Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Nunavik October 07, 2011 - 11:02 am

Eat more country foods: Nunavik health officials

But pregnant women should avoid eating beluga meat

SARAH ROGERS
The new Nunavik child development study says that country food is best, but it discourages pregnant women from eating beluga meat. Beluga carries high levels of mercury, while the study found that exposure to mercury during pregnancy was associated with poor intellectual function and attention at school. (PHOTO BY SARAH ROGERS)
The new Nunavik child development study says that country food is best, but it discourages pregnant women from eating beluga meat. Beluga carries high levels of mercury, while the study found that exposure to mercury during pregnancy was associated with poor intellectual function and attention at school. (PHOTO BY SARAH ROGERS)

With the community of Kuujjuaq as the backdrop, Nunavik public health spokeswoman Elena Labranche talks to Nunavimmiut about country food.

In a series of 60-second capsules on Youtube filmed in both English and Inuttitut, Labranche, assistant director of public health for Nunavik, shares the results of a newly-released study on child development in the region.

Its findings? The benefits of eating country foods outweigh the risks.

But pregnant women: take note, Labranche says in the series of video clips.

That’s because the Nunavik child development study shows that exposure to mercury during pregnancy is linked with poor intellectual function and attention at school.

And the main source of mercury among Nunavimmiut comes from beluga meat — although beluga maktak or blubber is much more commonly eaten in Nunavik.

“Until we have evidence of a decrease of mercury exposure from beluga, pregnant women and women of childbearing age should decrease their intake of beluga meat,” Labranche said in the online clip.

That information is hardly new, but the study, led by researchers at Laval and Wayne State universities, looked specifically at the effects of prenatal and childhood exposure to environmental contaminants on the health and development of children in the region.

What’s new is that Nunavik’s health department has decided to promote the study’s findings with this region this week, through a multimedia campaign.

In the four other video clips posted on Youtube, Labranche shares the study’s findings on:

• Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and pesticides: researchers found Nunavimmiut are exposed to these toxic chemicals used in industry through the consumption of marine animal fat. But Labranche says that “prenatal exposure to PCBs and pesticides was found to be unrelated to intellectual ability and child behaviour at 11 years,” although a recent study on kids in Nunavik found a link between PCBs and mercury and poor development during the first year of a baby’s life as well as issues with vision and reaction time.

• Lead: researchers say prenatal exposure to lead is linked to reduced body and head size and poor intellectual function at school age.

“The negative effects are seen at very low exposure levels,” Labranche said in the clip. “In order to reduce and prevent adverse affects from lead exposure, we strongly emphasize the need to ban all future use of lead bullets.”

• Alcohol and chemicals in tobacco: researchers found that the consumption of alcohol and tobacco was linked to low birth weight and [poor] child behaviour, since alcohol and the many substances in cigarettes, which includes nicotine, from both can damage the fetus and prevent the absorption of nutrients.

“Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can have an effect on the child for life,” Labranche said. “There is a need to stop pregnant women from smoking and drinking alcohol to have a good future for the child.”

• Omega-3 fatty acids: researchers say that a higher blood concentration of omega 3 fatty acids during pregnancy – especially in the last three-four months – is beneficial for the child’s development at school age. The acids, found in oils from sea animals like Arctic char and seals, help support the growth of brain cell membranes.

Unlike beluga meat, beluga maktak continues to be a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids and “a very good source of selenium, which are two positive elements in the Inuit diet” — although it contains some mercury, the level is much lower than in beluga meat, Dr. Serge Déry, Nunavik’s director of public health, told Nunatsiaq News.

Omega 3 fatty acids are among the essential nutrients like protein, iron and vitamins A and D found in country foods, which has led other Inuit regions to promote their consumption – despite the risks.

That could be because research in other northern regions suggests that the levels of toxic contaminants may not be as high in the Canadian Arctic as they are elsewhere, such as the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic, where pregnant women and women of childbearing age were advised not to eat pilot whale meat and fat in 1998.

So, while the results of Nunavik’s child development study are only now being released, they draw on 25 years of research into the consumption of Inuit traditional foods.

The Nunavik child development study was first launched in the mid-1990s by researchers from Laval university and Wayne State University who worked alongside the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services and its public health department.

The first phase of the study looked at 300 infants, examined at six and 11 months, along with their mothers.

The second phase, launched in September 2005, included 294 children and their mothers. The young participants were 11-year-olds who had participated in a cord blood monitoring program at birth, which was designed to document environmental contaminants in newborns.

The study also provided questionnaires to the children’s teachers, who were asked to report on the students’ behaviour and ability.

Now, researchers have encouraged Nunavik public health and other regional authorities to encourage the consumption of country food among Nunavimmiut in order to improve the region’s maternal health and child development.

One way to do that is through a regional food policy, researchers say, which could promote the benefits of country and help residents have better access to it.

Such a policy would also help address issues of food insecurity across Nunavik, the study concluded.

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