It has been known for some time that there is a world wide adult-onset
diabetes epidemic. This degenerative disease hits all ethnic groups, but
there can be little question that it hits some groups harder. In North
America, certain Indians from the desert southwest have the highest
incidence of it in their population. This should provide little comfort to
the Indians from other parts because diabetes-related illness is a major,
perhaps the major, cause of death among Indians.
More than 10 years have passed since Jane Brody's landmark article linking
a return to traditional diets and curing diabetes among the Tohono O'odham
people appeared in The New York Times. Since that time, there has been
plenty of speculation about how what we eat, or don't eat, contributes to
health patterns, and the credible information is all headed in the same
direction: Indigenous peoples are being harmed by a combination of the
impact of acculturative behaviors, the corrosive impact of modern
agriculture, and the allure of unhealthy highly refined carbohydrate foods.
Now, to add to the growing body of evidence and informed assertions, we
have a book with an even more complex message. Gary Nabhan, an
award-winning writer on links between genetics and ecology, has produced
"Why Some Like It Hot", a book which urges that all over the world human
populations that have adapted to specific physical environments (such as
deserts, for example) have also adapted to the foods available in those
environments. This adaptation has taken the form of gene alterations (which
is why the adaptation is "genetic") and it is a major reason people were
able to survive in very difficult parts of the world. They were assisted by
their genes, which enabled them to eat and thrive on foods available in the
environment. One might say they were shaped by nature to live in specific
Nabhan's book provides a tour of many spots around the globe wherein this
phenomenon can be observed, and the book is highly recommended reading, but
the lessons to be drawn from it are essential. It is not only what you eat,
but also what you do not eat, which forms factors in your health profile.
Everyone should know about this.
Food choices are culturally induced. When early humans at the beginning of
the Neolithic Age were faced with trying to domesticate plants, they were
forced to choose the plants which were best adapted (willing, one might
say) to domestication. Wheat was one of these plants. Wheat, when it was a
wild food, was probably not a favorite. But for people looking for
something which they could grow and which would provide survival under
extreme conditions, wheat was a choice. Considering that there are an
estimated 36,000 plants which humans can consume, agriculture was able to
find precious few that could be domesticated. Check out your grocery store.
How many plant species are there?
People living in any environment are forced to eat the foods available
there. Our view of Indians hunting buffalo and deer and a meat-rich diet is
somewhat skewed. Occasionally there was meat, but most of the time people
ate the roots, tubers, berries, leaves, fruits and whatnot that nature
provided in their area. Agriculturalists grew survival foods to supplement
these. In the Americas, the survival foods included maize (including a very
small amount of what is now called sweet corn), beans and squashes. Plants
have a defense mechanism: They produce chemicals which make it difficult to
eat them. Many of the plants which would grow for agriculturalists produced
such chemicals. Dried corn, preserved squash, potatoes, wheat and other
foods are best eaten after being cooked. Uncooked, they are a problem. Over
time (and time is an important element in this story) people came to be
adapted to these agriculturally-friendly foods and, as we know, they came
to prefer them to other kinds of food. Wheat, in its original form (which
would be organic and whole) is hard to get, but bread made from highly
refined wheat grown on chemically dominated soils is not only easy to get,
it is widely popular.
Agriculture produced some problems, especially modern agriculture.
Monoculture grows a single crop in a field and protects it against all
enemies with an array of pesticides. Fertilizer is added. The soils
produced by nature, soils containing important trace minerals, no longer
produce our foods. And our foods are produced far away from where we live.
Modern diets are not only composed of different species of food plants from
those eaten by our ancestors, those plants have a different - reduced -
vitamin and mineral content including such important minerals as potassium.
"Why Some Like It Hot" urges that long-term genetic adaptations to certain
foods was limited to specific ethnic groups which lived in association with
those foods. This might help explain why, in the case of O'odham Indians,
people with diabetes who returned to a diet of desert foods were cured.
Their bodies were genetically programmed to these foods, which acted sort
of like medicine in helping their bodies produce resistance to disease. And
new foods, available at the grocery store, did exactly the opposite. With
no minerals and few if any vitamins because of agricultural practices and
because the foods were produced far away, the new foods did not protect.
Highly refined carbohydrate foods are not only deficient in these necessary
elements, they are also notorious for dissolving more rapidly as sugar into
the bloodstream than the body can safely absorb. Therein we find the roots
of an epidemic. Because we have become acculturated in modernity, we have
also acquired tastes for some foods that are dangerous and have lost a
taste for the foods that are helpful. Or, perhaps, the good foods are
simply not available any more. Surely fewer and fewer people are seen
walking the desert floor looking for good things to eat.
Nabhan's book, which contains a world of information only hinted at in this
article, can only be helpful if its lessons are adopted. The medicine which
is sought to reverse the epidemic that is cutting short so many lives is
not going to be found in a pill or an injection. We are literally killing
ourselves with a fork and a straw, and here we have a problem which money
alone cannot fix.
John C. Mohawk Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and
professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New
York at Buffalo.