Canadian Inuit going hungry: McGill study

“A nutrition transition is occurring in Arctic communities”


Postmedia News

MONTREAL — Six out of 10 Inuit in Canada’s Far North don’t get enough to eat or are eating the wrong things, says a comprehensive study by a team of McGill University researchers.

They warn preventive measures are desperately needed to help ward off diabetes, heart disease and other ailments which already plague other aboriginal peoples in Canada and the U.S.

Increasingly, Inuit are shifting away from the traditional foods hunters brought home. But researchers found people living in remote villages often cannot find or afford the fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy products that make up the best part of a healthy southern diet.

“Poverty and associated food insecurity coupled with a transition away from local nutrient-rich food resources represents a dual nutritional burden on indigenous peoples globally,” cautions McGill epidemiologist Grace Egeland in the study published in the latest issue of Journal of Nutrition.

“A nutrition transition is occurring in Arctic communities with consequences for increased obesity and diet-sensitive chronic diseases.”

Egeland headed up the cross-sectional health survey which travelled some 10,000 kilometres to Canada’s most remote communities, setting up a floating laboratory aboard the Amundsen, a Canadian Coast Guard ice breaker that does double-duty as a research vessel.

As part of International Polar Year, between 2007 and 2008, Egeland’s team of 40 nurses, nutritionists, lab technicians and bilingual interviewers met with 2,595 people from 1,901 households, conducting blood tests and asking participants basic questions about what they had eaten in the last 24 hours.

Their findings show a very high prevalence of food insecurity in Canada’s Arctic.

The term food insecurity covers a broad range of nutritional issues — from having poor quality food to eating less, skipping meals and going hungry.

“Inuit are undergoing rapid cultural changes with reduced reliance upon traditional foods and increased consumption of highly processed market foods,” food which routinely costs twice as much as it would in Montreal or Toronto.

Being insecure was associated with low hemoglobin, a marker for anemia, poor iron levels and high levels of trans-fats.

Researchers found those who weren’t eating traditional foods had lower levels of protein, iron, vitamin A and C and were consuming more sodium, carbohydrates and saturated fat.

Egeland hopes their findings will be used to help prevent “an epidemic in Western chronic diseases” in Canada’s Arctic communities, citing the high preponderance of type 2 diabetes in aboriginal communities across Canada and the United States.

“We didn’t know then what we know now in terms of the factors that contribute to disease burden in populations,” said Egeland. “The current survey can be put to use in developing public health interventions and promotion strategies to prevent a similar epidemic from emerging in the Canadian High Arctic.”

Last year, Egeland, associate professor at the Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment at McGill’s Macdonald campus, released a study that found seven out of 10 preschoolers in Nunavut lived in homes where there wasn’t enough to eat.

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