Over the rainbow: New food guide emphasizes healthy traditional foods

Published in Indian Country Today in April 2005.

On my flight from Kuujjuaq, in northern Quebec, to Montreal, the person sitting next to me had 20 ptarmigan packed in her checked luggage. She told me that the game birds were a gift for Inuit friends in Montreal who missed the traditional fare of home — Nunavik, the Arctic portion of the province.

Though loyalty to ptarmigan, caribou, seal, and other so-called “country foods” that Inuit have eaten for millennia still runs high in the 14 villages of Nunavik — as well as among relations living elsewhere — modern foods have made inroads in recent years. These days, store shelves in the region are chock-full of nutrition-poor convenience foods, cans of soda, bags of cookies, and other snacks.

The effect on health has been immediate, according Mandy Graham, nutritionist with the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services: “The trend to diabetes is just beginning here. It’s due to the change in food habits and a more sedentary lifestyle. We’re not seeing the percentages you find in other First Nations in Canada, but it is increasing.”

Iron deficiency is another contemporary problem. “Country foods are high in iron and other minerals,” explained Graham. “When people make a habit of substituting soda pop and a bag of chips for a real meal, they end up with an iron-poor diet.”

A recently released food guide from the board of health intends to remedy the situation by emphasizing nutrition-dense traditional foods, which appear in each of the four food groups shown. The chart’s domed shape is based on a rainbow-like format used in other parts of Canada, with some important differences.

“An Inuk artist, Sammy Kudluk, did the illustration,” said Shirley Dupuis, Inuk, a nurse at Tulattavik Ungava Hospital in Kuujjauq, the largest town in Nunavik. “He made the food guide into an igloo, with an Inuit family in the center, so it represents our culture.” Dupuis worked on the project with another nurse, Suzanne Paradis, who first envisioned a Nunavik-specific diagram.

Paradis’s viewpoint squares with that of a February 2005 paper from the Dietitians of Canada. In “Feeding Mind, Body and Spirit,” the national professional organization generally encourages the consumption of traditional foods, the use of traditional modes of healing and the creation of community-specific nutrition-education resources.

The group also identifies the boarding-school era, which ended in Canada in 1996, as a source of today’s diet-related health issues: “There was no place for Aboriginal culture or values, including the food to which [the children] were accustomed … Food was often seen as a punishment or reward, permanently affecting the way food choices would be made by residents and future generations.”

Because the smallest arc of the Nunavik chart contains images of meat and fish, dearly loved traditional foods end up closest to the Inuit family depicted. “In my practical mind, meat and fish naturally belonged in that section because you need the smallest number of servings of them, but it also worked artistically. It all just fell into place,” said Dupuis, who translated the text into Inuttitut.

Local fare appears in other sections as well. There’s bannock in the large outer semicircle, with its grain-based items; berries turn up in the next lower curve, among the fruits and vegetables. “Collecting berries — until the snow flies — is a big thing for women here,” said Dupuis.

Fish make a surprise appearance in the next arc down, which primarily includes dairy foods. “People here make fish-head soup,” said Graham. “Fish bones are a great source of calcium, so they’re included in the dairy section. Fish is also shown with meat in the lowest arc, of course.”

The Nunavik food guide is also intended to counteract publicity about contaminants, such as mercury, that have been found in the Arctic — carried there on the wind from industrialized parts of the globe. The discovery of pollution in this seemingly remote and pristine land caused residents to worry about the safety of local food.

“Yes, there are contaminants, but in very small amounts,” said Graham. “It’s also important for people to know that while fish may have some mercury in it, it also contains selenium, which helps protect against mercury. There are just a small number of foods that we have to tell pregnant and breastfeeding women to avoid, and they’re primarily things people don’t eat very often anyway, such as seal liver.”

The Nunavik food guide, which is available in Inuttitut, English and French, has been provided to hospitals and nursing stations in villages around the region, stores and community organizations. Teams of nurses, teachers and dietitians have done programs in the schools, particularly during March, which has been dubbed Nutrition Month.

Coming soon from the health board is a cookbook featuring healthy recipes, which will enhance the effectiveness of the guide. “The regional diabetes coordinator put it together,” said Graham. “Though its focus is diabetes, it’s about healthy eating in general, with dishes you can feed the whole family.”

c. Stephanie Woodard.