New Study Highlights Traditional Foods as Foundational to the Health and Well-Being of Indigenous Peoples

A recent study from the Assembly of First Nations, the University of Ottawa, and the Université de Montréal finds that traditional food is a foundation of First Nations peoples’ health and well-being. Unfortunately, First Nations experience four times the rate of food insecurity as the non-Indigenous population, as well as disproportionate levels of nutrition-related diseases.

First Nations is a term used to describe indigenous groups living on reservations in Canada who are not Métis or Inuit. There are 643 First Nations communities across Canada, with a total population of roughly 510,000. Within First Nations communities, traditional food holds immense nutritional, cultural, and spiritual value.

The First Nations Food, Nutrition, and Environment Study (FNFNES) is the most comprehensive study on First Nations food systems and health ever conducted in Canada. Spanning 10 years, it engaged approximately 6,500 people from 92 First Nations to assess diet quality, nutrition, health status, food security, drinking water quality, and food safety.

The FNFNES began in 2008 after the Assembly of First Nations expressed concerns about contaminants in the food supply because of environmental degradation, particularly in traditional foods. According to the study’s researchers, First Nations people were previously excluded from Canada’s studies on health and nutrition or were engaged at very low rates. Using a community-based participatory research methodology, scientists, academic institutions, and community researchers from First Nations worked collaboratively to gather data and make decisions.

Dr. Malek Batal, a co-author of the FNFNES tells Food Tank, “As researchers, we have to take stock of colonialist history. This study…was one of the first to work this way. Now it is pretty much standard practice.”

According to Batal, the study demonstrates that traditional food is healthy and mostly safe. “The aspect that needs to be worked on is…food security and quality of the diet. [This] does not mean telling people what to eat. The problem is one of access.”

For millennia, First Nations have harvested food by hunting, fishing, and gathering. In addition to contributing critical nutrition to the diet of First Nations peoples, the harvesting of traditional food enhances community member’s well-being and physical fitness. But the FNFNES finds that climate change, colonial policies, and activities including industrial mining, forestry, and destructive agricultural practices threaten these traditional food systems. According to the FNFNES, more than half of all adults report that these barriers prevent them from harvesting traditional foods.

An average of 48 percent of First Nations experience food insecurity, as compared to 12 percent of the Canadian population. High rates of food insecurity stem from colonial policies that limit the availability, quality, and safety of traditional foods. As a result, First Nations peoples have gradually increased their intake of store-bought foods that often have poor nutritional content and/or are ultra-processed. This has led to disproportionate levels of nutrition-related chronic diseases including heart disease, anemia, obesity, cancer, and diabetes.

First Nations peoples experience diabetes at double the rate of the Canadian population, which the study finds is associated with exposure to pollutants mostly found in fish. Additionally, 74 percent of First Nations adults are obese, compared to 60 percent of the general population in Canada.

The study also finds that large predatory fish within First Nations’ territories have high levels of mercury, and there are elevated levels of lead in mammal and bird samples. This is particularly concerning for women of childbearing age because these pollutants can harm developing fetuses and young children.

According to the study, the quality of drinking water in 30 percent of households is also affected by excess levels of metals, highlighting the need for improved water treatment systems.

The researchers hope that the FNFNES will provide First Nations peoples and policymakers with the data they need to advocate for greater food sovereignty and environmental protection. According to the University of Ottawa, some communities are already using the data to develop programming that addresses food insecurity and the contamination of traditional foods.

The First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) is a health and wellness partner to more than 200 First Nations communities. Kathleen Yung, a Specialist at FNHA in the areas of Healthy Eating and Food Security, tells Food Tank, “Data from FNFNES has informed ways for FNHA to work internally and with external partners on ensuring food access can be centralized around traditional foods.”

The FNFNES researchers are also launching a new national study on the health of First Nations children and youth, which is the first study to focus on this population.

Despite the multitude of challenges, First Nations people continue to demonstrate their resilience and self-determination. But Batal says they will need adequate political and financial support from the Canadian government to make change.

“Without government help nothing can happen. [This is] ammunition for communities to ask for more,” Batal tells Food Tank.

Photo courtesy of FNFNES

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