Healthy eating in the modern world is not always easy. Fast food and prepackaged foods offer inexpensive and easy alternatives to healthier foods or cooking from scratch. Even in remote locations, you can find snacks like burgers, chips, candies and sodas. However, these kinds of foods can be harmful to our health in the long run.
Diet and nutrition play a crucial role in our overall health. A poor diet can have an especially dramatic impact on the lives of elders. American Indians and Alaska Natives in particular face a predisposition to obesity and diabetes. Historically, however, American Indians and Alaska Natives did not face these health disparities. History shows how American Indian and Alaska Native communities have come to face these disparities and points to how these trends might be reversed.
Disparities Related to Diet
Research suggests that the “modern” western diet is detrimental to the health of all consumers and especially elders. American Indian and Alaska Native elders face disparate rates of obesity: nearly 40 percent of men and more than 46 percent of women are obese. These rates are highest among elders age 55-64 and are lower among older elders.
The rates of diabetes among American Indians and Alaska Natives are more striking: more than 16 percent have diabetes, a rate more than twice as high as that of the general population in the United States as a whole. Among American Indian and Alaska Native elders, 30 percent — nearly one in three — have diabetes. Some American Indian and Alaska Native communities suffer even higher rates of diabetes. The Pima of Arizona have seen rates of diabetes as high as 60 percent in their community. The consequences of diabetes left untreated include amputations, blindness and death. American Indians and Alaska Natives are twice as likely to die from diabetes.
A variety of factors contribute to the high rates of diabetes and obesity among American Indian and Alaska Native elders. Along with the predisposition for these conditions, diet, exercise and other factors are important contributors. It is important to note that while American Indians and Alaska Natives are predisposed to these conditions, they were very rare just 100 years ago.
Traditional Versus Contemporary Diets and Practices
Diets have changed dramatically since the introduction of European foods into the diet of American Indians and Alaska Natives. The diets of American Indian and Alaska Native ancestors contained more complex carbohydrates (such as whole grains, peas, beans, potatoes) and fewer fats (such as meats, dairy products, oils). While diets vary from nation to nation, traditional foods consisted of those that could be gathered and hunted in the local area, and sometimes included agricultural products like corn, squash and beans, which were introduced before European influence on diets.
The shift in the way American Indians and Alaska Natives eat came as a result of being removed from their homelands and relocated to reservations. The federal government discouraged American Indians and Alaska Natives from continuing their traditional hunting and gathering traditions and provided commodity foods such as white flour from wheat and lard to American Indian and Alaska Native communities. Such food products are completely foreign to the traditional American Indian and Alaska Native diet. Combined with the destruction of traditional practices, the diet of the present day has contributed to the disparities in health faced by American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Those eating a contemporary western diet now experience processed foods high in simple carbohydrates (refined sugar), salts and fats. One example of such a food that is commonly found in Indian County is frybread. Frybread found today is a product of the shift from traditional foods to government-issued commodities. Frybread and foods like it — whether homemade or store-bought — have little nutritional value and can negatively impact health.
Access to Food
Elders living on a reservation or in a rural area may have very limited options about where to purchase food as well as difficulty accessing those places at all. Many live in what is known as a “food desert” — defined as parts of the country (usually low-income areas) without access to fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful whole foods. A food desert can exist both in rural areas and large cities alike. This means that the places many elders call home may only have access to fast food or convenience stores, rather than healthy foods.
For elders who no longer drive or those without access to a car or transportation, healthy food choices can be even harder to access. Low access to healthy food options combined with poverty and other factors means that many American Indians and Alaska Natives face what is known as “food insecurity” — lack of access to enough food to stay healthy due to a lack of money or resources. Almost one of every four American Indian and Alaska Native households face food insecurity. There is also evidence to show that even those who have access to healthy choices often find them to be unaffordable.
Recently, some activists in partnership with tribal nations and universities have begun to push for a return to traditional American Indian and Alaska Native diets. One such movement is the “Decolonizing Diet Project” started by Professor Marty Reinhardt at Northern Michigan University. The Decolonizing Diet Project takes the perspective that the change in dietary practices that resulted from the colonization of North America is a form of oppression. This project and others like it in American Indian and Alaska Native communities across America are researching what foods existed in the traditional diet prior to colonization.
Broadly, these types of projects share common objectives. By engaging elders, the knowledge of generations is built and shared among the community in support of the local food system. Such programs also educate communities about traditional diets and the importance of embracing and reviving traditional practices. These programs also help increase physical activity among American Indians and Alaska Natives by encouraging hunting, gathering, gardening and traditional preparation of food. They also promote the preservation of culture as well as access to healthy, traditional foods within American Indian and Alaska Native communities.
Changing Your Diet for Better Health
All elders can benefit from a healthier diet. Make one change at a time. Changing diets is not easy and habits can be hard to break. By making one change at a time, it will be easier to change habits successfully.
Reduce how many simple carbohydrates (refined sugars) you eat. Snacks like soda and candy contain very high amounts of these simple sugars and replacing them with healthier choices can make a big difference to your health.
You may have a hard time shopping for food and preparing it. In this case, reach out to a friend, family member or your health provider. If you are able to make your own food, it’s key that your diet is high in fiber, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean protein (meat). These foods will keep you energetic while also aiding your slow digestion. The digestive system slows down with age, so high-fiber fruits, vegetables and whole grains become more important than ever.
Control your portion size. Eating until satisfied rather than stuffed is a good habit to create. Eat more fruits and vegetables. Use healthier cooking techniques regardless of what is being cooked. Avoid frying foods and try instead to bake, steam or boil. Try traditional recipes and traditional ingredients. Eating traditional foods can be a healthy choice that preserves and promotes culture. Try gardening to grow the foods you like locally and eat healthier from your own yard.