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Indigenous American diet healthier than modern

Article Published: Nov. 23, 2011 | Modified: Nov. 23, 2011
Indigenous American diet healthier than modern

The diet consumed by Native Americans at the time Europeans integrated was much healthier than what is common in the U.S. today.

Adopting indigenous tribal eating habits would be beneficial for most Americans, and especially natives. According to the American Diabetes Association, prevalence of Type 2 diabetes among Native Americans is 12.2 percent, more than twice as high as the general population. This sad statistic reveals what happens when a culture has an extreme lifestyle change over a relatively short period of time, from being active with a whole food diet to inadequate physical activity and poor nutrition.

While different tribes had various ways to meet their nutritional needs, they were hunters, gathers and farmers. As early as 2000 B.C., Native Americans residing in what is now the Eastern U.S. were planting and harvesting at least four indigenous seed plants, marking their transition from foragers to farmers. It wasn’t until after 800 A.D. that intensive maize agriculture spread quickly and widely throughout the east as corn became a major staple of the diet. A common food trio known as the “three sisters,” corn, beans and squash were interdependent upon one another. The beans grew up the corn stalks and added nitrogen to the soil, and squash was planted in between them to keeps weeds from growing.

Tribes also included a variety of “wild plants” in their diets: Arrowroot, cranberry, black birch, black mustard, buttercup, cattail, chickweed, chokecherry, dandelion, elderberry, evening primrose, great burdock, lamb’s quarters, milkweed, mint, ostrich fern, purslane, stag sumac, stinging nettle, thistle, watercress, wild rose, wintergreen, wood sorrel, yellow clover and yellow water lily. These plants were eaten raw, cooked, as a beverage and mixed in soups and stews.

Most tribal people were not vegetarians. Depending on where they lived, they consumed alligator, bear, beaver, buffalo, caribou, deer, moose, duck, elk, rabbit, fish, geese, insects, opossum, raccoon, squirrel, turtle, seal, shellfish and even whale.

The Americas have provided the world with at least half the plant foods we know today. Traditional Thanksgiving foods with ingredients indigenous to the western hemisphere include turkey, cornbread stuffing, green beans, squash, tomatoes, corn bread, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, pecan, sweet potato and pumpkin pie.

In summary, the Native American diet was fresh, minimally processed, and took a great deal of physical activity to produce. To reduce your chance of developing the chronic diseases of modern times, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart problems, commit to a diet that is as close to nature as possible. Focus on preparing home-cooked meals with fresh vegetables, fruits, herbs for seasoning, and lean protein sources. Have fruit available for snacks. Put plenty of physical activity into your day, the kind it takes to hunt down a deer or even a buffalo.

Cranberries were growing in the now New England area when the Europeans arrived and are a favorite accompaniment to holiday meals. They contain high levels of health promoting anti-oxidants and vitamin C. This is my favorite cranberry recipe.

Popping Cranberry Relish

12 ounces fresh or frozen cranberries
1 medium orange
1 bay leaf
3 whole cloves
½ cup sugar
2 cups port wine

Using a vegetable peeler, remove the rind from the orange, making sure not to get the white part.
In a medium pan, combine the orange rind, port wine, bay leaf and cloves and simmer over medium heat for about 20 minutes, or until reduced to one cup.

Stain through a sieve over a bowl and compost the solids.

Return liquid to pan and add sugar and cranberries.

Cook over medium heat until cranberries pop, around 10 minutes.

Place in a bowl and chill before serving.

Margie Mansure, M.S., R.D. is a registered dietitian/nutritionist and extension agent with N.C. Cooperative Extension. She offers personalized classes to improve the health of citizens in Watauga County through worksites, schools and community groups. To contact Margie, email or call (828) 264-3061.

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