The nutritional health of American Indian and Alaska Native children has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. The prevention and treatment of malnutrition (primarily undernutrition) was a major health issue until the mid to late 1970s. Now, a generation later, obesity in American Indian and Alaska Native children is a major health threat. In 1969, the National Institutes of Health sponsored a conference to review the nutritional status of North American Indian children and to set a national agenda to improve the nutritional health of Indian children. Subsequently, increased food availability; food assistance programs; and improved sanitation, transportation, and health care have eliminated undernutrition as a major health issue. However, the substantial reduction in undernutrition has been accompanied by a rapid increase in childhood obesity. The current epidemic of child and adult obesity and associated obesity-related morbidities, such as type 2 diabetes mellitus and other chronic diseases, has implications for the immediate and long-term health of young American Indians. This article reviews the current nutritional health of American Indian and Alaska Native children, the changes that have occurred the past 30 years, and the nutrition transition to increasing obesity and subsequent diabetes that is being seen in American Indians. Future directions to improve the health of American Indian and Alaska Native children are discussed, as is the urgent need for obesity prevention programs that are culturally oriented, family centered, and community- and school-based and that target healthful eating and physical activity beginning in childhood.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
This work was supported in part by these grants: Maternal and Child Health Bureau, Health Resources and Services Administration (MCJ 27A03-03-0) and NIH-HL50885-0351.