Changing the Way We Eat


Caroline Trapp, M.S.N., A.P.R.N., B.C.-ADM, C.D.E., is director of diabetes education and care with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting preventive medicine, especial

Changing the Way We Eat

Date Posted: 
2013-09-08 11:02

Blog Series:

It is an honor to be part of the Advisory Committee for GROWING NATIVE. As a nurse practitioner who works with people who have diabetes, I appreciate the meaningful opportunity to support efforts of tribes, tribal organizations and tribal people who are reclaiming their health by revitalizing traditional practices. The epidemics of obesity and diabetes have had devastating impacts on all Americans but most especially on Native Americans. Type 2 Diabetes, once rare among Native Americans, now impacts 16-percent of Native People, with some tribal communities having higher rates. This disease of older adults is now being diagnosed in Native children and teenagers.

How has this epidemic come to be? There are many examples  in recent history of people who, by choice or by force, left their homelands and left behind their traditional ways of eating. Genes play a role, but not in an “it’s-in-the-genes-so-nothing-can-be-done” way. Rather, it is often said in diabetes, “Genes load the gun, but DIET pulls the trigger.”

Case in point. Meet Jenson Yazzie. When he was 21, and 75 lbs overweight, his father, Eddie, worried about his own health, and the future for his wife and two children, announced to the family, “We are changing the way we eat.” Out went the burgers, Spam and mutton, and in came beans, fruit, vegetables, and plenty of corn and other grains. Truth be told, Jenson was not so happy at first about the change, but luckily, his mother Rhonda and his sister Jamie are great cooks. Jamie  figured out how to prepare meals that Jenson and the whole family would enjoy. She even found a cookie recipe made of rolled oats, peanut butter, dried fruit and  non-dairy milk for a healthful treat.

Today, at 23, Jenson is happy with his new look, trim and fit without the excess 80 pounds he’d been carrying. He is grateful to his sister, and enjoys cooking and hiking with her, exploring the beautiful trails near their home on the Navajo Nation. The family has embraced what Chef Walter Whitewater calls, “Contemporary Native Cuisine,” celebrating foods that come from the ground--using only ingredients that Native ancestors would recognize as food! Chef Whitewater was instrumental in demonstrating delicious plant-based meals for Food for Life classes taught by the Navajo Nation Special Diabetes Project, in partnership with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine; classes that were so life-altering to Jenson and Eddie Yazzie.

As the weight has come off, Jenson has greatly reduced his risk of developing diabetes. I say this with confidence because of a large body of scientific evidence. For example, one study published in 2009 involving a large number of people followed for many years found that people who didn’t eat any animal products (meat, poultry, fish, milk and eggs) were 50-percent less likely to develop diabetes, compared with those who ate even small amounts of foods from animals, according to an article in Diabetes Care. The study participants could eat generous amounts of corn, beans, squash, vegetables, fruits, bread, potatoes--you name it--without developing diabetes. The key was to steer clear of meats, dairy products and eggs.

A second study zeroed in just on meat, and analyzed information from 12 studies. These researchers reported that people who ate meat had a 21-percent increased risk of developing diabetes, and for people who ate processed meats, such as lunch meats or hot dogs, the risk jumped to 41-percent according to Diabetologia 2009.

Many people have drawn inspiration from the Tarahumara in northwestern Mexico. Their diet is practically meatless, made up mostly of pinto beans, corn, and vegetables, such as squash. They are free of diabetes, heart disease and obesity, and in fact, are called “the running Indians,” because they are known to travel long distances at a race-like pace. The combination of a plant-based diet and vigorous activity is unbeatable.

Some scientists have blamed genes for the high rate of diabetes among Natives and other groups. But looking at the Tarahumara, as one example, suggests something else is the cause. When researchers convinced eight Tarahuma women and five men to try an Anglo diet, the results came quickly. The average person gained eight pounds in just five weeks, and their cholesterol levels jumped by 30 percent according to N Engl J Med 1991, putting them on the road to developing Type 2 Diabetes, had they not gone back to their plant-based ways.

Reconnecting with traditional wisdom and practices of agriculture and foraging with the foods provided by Mother Earth, along with less sedentary lifestyles, offers hope for recovery and prevention. Heirlooms seeds, dried beans and other agricultural products highlighted by GROWING NATIVE offer improved nutrition and economic opportunities. There is hope, and it can be found wherever healthful foods are found:  in the garden, in the kitchen, and on our plates.



Native stories that represent the cultures, experiences, and values of American Indians and Alaska Natives for your station!


Current funding, job, and training opportunities that support the production of Native content. Plus, additional information for filmmakers.


Hands-on educational tools for middle school to college-aged students that increase the Impact of Native films in the classroom.