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Giessel responds: Traditional and local food remarks taken out of context

Cathy Giessel

I am a strong advocate for local foods as the healthiest choice. Some individuals have taken my advocacy out of context and mischaracterized it.

My favorite job has been working as a nurse practitioner in rural Alaska.

I am a lifelong Alaskan, born and raised in Fairbanks. My dad was a pilot for Wien Airlines. He flew F-27s and, later 737s, to communities north and west of Fairbanks. I was the oldest child and got to go to work with my dad a lot! I met lots of legendary Alaska pilots, such as my dad’s friend, Bill English. The best part of going to work with my dad was riding along on his trips! It was so great to arrive in a community and meet all the people!

My nurse practitioner job took me to many of those same rural communities. My dad has passed away now, but I feel like I am following in his footsteps. He loved his job and he loved being able to be one of the vital links between rural Alaska communities and Fairbanks.

Alaska has changed a lot since then ... great advances in healthcare delivery, transportation and communication. But, in some cases, good foods have been replaced with not such good foods. Good, local foods from the land and sea are often replaced with processed junk foods.

In my work doing sports participation physicals, I see many young people with obesity, high blood pressure, and early signs of type-2 diabetes ... in both rural and urban Alaska. These heartbreaking illnesses are all preventable with a good, local diet of lean wild game, seafood, berries and other healthy subsistence foods found in Alaska.

I have seen the positive changes when a teen returns to a healthy diet of local foods. One young man we’ll call Alex, who was about 75 pounds over his ideal weight, sincerely asked for help. He explained how hard he'd tried to lose weight, wanted to excel at his sport, and asked me what he could do.

“How much water do you drink”, I asked him. Alex’s answer: “I never drink water.”

Startled, I asked him how he could get by with no fluid intake? “I just drink pop,” he replied. How much? "A case ... 12 cans a day,” he told me.

A huge financial cost, but how much worse was cost to his health! I realized that Alex wanted to change his health, and this was a wonderful opportunity for him to make a healthy change. As a nurse practitioner, I know the addictive effects of sugar, artificial sweeteners, and caffeine. Together we worked out a realistic plan to wean him off soda. He listened closely as I explained what was happening with all the sweetener and caffeine consumption.

The next year I returned; Alex came to see me again. “Remember me?” he grinned. Then he proudly asked to be weighed. He had lost the 75 pounds. “How did you do that?!” I asked, thrilled.

“I took your advice. I followed the plan you gave me. I don’t drink pop anymore, only water. I feel so much better and my [sports] game has gotten better, too!”

There is nothing as gratifying to a nurse practitioner’s ears as that message.

Then there is another young man we’ll call "George" who was looking forward to the sports season. George was pretty tall, but obese at over 300 pounds.

When George got on the scales he asked what his weight was. I told him: 317 pounds.

George started to weep. I felt so bad! “I’m so sorry!” I said.

He quickly looked up and said, “I’m crying because I’m so happy! I’ve lost weight! I used to weigh over 350 pounds!”

“Really! How did you lose weight, George?” I asked.

“My parents moved to [a state in the Lower 48], but I wanted to stay here. So I am living with my grandma and she only eats Eskimo food. I am losing weight and feeling so much better eating Eskimo food!” George told me.

Wow! This young man is on his way to better health because of his better diet: a diet of healthy, local foods! I was so happy for him! He discovered that traditional foods improved his health.

Chicken nuggets, hot dogs, lots and lots of chips, sweetened carbonated beverages -- processed foods full hydrogenated fats, sugars, salt, preservatives: bad stuff. These kinds of unhealthy foods are consumed by kids all over Alaska.

Rural kids have the advantage: in their midst are nutritious local foods, full of omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins A and D, and high quality protein. Colon cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes are all preventable with decreased dependence on junk food and a good diet of local foods.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks with the Center for Alaska Native Health Research recently secured a $5.3-million grant to study subsistence diets and build on the biomedical data about obesity, genetics, nutrition, and cancer in Alaska Native populations. This will be helpful information for all Alaskans.

Improving Alaska's health is very important to me, not through top-down government mandates and edicts, but through continual education and providing all Alaskans the information they need to make better choices. I have continuously fought for economic strength through resource development, employed Alaskans in productive jobs and energy development for Alaska and beyond. Through simple changes in diet, using the resources we have right here in the state, we can realize dramatic health benefits for ourselves and our children. I will continue to advocate for better education on the effects of eating nutritious traditional and local foods, and encourage changes for better health for Alaskans.

Cathy Giessel has represented District P in the Alaska Senate since 2010. She is currently running to represent the redistricted Senate District N, which covers the Anchorage hillside, Turnagain Arm, and northern half of the Kenai Peninsula).

The preceding commentary was originally posted on CathyGiessel.com on Oct. 9 and is republished here with permission.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.