Native Sun Devil Savanna Castorena showcases her poster on the Pascua Yaqui Tribe titled “Uprooting Colonialism & Planting Seeds of Resilience” at the AIS 440: Research Symposium “Creating Visions for Future Nations” in spring 2018. (Photo courtesy of Savanna Castorena)

Nourishing our bodies

A call to action

By: Savanna Castorena

Tribal affiliation: Mexican/Yaqui

Major: Dietetics (Nutrition)

Growing up in a predominately Mexican-American household, I often heard family members talking about so-and-so (finally) being diagnosed with diabetes as if it were expected, almost anticipated. When I was 7 years old, I remember asking my dad what diabetes was. He could not explain to me exactly what it meant, except that it runs in the family and that it is serious.

A young Savanna is smiling with her twin sister and her parents. The family is sitting on a couch posing for the photograph.
A young Savanna Castorena with her parents and sister. (Photo courtesy of Savanna Castorena)

My dad is Mexican with roots from Aguascalientes, Mexico. My mom is Mexican and Yaqui with roots from Sonora, Mexico. Tempe is my home, but Guadalupe is my hometown. Raised outside of the town’s borders, I was not taught the Yoeme language, the traditional or cultural teachings. My twin sister and I weren’t taught Spanish for the fear that it would interfere with our western education. What we were taught was that we are Yaqui and we should be proud of that.

I believe our spirits have a way of calling us back to our true selves and our purpose in life. At the age of 12, I had a strong sense of awareness combined with my unique upbringing that I began to reconnect with my culture. In the seventh grade, I took my first American Indian studies course but there was little to no information in the textbooks about the Yaqui culture so I started asking my mom questions. Due to the wide-reaching grip of historical trauma, my mom was also not taught the cultural teaching but she told me what she knew and learned growing up in Guadalupe.

Pullout quote: “I believe our spirits have a way of calling us back to our true selves and our purpose in life.”

As I learned more about what diabetes is and how much our people are affected by it, I realized quickly that advocacy and education are what’s needed to create major change. Thus began my journey at ASU where I intend to combine my two disciplines and work with my tribe as the head registered dietitian in the Town of Guadalupe. A registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) is a licensed healthcare professional who is an expert in human nutrition who regulates, modifies and individualizes a patient’s diet depending on the patient’s nutritional needs. A saying we like to reference in the field is, “All dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are dietitians.” Just as a doctor receives their credentials after successfully passing a certified board examination, an RDN does the same. We are like a sidekick to the other professions in the healthcare field, a Robin to the Batman. The difference is, not a lot of patients know that they can request to speak with an RDN because a doctor isn’t an expert on diet. Sharing information such as this is vital to patients with diabetes so they can be stronger advocates for their health the next time they visit their primary care provider.

Pullout quote: “A diet doesn’t mean one must starve. Instead we should think of it as helping to nourish our body’s specific needs.”

With the food sovereignty movement occurring within Indian Country, we must utilize Indigenous knowledge frameworks as a direct connection to our past and our ancestors. Type 2 diabetes is a multifaceted disease that has a 90% prevention rate with the remaining 10% not in our control. When it comes to our health, an important framework we need to reframe is that a diet doesn’t mean one must starve. Instead we should think of it as helping to nourish our body’s specific needs. Type 2 diabetes disproportionately impacts our families and communities. Socioeconomic factors such as our environment, access to healthful foods, public policy, even exercise play as major influences on our health outcomes. What we can control is how we engage with the disease.

Currently we are in the middle of a pandemic with COVID-19, yet Type 2 diabetes has been an epidemic since 1994. Why aren’t we treating it with the same urgency? I challenge you to be your own health advocate. Reclaim your diet, reclaim your methods of self-care, and remember: the most powerful force in medicine is the self-advocating patient.

Diabetes is a chronic health condition that affects how your body turns food into energy and can lead to serious medical complications. Changing you and your loved ones’ lifestyles can make a huge step toward diabetes prevention as well as managing it. The bottom line is: preventing or improving diabetes is always a possibility through work and time.

What to know about diabetes

Diabetes is a chronic health condition that affects how your body turns food into energy and can lead to serious medical complications. Changing you and your loved ones’ lifestyles can make a huge step toward diabetes prevention as well as managing it. The bottom line is: preventing or improving diabetes is always a possibility through work and time.

Types of diabetes

Type 1 diabetes

Accounts for 5% of diagnosed cases.

  • Your body’s pancreas produces little to no insulin at all.
  • Onset from environmental and genetic factors.
  • Common in younger, non-obese individuals.
  • Insulin is the form of treatment.

Type 2 diabetes

Accounts for 95% of diagnosed cases.

  • Most cases are preventable.
  • Onset from diet.
  • Body is overstimulated by sugar and can’t use insulin properly.

Monogenic

  • The rarest form of diabetes, where one gene is mutated and usually develops before the age of 30.
  • This gene mutation can be spontaneous or inherited.
  • Varies from polygenic, like Type 1 and 2, that can depend on variables like diet, environment and multiple genetics factors.

Gestational

  • Develops during pregnancy, resulting in a high blood glucose due to a carbohydrate intolerance. Typically goes away after pregnancy.

Take back control through your diet

  1. Get more physical activity. Research shows that aerobic exercise and resistance training can help control diabetes!
  2. Get plenty of fiber. Did you know that fiber may help reduce your risk of diabetes by improving your blood sugar control? It can also lower your risk of heart disease!
  3. Go for whole grains as it may reduce your risk of diabetes and help maintain blood sugar levels.
  4. Make healthier choices. Incorporate essential nutrients, portion and variety control part of your healthy-eating plan.
  5. Remember: the most important factor in healthy blood sugar management is following a nutritious, balanced diet.

Food fact

Blueberries in a heart-shaped white bowl.

Blueberries have the benefits of improving blood glucose levels related to Type 2 diabetes! Read more about this study.

For more on Type 2 diabetes

Watch Savanna’s YouTube video “Low Carb and T2D” below!