Josh Ahsoak ate muktuk every day for a month, lost weight, and connected to his culture
“I had a bunch of life stuff I was dealing with, including trying to get my health and my weight under control,” he said.
Ahsoak, 38, is an Anchorage-based attorney by education. By avocation, he’s a hunter. Ahsoak is Inupiat, with roots in Barrow, where he is on his family’s whaling crew. He travels frequently in the state and estimates he spends about a third of the year subsistence hunting and fishing.
As his sister listed her new dietary restrictions, his thoughts turned to his freezer and the array of wild food inside: fish, birds, seal, walrus, bowhead. “At any given time, I will have anywhere between 50 and 500 pounds of just incredibly good meat and fish on hand from all the hunting and fishing activities,” he said. What would happen, he wondered, if he switched to a traditional Alaska Native diet for a month?
A northern indigenous diet is centered on marine mammal protein and plants. What if he focused on the freezer and avoided eating out or eating processed foods?
Ahsoak settled on whale meat, or muktuk, as the main protein in his diet. He had plenty from a successful spring hunt in Barrow. Whale is high in vitamins D and C, low carbohydrate and nutrient dense. Hunters eat it before going out because it is said to give them energy and keep them warmer. Ahsoak used to eat it in law school before taking long exams because, he said, it kept him from getting hungry. “It takes your body so long to digest it, it’s kind of like the opposite of some kind of empty carb or empty sugar,” he said. “You don’t eat a lot, that’s the biggest thing, it’s very filling.”
And so it began. His sister did her diet, and he ate about 8 to 10 ounces of whale daily. Usually at lunch with a salad.
Ahsoak chronicled his meals on Facebook like someone on a trendy diet, using the hashtag #30daymaktakchallenge. By the end of the month, he’d lost 17 pounds. “I felt much better physically and emotionally when I was eating well,” he said.
Gary Ferguson, chief executive officer at the Rural Alaska Community Action Program, Inc. (RurAL CAP) and a naturopathic doctor who has long been involved with nutrition in Alaska Native communities, said Ahsoak’s experience fits with what doctors know about traditional diets and the metabolic hardwiring of some Alaska Natives. Alaska Natives, who historically did not eat sugar or refined carbohydrates, have a higher chance of having a genetic propensity toward difficulties digesting those foods, he said. “I find that folks who eat a more traditional diet — healthy proteins, healthy fats and less grains and processed carbohydrates — they do better,” he said.
Traditional diets are associated with lower blood sugar levels and reduced risk for cardiovascular disease, he said. Proteins take longer to digest and fats make people feel sated. “I think we need to talk more about this,” Ferguson said. “There aren’t that many in the younger generation going to a traditional diet and saying ‘how does this food make me feel? What does it do to my metabolism?’”
For Alaska Native people living in the urban world without as much access to traditional foods, trying to eat a diet high in proteins like fish and good fats like olive oil, and low in sugars and carbs can be really beneficial, he said. “Even at restaurants, start thinking through the eyes of our ancestors, order the types of food they ate,” he said.