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International Health

Healthy Choices, Healthy Options
Fighting Obesity and Related chronic diseases through exercise, diet and community involvement

In the struggle to prevent obesity and related diseases such as type 2 diabetes and hypertension, Department faculty and staff run several projects to encourage healthy living habits, including eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly. Two such programs are Healthy Stores and the Center for American Indian Health program, Native Vision. Because making healthy choices is not only a matter of good information, both programs weave together individual education and community development activities. 

Native Vision soccer camp. Photo credit Ed Cunicelli 
Native Vision soccer practice. Photo: Ed Cunicelli 

Native Vision

Native Vision is a partnership operated by the National Football League Players Association and the Center for American Indian Health. Through the program, NFL players and other professional and collegiate athletes donate their time to be mentors to Native youth. While the hallmark of the Native Vision program is its annual camp, staff have recently developed year-round programming in three tribal communities: White Mountain Apache, Southwest Pueblos, and the Haudensaunee Nation. The programs are designed to promote four major areas of well-being for Native children and families:

1) Healthy Minds
2)  Healthy Bodies
3)  Healthy Families
4)  Healthy Communities

The Healthy Bodies component specifically aims to reduce the prevalence of diabetes and obesity by encouraging physical activity during and after school. For instance, a 10-week running program organizes runs, teaches proper technique, and encourages participants to continue their own running regimen after the program concludes. To better engage students, it incorporates information on healthy traditional foods and the history of running in native communities. Native Vision also helps to organize recreational sports leagues for kids and fitness programs for adults and elders.

The Healthy Communities facet of the year-round program attempts to increase the number of healthy options community members have at their disposal. For example, Native Vision helps identify land for community gardens so members can grow traditional crops. In addition, traditional cooking classes are offered that teach how to prepare these crops once harvested.

Healthy Stores Taste Test Promo

In 2000, Professor Joel Gittelsohn led the first Healthy Stores project in the Republic of the Marshall Islands to address the need for healthy food options in low-income areas where these options aren’t always available, if at all. That first pilot trial has since led to programs in over 10 different healthy stores programs with American Indian tribes, First Nations reserves, Pacific Islanders, and in low-income areas of Baltimore City.  Since Native populations suffer from high rates of diabetes, obesity and heart disease, the USDA funded the expansion of the program to the White Mountain and San Carlos Apache in 2003. The Apache Healthy Stores Program was created to address these problems by working to improve healthy food availability and to promote healthy eating.

Specific goals of the program included

• Improving the availability of healthy foods in local stores

• Promoting the purchase of healthy food alternatives in local stores

• Evaluating how successful the program is in increasing knowledge and changing food purchasing, preparation and consumption

An important aspect of the program was developing messages to encourage healthy nutritional choices. These messages were developed in collaboration with tribal members and leaders and were disseminated through a variety of channels, including radio and billboards. Participating stores also displayed project messages to help direct customers to the healthy foods offered by the store. Other features of the program included in-store taste-tests and cooking demonstrations. 

The program was successful in improving food-related knowledge, and frequency of purchasing and consumption of promoted healthy foods. The success of the Apache Healthy Stores resulted in its extension and a mandate to expand its programming to the Navajo Nation. On the Navajo Nation, the program is working in partnership with the Navajo Special Diabetes program—which is the institutional base for the Healthy Stores activities. 

These behavioral and community-based interventions have been and continue to be an important aspect of the Department’s fight against obesity and related chronic diseases.

For more information:

Healthy Stores

Center for American Indian Health

Native Vision