Advocates and Activists

Dr. Tina Cooper delivers a plain and straightforward message of disease prevention to her patients and her tribe. Photo courtesy Chickasaw Nation.
Dr. Tina Cooper delivers a plain and straightforward message of disease prevention to her patients and her tribe. Photo courtesy Chickasaw Nation.

As medical director of the Sovereign Family Practice clinic in Ada, Dr. Tina Cooper, Chickasaw, knows about the life-threatening illnesses and diseases prevalent among the region’s native population. She also knows that many of these conditions are preventable, and prevention starts at the dinner table.

“I want to help people change their diets. So much of what we take in poisons our bodies and makes chronic conditions worse,” Cooper says. “Traditionally, Native Americans have a lot higher rate of these illnesses. We need to go back to a more natural way of eating. We’d all be healthier,” she says.

Diabetes, obesity, heart disease and hypertension were not health issues for indigenous people before Europeans settled the continent. As they adopted a more European-based diet, American Indians also experienced the same health problems. Today, Americans Indians show a much higher rate of such diseases and conditions than rates seen in the general population.

“This is all due to our diets – all those carbohydrates and corn syrup, which is particularly bad,” Cooper says. “We’re eating a lot more fatty foods than we used to. It’s easy and convenient. A lot of times, it can even be cheaper.”

Cooper’s is a teaching mission. Like many of her colleagues, she works one-on-one with her patients to educate them about good nutrition. There are larger, community-focused campaigns, but the personal approach is also effective. She starts with the basics.[pullquote]“Traditionally, Native Americans have a lot higher rate of these illnesses. We need to go back to a more natural way of eating. We’d all be healthier,”[/pullquote]

“We should all be eating more vegetables and fruits, particularly fresh and frozen because they’ve got a lot more nutrients in them,” she says.

That corn syrup? It’s a major sweetener for many soft drinks and largely should be avoided.
Cooper has other tips for greater nutrition awareness: Add more color and texture to a boring plate and pack healthy lunches for children to get them started early on the path of good eating.

The Chickasaw Nation recently celebrated the opening of the Sovereign Medical Clinic in Norman to better serve the Chickasaw tribe’s members as well as those from other Indian nations. But Cooper’s message extends beyond the walls of even the latest health care technologies and systems.

“It’s not just in the doctor’s office that we’re trying to do this,” she says.

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