Q&A: Focus on Diabetes

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Q&A: Focus on Diabetes
Compiled by Barbara Bourrier-LaCroix

Why is diabetes a concern for Aboriginal women? What are the health risks?

Until the 1940s, diabetes was virtually unknown in Canada’s Aboriginal communities. However, in the last decades, it has reached epidemic proportions. The prevalence of diabetes among First Nations is now at least three times the national average, and rates appear to be higher on-reserve than off-reserve. Aboriginal women in particular are believed to be prone to diabetes. Approximately two-thirds of the First Nations people diagnosed with diabetes are women. This means that Aboriginal women are contracting the disease at a rate roughly twice that of Aboriginal men. This gender difference is not observed in the wider Canadian population, where diabetes strikes men more often than women. First Nations women have over 5 times the rate of diabetes compared to women in the general population. Not only is there a higher rate of type 2 diabetes in First Nations women of most age categories, many of these women were also diagnosed with gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM). While there has been little research conducted on diabetes rates in Inuit and Métis populations, recent studies indicate that these populations are beginning to show signs of risk factors and more cases of diabetes.

There are many theories about why diabetes has become an epidemic in First Nations populations. Colonization ensured that the Europeans displaced many, if not most, Aboriginal peoples. First Nations people were forced into a sedentary western lifestyle, with diets high in fat, sugar, and processed foods. Combined with the effects of displacement, colonization continues to force many Aboriginal people into a subsistence standard of living and a dependence on the state. Women who live in poverty have limited funds to provide the necessities of life. In some remote reserves, the availability and affordability of healthy food choices are severely limited. Many families live with what is commonly referred to as the “macaroni diet,” a highfat, low nutrient diet. There are also unique considerations in providing the education, care and support necessary to enable research and to prevent diabetes in First Nations communities. Health care services, including diabetes education and early screening, may be unavailable or inconsistent. Other factors include the higher percentage of chronic drug and alcohol abuse within Aboriginal communities, and increasing numbers of people relocating to urban centres leading to family disruption or breakdown, and placing high levels of stress on women in particular.

The toll of unmanaged diabetes in Aboriginal populations can be devastating. Having diabetes means a woman is at an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, more lower limb amputations, kidney disease and dialysis, and eye disease.


Diabetes Among Aboriginal People in Canada: The Evidence
Aboriginal Diabetes Initiative, Health Canada
March 10, 2000
Available online at:

The Health of Aboriginal Women
Women’s Health Bureau, Health Canada
July 22, 2000
Available online at:

As an Aboriginal person, I understand I am at great risk of getting diabetes.What should I know about looking after myself?
R. K. Abram, Canadian Health Network
March 2000
Available online at:

Empowering Words of First Nations Women: Manual for Speaking Out About Life, Health and… Diabetes
First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, Health Services Commission
250, Place Chef Michel-Laveau
Wendake (Québec) G0A 4V0
Tel.: (418) 842 1540  Fax: (418) 842 7045

Aboriginal Women’s Health Research Synthesis Project Final Report
Centres of Excellence for Women’s Health
May 2001
Available online at:

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