Reclaiming Traditions, Reclaiming Health: Fighting Diabetes with a New, Old Diet
Donna Hall, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara
When eighth-grader Ashley Hall was a young child, her mother was very sick. “My mom was always tired,” Ashley explains. “She just laid in bed all day. She did nothing; I would go outside by myself.”
Ashley’s mother Donna was only 23 when she began experiencing symptoms of diabetes. “The first thing I noticed was I was thirsty all the time,” says Donna. “Then, I was lethargic. I couldn’t get enough sleep. It alarmed me.”
Donna was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and was soon on 22 medications. Donna and Ashley are from North Dakota, from the Native American Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation. Donna is one of nine children, seven of whom have type 2 diabetes. Her father also has diabetes. Unfortunately, Donna’s story is not uncommon.
One in five Native Americans now suffers from type 2 diabetes. Diabetes rates have increased across the board in the United States, but Native Americans have the highest prevalence. In fact, Native Americans are 2.2 times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than are non-Hispanic whites.
Type 2 diabetes used to be called adult-onset diabetes, but that name is no longer accurate. From 1994 to 2004, the number of Native American youth ages 15 to 19 with diabetes jumped 68 percent. Diabetes has a host of complications—it is the leading cause of blindness and kidney failure and increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Food as Medicine
There is some good news. Type 2 diabetes is largely caused by diet habits, and research shows that it can be prevented and even treated through plant-based diets. A plant-based diet looks surprisingly similar to the diet enjoyed by the ancestors of many Native Americans—long before the days of forced relocation, commodity foods, and fast food.
Before the arrival of Europeans, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains were dietary staples for many tribes. For example, the Navajo (Diné), Iroquois, and other tribes grew many varieties of corn, squash, and beans—a trio of central foods they planted together in a special symbiotic formation and called the “three sisters,” which appears to have begun in Mexico and spread through much of North America.
Restoring the Ancestral Diet
The Physicians Committee has been working with the Navajo Nation in Arizona and tribal organizations in New Mexico since 2010, hosting cooking and nutrition courses and helping individuals and families transform their health. In the fall of 2010, Donna and Ashley Hall both attended the Physicians Committee’s eight-week Food for Life course on the Institute of American Indian Arts campus. And they never looked back.
“The Food for Life class… it just changed my life,” Donna says. “I didn’t know what a radish tasted like. I didn’t know you could make a taco taste so good. I didn’t know you could blend these vegetables, these beans, these vegetarian items together and make them taste so good. And it was also fun!”
Since switching to a plant-based diet with the help of the Physicians Committee’s resources and recipes, Donna has lost more than 40 pounds—and is down from 22 medications to four. “Since my mom has changed her diet, we’ve been playing basketball, or sometimes I’ll go on a run, and she’ll kind of speed walk,” says Ashley. “I’m really proud of her for making this change in her life.”
Donna’s story is featured in the Physicians Committee’s new documentary, The Power to Heal Diabetes: Food for Life in Indian Country. The film follows Donna and other Native Americans like the Yazzie family who switched to a plant-based diet and experienced amazing results after attending Physicians Committee classes.
This program was designed by Physicians Committee nurse practitioner Caroline Trapp, M.S.N., C.D.E., along with Physicians Committee president Neal Barnard, M.D., chef and food historian Lois Ellen Frank, Ph.D., and other health care professionals and chefs. Dr. Frank and another Native American chef, Walter Whitewater, teach the cooking courses.
“When we started this project, to reach out to Native Americans with our research showing the scientific support for eating a plant-based diet, we really did not know what to expect,” explains Trapp. “The classes were very well received, and we realized quickly that we needed to find a way to reach a broader audience with this lifesaving program. That’s where the documentary came in.”
The Physicians Committee held two movie premieres in Window Rock, Ariz. Eddie Yazzie, who attended the first class in Window Rock in 2010, brought his entire family to the screening. Since the class, Eddie’s son Jenson has lost more than 80 pounds by following a vegan diet.
Dr. Barnard and Ms. Trapp want to express their gratitude to Betti Delrow and the Navajo Nation Special Diabetes Project, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, the Institute of American Indian Arts, Chef Lois Ellen Frank, Ph.D., of Red Mesa Cuisine, and producer Don Horwitz of 24-7 Films for their vital roles. And most of all, we recognize the Yazzie, Begay, and Hall families, who kindly shared their inspiring stories in our documentary and for whom we wish continued good health. We are also grateful to the dedicated Physicians Committee donors who made this program possible.