A remote community off the north coast of Vancouver Island is the unlikely venue for an experiment that uses diet to try to improve the health of native communities.
Dr. Jay Wortman, a Métis, is working with aboriginal Canadians in Alert Bay on B.C.'s Cormorant Island in a bid to show a low-carbohydrate diet can mitigate health problems such as diabetes and obesity, which tend to be rampant in North American native communities.
Working for the University of B.C. faculty of medicine, Wortman is examining the theory that high-calorie Western foods are the root cause of those health problems. A CBC documentary on his study will be shown on Newsworld Tuesday evening at 10:00 p.m. (ET and PT).
Wortman, a diabetic himself, thinks the low-carb diet, dubbed "My Big Fat Diet,'' may benefit native people because they don't metabolize carbohydrates well.
He set up a year-long study of the diet in Alert Bay, where 60 people agreed to live on a more traditional aboriginal diet of meat, seafood and non-starch vegetables such as cauliflower.
His theory is that sharply reducing the consumption of carbohydrates and sugar will cut deeply into the very high rates of obesity and diabetes in native communities.
People who took part in the study lost significant amounts of weight, Wortman said. They also showed improvements in their cholesterol levels and diabetes control.
Chief a believer
Art Dick, a recovering alcoholic and Namgis First Nation hereditary chief, said he is living proof that the diet actually works.
After following the diet, Dick said he no longer takes medication for diabetes.
"There's times I used to forget how many pills I took, what time I was supposed to take it, on and on and on, and now I don't have to worry about that schedule any more,'' he said.
Alert Bay fisherman Greg Wadhams is also on the diet. He is allowed to eat meat and fat, but no carbohydrates.
He too said he has conquered diabetes: "I used to take pills three times a day for my diabetes. Since I've been on the diet, I've not been on any medication at all."
Still, Wortman hasn't convinced the medical establishment just yet.
The diet he is advocating has been compared with the high-protein, low-carbohydrate Atkins diet, which has been criticized by the American Society for Nutrition for causing dramatic weight fluctuations, leading to illness.
The Health Canada Aboriginal Food Guide still recommends native people eat rice, bread and pasta.
Traditional diet a challenge
As well, living on a more traditional diet may present challenges for many native communities, said Bernadette Dejonzague, a registered dietitian and a diabetes prevention program co-ordinator.
This is because access to food sources such as sockeye salmon may be limited by contamination and transportation issues.
Many people who live in native communities "wouldn't know what to do with a deer or moose, even if they were able to shoot one,'' said Dejonzague, who is a member of the Abenaki First Nation and based in London, Ont.
When asked about these potential challenges, Wortman agreed that more long-term studies will be needed to prove that the diet he is advocating actually works.
Meanwhile, he said, he sees the Big Fat Diet as a therapeutic intervention for people suffering from obesity and diabetes, as opposed to something that should be embraced by entire native communities.