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How An Arizona Nun Fights Obesity Among Pima Indian Children

obesity among Pima Indian children

The Pima Indians in the United States have the highest prevalence of type 2 diabetes in the world and extremely high obesity rates as well. For more than 30 years, one Arizona nun has been trying to change these serious health issues among Pima Indian children.


The habits and activities learned during childhood often are those people carry into adulthood. At Saint Peter Mission School in the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona, students in kindergarten through 8th grade are learning more than reading, math, and science; they are embracing healthy exercise and eating habits that could save them from a lifetime of obesity and type 2 diabetes and the complications that accompany them.

Obesity and diabetes among Pima Indians
In the United States, the prevalence of diabetes is 9.3 percent of the population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among the Pima Indians in Arizona, the rate of diabetes is

  • 34.2 percent among all men
  • 40.8 percent among all women
  • 68.5 percent among men 45-54 years and 67.4 percent among men 55 and older
  • 69.8 percent among women 45 to 54 and 82.2 percent among women 55 and older

Sister Martha Mary Carpenter, principal of the mission school, has been working to change the statistics, beginning with the children. Pima Indian children as young as 4 years old develop type 2 diabetes. (There has been “no evidence of the autoimmunity characteristic of type 1 diabetes” among Pima Indians, however, even among very young children.)

Fighting obesity and diabetes among Pima Indian children
Sister Martha stresses the importance of learning “lifelong healthy habits” along with academic lessons. One of those healthy habits is exercise, and the children at the school run before class every day, in addition to their gym classes and school sports programs.

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Not only does the running burn calories and improve their cardiovascular health; it also makes the children alert, full of energy, and enthusiastic, according to Alyta Hillard, who has been teaching physical education at the school since 1980.

Some of the 230 children at the school are already clinically obese, yet Sister Martha believes her program of exercise and healthy food is saving lives. She petitioned the federal government—and she won--to change the federal school lunch guidelines so her students could have healthier food.

Today, children at the mission school get food that is “low on carbohydrates, higher on protein, fresh fruits and fresh vegetables,” explained Sister Martha. Although a few children do have pre-diabetes, “we don’t have any children who have that dreaded disease.”

Also Read: Diabetes in Native Americans linked to prehistoric diet
Kids in jeopardy with current type 2 diabetes screening
Using food as reward could promote obesity

CBS News. Arizona nun helps give students a running start
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2014 National Diabetes Statistics Report
Schulz LO et al. Effects of traditional and western environments on prevalence of type 2 diabetes in Pima Indians in Mexico and the US. Diabetes Care 2006 Aug; 29(8): 1866-71

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