Government and Regulations

Traditional Solutions to the Diabetes Problem

Health agencies hope the answer to reducing diabetes among American Indian and Alaska Natives is more traditional food resources.


Diabetes is a relatively recent phenomenon among American Indian and Alaska Natives (AI/AN). In 1940, only 21 cases of diabetes were identified among a Pima tribe, say researchers from the CDC’s Native Diabetes Wellness Program.

Although rare before the 1940s, diabetes cases have increased exponentially since. During 2010-2012, AI/AN adults were twice as likely to have diabetes as were non-Hispanic white adults. Unfortunately, AI/AN youth are catching up, with a 68% increase in diagnosed diabetes among those aged 15 to 19 years between 1994 and 2004, and a 100% increase between 1994 and 2007 among those aged 18 to 34 years. Moreover, in 2009, 21% of AI/AN children aged 2 to 4 years were obese and at risk for type 2 diabetes.

In response, the CDC, among other agencies, is encouraging “tribally driven” solutions to the problem, like the CDC-funded Traditional Foods Project (2008-2014), which aims to “reclaim” original native food systems.

The Traditional Foods Project is having promising results, CDC researchers say. During the 6 years of the project, the “food sovereignty” movement to revive foods specific to the landscape, history, and culture of the native people grew both locally and nationally. Partners aligned their efforts with the 2008 Farm Bill and created opportunities to operationalize the Agricultural Act of 2014, such as serving traditional foods in public facilities. Other offshoots include Qaqamiigux: Traditional Foods and Recipes from the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands, published by Traditional Foods Project partner Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association.

Education is key, and tribal schools are providing hands-on learning activities about growing healthful foods, strengthened by local and national efforts such as the Farm to School initiative.

The momentum continues, the researchers say. Although the cooperative agreement ended in 2014, several programs have secured support through tribal councils, university partnerships, state and county health departments, federal agencies, and nonprofit organizations.

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