The nutritional health of First Nations and Métis of the Northwest Territories: A review of current knowledge and gaps

At the core of the National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health’s new publication, The nutritional health of First Nations and Métis of the Northwest Territories: A review of current knowledge and gaps, is the acknowledgement of a growing crisis of chronic diseases, including obesity and diabetes, which has reached epidemic proportions in some Aboriginal communities. Unhealthy weights resulting from low levels of physical activity and poor nutrition can be attributed to the rapid social, cultural and environmental changes that Aboriginal peoples have experienced throughout recent history.

Traditional foods are an important part of Aboriginal peoples’ diets. However there has been a noticeable nutritional shift whereby a greater proportion of their daily diets is comprised of market foods, many of which are nutrient poor and high in cost. This is happening despite evidence which points to greater nutrition found in traditional foods compared to market foods, as well as the innumerable cultural, economic, social and health benefits of harvesting and consuming traditional foods.

This report summarizes current knowledge about the nutritional health of First Nations and Métis people in the NWT and identifies research gaps. Despite comprising the majority of the Aboriginal population in the NWT, First Nations and Métis have been overlooked in research related to diet, nutrition, and their association with health and well-being. Because much of the research has thus far focused on Inuit and Inuvialuit, there remain considerable gaps in knowledge related to understanding the impacts of transitioning diets on the health of First Nations and Métis within this region. This is particularly true for research on how their traditional food systems, food security, and health are affected by climate change and environmental contamination.

The report comprises two substantive sections. The first describes the nature of literature identified from a search of academic databases and Google Scholar on the nutritional health of First Nations and Métis in the NWT, including publication trends over time, priority topics and sub-populations of interest. This literature spanned from 1980 to 2014 and included 103 peer and non-peer reviewed papers. The second section provides an overview of current knowledge about the nutritional health of this population, drawing on findings from literature identified in the first section, supplemented with information from broader sources, including literature focused on Inuit or general northern populations, to the extent that it had relevance for First Nations and Métis in the NWT. The nutrition transition among First Nations and Métis in the NWT; the importance of traditional foods in their diets; levels of nutrient intakes and deficiencies; and issues related to food security are discussed.

Complementing the review of the literature, the report also examines health promotion initiatives in the NWT, including programs or initiatives to increase the affordability and availability of healthy market foods; community wellness and intergenerational knowledge sharing; harvester support and sustainable wildlife management; poverty reduction and community economic development; innovation in infrastructure, transportation and local food production; and youth engagement.

Findings

Proportionally, few studies were identified from the literature search which examined differences – be they linguistic, age, gender, or geographic – in the nutritional health of specific sub-populations. There were also no studies that examined differences based on socio-economic status. However, the research does show a trend towards increasingly substituting traditional foods with market foods, particularly by younger generations, and the role that age, gender, geography, socio-economic status and individual food preferences play in this. It highlights the existence of some nutritional deficiencies in First Nations and Métis, and the nature and extent of food insecurity.

Nevertheless, there remains a considerable gap in knowledge related to patterns of traditional and market food consumption, determinants of nutrient deficiencies, levels of contaminants in traditional food sources over time and across space, the impact of climate change on the quality and availability of specific traditional foods, the prevalence of chronic diseases associated with diet and nutrition, and the effectiveness of various health promotion programs and initiatives. In particular, the report calls for more research to respond to the diversity of Aboriginal peoples in the NWT, including the impact of socio-economic status and location of residence, so that more targeted and effective health promotion programs and initiatives can be implemented.

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