Seven years ago, a Norwegian writer tracing the path of his ancestors across the Atlantic landed in Newfoundland and Labrador and revealed one of its worst-kept secrets to the world.
People here are fat.
Not everyone. But a lot.
When the first part of “My Saga” appeared in The New York Times, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s uncensored description of his visit to Jungle Jim’s restaurant in St. Anthony generated a bellyful of ire among residents.
“Everyone in the place, except the waiter, was fat, some of them so fat that I kept having to look at them. I had never seen people that fat before,” he wrote. “The strange thing was that none of them looked as if they were trying to hide their enormous girth; quite the opposite, several people were wearing tight T-shirts with their big bellies sticking out proudly.”
It was an odd little vignette in an otherwise long and largely self-deprecating travelogue, but the reaction belied a curious trait among Newfoundlanders: they tend to be among the least healthy in the country and the least likely to admit it.
According to the 10-year Health Accord task force established in 2021, health outcomes in the province are among the worst in Canada, with the lives of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians shorter by 2.6 years on average compared to other Canadians. That’s second only to Indigenous peoples, whose lives are shorter by a further 4.7 years.
The province has among the highest rates in Canada of chronic disease, as well as death from cancer, heart disease and stroke, even when adjusted for the older age of the population.
“The average lifespan of a man in British Columbia is 81 years, and if you come to Newfoundland, the average lifespan of a man is 77 years,” says St. John's cardiologist Dr. Sean Conners, “and those four years of life lost are largely due to the increased burden of cardiovascular diseases.”
Obesity is clearly a risk factor, but not the only one.
It’s possible to be overweight and still healthy, says Conners, as long as people eat well and get a reasonable amount of exercise. And quit smoking.
“The only thing that we are better at than the rest of the provinces is our perception of our own health,” he notes. “We're 20 per cent more than the national average compared to other provinces in terms of how healthy we think we are. So, you've got this paradox.”
What is it about Newfoundland that explains this anomaly?
Much of it can be attributed to diet — although not so much the traditional diet — as well as to an ideology that romanticizes a hardscrabble lifestyle that no longer exists.
When now-retired Memorial University professor Roger Pickavance came to Newfoundland in the 1960s, he was interested in spiders.
In fact, he travelled the province studying them.
“I’ve always been interested in food and cooking, so when I got here, I made a point of talking to people about food and cooking, so I got interested in it,” the Welsh-born biologist said during a recent interview at his St. John’s home.
“Eventually I had the good sense to start taking notes and writing it all down. And that transmogrified into ‘The Traditional Newfoundland Kitchen’ (2017).”
He has co-authored two other books, and expects to continue writing.
In those early days, Pickavance said, he could still see the remnants of a diet that had existed since the early days of European settlement — along with the downsides.
“One thing I was struck with when I first arrived here was the short tibia on people (caused by) vitamin D deficiency in the childhood diet,” he said. “Normal-sized torsos but quite short legs because the tibia was short.
It wasn’t easy to get a balanced diet in early times, especially for poor people.
Many relied heavily on tea and white bread, which can cause chronic constipation.
“That very quickly vanished as the next generation came on with a North American diet — milk, and so on and so forth — in the diet,” he said. “It was a way of life that was rapidly disappearing.”
What was replacing it, however, was not an improvement.
Pickavance has a friend who recalls the first time she saw a hamburger in St. John’s.
“She can remember the very first hamburger she had on the base in Pepperrell, and she thought it was fabulous.”
The influence of the American diet first took hold in Newfoundland during the Second World War, and that meant the fast-food revolution significantly diluted local dietary traditions.
At the same time, long hours spent working in the woods or on the sea were starting to disappear for many people.
“When the bulk of the Newfoundland population switched from a very active lifestyle — no cars, you walked, or at most you had a bicycle — we switched to essentially a sedentary lifestyle, but we didn’t change the amount of stuff we ate. We just kept on eating this stuff.”
Even today, older generations have held onto the notion of stuffing as much food into young mouths as they can.
“I can’t really blame the parents, because for the parents of that generation, the more you could eat, the better. Because they came from a lifestyle that needed huge quantities of calories,” he said.
“And then, of course, the giant food companies, big agri-business, introduced all these processed foods — the Coke and the Pepsi and highly processed stuff.”
Whole libraries — including books like “Fast Food Nation” (2001) and “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us” (2014) — have chronicled how corporate dollars perfect and market fast food to lure patrons.
“They have vast sums of money that they put into marketing and advertising and also swaying public opinion,” says St. John’s chef and caterer Bob Arniel.
As a result, Arniel says he used to encounter mixed messages in some of his cooking classes.
“When I used to do cooking classes and I'd have butter and cream, and people — oh my God, you know — they think that's problematic,” he said. “It's real food and we're going to use it in minute quantities to make something spectacular.”
And yet, he says, few parents think twice about taking their child to the drive-in window at MacDonald's, “which is way more unhealthy — more salt, more fat, more sugar and more processed.”
Arniel says food writers like Michael Pollan have chronicled how the human body can adapt to widely varying diets depending on where they live, from the north to the south to the Mediterranean.
“The only diet that the human species has not adapted to or thrived on is North American fast food, because it's got so much crap in it that the body just rejects over a long period of time,” he says.
Are Newfoundlanders doomed to remain chronically unhealthy?
Not at all.
Arniel sees a lot of encouraging signs.
He and Pickavance find some modern trends amusing — such as the practice of “foraging” for edibles in the wild, a romanticized take on what in the old days was a matter of survival.
“Obviously people did forage back in the day, because berries were a huge thing in the diet,” says Pickavance. “If it wasn’t that, then you got your vitamin C from molasses. If you didn’t have either of those, then you were screwed. You would get scurvy. And people did get scurvy. Quite bad cases of it, too.”
The forager’s diet was not especially diverse, he adds.
“No Newfoundlander in the 19th century ate sea urchins. Forget it. Didn’t happen. Wasn’t going to happen. You were lucky to get them to admit they ever ate a sculpin.”
Indeed, when the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain came to Newfoundland five years ago, he had to visit the French-owned islands of St-Pierre-Michelon to experience sea urchin pâté.
But the foraging trend simply reflects renewed interest in home-grown foods, an ideology fuelled not only by romanticism but by a growing rejection of the environmental damage and inhumane practices of factory farming.
More recent concerns about climate change and food insecurity have only boosted the cause.
Home cooking has become a lost art for many, admits Conners.
“Who teaches a young family how to cook correctly? Who teaches these families what to avoid?” he asks.
“And then the children that grow up in those families, they don't need, they don't learn, to cook basic foods that are not highly processed, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Arniel gets great satisfaction when clients latch onto the idea during his classes.
“I've had clients over the years who changed their whole life when it comes to eating, which is quite satisfying because a lot of people come into classes just for social enjoyment. You know, a night out. But for some people a light just goes on and it's like, ‘Yeah, OK, I get this.’”
As for shaming people over their weight, Conners says that’s obviously not the answer.
“I think that trying to shock people or to hit people over the head with what could happen, they can tune that out. So I think it needs to be a positive conversation,” he says.
A shortage of family doctors means there’s often no one to have that conversation with, he admits, but encouraging small steps works best.
“I don't want you to lose 30 pounds in a month, I want you to lose two pounds a month and I want you to make a small change that is sustainable in your lifestyle,” he says. “And for many people, no one has ever broached that with them. And I think that it needs to be within that context of this is about you and your health, and it's just here between you and I. The door's closed.”
Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram