In 1735, the young religious leader John Wesley visited the city of Savannah, located in the province of Georgia in what was then the American Colonies. He was particularly impressed by the Native American peoples he encountered, describing them as the perfect example of health, correctly believing this to be due to their lean diet and rigorous physical lifestyle.
Numerous cultural and economic shifts have occurred since Wesley’s initial visit that have greatly affected the health of not only the American Indian, but also that of the white and multi-ethnic settlers that came to populate the country. As advancements in technology have taken away the need for hard daily physical activity, the American public has been taking it easy, letting the wheels and motors do the walking. We have become a country of couch-potatoes and TV watchers. It is a dangerous cycle: as we do less, we become less able to be physically active, which encourages us to do even less. This sedentary lifestyle has an enormous negative impact on our health.
At the same time, diets have changed with the availability of government-subsidized and inexpensive oil, flour, corn-syrup and cheese. This has made highly marketed, high-calorie, high carbohydrate fast-food a dietary staple, rather than the lean meat, fruits, eggs, and vegetables, which had been the traditional American Indian diet. Not only did they eat better, but they worked harder for it as well.
The consequence of eating more and moving less is an obesity epidemic. Two out of three Americans are over-weight and half of these are obese. It is no surprise that an epidemic of diabetes has followed. Right now, 29 million Americans know they have diabetes, and about one in four people with diabetes have it but don't know it. Although this epidemic is affecting non-Indian immigrants that have come to live in the U.S., diabetes is about twice as bad for the American Indian population.
The obesity and diabetes epidemics are a growing problem. The question is, how do we address it? It should certainly start with something more than developing and prescribing diabetic medicine. The most common form of diabetes is type 2, the incidence of which is greatly affected by lifestyle choices. People who eat too much and exercise too little are at a much higher risk. A recent study showed that educating children and parents about eating less and moving more makes the biggest difference in preventing and treating diabetes. Our job as medical care providers and as a society should be to spread this knowledge, encouraging everyone to eat a leaner diet and live a more physically-active lifestyle.
We all could learn from the habits of the early American Indians.