Traditional Aboriginal Diets and Health
Understanding Chronic Disease and the Role for Traditional Approaches in Aboriginal Communities
Promoting Aboriginal vision health - posters and pamphlets
Eating well with Canada's Food guide - First Nations, Inuit and Métis
Aboriginal Nutrition Network
First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study
December 2011 - Cynthia Munger's always got something on the stove in her home community in northern BC. This year, she was counting on local hunters to provide two moose so that she could smoke meat and prepare moose meat stew - with as many people in the community as she could round up. Her willingness to cook with young mothers and Elders in her Stellaten First Nation community has proven so popular, she's now sharing canning, cooking and healthy eating skills with more than 10 of the communities in the Carrier Sekani territories. She learned her own skills from her grandparents - and especially from her grandmother Marian Luggi, and from her uncles who provided wildlife meat and fish. "We have a huge diabetic population, and the majority of our people have Type II diabetes," said Munger, a community health representative whose dedication to healthy eating education led to national recognition from the National Diabetes Association in 2006. "This is a lifestyle change back to traditional diets." Traditional Aboriginal foods - such as Munger is supporting in her community - offer cultural, social and nutritional benefits that contribute to the health of Aboriginal peoples and communities through a variety of complex pathways. Yet, changed patterns of consumption are increasing the risk amongst Aboriginal peoples of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.
Among the highlights: Evidence indicates a link between dietary factors - such as omega-3, folate, and vitamin B12 - and the mental health of circumpolar people. Studies also show that, although the amount of traditional food consumed over time has declined, groups such as Elders and older Aboriginal people consume 'country food' more than younger people, and hunting and trapping remains a way of life for a third of James Bay Cree.
Factors affecting access to traditional food are complex, and include income, education, social structures, food preferences and accessibility of traditional and market food choices. Issues associated with the traditional sharing of labour in food gathering, or with the cost and requirements for gun licensing associated with hunting activities, are examples of changing social structures that can further limit access.
Country food has also been associated with concerns about environmental contaminants in the food chain. A 10-year First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study currently underway in Canada is working with 100 randomly selected First nations communities across the country to better understand the nutritional and environmental factors affecting health and well-being. Information is being gathered on aspects such as the current use of traditional and store-bought food, food security (availability and affordability of safe nutritious food); the levels of both nutrients and environmental chemicals in many traditional foods; and the presence of heavy metals in drinking water and pharmaceutical by-products in surface water. The results of the first study, which focused on BC and was conducted with the full participation of 21 BC First Nations communities, revealed that although there tend to be higher risks of obesity and related illness in First Nations communities, the risks lessen at times when traditional foods are consumed. The study is funded by Health Canada, with participation from UNBC, the Assembly of First Nations, and the Université de Montréal.
The Centre for Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment (CINE), affiliated with McGill University, is another initiative aiming to address concerns about the integrity of traditional food systems. As noted in the NCCAH report, the Inuit community of Pangnirtung has been part of a CINE-associated project encouraging a return to a healthy diet of country food like seal, caribou, narwhal and beluga. Pangnirtung is one of 12 Indigenous communities, including the Gwich'in in the Northwest Terriotories and the Nuxalk Nation in BC, that are using traditional knowledge, story telling and country food to support returns to healthy diets. Project findings were published in a book: Indigenous Peoples" Food Systems: the many deminsions of culture, diversity and environment for nutrition and health (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and CINE, 2009).
As illustrated in our NCCAH slideshow above, country food is increasingly a feature of community events and services - whether in rural First Nations communities, at Inuit gatherings in downtown Ottawa, or at leading hospitals like Sioux Loukout's Meno Ya Win Health Centre where patients are offered caribou stew and other traditional foods as part of a culturally relevant approach to health.