When Karen Rencountre is at what she considers her ideal weight of 220 pounds, she is considered obese by national standards. She also has diabetes. But when she eats foods recommended to control the disease, her blood sugar level soars. She has spent a long time working to understand the apparent contradiction.
“I think there’s an assumption that people who are overweight eat too much,” she said. “But it could be the way their body responds to stress or trauma, or they don’t have access to food on a regular basis, or they haven’t learned the right foods for their body.”
To be healthy, the 26-year-old Rencountre said she had to shift her attention away from other people’s phobias about fat people and instead focus on the foods she eats and how her body functions as a result.
“I feel like obesity is such a loaded word — and it’s a symptom, not a cause,” she said. “When we stigmatize it and we have heavy conversations about something being wrong with the way someone looks, we’re missing out on the other contributing factors going on with their health.”
A year ago Rencountre, a Lakota, received the same diagnosis many family members before her had received: diabetes. “It was the last thing I wanted to be told,” she said, sitting at her desk during a break from her job as network coordinator for the New Mexico Gay Straight Alliance at Santa Fe Mountain Center.
It made her one of an estimated 121,170 New Mexicans living with diabetes — a disease American Indians are about three times more likely to have than non-Hispanic whites, according to the New Mexico Department of Health.
For Rencountre, contributing factors to her condition included a busy office job and a diet that was far from that of her Lakota Indian ancestors.
So she decided to re-create her South Dakota ancestors’ diet, which she had researched for a previous job. She learned that her ancestors were healthy when they ate their traditional foods, including game meat, fish, turtle and the corn they received in trade with the Navajos. A typical breakfast for them was a small piece of buffalo meat, almonds and a huge salad of greens such as kale, spinach and broccoli. When oils, flours and beef were added to their diet, she said, their health deteriorated.
As a part of her dietary change, and although she’d never been a big sugar eater, Rencountre eliminated added sugars from her own diet and reduced foods that would quickly break down into sugar in her body. When she experimented with foods recommended by the American Diabetes Association, such as low-fat granola with yogurt and berries, her blood-sugar level spiked immediately.
“The food wasn’t working for my body. I realized then that this wasn’t a diet for someone like me,” Rencountre said. “We have a lot to learn about how food works in our bodies, and not one thing works for everyone. I remember what it felt like for the first time to eat something and feel awake and ready to do whatever.”
The Lakota Indian diet worked for six weeks, but then Rencountre was broke. She recently moved in with her half sister, Jitter Ressl, so that she could afford to regularly eat the kind of healthy foods she knows her body needs.
To prevent her blood-sugar levels from fluctuating, she is striving to follow her diet consistently and make time for fitness in a life she describes as “constantly on the run.” Her goal is to eliminate the need for medication to control her blood sugar within two years.
Rencountre realizes her biggest challenge will be creating habits she can sustain, such as walking her dog during 15-minute work breaks or sitting on an exercise ball instead of a chair while she works.
She talks to adolescents at the Santa Fe Mountain Center about creating their own healthy habits and eating simple foods. “I’m interested in how do we empower kids to take care of themselves instead of shaming them for what’s happening in their bodies,” she said.
Rencountre’s exploration into how food works in her body is something consultant Emily Stern recommends for everyone. “We have a culture of disassociating from our bodies and focusing on wanting to be thin and perfect, as opposed to having a relationship with our food and our body,” said Stern, who helps people develop a healthy relationship with food.
Stern herself has a traumatic history and was formerly afraid of her body. From the age of 14, she had horrible stomach pains that no one could diagnose or fix. Yet no one, not even the doctors her family consulted, asked her what she ate.
Despite the pain, Stern eventually weighed 260 pounds. She loved food and cooking, but she didn’t consider how food affected her body until 2001, when an acupuncturist suggested she view her stomach as a pot of soup and consider how the foods she put in her body worked together.
During the next year, she went through an elimination diet. The process began with very simple foods for the first couple of weeks. Then she slowly added one food at a time so she could understand her body’s tolerance for each item.
Her stomach pains disappeared. She learned which foods made her feel awful and which ones made her feel amazing. Even though weight loss wasn’t her goal, she lost half her body weight.
“Statistically speaking, to lose that amount of weight and keep it off is not common. It takes an everyday relationship with our food and our body,” said Stern, who has lived in Santa Fe almost five years. “It takes having an awareness of how foods affect us. It also takes having a lot of compassion for ourselves.”
Stern considers her food choices strategically. If she faces a long day of teaching or writing, she can eat kale with garlic, lemon and a piece of fish and know she’ll feel fine. Aided by her social-work background, she teaches individuals cooking skills and explores their histories around food and their relationships with their bodies. Often, people tell her they have felt isolation and shame.
“So many approaches to food are about restriction and not liking yourself and needing to change it,” she said. “I want to help people find a bridge in healing themselves and eating food that’s beautiful, that they love.”