Former President Jonathan Nez reports to U.S. Dietary committee on traditional Navajo diets
WASHINGTON — Recently retired president of the Navajo Nation Jonathan Nez will testify to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) Sept. 12 that with the westward expansion that began in the 19th century, the federal government forcibly changed the Navajo Nation’s traditional dietary practices, an injustice that has contributed to the higher rates of obesity, diabetes, liver disease and other ailments Native Americans face today. The committee will make recommendations for the 2025-2030 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
“To this day, government programs continue to harm the health of our people,” Nez said. “Milk, cheese and other dairy products were never part of our tradition. Dairying is a European custom, and today, the Dietary Guidelines still push us to consume milk. Meat was never central to the Navajo diet. Traditionally, our foods were mostly plant-based.” Seventy-five percent of Native Americans cannot digest dairy.
Nez is hopeful that his testimony will reach DGAC member Dr. Valarie Blue Bird Jernigan, the first Native American member of the committee.
“Historically, the Navajo Nation lived off the land,” Nez said. “We farmed and were stewards of the land. Our staple foods were corn, beans, and squash—the Three Sisters. We were self-reliant. However, with the westward expansion, the federal government started to interfere with our self-sufficiency. Navajos were removed from their land and were held in captivity. In the process, our people were introduced to government rations that did not reflect our traditions.”
Corn, beans and squash provide protein, calcium, and other nutrients, but are treated as second-class foods in the Dietary Guidelines, which keep an inappropriate emphasis on meat and dairy products.
Beans and legumes are rich in protein and minerals, as well as fiber and other healthful nutrients, with essentially no saturated fat or cholesterol.
“Like everyone else, Native Americans do not need to consume cow’s milk since there are so many other foods and beverages that can provide the calcium, protein, vitamins, and minerals that are needed for growth and energy,” said Vanita Rahman, MD, of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a public health nonprofit of 17,000 physician members that advocates that the 2025-2030 guidelines delete dairy promotion, avoid equating protein with meat and increase emphasis on plant-based foods. “The Dietary Guidelines should emphasize the plant-based foods that traditionally kept the Navajo Nation healthy and that would benefit all Americans.”