Contrary to popular belief, fry bread is not a traditional food for American Indians.
Pulled hot from vat of hot oil and usually paired with some type of soup or as part of a taco, it has a firm place in Indian Country, particularly among Oklahoma's 37 tribes. Research shows that it could have started with the Navajos, who were given mostly lard and flour in the 19th century as part of government food rations.
Ironically, today's penchant for the deep-fried treat is also contributing to bad eating habits that affect tribal preventable disease rates, local health experts said. Type 2 diabetes numbers are increasing at an alarming pace for American Indians/Alaska Natives, both nationally and statewide.
Steve Barse, community liaison for the Oklahoma City Indian Clinic (OKCIC), said the urban Indian health center is focusing on programs that lead patients to a healthier lifestyle. Opening a wellness center is part of the equation. Getting Indian patients to consider their idea of healthy included re-education, he said.
"We are finding that Indians are starting to catch on," Barse said.
He recalled introducing clients to the idea of life without fry bread. It wasn't easy at first.
"We had a local powwow every year," Barse said. "We chose not to serve fry bread one year, the reaction was mixed, mostly with shock. People were surprised at first, then they started to catch on."
But, it's not just about getting rid of fry bread. The OKCIC also promotes GetSET, a program designed to curtail the incidence of diabetes among the local Indian population. Of minority groups, Indians are beset by the highest incidence of diabetes, according to 2007 figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC reports that Indians and Alaska Natives have diabetes at the rate of about 16.5 percent of their total population, followed at a distance by African-Americans at 11.8 percent and Latinos with 10.4 percent.
Robert Whitebird, of Oklahoma City, was almost a statistic. The Quapaw, Absentee Shawnee citizen watched family members get diabetes diagnoses for years. He brushed it off because he was an avid fitness buff and young. After a simple blood screen at a community health fair, he found he had unceremoniously joined his family members. Following the diagnosis in 2006, the 41-year-old decided to change the family blueprint.
"I immediately cut out pop," he said. "Then I started working out regularly."
Whitebird went from around a solid 250 pounds to 190 within a year, he said. Reducing his weight allowed him to remain medication-free. But he had to make wiser food choices and stick to them.
"If I want a hamburger, then I have a hamburger, but now it's just one," he said. "I still eat pecan pie, too."
DENT IN DIABETES
Making a dent in the diabetes rampage will take a social, cultural and medical approach, experts said. Mainstream as well as tribal sources are jumping on board. The University of Oklahoma's new Harold Hamm Oklahoma Diabetes Center will work to tackle the issue of diabetes in conjunction with state tribes like the Chickasaw and Cherokee. OU President David L. Boren, who has diabetes, led the effort to help open the multimillion center that focuses on the multipronged approach to the disease. The end goal, officials said, is to lower the state's obesity rates, which are some of the highest in the nation.
A big part of preventing and controlling diabetes is diet. A 2008 report by the American Dietetic Association revealed that if a low-income family decided to meet the federal dietary guidelines, they would spend between 40 and 70 percent of their income on fresh fruits and vegetables.
But there are rewards for making healthier choices that doesn't necessarily have to impact the pocketbook. Allison Bacera, 45, of Oklahoma City, has been maintaining an 80-pound weight loss after deciding to get fit. Starting her regimen more than a year ago, Bacera went from 260 pounds to about 180. She was tired of watching her Choctaw family members get their diabetes calling card. Her grandmother, who was overweight, broke both hips and struggled with carrying the extra weight. She died a little more than a year ago.
"I saw the effects of diabetes and didn't like it, I decided to do something about it," Bacera said. "I used to sit around in front of the TV and snack."
She enrolled in the OKCIC's GetSET program and was assigned a personal trainer who helped her set realistic goals and make choices that included limiting sweets and fats. She remembers being in the car on Saturday errands and consuming two bear claw pastries in one sitting.
"Those things are huge, and I would have two," she said. "Sometimes I can't believe what I thought was 'normal' eating."
Her new plan also included water " lots of water. Choosing H2O in lieu of diet soda helped her to stay full and consume less of the unhealthy stuff, she said.
"Once I got used to it, I started liking it," Bacera said. "I began to eat more fruit and vegetables, too. All my kids go to the gym now."
She also credits encouragement for keeping her on track. Her personal trainer kept her motivated when the going got tough. The typical plateaus of weight loss kept her at one place for a time and she was tempted to give up, but held the course.
Both Bacera and Whitebird, who are in the maintenance stage of their diabetes, work out regularly.
Battling adult-onset diabetes is a frightening consideration, they said, but the alternative of insulin shots, doctor visits, possible limb amputations and heart disease are a sizable deterrent.
Deciding to change is personal choice. Then it's time to follow a simple formula, Whitebird said.
"People tend to make this more complicated than it is," he said. "If you cut down calories and increase what you burn, you'll lose weight." "S.E. Ruckman