Return to Native Foods to Combat Diabetes: Native American Crusade
Our Neolithic ancestors would have had a much lower rate of diabetes than is found in any country today, thanks to their natural lifestyle. Every calorie they ate had to be won at the cost of physical exertion, whether digging, running after game animals or fishing. In addition, everything they ate was 100% natural: whole grains, fresh vegetables, fresh fish, meat, and legumes.
Now groups of Native Americans are trying to return to their ancient tribal ways of feeding themselves to combat diabetes, which has struck half the adults in the tribe. The 21st century eating habits and lifestyles have caused the health crisis, but traditional ways may be able to put it right, say the Tohono Indians.
In the past, this Indian nation lived exclusively off fruit, vegetables, and animals they farmed themselves, and they had to work very hard to produce enough food to live on from the harsh, dry south central Arizona land. Men and women worked long hours every day, digging, creating irrigation channels, weeding and carrying water to produce food.
Now they have adopted modern ways and now they eat far too much junk food, processed foods with high levels of sugar, starch, fat and salt. Acquiring these foods takes almost no effort – a walk to the store or even a trip to the drive-through. As a result, diabetes levels have soared, with half of all adults in the reservation now diagnosed as diabetic – much higher than the typicalUSlevel of 8.3%. Research into other Native American peoples has suggested they may have been born with metabolisms adjusted for the difficult and infertile lands they once farmed. Their bodies may be tuned to live on very little nourishment, to compensate for the hard conditions and the poor crops. Therefore, when these people adopt modern eating habits, their weight soars, and become much more prone to diabetes than the average American.
Now there are moves afoot to return to the healthy diet enjoyed by their forebears, full of beans, cholla buds, fruit, corn, squash, and prickly pear fruits. Tribal elders are hoping that educating the people about their traditional foods will encourage them to move away from modern junk food and return to healthier eating. These low glycemic and high fiber foods may also combat the rising levels of heart disease affecting the tribe.
One focus of this movement is the Tohono O’odham Community Action group founded by Terrol Dew Johnson and its informative website, which encourages the local people to consider their heritage diet. The website includes nutritional information on traditional foods and a link to the local Desert Rain Café, where the menu includes delicious traditional foods brought up to date by native chefs.
TOCA members also work to bring the tribal heritage back to children and young people, going into local schools to talk about traditions and traditional foods.
They hope the website and other educational information will rekindle an interest in the tribe’s food heritage and a return to this healthy diet will help lower rising levels of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease and even reverse pre-diabetes in some members.
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