Shift from traditional foods takes toll on Alaska Native populations

The new Swanson's grocery store opened up in Bethel over the summer. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)
The new Swanson’s grocery store opened up in Bethel over the summer.
(Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)
Are Alaska Natives, with their ancestors’ long history of harvesting and eating healthful wild foods, immune to the ill effects of obesity?

Some people erroneously believe they are, no matter how high their body-mass-index readings go, according to one health expert.

“I would say, ‘Don’t count on it if you continue to eat processed food,'” said Dr. Gary Ferguson, head of wellness and prevention at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

The commercial diet that has been fattening up Americans for several generations is quickly making its mark on Alaska Natives and other indigenous people of the north. Rates of obesity have soared, and diabetes — once virtually unknown among indigenous populations — is on the rise.

For instance, obesity rates for Alaska Natives rose 63 percent between the 1991-92 period and the 2005-07 period, according to a 2009 ANTHC report.

Alaska Native obesity rates higher than rates for non-Native Alaskans

Among adult Alaska Natives, obesity rates of 35.8 percent, as reported by ANTHC, are significantly higher than the rates of non-Native Alaskans and have caught up to the rates for the United States as a whole, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control. As of 2011, Alaska Native adolescents were slightly more likely to be obese than their non-Native counterparts, according to ANTHC statistics.

In fact, obesity rates across Alaska demographic groups are up, with African-American females and Alaska Native males showing the biggest increases from the early 1990s to the early 2000s, according to an Alaska state Epidemiology Section report.

Diabetes rates for Alaska Natives, though still below those for U.S. whites, are also steadily rising, according to Tribal Health Consortium statistics.

The switch to commercial and processed food has been made in three generations or less, compared to the more gradual changes seen in the wider U.S. population.

 Processed food consumption increasing

Young people in Native villages of Western Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim region have embraced commercial food and the Western diet, according to a study published in 2007 in the International Journal of Circumpolar Health. While such traditional foods as fish and wild plants provided, on average, 42.6 percent of energy for people 60 and older, teenagers got only 7.1 percent of their dietary energy from such sources, according to the study.

A separate study of Native villagers from Northwest Alaska, published in 2005 in the Journal of Nutrition, had similar findings. “Native foods contributed significantly less to the diets of young adults than to those of elders, especially among women,” the study said.

The same trends are documented elsewhere in the circumpolar north.

A University of Alberta-led study of food consumption in Canada’s Nunavut and Northwest Territories found that 34 percent of food budgets were going to items lacking much nutritional value like sweets and snacks, with younger adults spending more money on such foods. Obesity rates in those Arctic territories outstrip those for Canada as a whole, and diabetes rates in the Northwest Territories tripled between 1994 and 2010, noted the study, published in April in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.

Sweets and fats dominated diets in three Nunavut communities, according to a study published in the June edition of the Food and Nutrition Bulletin. The most frequently consumed items? Sugar and honey, butter and Coffee-mate creamer, according to the study.

In Greenland, where only 4 percent of Inuit men and 13.6 percent of Inuit women aged 50 to 69 were overweight in 1963, rates rose by 2008 to 33.2 percent for men and 37.3 percent for women in that age group, a recent study found. Obesity rates followed a similar trajectory in the 45-year period, according to the study, led by Danish hospital researchers and published in the July/August issue of the American Journal of Human Biology.

Lifestyle, food availability prompt diet changes

A complicated story lies behind the dietary and health transformation.

Lifestyle changes, including moves from rural areas to cities and new economic pressures, make time-consuming harvests of wild food impractical, if not impossible. “We’re not going to go back to hunter-gatherer lifestyles. Most of us have cash jobs now,” said Ferguson.

Processed food is increasingly available and marketed — from pallets of high-sugar beverages shipped to remote villages to the abundance of fast-food restaurants a short walk from the high-bush cranberries and other edible wilds on the Alaska Pacific University campus to the scraps of processed food being gobbled by trash-scavenging North Slope foxes and gulls, wild animals that have the chemical traces of corn products in their blood, fur, feathers or feces.

Stress creates a compulsion to eat high-sugar, high-salt and high-fat comfort foods that are metabolized quickly, raising blood-sugar levels right away, Ferguson notes. “They make you feel better for the moment,” he said.

One thing that may be contributing to poor dietary habits, Ferguson said, is something called “epigenetic” stress — externally caused physiological stress that creates physical traits passed on to future generations. A new school of thought holds that trauma and stress experienced by one generation leaves genetic imprints that make subsequent generations more susceptible to stress in all its manifestations.

Research by Johns Hopkins University scientists found that physical reactions to stress experienced by one generation of mice are repeated in subsequent generations. More recent research by the National Institutes of Health suggests that bad childhood experiences have genetic consequences resulting in poorer health for Native American populations.

“It’s more than just food. It’s happening at a deeper level,” Ferguson said.

Food availability

Beyond lifestyle and psychology, which might dampen demand for traditional wild foods, some forces threaten food supplies.

In Alaska, salmon is the top food in the rural subsistence diet, and king salmon-run failures in Alaska’s Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers appear to have affected what people eat. Overall per-capita subsistence harvests of wild food fell by about a quarter from the mid-1980s to 2012, according to statistics kept by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Subsistence Division. Big drops came in Interior and Western Alaska, regions hard hit by the salmon problems, strongly suggesting that the run failures harm residents’ diets, said Jim Fall, a division manager. Subsistence harvests of halibut have also decreased, likely a result of reduced stocks and smaller fish size, Fall said.

Scarcity does not account for the drop in harvests of harbor seals, however. Although those animals remain plentiful, harvests fell from about 2,500 in 1992 to less than half that in 2008, according to department statistics. Reasons for the decline are hard to pin down, but might include fuel costs, among other factors, Fall said.

The changing environment

Climate change and other long-term environmental factors affect the availability of traditional foods, too. Warming has shortened periods when hunters can travel safely on frozen surfaces, or changed migratory patterns, or altered timing. In the particularly warm winter of 2010-11, freeze-up was 59 days later than normal in Iqaluit, the capital of the Canadian Arctic territory of Nunavut; hunting was disrupted and locals had to rely heavily on food banks to get through the winter, according to a study by McGill University and the University of Toronto researchers that was published in April.

Warming, and the related opening of new Arctic shipping routes, has contributed to the spread of invasive and nuisance species that harm local fish or terrestrial-plant habitat. And it is implicated in the spread of types of infectious diseases that can be passed between animal species and humans.

It has, in some places, made it more difficult for people to store wild foods in traditional ways. Permafrost cellars are less reliable, a trend that has been happening over many years and is forcing people to spend a lot of time moving food and digging new holes, said Patricia Cochran, an Inupiaq from Nome and executive director of the Alaska Native Science Commission.

“Years ago they were dripping. You could already see that the ice was melting,” she said. “People are using modern freezers, but you don’t have electricity out at fish camp.”

Food contamination concerns

Additional challenges are posed by mercury and other contaminants pumped into the global environment by fossil fuel burning, mining and other industrial activities, and carried north by atmospheric and ocean currents. For example, at remote Agattu Island — one of the westernmost islands in Alaska’s Aleutian chain and far from any polluting industrial activities — mercury levels in stickleback were high enough to cause concerns about the health of fish-eating wildlife, according to a recent study led by University of Alaska Anchorage researchers.

For the most part, Alaska fish are safe to eat in unlimited amounts, with nutritional benefits far outweighing risks from mercury or other contaminants, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

But there can be contamination hotspots. In Interior Alaska’s middle Kuskokwim River region, mercury levels are high enough to trigger state advisories concerning consumption of burbot and pike. Mercury, which exists naturally in the region, has been flushed into the food chain by old mines, most prominently the Red Devil Mine, which produced mercury for four decades before it was shut down in the 1970s; it’s yet to be fully reclaimed.

“It’s not called the mercury belt for nothing,” said Ali Hamade, a state environmental health program manager.

Other contaminants have caused some second-guessing about traditional foods in such places as St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Strait. A study published in 2011, prompted by a previous discovery that St. Lawrence Islanders’ blood held relatively high rates of contaminants, found PCB levels in marine mammal oil and blubber were well above federal thresholds. Pollutants are believed to have been carried thousands of miles from remote sites, but also to be legacies of contaminated and abandoned military facilities that took years to clean up.

“We continue to bear a burden that we did not create and do not have the capacity to deal with,” Vi Waghiyi, a St. Lawrence Island native who works for Alaska Community Action on Toxics, told federal officials at a recent Anchorage meeting on Arctic issues.

Encouraging better eating

Against those odds, the traditional-foods campaign is making progress.

Gardening is winning converts in areas where it was not done in the past and making a comeback in areas where there is a history of small-scale agriculture, said Ferguson, who grew up amid planted vegetables and root cellars. Operations include a commercial organic farm in the southwestern Alaska regional hub of Bethel that provides vegetables year-round, Meyers Farm, and small-scale greenhouses in rural Alaska villages like Gakona and Chistochina that are supported by tribal health consortium grants.

Rule changes have allowed schools and nursing homes around the nation to supplement institutional menus with traditional wild foods. Tucked into the approximately 400-page Farm Bill passed by Congress earlier this year are provisions allowing demonstration food-distribution projects and studies of new ways to promote local and traditional meals. The Centers for Disease Control, meanwhile, manage a traditional-foods project that has distributed grants to Native organizations around the nation to help control diabetes.

Sharing equipment could make it easier to harvest, store and distribute wild food, according to a panel of community leaders and government officials in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Among the group’s recommendations, discussed in the Aug. 8 issue of the International Journal of Circumpolar Health:

• Establishing community greenhouses and walk-in community refrigerators;

• Developing of formal food-exchange programs; and

• Offering subsidies to lower costs of mailing or air-lifting wild food to areas where it’s scarce.

Promoting traditional foods

Meanwhile, wild-food advocates are making a big push to instill good nutritional habits in children and claiming some success.

At an Anchorage School District Indian Education enrichment program this summer, young children munched on salmon-topped crackers and sipped crushed ice flavored with rose-petal tea while they discussed the wonders and powers of wild food. Pineapple weed plants are like “little tiny orange trees,” one girl told Tara Stiller, the Store Outside Your Door program associate who led the culinary session. A boy explained how his mother put cow parsnip in his bath when he and his brother were sick, “and the next day, we were all better.”

The Alaska Native Cultural Charter School in Anchorage schedules annual all-school berry-picking field trips and ice-fishing field trips as part of its culture-based curriculum.

“We found we had a building full of urban Natives, and none of them had that experience,” said Patsy Shaha, the school’s principal. But engaging kids in wild-food harvests is not always easy. Worries about herbicides and other local pollution meant the children attending the summer cultural-enrichment program at Begich Middle School in East Anchorage could not pick their own plants growing on school grounds. Such problems could be more common for future food foragers, thanks to a 2013 Department of Environmental Conservation regulation that allows herbicides and pesticides to be sprayed on state property without public comment.

Bad weather canceled this year’s Alaska Native Cultural Charter School berry-picking outing, which was to be held at Anchorage’s Arctic Valley. Logistical challenges of arranging for a new round of permission slips and new reservations for school buses mean that the trip will not be rescheduled this year.

The steady rain that kept the students away from Arctic Valley, did not deter a few adult pickers. Among them was Billy Katchataq of Palmer, who was on the hunt for crowberries. His mother, from Hooper Bay, favors those berries for her akutaq, or Eskimo ice cream, and he carves out time to supply them and other wild foods, he said.

“Even when it’s raining, I take the time to get out, because summer lasts for only a couple of months,” he said.

Contact Yereth Rosen at yereth(at)

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Country Food vs. Junk Food (video), Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Russian food import ban halts Finnish lorries at the border, Yle News

Greenland: Researchers must be honest with Arctic peoples about food contaminants: doctor, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Nordic diet a heart-smart alternative, Radio Sweden

Russia: Russian sanctions put tons of Swedish cheese in peril, Radio Sweden

Sweden: Demand ups Sweden’s reindeer meat prices, Radio Sweden

United States: Traditional foods making their way onto elders’ plates in Northwest Alaska, Alaska Dispatch

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