Feast or famine, poverty or prosperity among Native Americans

My daughter, Alicia M. Micozzi (AMM), has done an extensive amount of field research on Native American culture and nutrition over the past several years. And some of the things she’s discovered hold valuable lessons for ALL Americans. I asked her to share some of her insights with me, so that I could pass them along to our readers. We wrote today’s article together. Enjoy!


Today, Native Americans suffer from high rates of obesity, Type II diabetes, and alcoholism. They also have the lowest longevity rates of any population group in the country. But it wasn’t always so.

How did Native Americans arrive at this dire position?

A lot of it has to do with the cultural transition forced upon them.

You see, early cultures of man began as nomadic, hunter-gathers. And it took thousands of years, and many generations, for Europeans to transform from hunter-gatherers into post-modern, processed-food eaters.

But Native Americans had to do it in just a very few generations. And their metabolism just can’t adapt to the sudden, dramatic changes in diet and lifestyle.

Like other early cultures, Native Americans began as hunter-gatherers. But by the 1400s, many had begun to settle down in one place and cultivate food crops. Especially corn, squash, potatoes, and tomatoes. These crops also greatly contributed to improving the nutritional intake of Europeans in the 17th and 18th centuries, once they “discovered” them in the New World.

Yet, Native Americans increasingly began to suffer from poor nutrition. And, in part, we can blame corn for this.

As I’ve said before, Indian corn was originally an important and healthy crop. It contained lots of different nutrients. But over the centuries, cultivation diminished its nutritional content. In fact, the corn we eat today is little more than candy. Literally “candy corn.”

But even before that, corn was becoming a problem for Native Americans.

For example, we know that a pre-Columbian, hunter-gatherer tribe encountered corn for the first time during an early migration. After this encounter, the tribe settled down in one spot.

And then, their health problems began.

Researchers recently studied the tribe members’ skeletal remains. And determined that their health began to fail after they encountered corn. In fact, after corn entered their diets, the tribe members began to experience dental problems and excess weight gain for the first time.

Why did this happen?

Well, it’s important to remember that no one source of food can provide all the essential nutrients for a healthy diet. And even the original, Native corn can be a very incomplete food. It can lack bioavailability of the B vitamin niacin.

Plus, tribe members stopped walking miles and miles a day foraging. They stayed in one place to grow crops. Yes, it could still be strenuous work at times, seasonally. But it’s not the same as hunting and gathering every day.

And the tribe members no longer had as much dietary diversity when they stopped migrating from one place to another to gather different foods. They ate a far more limited diet. And this affected their health.

Dietary diversity always has been the key to good health. (And it still is today.)

This same situation happened to other Native American tribes at different points in time, as the American frontier pushed westward from the 1600s through the 1800s. They started out as hunter-gatherers with a nomadic lifestyle. Then they became farmers. And their dietary diversity shrunk.

Beginning as early as the late 1600s, Native Americans had their native lands forcefully taken from them. Later, beginning in the 1800s, the U.S. government forced them to settle (and re-settle) on reservations. At that point, bigger problems set in.

Settlers and the railroads had decimated the large game all across the country. So away from their vast hunting lands, some Native Americans quite literally starved from the lack of essential fatty acids found in large game fat. (A condition that came to be known as “rabbit hunger.”)

Ultimately, the government tried to step in and “help.” By giving Native Americans inexpensive food sources, such as starches and carbohydrates. All of a sudden, this hunter-gather culture had ready access to flour, corn meal, sugar, and oil. But the government failed to provide the displaced Native Americans with high-quality protein or fresh produce. Nor did they pay adequate attention to vitamins and minerals.

Of course, this caused even bigger health problems for Native Americans.

Once upon a time, Native American metabolism was “thrifty,” having to make do with food supplies that could become naturally limited at certain times. But when empty calories became available on a regular basis, the metabolic response was the same as it is in all humans: store the calories and rapidly create fat tissue.

The problem was exacerbated on Native American reservations via government-subsidized, empty carb-laden diets. Which is why so many Native Americans have problems with excess body fat–and all of its accompanying health concerns.

When a hunter-gatherer subsistence population quickly undergoes such drastic dietary changes, the result is obesity, diabetes, gallbladder disease, many types of cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers.

It is all the more tragic because traditional Native American culture and medicine focus on holistic, natural approaches that draw together the mind, body and spirit.

My (AMM) experience with the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona, for example, showed that most of the older, and some of the middle-aged generations, continue to hunt and fish on their natural lands. These individuals are much leaner and healthier than the youngest generations, which have now adopted western ways and feed off the “fat” of casino revenues.

Ultimately, the take-home messages here are the same for Native Americans and the rest of us…

Keep as active as you can. Stay away from “convenient” processed foods. Eat fish and fresh berries. Maybe even grow some of your own food. Just don’t grow corn.