Navajo Nation Turns to Plant-Based Foods to Reverse Diabetes

Lee Allen

Diabetes in Indian country is an on-going theme—as are the efforts to combat the disease. One of the most recent steps forward took place recently (July 18-19) at the inaugural International Conference on Diabetes where global researchers weighed in on a surge in Type 2 diabetes—and the role of dietary intervention as a first-line treatment. Nearly three dozen researchers from six countries and leading research institutions presented the current-day status of their investigations involving risk factors and lifestyle interventions as a starting point toward better health.

While 400 delegates who attended the New Diabetes Treatment Model in Native American Communities gathering covered a wide variety of subject matters, of particular interest was one involving Navajo Nation program efforts that utilized a low-fat, plant-based diet. “A growing body of research is showing this type of diet, one similar to the diet of ancestors of many Native Americans, is effective in preventing or halting progression of Type 2 diabetes,” said Betti Delrow, program manager for the Navajo Special Diabetes Project in Window Rock, Arizona.

Delrow’s presentation was part of a partnership between the Navajo project and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, both seeking to implement plant-based nutrition. Delrow and Caroline Trapp, director of diabetes education for the Physicians Committee, shared success stories from Navajo families who have reversed their diabetes and changed their lives by returning to a diet rich in traditional native foods—vegetables, fruit, legumes, and ancient grains like corn, beans, and squash.

“Diabetes rates have doubled over the past two decades and are expected to double again over the next 20 years. We can no longer look the other way.  We need to fix the root problem today,” said Dr. Neal Barnard, conference host and president of the Physicians Committee.

In an exclusive interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, Bernard noted that traditional focus on diabetes care has been on medications to regulate blood sugar while a new approach will center not on medicines, but in diet changes.

Speaking about diabetes and indigenous peoples, Bernard told ICTMN: “It’s remarkable to see the health difference between traditional populations and those who no longer practice a traditional life. Well-meaning but ill-informed government programs took away the ability to independently grow healthy food and instead dumped surplus cans of luncheon meats, cheeses, and processed foods of all kinds on these populations.”

And until recently, not much changed whether the population base was native or not.  “Looking at Americans as a group indicates the diabetes rate continuing to climb with numbers like we’ve never seen before. The overall statistics aren’t so optimistic, but within that larger group, a number of people are changing their diets and starting to see results.  Up until ten years ago, American annual meat intake had increased to 201.5 pounds per year.  Now that number has fallen to 181.5 pounds annually and I expect those statics to fall even further, a harbinger of good things to come for those who make the effort.

“It’s challenging to make changes in habit. Look at tobacco consumption a generation ago, until logic and science prevailed, and many people quit. Now a generation later, we’re involved in the same kind of food battle we had with tobacco and we’re making progress as we turn back the clock and begin eating like our grandparents did.

“The Institute of Medicine shows it takes 17 years for the latest research to make its way into clinical practice—but if you have enough research already that shows a diet rich in healthy foods will significantly reduce the risk of chronic disease, why wait?”

The Navajo Nation Special Diabetes Project is setting a good example of their mission to promote  healthy life styles by starting within their own group. The Navajo Times recently quoted NNSDP nutritionist Margilene Barneys as having lost weight by following Dr. Barnard’s eating advice—“It’s an eye-opener that makes a lot of sense,” she said.

Another step forward is pending Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly’s approval as part of the Healthy Dine Nation Act whereby the sales tax on ‘junk food’ sold with the Nation would increase to seven percent. Also pending is a Navajo Nation Council approval of elimination of the current five-percent sales tax on fresh fruits and vegetables.

For further information on The Power to Heal Diabetes—Food for Life in Indian Country, check out and Healthy recipes are available at

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Roger Bird
Roger Bird
Submitted by Roger Bird on
"plant based food" is code for "veganism". Veganism is a big improvement over the Standard American Diet (SAD), but it is kind of wimpy and often problems show up after some years, depending upon the individual. The Paleo lifestyle/diet is better.

aliberaldoseofskepticism's picture
Submitted by aliberaldoseofs... on
@Roger Bird: I'm afraid it's worse than that. Neal Barnard is a known quack. His "Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine" has four lies in its name. (Less than 10% of them are physicians, they're not a government body, they're hardly responsible, and of course, no medicine.) They began as a way for PETA, ELF, and ALF to oppose animal testing (which, of course, tacitly endorses testing on Indians and other "undesirables") while seeming scientific, e.g., claiming that meat contains heavy metals. (Sound familiar? It should; CITIZEN Andy Wakefield made the same assertions about vaccines, and we've been fighting that bit of nonsense for 16 years now.) Harriet Hall (though I don't always agree with her, but I don't hold experts to some ideological purity test, unlike PCRM; funny how that works) wrote a good takedown of his work "The China Study". Short version: A bunch of cherrypicking. (Why China? Orientalism!) Though, even as early as the 1950s, dietitians were more concerned about the fat content (and later, what kind of fats) than the cholesterol content; in fact, no less than Ancel Keys, father of the low-fat diet, sounded the alarm about margarine. Basically, unless you have Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome (and you wouldn't live long if undiagnosed, and males are easily diagnosed), your body produces more cholesterol than you can possibly eat. But for really no explanation, Barnard decides the cholesterol you eat causes not only heart attack, but diabetes and cancer. Meanwhile, he decides that a vegan diet (and remember, Oreos are vegan; that "creme" is exactly as real as the spelling suggests) will cure diabetes, and you really don't need to worry about carbohydrate intake at all. Seriously, Barnard has said so in Reader's Digest! That so long as you're vegan, you don't need to worry about portion control! Barnard is what I call a "high-functioning altie". Most alties hold that the medical community is in a conspiracy against them. High-functioning alties hold that the medical consensus favors their ideas, and constructs straw men of their critics (such as the actual medical consensus) as alties. (In this case, comparing a relatively balanced diet to Paleo and Atkins, both of which are themselves nonsense, but that's for another time.) But he still doesn't denounce fellow alties who don't directly oppose him. So he endorses Dean Ornish, Gillian McKeith, and Andrew Weil, and has yet to denounce Matthias Rath, sticking to dietary nonsense.

Neal Barnard MD's picture
Neal Barnard MD
Submitted by Neal Barnard MD on
Allow me to explain a bit about the new nutritional approach to diabetes. Our research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, and carried out by the Physicians Committee in cooperation with the George Washington University and the University of Toronto. Our results showed that type 2 diabetes could improve dramatically (and sometimes even disappear for all intents and purposes) with a diet change that includes three steps: 1. Avoid animal products (meat, dairy products, etc.) 2. Keep oils to a minimum 3. Choose healthful carbohydrate-containing foods, such as beans, rice, corn, and sweet potatoes, rather than junk food. It is also important to take a multiple vitamin or other source of vitamin B12. This research, published by the American Diabetes Association in 2006, is now an accepted approach to type 2 diabetes. Example meals might include beans with tortillas or rice, old-fashioned oatmeal with strawberries or blueberries, or vegetable chili. At first, some people thought that allowing people with diabetes to freely eat rice, beans, squash, corn, etc., must be dangerous. After all, these foods contain carbohydrate. However, it turns out that these healthy, traditional foods bring down weight, blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure. To begin, we suggest taking a week or so to test out various foods to see which ones you like. Then, when you feel ready, try a completely plant-based diet for 3 weeks. Not only are you likely to be much healthier, your tastes will start to change in a healthy direction, too. For more details, visit

Marvin E Purser Jr
Marvin E Purser Jr
Submitted by Marvin E Purser Jr on
To: aliberaldoseofs. re Dr. Bernard and your unsubstantiated juvenile assumptions: Here is the Wiki bio on him, which includes the following: As of 2013, he is an adjunct associate professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.[1]