Diabetes on the Navajo nation: what role can gardening and agriculture extension play to reduce it?


Diabetes has emerged as a serious health problem in the Navajo nation, the largest Indigenous tribe in the US. Persons with diabetes are at greater risk for developing other diseases such as cardiovascular disease. Navajos with diabetes almost certainly face a diminished quality of life if their diabetes is not managed properly. Aside from genetics, the incidence of diabetes is highly correlated with income, poor diet, and limited physical exercise. A review of the literature also implicates dietary shifts initiated by historical events and contemporary trends. Numerous studies have shown that moderate consumption of fruits and vegetables, combined with exercise, reduces the risk of or delays the onset of many diseases including diabetes. As part of a larger holistic approach, home and community garden projects have successfully addressed nutrition and food security issues on a grassroots scale. The Navajos have a tradition of farming and therefore expanding Navajo diabetes interventions to include the promotion of community and home gardens provides multiple opportunities. The benefits of these actions include: (i) a variety of nutritious food grown locally; (ii) physical activity attained through the act of daily gardening tasks; (iii) positive income garnered in terms of savings in food otherwise purchased at stores and excess produce canned, or if desired, sold at a farmer's market or trading post; and (iv) positive mental outlook through a combined sense of accomplishment at harvest time, bonding with the earth, and spiritual growth. The objectives of this article were to review the development of diabetes on the Navajo nation though historical and contemporary literature, to provide insight into the role of diet and exercise in the progression of the disease, and to offer cases and suggestions in the role that home and community gardening can play in diabetes reduction. A concluding discussion proposes a multidisciplinary approach to tackling diabetes on the Navajo nation involving public health officials, nutritionists, and horticultural extension agents that could also be applied internationally in similar multicultural, semi-arid climates.

Location Description: 

New Mexico NM