A new report that says most Canadians are getting enough vitamin D is being disputed in Nunavut, where a senior health official says a shortage of winter sunlight is just one reason most people lack the sunshine vitamin.
While there is little to no sunlight in Canada's North during the winter, people's changing diets and a reluctance to take supplements are also reasons for a deficiency of vitamin D among Nunavut residents, said Dr. Geraldine Osborne, the territory's deputy chief medical officer.
Osborne said people there should take a vitamin D supplement daily — advice that runs contrary to findings released this week by the U.S.-based Institute of Medicine, which said most Canadians and Americans are already receiving enough vitamin D in their diets and daily lives.
"We know here that diet alone is not sufficient," Osborne told CBC News.
Vitamin D and calcium are known to promote bone growth and bone maintenance, but the Institute of Medicine says more research is needed to determine whether vitamin D helps protect against cancer, heart disease, autoimmune diseases and diabetes.
Sunlight naturally boosts vitamin D levels; people can also obtain vitamin D from milk, fortified milk alternatives, fish, liver, egg yolk and supplements.
90% of population 'D-eficient'
Osborne said Nunavut residents do not get as much sun exposure in the winter as other Canadians do down south, and many — especially youth — are not eating enough foods that are rich in vitamin D.
About 90 per cent of Nunavut's population is vitamin D deficient, according to preliminary results from Qanuipitali, a field study being conducted by Nunavut's Health and Social Services Department.
The study, which is still being compiled, also found that only seven per cent of pregnant women in Nunavut's Baffin Island region are getting enough vitamin D.
Osborne said that low rate of vitamin D intake among pregnant women is a major factor behind a high rate of rickets — a softening of bones that leads to fractures and deformities — in children in the territory.
Inuit foods rich in vitamin
Osborne added that younger Inuit in Nunavut are not eating as many traditional "country foods" such as fish, caribou and whale blubber, which have kept previous generations of Inuit healthy.
"Older people tend to eat more country foods and younger people tend to eat more store-bought foods. So definitely, country foods are a wonderful source of vitamin D," Osborne said.
While health officials are urging Nunavummiut to take a vitamin D supplement daily, several Iqaluit residents surveyed by CBC News said they are not taking supplements.
"We know that people are very reluctant to take them," Osborne said, adding that the reasons behind that reluctance are not clear.
Health officials are launching a territory-wide vitamin D education campaign early next year in the hopes of encouraging more Nunavummiut to boost their intake of the vitamin.