Fat of the land

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McGill Reporter
February 5, 2004 - Volume 36 Number 10
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Fat of the land

Traditional remedies may offer protection from modern lifestyle

Diet guru Miss Piggy once said, "Never eat more than you can lift." Unfortunately, with today's junk food diet, overeating may be the only way to satisfy our nutritional requirements. Add an increasingly slothful lifestyle to this poor-quality diet and you have a recipe for obesity, a condition that is fast becoming one of the world's major health concerns. According to recent McGill research, Aboriginal knowledge, in the form of traditional remedies and dietary supplements, could act as a protective shield against the effects of this modern lifestyle.

Caption follows
Professor of human nutrition Tim Johns
Owen Egan

The United States is one of the fattest nations on Earth. Recent reports suggest nearly one third of all Americans are obese. The health consequences are disturbing — obesity is a major risk factor for a plethora of diseases, including hypertension, heart disease and diabetes. Although the situation in Canada is considerably better, the statistics are cause for concern. "If current trends continue, one in four Canadians will be diabetic within the next 30 years," said Tim Johns, a researcher at the School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition and the associate director of the Centre for Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment, who has done research in both Canada and Africa. The situation has become so bad that lawyers are beginning to smell the lawsuits. Food manufacturers may soon taste a legal feeding frenzy comparable to that experienced by the tobacco industry in the past decade.

"Our modern diet is unbalanced and grossly simplified," stated Johns. "There is no diversity — and I'm not referring to brand name diversity, like Doritos, Pringles and Lay's." The relative lack of nutritional value in many processed foods means we need to eat more to meet our daily requirements. Additionally, we are also becoming more sedentary. When questioned about their level of exercise, in a recent Statistics Canada survey, more than half of respondents stated they were physically inactive. "No population can live like this and expect to survive," said Johns.

Of particular concern is the health of Canada's Aboriginal peoples; their switch from a traditional lifestyle to a modern North American one has been both sudden and dramatic. Recent statistics indicate that incidence of diabetes in Aboriginal Canadians is double that of Canada as a nation, and that almost half of off-reserve First Nations peoples report chronic health problems.

Johns believes the solution may lie in the past. "Indigenous people of the North have always had an apparently unhealthy diet, consisting primarily of meat and limited in terms of fruits and vegetables," he explained. "Their diet, however, contained many traditional supplements and medicines." It is of unquestioned importance to scientifically validate these elements and discover what makes them so beneficial.

"We have identified plants that require further investigation," said Johns. "They are collected and tested for lipid-lowering and antidiabetic properties, such as an ability to lower blood sugar." Sumac, for example — a plant common along roadsides across Canada — is a strong antioxidant. Through detailed research some foods can really surprise — ketchup was recently discovered to contain a substance called lycopene, another strong anti-oxidant that can reduce the incidence of prostate cancer. As a result ketchup, along with other processed tomato products, may soon be promoted as health foods.

Traditional remedies have been touted as viable alternatives to high cost drugs for years in other parts of the world. This year, in an unrelated study, treatment with traditional plants and herbs was discovered to virtually eliminate AIDS symptoms in a group of African patients. Although promising, many take results like these with a pinch of salt. Researchers are left frustrated by the small amount of money available for research and development of these potential lifesavers, particularly considering the rate at which traditional knowledge is disappearing. According to Johns there is little time left to chew the fat.

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