Study on Ontario First Nations nutrition notes dietary shortcomings and favours traditional foods

Posted on Monday, August 18, 2014

A recently published study on the food quality and security of members of Ontario First Nations living on reserve shows that the diet for majority does not meet Health Canada's Food Guide recommendations. Current dietary habits have resulted in high rates of obesity and diabetes, and may stem from another major issue: household food insecurity. On a positive note, there was not a trace of serious chemical contamination in traditional foods and drinking water.

The First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study (FNFNES) is the first national study of its kind. The newly released 2011-2012 results for Ontario detail the dietary patterns, lifestyle and general health status of 18 randomly selected First Nations communities in the province.

“The results provide a snapshot on the important linkage between healthy environment and wellbeing among First Nations in Ontario. All the participating communities found the results useful for planning their environment and public health policies for the years to come,” says lead investigator Laurie Chan, a professor in the University of Ottawa's Department of Biology. Research was conducted in collaboration with Malek Batal a professor in the University of Montreal's Department of Nutrition and the Assembly of First Nations.

The study's main findings show that First Nations members are at risk of insufficient intake of many nutrients needed for good health and disease prevention, including fibre, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin C, folate, calcium and magnesium. In order to improve the quality of the communities' diets, more traditional foods need to be consumed instead of market foods, which contain higher levels of saturated fat, sugar and sodium. Although the majority of study participants said they preferred to have more traditional food, they face multiple barriers in order to access it, including little time for harvesting, lack of hunters and no available equipment or transportation. Additional barriers include forestry operations and government restrictions.

Other key study findings:

  • Water quality, as indicated by trace metals and pharmaceutical levels, is satisfactory overall, but close monitoring is warranted, as water sources and water treatment vary greatly.
  • Current mercury exposure, as measured in hair samples and calculated through dietary estimates, is not a significant public health concern in most of the population. However, some women of childbearing age in northwestern Ontario exceeded the provisional Health Canada hair mercury guidelines.
  • Chemical contamination of traditional food is generally not a concern, but it is important to have the data from this study for monitoring purposes.

The study is a collaboration between the University of Ottawa, the Université de Montréal and the Assembly of First Nations. The data collected will serve as a benchmark for future studies, to determine how changes in the environment are affecting concentrations of worrisome chemicals and whether diet quality is changing.

The University of Ottawa is committed to research excellence and encourages an interdisciplinary approach to knowledge creation, which attracts the best academic talent from across Canada and around the world. The University is an important stakeholder in the National Capital Region's economic development, with a total regional economic impact estimated at $4 billion annually.

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