When you first see it, plopped down on a paper plate in all its caloric bliss, the round, doughy treat is so appealing, so alluring it is hard to believe this wondrous sight can cause anything but delight.

But fry bread, that fluffy concoction American Indians lovingly make in their kitchens and people line up for at powwows and western fairs, has come under attack as a hazard to health.

Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne and Muscogee Indian, wasn't trying to cause a debate. She just was exhausted with yet another of her relatives dying of diabetes. She zoned in on fry bread as a culprit and whipped out a January column for Indian Country Today declaring it junk food that leads to fat Indians.

She made a New Year's resolution to abstain from fry bread. Then she did something some Indians consider insane: She asked them to give it up, too.

Word spread through Indian country until what started as a woman's disdain for a local delicacy suddenly became the great fry bread debate. Ask any Indian about it, and you will either be greeted with rolled eyes -- or hungry eyes.

After all, fry bread is synonymous with Indian culture. South Dakota has just made it the official state bread. And many Indians don't want anyone coming between them and their hot, greasy skillets.

"It's like giving up turkey at Thanksgiving," said Gayle Weigle, an Anishinabe Indian who runs a Web site celebrating fry bread stories and recipes. "It is a tradition."

Indian women such as Margarita Gonzalez on the Tohono O'odham reservation here rise before dawn to make fry bread. Gonzalez makes four dozen pieces each morning and makes her living selling them in an empty lot in Sells.

"It's like a craving you get for it, the aroma of it. You have to try to keep yourself from it," she said, taking a break from serving the lunch crowd.

While fry bread may be tasty, it is also loaded with calories -- at least 700 for one plate-size piece plus 27 grams of fat, according to a nutritional analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Those things are awesome," tribal police officer Mario Saraficio said, getting excited at the thought. "It's bad, but it's good. If the doctor told me I had to give it up, I'd say probably not."

Fry bread came into being of necessity. When the government moved Indians off their land and onto reservations in the 1800s, they were kept from their traditional foods such as elk, corn, deer and rabbit. In their place were rations of flour, salt and lard, and Indian women did what they could with it, creating the fry bread that would become part of their culture.

Ingredients vary, but the main ones are white flour, salt, sugar and lard. Some call it a popover, and options for how to eat it are endless. There's the Indian taco (fry bread with red chili and beans) or the extra-sweet version with powdered sugar or honey.

In Phoenix, there is the popular Fry Bread House restaurant, where you can get fry bread pretty much anyway you want, including topped with chocolate syrup and oozing with butter.

Folks there talked about the fry bread flap, but it didn't seem to make much difference.

"They're still in line," said restaurant owner Cecelia Miller.

Fry bread is so embedded in the culture that many Indians can't imagine going without. T-shirts declare "Fry Bread Power Forever!" or "FBI -- Fry Bread Inspector." A Web site is dedicated to warm, fuzzy memories of fry bread.

Harjo's column was almost like taking spray paint to sacred petroglyphs.

Harjo, who heads the Morning Star Institute, an Indian rights group, compared fry bread to a "lead Frisbee" and even likened it to "hard-core porn. No redeeming qualities."

"It's the connecting dot between healthy children and obesity, hypertension, diabetes, dialysis, blindness, amputations and slow death," Harjo wrote, deeming it, quite simply, "rotten stuff."

On the national radio show "Native America Calling," the fry bread furor was one of the most popular topics this year. One man boasted that he downed 12 pieces in one sitting. Another man said he was desperate for fry bread and couldn't find any.

"Anytime you say fry bread, people smile. Except Suzan Harjo," Weigle said. "It's almost sacred. It just makes you happy."

Weigle started her Web site FryBreadLove.org to talk about a benefit concert for the homeless children she worked with in Minneapolis. Why that name? To her, fry bread means comfort. Soon, she was posting recipes, pictures and stories. She's thinking now of a recipe book.

Not every case of obesity and diabetes among Indians can be blamed on fry bread, but Harjo has a point.

Among Indians, the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes -- the most common form -- is more than double that of the general population.

Many believe the diabetes rate began to skyrocket when Indians stopped living off the land and began using government rations. For decades, researchers with the National Institutes of Health have been studying the Pima Indians in Arizona, who have the highest incidence of diabetes in the world, to determine if there is a genetic reason they are more susceptible to the disease.

Here on the Tohono O'odham reservation near Tucson, more than half the 14,000 residents have diabetes. A $4 million dialysis center is under construction, necessary to serve all the people who have developed kidney disease from diabetes.

At the Sells hospital, it is unusual for doctors to see a tribal member who doesn't have diabetes. It is so prevalent that doctors and nutritionists struggle to convince Indians that they can help prevent it.

The attitude is, "I'm going to get it anyway," said Paul Weintraub, a physician. "And to some extent, it's true. They will get it."

Tammy L. Brown, a nutrition consultant with the Indian Health Service's diabetes division said that fry bread "isn't the culprit that has made Indian people heavy. It's the fast foods, the sugary drinks. It's the overall diet."

But, if fry bread gets Indians talking about health, then that's fine by Brown and Harjo.

"Just because it was food that was forced on us doesn't mean we have to keep embracing it," Harjo said.

For a long time, Indians have made fun of commodities and even refer to an overweight person as having a "commod bod." Jokes are tossed around that fry bread has killed more Indians than the federal government.

But artist Steven Deo, a Creek and Euchee Indian, said humor is used by Indians to deal with obesity and diabetes.

"At some point, we have to confront that," he said. "We have to prepare the next generation to come out of that poverty, to strive for bigger and better things."

Deo created a series of public service posters, and presented the first one -- a picture of a big, tan piece of fry bread with the words: "Frybread Kills" -- at a show in New Mexico last year.

"It has stirred some controversy," Deo said. "But at least we're talking about it now."

Nutritionists estimate that 80 percent of the Tohono O'odham people are obese.

At midday at the Health O'odham Promotion Program, or the HOPP, the step class was in full, sweaty swing. Health lessons are posted around the gym, reminding members to get five servings of fruits and vegetables a day and that white bread and rice quickly convert to sugar. Music was blaring, the treadmills were filling up, and Mashone Antone, 36, was on her second trip to the community gym that day.

Last October she took a hard look at her life: She was overweight, and so were two of her three children. They stayed in the house a lot, ate fast food, indulged in fry bread and barely thought about health.

Antone, a juvenile probation officer, wanted to change that, for her children and for herself.

Now she's up every day at 5 a.m. for a two-mile walk, then hits the HOPP before work and again after work. She has shed 30 pounds and wants to lose 50 more. Her daughter often joins her at the gym, and now the family takes walks and plays basketball.

Soda is out, fruits and vegetables are in, and fry bread is a rare treat.

"When I think about it, that was my downfall," Antone said. "I don't miss it."

Harjo would be proud.

But getting someone with Antone's enthusiasm is a challenge for the gym's staff. They hold a weight-loss challenges, fun runs, offer nutrition counseling, teach people how to shop for healthful food and host a camp for children at risk for obesity and diabetes.

"I do get a lot of resistance from people who say they want to change their eating habits, but don't want to change the way they cook," said dietitian Dolores Galaz.

"People want to change because they see what's happening to their elders and their parents. I just think they haven't known how to go about changing," Galaz said.

Susan Shown Harjo touched off a lively debate when she suggested in a column that Indians should give up fry bread for the sake of their health.

Marissa Pablo, 5, holds a piece of fry bread. Her aunt, Margarita Gonzalez, makes about four dozen to sell daily.

Paul Weintraub listens to the heart of patient Gloria Maldonado at a hospital in Sells, Ariz. Most patients he sees have diabetes.