Back to the Future: Returning to Native Diets Drops Diabetes Rate in Alaska

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Back to the Future
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NOME, Alaska — Megan Timm is trying to bring down western Alaska’s diabetes rate, one child and one smoked fish at a time.

The manager of the Norton Sound Health Corporation’s Chronic Care Active Management and Prevention Program, Timm oversees the facility’s annual Summercise program.

Launched in 1999 through a diabetes prevention grant from Indian Health Services, Summercise is offered each June and July by NSHC, an Alaska Native health corporation that serves Nome and 15 remote rural villages in western Alaska.

Virtually unknown in Indian Country until the 1950s, diabetes is now more than twice as common among American Indians and Alaska Natives as in the general population. Once known as adult onset diabetes, Type 2 diabetes has an incidence rate among indigenous youths nationwide estimated to be almost 50 diagnoses per year for every 100,000 teens—more than double that of any other group.

With a 8.5 percent diabetes diagnosis rate as of 2015, Alaska’s indigenous communities have a lower rate than American Indian communities in the contiguous 48 states. However, that figure is still higher than the statewide rate, prompting kid-friendly prevention efforts from NSHC and other community partners.

Given that 1 in every 3 Alaskan children is considered overweight or obese, Summercise offers activity-laden sessions for elementary and early middle school age students, focusing on dance, gymnastics, basketball, hiking, and the performing arts for area children as young as 5 years old.

Additionally, students of all ages have the opportunity to take food-related classes covering topics ranging from composting to food art to how to prepare traditional root vegetables to lessons on the proper way to smoke local fish. “All of our nutrition classes tend to fill up faster,” Timm said. “We’ve had make-your-own smoothie sessions and an ‘Eat the Rainbow’ class. We’ve done gardening and food lab classes too that were really popular.”

Multiple studies have shown a correlation between diabetes and an increased intake of corn syrup and other refined carbohydrates, common ingredients in many low-cost, shelf-stable, processed foods.

Since 1999, Summercise has grown from 25 children gathering at a local recreation center for a single week to serving more than 160 children across two 12-day sessions in Nome and single-day sessions at four of the region’s villages. Registration information requests start rolling in well before the end of the school year.

The program’s popularity has mushroomed to the point that the NSHC now brings in seven additional college interns each summer to help accommodate the demand for additional kid-friendly classes on nutrition and dietetics.

Because it is a federally funded program, participants’ parents are asked to fill out a survey before and after Summercise about their children’s eating habits and how often they exercise or actively play.

Over the last five years, more participants are not only returning the post-camp survey but are making an effort to eat more produce regularly and incorporate more physical activity.

Additionally, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that Summercise’s efforts may be on the right track.

According to county-level data from the CDC, the diabetes rate for the Nome Census Area has dropped by almost 2 full percentage points since 2010, placing it among the lowest in the state.

However, for Timm, the event’s explosive growth is enough proof that the program is having an impact on the area’s children.

“The feedback from the kids is that they come and they’re excited,” she said. “The kids are grateful to have something fun like this.

“We know it’s successful because they keep coming back year after year. That’s good enough for me.”

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