I recently came back from a vacation to Cuba. In the three weeks that I was gone, I managed to lose about five pounds. It was relatively easy to lose that weight. Since Cuba is not a wealthy country, food is not as abundant as we see in North America. Not only is food scarce in Cuba, it is also expensive and tourists usually have to eat in restaurants and resorts. I was not staying in the country on a resort package so I had to find restaurants that served good food and at a fair price. Merely looking around the city of Havana for places to eat made for plenty of opportunity to walk many kilometres.

I also developed stomach problems and a case of traveller’s diarrhea. Since Cuba is not a wealthy country, restaurant operators, fresh-food vendors and grocers are not able to provide proper sanitation and standards are not similar to what Canada lives by. Being sick cut back my eating even further and in a matter of a few days, I was following a typical Cuban diet of liquids, café Cubano and mostly rice and beans.

It took me a few days to acclimatize to my new diet but after a while I did not have my usual cravings for regular snacks or large meals. As I looked around, I discovered that this was what Cubans had to live with. I ate in restaurants with Cuban friends and noticed that even when I offered plentiful food, locals preferred to eat less, since that was what they were accustomed to.

There are not many fat people in Cuba. Most of them are trim and youthful. I met 40-year-olds who looked to be in their 20s. Even with a limited diet, people are still active, energetic and full of life. Few people can afford TV and computers and even if they could, there is limited personal access to these luxuries. Rather, people live life on the streets and in the plazas where they walk and talk amid the Cuban music, which resounds from every corner.

This got me to thinking of the stark contrast in lifestyle we lead in Canada compared to those in poorer countries like Cuba. We have endless access to food in every form imaginable. A trip to the grocery store provides us with cheap packaged foods and even on our way there we can stop to grab a bite at McDonald’s or Tim Horton’s. We are marketed to in every way to consume as much food as possible. Most of the time, the food that is advertised is aimed more at generating higher profits for fast-food companies rather than providing a
healthy food source for people. In addition to eating in excess, we are happy to be tethered to our computer screens and television monitors to sit and watch endless entertainment without having to move much. When you think about it, our society’s obsession with food and our lack of exercise is totally ridiculous.

This inactive and excessive eating lifestyle has created all sorts of dietary problems for our society and resulted in high levels of diabetes. Unhealthy diets and little exercise is such a problem that medical experts have announced that the current generation of Canadian children will not outlive their parents because of this situation.

In the Native community, we are dealt a double dose of the health problems of North America, especially when it comes to diabetes. Our people are new to the high sugar, high fat diet enjoyed by Europeans for hundreds of years. Two or three generations ago, my people had a lifestyle that resembled the Cubans – our diet was limited and there was plenty of exercise. While the rest of North America slowly grew accustomed to a rich diet, our people literally stepped into the world of excess eating overnight. It is now estimated that 20% of the Aboriginal population lives with diabetes, which is three to five times the national average.

There is still hope for those who want to lead a healthier lifestyle. In talking to many Aboriginal healthcare workers they tell me that education and awareness is critical in combating this disease. Medical professionals, Aboriginal healthcare organizations and volunteers are working to create and promote programs that will help those who are dealing with a preventable disease such as diabetes. It is important for everyone to get tested for diabetes if they are overweight or at risk. This disease is preventable and early detection and treatment provides a better chance for a healthier and longer life.

My people lived for thousands of years with little or at times nothing to eat. Cuba is a modern example that a moderate diet is more healthy that an excessive one. Even though I felt sorry for so many people I met who are stuck in poverty, I also realized that in some ways they were more healthy because of it. Meegwetch to my Cuban friends for teaching me that it would be smart to learn to live within our means and not drown in the excess our society provides. Our health depends on it.