Vitamin D deficiency in Nunavik, modern diet to blame | Polarjournal
Light is one of the essential elements for the synthesis of vitamin D by the skin. Sunset in Nunavik. Image: Martin Tuchschere / Wikimedia Commons

A new study has just documented an epidemic of vitamin D deficiency in the villages and communities of northern Canada. The solutions are multi-factorial, but essentially depend on the food sovereignty of indigenous peoples.

Two-thirds of children in Nunavik between the ages of 11 months and four-and-a-half years have a vitamin D insufficiency, is the main finding of a study published in the journal Nutrition and Health on January 31. This statistic is in line with the vitamin D deficiency epidemic affecting a billion people around the world, young and old alike. This deficiency increases the risk of rickets, respiratory infections, diabetes, rheumatism and even certain cancers.

The study uses data collected in Nunavik Early Childhood Centres – non-profit organisations subsidised by the Quebec government – between 2006 and 2010, and points out that there is little data available on Inuit communities in Canada. Two hundred and forty-five children were screened, with parental consent obtained by means of a form available in Inuktitut, English and French.

One of the five Early Childhood Centers built in Nunavik’s Kativik region between 2012 and 2016. Image: MTA Architects

Vitamin D is produced by the skin when exposed to sunlight or assimilated through the digestion of foods containing it. Huguette Turgeon O’Brien, a researcher in food science at Laval University and lead author of the study, explains by correspondence: “The months without light are the most critical, as people only have access to dietary sources of vitamin D to meet their needs”.

Sources of vitamins

In a study published by Laval University in 2012 about the people of Nunavik, we read: “Like many indigenous peoples worldwide, their food patterns have changed during the 20th century as they started to move from a nutrient-dense traditional diet to one centred on store-bought foods.”

This same study proves that traditional food offers a much better nutritional intake than foods available in Nunavik shops today. Vitamin D in Nunavik is found naturally in seal and whale meat and blubber, fish and caribou meat.

Milk, yoghurt and fruit are also sources of vitamin D available in Nunavik communities, but they are flown in from Quebec or Montreal. “Parents, for their part, have access to slightly less expensive foods at the grocery shop via the Nutrition North Canada programme. However, it is up to them to choose nutritious foods when they go shopping,” explains Huguette Turgeon O’Brien.

A recommended diet

For health professionals, there is yet another factor leading to the dietary deficiencies detected. In people suffering from obesity, vitamins are diluted, partly because they eat foods with fewer vitamins and partly because they eat foods that are higher in sugar or fat, such as ready-made meals or soft drinks.

During the inflationary period that hit Nunavut in 2012, chicken drumsticks on the left cost around 45 euros and pies on the right 20 euros, with a liter of milk costing five euros. Image: Facebook / Boblechef / BuzzFeed

“If vitamin D requirements are 600 IU per day, for example, we would need to consume 6 cups – that’s six times 250 ml or six times 100 IU – of milk per day to meet the vitamin D requirements of a person aged between 1 and 70, if no other food containing vitamin D is consumed”, estimates Huguette Turgeon O’Brien.

But this dose is difficult to absorb on a daily basis. “In December 2021, the Ministry of Health issued a market authorisation to double this amount, to 200 IU per cup,” adds Huguette Turgeon O’Brien. “Manufacturers will have to comply with this law by 31 December 2025.” But she warns that the milk will be a little more expensive than others, and therefore probably less consumed.

A thorny question

The federal Department of Northern Affairs’ Nutrition North Canada programme was strongly criticised last October in a report by the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. It called for reform of the programme, listing the following recommendations :

  • the possibility for indigenous peoples and northerners to decide on their own food sovereignty policy;
  • the creation of new meat and traditional food processing facilities;
  • protecting natural areas;
  • recognition of food insecurity in the North.

Last December, Beth Kotierk, an Inuit lawyer on the advisory board, resigned from her position. “I kind of felt like the work that was done wasn’t being reflected in any changes to the program in a really substantive way,” she told CBC News.

Beth Kotierk is a lawyer and board member of Qajuqturvik, an organization that promotes food sovereignty in Nunavut and develops a local food system. Image : Qajuqturvik

The study by Huguette Turgeon O’Brien and her colleagues covers a period that precedes current inflation and also the most marked effects of global warming. At present, mild winters and melting winter roads on which trucks cross frozen lakes and rivers are compromising supplies to communities in northern Canada.

Camille Lin, PolarJournal

Link to studies:

Find out more about this topic:

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
error: Content is protected !!
Share This