TraDiSHional Impact on the Health of Native American Children | Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior (SNEB)

TraDiSHional Impact on the Health of Native American Children

Posted by: on Wednesday June 19, 2019 SNEB

Originally published in the June issue of JNEB.

Native American (NA) children have a rich cultural and sensory relation- ship with food.

Consider the smell of burning sage and the beat of the drum echoing a heartbeat into the distance. The taste of Indian tacos while watching elders and children dancing in a circle with locked hands wearing vibrant regalia. All five senses implored at powwows awaken emotion entangled in traditional culture. For NAs, food symbolizes cultural connectivity and is often used as a method to gather people together.

Unfortunately, NAs’ relationship with food has shifted since colonization contributing to health disparities such as obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes. While these shifts are not exclusive to Native populations, their impacts have been profound.1 Specifically, the evolution in eating patterns and physical activity (PA) have predisposed NA children to obesogenic behaviors. When compared to US children, Native children have a higher prevalence of obesity.2 If poor dietary and physical activity behaviors continue to increase, obese NA children may have an even higher risk of becoming overweight adults.3

Little information exists to support nutrition education and behavior interventions among NA children. Traditional interventions focusing exclusively on food composition, PA, and access to fresh fruit and vegetables may disregard the cultural and historical components that also contribute to the risk of overweight and obesity among NA children.4 As a community of nutrition educators, we can move our field forward by carefully integrating NAs’ cultural relationship with food in our interventions. For example, when feasible we should consider designing interventions for NA children that are sensitive to their specific tribes. Assimilation, food habits, and overweight and obesity prevalence for NA children vary by region likely reflecting differences in dietary behaviors between tribes.2

Working towards common goals in collaboration with NA communities, the efforts of SNEB members can have a significant impact on the nutrition education and health behaviors of NA children. However, creating effective nutrition interventions requires strong cultural competence and a thorough understanding of the cultural impact on food behaviors. Continued growth in cultural competence among SNEB members when working with ethnically diverse populations nationally and internationally can serve to improve our work in nutrition education research, practice, and advocacy at individual, community, and system and policy levels.

Caitlin Bullard, BS
Member of Lumbee Tribe;
 of Nutrition Science, College of Allied Health Sciences,
East Carolina
 University, Greenville, NC

Susan Sisson, PhD, RDN, CHES, FACSM
Department of Nutritional Sciences, College of Allied Health,
University of
 Oklahoma Heath Sciences Center, Oklahoma City, OK

Virginia C. Stage, PhD, RDN
Department of Nutrition Science, College of Allied Health Sciences,
East Carolina 
University, Greenville, NC


  1. Companion An Overview of the State of Native American Health: Challenges and Opportunities. Arlington, VA: International Relief and Development; 2008.
  2. Bullock A, Sheff K, Moore K, Manson Obesity and overweight in American Indian and Alaska Native children, 2006-2015. Am J Public Health. 2017; 107:1502–1507.
  3. Singh AS, Mulder C, Twisk JWR, Mechelen WV, Chinapaw Tracking of childhood overweight into adulthood: a systematic review of the literature. Obes Rev. 2008;9:474–488.
  4. Vernon A Native perspective: food is more than consumption. J Agric Food Syst Community Dev. 2016;5:137–142.