What is a Subsistence Diet?

Eating a subsistence diet in temperate climates is neither pleasant nor the preference of anyone who enjoys a varied and plentiful diet, and it is even more difficult in circumpolar/arctic regions. However, it is often more necessary. A person who lives on such a diet eats barely enough to sustain life, and no one is likely to choose it unless there is not other choice.

When little food is available, finding something that is edible is a challenge that requires innovation and persistence. Living off the “fat of the land” is another way to understand what it means to survive on a subsistence diet. However, if there is not much fat on the land, then living is not easy.

Understanding the Need for a Subsistence Diet

Alaskans have practiced subsistence living for thousands of years, and it is a custom that involves ancient traditions. Federal and state government entities limit the option of subsistence harvesting to native Alaskans, but such activities are essential for non-natives in some cases.

Ground Truth Trekking, a non profit devoted to educating the public about natural resource issues in Alaska, states that subsistence refers to gathering food and other necessities from wild resources for personal use. Harvesting fish is a primary method of obtaining a major portion of a subsistence diet. The last statewide analysis of subsistence harvesting reveals the sources of food for an Alaskan:

• fishes comprise 60 percent

• land mammals account for 20 percent

• marine mammals produce 14 percent

• shellfish, birds and plants produce two percent each

It is unlawful to hunt marine mammals for any purpose other than subsistence, and then it is allowable only for native Alaskans. Legal harvesting of marine mammals includes these:

• walrus

• seals

• otters

• polar bears

• whales

• sea lions

While people who have access to commercially available food at supermarkets may recoil in horror at the thought of killing such animals, it is a necessity for subsistence. Part of the difficulty of living off the “fat of the land” is that it is not easy to obtain. Superior hunting skills and efficient tools are required in the capture of marine quarry, and danger is an ever present concern. About 83 percent of rural households in Alaska are involved in fishery harvests, and 95 percent rely on it for subsistence.

Adapting to Helpful Tools

Modern technology and equipment have made the search for food from natural resources easier for hunters who carry on an ancient tradition. By adopting use of motor boats, guns, snow machines and all terrain vehicles, Alaskan hunters have better chances of finding and killing a marine quarry. Some use such high tech equipment as satellite photos and depth sounders, according to the site. In accordance with state and federal regulations, subsistence harvesting is not allowed in areas that are densely populated.

Access to commercially prepared foods allows Alaskans to supplement a subsistence diet with products that have a long shelf life. White rice and soup blend well with the local diet, and cans of soda provide a rare taste of sugar. Some native foods contain high levels of vitamin A and protein that are needed, but they often have low levels of calcium and fiber. A distinct disadvantage of a subsistence diet is the deficient level of proper nutrients. A diet that is high in refined sugar and fat may satisfy an appetite, but it is not healthy.

Abiding by Rules of Subsistence Fishing

The Subsistence Management Information site, supported by the United Fishermen of Alaska, provides explanations of government regulations that affect subsistence fisheries. Congress started addressing the issue with the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. A major aspect of the law ended the rights of aboriginals to hunt and fish, and action was needed to protect the rights to subsistence harvesting. Not until 1980 did Congress adopt Title VIII of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, returning the rights of rural residents to use large federal tracts for hunting and gathering.

Understanding the Importance of a Balanced Diet

A scholarly paper developed by anthropologists appeared in the Journal of Anthropological Archeology, describing some nutritional consequences of eating a subsistence diet. The paper contends that high protein and low energy diets create deficiencies in nutrition. When food stores for Alaskans in the study ran low, protein from lean meat provided as much as 90 percent of the caloric value of a diet.

The paper concluded that introducing cultivated plants could open avenues to improved nutrition for people who rely on a subsistence diet for survival. The British Broadcasting site summarizes the components of a healthy diet, consisting of these seven building blocks:

• Carbohydrates: The 60 percent of a healthy diet that is comprised of carbohydrates provides quick energy. Included in this group are potatoes, pasta and cereals.

• Fats: Only 25 percent of a diet needs to come from fats. Excessive amounts of saturated fat from animal meat can lead to coronary problems, but unsaturated fat in dairy products, oils, nuts and fish are healthy.

• Proteins: Meat is a good source of protein, but it needs to fill only 15 percent of a healthy diet.

• Vitamins: Fresh vegetables and fruit provide the vitamins that aid vision (A), energy production (B), healthy skin (C) and teeth and bones (D).

• Minerals: Found in vegetables and fruit as well as fish, calcium strengthens bones, iron guards against fatigue and iodine aids in the production of energy.

• Fiber: Indigestible fiber in wholegrain cereals, fruit and vegetables aids in weight control and bowel movements.

• Water: The human heart and brain contain more than 70 percent water, and it is essential for the whole body.

By comparing the elements of a healthy diet that is recommended by nutritionists to a subsistence diet, an interested observer can assess the deficiencies that exist when a balance is not available. Merely eating enough to stave off hunger is not the equivalent of a diet that is based on proper proportions of the basic building blocks.

Eating Healthy or Subsisting

People who live in circumpolar/arctic regions have limited access to foods that are available in warm climates, making it necessary to rely on alternatives that are not as healthy. A subsistence diet is one that is capable of helping people to survive, but it is inadequate for long term health–a constant concern for people forced to exist on this diet..

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