The South Asian Professional Network for Health Awareness released a report Tuesday laying out some of the issues, and proposing a number of ways to move forward. The not-for-profit think-tank was formed in 2008.
The Action Plan to Advance the Health of South Asian Canadians says that while many South Asian Canadians live long and healthy lives, risk factors for this group overall aren't as good as for the general population.
They are three to five times more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes; and of all expatriate ethnic groups, South Asians have the highest rates of death and illness from diabetes-related cardiovascular disease, the report said.
"You can prevent something like this happening," said Priti Chawla, who's on the board of the organization.
"Very often we've been told that genes load the gun, lifestyle pulls the trigger.
"So essentially that's what we're trying to say: don't just give in to the idea that we are ... predisposed and there is nothing we can do about it. We are trying to actually empower them, and educate them."
The goal is to raise awareness of health risks within the community, through proposed strategies such as public-service announcements and identifying religious leaders and celebrities who could open a dialogue on health-related topics.
"If we want to talk about preventing diabetes - especially now you're getting Type 2 diabetes in the teenagers - so what's the best way of trying to prevent this from happening?" asked Chawla.
"Let's take, say, a diabetes nurse educator, and then get that nurse educator to educate five lay people who could be community leaders."
She said the opinion-based report would inform health professionals, public policy makers, and people who came to Canada from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or Nepal, or those who had ancestors from those countries. The 2006 census showed there were more than 1.2 million South Asians in Canada.
Chawla indicated food is part of the equation - it was expensive and not as easy to come by for some people in their countries of origin.
"Our food is very carbohydrate focused, we leave long gaps between our meals, and they think vegetarian food is very healthy," she said.
"Also something in our culture is hospitality, so to speak. If you go to somebody's house and they have to give you a meal, or they have to give you a lot of food. If they don't it's considered rude. So it's all very culture based. if we go out somewhere food plays a huge role.
"And sedentary lifestyle is a big deal because we are not used to the cold weather so we adopt more of a sedentary lifestyle," she added.
The report also recognizes the role of women in meal preparation.
"Having been a housewife myself, I do realize that in the South Asian household, the woman plays a key part because we do most of the cooking. Essentially we do most of the cooking, we do the grocery shopping, so really we need to make sure that healthy food is coming to the house, there's no junk food," she said.
Chawla said that recognition of risk factors must extend to health-care professionals, especially non-South Asian physicians who are treating South Asian patients.
The group is also calling for research to better understand barriers to changes in behaviour, and would like to see a systematic approach to data on collection on South Asian health.