Subtle changes in traditional lifestyle of native ethnic groups in the Yamalo-Nenets region have brought the first-ever cases of obesity. Until now, fatness has not existed in these population groups, but scientists say there has been a marked change.
Alexey Titovsky, regional director for science and innovation, said: ‘It never happened before that the small local indigenous peoples of the north suffered from obesity. It is a nonsensical modern problem. Now even a predisposition to obesity is being noticed.’
Changes have seen the intake of venison and river fish cut by half, he said. ‘Over the past few years the diet has changed considerably, and people living in the tundra started eating so-called chemically processed products.’
Researcher Dr Andrey Lobanov says nomadic herders nowadays often buy instant noodles in villages on their pasture routes and this has led to ‘dramatic changes to the rations of the people living in the tundra’.
‘This food is easy to transport, easy to make,’ he said, while also saying the nomadic groups – from the Nenets and Khanty ethnic groups – have added sugar, pastry, pasta, and bread to their diets.
‘The problem is that carbohydrates do not contain the necessary micro elements, which help survival in Arctic conditions,’ he said. ‘The seasonal diet has also changed – the periods when they do not eat traditional food and replace it with carbohydrates has become longer.’
He said: ‘The indigenous can digest carbohydrates and sugar in particular. They can digest maybe even better than Europeans and this causes the problem. The volume of consumed carbohydrates increases significantly. They replace their traditional food with them.
‘Besides, taste sensitivity to sucrose increases with time. The more a person eats sugar, the more he or she needs to feel the taste. So the consumption of sugar grows exponentially.’
The distance of pasture routes of nomadic herders with their reindeer have halved over the past 25 years, he said. The routes are also more circular now, around settlements and also facilities exploiting oil and gas, of which the Yamal peninsula has vast reserves.
But there has been a ‘silent revolution which is almost unnoticed’, and which is contributing to the arrival of obesity in the Arctic.
‘In 2014, most of the families got their incomes from selling venison and fish,’ he said. ‘Now the main income comes from the sale of reindeer antlers. The currency rate has changed, and the demand has increased in the south-eastern countries. That is why the profitability of the antler business has increased several times.’
As a result, the ‘logistics’ or economic basis of nomadic herding has changed.
‘You have more chance to sell antlers for good price if they are freshly cut,’ he said. ‘That is, the family needs to move closer to a settlement, or road, or trading post, to deliver the antlers to a drying or freezing facility as soon as possible,’ he said.
Getting the best price for venison has also changed the routes of herders, minimising their age-old nomadic patterns.
‘They also try to be closer to oil and gas deposits, because there they can sell the venison all year round,’ he said. ‘Shift workers will always buy fresh venison – and for a good price.
‘The closer you are to a settlement, the cheaper are the products you buy, because gasoline is very expensive and the price of the products increases with the distance.
‘It turns out that it is very profitable now for the indigenous peoples to stay closer to the settlements, and their family well-being rises sharply. They also want to use benefits of civilization – to go to the shops, have good mobile connection, solve some issues with officials quickly. These are pure economic reasons.’
They are also a change in how these people lived including during the Soviet era.
‘At the same time tundra ecosystem cannot bear such a load. It changes. Problems of overgrazing have appeared. And their routes change dramatically.’
Here climate is a factor. ‘The climate on Yamal changes very quickly, maybe faster than in other places,’ he said. ‘For example, this summer herders did not pass even half of their usual route. Instead, they returned to their winter pastures. New plants, grasses have appeared, and reindeer eat them instead of moss.’
This all has an impact on the diet of the the Arctic nomads, he said. ‘The change in routes and climate leads to the fact that the diet also changes,’ he said. ‘Fish always was a sufficient – maybe the largest part of the indigenous diet.
‘But as they would not carry big stocks of food, the point was to come to be in the right place at the right time. Earlier, for example in the late 19th and early 20th century, the pasture routes were huge.
‘The indigenous people would travel from Tazovsky district to Khanty-Mansiysk to the annual fair, and even sometimes to Tobolsk. And the route worked like clockwork.’
He said that ‘the lack of traditional venison and fish in the diet is bad not only for indigenous people.
‘Every population is better eating traditional balanced food, than to replace it with carbohydrates and products from other regions. It can be more significant for Arctic, because the conditions are harsh and to adapt better to climate, traditional food is better.
‘For example – to avoid the frostbite, it’s good to eat venison. If you want to increase the resistance to cold stress, eat the fish fat, for example, of broad whitefish. If you want to prevent hypertension and respiratory disease, you need pike, or burbot.’
He said that the Nenets people – who number some 45,000 – are open to guidance about their diets. ‘Locals are interested very much in a balanced diet, they see the problem and seek advice.’