Monday, February 4, 2013

Minding the Indigenous Mind Returning to a Paleo Native peoples’ Lifestyle to Cure the Diseases of the Standard American Colonized Diet

Greetings Mindful Relatives and Friends,
Chris Kresser, a leader in an emerging nutritional lifestyle known as the Paleo diet reported on what we know about the health of people before and after they started eating the Standard American Colonized Diet: “We know, for example, that a modern diseases like diabetes, obesity, cancer, autoimmunity and heart disease were rare (or even nonexistent) in Paleo people and are still rare in the few hunter gatherer groups around the world that have been lucky enough to preserve their traditional diet and lifestyle. We also know that when modern foods like wheat flour, industrial seed oils and sugar are introduced in these populations, the incidence of modern diseases goes up commensurately. And, even more telling, when these groups return to their traditional ways, the modern diseases disappear again. This suggests that it wasn’t some genetic vulnerability that caused them to develop modern diseases with the introduction of modern foods.”
In this column I want to share some of my thoughts about a way of eating called the Paleo lifestyle. I’ve read a great deal about it and I’m convinced that it may be one of the most important approaches to helping Native folks reverse the chronic health problems they’ve developed from eating the Standard American Colonized Diet. It is a nutritionally appropriate, balanced, and healing diet for Native folks and matches the “traditional” eating patterns of our ancestors, who didn’t have the food related health problems that we do.
I don’t want give the impression that the Paleo diet is the perfect way for everyone to eat, or that if you do not follow this way of eating you will not recover from serious chronic illnesses. Sometimes all one has to do is exercise, stop eating sugary foods and drinks, and lose weight, and their health will improve. What I’m hoping is that this column will spark some interest in this lifestyle so that folks may give it a try to see how it works for them.
History of the Paleo Lifestyle?
The idea behind the Paleo lifestyle is that if we return to eating as closely as we can to the way our ancestors did 10,000 (plus) years ago, our health will improve. The Paleolithic Age (Old Stone Age) covered a time period from 500,000-10,000 ago; before most of humanity practiced any type of agriculture. While it is hard to know exactly what our Paleo ancestors ate, most experts agree that it was a time when they lived on a diet of wild game, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, fish, shellfish, eggs, and tasty insects. There were no processed, packaged, artificial, additive-laden foods and no sugar, with the exception of the sweetness that came from wild fruits and honey.
The foods that our ancestors ate were in a much more pristine state; the animals they dined on were not fed inferior diets of genetically modified corn, soybeans, or grains, nor were they saturated with antibiotics, and hormones, like our meats are today; every wild plant, seed, nut, fruit, and vegetable was organic and free of pesticides and other man-made chemicals. Fish and shellfish contained no man-made pollutants or heavy metals and the water they drank was clean and fresh and chlorine and fluoride-free.
Research on ancient human diets concludes that as humans began practicing more agricultural lifestyles, health problems began to crop up (no pun intended). The theory is that the dependence on domesticated foods, rather than wild sources contributed to a decline in health because agricultural foods were not part of a natural diet that the human system had evolved to eat. In their book, Perfect Health Diet, nutritional scientists Paul Jaminet, Ph.D., and Shou-Ching Jaminet, Ph.D., reported that the adoption of farming caused the height of people to shorten while their muscles became weakened; tooth decay and osteoporosis became widespread and malnutrition, infections, inflammation became common.
In an important scientific paper about Paleolithic nutrition, scientist Dr. Boyd Eaton, M.D. concluded that pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers did not eat cereal grains, nor did they grow them. Neither did they consume milk or dairy products. And, despite the problems with grains and cereals, especially for many Native people, the USDA and the grain and dairy industries push both as healthy foods that we must have in our diets. However, Loren Cordain, Ph.D., a respected scientist and the founder of the modern Paleo food movement, has found plenty of research that shows that eating cereal grains worsened the health of early agricultural people.
Today we know that cereal grains such as wheat, rice, barley, oats, corn, and beans are not only genetically modified and treated with dangerous chemicals, they are very starchy foods that can raise one’s blood sugar very quickly. We also know that many folks are sensitive or allergic to the gluten protein that is found in grains, and for some ingesting it can result in a very serious autoimmune reaction if they have celiac disease. Non-organic milk, the most widely consumed dairy product, has measureable amounts of herbicides, pesticides, dioxins (up to 200 times the safe levels), antibiotics, and growth hormones, such as IGF-1, which is suspected to fuel the growth of cancer in our bodies. Many Native people cannot drink milk because they are lactose intolerant.
 What’s included in the Paleo Diet?
There are different versions of the Paleo Diet. One proponents of this diet, Mark Sisson, a world class athlete and Paleo diet expert, says that if we want to follow it we must concentrate on: “eating quality sources of protein (all forms of meat, fowl, fish,). It is important that your protein sources are clean, organic or free-range. Eat lots of colorful vegetables, some select fruits (mostly berries), and healthy fats (nuts, avocados, olive oil). Observe portion control (calorie distribution) week to week more than meal to meal. Eliminate grains such as wheat, corn, rice (even brown rice), cereal, bread, and pasta. Eliminate all forms of sugar and sugary drinks; and trans- and hydrogenated fats from your diet.” Free-range eggs are an important source of protein while coconut oil is an important healthy fat that can also be included.  It is important to eliminate all processed meats.
Another Paleo diet advocate Chris Kesser is very clear that some the everyday foods that we eat are toxic and should not be on our menu:    
  • Avoid cereal grains (especially refined flour)
  • Avoid omega-6 industrial seed oils (corn, cottonseed, safflower, soybean, etc.)
  • Avoid sugar (especially high-fructose corn syrup)
  • Avoid processed soy (soy milk, soy protein, soy flour, etc.)
  • Avoid improperly prepared cereal grains and legumes

Kesser believes we must nourish our bodies by emphasizing saturated 
monounsaturated fats while reducing intake of polyunsaturated fat; we should favor eating deer, buffalo, elk, and beef and seafood over poultry; we should eat real food such as grass-fed, organic meat and wild fish, and local, organic produce when possible. We must avoid processed, refined and packaged food.
Benefits of the Paleo Diet
When one eats the broad variety of vegetables, select fruits, and high quality, lean meats, the Paleo diet is nutritionally sound, safe, and easy to follow. Since the Paleo is patterned after the diets of our ancestors, if we follow it, we can expect to improve our health. In fact, many proponents of the diet are convinced that returning to this way of eating reprograms our genes so that our disease causing genes get turned off and our healthy ones get turned on.
For some folks, “intermittent fasting” is an important part of the Paleo diet lifestyle. When most people fast from foods their health improves significantly and they live longer, healthier lives. For instance, in 2009, Walter Breuning (now deceased), a 112 year-old Great Falls, Montana man credited his long life to not eating too much (he ate only two meals a day and took one aspirin).
Intermittent fasting means one alternates the times, or days, or amounts they eat each day: some folks fast completely from food on one day and eat normally on the next day; some do a 5:2 plan where they eat for five days and fast for two - sometimes the two days are spread out in the seven day period and sometimes they are back to back; and some eat 2 meals and a snack a day between a six hour eating period and then fast for 18 hours for the rest of the 24 hour day; some people, like Walter Breuning, eat only twice a day. Most research agrees that overeating shortens our lives while intermittent fasting is looking more and more like it will increase the length and quality of our lives. One thing for sure is, fasting is a part of our nutritional eating heritage: our ancestors were very accomplished at fasting due to food shortages and for health and spiritual reasons.
Since the main sources of food in this diet are healthy proteins, fats, veggies, and select fruits, anyone that follows it will get plenty of essential nutrients, fiber, and much, much more. Research on the benefits of the Paleo Diet continues to grow as more studies examine the health of people that practice this way of eating. Some of the health benefits include: healthy weight loss, significant drops in blood pressure and cholesterol; and improved blood glucose tolerance, arterial function, LDL and triglycerides. If you’re interested in this research check out Dr. Loren Cordain’s book, The Paleo Answer: 7 Days to Lose Weight, Feel Great, Stay Young, published in 2012.
I am an enthusiastic supporter of the Paleo diet and have been working on incorporating the diet into my lifestyle for about a year. Most times I am very good at following it but at times I slip off. One of the reasons that do the Paleo diet is because I’ve developed a sensitivity to gluten, so I’ve given up eating bread, grain cereals, fry bread, pasta, etc. Eating no grains has been one of the best nutritional decisions that I have made. I also stay away from corn and legumes such as beans and lentils. Even though our ancestors ate them, I’m now convinced they were not the healthiest foods for them or us to eat. Just like grains, beans and corn contain phytic acid (an anti-nutrient in foods), which contributes to our inability to absorb the nutrients found in these foods.
If you are interested in trying out the Paleo diet check out these websites: Chris Kesser (; Dr. Loren Cordain (; Mark Sisson (, and Rob Wolf ( I also encourage you to read more about intermittent fasting and give it a try if it seems appropriate for you. I fast one to two times a year generally from 10 to 15 days each time and the benefits have been amazing. This year I was aiming for 21 days (three weeks), but after reading about the science and benefits of intermittent fasting I’m now interested in giving it a try to see how it works. I am on my way to becoming a “Paleo Indian.” Remember, if you give the Paleo lifestyle a try I’d love to hear about it. Wishing you a long, healthy, happy, drug prescription free life!

Michael Yellow Bird, MSW, Ph.D., is an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes and a professor and the director of graduate education  in the Department of Social Work at Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA. His teaching, writing, research, and community work focuses on social work with Indigenous Peoples, neurodecolonization, neuroscience and social work, and employing mainstream and traditional Indigenous mindfulness practices in tribal communities to promote health and well being. He leads a regular morning mindfulness practice for staff, students, and faculty in his department. He can be reached by email at: 

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