Public health researcher connects rise in obesity to generational knowledge gap

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May 20, 2013

A growing generational disconnect between adults and children is putting thousands of years of cultural tradition and culinary knowledge in southern Arizona in jeopardy, according to a recent study by a researcher in the College of Public Health. The impact of this "knowledge gap" could help to explain the rise of childhood obesity, Type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease in Native American and Mexican-American populations in Arizona.

In her study, Colleen O'Brien Cherry, an assistant research scientist at the college's Center for Global Health, focused on white, Mexican-American and Native American children and adults in southern Arizona.

Like Georgia, all segments of Arizona's population are battling an obesity problem and, in particular, the Tohono O'odham have one of the highest Type II diabetes rates of any ethnicity in the U.S.

As an anthropologist, Cherry's research has centered on how changing environments impact the health and well-being of the population. Because of its diverse ecosystem fueled by significant rainfalls twice a year, the Sonoran Desert made for a logical place to evaluate. It is home to more than 60 species of mammals, 100 reptile species, 350 bird species and 2,000 plant species-425 of which are edible to humans.

The Tohono O'odham, a Native American population indigenous to the area, have a rich heritage of specializing in ethnobotany, using native plants for food and medicinal purposes.

Cherry said her research suggested a widening knowledge gap about these wild foods and their benefits between children of Mexican-American and Native American descent and their parents and grandparents. The adults had a deep well of skill-based knowledge, such as how to harvest a plant or prepare certain types of wild foods, while the majority of the students interviewed had never tried some of the plants.

A multitude of factors were influencing this knowledge gap, Cherry said. Part of the gap can be attributed to changing circumstances, such as an increase in protected lands in the region, environmental and climate change and children spending less time in nature, thus limiting access to these types of wild foods. However, her research also detected a distinct change in attitudes among adults.

"Traditionally, this information is passed down from generation to generation, and it's passed orally, through stories and explanations and through the process of showing children how to collect these plants and foods," said Cherry.

"What we learned was that many of the adults simply aren't doing this anymore, so there's no opportunity for this generation to have that hands-on learning experience that enables them to acquire this knowledge."

Based on interviews conducted with multiple parents in the region, Cherry found many of them took a negative, almost pessimistic, view with regard to their children's willingness to learn and carry on these traditions. Compounding this problem is the dramatic change in the types of accessible food for Native American and Mexican-American populations in even the most rural of areas.

As a result, the majority of adults reported they felt little impetus to continue to share these skills and heritage with their children and grandchildren and abandoned any attempt to pass the knowledge on.


By Johnathan McGinty
Photo by Paul Efland