Navajo Nation Turns to Plant-Based Foods to Reverse Diabetes

Vegetable boxby Lee Allen, Indian Country Today, July 30, 2014

Diabetes in Indian country is an on-going theme—as are the efforts to combat the disease. One of the most recent steps forward took place recently (July 18-19) at the inaugural International Conference on Diabetes where global researchers weighed in on a surge in Type 2 diabetes—and the role of dietary intervention as a first-line treatment. Nearly three dozen researchers from six countries and leading research institutions presented the current-day status of their investigations involving risk factors and lifestyle interventions as a starting point toward better health.

While 400 delegates who attended the New Diabetes Treatment Model in Native American Communities gathering covered a wide variety of subject matters, of particular interest was one involving Navajo Nation program efforts that utilized a low-fat, plant-based diet. “A growing body of research is showing this type of diet, one similar to the diet of ancestors of many Native Americans, is effective in preventing or halting progression of Type 2 diabetes,” said Betti Delrow, program manager for the Navajo Special Diabetes Project in Window Rock, Arizona.

Delrow’s presentation was part of a partnership between the Navajo project and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, both seeking to implement plant-based nutrition. Delrow and Caroline Trapp, director of diabetes education for the Physicians Committee, shared success stories from Navajo families who have reversed their diabetes and changed their lives by returning to a diet rich in traditional native foods—vegetables, fruit, legumes, and ancient grains like corn, beans, and squash.

“Diabetes rates have doubled over the past two decades and are expected to double again over the next 20 years. We can no longer look the other way.  We need to fix the root problem today,” said Dr. Neal Barnard, conference host and president of the Physicians Committee.

In an exclusive interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, Bernard noted that traditional focus on diabetes care has been on medications to regulate blood sugar while a new approach will center not on medicines, but in diet changes.

Speaking about diabetes and indigenous peoples, Bernard told ICTMN: “It’s remarkable to see the health difference between traditional populations and those who no longer practice a traditional life. Well-meaning but ill-informed government programs took away the ability to independently grow healthy food and instead dumped surplus cans of luncheon meats, cheeses, and processed foods of all kinds on these populations.”

And until recently, not much changed whether the population base was native or not.  “Looking at Americans as a group indicates the diabetes rate continuing to climb with numbers like we’ve never seen before. The overall statistics aren’t so optimistic, but within that larger group, a number of people are changing their diets and starting to see results.  Up until ten years ago, American annual meat intake had increased to 201.5 pounds per year.  Now that number has fallen to 181.5 pounds annually and I expect those statics to fall even further, a harbinger of good things to come for those who make the effort.

“It’s challenging to make changes in habit. Look at tobacco consumption a generation ago, until logic and science prevailed, and many people quit. Now a generation later, we’re involved in the same kind of food battle we had with tobacco and we’re making progress as we turn back the clock and begin eating like our grandparents did.

“The Institute of Medicine shows it takes 17 years for the latest research to make its way into clinical practice—but if you have enough research already that shows a diet rich in healthy foods will significantly reduce the risk of chronic disease, why wait?”

The Navajo Nation Special Diabetes Project is setting a good example of their mission to promote  healthy life styles by starting within their own group. The Navajo Times recently quoted NNSDP nutritionist Margilene Barneys as having lost weight by following Dr. Barnard’s eating advice—“It’s an eye-opener that makes a lot of sense,” she said.

Another step forward is pending Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly’s approval as part of the Healthy Dine Nation Act whereby the sales tax on ‘junk food’ sold with the Nation would increase to seven percent. Also pending is a Navajo Nation Council approval of elimination of the current five-percent sales tax on fresh fruits and vegetables.

For further information on The Power to Heal Diabetes—Food for Life in Indian Country, check out and Healthy recipes are available at

Posted on July 30, 2014, in Decolonization and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. If one look at what most people’s diet have become today is a very sad event. We must re discovered all the smart and wonderful foods we used to know in the past. These foods provide all we need and prevent diabetes

  2. A plant-based diet can be really beneficial to health overall. It can lower cholesterol and help with weight loss – but it must be adopted and followed consciously and with planning. (A huge amount of vegetarian junk food also exists, which is good for neither your waist line or your sugar levels.) That said, I wonder if the real impact here isn’t the lack of preservatives and other refined ingredients. Based on the description of the diet followed in the experiment, it sounds like it goes beyond vegetarianism and focuses on clean eating (foods like those found here: Eating clean can have a HUGE impact on your physical and mental state.

  3. Being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes 2 years ago I got fed up with all the treatments to manage diabetes, and I know with the proper lifestyle and diet your body can heal itself and you can reverse diabetes, I did some search and subscribed to Dr Kenneths plan this morning I got a better A1C result already I found the plan below hope this helps.

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