Of fish, oolichan and small miracles
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, July 12, 2008

Epidemics of obesity and diabetes are ravaging the Western world. In Canada alone over 2 million of us have the disease with aboriginal people three to five times more likely to develop it. By 2010, the Canadian Diabetes Association estimates a cost of $15.6 billion to the healthcare system, rising to $19.2 billion in 2020. But thanks to the determined work of a Metis physician and a small First Nations band living at Alert Bay in British Columbia, a year long experiment featuring a fat-and-protein based traditional aboriginal diet offers hope that a solution is possible.

“Last night we ate barbequed salmon over an open fire with oolichan grease and fried seaweed”, Barb Cranmer told me over the phone. Niece of Chief Bill Cranmer of the Namgis First Nations and co-producer of My Big Fat Diet, a documentary film that aired on the CBC in March, Barb lost 52 of the almost 1200 pounds lost collectively by the diet’s participants.

At a time when sedentary lifestyles and high fat diets are being blamed for our escalating obesity and diabetes rates, Dr. Jay Wortman’s diet plan is pushing envelopes though he would be the first to acknowledge the work of low-carb guru (himself no stranger to controversy), the late Dr. Robert C. Atkins. Though the traditional Namgis diet, in addition to local game and fish, would have included some berries and roots, Dr. Wortman replaced these with salad greens and vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower. As in the Atkins diet, fats too were allowed, from bacon and butter to oolichan grease – a traditional oil made from a smelt-like fish that inhabits local shores. Starches and sugars, fruits, even milk which contains lactose, were forbidden.

Despite the high consumption of fat, participants all revealed improved blood profiles (lower cholesterol, etc) as well as weight loss. In the documentary, Wortman suggests this appears to be because lowering carbohydrate intake enables the body to process fat more readily.

In any case, fat and protein based calories don’t raise your blood sugar levels and, in this diet, stable blood sugar is what it is all about. In his 2007 book Good Calories Bad Calories, award winning science writer Gary Taubes challenges the pseudo-science of the calories-in calories-out approach to weight loss by pointing to the simple equation that carbohydrate intake equals rising blood sugars equals insulin production equals laying down of fat stores. Worse, according to Health Canada, “high blood sugar levels over long periods of time” mean “insulin cannot be used properly” so malfunctions such as type 2 diabetes (most common) are triggered. Unchecked, blindness, gangrene, kidney failure and heart disease quickly follow.

Lowering and stabilizing blood sugars also works for weight loss. By eliminating carbohydrates, the body is forced to use fat stores as energy, a process known as ketogenesis (as with any diet, check with your doctor before trying this). Recently, the American Diabetes Association approved the low-carb approach as a treatment option for diabetes.

The results of the Big Fat Diet are being analyzed at the University of British Columbia but for Vancouver’s Dr. Jay Wortman it goes beyond the treatment of diabetes and obesity. For instance, he sees links between diet and mental health. Carbohydrates appear to have an effect on brain neurotransmitters similar to drugs, he says in the documentary. But the biggest benefit of the diet, says Barb Cranmer, is a sense of well-being. The implications of this are vast: well-being is one cornerstone of the superior health needed to tackle other problems.

The diet also provides an adaptive link to a hunter-gatherer past that was taken too quickly from its people, leaving them vulnerable not only to new diseases but to the vagaries of an agragrian diet corrupted by processed grains and oils and too much sugar. Maintaining the integrity of the native food supply will give added impetus to land claims, he suggests.

Similarly important are the implications of the Big Fat Diet for human biological integrity in a new era of nutritional advancement. The work of Dr. Wortman and the Namgis First Nations is testament to the power of a small aboriginal community to effect near miracles on its own behalf, something Official Apologies, Kelowna Accords and Truth and Reconciliation Commissions can hope to achieve but likely won’t.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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