November 24, 1997 in Nation/World

Western Ways Make Navajos Overweight Changes Lead To More Cases Of Diabetes, Hypertension

Arizona Republic

As Navajos prepare for the season of eating - when festive treats can create holiday hips - tribal health officials hope they remember many are losing the battle of the bulge.

Forty years ago, the Navajo was a nation of the relatively svelte. Today, more than half of the Navajo men and more than two-thirds of the women are overweight, according to new research.

The culprits: Western food and less activity.

“As the Navajos began going from their traditional lifestyle to accepting more and more of the Western way of living and eating, they have basically gotten fatter and fatter,” said Tim Gilbert, who works for the Native American Center for Excellence at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle.

Gilbert is one of a roster of researchers and doctors who spent the past two years studying the Navajo weight gain problem.

Their findings were included in a supplement published recently by the Journal of Nutrition.

The tribe’s director of health, Rosalyn Curtis, said she remembered one summer when she went home to her community after spending nine months at a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school.

“Throughout the entire summer I lived on the traditional foods of the Navajos - with an occasional bowl of mutton stew - but mostly a diet filled with vegetables, dried fruits and herbs,” she said.

When she went back to the boarding school, she had lost a lot of weight, which did not go unnoticed by the staff at the school.

“I can remember one of them saying to me, ‘We need to fatten this one up,”’ Curtis said.

While the trend toward fat isn’t unique - Anglos also are afflicted - researchers found it amazing that the Navajo weight gain took place in the space of just two generations.

But, said Gilbert, the change from traditional foods to the high-fat Western diet isn’t solely to blame.

Many Navajos also went from a traditional lifestyle of walking, tending sheep, chopping wood and exercise to the more sedentary lifestyle of many Americans.

The only age group to have avoided the weight problem was Navajo men over age 60 - that age group which most likely would have been too old to make the switch from the traditional lifestyle to Western jobs in the 1960s.

As a result of these changes, Indian Health Service officials have been reporting since the 1970s large increases in cases of diseases that, until the 1960s, were rare on the reservation - diabetes, heart problems and hypertension.

The number of diabetes cases has jumped so high that many Navajos have kidney problems, Gilbert said.

“Kidney-dialysis centers have been springing up on the reservation like McDonald’s,” Gilbert said.

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