The South Asian Health Institute has been established with the hope that lifestyle changes can slash conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, which is up to three times higher than in the general population.
Dr. Arun Garg, the institute's medical director, said Friday that the focus will be on preventing diseases rather than fixing them through late intervention, which can come at a high cost to individuals, families and the health-care system.
The Fraser Health Authority launched the program in Surrey, B.C., home to the third-largest South Asian population in Canada.
Dr. Nigel Murray, the authority's president, said the goal is to provide culturally appropriate early intervention and management of chronic conditions, which are caused by both environmental and hereditary factors.
The institute will build on current programs at the health authority and foster new collaborations to improve the health of South Asians, Garg said.
"We're really hoping that by having this kind of awareness we will also attract academic collaboration with centres like Simon Fraser University and the (University of B.C.) and that will give us more of a scientific basis for this."
Garg said it's challenging for people to make lifestyle changes, especially when it comes to their long-established diet, but he hopes that education and awareness in different sectors of the South Asian population will make a collective difference.
"People are quite attached to what they eat but I think it's very worthwhile to make the effort," he said.
By the fall, the health authority hopes to start an education program at a high school in Surrey to teach students about healthy diet and other lifestyle choices, Garg said.
"Where I think the biggest impact will be is when we reach out to pregnant women."
Garg envisions a program that will allow family doctors to send their diabetes patients to an outpatient clinic where they can get ongoing support with diet issues, for example.
"They're still connected with the physician they're seeing and (the clinic) is integrated with the care that this physician is providing."
"What we want to do is support general practitioners and individual physicians who are already involved with people," he said. "But what's better is to start at an earlier stage with prevention."
Garg said the Fraser Health Authority, which includes 12 hospitals, has a population of about 180,000 South Asians, most of them in the Surrey and Abbotsford areas.
A 2011 study by McMaster University in Hamilton suggested that for South Asians, fat cells collect in internal organs such as the liver.
It included 108 healthy South Asians and Caucasians with an average age in the mid-30s and similar body mass index.
The results provided backing for the message that Canadians whose families originated in the Indian subcontinent should try to burn off excess calories.