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For Some Native Americans, Pregnancy Helps Forge a Path Toward Traditional Foods

When Maria Parra Cano became pregnant with her first child, she was weaning herself off the diet rich in cream, cheese, and butter that she had gotten used to while cooking and eating as a culinary student at Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale, Arizona.

She was diagnosed with gestational diabetes and struggled to change her diet, manage a healthy weight, and keep a healthy blood sugar level. She took the constant uneasiness in her gut as her body’s way of telling her that she needed to go back to the traditional foods she grew up eating in Mexico. Considering the health of her future child made the shift seem all the more important.

For some Native people, pregnancy is a driving force for reconnecting with traditional foods and jump starting their sometimes confusing and frustrating journey through understanding good nutrition, changing dietary habits, and realizing they’re on the outskirts of healthy food systems built without them in mind.

Cano started her journey by eating simple, ancestral foods including greens, nopales, mushrooms, and beans. She also started listening to the elders in her life; those who knew even more about traditional foods and traditional prenatal and postnatal foods and medicines.

“I want to make sure that what I put in my body is healing for me,” said Cano. “I know, as an Indigenous woman, anything can happen when I go into labor.” She’s familiar with the fact that American Indians face an elevated level of risk of mortality, second only to Black patients, when pregnant.

Her first birth took place without complication in 2012. And she’s now a mother of four and a founder of the Cihuapactli Collective (Cihuapactli means “women’s medicine” in Nahuatl), a group of women supporting and healing families and birth workers through story sharing, resource connecting, traditional Indigenous knowledge, and promotion of health and wellness. Cano hosts cooking workshops focused on food as medicine. She’s passing her knowledge to others who are pregnant because she recognizes that healthy food and traditional Indigenous food is extremely important during this time of life. But, just like herself, many Indigenous women and gender non-conforming people have had a wedge driven between these foods and their kitchens.

Through colonization, traditional foodways were erased from many parts of Indigenous life in North America. Poverty and food insecurity followed, as did diets dependent on processed, high-sugar, and high-fat foods.

On top of the other health disparities Native Americans experience, such as high rates of obesity and diabetes, pregnant Native Americans tend to have a poor-quality diet. That’s according to a 2019 study by the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion in which researchers observed the diets of 170 Native women in the Great Plains area. Researchers reported high levels of sodium and empty calories and a big deficiency in vegetable intake.

“Many times, you will see iron deficiency anemia in the mommas, a low hematocrit in our hemoglobin interbody, that’s what transports the nutrients through our bloodstream to all the individual cells,” said Suzanne England, a Great Plains-area maternal and child health consultant for the Indian Health Service (IHS), a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services responsible for providing direct medical and public health services to Native people. “Women are fatigued, they’re tired; it puts them at risk of preterm labor, and most of us know about the consequences of being born prematurely.”

Those consequences can include long-term developmental and intellectual disabilities and physical problems with Indigenous children’s lungs, eyes, intestines, and teeth. While 10 percent of all babies are born prematurely in the U.S. (before 37 weeks of gestation), according to the National Center for Health Statistics, nearly 12 percent of Native American babies are born prematurely.

When a Native person becomes pregnant, England and other maternity caregivers offer them a healthy serving of nutrition education.

“Good prenatal nutrition is when women have access to food in [the U.S. dietary guidelines] and they’re meeting appropriate weight gain based on their individual health circumstances during pregnancy,” England said.

The IHS created “My Native Plate” in response to the USDA’s “My Plate,” the visual educational tool that uses a plate to illustrate recommended percentages of vegetables, fruits, grains, and protein. The Native version includes wild game, berries, corn bread, and squash and examples of other traditional foods such as wild rice, bison, and wild greens.

When vitamin supplements are needed, England says, they’re prescribed. If a person has health issues, like diabetes or high blood pressure, they’re referred to a nutritionist who can help with implementing a healthy diet.