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"How the Lakota Got Fat and Beau LeBeau Saved Himself."

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  • "How the Lakota Got Fat and Beau LeBeau Saved Himself."

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    Buffalo-based diet plan includes 'spiritual connection'
    Documentary to track man's journey on Dakota Diet
    By Mary Garrigan, Journal staff

    Nurse Kayla Wulf checks Beau LeBeau's blood pressure as he runs a stress
    test on a treadmill for Dr. Kevin Weiland during a recent progress checkup
    during filming of the PBS documentary, "Good Meat," by the film's producer, Sam
    Hurst, at far left. (Steve McEnroe, Journal staff)
    It is Day 100 of filming for the documentary "Good Meat," and its star, Beau
    LeBeau, is devouring a buffalo burger for lunch.

    The buffalo that LeBeau is dining on after a morning full of medical tests
    is the "good meat" of the title. But it is the film's 10-word tagline that
    sums up the story: "How the Lakota Got Fat and Beau LeBeau Saved Himself."

    Filmmakers Sam Hurst and Larry Pourier like to describe their documentary,
    which will air on PBS late this year, as "Super Size Me" upside down.

    Instead of filming a physically fit, healthy white male for 30 days while he
    gorges on fast food by eating at McDonalds three times a day, these
    independent filmmakers are following LeBeau, a 35-year-old, obese, Lakota man, for
    200 days while he tries to return to the diet of his ancestors, or at least to
    the closest approximation of it that he can find in 2007 on Pine Ridge Indian

    But just as Morgan Spurlock's indictment of fast food was about more than
    his own rapid decline into poor health courtesy of McDonald's, "Good Meat" will
    address more than LeBeau's attempt at weight loss and lifestyle changes.

    In a commentary that touches on the social, economic and spiritual
    challenges of life on a modern-day reservation, Hurst and Pourier will make the case
    for American Indians to take buffalo off the ceremonial shelf and put it back
    on their dinner tables.

    "This movie is about Beau, yes, but it's really about so much more," Pourier

    Historically, the Lakota depended on the buffalo for all of their basic
    needs, but especially as a source of food. Today, the animal plays a largely
    symbolic role in the spiritual lives of Indians, eaten more often as a ceremonial
    food than as a staple in their daily diet.

    The irony of that is not lost on LeBeau, an unemployed man whose life is
    arranged around traditional Lakota ceremonial practices such as the wacipi, or
    sweat lodge, pipe ceremonies and being a Sun Dancer.

    "We kind of put it up on a pedestal and only took it down for special
    occasions," LeBeau said.

    He struggles to explain that his new buffalo-centric menu is not just a diet
    plan but a sacred communion of sorts that allows him to live his religion
    more fully on a daily basis.

    "The buffalo is considered sacred by our tribe, of course, but before this,
    I didn't bring it into my daily life," he said. "Now, I do. There's always
    been a spiritual connection for me, but now there's even a better connection
    to it."

    Filming for "Good Meat" began Feb. 14, when the 5-foot, 9-inch LeBeau
    weighed in at 333 pounds. The medical news was not good.

    At that initial exam, the former high school basketball standout with a
    stocky build and a sweet jump shot failed his treadmill stress test. He could not
    walk for seven minutes at an accelerating speed. He was chronically
    exhausted by the obesity-caused sleep apnea, which was waking him, on average, 33
    times each hour at night.

    His supervising physician, Dr. Kevin Weiland, told LeBeau he had a body mass
    index of 49 percent body fat, a fasting blood glucose of 158 and a liver
    disease called NASH Syndrome (Non-alcoholic Steatohepatitis), which is fat
    accumulation in the liver. Then, Weiland used the word that Pourier says many
    Lakota people hear as a death sentence: diabetes.

    LeBeau had developed Type II diabetes, brought on by poor diet and lack of
    exercise. Instead of treating the disease with an expensive drug, Weiland
    prescribed a daily exercise regimen and 200 days on "The Dakota Diet."

    Weiland's soon-to-be-released book by that same name emphasizes lots of
    fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and the healthiest, most nutrient-dense
    meat he knows of: grass-fed buffalo.

    LeBeau returned to the small, crowded home at the base of Porcupine Butte
    that he shares with his father, Dusty, and several younger siblings and their
    families, and to the challenge of eating an ancient diet in a modern world.
    The few retail food outlets on the Pine Ridge reservation are more likely to
    stock soft drinks and processed sweets than green leafy vegetables.

    He eliminated sugar-laden drinks from his diet. He quit eating fast food,
    cut out processed foods and replaced white bread with whole wheat. He added
    more salads and vegetables to his diet, choosing fresh over frozen and frozen
    over canned, whenever possible. He replaced nightly snacks of high-fat,
    high-salt potato chips with bags of baby carrots. Candy bars gave way to nature's
    own candy -- fruit.

    "I crave sweets still, but now, I eat grapes and bananas instead. They are
    my candy now," he said.

    Most importantly, he eats grass-fed buffalo meat every day, thanks to the
    2-year-old buffalo bull he procured from the Oglala Sioux Parks Department
    herd. Tribal members can get a buffalo from that herd, which must be transported
    to an area locker plant for processing. The cost is less than $2 per pound.
    Still, those upfront costs and adequate freezer space are other obstacles to
    eating healthfully on the reservation, Pourier said.

    On Wednesday, 100 days after he began the Dakota Diet, LeBeau is back at
    Rapid City Medical Clinic, where everybody seems to know him.

    Trailed by cameras, LeBeau has become a familiar sight at the clinic, where
    Weiland practices internal medicine. The staff greets him by name. Nurses
    wave hello in the hallway.

    Weiland and other medical professionals will provide about $12,000 in free
    and reduced-cost medical services to the project, which is being funded
    through a $75,000 PBS grant, in-kind donations and other sources, according to
    Hurst, executive producer. Hurst is a freelance journalist and former NBC News
    producer who also owns the South Swell Buffalo Ranch in the Badlands. Pourier
    is LeBeau's cousin and has a long resume of Lakota-related film projects to
    his credit.

    After 100 days of eating only grass-fed buffalo as a meat source and
    following much of the other nutrition and exercise advice from the Dakota Diet,
    LeBeau has dropped 46 pounds. He lost four inches off his waist, his body mass
    index is down to 44, and he is losing weight the way Weiland likes to see it
    come off -- slowly and surely.

    His sleep apnea is under control. He can walk/run on the treadmill for 28
    minutes nonstop and he recently played basketball with his 11-year-old son,
    Jeffrey, for the first time in years.

    "There is still much more work to do, but we want him to do this the 'Slim
    Slow' way, as it is much safer and will assure that he will keep his weight
    off indefinitely," Weiland said.

    But the best news, halfway through filming, is that his liver functions,
    blood-sugar levels and diabetes markers have improved significantly through diet
    and exercise.

    Everyone involved with the film knows that the next 100 days will bring
    formidable challenges, including LeBeau's participation in the upcoming Thunder
    Valley Sun Dance ceremony in late June.

    But LeBeau insists, with the buffalo's help, that he is ready to save

    Contact Mary Garrigan at 394-8410 or [email protected]

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