Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Returning to a Paleo Native peoples’ Lifestyle

Minding the Indigenous Mind

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

Greetings Mindful Relatives and Friends,

The way, amount, and what we eat has led to a health crisis like we have never experienced before in this nation. This crisis has hit Indigenous communities particularly hard: increasing rates of heart disease, obesity, cancer, hypertension, and the big one, diabetes. To combat this diet-driven health crisis, many Americans, including Indigenous folks, have chosen drastic remedies such as lap band and gastric bypass surgery, dangerous weight loss drugs, unregulated fad supplements, starvation diets, and substances such as smoking to suppress the appetite.

In response to these approaches,  Mark Hyman, MD, a leader in the field of functional medicine (a whole systems medicine approach) asserts that “Shrinking someone's stomach to the size of a walnut with surgery is one way to battle obesity and diabetes and may be lifesaving for a few, but it doesn't address the underlying causes.” In regard to the use of drugs to battle this crisis he also adds, “Do we really think we can medicate our way out of a bad diet? Can we really overcome the 54 gallons of soda consumed every year by the average American, or the 34 teaspoons of sugar consumed DAILY by the average child in America with a medication, or some handouts on eating better?”

This column is a two part series dedicated to how we can live longer, healthier, and better by changing our diet. In this first column I discuss problems with the Standard American Diet (SAD) and a bit of history about what I call the Standard American Colonized Diet (SACD). In my next column I share information about a healthy eating revolution called the Paleolithic diet that is patterned after the traditional diets of our ancestors. I am an advocate of this eating lifestyle and will share research that shows that a Paleo diet is the most appropriate way for Indigenous folks to eat, and how it can cure of improve many diseases caused by the Standard American Diet.

Standard American Diet (SAD)

Citing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, The Center for Science of Public Interest says that “unhealthy eating and inactivity cause 310,000-580,000 deaths every year—similar to the number of deaths caused by tobacco and 13 times more than are caused by guns.” If you are, or someone you know is, obese, has had a stroke, has diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, cancer, or stomach and digestion disorders, chances are very good that the Standard American Diet (SAD) is a huge contributor.  If you or someone you know has allergies, skin disorders, neurological and neuromuscular disorders, respiratory problems, and/or suffers from mood disorders, such as depression or anxiety, chances are very good that the Standard American Diet (SAD) share some of a good deal of the blame. The meteoric rise of a majority of all the above diseases and conditions correlates very nicely with the rise of the SAD.    

Of course our diets cannot be blamed for all of our health problems:  the fact that we live in toxic environments, smoke and drink what we shouldn’t, aren’t physically active enough, do not have regular, meaningful and mindful spiritual practices, do not have healthy systems of support, and are overstressed, all contribute to our lack of wellness.  Nevertheless, a growing consensus among the more progressive wing of the medical and nutritional communities strongly supports the notion that the way and what we eat has much to do with our deteriorating health.

 The American mainstream nutrition community refers to how most of us eat today as the Standard American Diet (SAD). Critics of the SAD say that it is directly responsible for numerous diseases, premature death, malnutrition and overnutrition, and the poisoning of our bodies and planet. Our eating is so bad that the Centers for Disease Control says that more than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7%) are obese. In 2008, medical costs associated with obesity were estimated at $147 billion; the medical costs for people who are obese were $1,429 higher than those of normal weight.  

And, here’s something for Indigenous folks to seriously reflect upon: Approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2—19 years are obese. Extreme obesity significantly decreased among all racial groups except American Indians/Alaska Natives. In fact, our health is so bad that it has given birth to $307 billion dollar prescription drug industry; the weight loss industry alone makes $40 billion a year. And no wonder. Americans spend about $11o billion for fast foods, which are the staples of the SAD.

So what is the Standard American Diet? The holistic-medicine-works.com website says it is “heavy on red meat, pork, foods made from dairy or cow's milk, processed foods laced with dangerous chemical preservatives, colorings, vitamins and flavor enhancers.” It is “also made up of fried foods, foods cooked with high heat and microwaves, foods made with white refined sugar and flour and more and more today, foods that contain high fructose corn syrup. It also includes all kinds of fruit and vegetable juices whose nutritional value is destroyed by pasteurization...treatment with high heat that destroys all enzymes and most nutrients. Not to mention how many of these juices contain large amounts of added sugar, high fructose corn syrup or dangerous artificial chemical sweeteners and preservatives.” Interestingly, a very recent study published in January 2013 in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that brain imaging tests confirm that after drinking a fructose beverage, such as a can of soda, triggers brain changes that may lead to overeating.

This is particularly important to Native folks since so many of us gulp down a lot of soda and sugary drinks that are laced with high fructose corn syrup. I’m sure that a lot of the diabetic amputations, blindness, and neuropathy can be traced directly back to fructose beverages. Some of you may even remember back in the day when corn syrup used to be added to a baby’s bottle because of constipation.  

There are many views of the SAD; most are not flattering. The AskDr Sears website says that “If you were to list the factors that increase the risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, intestinal disorders – just about any illness – the standard American diet has them all.”

Sarah Aitken a writer for website NaturalNews.com describes the SAD as “extreme…and certainly not healthy.” She says that “the Standard American Diet usually consists of a myriad of processed carbs (cereals, breads, pasta, cookies, cakes etc.), processed meat products, and a few fruits and veggies. This diet is high in many things, most of which your body doesn't really need.  It is full of hydrogenated oil, high fructose corn syrup, phytic acid, acrylamide, sodium nitrate, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and lacking in basic essentials such as vitamins and minerals.”

Most of us have heard of many of these substances and additives. However, Phytic acid  and Acrylamide are ones that less well known. Phytic acid is important because it is found in grains, such as wheat and corn, and makes absorption of important minerals such as calcium, iron, zinc, and magnesium difficult. This is especially important for Native folks since many of us eat a lot of grains and grain products. Acrylamide is a chemical compound that forms in starchy food products during high-temperature cooking, including frying, baking and roasting, and is thought to put us at increased risk for cancer. Again, this is very important for Indigenous Peoples to know about since many of us fry nearly everything that moves.

Colonizing the Indigenous Diet: The Standard Colonized American Diet

You’ve heard the joke about having a “Commod bod” in reference to having a lumpy, full figured, fluffy frame due to eating USDA commodities. Well, nothing could be closer to the truth. The Commod Bod was once both an “urban and reservation legend;” but those of us that were raised on the reservation and feasted on commodities as some of our main source of calories know that the Commod Bod is not hearsay, but a true story. In a 2005 article the fairy tale died when, in Indian Country Today, writer Susan Harjo described the Commod Bod as a “round, doughy physique that results from the high-starch, high-calorie, high-fat and low-protein food.”

While we laugh, tease, and joke about the Commod Bod, I think it is wise and instructional to remind ourselves that USDA commodities are the legacy of Native Peoples’ nutritional and dietary colonialism. That is, these low quality foods were forced upon our folks when they were suffering the ravages of some of the deepest levels of poverty due to reservation living, and are the precursor for setting the standard of today’s unhealthy eating among our people. Commods are the poster foods of the deadly Standard American Diet because they contain all the ingredients and packaging that are responsible for high rates of heart disease, obesity, strokes, hypertension, cancer, and premature death. Recently, a northern California Indian told me that she thought of commods as “genocide in a can.” I couldn’t agree more.

A 2012, Evaluation of the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations carried out by the USDA reported that Commods are made up of a “variety of canned and packaged commodities in such categories as meats, fruits, vegetables, dairy products, grains, and cereals.” They are designed only to “provide adequate levels of most nutrients and food energy to participating households.” And, of course I wonder what they mean by the term “adequate” and what “nutrients” they are talking about. In their description of these foods there is no mention about whether the canned “goods,” and I use the word goods rather loosely here, contain BPA (a compound implicated in neurological and endocrine disorders and cancer) that different advocacy food groups are trying to get banned. Even the US government’s own Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regards BPA as dangerous. A 2010 the FDA wrote a report warning of possible hazards to fetuses, infants, and young children. Since the 1930s BPA has been recognized as an artifical estrogen and can mimic estrogen and lead to health problems.  Since the 1950s it has been in the lining of food and beverage containers.

Commods are made from conventional (non-organic) meats, grains, fruits, and vegetables which are not only over processed, but also loaded with chemicals and pesticides and, in the case of meat, contain hormones and antibiotics. The canned beef, pork, and chicken are more than likely to come from animals that are raised in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), which pack huge numbers of live animals together in a small area. Because animals are so congested together, the rates of disease, injuries, and contamination rises exponentially among them, which mean they will be fed copious amounts of whatever medicines and supplements will minimize the damage.

Due to cost, canned Commod fish, such as salmon are more likely to be farmed than wild. Farmed fish which have less nutritional value, higher amounts of Omega 6 fatty acids, which inflame the body, and are often fed a cheap, inferior diet that can have higher levels of toxins such as PCBs which implicated in hormone disruption and cancer. By now we all should know that none of us should be eating tuna due to its dangerous heavy metal content. In 2007 the USDA dropped albacore tuna from WIC program but kept on supplying “light tuna” despite the risks of mercury in the fish. If you’ve been feeding your children tuna; stop immediately and have their mercury levels checked.

Many deadly, disease-causing SAD foods are served often, and in huge quantities, at community ceremonies, wakes, funerals, celebrations, and other events on our reservation. They are also served in many of our homes as our daily meals. I’m not really sure where this tradition of overfeeding folks with a lot of low quality, non-traditional foods comes from. I think some folks might say that it’s our tradition to feed others; it’s our way. But I’m pretty sure it wasn’t our tradition to overfeed our family, relatives, and friends these types of foods. Of course not all the foods found at these events are unhealthy; some folks bring healthy traditional and non-traditional foods (and I’m not talking about whole grain fry bread). However, I’ve always thought it ironic that at the funeral of someone that has died of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or a stroke, which were very likely caused by eating a Standard American Diet, that we serve these foods in nearly unlimited quantities.

I’ve added the word “colonized” to the Standard American Diet term because Indigenous Peoples arrived at their present “killer” diet through a much different social and political means than non-Native folks.

History is clear that after Native peoples were “subjugated” by the United States and driven off their traditional hunting, fishing and gathering territories, they were put onto reservations and other lands where they were forced to live on starvation diets of inferior rationed foods. This system might be considered the earliest development of the fast food industry for Native peoples since they no longer had to engage themselves in mindfully hunting and gathering their meals. All they had to do was to wait for “ration day,” stand in line at the reservation agency building, and get their order.

 A lot of evidence in the historical record shows that American policy makers, religious leaders, educators, and politicians believed that Native Peoples’ hunting of wild game, fishing, and gathering of wild foods was “uncivilized” and this way of life needed to be extinguished if they were to become civilized.  They believed that eating domesticated animals and crops was more advanced since humans had dominated these forms of life, which was consistent with the Christian belief that man was suppose to “subdue the earth” and “rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”  As this way of thinking was imposed upon Indigenous Peoples very dramatic changes occurred in their attitudes about where their food came from, how they should obtain it, and what they should eat.  

Colonizing the American Diet

The mainstream diet of most Americans shows that they have been just as successfully colonized in their nutritional and dietary beliefs and habits as Native Peoples. And, their chronic diseases, cancers, and obesity are nearly as bad, and catching up fast. Some of the biggest colonizing culprits have been the Big Food, Big Seed, and Big Agricultural industries. For instance, over 100 years ago small farmers and many households grew much of their own produce for their own consumption or to sell to neighbors. In an article entitled, “Do We Eat Better Than We Did 100 Years Ago?” Kerry Trueman, co-founder of EatingLiberally.org wrote that “By 1897, the USDA was distributing 1.1 billion free seed packets to farmers, many of them more common vegetable and flower varieties. The program was wildly popular with farmers, but a thorn in the side of the growing commercial seed industry. So, in 1929, after intense lobbying from the American Seed Trade Association, Congress scrapped the seed giveaway.”

Today, five corporations (AstaZeneca, DuPont, Monsanto, Novartis,
Aventis) control almost one-quarter (23%) of the global commercial seed market, nearly two-thirds of the global pesticide market (60%), and virtually 100% of the transgenic (genetically engineered) seed market.

Colonization of America’s diet is generally due to this nation’s desire for the “modernization” and “industrialization” of the world. In order for this to happen the system required folks to work long hours, under strict working conditions that did not offer much in the way of rest or optimal eating opportunities. The Livestrong.com website says that “Today's standard American diet has moved away from the traditions of homemade meals and is more influenced by ways to speed up the process of grabbing a quick bite.”

To accommodate this need the “Big Food” industry developed a fast, processed foods system. It used its unrestrained marketing power to produce foods that are addictive and profitable, rather than healthy. To keep us in the chains of dietary colonization, it operates a biased corporate food research and advertising agenda that is misleading and confusing, and co-opts mainstream nutritionists and medical professionals to support, ignore, or feign ignorance of its activities. Just to give you an idea of how much money does Big Food puts into keeping us addicted to its fast, processed foods, according the to Nielsen Company, Kraft Foods a major food manufacturer spent $1.7 billion on advertising in 2009. Its brands include Kraft, Oscar Meyer, Crystal Light, Trident and Ritz. In the soft drink industry, according to “Advertising Age,” Coca-Cola spent $2.67 billion on advertising in 2008. The marketing pays off too. In 2009, Beverage Digest reported that Americans spent $73.9 billion on regular and diet carbonated soft drinks. If non-carbonated beverages such as juice drinks, teas and energy drinks are included the figure grows to $115 billion.

So, my question is how different is Big Food’s colonization agenda and success compared to the early reservation system that rationed substandard foods to our ancestors?



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:  mjy9@humboldt.edu