Hope for Health: preventing chronic disease in East Arnhem Land with experiential nutrition education

  • Woman and child with vegetables
  • Three women and yound man cooking
  • Women walking through forest trail
  • Group photo of Echo Island Retreat

Photos: Hope for Health

We used to live long time, we didn’t get sick” - Daisy Goinggulu, Yolngu Elder, Hope For Health Committee Member

For thousands of years the Yolngu of East Arnhem Land had thrived, enjoying a vibrant and self-reliant culture. However, in just 50 years their diet has changed so dramatically that they now face a significantly reduced life expectancy due to resulting chronic disease. The 2017 Prime Minister’s Closing the gap report states that preventable death from chronic disease afflicts remote Indigenous communities, like the Yolŋu, on a large and disproportionate scale compared to non-Indigenous Australians. While driven by a wide range of factors a major cause is a lack of widespread nutritional education.

Hope For Health, a project of the Why Warriors organisation, began with an individual request from the community of Galiwin’ku, Elcho Island to help improve their health with better food. Diane Britjalawuy was wheelchair bound and in very poor health. Teaming up with her friend, Dr. Kama Trudgen, they committed to one and a half weeks of home cooked, nutrient dense, whole foods. The results were transformative. After a few weeks Diane was feeling good enough to walk, and then walking for exercise a few months later. This created large interest from the community of Galiwin’ku and began a series of professionally supported health interventions and the formation of a charitable program.

After three years of operation the pioneering program has gone on to create a potentially scalable model for nutritional education - one that empowers Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to reawaken the vibrant health of their ancestors. The charity combines experiential education, modern nutrition workshops in the local language, a team with over 40 years of cross-cultural expertise in Arnhem Land, traditional Yolngu world views on food and wellbeing, a strategic committee comprised of Yolŋu elders, and training for local staff to deliver cooking classes. The program’s immersive, educational approach connects participants physically with the concept of ‘wellbeing’ through an initial two-week retreat experience and six months of ongoing support and medical monitoring.

In 2016 Hope For Health successfully raised $95,000 to hold the first ever traditionally grounded health retreat on a homeland in Elcho Island.

Twenty five Yolngu (19 women and six men) participated in the retreat. Three months after the retreat, with case management support, participants had significantly improved their health. The average weight reduction was 4.79 kilograms and 85 per cent of participants had reduced their waist circumference (by an average of 8.65 cm). Positive trends in kidney function were established. After three months on the program only five per cent of all participants presented significant high blood pressure readings, compared to 37 per cent at the start of the program. Blood sugar readings have also improved.

“This is the first time I’ve felt my body rejoice” - Yirangdjill, Yolnju Elder and Hope For Health Participant, 2016

The results have caught attention nationwide. ABC news reported on the project (link) with Adrian Bauman, a professor of Public Health at the University of Sydney commenting:

“The results among those 25 participants are impressive: they lost a clinically useful amount of weight, they had improvements in kidney function, blood sugar and blood pressure levels.”

Professor Bauman, who holds particular interest in chronic disease, cautioned that the evidence must be considered preliminary at this stage, but said it showed great potential for being a model for improving the health of people living in remote Indigenous communities around the country.

Kate Jenkins, Hope For Health Case Manager, noted that the program appears to be spreading organically through the community.

“We’re receiving stories every day from our participants, that they are using Hope For Health taught skills to educate their family and friends about the link between food and health and in some cases using the diet to help support other family members manage their chronic disease. That’s a major win. It means the education is being deeply absorbed.” she said.

Hope For Health’s vision is to expand into East Arnhem Land and meet the growing requests for support. The organisation is now building resources for scalability, further data collection and funding.

For more information, including program results and statistics, visit https://www.hopeforhealth.com.au/

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