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Running head: OBESITY, DIABETES AND ORAL HEALTH AMONG ABORIGINAL 1

Obesity, Diabetes and Oral Health among Aboriginals in Canada


Tania LeSurf
Stenberg College
First Nations Health
FNTS 201-3

July 2014
Obesity, Diabetes and Oral Health among Aboriginals in Canada

There are many health issues that are disproportionately prevalent among Aboriginals in Canada
when compared to non-aboriginal Canadians. This paper will reflect on three health concerns in
the aboriginal population and suggest strategies to improve them. The three health concerns this
writer has selected are obesity, diabetes and oral health. What can be done to ensure the health
of Aboriginals is at par with all other Canadians? What can we do differently? The intention of
this paper is to open the discussion of these significant health concerns and suggest strategies to
address them. This writer hopes the reader is able to have a better understanding of the gaps

within our Health Care system and see that the First people are not being given the same health
advantages as other Canadians.
Historically, persons who were obese were seen as wealthy and very healthy, those individuals
who appeared thin and very tanned were those who were working in the fields for minimal
wages. It is interesting, however, how something which was once the norm (obese = rich) is
today, for the most part, reversed (obese = poor).(Janiszewski, 2008). The cost of healthy food
today is expensive. A trip to the drive through at a fast food restaurant feeds a family quickly and
for less money than purchasing healthy ingredients (and prep and cooking is also required).
Eating a healthy diet vs. an unhealthy one costs about $1.50 more a day, which might not sound
like much, but works out to more than $2,000 more per year on the average family of fours
grocery bill(Rehel, 2013). For a more specific example of this healthy vs unhealthy item,
consider the fact that a two litre of pop is less expensive than a bottle of water. Soda pop drinks
are loaded with sugar and due to their popularity are major contributors to obesity. Health
Canada (n.d) states that, The average daily intake of regular soft drinks by Aboriginal men (1930 and 31-50 years) is about 408 g/day, which corresponds to approximately one can and
contributes 170 kcal and 38 g of sugar (more than 7 teaspoons) daily. When children are seeing
adults in their lives drinking soda, they will mirror the behaviour. Given the economic
marginalization of many aboriginals in Canada, one can see how food pricing and poverty
influence the poor food choices in this population.
Obesity is a growing problem among many Canadians but more so among the Aboriginal
population. The Public Health Agency of Canada states that, In 2007, the self-reported obesity
rate among off-reserve Aboriginal adults was 24.8%, compared to 16.6% for non-Aboriginal
adults.(PHAC, n.d). A lack of education may be another reason why some Aboriginals do not

OBESITY, DIABETES AND ORAL HEALTH AMONG ABORIGINAL

make healthy food choices. Many Aboriginals were raised in the residential school system where
they were stripped of their cultural traditions which included cooking skills as well as traditional
food gathering methods. Adults had to model their behaviour to young people, thereby passing
down the traditions through the generations. When my great-grandmother used to make scone /
bannock, she would always make sure I was right there beside her on a little stool.(Partridge,
n.d). Much damage has been done to the survivors of the residential school system. Many have
taken their own lives or have resorted to alcohol/drug abuse to self-medicate the emotional abuse
they were subjected to. Because of the cutting off of these important traditions and family ties,
many Aboriginal children and youth have not been taught necessary skills with regards to healthy
eating and cooking. The residential school students, once taken from their families, were
subjected to the Western foods, much of it high calorie junk foods. This writer is amazed at how
the trickle down effect of the residential school systems has impacted the Aboriginals of today.
Poor eating habits are a serious problem. A recent examination of eating habits of aboriginal
women found that, Aboriginal women simply consumed more calories than non-aboriginal
women -- an average of 359 more per day. And many of those calories were not coming from
fruits and vegetables or other healthy foods. The data showed, for example, that aboriginal
women consumed about three times as many non-diet soft drinks a day as non-aboriginal
women. Aboriginal women were also getting a greater share of their caloric intake from the
"sandwich" category of foods, a category that includes sandwiches, submarines, pizza,
hamburgers and hot dogs.(CFPR,n.d) This is in sharp contrast with a more traditional diet such
as salmon, venison, berries and various local plants.
This writer feels that one method to reducing the climbing rates of obesity among Aboriginals
would be to tax unhealthy foods and use that revenue to subsidise healthy foods such as fruits

OBESITY, DIABETES AND ORAL HEALTH AMONG ABORIGINAL

and vegetables so that there is an economic incentive to purchase the healthy items.
Governments should also consider additional subsidising of healthy foods in rural and northern
communities where shipping costs make the cost of these items prohibitive. The health care costs
saved through such an initiative would likely cover the cost of these subsidies. The money
collected from those tax on junk food could also be presented as rebates yearly to individuals
who are able to consistently keep their weight within normal BMI levels. This writer feels in
doing so, more individuals would have an incentive to reach their normal BMI as well as
providing a sense of satisfaction and pride. To address the education gap, schools could have a
dietician educate children on healthy food choices and also show them what impact unhealthy
foods can have on their health. An after school program involving both parents and children to
teach them how to cook healthy meals would not only improve physical health but would
education the whole family. By teaching young children the values of eating healthy, they will
be more likely grow up to make better food choices.
Type 2 diabetes is a health concern among Canada's First Nations and Inuit. First Nations on
reserve have a rate of diabetes three to five times higher than that of other Canadians.(Health
Canada, n.d). Type 2 diabetes can be controlled by diet and can also resolve itself if the patient
eats healthy and exercises regularly. Diabetes can lead to many more complications such as; poor
cardiac health, nerve damage (neuropathy), kidney damage (nephropathy),eye damage, foot
problems, skin and mouth conditions, osteoporosis. As mentioned earlier in the section on
obesity there are education gaps and institutional factors such as the cost of healthy food that
contribute to problems such as diabetes. In addition to the strategies to combat obesity, a
campaign to educate an aboriginal person about diabetes treatment and prevention that involves
elders, government and health care workers could address the education gap. A mail out with

OBESITY, DIABETES AND ORAL HEALTH AMONG ABORIGINAL

easy to understand lingo as well as television advertising could be part of this. This would be
best addressed on a Federal level as the materials could be distributed nationwide and would be
more cost effective than a province by province campaign. In many northern communities
exercise can be difficult due to the climate and environmental dangers. Government could
partner with resource companies to sponsor community recreation centres and offer membership
for free to encourage community members to exercise on a regular basis.
This writer would like to discuss another very important health concern which affects Aboriginal
Health. Oral health among all Canadians is very important and if neglected, can lead to very
serious health problems, Dental health has been shown to have a significant impact on general
health and wellbeing. Research has found associations between dental disease and a variety of
other diseases including diabetes, heart disease and respiratory disease.(Ministry of Health,
2012). More education for parents on the importance of not giving babies juice or soda in baby
bottles would be a way to prevent dental carries early in life. Flossing is another very important
task which can help prevent cardiac damage. Food particles trapped between teeth can turn into
harmful bacteria which can then infect the body (and cause irreparable heart damage). Presently,
Health Canada and Public Health offer dental services to many Aboriginal people on-reserve
however there is a long list of reservations that do not have access to such services. A lack of
funding is a reason for this which in turn creates severe staffing shortages, The lack of access to
oral health prevention services presents issues of poor oral health and escalating preventable
treatment costs ... (Ministry of Health, 2012). A possible alternative for reservations found in
very remote areas might be to have educational workshops delivered on a semi-annual basis.
Having an educator teach a whole reservation the basics of good oral hygiene as well as the

OBESITY, DIABETES AND ORAL HEALTH AMONG ABORIGINAL

impacts of neglectful oral health would be supportive and accommodating to the members of the
community.
This writer has discussed three health issues which plague Aboriginals in Canada. These three
particular issues were chosen as they are interconnected. The writer discussed how poor eating
habits and a lack of education can lead to obesity. Diabetes followed as obesity and poor diet are
major contributing factors to this illness. Poor oral health was also discussed as this writer feels
that like obesity and diabetes it is related to poor dietary choices and economic marginalization
and can be the root cause of other illnesses. This writer feels that by providing education,
services and better food choices to more remote reservations, Aboriginals would be able to enjoy
a healthier life. This writer understands that while government funding is restricted, potential
strategies such as taxing unhealthy foods might generate funding for things like educators to
travel to remote organization. This writer feels the overall impact of providing more education
would benefit many Aboriginals and ensure a better quality of life. Another advantage would be
that by educating Aboriginal youth, good health habits are more likely to follow into adulthood
and parenthood causing a lasting positive impact for years to come. This writer feels if the
Canadian Government were to implement new strategies and put more importance on Aboriginal
health, the issues discussed in this paper would improve significantly.

OBESITY, DIABETES AND ORAL HEALTH AMONG ABORIGINAL

References
Canadian Forum for Policy Research, (n.d) In, Health Research Obesity in Canadian
Aboriginals: Some Facts and Figures. Retrieved from http://researchforum.ca/health/28health/17-obesity-in-canadian-aboriginals-some-facts-and-figures
First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Health Canada, (March,2012) In, Oral Health Services in
British Columbia for First Nations and Aboriginal Children aged 0 7 years . Retrieved

OBESITY, DIABETES AND ORAL HEALTH AMONG ABORIGINAL


from http://www.fnhc.ca/pdf/Environmental_Scan_Report-_FN-AB_Oral_HealthFIN.pdf
Health Canada, (n.d) In, Eating habits and nutrient intake of Aboriginal adults aged 19-50,
living off-reserve in Ontario and the western provinces. Retrieved from http://www.hc
sc.gc.ca/fn-an/surveill/nutrition/commun/aboriginal-aborigene-eng.php
National Aboriginal Diabetes Association, (n.d) In, Prevention. Retrieved from
http://www.nada.ca/diabetes/prevention/
Ministry of Health. (2012). Environmental Scan Oral Health Services in British Columbia for
First
Nations and Aboriginal Children aged 0 7 years. Retrieved from
http://www.fnhc.ca/pdf/Environmental_Scan_Report-_FN-AB_Oral_Health-FIN.pdf

OBESITY, DIABETES AND ORAL HEALTH AMONG ABORIGINAL


Partridge, C. (n.d). Residential Schools: The Intergenerational impacts of Aboriginal People. ,,
33-62. Retrieved from
https://zone.biblio.laurentian.ca/dspace/bitstream/10219/382/1/NSWJ-V7-art2-p3362.PDF