We need to talk about nutrition transition

BY KRISTEN JOHNSTON, B.Asc
NOVEMBER 2019

Most of us now know that diet is intrinsically linked to the risk of developing diabetes. However, you might not know much about nutrition transition. To mark Diabetes Awareness Month this November, learn how the global phenomenon of nutrition transition is increasing rates of diabetes, obesity and malnourishment here in Canada – and what one community is doing to reverse it.

NUTRITION TRANSITION EXPLAINED

Nutrition transition is a shift in diet that is commonly seen when low and middle-income countries or regions transition from a traditional nutrient-rich diet to a Western diet. Western diets are typically more processed, higher in fat, sugar and salt and lower in fibre and nutrients.

Economic, demographic and health changes are some of the main causes of nutrition transition. When economic status rises, populations tend to adopt Western diets and abandon traditional eating patterns. Globalization fuels imports of processed foods from other countries and a commercialization of the food industry. In addition, regions become more urbanized, which increases adoption of Western cultural trends, food prices and sedentary jobs.

Two girls digging in the community garden

With nutrition transition, populations lose connections to the land – a significant cultural shift.

The problem is bigger than just eating more fast food and desserts – it’s a cultural shift that de-emphasizes traditional ways of eating. This shift is causing large populations of people worldwide, including here in Canada, to have poorer health outcomes.

Nutrition transition increases the incidences of diabetes and obesity because diets lack essential nutrients and lifestyles are more sedentary. Many countries in the midst of nutrition transition must deal with the double burden of both undernutrition and overnutrition in their populations. Nutrition transition harms a population’s development by placing future burdens on national healthcare systems.

NUTRITION TRANSITION IN INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES

While nutrition transition does heavily affect low and middle-income countries, we also see this phenomenon happening within Indigenous First Nations here in Canada. Traditional foods continue to disappear from Indigenous diets because of colonization, climate change, policies that restrict traditional hunting and harvesting practices, and higher availability and affordability of processed foods. Historically, the effects of malnutrition in residential schools – which banned traditional foods along with many other cultural practices – linger in survivors and their descendants today. Forced separation from traditional food sources through the reservation system has also broken traditional Indigenous food systems. 

The World Health Organization has recognized colonization as one of the most significant social determinants of health affecting Indigenous peoples worldwide. According to Diabetes Canada, Indigenous peoples living in Canada are among the highest-risk populations for diabetes and related complications. A study conducted within the last couple years determined that “In Canada, rates for diabetes are 17.2% among First Nations individuals living on-reserve, 10.3% among First Nations individuals living off-reserve, and 7.3% among Métis people, compared to 5.0% in the general population. Among the Inuit, the age-standardized prevalence rate of diabetes is comparable to that seen in the general Canadian population, but there is concern that rates will rise with large-scale changes impacting healthy behaviour in Northern Canada.”

RECLAIMING FOOD SYSTEMS

Indigenous communities are reclaiming their food systems and reconnecting with traditional foods to combat nutrition transition. This is an important step, since as Diabetes Canada states, “culture is therapeutic.” A focus on traditional eating patterns in Indigenous populations helps reduce food insecurity in households and manage the risk of developing chronic illness.

One of the pillars of true food security is that foods should be culturally acceptable to populations. At Canadian Feed The Children, we partner with Indigenous communities to work towards food sovereignty, which includes the right to culturally appropriate foods and the right to define their own food systems.

AHTAHKAKOOP FIRST NATION STARTS A NUTRITION RE-TRANSITION

Community members gardening inside a greenhouse

An Elder in Ahtahkakoop First Nation leads community members in planting inside the community’s garden tunnel

Ahtahkakoop First Nation in Saskatchewan is starting a nutrition re-transition to promote food security and re-connect to traditional eating patterns. Through the Community Garden Project, community members are learning to grow their own food and eat a more traditional diet, all with the main goal of prevention and management of diabetes. Dorothy Ahenakew, member of Ahtahkakoop First Nation and CFTC’s Food Security Assistant, was chosen by the Nation’s Food Security Committee to lead this project and ensure it reflects the needs of the community.

Community members planted a garden near a school to encourage children and youth to start growing food at an early age. The garden is close to a water source and is open and accessible to all community members of all ages. Thanks to generous donors, Ahtahkakoop First Nation purchased a 100 x 20 foot garden tunnel to help protect seedlings from extreme weather and prolong the growing season.

young men harvesting potatoes in the garden

Youth from the local employment program gain skills by working in the garden.

Since the project began, all sectors of the community have been involved. Volunteers and participants in a local employment program have banded together to tend the garden. Teachers at the nearby school are educating their students about traditional foods, harvesting produce and connecting to the land through land-based and culture-focused classes. Students are learning about healthy nutrition and diabetes in school to avoid developing the illness in the future. Elders experienced in gardening are teaching workshops on plant bedding and harvesting. Children and youth are harvesting produce like potatoes and distributing them to their neighbours and other Nations nearby.

The shift in culture has been powerful. Community members are excited about their new options to access healthy foods, and are reconnecting with the land, with traditional foods and with each other. Dorothy and the Food Security Committee already envisioning the future of the project. They want to engage even more community members in the project, build a root cellar to store more vegetables and continue community food initiatives like canning, jamming and garden markets. Ultimately, the big pay-off will be food sovereignty and better health outcomes for the whole community. By reclaiming their food system and reconnecting with traditional ways, Ahtahkakoop First Nation is ensuring a healthier future and showing that nutrition re-transition is possible.

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