Mummies & Eskimos with Heart Disease: it isn’t Modern Diets that are the Problem: The People of St. Paul

The recent study that came out showing that ancient people had heart disease, including a group of Alaska Natives whose mummified remains revealed that the perfect paleolithic diet did not protect from heart disease. Funny thing, Alaska Natives have known this for years. While some may want to say our diet is the ultimate, we have known it is just our way to survive – to live.   St. Paul is a small community of several hundred in the Pribilloff Islands. A remnant of the ancient people of Alaska, with only minimal changes from our paleolithic era.

Most people would never know about these islands were it not for the TV series, Most Dangerous Catch.  It is these islands that the crab fisherman come to process some of their crab. Viewers of the show will recognize the name of the place.

St George Island from St. Paul

In the distance is St. George, the smaller of the two islands. St. Paul is 7 miles wide, 14 miles long. Formed from volcanic activity.

Lonely islands, in the middle of the Bering Sea – but home to some of the most ancient people on earth. St Paul is a three hour flight from Anchorage. Sometimes the weather is so fierce that people have been unable to leave the island for several days.

Like their ancestors, these Alaska natives get their food from fishing. Halibut, crab, salmon, char, and the occasional seal. The only thing that has been introduced into their diet has been the reindeer herd on the island – that would provide a bit of our dinner that night. While there is a single grocery store, products from the lower-48 are expensive and not often used.

The recent Lancet article stated:


The presence of atherosclerosis in  pre-modern human beings suggests that the disease is an inherent component of human ageing and not  characteristic of any specific diet or lifestyle.

alaska Aleut

The Aleuts, or Unangan, peoples inhabit the western most part of Alaska – purple. The two little spots above the t in Alutiiq is where St. Paul Island is-

In the article they had studied   mummified remains of Alaska Natives, my ancestors. The Aleuts  live on the  islands in the western part of Alaska.   These islands, formed from mostly volcanic formation, to this day are rich in marine life, with abundant fish, seal, whales, and occasional berries.

I was last there when invited to a celebration in St. Paul because of their new clinic. A beautiful facility, staffed by physicians out of Anchorage. But this facility is vital to the community.

St Paul Seals

The island is a natural breeding ground for seals, who migrate here yearly. The Russians forced Aleuts to inhabit the island to harvest the seals

The island was originally uninhabited until the Russians arrived. Used primarily as a hunting area for natives, then the Russians discovered the great seal population they forcibly moved hundreds of Aleuts here to harvest the fur.  Those families still remain.

Why, you might ask, should you think about Aleuts?  Why do food scientists think about them? These were/are one of the great hunter-gathering societies, eating a diet of fish, meat – even getting their vitamin C, not from citrus, but from marine life. Those relatives, my ancestors, had a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, did not eat processed grains – in fact, they rarely had any food but what would be the ideal paleo-rich, non-processed, occasional berry (in season – fresh and local) diet.

For the study in Lancet, it was made possible to see what my ancestors ate because  the climate in these parts allows mother nature to mummify the body, making the bodies available to study.

St Paul

Main Street in St. Paul. They have one bar, one post office, one grocery store, and one church

This group was use to physical activity, without animals to transport them they relied on the kayak for whaling, fishing, and transportation to visit one another on other islands.  With Russians reporting that some of these peoples would go hundreds of miles in Kayaks.


Restoring an ancient Kayaks. Much larger than the individual ones used for modern sport


A better view of how large these ocean going vehicles were

It has been postulated that the Eskimo (the Aleut are the same group as the Eskimo) would have the lowest incidence of coronary artery disease because of their diet. The hunter-gathering society had a “reported” low incidence – although as with many population studies have shown, you often find it when you look for it. For a more in depth discussion about population studies and how we have missed them see here. The Pima Indians, of Arizona, are called “the most studied group” in the world. It was once assumed they had no heart disease, and thus began an intensive study as to why they didn’t have heart disease- but as more studies were performed, turns out the Pimas, like many societies, have heart disease. In fact more of it than western societies. It is the same with the Eskimo health, whether from Greenland or other areas, when critically examined, this society has the same rate of heart disease as others.

Modern Man:

Some have speculated that the incidence of coronary artery disease among Eskimos is because of their interaction with modern man. The introduction of grains into their diets, tobacco, and machinery with less exercise. Not only did the study in Lancet article show that cardiac disease was present in those paleo-people, it is in line with laboratory studies of Aleuts showing they have the same markers for cardiac disease as the rest of us.


Aleut home Alaska Native Center

This is a modern representation of homes of the Aleuts. This from The Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, Alaska. A worthwhile place

While they did not have tobacco, all ancient peoples used fire. The Native Alaskas of the Aleutians  had homes built partially underground, and used community fires with smoke going out of a hole in the roof, or used fires to heat water that would heat the homes. This might have lead to increased exposure that would accelerate heart disease, but the dispersion of smoke from this would be hundreds of times less than exposure from those who inhale tobacco.

Seal oil was used for lamps. Which, like olive oil, burns quite brightly.

Today they use electricity.  So the second-hand smoke from fires and lamps is no longer a factor. They still eat a diet primarily of fish.  Still, as we found from this little clinic for a town of 400 people, there is  heart disease. Several times a year a person is evacuated out of this town to the city of Anchorage for advanced cardiac care.

One of the  mummified remains of an Aleut lady showed severe artery disease to the extent that if we saw this today she would undergo vascular surgery. This in a woman who was in her late 40’s to early 50’s. She may very well have died of a stroke.


St. Paul island birds

The people still get eggs, but they prefer the fresh ones from the cliff. Higher in omega-3 fatty acids than the ones from the chicken farms. These islands have some of the most unique birds in the world.

In fact, in the recent study published on-line by Lancet, they discovered atherosclerosis was prevalent in all areas of the world, over a 4000 year time span, and several continents, with peoples having ancient diets from rich in saturated fat, to near vegetarian, to pure paleo.


Exercise you say? Turns out that in ancient cultures, without the benefit of cars, bikes, or probably even animals- physical activity was normal- and lean and mean were simply natural. Like a six-pack, probably every ancient Alaska Native  person had one– but in their coronary arteries were plaques, that would make any modern, beer belly, sedentary modern human proud.


These ancient ones didn’t have trans-fats, they didn’t have soda, they didn’t have wheat, they didn’t have dairy, they didn’t have cheese, but they did have heart disease. And today, they stil do.

Heart Disease:

The study showed that heart disease was found throughout ancient civilization. It wasn’t the diet that prevented it. In fact, probably was genetic like most of us thought all along. Like their ancestors before, the Aleuts of St. Paul have the same disease, virtually the same diet. Their lifestyle is better now, with indoor heat, better insulation. They still live a physical life. But one thing they need- much like many – is some statin drug like Lipitor  which works much better than their ancient diet, or any diet you can think of .

Ask an Alaska Native if their diet protected them from disease: they will tell you, it didn’t. Food wasn’t meant for medicine, food was meant to nourish the body. A lesson the ancient people knew – one that many doctors are still learning.


Atherosclerosis across 4000 years of human history: the Horus study of four ancient populations.Randall C Thompson, Adel H Allam, Guido P Lombardi,   Published online March 10, 2013

High prevalence of markers of coronary heart disease among Greenland Inuit. Jørgensen ME, Bjerregaard P, Kjaergaard JJ, Borch-Johnsen K.Atherosclerosis. 2008 Feb;196(2):772-8 PMID: 17306273


Dr. Terry Simpson About Dr. Terry Simpson
Dr. Terry Simpson received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago where he spent several years in the Kovler Viral Oncology laboratories doing genetic engineering. He found he liked people more than petri dishes, and went to medical school. Dr. Simpson, a weight loss surgeon is an advocate of culinary medicine. The first surgeon to become certified in Culinary Medicine, he believes teaching people to improve their health through their food and in their kitchen. On the other side of the world, he has been a leading advocate of changing health care to make it more "relationship based," and his efforts awarded his team the Malcolm Baldrige award for healthcare in 2011 for the NUKA system of care in Alaska and in 2013 Dr Simpson won the National Indian Health Board Area Impact Award. A frequent contributor to media outlets discussing health related topics and advances in medicine, he is also a proud dad, husband, author, cook, and surgeon “in that order.” For media inquiries, please visit

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Latest Comments

  1. Eman says:

    “Food wasn’t meant for medicine, food was meant to nourish the body.” With these kind of things you sell your books? Nourishing the body doesn’t do any good to health? Did you hear about antioxidants, enzymes, vitamins? Does disinformation work well for your pocket? If food wasn’t meant for medicine, then why the fuck do plants, legumes, nuts, seeds and fruits contain everything that the human body needs and consumed in appropriate proportion keep the body healthy? What pharmaceutical company pays you? Eat shit and take pills to make you healthy. Tell me how will it work for you.

  2. thedoc says:

    Food can kill you, but it cannot cure you. In terms of keeping the body healthy – well, they provide nourishment, and nourishment is far more than the macronutrients. What you see is that people who eat, and eat well do just fine. But eating well does not mean you will live long, it does not mean that you will be free of disease, it does not mean you will avoid heart disease or cancer. So, for those people who have hyperlipidemia, there is not a single plant, or group of things that will make them not have hyperlipidemia, and to treat it they will need something like Lipitor. For people who have type 1 diabetes, or type 2 diabetes- after they have maximized out their health, the type 1 diabetics will still need insulin (or they die) and many type 2 will also. If you have pneumonia, no matter how healthy you are, you will still need antibiotics. If you have congestive heart failure, you will still need after-load reducing agents. So, if you think that food can keep you from getting disease, or treat disease, then you are badly mistaken, and have no basis to show or prove that. And if you think that we don’t advocate eating well, good, healthy food- then you have not read what we have written.

  3. thedoc says:

    Your brilliant comment I would not delete – because it shows that you are replete – of yourself

  4. Lynn says:

    One of the oldest living Jews is a holocaust survivor and musician, named Alice, who is 109 (may she live a long and healthy life). Although the Nazis killed her husband, Alice kept her son alive by giving piano performances to the Nazis. She and her friends still get together to play music and when asked how she managed to stay alive so long, she said it comes from seeing the beauty in everything. She also appears to be of normal weight. Apparently, she does not credit her vitality to her diet.

  5. Ivor Goodbody says:

    “For those people who have hyperlipidemia, there is not a single plant, or group of things that will make them not have hyperlipidemia, and to treat it they will need something like Lipitor.”

    I’m sure you’re aware of the work of David Jenkins in trying to demonstrate that his Portfolio Diet is a viable alternative to statins, such as this study:

    which concluded: “Dietary combinations may not differ in potency from first-generation statins [specifically, lovastatin] in achieving current lipid goals for primary prevention.”

    He has gradually extended his results to larger groups and longer timescales and they seem to have held up. Although his Portfolio of cholesterol-lowering foods is not QUITE as effective as statins, it seems to be associated with quite a potent impact on lipid measures including total cholesterol. There are also plausible mechanisms to explain why, which complement each other and therefore account well for why the parts of a Portfolio Diet might add up to more their sum in the effects they have.

    For what it’s worth (statistically nothing, of course!) I’ve also tried this diet myself and can personally testify that after just 28 days on this diet, my tested lipids changed as follows (my apologies for UK rather than US measures):

    Total cholesterol 3.8mmol/L (54% reduction)
    Triglycerides 0.9mmol/L (80% increase)
    HDL 1.7 mmol/L (32% reduction)
    Calculated LDL-C 1.7mmol/L (69% reduction).

    I take it from your comment quoted above that you don’t find such studies convincing.

    May I ask why not, and what you make of Jenkins’ work in this area?

    Wishing you good health


  6. thedoc says:

    Lovastatin is least effective statin of all the drugs out there. It is rarely prescribed, and if you need something like Lipitor, lovastatin and/or diet won’t help. Jenkin’s study was with 66 individuals, and it did lower, but it is not a diet that is easy to follow, and its reductions are modest, and would not be enough with individuals with severe hyperlipidemia.
    While eating healthy, and eating less is always something I advocate – the issue is two:
    (a) If you need medicine then you need medicine, and they have been shown to not only reduce the blood chemistry, but to reduce plaque
    (b) A healthy diet is still something we don’t have a complete handle on. It appears that lowering a blood chemistry is not the definition of a healthy diet, and increasing soy also increases isoflavones which have other effects.

    Much like everything in any eco-system – you change one thing, other impacts happen that are not foreseen.

  7. Christina McCarthy says: This website and this true scientist’s work on herself proves that food can be used as medicine. Dr Terry Wahls suffered from MS and is now symptom free through using a paleo vegetable rich diet. She is helping others to do the same. Go to her website and find her on youtube and Facebook. She is a true scientist – a rare thing these days.

  8. thedoc says:

    MS is a disease that waxes and wanes, and there are many stories of people who have these types of recoveries without such diets.

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