You are what you eat

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I’ve never followed what is considered to be a good diet. I love starchy meals, fatty snacks, sugary pop, creamy sauces, salty treats and fried food. As a child in Attawapiskat, it was common for my mom to make us large suppers of wild meat accompanied by potatoes or white rice. Vegetables were hard to find, pricey and our culture had never warmed up to them. When it came to snacks, my siblings and I would sneak into the kitchen to grab a slice or two of white bread and cover it with butter or sometimes with pure white lard. With so many mouths to feed, mom and dad could never keep a loaf of bread around the house for long.

My parents did the best they could to feed us but the cost to purchase healthy foods was very high because they had to be flown into Attawapiskat. As a people we’d never been exposed to vegetables and most fruits so they were more or less alien. We had at one point a traditional diet of moose, geese and fish, but all that changed when my people had to move to permanent reserve settlements. At that time we were also introduced to alcohol, recreational smoking and modern foods.

When I was young, every Friday was reserved for a feast of fresh fried fish that my Uncle Leo sold to us. He was one of the last traditional fishermen in Attawapiskat. I recall that Catholic tradition as mom always fried up a gigantic tray of fresh battered trout.

To stay warm in freezing temperatures during the winter everyone ate more fatty, sugary and rich foods. This is still common up north. As I grew older, I watched the toll that unhealthy eating, smoking and alcohol took on my family members and neighbours. When I was young I could afford to eat like a food junkie, and I smoked and drank. Eventually, I observed that all of the older people began suffering from heart disease, cancer and diabetes. The Elders, my parents and my teachers cautioned us about eating poorly, smoking and drinking, but it went in one ear and out the other. Thankfully, with some education and added health services in the community, we became more aware of the importance of diet and exercise.

When I left the James Bay coast to live in the non-Native world my bad eating habits followed. Now I had 24-hour access to inexpensive fast foods of all types. I was in junk-food heaven. For years I was addicted to this lifestyle. I did manage to quit smoking and dealt with my alcoholism. I decided those challenges were enough to handle for the time being.

I hate to say it but I am showing signs of age. My body does not seem to react as it once did. Physical work seems to require great effort and I have been suffering muscle injuries more often during vigorous activity. My metabolism has changed drastically and I am aware of the damage an unhealthy diet had on me.

For the past few years, I’ve tried to live a healthier lifestyle by watching my diet and exercising, but it’s been difficult to stick to my goals. I have heard enough sad stories of how bad habits over a lifetime have affected people near and dear to me. Recently, I have made more of an effort to cut down on meat, eat mostly raw vegetables, drink more water and cut out sugary and fatty foods. Thanks to encouragement from my friend Juanita Luke from Mattagami First Nation I am getting serious about eating well. She suggested a great book, How Not To Die, by Dr. Michael Greger. He has dedicated his life to promoting healthy eating as a means to avoid disease, live longer and even reverse serious illness. Check out his website at

I am also applying my knowledge and skills I learned from Alcoholics Anonymous to help me on my journey to better eating. I try not to force myself to look too far ahead or take on too much at one time.

To young people I suggest learning as much as possible about healthy diets, staying fit, the danger of drugs and alcohol, and how devastating smoking can be. If you figure some of this out now, you won’t be having terrible health problems when you are in your 40s, 50s and 60s. You are what you eat really does ring true.

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