PLUMMER, Idaho – In a large conference room at the Benewah Medical Center, 21 members of Native American tribes assembled for a lesson in healthy eating – part of a 16-week diabetes prevention course called Native Lifestyle Balance.
“Does anyone like popcorn?” asked Carla Patterson, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator who led the class.
“That’s a whole grain. You guys have been eating whole grain all along. But what about what you’re adding to it?”
The group uses realistic rubber food as props and talks about portion sizes comparable to a baseball or a deck of cards. They move on to eggs and healthy ways to cook meat, and alternative sources of protein like almonds and beans.
“The key is just being aware of what you’re eating, what’s in the food you’re eating, OK?” Patterson said.
She steered the discussion to vegetables and how to get the most out of them. “If you bought all your fresh produce for two weeks, what happens at the end of your two weeks?”
“That’s when you throw them in a stew,” responded one woman, and everyone laughed.
One of the more worrisome trends tracked by health officials is the rising incidence of diabetes among teenagers and young adults. That’s why the emphasis on healthy eating needs to span generations, Patterson said.
“Because the younger kids are eating the same as the parents are,” she said.
Plummer resident Leslie Hardwick, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, said she and her husband, Chris, learned about portion control, healthy snacking and strategic grocery shopping when they took the Native Lifestyle Balance course last fall and winter.
Mealtime has been a challenge for the couple. They were married a year ago and have eight children between them. The number of mouths to feed fluctuates from day to day.
“I didn’t know how to cook a two-person meal,” said Hardwick, 35, whose six children range in age from 6 to 18. “I knew how to cook an army serving. So I’ve learned how to cut that down.”
Class participants are asked to document what they eat each day and add up the calories and fat grams.
“That was really tough – keeping track of everything that we ate, when we ate it, how much of it we ate,” said Hardwick, a multimedia producer and morning show host for the tribe’s noncommercial radio station, KWIS-FM.
The family learned to do the bulk of their shopping from the outer perimeter of the grocery store, rather than the interior aisles where more processed foods are found. They incorporated more vegetables into their diets and added popcorn as a snack.
“Right now, I struggle still with carbs and Mountain Dew,” Hardwick said. “Those are my biggest addictions, and I’m still trying to break them.”
She has gained and lost weight on various diets and exercise regimens, and wants to lose about 60 pounds through regular activity and smarter eating.
Hardwick does not have diabetes, and neither does her husband. But she said the pervasiveness of the disease in native communities weighs heavily on her.
“I feel almost like that’s what happens when you get older, you’re most likely to get diabetes just because the older generation of Native Americans – especially living on the rez, eating the kinds of food we eat – that’s just the next stage in life,” she said.
Now she feels she has control and a diabetes diagnosis isn’t inevitable.
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