Editorial: Healthy Traditions
In December 2008, I was a guest on Native America Calling, a radio program broadcast from Albuquerque, New Mexico. The focus was diabetes—an epidemic among Native Americans—and how the nutrition research the Physicians Committee had conducted over the years might help. With funding from the National Institutes of Health, our research team had found that a plant-based diet of whole grains, vegetables, beans, fruits, and other healthy fare could help people with diabetes to lose weight, lower their blood sugars, reduce their medications, and sometimes even make the disease disappear.
Rosemary from Placitas, New Mexico, called in to the program. The healthy food groups we were discussing resonated with a Native American tradition, she said. The tradition, called the Three Sisters, consisted of corn, beans, and—. She could not remember the third group. “Squash,” the host answered. Yes, corn, beans, and squash. These traditional foods kept her ancestors healthy. They are loaded with good nutrition, without the fat and cholesterol that are common in modern diets. In recent decades, healthful traditional foods have been replaced by meat, dairy products, and other junk foods. Rosemary’s point was that a return to more traditional plant-based eating patterns might be the key to solving the diabetes epidemic.
This was a revelation. I called Betti Delrow, of the Navajo Nation Special Diabetes Project, and arranged a visit. Her team of instructors showed me a wide range of traditional foods and how they promote health. In turn, I described the findings of our research with plant-based diets. I also met with leaders at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque and the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe and attended conferences on Native American health. Native American chefs Lois Ellen Frank and Walter Whitewater showed me simple ways to prepare traditional healthful foods.
The Physicians Committee’s director of nutrition education and care, Caroline Trapp, developed a series of classes that were taught in Arizona and New Mexico. The results, in many cases, were life changing. You will read about them in this issue.
We see new hope in this experience, and a model to address what is happening throughout the world. By recognizing that our diets have gotten far off course and bringing back healthful plant-based foods, we can reverse an epidemic and restore health.
Neal D. Barnard, M.D.
President of the Physicians Committee