Native American Food Yesterday and Today (Continued)

According to the 2003 study "Biological and Clinical Potential of a Paleolithic Diet," conducted by Staffan Lindeberg M.D., Ph.D., Loran Cordain Ph.D., and S. Boyd Eaton M.D. and published in Journal of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine, a raw diet or "Paleolithic diet," is not only ideal, but can stave off a number of illnesses; "… a Paleolithic diet based on lean meat, fish, vegetables and fruit may be effective in the prevention and treatment of common Western diseases… Stroke, ischemic heart disease and type 2 diabetes seem largely preventable by way of dietary changes in a Paleolithic direction. And insulin resistance, which may have far–reaching clinical implications as a cause of unregulated tissue growth, may also respond to an ancestral diet."

Native American Diet Today

Modern–day Native American cuisine is a departure from the natural diet from which it originated. Foods like frybread and hoecakes are examples of the unhealthy changes to Native American dietary habits. Due to poverty, many Native Americans cannot afford quality food and settle for food that is detrimental to their health, putting them at higher risk of obesity and complications like diabetes or heart disease. According to a 2007 study done by Peggy Halpern, Ph.D. with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "diets historically high in complex carbohydrate/high fiber foods and lower in fat have been replaced by foods high in refined carbohydrates (e.g. refined sugars), fat, sodium, and low in fruits and vegetables." The dangers are not limited to adults. Halpern reported that Native American children are at a higher risk of obesity and complications due to weight, stating, "…available data indicate that the prevalence of overweight and obesity in AI/AN (American Indian/ Alaska Natives) preschoolers, school-aged children and adults is higher than the respective U.S. rates for all races combined, and trends over long periods of time indicate increasing rates of overweight and obesity for both school-aged children and adults."

Due to poor health and nutrition, most native populations suffer from type 2 diabetes or complications associated with obesity. Current trends indicate a rise in childhood obesity, causing an increase in the number of children with type 2 diabetes. There are a small number of native people who have type 1 diabetes and are insulin dependent, but this population is often mixed race, suggesting that the type 1 gene may be associated with Caucasian heritage. In an attempt to reduce the epidemic of obesity and both types of diabetes, tribes have made an effort to introduce educational programs addressing the two types of diabetes, prevention methods, and proper blood sugar management skills.

Educating The Masses

A 2012 study conducted by Amanda Fretts, a researcher at the University of Washington School of Medicine, suggests that native people who often eat processed and canned meats, a staple on reservations and one food item that is subsidized by the U.S. government, have a higher risk of developing diabetes than those who avoid the poor quality foods. "Spam," a generic term for any processed, canned meat, as well as a particular brand name for a canned pork product, is high in sodium and preservatives, which is part of the reason why it remains so popular among native populations. According to Fretts, "a lot of communities in this study are in very rural areas with limited access to grocery stores...and they want to eat foods that have a long shelf life." The additives used to preserve these foods allow them to last longer than fresh meats or produce. However, like canned peaches, the food is literally floating in juices high in sodium or sugar, lacking any nutritional benefits, and ultimately causing long-term complications.

The study found that meat was not so much a factor in increased diabetes risk as were preservatives. Fretts found that people who ate unprocessed meats were no more likely to develop diabetes than those who avoided all meat products. However, those who ate spam were 19 percent more likely to develop diabetes.  According to Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, sodium may be a key player in the increased health concerns of Native populations, possibly extending to diabetes. According to Dr. Mozaffarian, "I think the biggest difference between processed and unprocessed meats is sodium…we know sodium impacts blood pressure, and perhaps other health effects that we need to study more." Fretts and her colleagues noticed that Native Americans with diabetes also suffered from obesity, suggesting poor nutrition is responsible for a number of significant yet avoidable illnesses. Though the relationship between processed foods and diabetes requires more research, it is clear that processed foods only serve to increase health risks and, because that is all that is offered to native people, the population is subject to health complications.

Reviewed by Joy Pape, RN, BSN, CDE, WOCN, CFNC. 2/13



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Last Modified Date: December 24, 2013

All content on is created and reviewed in compliance with our editorial policy.
  1. 10 - U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. American Indian/ Alaska Native Profile, (Accessed 1/26/12.)
  2. 10 - U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. American Indian/ Alaska Native Profile, (Accessed 1/26/12.)
  3. 9 - U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Obesity and American Indians/Alaska Natives, (Accessed 1/24/12.)
  4. 8 - U.S. Census. 2000. We the People: American Indians and Alaska Natives in the United States, (Accessed 1/27/12.)
  5. 7 - United States Department of Agriculture. Background Report on the Use and Impact of Food Assistance Programs on Indian Reservations, (Accessed 1/27/12.)
  6. 6 - Spam linked to diabetes risk in Native Americans, (Accessed 3/14/12.)
  7. 5 - Native American Cuisine, (Accessed 1/24/12.)
  8. 4 - Mother Earth News. The Three Sisters, (Accessed 1/24/12.)
  9. 3 - Lindeberg, Staffan; Cordain, Loren; Eaton, S. Boyd. Biological and Clinical Potential of a Paleolithic Diet. Journal of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine 13, no. 3: 149–60 (September 2003), (Accessed 3/23/12.)
  10. 2 - Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Fry Bread, (Accessed 1/24/12.)
  11. 1 - American Indian Health and Diet Project. History of Traditional Tribal Foods, (Accessed 1/22/12.)

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by Brenda Bell
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