A Look Inside Native Americans' High Rates of Obesity and Diabetes

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Native Americans have the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Native Americans are 60% more likely to be obese and are over twice as likely to have diabetes than the general population. These numbers are even higher for Southwest Native Americans. But their diet is very similar to the rest of modern society. So why do Native Americans suffer these conditions at higher rates than the general population? The answer may be found in new research that is beginning to point to a genetic cause for these conditions. In a study by Peggy Halpern, Ph.D. for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, she found that historically Native Americans of the Southwest experienced repeated cycles of abundance followed by famine. She writes: “ A “thrifty gene”…enabled individuals to store surplus calories as fat during times of abundance and to use the energy more efficiently during times of famine, thus surviving periods when food was scarce.” Another reason Native Americans of the Southwest may have developed this gene is because as their population increased, their access to game decreased, resulting in lower consumption of animal fat. But today Native Americans are no longer subject to these cycles of abundance and famine nor are they deprived of meat rich in fat. Like the rest of modern society, they have access to a constant supply of food. So without periodic cycles of famine and easy access to animal fat this thrifty gene would work against them. Their bodies would be very efficient at storing fat, leading to high rates of obesity and diabetes. But there are over 3 million Native Americans and over 500 hundred tribes recognized by the U.S. governmen... ... middle of paper ... ... surprisingly, they also have the lowest life expectancy of any ethnic group in the country. According to a study of Native Americans of the Southwest in an article published in the journal Public Library of Science, they had much shorter life spans than the general population. “Life expectancies…were 5.9 and 4.3 years lower…for males and females, respectively…”. Cause-of-death studies showed very high rates of diabetes. While it is true that eating a low fat, high fiber diet is healthy for everyone, it is especially true for Southwest Native Americans given these grim statistics and the probability they are carrying this “thrifty gene”. In light of these facts I believe an effort should be made to educate the Native Americans of the Southwest as to the importance of eating a low fat, high fiber diet. More than any other ethnic group, their lives depend upon it.

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