Traditional Aboriginal Diets, a new publication from the National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health


traditional-aboriginal-diets2Research has shown that Aboriginal peoples in Canada have experienced significant nutritional transition, which has significantly increased their risk factors for chronic disease. The National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health has produced a new publication on Traditional Aboriginal Diets and Health. The booklet begins, “unhealthy diets and physical inactivity have been identified as two of the three most important modifiable risk factors for the development of chronic disease.”

“Traditional Aboriginal foods are those that originate from local plant or animal resources through gathering or harvesting, and which possess cultural meaning as a traditional food. As such, traditional foods and nutrient intakes vary by local geography, seasonality, and cultural group. In general, however, historical Aboriginal diets comprised of traditional foods were high in animal protein, nutrient-rich, and low in fat or high in marine sources of fat. The energy spent in obtaining traditional foods was significant given the very physical demands of hunting, fishing, trapping, growing and gathering.”

“Traditionally, Aboriginal diets and consumption patterns arose from complex and holistic food systems that provided health benefits beyond nutrition.” Benefits included:

  • The practice of cultural values such as sharing and cooperation
  • Forming the basis of non-cash economies
  • Increased physical activity in the hunting, gathering and trapping of food sources
  • A healthier pattern of fats and a greater amount of vitamins and minerals compared to current consumption patterns
  • Rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly among northern Aboriginal peoples
  • A lower carbohydrate diet, particularly in simple sugars
  • Higher intakes of micro-nutrients...associated with consumption of traditional wild plants, as well as good sources of vitamin C in the largely animal-based diets of Inuit people.

“Given the benefits associated with traditional diets, a return to traditional dietary practices seems advisable. However, there are challenges in doing so. In 1998/99, 27% of Aboriginal people living off-reserve had restricted or tentative access to foods that could be considered nutritionally adequate, safe and acceptable. By 2004/05, food insecurity in this group was 33%.

A complex issue, food insecurity results from many factors including income, education, social structures, food preferences and accessibility of traditional and market food choices.

  • Traditional food access may be limited by changing social structures that preclude the traditional sharing of labour, or cost and gun licensing requirements associated with hunting activities.
  • Access to traditional foods has also been altered through the loss of traditional lands and legislative restrictions on the use of land and animal resources.
  • Health messages promoting only low animal fat diets, and fruits and vegetables may be perceived as incongruent with traditional Aboriginal diets, creating barriers to incorporating healthier market options alongside traditional foods.”

Contaminants in the food chain are a significant concern in accessing traditional wild foods. In both the Prairies and the Arctic, there has been evidence of above average dietary intakes of certain pollutants, with traditional foods being the main route of exposure.

The direct health impacts of returning to traditional diets has not been well studied, but current projects - for example in the Inuit community of Pangnirtung - offer opportunities for documentation and study. Native Nutrition Models have been developed in the United States as diabetes and obesity prevention interventions, which “describe the history of food system change and educate to influence healthy food choices in a culturally congruent manner. Based on the Medicine Wheel, they incorporate tribe-specific symbols, cultural values, stories and traditional foods. Successful community-based approaches such as the Kahnawake Schools Diabetes Prevention Project and the Sandy Lake Health and Diabetes Project have incorporated traditional culture into the healthy eating and nutritional components of school and community interventions.”

Experiments are underway in the United States to demonstrate how the harvesting of traditional foods can be promoted and supported on a commercial scale. Policy initiatives have also been suggested to counteract the negative effects of sedentary lifestyles, for example, funding a hunter support program or altering the local school calendar to facilitate families being on the land.

The authors conclude that, despite contemporary dietary changes, “traditional foods remain important from both cultural and nutritional perspectives, and are associated particularly with beneficial fat, carbohydrate and nutrient profiles. Despite challenges such as food insecurity and bio- contamination, traditional foods remain important for chronic disease prevention and their use can be successfully promoted in Aboriginal communities.”