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Study: Obesity and the eating habits of the Aboriginal population

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The Daily

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Off-reserve Aboriginal people aged 19 to 50 living in Ontario and the Western provinces in 2004 were two and a half times more likely to be obese or overweight, compared with their non-Aboriginal contemporaries, according to a new study.

The study, published today in Health Reports, found that this difference primarily reflected higher rates of obesity and overweight among Aboriginal women, particularly those aged 19 to 30.

Previous research has shown that off-reserve Aboriginal people are more likely than other Canadians to report chronic health problems, notably conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and arthritis, which have been linked to obesity.

Aboriginal people also face disparities in housing, education, employment and food security. In fact, besides eating habits, the study found that differences in obesity and overweight may also reflect differences between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in income, education and leisure-time physical activity.

Research into differences in eating habits helps to understand underlying causes of obesity and to target efforts to improve health outcomes.

Socio-economic factors and leisure-time activity

Levels of income, education and leisure-time physical activity have been shown to be related to excess weight. However, in this study, the relationships between these factors and obesity among off-reserve Aboriginal people were not necessarily the same as those reported for the total population.

Living in a low-income household was associated with a higher rate of obesity for off-reserve Aboriginal people, but household income was not related to obesity among non-Aboriginal people. When other factors were taken into consideration, this relationship was no longer significant.

The association between education and excess weight also differed. Among the non-Aboriginal population, excess weight was more common in low-education households, that is, households in which no member had graduated from high school. By contrast, off-reserve Aboriginal people in low-education households were less likely than those living in higher-education households to be overweight or obese.

Inactive leisure time was associated with excess weight for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. While both groups were equally likely to be inactive, the consequences seemed somewhat greater for Aboriginal people. Among those who were inactive, 50% of off-reserve Aboriginal people were obese, compared with 23% of non-Aboriginal people.

Snacking, "other food" consumption linked to higher obesity in Aboriginal women

Rates of overweight/obesity among Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal men were statistically similar. However, Aboriginal women were more likely than non-Aboriginal women to be overweight/obese.

The higher overweight/obesity rates among Aboriginal women were associated, in part, with higher calorie intake by those aged 19 to 30. In this age range, Aboriginal women's average daily intake exceeded that of non-Aboriginal women by 359 calories.

There were no statistically significant differences between the average calorie intake of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal men, nor between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women aged 31 to 50.

As was the case for Canadians overall, many off-reserve Aboriginal people did not follow the recommendations of Canada's Food Guide. For example, a substantial percentage did not consume the suggested number of servings of vegetables and fruit, grain products, and milk products.

Aboriginal men consumed significantly less milk products than did non-Aboriginal men — about half a serving less per day. Aboriginal women had almost one serving less per day of vegetables and fruit and of grain products than did non-Aboriginal women.

The impact of these differences was evident in the share of daily calories coming from the various food groups and from "other foods," which include items such as candy, oil, soft drinks and condiments. "Other foods" made up more than 35% of the average daily calories of off-reserve Aboriginal women aged 19 to 30, compared with 24% for non-Aboriginal women. This difference alone explains 90% of the higher daily caloric intake of Aboriginal women aged 19 to 30.

A closer examination of women's eating habits shows a significant difference in between-meal food consumption. At ages 19 to 30, Aboriginal women got 36% of their daily calories between meals, compared with 28% of calories for non-Aboriginal women.

As well, "other foods" accounted for 63% of the calories consumed between meals by Aboriginal women aged 19 to 30, compared with 43% of the calories of their non-Aboriginal contemporaries.

Definitions, data sources and methods: survey number 5049.

The article, "Obesity and the eating habits of the Aboriginal population," which is part of today's Health Reports, Vol. 19, no. 1, online release, is now available (82-003-XWE, free) from the Publications module of our website.

For more information about Health Reports, contact Christine Wright (613-951-1765;, Health Information and Research Division.

For more information, or to enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this article, contact Didier Garriguet (613-951-7187;, Health Information and Research Division.