Healthy Kitchens Healthy Lives

Who/What was I thinking about at 2:00 in the morning? and Native Americans

Last evening at The Commonwealth Club, I introduced our speaker, Gary Taubes, who was giving a lecture entitled, Adiposity 101: Why we get fat. Mr. Taubes is a science writer and an excellent researcher and his book Good Calories, Bad Calories will be interesting to read. If you are a nutritionist or dietician, Gary most likely didn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know; refined carbohydrates are not good for you, fats are not the devil and insulin has a lot to do with weight gain. That was it in a nutshell. He did explain, historically speaking, why we are where we are with regards to the way we think about nutrition and health. That part was interesting.

So why did I wake up at 2:00 in the morning thinking about Gary Taubes? Two reasons. Before the lecture began he asked me why we get fat and I said casually, that it has a lot to do with what we eat and how much we expend and for me personally, it’s about moderation. He said that he was giving his lecture to prove me wrong; it’s not all about calories in, calories out. My comeback to this sweeping summary of what I said-that he repeated in front of the audience mind you-came to me at 2:00 in the morning. One day I will have immediate comebacks, but people who are so sure of themselves and quietly aggressive can and often do, leave me tongue-tied. I enjoyed his talk actually, but as a nutritionist I obviously understand that the quality of what we eat is of utmost importance and in the perfect world no one would consume refined carbohydrates. I also understand, uniquely so, from traveling the U.S. all year interviewing kids about their health for our non-profit, Shine The Light On Kids, that certain things, like refined carbs are here to stay and all we can do is educate as to why it’s important-vitally important-to limit these, if not completely avoid these, and I say this lightly, ‘foods.’

He also spent the first 10 minutes talking about the Pima Indians of Arizona who are the poster children for diabetes, the problem beginning after the introduction of white man’s food, he noted, citing studies. One-half of adult Pima Indians have diabetes and 95% of those with diabetes are overweight.

Something else besides aggravation struck me last night; scientists and researchers focus so much on the science, they can often ignore the core of the people themselves.

I would like to chat about the Gila River, the Pima’s River. The Gila is a tributary of the Colorado River running 650 miles through New Mexico and Arizona. The Pima ate from the river, picked Cholla buds, mesquite beans, wild spinach, the fruit of the saguaro cactus, and there was abundant physical activity. The Pima considered the river holy; it was the center of their traditional way of life-until the Spanish settlers came. The water was slowly diverted and the Pima’s culture withered.

Mr. Taubes referred to a study done by a white man in 1902. I say white man, because it may very well be pertinent. Did he understand their ways? Their traditions? Could he comprehend that if you take away a people’s traditions and what is sacred to them, you take away their spirits and therefore their health? I’m not saying that bringing in white man’s food wasn’t a dramatic part of the problem, but I do suggest that it’s possibly secondary to the destruction of their spirit and connection to Earth. If their ways of life were still intact, their health might have withstood the onslaught of the white man’s food, because they would have maintained the traditions that rooted them.

This same scenario is played out for countless other Tribes. Look at the Navajos. Did ‘fry-bread’ bring their sacred show down, the combination of white flour and lard, white flour being the bigger evil, or was it their lost culture and spirits? Countless examples are available and not just with Native Americans.

What about the rest of us? What have we lost? What have we given up? What are the traditions that hold us and empower us? What are the costs now and to future generations to let loose of traditions that can keep us safe?


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