While there’s much that can be learned from indigenous peoples — particularly when it comes to herbal medicine and safeguarding the environment — nutrition was never something I had personally considered, until I came across this article from The Guardian. It reports on recent research that suggests that the centuries-old diets of indigenous groups from around the world is nutritionally superior to modern food, which consists of far more processing, refined fats and oils, and simple carbohydrates.
Many traditional and non-processed foods consumed by rural communities, such as millet and caribou, are nutrient-dense and offer healthy fatty acids, micronutrients and cleansing properties widely lacking in diets popular in high- and middle-income countries, say experts.
Indigenous diets worldwide – from forest foods such as roots and tubers in regions of eastern India to coldwater fish, caribou and seals in northern Canada – are varied, suited to local environments, and can counter malnutrition and disease.
“For many tribal and indigenous peoples, their food systems are complex, self-sufficient and deliver a very broad-based, nutritionally diverse diet,” says Jo Woodman, a senior researcher and campaigner at Survival International, a UK-based indigenous advocacy organisation.
Unfortunately, a combination of sociocultural marginalization, assimilation into modern society, and pressures by the global food market have caused indigenous peoples from the Americas to Asia to suffer from the same chronic health problems that bedevil most people in the developed world; in the process, they’re also losing the knowledge and practices that contributed to the relative healthiness of their diets.
“There is a deep irony in the fact that many dietitians are advocating [traditional and indigenous foods and diets] and yet [the] modern [western] diet is what is being pushed on tribal peoples around the world, with devastating results,” Woodman says.
“We have lost our primary relationship with our world around us,” says Dr Martin Reinhardt, assistant professor of Native American studies at Northern Michigan University.
Native American elders historically planned seven generations ahead when creating food systems, teaching each generation that it was their responsibility to ensure the survival of the seventh, says Reinhardt, an Anishinaabe Ojibway citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa Native American people in Michigan state. They did this by hunting and gathering only what they needed, conserving resources such as wood and water, and protecting food biodiversity.
But when Native Americans were forced to assimilate, historical access to this nutritional knowledge was lost, Reinhardt points out. According to thespecial diabetes programme for Indians, run by the US federal government’s Indian health service , the 566 registered indigenous peoples in the US have a diabetes rate nine times higher than the national average.
Similarly, rates of the disease among First Nations and Inuit groups in Canada are up to five times higher than the countrywide average, according to the government’s federal health department.
In Laos, northern highland minorities such as the Yawa, Htin and Khmu traditionally eat forest-based diets, including wild pigs, birds, bamboo shoots, banana flowers and yams rich in vitamin C. But in recent decades the Laos government has moved thousands of people from the highlands to towns for economic reasons, documented in a 2012 report by the International Fund for Agricultural Development.
I encourage you to read the whole article, as it captures the complex intersection of various global issues, including the pressures of feeding a growing population (particularly one with more resources to consume more food), the environmental degradation brought about by the demand for grain (which is also crowding out other diverse and healthier food sources), and the continued destruction of traditional rural communities with whom we’re losing valuable knowledge.