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The 1995 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, under review for a mid-2000 update, push a "Westernized" diet. They ignore the health needs and cultural practices of Native Americans and other minorities. Meanwhile, the much-adopted Standard American Diet and the fast-food culture - flush with animal proteins, fats, and sugars - exact an increasing toll on Native Americans, as on others.
Unfortunately, the Dietary Guidelines, which govern all federal and many private nutrition efforts, poorly reflect what we know about health. For example, they still promote two to three daily servings of dairy - advice dating to the first federal food guides in 1916. They ignore ample research since the mid-1960's on lactose intolerance among racial minorities. A study on Native Americans published in Gastroenterology in 1977 found 74 percent were lactose intolerant. Since dairy had little place in the pre-Columbian scheme of things, distaste for it among Native Americans is hardly surprising. Lactose intolerance, with gas, bloating and diarrhea, is a natural warning, like the pain one would feel putting a hand onto a hot stove. Even drinking lactose-free cow's milk or taking lactose-intolerance pills before eating cheese still invites the heart-damaging effects of "doing dairy." There are plenty of good non-dairy calcium sources, including dark-green, leafy vegetables, beans, and fortified orange juice.
The journal Cardiology reported that "...with the adoption of western lifestyles and diet...heart disease has become relatively common among a number of Native American tribes." With cholesterol levels rising, heart disease ranks as the leading killer of Native Americans, causing more than one-fifth of deaths, according to the U.S. Indian Health Service. (It kills one-third of whites.) For both groups, eating a diet laden with fat and cholesterol is a chief culprit.
Surviving Despite The Odds...
Obesity also afflicts Native Americans. A possible reason is a "thrifty" gene that stores fat to carry one through leaner times. But a high-fat, animal-product-centered diet makes this plus a minus. Native Americans on a more traditional diet have a much easier time staying slim. Almost anyone can slim down by dropping animal products, and consuming more beans, whole grains, and exercising regularly.
Diabetes kills Native Americans at more than triple the overall U.S. rate, according to IHS. Alcohol, tobacco, and an inactive lifestyle heighten risks. But unwise food choices add needless risks. Switching to a plant-food diet, and consuming much less fat than current U.S. Guidelines suggest, can greatly cut diabetes rates. A 1994 study published in Diabetes Care reported that diabetes and obesity are less prevalent among Mexican Pima Indians living a "traditional" lifestyle than among Arizonan Pimas in an "affluent" environment.
Hollywood Westerns had the typical Native American as a big meat-eater, a "killer of buffalo...and stranger to vegetables," as Choctaw-Cherokee writer Rita Laws put it. Few tribes in what is now the Untied States hunted much (though some fished) before whites came. Hunting went from an exception to a widespread, steady activity after Spanish conqueror Francisco Coronado's 16th century explorations of the U.S. Southwest introduced horses and guns. Earlier, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains were dietary staples for many tribes.
Real Indian Food
Iroquois grew 17 varieties of corn, seven types of squashes, and 60 of beans - a trio of major foods called the "three sisters." Captain John Smith, who led the English colony at Jamestown, VA wrote in 1607, "Settlers would have starved if the Indians had not brought corn, squash, and beans to us." The Iroquois gathered 34 wild fruits, 11 nut species, 12 kinds of edible roots, 38 types of bark, six fungi, and maple syrup, their main confections, according to the 1991 reference work The Native Americans. Chippewas and Menominees of the western Great Lakes area relied on wild rice, maple sugar, blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, grapes, cherries, nuts, wild onions, and potatoes. Mississippi and Oklahoma Choctaws raised corn, squash, beans, peas, watermelons, sweet potatoes, and fruit trees, and foraged persimmons, plums, hickory nuts, walnuts, pecans, cherries, grapes and mulberries.
Iroquois Chief Canassatego reportedly said, "There are many things to be shared with the four colors of humanity in our common destiny as one with our Mother the Earth. It is this sharing that must be considered with great care by the Elders and the medicine people who carry the Sacred Trusts, so that no harm may come to people through ignorance and misuse of these powerful forces." Let's hope the rule-makers in Washington remember his 18th century wisdom.
Neal D. Barnard, M.D., author of Foods That Fight Pain and Eat Right, Live Longer, founded the Washington, D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) in 1985. Derek M. Brown is a writer in Rockville, Maryland. Endorsers of the PCRM's who call for an end to racially biased federal food guidelines include the Association of American Indian Physicians and the National Indian Health Board.