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Child Nutrition & Food Security in an Urban Canadian Context

From Knowledge to Practice: Vitamin D and New Canadian Mothers and Children

• SSSHRC-funded Research Development Initiative (RDI) 2008-2010
• The project is being overseen by Dr. Tina Moffat from the Anthropology Department


New Canadians (immigrants and refugees) encounter a number of challenges on arrival to Canada, including adapting to a new habitat, diet and cultural practices, and accessing services like the health care system.  Among a multitude of health issues that are of concern is the risk of vitamin D insufficiency and the more severe vitamin D deficiency that can put infants and young children at risk for rickets, a bone deforming disease that impedes children’s healthy development.

In the past decade there has been an emerging epidemiological literature on vitamin D and its links to childhood and adult-onset diseases. Vitamin D promotes calcium absorption and enables bone growth; it also functions in the maintenance of a healthy immune system and in the regulation of cell growth and differentiation.  Vitamin D is available to the individual in two forms: from skin exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays in sunlight synthesized in the body, and from the ingestion of vitamin D-rich foods and supplements.

Vitamin D deficiency is of concern to Canadians, as we live in the northern hemisphere and do not receive much sunlight throughout the winter.  Moreover, Canada is a multiethnic nation with New Canadians who are more vulnerable to vitamin D deficiency if they have darker pigmented skin, live in food insecure households, or have cultural practices that limit exposure to UV radiation.  For the past ten years Health Canada (2004) has universally recommended supplementation of vitamin D for all breastfed infants, as, unlike infant formula, breast milk does not have sufficient amounts of vitamin D.  It is also recommended that mothers eat vitamin D-rich diets, as their levels can influence infant stores of vitamin D up to two months postnatal.

Research Questions:

1) What is the knowledge and awareness among New Canadians of vitamin D and its health effects on mothers, infants and children? 
2) What effect have recommendations to supplement breastfed infants with vitamin D had on breastfeeding attitudes and practices among New Canadians?
3) Are there existing practices and behaviours that put some New Canadian mothers and children at risk for vitamin D deficiency and/or insufficiency?
4) Are there existing socioeconomic inequalities that put some New Canadian mothers and children at risk for vitamin D deficiency and/or insufficiency?
5) Are there existing practices and behaviours that may enhance vitamin D levels among New Canadian mothers and children?

Research Development Objectives:

1) Develop an academic vitamin D research network across Canadian Universities
2) Develop community-university alliances.
3) Collect focus group pilot data on which to base the development of other research tools and further understand the problem.
4) Devise a set of tools (e.g. surveys to measure factors that influence vitamin D intake) appropriate for New Canadians.
5) To develop a future larger community-university network to expand our investigation of vitamin-D status among New Canadians and the social and cultural domain of  concomitant risks, knowledge and practice.

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