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Tribe Looks to Traditional Foods to Combat Diabetes Crisis

No member of the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona had been diagnosed with diabetes prior to 1960. Today, more than 50 percent of the 28,000-member tribe’s adults have adult-onset diabetes. It’s the highest rate in the world.

A grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Food and Society initiative may help document the cause of this huge increase in diabetes among tribal members. One theory is that the diabetes onset is the result of the O’odham’s move away from traditional food to a more Western diet.

It is thought that over the course of several centuries, the metabolism of the O’odham adapted to the foods of the Sonoran Desert. “These were foods high in compounds that produced barriers to sugar absorption in the blood stream,” says Tristan Reader, co-founder and co-director of Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA). Over time, many O’odham developed suppressed pancreases.

Western diets overwhelm the O’odham metabolism, leading to high rates of obesity as well as diabetes. “In essence,” says Reader, “the destruction of the traditional food system is literally killing thousands of Tohono O’odham.”

A portion of the Kellogg Foundation grant will be used to fund a community-based study of 10 families, regularly measuring their blood-sugar levels, weight and other data to document the health effects of incorporating traditional foods in Tohono O’odham diets.

The grant also is enabling TOCA to expand the production of traditional foods on tribal lands, along with providing educational programs to the community on diabetes, the preparation traditional foods and the healthfulness of including them in diets.

For more information on Tohono O’odham Community Action, check out www.TOCAonline.org.

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