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Revisiting My Big Fat Diet: How a Métis doctor lost weight with a traditional Indigenous diet

Dr. Jay Wortman, a Métis doctor based in Vancouver, adopted a traditional low carb Indigenous diet after he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. The results were extremely positive, and he's since encouraged others to do the same.
Dr. Jay Wortman, a Métis doctor, took on a low carb diet after he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. (Dr. Jay Wortman)

by Samantha Lui

Dr. Jay Wortman's lifestyle changed when he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. 

The Vancouver-based health specialist decided to cut out carbs from his diet, and immediately felt better. He's managed to maintain what he calls a "very, very, very low carb diet" for over 15 years.

"All my blood markers went back to normal. I lost weight at about the rate of about a pound a day for a month," he said in an interview with Checkup guest host Suhana Meharchand.

"[The fat] literally fell off me. In those days, I worked in an office where I wore a suit. I had to take in all my pants after a couple of weeks and then two weeks later, they were falling off me again. It was just remarkable." 

Dr. Wortman says the supermarkets in many Indigenous communities are filled with sugary and highly processed food. (Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press)

'My Big Fat Diet'

After seeing what his diet change did for him, Wortman decided to look into the issue of obesity and diabetes even further, in part because he noticed many of his relatives struggled with the same problems. During his research, he noticed a link between several Indigenous communities. 

"If you go into the grocery stores in any of these little First Nations or Inuit communities, the central aisles are just jammed with all kinds of sugary and highly processed food," he said.

"I think there's been this tragic, tragic shift in diet away from what was a very healthy, sustaining traditional diet in all these communities to something that's really very detrimental to health now." 

We should love our food. No reason you shouldn't. And you can do that and still avoid all the really unhealthy stuff.

This led Wortman, who is a Métis from the community of Fort Vermilion, Alta., to create a diet based on traditional Indigenous meals, which he found were normally low in carbohydrates.

"I started to connect the dots that in First Nations populations, not too many generations ago, they were eating their traditional diets which were very low in carbs and high in fat," Wortman said. 

"When you don't burn carbs, you primarily burn fat. So if you're not eating carbs, you should be burning fat and I became very interested in the traditional diets across the country." 

Soon after, Wortman put his low-carb diet to the test in the northern British Columbia community of Alert Bay. Seeing what it did to him, he believed the diet could benefit Indigenous people because they don't metabolize carbohydrates well. His findings were later shown in the 2008 CBC documentary "My Big Fat Diet."

During the year-long study, 60 people agreed to live on a more traditional Indigenous diet of meat, seafood and non-starch vegetables like cauliflower. After 12 months, the community saw positive results. 

"People lost a lot of weight. The diabetics improved their markers [and] got off their medications. People felt better. It had a tremendous benefit." 

Steps to changing your lifestyle

Dr. Wortman cooks a traditional Nisga'a meal, featuring salmon. (Dr. Jay Wortman)

Since the study, Wortman hasn't been able to visit Alert Bay in recent years to get an update on his results. 

However, seeing what his diet did to the community there, he believes that anyone looking to improve their health can take steps to do the same. 

But even though the transition to a low-carb diet can take a while, Wortman says one can make steps to improve their relationship with food while doing it in a cost effective way.  

"We should love our food. No reason you shouldn't. And you can do that and still avoid all the really unhealthy stuff," he said. 

"Part of the fun of doing this diet was learning how to cook all kinds of different foods. I make a huge batch of chili once every couple of months and I freeze individual portions. When I cost it out, I have a delicious meal for less than two dollars." 

Dr. Jay Wortman's tips on going carb free:

  • Avoid sugar in all its forms including fruit juice, honey and — unfortunately — maple syrup.
  • Avoid refined carbs, including bread, pasta, pastries, breakfast cereals and granola bars.
  • Avoid vegetable oils that come from seeds, beans and nuts. They contain omega-6 fatty acids, which can cancel out the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, and promote inflammation.
  • For people who have weight or metabolic problems: reduce all carbs.
  • For people with inflammatory conditions: try an extremely low carb ketogenic diet for its anti-inflammatory effect
  • Anyone who is taking medications for blood pressure or blood sugar and who is contemplating a reduced carb diet should consult a knowledgeable source in order to reduce medication.
  • For First Nations and Inuit: consider the diet of your ancestors, then try to eliminate the modern foods that have no comparison to the traditional foods (bannock is not a traditional food).

For a list of his favourite low carb recipes, click here.

Disclaimer: The views expressed by our guests do not represent the views of the CBC. Please consult a medical professional before making any major decisions regarding your diet and/or personal health.

You can hear Dr. Jay Wortman's full conversation with Suhana Meharchand above. Listen to the full episode of our show here.