The healthy foods of traditional Aboriginal diets: link to health promotion practice

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By Pascale Leclair-Roberts

As Aboriginal Awareness week is coming to a close, Canada has come together to raise awareness about, and celebrate the culture of, our Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal groups are numerous and diverse, each home to unique dialects and traditions. It is this patchwork of traditions that make Aboriginal communities so special to Canadian culture.

Yet, while we are readily available to honour their heritage, efforts to honour their health and well-being have seemed to lag behind the rest of Canada’s population. Serious gaps exists between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadian health indicators. Obesity rates are much higher among Aboriginal groups, where on average 37.8% of Aboriginal adults are obese, compared to only 22.6% among non-Aboriginal adults2. Similar patterns of obesity are found among youth, where 15.8% of Aboriginal youth are obese in comparison to 8% of non-Aboriginal youth2.  

Controlling for obesity is important, as it is a precursor to chronic diseases such as type-2 diabetes1. Unfortunately, type-2 diabetes is also more prevalent among Aboriginal communities and non-Aboriginal communities4.Diabetes is prevalent in 17.8% of Aboriginal adults living on reserves and 10.3% of Aboriginal adults living off-reserves, in comparison to only 5% among non-Aboriginal adults in Canada. In addition, Aboriginal people are generally diagnosed with diabetes at a younger age than the rest of Canada’s population, and Aboriginal women have higher rates of gestational diabetes4.

Various and complex determinants have shaped poorer health outcomes among Aboriginal communities. An identified significant contribution has been the transitioning lifestyle from traditional customs to urban westernized living. In fact, more than half of all Canadian Aboriginal people live in cities3. Diets have transitioned from traditional dishes to a Western diet, which is low in nutritional quality and high in fats and carbohydrates3. Some health promotion strategies aiming at bettering the health of Aboriginal populations have focused on healthy eating. An important element that has often been overlooked in health promotion strategies when working with Aboriginal communities is integrating traditional elements, such as traditional foods and dishes. More evidence is finding positive responses to strategies when adapting them to their cultural heritage.

Health promotion messages have long focused on diets with low animal fat diets, and fruits and vegetables that do not necessarily align with those traditionally eaten by Aboriginal communities1. While traditional foods and dishes vary by geography, season and cultural groups, traditional diets are generally high in animal protein, nutrient rich, low in carbohydrates and low in fats (or high in marine sources of fat, which are important sources of omega fatty acids) 1. The nutritious quality of traditional diets does in fact help prevent many chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases, atherosclerosis and diabetes1.

A recent study on Aboriginal youth living in urban settings found that youth took joy in eating traditional foods3. They were aware of the nutritional benefits of traditional diets and could it eat every day. However, changing social and economic structures have made it more difficult for Aboriginal communities to access cultural foods1,3.

Recommendations for future health promotion interventions center on culturally-based strategies and should focus on the whole family, especially for urban Aboriginal communities3.  Successful interventions in non-Aboriginal communities have been seen in strategies calling for community and familial participation, as well as skill development on purchasing and preparing healthy food on a low budget3.  

More information:

Aboriginal Awareness Week

Traditional Aboriginal foods and diets (PDF)

Canada’s adapted Food Guide for Aboriginal communities



1 Earle, L. (2011). Traditional Aboriginal diets and health. National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health.

2Katzmarzyk, P. (2008). Obesity and physical activity among aboriginal Canadians. Obesity Journal, 16(1), 184-185.

3Kerpan, S., Humbert, L., & Henry, C. (2015). Determinants of diet for urban aboriginal youth: Implications for health promotion. Health Promotion Practice, 16(3), 393-400.

4Public Health Agency of Canada. (2011). Diabetes in Canada: Facts and figures from a public health perspective. Ottawa, ON: Chronic Disease Surveillance and Monitoring Division.