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Photo: Mineral intakes of Navajo children and adults are getting closer to those of the average U.S. individual now that they're drinking less well water and eating fewer of their traditional dishes. Link to photo information

Read: more details in Agricultural Research.

Do Navajo Diets Build Better Bones?

By Jim Core
June 1, 200

Native Americans have denser bones than Caucasians despite not eating many dairy foods, Agricultural Research Service scientists report.

Navajos, the largest tribe of North American Indians, may have low bone fracture rates because of genetic differences. But environmental and cultural differences also may play a role, according to Judith G. Hallfrisch, a research chemist with the ARS Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center in Beltsville, Md.

A lack of calcium can lead to osteoporosis, which literally means "porous bone." It is characterized by a decrease in normal bone density that causes bones to become brittle and leads to frequent hip fractures and other serious problems. Nearly 10 million Americans suffer from osteoporosis, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The onset of this degenerative disease can be prevented or delayed by taking several preventive measures, such as exercising, not smoking, limiting alcohol intake and eating dairy products and other foods that are high in calcium and vitamin D.

Hallfrisch and her colleagues are collaborating with investigators at Utah State University in Logan to determine how overall mineral intake is related to bone health and other conditions in Navajos. The scientists believe there is something in the Navajos' drinking water or food that is contributing to their sturdy bone structures.

Hallfrisch and colleagues visited a Navajo reservation in the Southwest and analyzed more than 100 water samples for minerals. Navajos on this reservation get water from wells, springs and taps and store it in barrels. The water was found to have high mineral content.

In addition, one of Hallfrisch's colleagues in Utah is analyzing juniper ash--a gray, finely ground powder traditionally added to native dishes--to determine if its minerals contribute to decreased bone-related injuries.

A more detailed story on this research appears in the June issue of Agricultural Research, ARS' monthly magazine.

ARS is the chief scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Scientific contact: Judith G. Hallfrisch, ARS Diet and Human Performance Laboratory, Beltsville, Md., phone (301) 504-9061, fax (301) 504-9098,