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February indicates not only the onset of winter’s thaw but also a touching reminder of the importance of heart health. As the nation observes American Heart Health Month, Indigenous communities across the nation join in raising awareness about cardiovascular disease, which disproportionately affects American Indians and Alaska Natives.  

Despite advancements in medical science, cardiovascular diseases persist as the leading cause of global mortality, claiming over 17.9 million lives annually, according to the National Indian Council on Aging. Projections indicate a further rise to over 23.6 million deaths by 2030. Heart disease remains the primary cause of death in the United States. 

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Within the broader landscape of health disparities, American Indian/Alaska Natives face heightened risks of heart disease compared to their white counterparts. Statistics from the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health reveal that AI/ANs exhibit higher rates of heart disease diagnosis, obesity, hypertension, and smoking.  

Central to promoting heart health within Indigenous communities is food sovereignty, an approach that emphasizes community control over food systems, ensuring access to culturally appropriate, nutritious foods. Indigenous populations can reduce the risk of heart disease by reclaiming traditional diets rich in whole foods and shunning processed alternatives while honoring ancestral culinary heritage. 

Indigenous food sovereignty can help with heart health by addressing several key factors that influence cardiovascular wellness within Native communities:  

  • Nutrient-Rich Foods: Indigenous diets traditionally consist of whole, nutrient-dense foods such as wild game, fish, fruits, vegetables, and traditional grains. These foods are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and essential fatty acids that support heart health by reducing inflammation, improving blood pressure, and promoting overall cardiovascular function.
  • Reduced Consumption of Processed Foods: Indigenous food sovereignty encourages a shift away from processed and highly refined foods that are often laden with unhealthy fats, sugars, and additives. By prioritizing locally sourced and minimally processed foods, Indigenous communities can lower their intake of harmful substances linked to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
  • Cultural Connection and Identity: Embracing traditional Indigenous diets fosters a deeper connection to cultural heritage and identity, strengthening community bonds and resilience. This connection to ancestral foodways not only promotes emotional well-being but also encourages healthier eating habits rooted in Indigenous knowledge and values.
  • Sustainable Food Practices: Indigenous food sovereignty emphasizes sustainable food production methods that prioritize environmental stewardship and respect for the land. By cultivating and harvesting foods in harmony with nature, Indigenous communities can preserve biodiversity, protect natural resources, and ensure the availability of nutritious foods for future generations.
  • Community Empowerment and Self-Determination: Indigenous food sovereignty initiatives empower communities to reclaim control over their food systems, reducing reliance on outside sources and promoting self-sufficiency. Through community gardens, food cooperatives, and traditional harvesting practices, Indigenous peoples can cultivate resilience and autonomy while improving access to fresh, healthy foods that support heart health and overall well-being.

In addition to dietary modifications, enhancing access to healthcare services and fostering culturally sensitive interventions are essential. Collaborative efforts between healthcare providers, community leaders, and government agencies can facilitate the development of tailored health programs that resonate with Indigenous values and traditions. 

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The Native News Health Desk is made possible by a generous grant from the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation as well as sponsorship support from the American Dental Association. This grant funding and sponsorship support have no effect on editorial consideration in Native News Online. 
About The Author
Kaili Berg
Author: Kaili BergEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Staff Reporter
Kaili Berg (Aleut) is a member of the Alutiiq/Sugpiaq Nation, and a shareholder of Koniag, Inc. She is a staff reporter for Native News Online and Tribal Business News. Berg, who is based in Wisconsin, previously reported for the Ho-Chunk Nation newspaper, Hocak Worak. She went to school originally for nursing, but changed her major after finding her passion in communications at Western Technical College in Lacrosse, Wisconsin.