Health study reveals dietary problems

SIX NATIONS – A study conducted on the Six Nations territory has only reiterated what Haudenosaunee people have been saying since time immemorial: life is sacred, everything is connected and what affects one thing, affects us all. The new study has linked obesity with unhealthy diets, and environmental pollution with contaminants found in plants, animals and humans. 

The findings found that well over one half of all participants are overweight and obese and suggest that more people would eat healthier traditional food if it were more available to them. The Six Nations study is part of a larger study conducted by the Assembly of First Nations, which is funded by Health Canada and is being conducted in hundreds of First Nations across Canada.

Last week, the results of the study entitled “First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study” were presented to the community. Before the presentation commenced, community members enjoyed a traditional meal of deer, wild rice, sweet potatoes and strawberries.

Leroy ‘Jock’ Hill, Cayuga Nation, spoke of the importance of getting back to the traditional mentality of eating and living healthy, “We deserve to be healthy. Gardening is medicine, we are interacting with Mother Earth. The Dish With One Spoon represents the hunting grounds. Look at the land as if it were one dish, the beaver tail (some refer to as the spoon) is in the middle of that dish for everyone and it represents all the animals. It’s all symbolism. It’s one dish we all share from.”

Concerning the need to eat more traditional foods on Six Nations, Hill explained, “Someone once told me, you are what you eat. There’s a lot of knowledge in that. We don’t assume enough responsibility for ourselves and with decisions that we make. The reserve deserves to be healthy. What we do the environment, we do to ourselves, hunting and fishing is an important part of our existence. Our ancestors sought to protect that right forever: to hunt, fish and gather.”

Dr. Laurie Chan, Toxicologist and Professor of the University of Ottawa, who delivered the results of the study, explained that, “My main specialty is to test for chemicals on human hair. I also did a study in Kahnawake which started 30 years ago. The study was done on fish from the St. Lawrence River.”

The goal of this particular study on Six Nations was to find out: What kind of traditional and market foods people are eating? What kind of diet do the participants have? What contaminants, if any, are in the community’s traditional foods and water? Is traditional food safe to eat? And to ascertain whether or not the water was safe to drink. Dr. Chan explained that the purpose of studying a random sample of people on each First Nation is to provide a “snapshot of the situation.”

The study was conducted in various forms including: household questionnaires; traditional food sampling for contaminants; water sampling for trace metals; surface water sampling for pharmaceuticals and hair sampling for mercury. According to Dr. Chan, “Fish is a very important part of diet in First Nation’s community’s but it has high levels of mercury.” In order to measure the mercury levels, samples of hair were taken from participants and tested.
According to the findings of the study, mercury was indeed found. However, “The risk of adverse health effects from mercury exposure is currently low among study participants and were within Health Canada’s guideline for normal acceptable range.”

Drinking water was tested for trace metals. “Six metals were measured. Aluminum was elevated in 10 homes. Copper was elevated in 1 home. Iron was elevated in 1 home. Manganese was elevated in 3 homes and sodium was elevated in 2 homes.” Despite the detection of trace metals in 16 of the 39 homes that were tested, the study assures that, “The metal exceedances…do not pose a health concern.” The findings of the study also stated that 9 other metals were measured in the drinking water: antimony, arsenic, barium, boron, cadmium, chromium, lead, selenium and uranium. However, the study assures that, “All levels for these metals were below guideline levels.”

Surface water sampling was conducted which measured pharmaceuticals and 21 were found in the water including: antibiotics, cholesterol, heart and pain medications. Pharmaceuticals usually end up in the water when people flush them down household drains. The findings stated that, “Levels of each of the pharmaceuticals found in the water would not be harmful to human health (however) the health effects of the mixture of pharmaceuticals are unknown at this time.”

Of the 142 people studied, almost 70% stated their health was good or better and 1 in 3 stated they were physically active however the study found that 86% were at an unhealthy weight with 55% being overweight and 31% being obese.

The availability of affordable nutritious food may play a huge role in the declining health of people on Six Nations. 73% of participants said they would eat more traditional food if they had more time, more knowledge, better hunting skills and not so many government restrictions on hunting and fishing laws.

Most First Nations adults do not eat the recommended daily servings of vegetables or fruit, while eating more then the recommended daily servings of meat, mostly beef, cold cuts and sausage which are high in saturated fat and can lead to heart disease.

The top five traditional foods on Six Nations are: deer, corn, kidney beans, yellow perch and walleye. The intake of many nutrients is higher when traditional food is eaten. On days when only commercial food is eaten, intake of saturated fat and sodium were higher in participants.

Even though contaminants were found in traditional foods they, “should not pose a health risk to the average consumer at current consumption levels.” Researchers also suggest that hunters use steel shot instead of lead shot. “Some game meat samples had higher levels of lead. Eating wild game contaminated by lead shot can be harmful to the brain, especially in children.”

The key results of the study for all participating First Nations in Ontario has found that: the diet of Indigenous adults in Ontario does not meet nutrition needs and the diet is healthier when traditional foods are eaten; obesity, smoking and diabetes are major issues; water quality is satisfactory but close monitoring is warranted and mercury exposure is not a serious health concern.

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