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Forgotten in Time: The Native American Diet and How It Has Returned to Heal the First People

April 14, 2018

Forgotten in Time: The Native American Diet and How It Has Returned to Heal the First People

It’s no secret that the rich, highly processed, and refined foods of our Western diet are wreaking havoc on the general population. Obesity rates are growing, and nearly half of American adults are dealing with diet-related chronic illnesses such as heart disease, high blood pressure, or type 2 diabetes.

A diet loaded with saturated fats, refined sugars, sodium, and less than healthy substances is having devastating effects on our bodies, but it wasn’t always this way.

Our ancestors - including the Native Americans of the western hemisphere - relied on wild foods, domesticated crops, fresh game, and fiber-packed legumes and fruits for a truly diverse (and utterly healthy) diet. For communities living in the desert, these foods would have included chia, nopales, and - a Cappadona Ranch favorite - mesquite.

Many of these foods are high in vitamins and mineral content, making them wonderfully beneficial for the people of those days.

Eating Like Our Ancestors

The hunter-gatherer people were likely to be a very healthy bunch. Depending on all-natural sources of food meant they had a solid supply of nutrition.

When the Native Americans began inhabiting the Americas, they found a land with abundant game like deer, buffalo, wild sheep and goats, elk, caribou, bears, beavers, rabbits, squirrels, turtles, alligators, snakes, wild birds, insects, as well as fish and shellfish.

Then there were the domesticated crops and wild foods. While there were many nomadic tribes that thrived on hunting and gathering, many others became advanced farmers, developing special techniques like irrigation, terracing, and crop rotation to have enough food to survive through winter. Farming in unison with gathering - from simple berry picking to more complicated processes like tapping trees for maple syrup - provided these indigenous people with a variety of healthy sources of food.

Important crops and wild foods included pumpkins, wild rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggs, honey, a variety of nuts, cranberries, strawberries, wild plums, roots, greens, and a huge variety of other fruits and vegetables.

Several things are worth noting here including the fact that because of the size of the New World (and America), every distinct tribe had its own unique diet, customs, and language. Because of this, it is difficult to pinpoint a specific “Native American Diet”. However, since there were plenty of trade routes throughout North America, many types of foods could be found in all corners of the New World. This includes the staple foods known as the three sisters: corn (maize), beans, and squash.

Another interesting point is that the foods that were first developed in the New World through hybridization and selection have become the cornerstone of many diets throughout the world. It’s estimated that now nearly 60% of all foods consumed worldwide came from the New World.

Desert Foods & Mesquite in the Life of Native People

The diversity of landscapes in the New World meant that each tribe had unique variations in their diet. For the people of the southwest, this included a variety of plants and foods that could only be found in their environment.

These desert foods offered many health benefits that helped to prevent many of the diseases that now run rampant in the native community. These foods included: acorns from the Emory Oak, grains such as amaranth,  tepary beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, lima beans, lentil beans, cacti pads, tuna, chiles, chia, plantago, and - Cappadona Ranch’s beloved - mesquite beans.

Of all these various desert foods, mesquite became a major resource for the people living in the American Southwest. The mesquite tree came to be such an essential tool that many tribes, such as the Pima, eventually came to identify it as the “Tree of Life”.

Not only was the mesquite tree and bean a valuable commodity that was eaten and even mixed with water to produce a refreshing drink, the trunks and limbs of the tree were used to make shelters and fencing; the leaves were turned into lotions and medicines for toothaches, sores, burns, and chapped skin; the gum was used for treating upset stomach, aiding in digestion, and used as a glue; the sap helped wounds; the bark was used as cloth; the roots and woods became valuable sources of fuel; and it was even used for sports.

These foods provided the sustenance, vitamins, protein, and calories these ancient people needed to remain healthy and strong.

Sadly, things would soon change.

A European Way of Life Emerges & the Western Diet

The arrival of Europeans meant a drastic change in the way of life for the native people of the New World. While the Native Americans were initially able to adapt to the tremendous changes that were occurring - including the arrival of new plants and animals - many were eventually forced to change their traditional lifestyles.

From traditional big game being over-hunted to waterways being dammed shut and forests being cleared, it became harder for natives to eat and thrive as they once had. Many tumultuous wars left the native population relegated to reservations, where their diets of hunting, fishing, gathering, and farming were replaced by government-supplied commodity foods.

These changes in lifestyles and foods have come to play a major role in the present-day epidemic of obesity and diabetes among Native American populations.  

But this way of living and eating hasn’t just affected these native peoples - it has affected us all.

While this may not come across as the most positive of facts, it certainly is true. More than two-thirds of adults, and nearly one-third of children and youth, are overweight or obese, according to data drawn from the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans report. This change has a number of factors including the development of poor eating habits, increased access to highly processed foods, less physical activity, environmental changes, and less sleep.

Our diet plays an especially beneficial - or in this case harmful - role in our overall health. The type of foods we consume can have a huge effect on our intestinal flora, which is the 100 trillion different types of bacteria that call our gut home, and can also greatly affect our immune system.

These modern changes in diet and lifestyle have led to drastic changes in our health, but changing the way we eat and how much physical activity we get can help to prevent these issues, especially as we get older.

A New Hope

The epidemic of diabetes and obesity that has affected the Native American population has drawn plenty of attention from concerned medical professionals, nutritionists, scientists, government agencies, and community organizations.

And many people are fighting back. For several decades now, various agencies, universities, community partners, and community leaders have urged native people to return to the traditional diets of their ancestors. From tribes in Arizona who evolved metabolically to the feast-and-famine cycles experienced by their forefathers, to the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest who would have had a diet based largely on fish, these first Americans are returning to their roots to avoid the health-related pitfalls of their modern diet.

Studies from as far back as the early 1990’s indicate that “a change in the Indian diet back to the beans, corns, grains, greens and other low-fat, high-fiber plant foods that their ancestors depended upon can normalize blood sugar, suppress between-meal hunger and probably also foster weight loss.

While researchers continue to investigate the link between traditional desert foods and diabetes prevention, American Indians are forging ahead by returning to a diet that offers them a new hope, and they’re getting help from many places.

Take, for instance, the White Earth Land Recovery Project, which is working to preserve and restore the traditional practices of sound land stewardship, language fluency, and community development. One of their goals is also to preserve traditional American Indian foods and cooking methods. Then there’s the Native Seeds/SEARCH organization, which is working hard to preserve native plants from the Southwest and Northwestern Mexico.

Scholars and universities are also getting involved in the movement. There was the Decolonizing Diet Project initiated by Marty Reinhardt at Northern Michigan University.  This year-long challenge was designed to challenge participants to eat only foods that were available in the Great Lakes region before 1602. While this specific study ended several years ago, it sparked a resurgence in research into indigenous diets. The nonprofit First Nations Development Institute noted an increase in agriculture-related grant request several years ago.

Even entrepreneuring Native Americans are making a push to bring traditional foods into the mainstream. Chef Sean Sherman (a.k.a. Sioux Chef), who grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, operates the Tatanka Truck in Minneapolis which specializes in the traditional foods of the Great Plains.

The echoes of America’s past are finally coming through, hopefully in time to save us all.

Tips for Improving Your Diet and Health

Research continues to show that eating healthier and an active lifestyle can greatly improve our health, and it doesn’t have to be super complicated or unpleasant.

The following tips and changes to your diet can go a long way in helping you improve your health in the long-term:

  • Eat more high-fiber plant foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds.
  • Watch out for all of that salt and sugar! Plenty of refined foods will have these two in bulk.
  • Don’t forget those prebiotic foods like onions, garlic, asparagus, beets, cabbage, beans, oats, bananas, and more.
  • Healthy fats can be great for you including fats found in foods like salmon and oils like olive oil and peanut oil.
  • Let go of those bad habits like smoking and overindulging in alcoholic beverages.
  • Remember to aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day.

At Cappadona Ranch, we are doing our part to provide delicious, healthy treats for you and your family. Our goal is to provide natural foods that satisfy and stories that touch the soul. Find out more about our products here.

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