Natural Foods & Nutrition

The Pima Indians of Arizona have one of the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the United States. Half of the people living on the Pima reservations, along the Gila and Salt River valleys in Arizona, suffer from diabetes. However, their tribal cousins, the Nevome of Mexico, don’t have anywhere near the same incidence of the disease. When Dr. Eric Ravussin, a visiting scientist at the Phoenix Epidemiology and Clinical Research Branch, visited the Nevome in the Sierra Madre Mountains, he found that less than 10 percent had diabetes. Nor did the community suffer from an obesity problem.

These health differences can be attributed largely to a divergence in dietary habits.  In the late 19th century, American farmers in need of irrigation diverted water from the Pima communities and made it virtually impossible for the indigenous peoples to continue their traditional agriculture.  Forced to fall back on government handouts, the Pima changed their high starch and fiber diet to one high in fat and sugar. No longer farming or hunting or fishing, the Pima abandoned their once active lifestyles.  With fatty foods now easily available, a “thrifty gene” that promoted the storage of fat in case of famine went haywire.  The Nevome Indians, on the other hand, have largely maintained their traditional culture and have avoided many diseases of modernity such as obesity.

Today, many indigenous communities in the United States are advocating just that: a return to traditional foods and nutrition.  Tohono O’odham Community Action in Arizona is popularizing desert foods like the cholla bud and the tepary bean.  The White Earth Land Recovery Project in Minnesota distributes wild rice and buffalo meat to Native American elders with diabetes and on fixed incomes.  And poet Suzan Shown Harjo has called on her fellow Indians to give up “fry bread,” arguing that it is neither healthy nor traditional.

Obesity and diabetes are not, of course, a problem just in Indian country.One-third of the American population is obese.  Two-thirds are overweight.  It’s also a global problem.  In 2000, to underscore the growing global divide of haves and have nots, the number of overweight finally matched that of the undernourished at 1.1 billion each.  The processed food market – candy, soft drinks, breakfast cereals, potato chips – is an ever growing industry and, through advertising and product placement, has made inroads into the most remote parts of the world.  Fast food restaurants, poor quality school lunch programs, and supermarket red-lining that keeps fresh and inexpensive produce out of inner cities have contributed to making nutrition an urgent problem of economic justice.  It’s not the rich who are fat anymore but, increasingly, the poor.

The seductions of television, a pervasive auto culture that discourages walking and biking, and the relentless insistence of industry on “consumer choice” has turned the United States into what journalist Greg Critser has called “Fat Land.”  “Large” certainly does not have to be unhealthy, as some in the “big is beautiful” movement argue.  Body image aside, though, a steady diet of sugar and fat (burger, fries, shake) is a recipe for a health disaster.  On the positive side, the growing popularity of community supported agriculture (CSAs), the growth of the “slow food” movement, the movement of soy products into the mainstream, and the push for greater sustainability in farming are all challenging the fixed menu of the food industry.

If the problem of hunger is not one of production – for global food production is more than enough to provide the world’s citizens with enough calories – then how do we best change the distribution of food? If people the world over are choosing to eat poorly, is it presumptuous to attempt to persuade them to eat otherwise?  Can organic agriculture support the world’s growing population?  And has the organic industry itself, by growing larger and cooperating with the likes of WalMart, become part of the problem?  Eating local seems to be a good solution – if you live in a water-abundant, soil-rich environment – but what about people who live in more extreme conditions of snow or sand?

On a trip to Provisions, you can read Kathy Hart’s blistering critique of the biotech industry in Eating in the Dark, check out what it means to be young, hip, and vegan in the magazine Herbivore, assess the FDA’snew food pyramid, take in Daniella Goff-Sklan’s revealing photographs in Fatal Harvest, listen to music that will aid your digestion from the CD Musical Nutrition, and watch Morgan Spurlock nearly eat himself to death in the film Supersize Me.

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