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Revisiting traditional foods

In 2007 and 2008, the intrepid researchers of the International Polar Year Inuit Health Survey trekked some 10,000 km around the Arctic Ocean, stopping in village after village from the Northwest Territories to northern Labrador to take the pulse of the local residents.

Grace Egeland, a researcher with McGill’s Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment, headed the survey.  “We assessed not just nutritional status,” she says, “but also how food security is related to things like chronic disease, nutrient intakes and anemia.  We really wanted to delve into how nutritional status is related to health.”

Egeland says Inuit diets are moving away from traditional hunted or harvested foods, and becoming increasingly dependent on store-bought groceries that cost double what they do in southern cities like Montreal.  Factor in high unemployment and poverty in the north, Egeland says, “and it’s clear that you can afford the pasta but not the meatballs or the fresh salad greens.”

Earlier research had found that adults over the age of 40 ate more traditional food, but that younger Inuit and children ate more store-bought food – especially junk food.  The result: diminished health and high childhood obesity rates.

“We surveyed preschoolers,” Egeland says, “and about 46 per cent had eaten traditional food in the past day.  For those kids, just eight per cent of their calories came from those traditional foods, but they contributed vitamin A, vitamin D, magnesium, iron, zinc, and other nutrients.”  In short, food hunted or harvested from the land often provides more nutrition than most grocery store foods.

The hope is that, armed with new information about their own health and nutritional needs, Inuit in some of Canada’s least accessible regions can make more informed food choices.  “We sent plain-language, non-technical reports back to the community,” she says, “and made a DVD for them with public health advice based on the survey findings.”

Another intervention builds on the Inuit’s strong oral tradition by using local radio to tell health-promoting stories.  “For example, elders talk on the radio about seaweed, plants and berries and caribou and seal. Later in the broadcast, these traditional foods are discussed from a modern nutritional perspective that can guide healthy market food choices.”

“Our findings don’t just sit on a library shelf,” Egeland says.  “They’re used to help make the situation better.”

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