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Dr. Jay WortmanProfile: Dr. Jay Wortman

Physician combats diabetes with traditional Aboriginal diet

Dr. Jay Wortman, a Métis doctor working for Health Canada, knew that his Aboriginal ancestors had eaten right. After all, they’d survived for millennia on the same diet. In this day and age, however, Aboriginal communities have largely replaced that wholesome locally based diet with an imported one full of refined foods.

With Aboriginal people suffering from a rate of diabetes several times higher than the rest of the Canadian population, Jay decided to turn back the clock to see how they’d fare with the old menu.

Ancient Atkins diet

The ancient diet, which consisted mainly of game and seafood with some edible wild plants, was high in fat but very low in carbohydrates and sugar. Jay knew where to look for a modern equivalent.

Low-carbohydrate or ketogenic diets like the Atkins Diet work on the principle that carbohydrates are the one macronutrient we consume that is expendable. When we limit carbohydrates below a certain level, our liver produces ketones, an energy source our body can use instead.

“What I’m learning,” says Jay about ketogenic diets, “is that they seem to be especially beneficial for people who have developed insulin resistance. We know that’s a big problem in the Aboriginal population.”

For people suffering from type 2 diabetes, such a diet offers a way to replace the sugar and refined starches they used to eat with satiating food. This lowers blood sugar levels and provides them with enough energy to function normally.

“This type of diet’s been
studied in different settings, but
this is the first one in
an Aboriginal population.”

Eating like their ancestors

Jay decided to give his idea a trial run in Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, a small island off the coast of Vancouver Island that the Namgis First Nation calls home.

“This type of diet’s been studied in different settings, but this is the first one in an Aboriginal population. I wanted an area where it would be manageable to work with the community as a whole, so I approached the Namgis First Nation.”

The diet was pretty simple to follow. It didn’t require counting calories or avoiding fatty foods. It allowed for an unlimited amount of meat, chicken, fish and whole eggs, plenty of vegetables, some cheese-and even saturated fats.

It was a revolutionary idea for this Aboriginal community. Their ancestors had eaten this way generations ago, but, like the rest of Canada, they had since fallen victim to the lure of junk food.

The diet worked wonders. People in the study soon started dropping pounds, and for the diabetics, blood sugar control improved to the point they could reduce or discontinue their diabetes medication.

A total of 86 people signed up for the study but many more got involved on their own initiative. “When we did the study, it became apparent that there was a big ripple effect, that lots of people were trying it even though they didn’t sign up for the study,” says Jay.

Jay himself has type 2 diabetes and has followed his own diet with great results. Within days of beginning it, his blood sugar and blood pressure returned to normal levels. And he says he has remained consistent without any need for medication ever since. He eats lots of meat, seafood and vegetables, and doesn’t fret about the fat in bacon and cheese. He simply avoids sugar and starches.

“I am rarely in a situation where there is nothing I can eat,” he says.

A therapeutic approach

Jay was on a two-year interchange program with the University of British Columbia when he launched his now-famous study.

Originally a family-practice physician, he drifted toward public health, with a stint as Associate Director of the STD/AIDS Control Division at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, before moving to Health Canada in 1990.

Now working in Health Canada’s First Nations and Inuit Health branch, he says that while there isn’t enough evidence yet to recommend this diet to everyone, he’s comfortable using it for weight loss and particularly for conditions linked to insulin resistance.

“I’m looking at populations that are unhealthy,” he says. “I look at this diet as a therapeutic approach for insulin resistance. I’m trying to get us into a position where it’s offered as a valid option alongside other approaches.”

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