My daughter, Alicia M. Micozzi, is a certified Emergency Management Technician (EMT), Firefighter, and Wilderness Medicine responder. She just completed her Master of Science in Environmental Sciences last May at a Harvard University-accredited program in New England.
And she had also done extensive field research on Native American culture and nutrition in past years.
Some of the things she’s discovered hold valuable lessons for ALL Americans. And a few years ago, 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 Daily Dispatch together and we’re revisiting the topic with some updates for this fall harvest season. 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…
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 (and of course, tobacco).
In fact, during the two centuries before Europeans arrived in the New World, Native Americans were expanding croplands by burning down primeval forests, practicing “slash-and-burn” agriculture.
Some scholars have postulated that the massive amount of airborne smoke circulating contributed to the Little Ice Age in Europe of that period. The Little Ice Age, in turn, contributed to poor agricultural productivity and motivated the migration of Europeans to North America for new land.
The crops they grew in the Americas 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 we can blame corn, in part, for this decline.
Corn cultivation leads to decreases in nutrition
As I’ve said before, Indian corn was originally an important and healthy crop. It contained many different nutrients. However, over centuries, cultivation diminished its nutritional content. In fact, the sweet white corn we eat today is not much better than candy.
But even before that, corn was becoming a problem for Native Americans…
For example, we now know that a pre-Columbian hunter-gatherer tribe encountered corn for the first time during an early migration. Based on this finding, the tribe decided to settle down in one spot. And that’s when their health problems began…
In fact, after corn entered into their diet, the tribe members began to experience dental problems and excess weight gain for the first time ever.
Why did this happen? There are three main reasons:
First, it’s important to remember that no one source of plant food can provide all the essential nutrients for a healthy diet. Nor can it provide all the amino acids needed to form complete proteins. Even original, Native American corn turned out to be a very incomplete food. Mainly because it lacked bioavailability of the B vitamin niacin.
Second, tribe members stopped walking miles and miles a day to forage. 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 single day.
Third, 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 negatively affected their health.
Dietary diversity has always been a key to good health. (And it still is today, despite some recent claims to the contrary.)
Different tribe, same story
Beginning as early as the late 1600s, Native Americans had their native lands forcefully taken from them. And later, beginning in the 1800s, the U.S. government forced them to settle (and re-settle) on reservations.
At this point, even bigger problems set in…
Settlers and the railroads had decimated 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 providing Native Americans with inexpensive food sources, such as starches and carbohydrates. All of a sudden, this once hunter-gather culture had ready access to flour, corn meal, sugar, and oil.
But the government did not provide the displaced Native Americans with high-quality protein or fresh produce. Nor did they pay adequate attention to vitamins and minerals.
Not surprisingly, this government-subsidized, empty, carb-laden diet exacerbated the problem. Which is why so many Native Americans grappled with excess body fat — and all of its accompanying health concerns.
Of course, Europeans also evolved from active hunter-gatherers into post-modern, processed-food eaters. But Native Americans had to do it in just one or two generations.
And this very sudden shift was the key factor…
Fast changes make for big problems
Once upon a time, Native American metabolism was “thrifty,” having to make do with food supplies that could become limited at certain times due to Nature’s cycles.
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.
Over the course of history, when a hunter-gatherer population quickly undergoes such drastic dietary changes, the result is obesity, diabetes, gallbladder disease, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers.
It’s all the more tragic because traditional Native American culture and medicine focus on holistic, natural approaches that draw together the mind, body, and spirit.
On the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona, for example, most of the older — and some middle-aged — generation continues to hunt and fish on their natural lands. These individuals are much leaner and healthier than the younger generation, which adopted western ways and feed off the “fat” of casino revenues.
Ultimately, the take-home message here is the same for Native Americans as it is for the rest of us…
1.) Try to simulate a healthy, nomadic lifestyle. For you, that means striving to get some light-to-moderate activity every day. And remember, as I explained on Tuesday, light-to-moderate activity such as gardening and housework indeed counts!
2.) Avoid “convenient,” processed foods. Instead, follow a Mediterranean-type diet with plenty of fresh, whole foods. (I’ve written about the benefits of this diet many times before. To learn more, simply head to my website, www.DrMicozzi.com and type “Mediterranean diet” into the top right search bar.)
3.) Strive to eat a variety of foods — as a hunter-gatherer society would. Including fresh fish, vegetables, and berries. Maybe even grow some of your own food!
In fact, there are probably a number of edible and nutritious weeds growing in your backyard right now. I just covered this topic in the September issue of my Insiders’ Cures monthly newsletter (“Ten free ‘superfoods’ growing right in your backyard”). Simply click here to subscribe today.
4.) Stay away from corn sold in the supermarket, which is almost always genetically modified. And when you do have a hankering for corn (which goes great in a seafood boil), look for organic, colorful, heirloom varieties at your local farmer’s market. Many farmers take great pride in cultivating these more nutritious varieties.
All in all, strive to stay in tune with the natural wonders of the land, as the Native Americans did.