Cut the western diet and get moving

By Isha Thompson
Windspeaker Staff Writer

Raising children on a traditional diet and staying away from “western” food is the answer to decreasing the alarming rate of diabetes in Aboriginal people, said nutritionist and diabetes educator Kevin White.

“It’s completely the western diet,” said White, who is diabetes educator for the Stanton Territorial Health Authority in the Northwest Territories.

Excessive amounts of processed foods, carbohydrates and sugar, which are very present in several of North America’s favorite feasts are to blame for childhood obesity in Aboriginal teenagers, he said. Diabetes is one of the many health risks that are associated with obesity.
The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) is determined to inform communities across the country about how to avoid the potentially fatal disease and to encourage healthy lifestyles of the people who have some of the worst habits, children.

A program the AFN rolled out on Oct. 15 challenges First Nation schools to engage their students in 30 minutes of physical activity each day. The Fitness Challenge contest will award top teams various prizes and will conclude on Nov. 14, World Diabetes Day.

AFN women’s council chair Kathleen McHugh is confident the challenge  is a crucial step to informing young people about the importance of exercising.

Cardiovascular activity is a necessary component to reducing the risk of developing type two diabetes. However, McHugh is aware that there are other components that are harder to control.

“We have to acknowledge the fact that poverty plays a large part in poor nutrition. Sometimes when parents feed their children, they buy the food that don’t have proper nutrients,” said McHugh.

She noted that the secluded communities located in Canada’s northern territory have particularly high prices for food that is often flown into the area.

As an educator who travels to a variety of small Aboriginal communities in the Northwest Territories, White confirmed that certain areas only receive a few shipments of supplies during the winter months.

He recalled walking into a food store in a small town that stocked their shelf with items that were far from healthy for those concerned with diabetes.

“There was probably only about six items that I would recommend to someone with diabetes, and then everything else in the store would likely contribute to their diabetes,” said White.

According to White, those with a steady diet of fresh or frozen vegetables and proteins found in a majority of traditional dishes, like caribou, trout and salmon, do not develop diabetes.

White is convinced that one of the biggest concerns for children is what they are being served in their school cafeteria and vending machines. Hearty stews in replacement of hot dogs and French fries is something he would like to see changed.

“I mean it makes no sense when the kids actually love caribou stew, but that’s not always what is being served because there is still a lack of awareness,” White explained.  “They’ll eat almost anything you put in front of them because they are teenagers.”

Between 2005 and 2006, there were more than 24,000 recorded cases of diabetes in children aged one to 19.

According to the 2008 Canada’s National Diabetes Surveillance System, both girls and boys with diagnosed diabetes in the one to 19 year age group had a 10 to 11 year reduction in life expectancy in 2005 to 2006.

A study specifically done in the Northwest Territories revealed that 44 per cent of people’s calories came from sugar-filled beverages, such as soda and juices.

Drop The Pop Northwest Territories is a campaign that began four years ago to help encourage schools in the province to educate their students on the importance of reducing the consumption of high-glucose drinks.

This year, almost $70,000 of grants are available for participating schools to create programs that encourage students to choose healthy alternatives.

Elise De Roose, territorial nutritionist for Northwest Territories, said programs where students are empowered to make smart choices are successful because they are fun for kids.

McHugh is confident the AFN fitness challenge will teach students about the positive relationship between physical activity and controlling diabetes.

“Empower them with healthy habits that they can carry with them throughout their lives” is the goal, she said.
Diabetes is a lifelong condition where a person’s body does not produce enough insulin or cannot use the insulin it produces.

Because diabetes increases the risk to damage the eyes, nerves, kidney and blood vessels, some diabetics become vulnerable to complications like blindness or amputations if the disease is not managed properly.

Rates of diabetes among Aboriginal people in Canada are three to five times higher than those of the general Canadian population.