Traditional foods key to fighting diabetes

By Carolyn Calvin
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Dec. 10, 2010

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(Times Photo - Paul Natonabah)

Dr. Neal Barnard, right, and chef Walter Whitewater prepare healthy Native foods during a seminar organized by the Navajo Nation Special Diabetes Project on Monday at the Navajo Nation Museum.

The statistics are not good - 24,000 or 11.2 percent of Navajos have diabetes. For many individuals, the diagnosis means endless visits to the doctor and lots of medication.

"The sad thing is that (the incidence of new cases) is still growing," said Ray Baldwin Louis, public information officer for the Navajo Nation Special Diabetes Project.

"In our traditional way of life, the main diet was vegetables, which were homegrown," Louis said. "We didn't eat mutton all that much."

But the arrival of commodity foods - government-issued cans of beef, chicken, Spam-like luncheon meat and cheese - marked the end of good eating habits, he said.

Louis said that for the last eight weeks, classes were held to teach staff of the special diabetes project about research by Dr. Neal Barnard that has shown that diabetes can be controlled, and even reversed, with an easy-to-follow plant-based diet.

Speaking Monday at a free seminar at the Navajo Nation Museum, Barnard, a popular figure on public television, said that by sticking to a few basic principles and making simple lifestyle adjustments, people can enjoy a surprising degree of control over diabetes.

"It's really true that before Europeans came to America, there was no lard or fry bread," Barnard said. "Plant products like beans, corn and squash were much more available. Government programs haven't been helpful and today fast food is seductive.

"Diabetes comes in very rapidly and is dangerous," he said.

However, contrary to popular opinion, sugar is not the culprit.

"Glucose is not the enemy, it's the gasoline that powers your body," he said. "Fat from foods get inside cells - greasy food passes grease into the cells. The fat stops glucose from working.

"If we can stop eating fat, it comes out of the cells," he said. "As the amount of fat drops, your cells become more and more sensitive to insulin, allowing your blood sugar to come down."

The plan provided by Barnard includes choosing foods that are vegan (free of all animal products), low fat and have a low glycemic index.

"This means no meat, fish, dairy products or eggs - not even a little bit," he said. "The idea is to clean the animal fat, animal protein and cholesterol out of your diet.

"You will use little or no added oil and avoid lard, shortening, butter, fried foods and cooking oils," he said. In addition, "you will favor low-glycemic foods. This means generally avoiding sugar, white bread products, baking potatoes and most cold cereals.

"One of the reasons, I recommend a low-fat vegan diet is that it is so substantial - it provides plenty of fiber to fill you up and has no limits on portion sizes or calories," Barnard said.

Margilene Barney, a NNSDP nutritionist, said she has already lost seven pounds following Barnard's advice.

"It makes a lot of sense and it's an eye-opener," she said.

Now she's proselytizing among the burrito and tamale vendors that come to her office, urging them to make their tasty offerings healthier.

"Adding whole-wheat, blue-corn flour or white corn to tortillas makes a difference," she said. "I asked them to include more vegetables in their tamales, too."

Barnard said the first step to healthier cooking is to check out the possibilities.

"Which foods can be made without animal ingredients and without added fats?" he asked.

The second step is to do a three-week test drive.

"The food will be going in and cleaning you up," he said.

He suggests using transition foods like veggie burgers and hot dogs and sandwiches made with vegetarian deli slices.

For diabetics, the diet is like an antibiotic and should be followed to the letter, Barnard said.

"It will save you from medications," he said. "All traditional foods can be made with more savory flavor."

To prove that, he brought in chef Walter Whitewater, a native of Piñon, Ariz., who earlier in the day demonstrated to NNSDP staff how to prepare traditional food within the diet's guidelines.

"This is something I never thought I would be dealing with," Whitewater said. "How can this thing work without oil?"
Whitewater, who works with Red Mesa Catering of Santa Fe, said he spent three weeks experimenting with traditional food, noticing the flavor and the way it cooks.

"You will taste the food and what it does for you," he said. "Now I can run without stopping for a mile or two.

"We are meat eaters and raised on commodity foods," he said. "It hurt a lot of families. We have become too lazy, forgetting to adapt to new things.

"Food is our medicine," he said.

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