April 2008 | The Province Newspaper Article—The Town That Lost 1,200 Pounds

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

By Dr. Matsen

The following article appeared in The Province newspaper last month. The First Nations people of Alert Bay lost a total of 1,200 pounds by following the diet of their coastal ancestors. Of those who followed the diet, many lost weight and eliminated health problems such as diabetes and heart problems.

One of the key concepts of the Eating Alive Program is “eat according to the climate in which you live.” While I’m certainly not advocating that everyone should eat the low-carb diet that the people of Alert Bay followed (particularly the pork rinds), I found it very interesting to note how successful they were at regaining their health by following a diet that was adapted to the area in which they live; they adopted the foods that were available to their ancestors and banished sugar and starch.

The town that lost 1,200 pounds

First Nations of Alert Bay lose 1,200 pounds total in year-long study

Lena Sin, The ProvincePublished: Sunday, March 16, 2008

His town was shrinking, and Greg Wadhams was determined to shrink with it. So on a cold December night in 2006, the 55-year-old commercial fisherman sat down to say goodbye to the past.

He devoured a spread of chicken chow mein, fried rice and deep-fried prawns to triumphant delight.

Then, with the final bite, he bade farewell to his favourite foods.

Wadhams was returning to a traditional aboriginal diet for the next year, joining a village-wide experiment in tiny Alert Bay aimed at fighting the obesity and diabetes that plagues First Nations people.

The rules were simple: Eat all the fat you want, and all the seafood and meat and starch-free vegetables. Dairy fats like cream and cheese were fine, but not milk. Everything else with carbs—bread, pasta, chips—were off-limits. No ancestor of Wadhams’ ever feasted on pasta and rice. Or ice cream bars.

By the end of 2007, some 1,200 pounds had been collectively shed by the 80 or so residents of the fishing village who officially joined the program — the equivalent weight of a truck or 10 potbellied pigs.

“Our forefathers sure must’ve known something we didn’t know because when you eat that way, I mean, you just feel good,” Wadhams says.

He not only lost 40 pounds, but no longer requires drugs to treat his diabetes.

‘Namgis Chief Bill Cranmer, who lost 10 pounds, was so elated with the results that he’s challenging other First Nations to do the same.

“I see the problems with diabetes and obesity and this is such a simple way of dealing with it,” he says.

The Alert Bay experiment was the brainchild of Dr. Jay Wortman, a Metis doctor who ran into his own health problems several years ago.

Wortman, a University of B.C. researcher, was gaining weight, feeling tired and watching his blood pressure rise. He was constantly thirsty, and found himself waking up at night to urinate.

He chalked it up to aging—until it dawned on him one day that he should’ve known better. Wortman was exhibiting all the classic symptoms of Type 2 diabetes, which subsequent tests confirmed he had.

The irony? He had once worked as resident doctor at a summer camp for children with diabetes.

The 57-year-old immediately cut carbs so as not to exacerbate his already soaring blood-sugar level.

It was not meant to be a treatment for his diabetes, which typically requires drug therapy, so much as a stalling tactic.

But then a curious thing happened: His blood sugar normalized, his energy returned, he lost weight and even the nighttime urination and constant thirst ceased.

Wortman’s wife pointed out that he was actually on the Atkins diet.

But to Wortman, it reminded him of the cuisine of his childhood in Northern Alberta, when dried moose meat was an ubiquitous snack and wild game and plants low in sugar formed the bulk of meals.

Acutely aware that Canada’s aboriginal population was struggling with obesity and diabetes rates three to five times higher than the general population, Wortman decided to launch a study to see if a traditional aboriginal diet would be effective in fighting those diseases.

With funding from Health Canada secured, Wortman flew to Alert Bay to make his pitch.

The village of Alert Bay is nestled on Cormorant Island, just off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. It’s the traditional home of the ‘Namgis First Nation and the lifelong home of Andrea Cranmer, who grew up on the island as a skinny, sporty kid.

As she grew older, so did her waistline. Her two sisters were no different, but nobody said anything when they began shopping for plus-size clothing.

“It was like we were in denial of our weight,” says Cranmer, 41.

Diets had never worked for long, but Cranmer, her sisters and even their mother were willing to give it a shot when Wortman came to town recruiting dieters.

The family went cold turkey overnight, banishing sugar and starch but embracing fat.

They adopted the food of their coastal ancestors—including salmon cooked on an open fire and dipped in eulachon oil, which is slowly extracted from eulachon fish.

They also embraced inland aboriginal cuisine, such as deer and roast elk with cauliflower.

At Christmas, Cranmer’s aunties stuffed the turkey with pork rind instead of bread.

“It sounds gross, but it was actually good,” she recalls.

Going out required extra restraint, especially when they travelled.

“When we leave the island, people always stop in Port McNeil to gas up their car and go inside [the store] and buy their treats for the two-hour ride to Campbell River. So people’s habits were sugar, potato chips and pop,” says Cranmer.

“We really had to make an effort not to do that. So we’d go in, buy a bag of pork rind, some of those pepperoni sticks and some people bought water and diet pop.

“Pork rind, that saved us, because we do live in a modern world.”

Back in Alert Bay, the popular Bill’s Cafe and Pool Hall was—fortunately—owned by the chief, who himself was on the diet.

The chief tweaked the menu so that burgers were served without buns and salads without croutons.

By the end of the diet in September 2007 Cranmer had lost 22 pounds, going from a size 16 to 12.

Her mother, Vera Newman, and sister, Donna Cranmer, lost similar amounts, while her oldest sister, Barb, shed 52 pounds.

Across the island, similar success stories were told over and over among the dieters who ranged in age from twentysomethings to a 71-year-old retired carpenter. Only a small minority fell off the diet.

Art Dick, who at one time weighed 300 pounds and hated taking insulin for his diabetes, was able to get off the drugs; RCMP officer Art Shaughnessy moved two notches down on his belt buckle.

Shaughnessy, who shed 25 pounds, was motivated to diet after being hit with a mild heart attack in the winter of 2006.

But with three clogged arteries, he was skeptical of embracing a high-fat diet that permitted foods such as bacon and cheese.

“It was confusing at first, because it was contrary to what the Heart and Stroke Foundation were saying,” says the 50-year-old Mountie.

But Shaughnessy’s cardiologist OK’d the diet, and it worked.

“The energy’s crazy. I find I’m not sluggish any more. I jog every day,” says Shaughnessy.

Although low-carb diets have been popular in recent years, they’ve also been the target of criticism.

The Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation, the Canadian Diabetes Association and Dietitians of Canada do not endorse low-carbohydrate diets, arguing they haven’t been studied long enough.

They also say it’s unrealistic to expect people to avoid carbs long-term.

Their chief health concerns are higher risks of heart disease because of the high fat intake, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, gout, kidney stones and constipation.

The American Diabetes Association recently broke ranks by saying low-carb diets can be helpful in managing diabetes. Wortman believes it’s a sign the tide is turning as the cumulative research, including his own preliminary findings, shows the benefits of limiting sugar and starch.

Wortman’s study, although largely based on an aboriginal population, did include non-native dieters, who achieved similar results involving weight loss. The results build on previous studies that have shown that ethnicity is not a factor in the way people respond to the diet.

Wortman’s final report is still months away from completion. But most participants in Alert Bay — and even those who were not in the study—say they’re now committed to this new way of eating.

Barb Cranmer, who went from 221 pounds to 169, says she’ll never go back: “We don’t want to shop at plus-size stores any more. That’s not part of the agenda here.”

lsin@png.canwest.com

FAST FACTS

– What is diabetes? A disease in which the body does not produce or properly use insulin, the hormone that helps convert sugar, starches and other food into energy required for daily life. With Type 2 diabetes, the most common, glucose (sugar) builds up in blood instead of being used for energy. The cause of diabetes is unknown, although genetics and environmental factors such as obesity and lack of exercise appear to play roles.

– How does a low-carb, high-fat diet help weight loss? The more carbs you eat, the more insulin you produce and a side-effect of insulin is that it tends to “cause fat to get shunted into the fat tissue and keep it there,” says Dr. Jay Wortman. Insulin converts the sugar and starch contained in carbs to be used as fuel for the body. By cutting carbs, your body must now rely on fat for energy. So the fat you consume gets burned up. Studies have shown that in such circumstances, even saturated fats—the so-called bad fat—get burned up before they can lead to heart disease or other harm.

– Downside: Critics say there haven’t been enough long-term studies to endorse the diet as safe.