Why Am I at Higher Risk of Getting Diabetes?

Type 2 diabetes is a combination of your body not being able to use the insulin it produces, and not producing enough insulin. It is strongly related to environmental factors such as nutrition, physical inactivity and obesity. Genetically, Indigenous Canadians have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Currently scientists believe that this is due a “thrifty genotype”. This is based on the idea that in the past Indigenous people lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, where they were very active while searching for food. This caused Indigenous people to develop genes that allowed them to effectively store a lot of energy during times of plenty, and helped them survive when food was scarce.(1)

Other factors contributing to this increased risk include social and economic inequalities. It is important to recognize the lasting effects of historical colonial policies such as residential schools and Indian hospitals, as well as the ongoing lack of access to healthy, nutritious, and affordable food.

Risk of Complications

Indigenous peoples in Canada have higher rates of diabetes complications than other Canadians.(2) A study done in 2005 found that Indigenous Canadians are especially susceptible to kidney-related complications, as well as diabetic neuropathy.(2) This increased rate of complications is thought to be due to younger onset of diabetes, greater severity of diabetes, and decreased access to healthcare services. (2)

Barriers to accessing care  for Indigenous people include a lack of culturally appropriate care, chronic underfunding of health services in Indigenous communities, and lack of incorporation of traditional knowledge with Western medicine.

What Can I Do?

While you can’t change your genetics, leading a healthy active lifestyle can help you prevent diabetes, or reduce your risk of diabetes complications if you have been diagnosed.

Healthy Eating is the first step in preventing and managing your diabetes. A healthy diet can include many traditional foods such as:

  • Wild meats such as caribou, deer, moose, and fish;
  • Whole grain bread products, bannock, and pasta; and
  • A variety of fruits and vegetables.

It is also important to have portion sizes that help you maintain a healthy body weight. Avoid foods that are high in fat, sugar, and salt, such as chips, cookies, candy, and fast food. You can also try to use healthy cooking methods such as baking, broiling, grilling, or steaming.

Being physically active is also an important part of diabetes prevention and management. Some easy choices to increase your physical activity can include:

  • Make getting active a family affair – go for walks, fishing, or hunting together;
  • Walk or ride your bike to school or work; and
  • Try new activities such as dancing, jogging, or hiking.

It is recommended that everyone get at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week. You may need to build up to this slowly, but keep working towards your goal.

Research and Initiatives

Aboriginal Diabetes Initiative (ADI)

Now complete, the ADI focused on reducing the incidence of type 2 diabetes through health promotion, prevention, screening and treatment services, provided by registered healthcare professionals and community workers.

Find out more

Local Support

Okaki Diabetes Virtual Care Clinic provides access to culturally safe virtual diabetes care and education for any self-identifying Indigenous person or family member and any person living in or working in or around a First Nation or Metis settlement in Alberta with a diagnosis of pre-diabetes or diabetes.


Alberta Health Services Aboriginal Diabetes Wellness Program Provides culturally relevant education on diabetes self-management.



1. Zinman, B., (2010) Why do Aboriginal people experience higher rates of diabetes? Accessed on August 26 2014 2.

2. Hanley, A. G., Harris, S. B., Mamakeesick, M., Goodwin, K., Fiddler, E., Hegele, R. A., & … Zinman, B. (2005). Complications of type 2 diabetes among aboriginal Canadians: prevalence and associated risk factors. Diabetes Care, (8). 2054.