Health Problems


Diabetes is one of the most common ailments afflicting Native people. Type 2 diabetes is epidemic among tribes. American Indians are 2.2 times more likely to develop diabetes than non-Indians. The American Diabetes Association estimates that 16 per cent of have Type 2 diabetes and 76% of them are obese with accompanying complications.Some tribes have been hit especially hard: half the adult Tohono O’odham population and 75% of Pimas in Arizona have Type 2 diabetes.The rate of diabetes on the Osage reservation is 20.7%, double the percentage in the U.S. and tribespeople live in a 2,251 square-mile “super food desert” where fresh produce and meats are scarce. At least 66% of the Oklahoma Cherokee Nation citizenry is overweight or obese.

Diabetes mellitus is the result of the pancreas stopping or slowing the production of the hormone insulin that allows cells to utilize glucose for energy. Glucose is derived from the foods we consume and insulin is needed to allow it to be absorbed into the cells. If glucose is not used it is expelled into the bloodstream and into the urine, but sustained excessive glucose results in hyperglycemia and can eventually cause organ and tissue damage. Diabetics suffer from excessive urination and thirst, blurry vision, fatigue, and feel numbness, pain, or tingles in their hands and feet. Humans have suffered from Type 1 diabetes at least since the mid-sixteenth century, but Type 1—when the pancreas does not produce any insulin--is probably a hereditary disease. Type 2 diabetes among American Indians is the result of decreasing traditional foods of wild game, garden produce, and seasonal fruits, vegetables, tubers, and herbs, in favor of overindulging in sugary, starchy, and fatty foods and adopting a sedentary way of life.10 Obesity increases the chances of developing Type 2.

Those who suffer from diabetes have a higher chance of developing atherosclerosis and high blood pressure which can lead to a stroke or heart attack. There also is a chance to develop retinopathy, an eye disease that can lead to blindness, especially those with Type II diabetes. Nerve damage can also result which can cause blindness and extremity amputations, at least. Diabetes does not just attack the elderly. Although an individual may think he or she is eating right and has no family history of diabetes, that person may be surprised to find they are diabetic because of the types and amounts of foods they ingest. And, even if an individual is lean in comparison to most people around them, that person may have a dangerous body composition. Some apparently skinny people may carry too much fat in comparison to their muscle content.

Thin people can create high glucose levels if they eat incorrectly. Many believe that consuming sports and fruit drinks and a fat-free diet can make them immune; but, even strong athletes with little body fat and high metabolisms often eat a tremendous amount of calories. All that sugar and carbohydrate can be turned into more glucose than their bodies can handle. A test can tell you quickly: a blood sugar level greater than 125 is considered diabetic. Abnormal blood-fat levels can put a person at risk, so it is crucial to have a lipid screening. A person is in potential trouble if their triglyceride level is high and HDL cholesterol level is low.

A major contributing factor to developing diabetes is being over fat. Gaining 11 to 18 pounds doubles the risk of developing Type II diabetes. Just gaining 10 pounds ups one’s risk of heart disease and gaining 20 pounds doubles a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer. Although genetic background accounts for the disposition to being obese, the major culprits are overeating and under-exercising. Many Natives pay little attention to what they put in their mouths and take advantage of the American culture that presents food in extra-large sizes, in cheese-filled crusts, in easy to microwave containers, in lattes with heavy cream and in fast-food shops. McDonalds’ French fries servings have increased, as have the sizes of movie popcorn bags and buckets. Restaurant portions and bottles of soft drinks are often large enough for three people and are relatively cheap, mainly because they are made with trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup. Outside magazine recently cited a study by psychologist Paul Rozin, who found that despite the French propensity for fatty foods, only 7.4% of the French population is obese compared to 22.3 of the American population. He found that regular fries at McDonald’s are 72% larger in the US than in France; a Pizza Hut pizza is 32% larger; an average chocolate bar is 41% larger; an average Coca-Cola is 52% larger; an average hot dog is 52% larger; an average serving of ice cream is 24% larger.

Corn is produced on such a large scale that it can be sold cheaply as sweetener, for high-fat and high-calorie snacks such as corn chips and as feed to create fatter pigs and cattle. Unless one is a hunter who eschews deer blinds, stands and ATVs and walks to stalk game, or are skilled with a blow gun and can track squirrels, rabbits and birds for hours, or are a devout gardener who eats only what is grown in the home garden, we rarely have to use many calories to acquire our meals. Americans have adopted a sedentary lifestyle and watch hours of television and plays videogames every day.


Other Sources:
American Diabetes Association:
Web MD:
Medline Plus:
“Carb Counting”:, (a web page that gives you a formula for calculating how many grams of carbohydrates you may consume depending on how much insulin you use).
Native American Diabetes Project Diabetes Wellness Connection for information on how to control and prevent diabetes: