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Native Family Turns to Its Roots to Combat Poor Health and Food Addiction

Ta?yá? yahípi—Welcome. My name is David Bender, and my goal is to raise awareness of food addiction.

The reason I write about battling food addiction is to save lives and protect our most valuable resource as a nation—our health. Before Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein explained evolution and relativity, respectively, we had been at one with our Mother and believed in the traditional Lakota Sioux prayer, Mitakuye Oyasin, honoring the oneness and harmony with all forms of life. All things are related—that was and still is our religion. Today, it’s considered a science and described as genetics.

As Indians, we make pledges to continue the tradition of honoring our planet, defending it side-by-side, warrior-to-warrior, nation-to-nation. But before we can fight for the survival of our natural habitat, we must fight for our health. That requires understanding and conquering the known epidemics of obesity and addiction. It is important to first realize that those two things are as new to Native people as bread and sugar were 500 years ago. It is also important to realize that bread and sugar are the building blocks of food addiction—the real gateway drugs, especially for American Indians.

How do I know all this? I was an addict and still am. Like many others, my family and I came face-to-face with our addictions the hard way and almost paid with our lives.

I was addicted to sugar and intolerant to gluten. The cravings were horrendous but I was oblivious. Sugar and gluten are two very unnatural compounds, but a major part of the “Neolithic diet,” which is grain-based and believed to be best suited for animals. This diet has been in existence since farming began in Europe 10,000 years ago. By comparison, the hunter-gatherer diet—the “Paleolithic diet”—has been in existence since the dawn of man.

Growing up, we are taught that there is no good or bad food—that eating right is simply a matter of portion control and personal responsibility. That sounds nice, but it is not true. How many of you have eaten one potato chip and closed the bag? How many have had a dessert, then gone back for seconds? Or eaten more ice cream than you originally intended? How many of you crave soda pop more than water?

Today, these forms of chemical ingestion are considered normal. But their general acceptance by society as “okay to eat or drink” does not stop them from killing us slowly.

The Wrong Way
I am a proud member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the product of the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 (passed long before I was born). I was not raised on a reservation but in a comparatively alien world called Chicago, where an active community of Native leaders resides—beacons of light for urban Indians like me.

My lovely partner Karen Rae is a member of the Fort Peck Sioux and grew up in Brockton, Montana. Karen and I have been together since 2002, raising three kids (Coby, 12; Shauntae, 10; Jonathan, 7) in Fox Lake, Illinois, which was once home to the Meskwaki, who were erroneously labeled the Fox Tribe. We met in Poplar, Montana and lived on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation together for about three years before we moved to Lake County, Illinois to be near my side of the family.

My family had to find that out the hard way that our food addictions were killing us. In February 2010, Karen was diagnosed with several debilitating diseases: rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, borderline diabetes and, more recently, nonalcoholic steatohepatitis or NASH, a common, often “silent” liver disease. NASH resembles alcoholic liver disease, but occurs in people who drink little or no alcohol. If not caught early and reversed, NASH can be as fatal as cirrhosis of the liver, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).

On top of Karen’s ailments, Shauntae was missing school due to bacterial infections and daily problems with irritable bowel syndrome. She had always been resistant to eating vegetables. Later on, I noticed that she was on her way to either being bulimic or anorexic. Her whole diet—she ate very little—consisted primarily of grain and sweets, with hardly any fruits or vegetables. I intervened, and while she struggled with readjusting her diet, she understood the importance of what she was doing. She experienced a tough period of withdrawals, as did the rest of us. (Mine were very intense and scary, but I’ll get to that.)

Coby had problems with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and weight gain. Jonathan seemed to have problems with anxiety, weight gain and lethargy.

I had an even longer list of problems stemming from my food addiction: obesity, bad gas, bloating, constipation, low confidence, acne, dandruff, anxiety disorders, erectile dysfunction, tooth decay and general weakness. Throughout my relationship with Karen, I was the one who wasted money and time smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and periodically overdosing on pharmaceuticals. We ate what we thought were healthy meals: cereal for breakfast, soup and a sandwich for lunch, and a seemingly well-rounded dinner of some kind of lean meat and vegetables with a couple slices of bread,

or perhaps some rice or noodles on the side. (Boy, did we love our Italian food!) We even made the futile commitment of just eating whole-grain bread and pasta. I had no idea that whole grains contain gluten, a product of mill-produced grain that causes acne, leaky gut syndrome, malnourishment, inflammation, rheumatoid arthritis and clogged arteries. It also promotes infection due to the stresses on the immune system having to constantly repair the stomach lining. (For more on that, see The Paleo Solution, by Robb Wolf.)

Karen was doing everything a good mother should do for her children, and that is to teach them to be good people. Karen never smoked tobacco or pesh (Sioux slang for marijuana) and never drank excessive amounts of alcohol. In fact, she rarely if ever finished a single alcoholic drink. She was very aware (or so she thought) of addiction and alcoholism and did her best to avoid the common pitfalls. The only problem with Karen was her blind addiction to sugar and empty carbs—in other words, junk food: processed bread, chips, salty snacks, soda pop, pizza, pasta, etc. These food cravings led to excessive weight gain and some obsessive-compulsive behavior.

We were poisoning ourselves without even knowing it, growing increasingly weak and lethargic, not to mention deeply depressed and experiencing horrible mood swings. I was in denial; we all were.

Moment of Truth
It wasn’t until Karen had to have her gall bladder removed that reality hit me: I could possibly lose my beloved Karen. At first, I blamed everything and everyone: the rich, the poor, myself, Karen, the health-care system and the doctors who maintain it.

Looking back, I was right to blame an ignorant or malicious health-care system that in my opinion does more to hurt our people than help them. They believe in the food pyramid and that means heavy on grains and plenty of sugar. (I would later learn that sugar is actually definable as an addictive drug.

Not only that, most modern-day medications do more to help symptoms of addiction than the addiction itself, which makes for a fine business model. Further research led me to the conclusion that this Neolithic diet does nothing for our people but manifest poor physical and mental health.

In order to survive, we took matters of health into our own hands and did research on all of Karen’s ailments. We discovered that the main culprit was a poor diet driven by sugar addiction, mixed with too many gluten products (bread, rice, pasta, flour, cheese, pizza, cereal and numerous others) that bred inactivity. This diet caused our bodies to suffer from inflammation and immune deficiency. That led to more illness, confusion and a long ride on the merry-go-round of self-destruction.

At first, I researched the numerous liver ailments, because I knew that a failing liver is almost always fatal. She began to grow more lethargic and bedridden. We would cry ourselves to sleep more times than we would like to admit.

We studied different diet-related illness like celiac disease, a digestive disorder that damages the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients from food, according to the NIDDK. We learned gluten can cause health issues as well. So, naturally, we began to abstain from these products, and low and behold, our health improved dramatically.

I had known all along that Karen’s weight was an issue (as was mine), but she took my “talking about her weight” to be very offensive. She was in denial about her food addiction (as was I), so I didn’t realize that we were both killing ourselves, just at a different pace. Her doctors (family practitioner, gastroenterologist, rheumatologist and neurologist) had prescribed numerous medications: metformin (blood glucose), ranitidine (nausea), meclizine (dizziness), tramadol (pain), prochlorperazine (dizziness, nausea), cyclobenzaprine (muscle relaxer), benazepril (blood pressure), hydrocodone (pain), methotrexate (inflammation), and amoxicillin (infection); none of which did anything to cure her diseases.

For a while, we almost accepted the idea that she could be gone soon. That just made me push harder for information. Before we went to the gastroenterologist, we already had an idea of what we wanted to hear (bad news) and what we hoped we would not hear (horrible news). We had done research and suspected it was NASH, and later her doctor confirmed it. However, he did not request a biopsy to understand what stage she was in.

I finally realized that our main problem—Karen and I—was that we are people who are meant to be hunter-gatherers, but living in a modern world. In order to cure Karen, I had to change our diets—hers, mine and that of our kids. Then we had to become active.

We switched to a Paleolithic diet, centered on commonly available modern foods. The contemporary Paleolithic diet consists mainly of meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, roots and nuts, and excludes grains, legumes, dairy products, salt, refined sugar and processed oils. The idea is to mimic the diet of our ancestors.

A week into our new diet, we were attending Coby’s baseball game. Between innings, I would check on my other two children, who still prefer the playground to sports. That’s when I found Shauntae in front of the concession stand with tears in her eyes and a dollar bill crumbled up in her hands. Right away I knew she was struggling with a craving for junk food. I hugged her and told her it’s going to be okay and that I understood her pain. I cried a little bit too. But instead of giving in I explained to her, “See, this is why we choose not to eat this. You’re having a craving aren’t you?” She nodded. Then I said, “Look at these kids, they have no idea what they are doing to themselves. They don’t know how bad it is. That’s drugs.”

She’s very picky about her food, so she probably hadn’t eaten enough that day. That was the first time she cried for not having that craving for sugar fulfilled and anybody whom has had to give up alcohol or cigarettes can relate; this was a big moment for her, and for me. Shauntae and Jonathan would cry at our dinner table almost every night for the next few weeks—they hated to change how they ate, but they understood how important it was to do so.

Interestingly, my senses of smell, sight, sound and intuition greatly improved on this diet. Phobias and anxieties that I was ashamed of and had kept hidden evaporated. My kid’s grades improved. Our energy improved as well. We now go outside and walk and play catch with the kids rather than stay inside and watch movies or television. Karen has even begun to play a tough game of basketball. We both walk every morning around 6:30 a.m., and it is fabulous. She still has to take it easy, but she is improving dramatically. She still has a touch of light-headedness but that is improving. Her blood pressure is even back to what it was in her teenage years. The most important thing is that her newfound zest for life is helping her recover faster and better than anything those foolish doctors could prescribe.

All she really needed was to have one doctor tell her that her diet was killing her. But no, all her doctors would rather protect this ignorant notion that a Neolithic diet is best, when in reality, we are born hunter-gatherers! Born to be wild and proud of it!

From our experience, I can only assume that there are countless others out there battling these diet-related diseases. I believe that most if not all American Indians are intolerant to gluten and easily addicted to sugar. Our ancestors were lean and as athletic as any modern elite athlete. We are our ancestors, warriors. We should eat and exercise as warriors in a good way to achieve the gifts that the Creator has for each of us.

We should not be angry at ourselves, at our parents or our leaders. You can, however, blame the U.S. government, specifically the Department of Agriculture and the sugar conglomerates who continue to use propaganda to fool not only us but our children into believing that these products are safe. Take matters into your own hands first by gradually changing your diet from sugar-based and gluten-based; start eating a more robust variety of fruits, vegetables and meats. Overcome your sugar cravings. Don’t let your children eat candy or drink soda. Those products are highly addictive and come with numerous ailments, including: acne, addictions to caffeine, drugs and food, adrenal gland exhaustion, alcoholism, anxiety, appendicitis, arthritis, asthma, behavioral problems, binge-eating, bloating, bone-density loss, cataracts, colitis, constipation, depression, dermatitis, difficulty concentrating, diverticulitis, eczema, edema, emotional problems, endocrine gland dysfunction, fatigue, food cravings, gallstones, gout, high estrogen levels, hormonal problems, hyperactivity, hypertension, hypoglycemia, impaired digestion, indigestion, insomnia, kidney stones, liver dysfunction, menstrual difficulties, mental illness, mood swings, muscle pain, nearsightedness, obesity, osteoporosis, parasitic infections, premature aging, premenstrual syndrome, psoriasis, rheumatism, tooth decay, ulcers and vaginal yeast infections. For more information, click here.

For recipes, books, links and motivation I suggest: The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf (book), (recipes), (gardening) and for motivation I watch Billy Mills on YouTube almost daily to get pumped up to run. For information and fun facts regarding the Paleo-caveman-hunter-gatherer lifestyle, I suggest

Exercise is vital to maintain this newfound lifestyle. Start with walking, jogging, running, climbing, biking, rowing and work your way into weight training (assuming that you are a beginner). Gardening is highly recommended.

To conquer this addiction, it takes great love from family and friends. If you need help or somebody to talk to we are here for you: I am interested in your story as well, so please don’t be shy. I will gladly provide updates on the health of Karen and the rest of our family as we continue our new lifestyle.

It is my hope that you put this information to good use and save somebody’s life—including yours. Going caveman has made me happier and healthier than ever before.

Tókhi wániphika ní!—Good Luck!