Type 2 diabetes, once considered rare in Inuit communities, is now comparable to rates in the general population, researchers have found.

The Inuit Health Survey was conducted as part of International Polar Year to help fill in gaps on health data for Canadian Inuit, who requested the information on their people.

The new findings showed 28 per cent of Inuit were overweight, 35 per cent were obese and nearly 44 per cent had what is considered an unhealthy waist size based on standards for Caucasians, according to the study published in this week's Canadian Medical Association Journal.

"Long time ago my parents didn't know anything about diabetes," recalls Flossie Oakoak, a 62-year-old Inuk originally from Cambridge Bay who has Type 2 diabetes. "When there was no white man here, there was only caribou, char. Most of the people are getting bigger and bigger."

Oakoak now lives in Yellowknife, where she watches her diet, passing on dessert and opting not to cave in to a craving for pizza hot from an oven over lunch at a downtown women's centre.

For the study, researchers from McGill University in Montreal and the University of Toronto looked at data on 2,595 randomly selected participants in 1,901 households in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Labrador to understand the prevalence of high blood sugar levels.

Diet, lifestyle changes

The average age of participants was 43.

Among Inuit under 50, 1.9 per cent had Type 2 diabetes, similar to the 2.4 per cent for other Canadians aged 35 to 39, found Grace Egeland of the Centre for Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment at McGill and her co-authors.

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These school binders aim to help prevent diabetes among First Nations communities. But researchers say Inuit need to do more to prevent the disease. ((Susan Montoya Bryan/Associated Press))

Similarly for Inuit 50 or older, 12.2 per cent had diabetes, comparable to the 15.7 per cent for similarly aged Canadians.

The findings suggest "Inuit ethnicity does not protect obese people from development of diabetes," the study's authors concluded in suggesting waist circumference and fasting triglyceride, a type of fat in the blood, could offer an easier way to identify Inuit at high risk for diabetes.

Why is the prevalence increasing?

"The change in diet is just one aspect," said Egeland, the study's lead researcher. "There's also changes in physical activity and just becoming more western."

Inuit need to do more about preventing a disease that is getting out of control in First Nations communities, Egeland said.

Oakoak agrees, saying young Inuit need help to stay away from processed food and see the benefits of living an active and healthy lifestyle.

The researchers took into account factors such as:

  • Age.
  • Sex.
  • Region.
  • Family history of diabetes.
  • Education.
  • Use of lipid-lowering medications.

The study was funded by the Canadian Federal Program for International Polar Year, Canadian Institutes for Health Research, Health Canada, the Nunavut government and ArcticNet.