Eight years ago Noongar man Grant Nelson was on the brink of developing diabetes and topped the scales at 115kg when he made a life-changing decision — not to become another heart disease statistic.

The 44-year-old, who lives in a southern Perth suburb, gave up sugary soft drinks and fast food burgers and began walking and cycling.

He is now 18kg lighter and an ambassador for WA Heart Foundation’s No Junk November.

“If I can give up the junk food, you can too,” Nelson said.

But Mr Nelson’s story isn’t one that is shared by all Indigenous Australians.

A recent study by the Mary MacKillop Institute for Health Research titled ‘The Heart of Inequality’ reported that cardiovascular and heart disease were responsible for one fifth of all deaths in Australia, with Indigenous Australians in remote communities the hardest hit.

It said central Australia was “the heart of inequality”.

“The high levels of heart failure and related admissions and premature deaths observed in Indigenous peoples of Central Australia are in stark contrast to the rest of Australia,” the report said.

“Indeed they more mirror the poor outcomes typically seen in vulnerable communities residing in low-income countries.”

Mr Nelson said he took the path to better health one step at a time.

He said he was carrying a bottle of soft drink when he first walked into a Heart Health program in 2009, but it was the first thing to go when he realised it was the equivalent of putting 12 spoonfuls of sugar in his coffee.

The program – ‘Heart Health For Our People, by Our People’ – was set up by Derbarl Yerrigan Health Service, the Heart Foundation, Royal Perth Hospital and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

Mr Nelson’s advice for others wanting to lose weight and shape up is simple: “Just give up Coke and burgers and do some exercises.”

Heart Health nurse Ted Dowling said people wanting to look after their hearts and lose weight can ask for advice from their local Aboriginal Medical Service.

He said cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of disease in Aboriginal Australia.

Of the people who attend the Heart Health program in WA, 30 percent are men and 80 percent have diabetes.

“At Heart Health, we never tell Aboriginal people what to do,” he said.

“We empower them to make a choice and know how to maintain their health.”

Mr Dowling said they help people to understand their sugar levels and blood pressure and to check up on their general health.

Participants can get exercise advice from an exercise physiologist.

“Often with other mainstream health services aimed at tackling chronic disease, people are told what to do about diet, exercise and weight loss, they are then put on a six-week program and then it’s ‘good luck’ for the rest of their lives,” Mr Dowling said.

“But it works much better if they have ongoing coaching.

“Our Heart Health program has no end date – you can come for the rest of your life.”

Wendy Caccetta