Why do American Indians in Minnesota have higher cancer rates?

A new study from a University of Minnesota researcher shows dramatically higher rates of cancer among Indian people in Minnesota when compared to whites. Both MPR and the Strib have stories.

The study blames a variety of factors, including smoking, genetics, diabetes and environmental conditions. Interestingly, Indians in the Southwest are comparatively less susceptible to cancer than their Northern Plains counterparts. Why is this?

One answer: food.

The study acknowledges diet as a factor, but that understates the case. It's hard to imagine a more ominous looming cause than the disappearance of traditional foods like the bison and wild rice -- the forced disappearance, to be clear.

Also, for years tribal members were denied access to fish as a dietary staple: now, pollution risks toxic exposure for those who eat traditional meals. Compared to their cousins in the Southwest, Northern Plains tribes have faced wrenching dietary changes over the last few generations.

This isn't so different from what's happening to indigenous people in other parts of the world. In Okinawa, where I just spent a year, the people are statistically among the most long-lived in the world. But with the influx of American fast food displacing the traditional meals of fresh fish, local rice and organically-farmed pork or goat meat, that isn't going to be true of this generation.

Human bodies adapt to a particular diet over thousands of years. When there's a disruption, serious health consequences occur.


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