The Tohono Indian Nation in south central Arizona is turning to old tribal ways to solve a modern health problem.
Over the past several decades, Type 2 diabetes has exploded on the Tohono O’odham reservation, striking half of the adults living there. That’s compared to an 8.3 percent rate among adults in the U.S. overall, according to government estimates.
“The biggest health crisis here on the Nation is diabetes,” Jennie Becenti, manager of Healthy O’odham People Promotion, told NBC’s Robert Bazell. “We have the highest rate in the nation.”
The diabetes rate among the Tohono O'odham tribe has skyrocketed along with with changes in their diet, Becenti and others suspect. Instead of a traditional menu of tepary beans, cholla buds, prickly pear cactus, saguaro fruit, squash and corn -- all native to the southwestern U.S. -- Tohonos now tend to eat a typical American diet: processed and junk foods laden with carbohydrates, salt and fat.
While that kind of eating has led to bulging waistlines on many Americans, its impact seems to be magnified in a people who for generations lived on a parched land that had to be worked with vigor to just to produce a sparse harvest.
Becenti and others hope that by stirring interest in the indigenous diet that once powered the Tohono Nation, they might be able to beat this new metabolic enemy.
“I think as a tribal community, if we start to re-educate ourselves about the nutritional value of those foods that are natural and that grow naturally around here, then we’re going to make much greater headway in addressing diabetes and heart issues that are so prevalent with our people today,” said Ned Norris, chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation.
There is research to suggest that the Tohonos might be on the right track.
Studies looking at another Indian Nation, the Pimas, have compared the health and lifestyles of tribal members living in Arizona to those dwelling in Mexico.
The hope is that by comparing people with roughly the same genetic make-up but greatly differing lifestyles, researchers will be able to figure out why the Pimas in Mexico suffer from fewer health problems, especially obesity, than those residing in the U.S.
Researchers suspect that the Pimas, like other desert-dwelling Indians may have developed genes that make their systems more “thrifty” when it comes to metabolizing food. A 2010 study in the Pimas underscored the impact of lifestyle on people with a thrifty metabolism. The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, found that Pimas living in the U.S. were more than six times as likely to develop insulin resistance as those living in Mexico. And that was true even after the researchers accounted for obesity, age and sex.
The researchers concluded that lifestyle differences were probably to blame for the higher incidence in Pimas dwelling in the U.S.
'These foods have meaning'
That’s something Terrol Dew Johnson can understand. He founded Tohono O’odham Community Action, ( http://www.tocaonline.org/www.tocaonline.org/Home.html ) a group dedicated to bringing back the tribe’s traditions. “These foods have meaning,” Johnson told Bazell. “These foods are medicine to our bodies. These foods will keep us healthy.”
Perhaps just as important are the lifestyle changes that have led to more sedentary habits among the Tohono Nation. “We’ve gotten to the point where we don’t have to work hard to get our food,” he said. “In my parents’ and even in my grand parents’ time, they had to work literally every day and night to actually get food to eat. They were moving. They were exercising. Nowadays you can just drive up to a window and get food, medicine, anything.”
Even with scientific evidence in hand, those pushing for a change will still have obstacles to overcome – the biggest of which may be that many on the reservation seem to have lost a taste for the traditional foods.
“I’m 55 and in my whole lifetime, have not eaten much traditional food,” Norris told NBC. “And so, when I start eating it, I haven’t really acquired a taste for it. It’s not the regular pinto beans that you buy off the shelf or the baloney you buy in the grocery store. It’s going to take some time for people to re-acquire a taste for those traditional foods.”
One way to change people’s tastes is to put a new spin on the old foods. That’s what’s happening at the Desert Rain Café in Sells, Ariz., where chefs have found ways to make the traditional foods more interesting and appealing
Another way to combat the problem is to teach young people about the traditions that go with the foods, said Michael Enis, food and fitness coordinator for Tohono O’odham Community Action. Enis is in charge of a program that brings traditional foods into the local school once a week.
That approach has worked for Zade Arnold, a teen who has started a farm of his own.
“I like working with traditional farming foods and culture,” Arnold said. “You get to touch the same seeds that people got to touch thousands of years ago. We get to work with the same prayers and songs that people got to do hundreds and thousands of years ago.”
Robert Bazell is NBC's chief science correspondent; Linda Carroll is a health and science contributor for msnbc.com