Ask the average Canadian to imagine the face of a malnourished child and chances are that he/she will describe someone living in a developing country. They would be shocked to learn that 7 out of 10 Inuit preschoolers live in food insecure households, and that Inuit households experience food insecurity at almost double the rate of the national average (27% vs. 12% respectively). Inadequate access to food is now commonplace in the North due to various socio-economic, developmental, geographic, and environmental factors at play. And the situation is only getting worse. An expert panel from the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) concluded in a 2014 report to the Minister of Health that Northern Canada requires “urgent attention in order to mitigate impacts of health and well-being” among northern Aboriginal people. Vulnerable Inuit populations, including income-dependent elders, families, and single moms, are being severely impacted by continued food insecurity and poverty, with profound implications for the young. Inuit children aren’t just going to bed hungry: they are experiencing the effects of malnourishment from early stages in life, and they’re living with more nutrient-deficiency diseases today that could continue to affect their lives past adolescence and into adulthood.
Malnourishment in vulnerable Inuit households
Many Inuit households are being denied their basic human right to access adequate food. Among the most vulnerable are those who are disadvantaged socially and economically, with single mothers ranking very low on the scale. Factors that contribute to their food insecurity include living in a household without a hunter who is knowledgeable and financially-able to provide country food for the family, or living in a household without the purchasing power necessary to buy the outrageously-priced convenience foods that are flown into the region and sold in local stores. Mothers generally tend to forgo meals in order to provide enough for their families, and when pregnant, their food insecurity will likely result in serious malnourishment for both mother and infant.
The transition to a malnourished diet in Northern Canada
The westernization of many Inuit communities over the last 50 years has brought with it many changes to traditional lifestyles and diets. The expert panel of the CCA identified Northern communities as undergoing a “nutrition transition” due to the rapid shift from a traditional lifestyle to a westernized one. This has moved a large part of the Inuit population away from a nutrient-rich traditional diet to a low-nutrient, high-caloric diet. Children are adopting the new lifestyle quicker than adults and are therefore more prone to developing western diseases such as diabetes, obesity, and dental caries (tooth decay).
Physical effects of malnourishment on Inuit infants and children
The traditional Inuit diet provides an excellent source of nutrients needed by people living in an extreme cold, subsistence-living climate. Traditional foods, including hunted game, marine mammals, and local berries and fowl, are high in nutrients and thought to help the Inuit avoid diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The westernization of this diet substitutes these protective nutrients with high saturated fats, sodium, sugar and simple carbohydrates. The nutrition transition has caused a huge change in nutrient intake. For example, a staple in the traditional Inuit diet is caribou meat and offers twice the levels of protein and 1/10th the amount of saturated fat compared to tinned lunch meat. In addition, caribou and beaver meat both offer 9 and 14 times the amount of iron respectively than tinned meat. The substitution of these high-nutrient meats with processed, low-nutrient foods is causing a spike in the prevalence of anemia (low iron) and obesity among the Inuit:
- While there is a lack of research data for Nunavut preschoolers, health surveys have showed that anemia or iron deficiency is affecting between 37-48% of Inuit infants versus 8% in non-Aboriginal Canadian infants.
- Over half the children that participated in a 2007/2008 health study were identified as being overweight, highlighting the fact that kids are consuming high-caloric, low-nutrient foods.
- Food insecure adults and children show more prevalence of malnutrition and disease, as well as a preoccupation with food scarcity, and a loss of control in their lives, all of which can lead to mental health issues (CCA report).
These and other behavioural issues can extend long-term as fluctuating malnutrition forces the body to enter a process of “nutrition triage”. Irregular access to food creates a natural condition in the body whereby survival and function supersede any non-basic functioning. In other words, the limited nutrients are prioritized to be used on a must-have basis, allowing the body to focus primarily on survival and growth, and less on learning and behavioural capabilities. These effects will extend into children’s lives and affect their future education, work and lives, with grave implications for the entire community.
Changing the face of malnutrition
Food insecurity and poverty in Northern Canada require long-lasting, multiple-stakeholder, Inuit-centric solutions. Unfortunately, this will take time to plan and implement; time that Inuit children don’t have as they continue to feel the effects of malnourishment. They require immediate and regular access to adequate and nutrient-dense foods now. It’s time to raise awareness and funds to help stop hunger and change the face of malnourished children in the minds of Canadians. One interim solution is to support Nunavut school meal programs. Financial donations to these programs could have a lasting impact on reducing the number of Inuit children who continue to go to bed hungry today and on their health tomorrow.
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Please note: Feeding Nunavut is not a charity! and here’s why – When we set up Feeding Nunavut, we were hoping to work towards long term solutions. Part of that involves advocacy – articulating concerns to governments, stating opinions, encouraging Canadians to write to their elected representatives. In Canada, registered charities are required to limit their advocacy work to 10%. As a non profit, we are free to advocate when it is appropriate, without being constrained by this limitation.