Syilx/Okanagan diet quality positively impacted by increased food sovereignty, says study

Syilx/Okanagan diet quality positively impacted by increased food sovereignty, says study

A member of the Osoyoos Indian Band holds up fresh sockeye salmon for sale at the Nk'Mip cultural centre. Sockeye make up a large part of the Syilx people's traditional diet. (Photo: Richard McGuire)

Sophie Gray

Local Journalism Initiative

Underneath the surging waters of the Okanagan River on the traditional territory of the Syilx/Okanagan people, a major cultural revitalization is taking shape in the form of the salmon.

The Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), a tribal council that oversees First Nations member communities in the Okanagan, Nicola and Similkameen, has spent the last two decades trying to restore salmon populations in their traditional territory. Overfishing, habitat degradation, and the introduction of non-native species since colonization led to dwindling numbers of salmon. 

A new study published by the ONA and researchers from the University of Alberta addresses questions raised by the restoration work on the impact of traditional foods on diets of the Syilx people as access to salmon and other traditional foods increases.

Sockeye salmon fry come to the surface for a feed at the kł cp̓əlk̓ stim̓ Hatchery in Penticton, B.C. Salmon are raised from eggs to fry before being released into Osoyoos Lake and surrounding rivers by Okanagan Nation communities like the Osoyoos Indian Band. (Photo: Sophie Gray)

Rosanne Blanchet is one of the researchers from the University of Alberta who worked on the study. She  is the project coordinator for Okanagan Salmon and Our Health, a larger study by the ONA and the University of Alberta that draws on the knowledge and expertise of nutritionists, researchers, and Okanagan Nation members to assess the overall impact from the restoration of salmon in the Okanagan waters.

Blanchet said the ONA noticed there was a lack of research on the physical impacts of eating traditional foods.

“The Okanagan Nation Alliance and their partners had done a lot of work to assess the impact of the return of the salmon on the environment and ecosystem, such as on other fish, but there was still no study looking at whether and how the people benefited from their return,” said Blanchet. “That was really important, for (Syilx/Okanagan people) to gather more information to advocate for their food sovereignty initiatives.” 

Traditional foods mean better diet quality

The study, entitled Traditional Food, Health and Diet Quality in Syilx Okanagan Adults, looks at the dietary habits in over 200 Syilx people, measuring the effect eating traditional foods has on diet quality. The findings are positive across the board for incorporation of traditional foods like salmon, moose and berries.

The dietary study was based on a 24-hour recall, a tool used by dieticians where study participants list all the food they  ate over in the last 24 hours. Participants were interviewed by community members and researchers analyzed the results three different ways; the first method evaluated levels of specific vitamins and minerals in the food, including amounts of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, fibre, and vitamins B and D. The second method measured diets against the Canadian healthy eating index, and the third looked at how much energy each person got from ultra-processed foods compared to fresh or minimally processed foods. 

Chart shows the percentage of energy from ultra-processed foods, processed foods, processed ingredients and fresh or minimally processed foods as a percentage of diets in those who ate or did not eat traditional foods. Data is from the Syilx Traditional Food and Diets study and is based off of a 24-hour diet recall. (Chart: Sophie Gray)

“Ultra-processed foods are usually foods that have a longer shelf life, so juice, chips, ready to eat food, breakfast cereal type of thing,” explained Blanchet, who said that traditional foods like fresh fish and vegetables are considered unprocessed. “What we want is to have the lowest proportion of your energy intake coming from ultra-processed food. So, traditional food eaters had a lower proportion of energy that came from ultra-processed food, meaning a better diet quality.”

The results showed Syilx people who ate traditional foods had higher levels of essential vitamins and nutrients, got less energy from ultra-processed foods, and had more well balanced diets based on Canadian food guide standards.

But the impacts of the study go well beyond physical wellbeing.

Impacts are more than physical

Suzanne Johnson, a Penticton Indian Band member and registered dietitian, was the lead Okanagan researcher on the study. She believes that the study shows not just improved physical wellbeing but also improved mental and cultural wellbeing.

“The piece that is only really alluded to (in the study) is the strong significant contribution to knowing who you are as a Syilx person, so that cultural identity,” said Johnson. “Indigenous foods is really a life long learning of what is required to steward them, to take care of them such, so they can be available for those future generations.”

Johnson said this study proves that beyond the physical health benefits, access and incorporation of traditional foods is important for the preservation of culture and sense of identity for Syilx people.

She believes the Okanagan Nation Alliance’s efforts with studies like this one have successfully started to restore traditional food sources and secure better access to improve food sovereignty because, as stewards of the land, Syilx people have a unique set of skills.

Fish are housed here, in the kł cp̓əlk̓ stim̓ Hatchery, while they grown big enough to be released into the wild. Thi

“The success has been based in that knowledge of the land, and so when you’re returning to food– or returning, enhancing, maintaining, restoring– when you’re taking care of the land in that way that we’ve been taught, that really is for the benefit of everyone in the area.”

As a dietician, Johnson recognizes that traditional foods offer physical benefits that ultra-processed foods do not. They are fresh and only preserved long enough for family consumption. This study, she said, demonstrates the importance of those locally harvested foods for Indigenous diets.

“This study’s reporting that when traditional food is consumed it absolutely enhances that quality than when there are outside influences such as processed foods,” said Johnson. “The ability to maintain a diet of Indigenous foods was forcibly changed because of the impact of colonization, because of the impact to the land and waters and the … colonized changes in use of the land and water and the ability to access it.”

That is why Johnson believes this study is such a success. It draws on the work of an Indigenous-led initiative to nurture the land and water of the Syilx people.

“We’re going to this type of work within communities not to do research just for the sake of doing research, but to know what are the things that we want to know and how do we want to look at them from a way that really builds a positive story and supports, really highlights the strength and resilience of our people.”