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Native Americans And Obesity

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Native Americans and Obesity,

It is Time for a Change

Obesity is an illness of the mind and the body. In the United States it continues on a startling rise. This problem is especially detrimental to the Native American population. Studies indicate that obesity rates among the Native American population is "higher than the respective U.S. rates for all races combined" (Broussard 536S). As obesity among this population continues to rise, the number of Native Americans suffering from obesity related diseases will rise as well and the projected life span of this population will continue to decline.

At the turn of the twentieth century, obesity was rare among Native Americans. Malnutrition was once a large problem for them. As the years passed, a large increase in obesity among Native Americans occurred, which also contributed to a decline in their health. The theories of why this occurred include genetic, developmental, environmental, and economic factors. After observing several studies, it is evident the Native American population in the U.S. is the midst of a physically and emotionally unhealthy life cycle that is continuing from generation to generation.

Reviewing selected studies in the 1990's on the prevalence of obesity in Native Americans, it showed that among the Navajo Indians of New Mexico, 29.1 percent of the children, 25 percent of the adolescent males, 33 percent of adolescent females, 42.1 percent of the adult males, and 54.7 percent of the adult females were overweight or obese (Story 749S). Among the adult Zuni Indians of New Mexico, between the ages of 20-39 years old, 40 percent were overweight or obese, and between the ages of 40-59 years old, 70.7 percent were overweight or obese (Story 749S).

In the search for a solution to this problem, we must look at the theories to why this problem exists. Starting with the genetic theory, scientists should research this further to determine if there is in fact a genetic predisposition for a slower metabolic rate among Native Americans. If theory is sound, scientists should begin experiments for pharmacological treatment that could be used to speed up their metabolism, which would in turn decrease the incidence of obesity.

Another theory involves developmental issues. Native American children are statistically born heavier than the average child in the general population and are more susceptible to diseases associated with obesity, such as diabetes. This trend continues throughout their childhood and into adulthood. Programs that educate these children are needed to stop this cycle. There have been such programs in existence since the 1960's. One program conducted by the Phoenix Indian Medical Center during the years 1963 to 1968 used brief periods of fasting with low-calorie meals and a conventional management program with dietary instruction for 1,500 calories a day or less. In this program, 11.5 percent of the fasting group and 7.2 percent of the conventional management group was able to lose weight and maintain the loss long term. Another more current program called "Pathways: Prevention of Obesity Among American Indian Schoolchildren" ran from September 1993 through July 2003 (Pathways). It focused on American Indian schoolchildren in grades three to five and involved 1,704 students in forty-one schools in Arizona, South Dakota, Utah, and New Mexico. The prevention program was developed with four components: classroom curriculum, family participation, diet, and physical activity. The University of New Mexico Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention was chosen to monitor the program efforts and results. The program is currently available to others who wish to participate via the Pathways website. The success of these two programs shows that if a program is followed the Native American population is capable of maintaining a healthy weight. The encouragement and support to follow these programs is detrimental in their success.

The environmental and economic theories go hand in hand. The lower the economic standing the less healthy the environment. The Census 2000 Special Report showed the poverty rate among the total population was at 12.4 percent in 1999 compared to thirty-seven percent among Navajo Indians (U.S., We the People). Native Americans tend to purchase food on their reservations where the costs are lower, but the availability of healthy foods is lower as well. The availability of healthcare is scarce.

The occurrence of psychological disorders and suicide are on the rise among the Native



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