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Traditional Nutrition Can Prevent Disease

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  • Traditional Nutrition Can Prevent Disease

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    This Message Is Reprinted Under The Fair Use
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    Mohawk: Traditional Nutrition Can Prevent Disease

    Posted: May 05, 2005
    by: John Mohawk / Indian Country Today

    It has been apparent for well over a decade that when indigenous peoples
    shift from their traditional diet to a ''modern'' highly refined carbohydrate diet
    they become exposed to a range of degenerative diseases. The most pervasive
    is diabetes mellitus.

    This disease is epidemic among all indigenous peoples in North America (and
    many other parts of the world) and seems especially destructive among desert
    populations. A population which is introduced to a radical food - a food that
    either does not appear in nature or is probably not intended for human
    consumption - can require long periods of exposure before becoming physically adapted
    to it. No one knows for certain how long this might take, but it is clear that
    not enough time has passed to render these foods safe for indigenous

    This is the case throughout indigenous America. In Mexico, some 3.8 million
    suffer from the disease. A range of groups such as Native Seed Search (which
    has a group, Desert Foods for Diabetes) and Tohono O'odham Community Action have
    mobilized to promote nutrition education among the people.

    The ''cure'' for the malady has been with them all along. It lies in their
    own traditional foods which include, for desert people, such traditional
    favorites as cacti and prickly pear and an impressive list of foods gathered from the

    Diabetes is so prevalent in some communities that up to 65 percent of the
    adult population has it. Given that a pathway to health is known, one might
    expect it would be easy to make changes that could reverse the unhealthy trend, but
    the problem can be daunting. Of the most powerful garden products, tepary
    beans are known to provide dramatic results. People who include such high-fiber
    beans have been known to reverse their symptoms, but knowing what to do isn't
    the same as being able to do it. Young people, raised on a diet of fast-food
    restaurants, complain they don't like tepary (or any other) beans.

    This situation provides a problem familiar to anthropologists. How do you get
    people to change their food habits? No one knows, but one thing is certain:
    it's not easy to change people's eating patterns. The list of related health
    issues is daunting: circulatory ailments, stroke, kidney failure, obesity and so
    forth. The preferred lifestyle changes that would help reverse the trends are
    predictable: traditional foods, increased exercise and avoidance of harmful
    foods and habits.

    Traditional foods have qualities that are somewhat rare in a contemporary
    grocery store. All foods that are gathered from the natural world, such as cacti
    and wild berries, are what have been designated ''slow foods.'' They have not
    been cultivated. Cultivated foods rely on human activity to protect them from
    enemies such as weeds and even drought. They reward the agriculturalist with
    high yields, but they differ from their wild relatives.

    One way in which they are different is they are generally easier to digest
    and to cook. For people who are in a hurry this seems to be a good thing, but
    for people who are sensitive to rapidly absorbed carbohydrates, they produce a
    higher level of blood sugar than did the wild foods. As a rule, the more a
    plant is hybridized, and the more its fruit is refined by machinery or chemistry,
    the more rapidly its carbohydrates are likely to be absorbed in the
    bloodstream. Some indigenous peoples have survived on the wild foods growing in their
    homelands for centuries. Those foods once saved them from hunger. Today they can
    help save them from degenerative diseases.

    I once heard that culture is what one does without thinking about it. This
    was in regard to the foods people eat as well as the customs they follow. In the
    days before the epidemic Indian people didn't need to think about what they
    needed to do. It was a given that people would get exercise because there
    wasn't much choice. There were no cars and, in most cases, few horses, so unless
    one was going to just lie around, they had to walk. And since no one was raising
    food for them and food stamps were unknown, people who wanted to eat had to
    do something: hunt, fish, garden - all good exercise.

    A healthy diet was pretty easy to come by, as well. Indeed, there were few
    alternatives to healthy foods. If you wanted to eat junk food, you were out of

    In the contemporary world, doing things without thinking about them is not
    working out. This is true of all people because the same issues are impacting
    all populations worldwide. We are seeing an unprecedented growth of the same
    diseases even among affluent suburban populations. The antidote may require some

    The first step is nutrition education, but simply telling people about the
    problem is not enough. Something like a mini cultural revolution needs to happen
    along the line of the Red Road or the Weight Watchers culture. People are
    going to need alternatives to unhealthy diets and lifestyles, and they will need
    to support one another and share ideas and, in this case, recipes.

    They need to share experiences about which foods available are ''slow foods''
    or like slow foods. They are mostly found in the fresh fruits and vegetables
    section, but people can't live on fruits and vegetables alone. OK, they can,
    but they won't. They want variety and things that are treats and comforting and
    all the things that the dangerous foods can be.

    It would help if people could organize themselves into support groups to help
    each other. This is actually consistent with indigenous cultures that often
    created ''societies'' of people who committed to helping one another. In this
    case, the help might come in the form of shared recipes and information about
    how some foods are beneficial and others are dangerous. Regular meetings could
    offer information about the traditional culture, and provide information about
    sourcing traditional slow foods. There might even be a way to share success

    Such a movement should not only be open to and focused on children and young
    adults. Exercise is important, food is important, self-esteem and a long list
    of things are important; and sharing a path toward healing is the most
    important of all. The ancient Indians knew that, and contemporary Indians need to
    learn it and practice it. There can be a way to cultural as well as physical

    John C. Mohawk Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is associate
    professor of American Studies and director of Indigenous Studies at the State
    University of New York at Buffalo.
    Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear... just sing, sing a song.sigpic

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