I got to try out the musk soup, reindeer filet and lumpfish roe (aka caviar of the north). An amazing experience to try out the local cuisine at the highest level. This really gave an impression on how one could use the local foods for creating healthy dishes – something that is very central for our dietary study.

When experiencing the cold weather one can understand why the traditional diet of the Inuit was very high fat, high protein as you would want a high fat intake to get enough calories for surviving the winters. Together with the high level of physical activity in the traditional hunter-gather society, this makes a lot of sense. However, in modern societies where physical activity levels are also dropping and simple carbohydrate intake is increasing this does seem to be a recipe for the rapid increase in obesity and type 2 diabetes prevalence.

Obviously, Nuuk is not typical of all of Greenland but it does home a substantial amount of the total population. From a nutritional perspective, there seems to be quite some room for improvement, but also a very high potential for including local foods in a healthy Greenlandic diet. Hopefully, our new research project can uncover some of the potentials of using local foods.

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