According to UnitedHealth, more than half of Americans will be diabetic or prediabetic by 2020. Currently 8.3 percent of the U.S Population is diabetic, with the highest rates—nearly 17 percent—found among American Indians and Alaska Natives.
By the numbers alone, things don’t look very bright for Indian country. But there are a number of movements to reverse the trend of diabetes among tribes—at the national and community level.
Take the Notah Begay III Foundation for example. The nonprofit is pumping money into promising initiatives through its Native Strong: Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures program, and promoting sport and physical activity among Native youth.
Diabetes centers on reservations are making fitness workshops more accessible to people of all ages. The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s Diabetes Center for Excellence, for instance, offers fitness classes, yoga, a pool for aquatic exercise, and nutritional support including counseling and a cooking demonstration space. The center also extols the benefits of stress-reduction and mind-body connection.
And the Cheyenne River Youth Project is a grassroots organization significantly improving the lives of Indian youth by not simply preaching the virtues of eating fresh produce, but actually teaching kids how to garden and cook what they harvest—while making it fun.
Fighting diabetes is a group effort that involves educating people about managing and preventing the disease, and creating opportunities for them to do so.
But the individual is ultimately responsible for making good choices, starting with nutrition.
Indian Country Today Media Network suggests 10 foods or spices you should incorporate into your diet that will help you reap the immediate rewards of feeling energized and satiated, as well as the longterm goal of helping reverse diabetes, and thus preserving Native culture and sovereignty:
1. Sweet potatoes
Diabetics, especially, need to limit carbohydrate intake, because the sugar and starches can cause blood sugar to spike. Rather than deprive yourself of a side helping of potatoes, indulge in sweet potatoes or yams. They will satiate and offer that endorphin kick we get from foods like chocolate and grains, and it won’t deplete your energy afterwards, like white bread or white potatoes.
Sweet potatoes are high in Vitamn A and fiber. ICTMN food columnist Dale Carson recommends pairing venison meatballs with sweet potatoes (and don’t forget a side of leafy greens!—continue reading).
RELATED: The Sprout of the Popular Potato
2. Leafy Vegetables—the Darker, the Better
All-you-can-eat-buffet and diabetics do not mesh. But you can have a bottomless bowl of kale, spinach or other dark, leafy green veggies. Some doctors even claim these nutrient-packed plants can kill cancer. So chow down.
Dale Carson is a firm believer in the power of kale. It “contains large amounts of beta-carotene and has almost 10,000 IU of vitamin A, which is almost twice the recommended daily allowance. It also has a lot of vitamin C, calcium and is high in fiber and potassium. So even if you are perfectly handsome and healthy, you can’t go wrong eating this vegetable,” she says.
Looking for an innovative preparation? Try Dale Kale Soup.
3. Omega-3-Fatty Fish
We’re talking salmon, tuna, halibut and mackerel—fish Indians all over, and particularly in the Pacific Northwest, have consumed since the beginning of man.
Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in these types of fish, in addition to other seafood like algae and krill, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Certain plants and nut oils also contain the vital nutrients. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish—particularly fatty fish—at least 2 times a week.
The benefits of consuming omega-3s are many. Because they reduce inflammation, regularly eating foods rich in the fatty acids may help lower risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and arthritis. And as a bonus: “It enhances radiance and reduces wrinkles and puffiness,” says Connecticut dermatologist Nicholas Perricone, author of The Wrinkle Cure.4. Legumes
A 2012 Canadian study reveals diabetics can lower their blood sugar levels and blood pressure by adding beans and other legumes to their diet, reported USNews.com.
“Legumes, which we always thought were good for the heart, actually are good for the heart in ways we didn’t expect,” said lead researcher Dr. David Jenkins, the Canada Research Chair in Nutrition and Metabolism at the University of Toronto.
Among diabetics, “not only did their glucose control become better, but—and this surprised us—it had a significant effect on blood pressure,” he said.
Turn to high-fiber chickpeas; lentils; and kidney, pinto, navy and black beans—all which will help you to feel fuller longer.
RELATED: Spilling the Beans
You can even do beans with breakfast; try Darla Antoine’s Costa Rican specialty.
A study published in Diabetes Care found that consuming 1, three of 6 grams “of cinnamon per day reduces serum glucose, triglyceride, LDL cholesterol, and total cholesterol in people with type 2 diabetes and suggest that the inclusion of cinnamon in the diet of people with type 2 diabetes will reduce risk factors associated with diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.”
Among study paricipants who consumed less than a teaspoon of cinnamon daily, their glucose levels lowered by up to 29 percent.
While the power of cinnamon’s anti-glycemic effects are still being studied, it’s safe to say that making this spice a regular part of your diet can only help.
For centuries, people have used garlic for both its medicinal and culinary purposes. It is an antibiotic that kills many viruses and bacteria, and is proven to fight athlete’s foot and other fungi. It is considered a pain reliever for people with rheymatoid arthritis. It has been known to help reduce the size of cancerous tumors. It helps lower blood pressure by dilating or expanding blood vessels, and it prevents blood clots—therefore it’s helpful in minimizing the risk of heart attack and stroke.
And now garlic is said to play a role in regulating and lowering blood sugar, and thus it’s a huge ally in the spice department to people who suffer from diabetes.
RELATED: How to Bundle Garlic for Storing and Curing
7. Almonds and Other Nuts
In a study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, researchers concluded that a diet consisting of 20 percent of calories as almonds “over a 16-week period is effective in improving markers of insulin sensitivity and yields clinically significant improvements in LDL-C in adults with prediabetes.”
In a nutshell, a diet rich in almonds improved insulin sensitivity in subjects, as well as lowered levels of bad cholesterol.
The American Diabetes Associated recommends “a small handful,” or 1.5 ounces a day of nuts.
Almonds are WebMD‘s top picks in the nuts category for their “high vitamin E levels”; next, WebMD champions “pecans, for their antioxidants; and walnuts, for omega-3s.”
And if you need more convincing, eating nuts increases your lifespan. That’s the conclusion reached by the largest study to date on regular consumption of almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamias, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios or walnuts, reported TIME.com. Death rates lowered by 20 percent among people who ate nuts seven or more times a week, and researchers observed that on average these nut lovers were learner, more physically active and non-smokers.
RELATED: Eat Almonds to Lower Diabetes Risk
8. Organic Dairy
Consumed responsibly and in reasonable amounts—meaning don’t chug a quart of milk every morning, and stay away from the ice cream—the fatty acids found in organic, whole milk and yogurt products called trans-palmitoleic acid reduce the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, according to a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Whole-fat products contain more of the beneficial acid than low-fat versions, leaving researchers to conclude that three to five servings of whole-fat dairy products daily would impart sufficiently high levels of this fatty acid, while also offering calcium and vitamin D.
On a somewhat related food, chocolate’s flavonoids help counteract insulin insensitivity. Eaten in small doses, dark chocolate can speed up the body’s metabolization of glucose.
RELATED: The First Death by Chocolate
9. Apple Cider Vinegar
Recent studies show vinegar, taken pre-meal, slows the rise of blood sugar levels after a meal by 50 percent in prediabetics and by 25 percent in diabetics. And when consumed at bed time, vinegar lowers morning blood sugar levels. Arizona State University Professor Carol Johnston, who has extensively studied the relationship between vinegar and glucose levels in diabetics, says “Vinegar appears to have effects similar to some of the most popular medications for diabetes.”
A similar study published in the journal Diabetes Care found that drinking apple cider vinegar after eating a high-carb breakfast lowered blood sugar levels by 34 percent in patients with prediabetes, and by 19 percent in those who had Type 2 diabetes, reported USAWeekend.com.
Additionally, vinegar has a very practical, household use: Avoid Toxins; Look to Your Pantry for Natural Cleaning Agents.
Some pumpkin varieties have been cultivated as long as maize, since approximately 3500 B.C., according to the Agricultural Alternatives publication series developed by the Small-Scale and Part-Time Farming Project at Penn State, with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Pumpkins have long served as a staple in the diet of American Indians (the Abenaki word for pumpkin or squash is wasawa). Most Indian nations have their own traditional ways to prepare or honor this ubiquitous food: Diné cooks fry it with mutton, while Taos Pueblo cooks make a succotash by cooking unripe pumpkin with corn kernels and onion. In Woodland areas, pumpkin is eaten similarly to winter squash, occasionally cut into rings to dry and be reconstituted when needed.
A recent study by researchers from East China Normal University revealed many diabetes-fighting properties of pumpkin extract in rats. “Healthy, insulin-making pancreatic cells were more abundant in the diabetic rats that ate the pumpkin extract than in the diabetic rats that never consumed the pumpkin extract,” WebMD notes.
And the sunset-colored gourd is also dense in fiber and beta-carotene, a provitamin that is converted to vitamin A in the body and essential for eye health and preventing coronary heart disease.