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Dr. Jay Wortman

Leads First Nations back to health


When Dr. Jay Wortman discovered he was diabetic, he began a self-healing journey by dramatically changing his diet-without realizing that he had reverted to a more traditionally aboriginal way of eating.

When Dr. Jay Wortman discovered he was diabetic, he began a self-healing journey by dramatically changing his diet–without realizing that he had reverted to a more traditionally aboriginal way of eating.

Using himself as his own test subject, Dr. Wortman started eating a diet without starch and sugar and high in protein, fat, and leafy green vegetables. “I stumbled into this,” recalls Dr. Wortman, a trained physician of M?s descent. “When I discovered I had type 2 diabetes, I wanted to buy some time to figure out what I was going to do. I knew carbohydrates caused blood sugar to go up, so I stopped eating carbs and things got better–right away.”

Several things happened that confirmed Dr. Wortman was on the right track. His blood sugar, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure all moved into the normal range within six months, and he dropped the 25 extra pounds (11.3 kg) he had been carrying. That was five years ago.

“My own results were stunning. I had to figure out why. So I looked more deeply into the science and began connecting the dots.”

Studying Traditional-Style Eating

Connecting those dots ultimately led Dr. Wortman to design a 12-month study which began in August 2006. The study, conducted through the Department of Health Care and Epidemiology at the University of British Columbia, will include about 100 people from two different First Nations communities in BC. The primary purpose of the study is to measure the health effects of a traditional-style eating plan on the health of the First Nations participants.

Dr. Wortman explains that traditional aboriginal diets were based on wild regional foods such as fish, seafood, moose, elk, deer, and seasonal plants and berries. This way of eating provided plenty of protein and fat with little in the way of carbohydrates. Diabetes and metabolic syndrome (a cluster of risk factors for both heart disease and diabetes) were unheard of.

But in recent times, First Nations people have traded their traditional high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets for a diet full of highly refined carbohydrate foods. They’ve not fared well with this way of eating. Dr. Wortman points out that aboriginal people have a three to five times greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to the general population.

Dr. Wortman believes that switching to a diet resembling traditional aboriginal macronutrient ratios–with higher protein and fats and lower carbohydrates–will yield very positive health results. Grains, even whole (complex) grains, are not a part of his program, just as they were not a part of West Coast First Nations diets.

An Atkins-Type Diet

Convinced we are all eating too many refined carbohydrates and not enough protein and essential fats, Dr. Wortman has become an avowed proponent of the low-carb Atkins diet. The gentle tone of his voice mingles comfortably with the strength of his convictions. “It was my wife who pointed out that the diet I had embarked upon, the one that led to my reversing diabetes and losing 25 pounds, was actually the Atkins diet,” says Dr. Wortman.

He is clearly committed to speaking out. In a letter published in the Vancouver Sun (August 24, 2006), Dr. Wortman publicly challenged the BC provincial health ministry to “objectively consider an emerging body of evidence that points us in a completely different direction.” That direction is decidedly anticarbohydrate.

Openly advocating the dietary principles of Dr. Atkins, Dr. Wortman sees the often-maligned diet as the best means by which to control blood sugar. In a paper he published in the Health Promotion Journal of Australia (August 2006), Dr. Wortman states that “carbohydrate consumption can drive appetite and overeating, while carbohydrate restriction leads to weight loss and improvement in the markers for metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.”

Dr. Wortman writes, “There is credible scientific evidence that a diet high in carbohydrates, like the one we are encouraged to eat by all manner of authoritative sources, is actually contributing to overweight, obesity, and the resulting epidemics of chronic diseases. On the flipside, there are numerous studies that demonstrate that low-carbohydrate diets are effective at reversing these conditions.”

Speaking Out

The new Canada Food Guide and Dr. Wortman are therefore at odds. In Dr. Wortman’s estimation, the new guide varies little from the old one in terms of its promotion of a high-carb diet. This is consistent with all the food guides published since the first version came out in 1982. There is little attention to recent scientific evidence suggesting a low-carb diet is a valid option. Dr. Wortman is concerned that the agricultural and food-processing sectors may be influencing what should be a purely evidence-based guideline for healthy eating.

Dr. Wortman also points out that rates of obesity and diabetes are higher than ever, a trend that began in the 1970s and correlates with admonitions from the US and Canadian governments to reduce fat intake and increase carbohydrates.

“The growing evidence in support of low-carbohydrate diets will encounter resistance from economic interests threatened by changes in consumption patterns,” he says.

Dr. Wortman is up for the challenge. Encountering resistance will not keep this man from fighting for what he believes in–leading people to a healthier way of eating.

More About Dr. Jay Wortman…

  • He is the regional director in BC of the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch of Health Canada, currently on a research interchange with the University of British Columbia.
  • He formed a group of doctors called “Physicians for Medicare” to raise awareness about health care accessibility.
  • He was instrumental in designing “The Dr. Peter Diaries” program that ran on CBC television for two years.
  • He established the Dr. Peter Centre for people in Vancouver living with HIV/AIDS.


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Matthew Kadey, MSc, RDMatthew Kadey, MSc, RD