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Fighting Obesity & Preserving Culture With Indigenous Mexican Cuisines

Mexicans are looking back to traditional indigenous cuisine to help fight their obesity epidemic and to discard the negative colonizer traditions.
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UPDATED, JANUARY 14: Name of website in second paragraph. Mexicans are looking back to traditional indigenous cuisine to help fight their obesity epidemic and for a way to discard the negative traditions of both Spanish and United States colonizers according to various sources and programs.

For Rubi Orozco, a public health consultant based in El Paso, Texas and the owner of the Healthy Traditions website, the return to indigenous cooking is important for both health and cultural reasons.

Orozco pointed out how the early Spanish explorers were impressed with the good physical conditions and appearances of the Indigenous Peoples, referring to them as not too thin but of good proportions. She posits the question of how then did Mexico come to be ranked as the country with the highest number of obese people in the world. (The U.S. had been number one until March of 2013.)

"Mexico’s conquest brought with it the consumption of bigger animals, dairy, and animal lard, as well as the practice of heating oils for cooking (frying)," Orozco said. "These changes to the pre-Hispanic diet were integrated so gradually and naturally into the mestizo culture that we have reached a point in history in which Mexican food is internationally known to be synonymous with meat, excessive use of cheese, and fried foods."

In an effort to change the less healthy methods and food choices, Orozco and others emphasize the values of indigenous foods such as beans and organically grown corn with traditional cooking methods such as boiling, grilling and steaming. Traditional practices, she asserted, do not over-consume animal proteins but focus more on vegetable based proteins and vitamins. Orozco also said that too many Mexicans prefer U.S. styled fast foods instead of traditional dishes that are healthier and flavorful.

The great flavors of indigenous regional foods was one of the things that attracted the attention of Adriana Perez de Legaspi who runs a specialized cooking class known as Prehispanic Gastronomy Tours in Malinalco, Mexico. Perez de Legaspi teaches about the indigenous foods and how to prepare them based on recipes that predate the Spanish invasion.

The chef and scholar, who had specialized in ethno-gastronomy, explained how during her studies of traditional Mesoamerican cuisine she noticed how visitors to the little town of Malinalco were unfamiliar with the local produce.

"These frequent visitors to the town would purchase apples from the state of Washington in the U.S.," she explained. "Malinalco has a serious problem with most of the men having to migrate to the states for work, the women are left making subsistence wages selling homemade tortillas and all kinds of fruits that the visitors didn't know about."

That lack of awareness combined with Perez de Legaspi's admiration for pre Colombian indigenous cultures lead her to investigate the old recipes, which has become the basis of her business and, she added, that other restaurants and activists in Mexico are promoting indigenous cuisines for health and cultural reasons.

It's not only the Mexicans themselves who have come to appreciate these indigenous traditions but UNESCO named the Traditional indigenous cuisine of Michoacán as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010.