This post has been a long time in coming. Bits and pieces have been in the draft since long before the Ancestral Health Symposium this past August even took place. The abstracts and bios had been online for quite some time prior, so I had a pretty good idea of what was to transpire. Indeed, I had intended to blog on this before AHS14 just to "compare notes" after all was said and done and had done quite a bit of research.
For an organization and event containing the words "ancestral health", the program in general seemed lacking in relevant material. Paleo was a less often heard term this year, yet it was sadly not replaced by discussions of more recent and/or definable ancestral diets. You know ... those that promoted health up until, in many cases, the 20th century and beyond?
The nods to discussion of the lifestyles of ancestral cultures were clustered together on Day Two of the symposium, all of the shorter 20 minute variety, there along the right side of my screen shot at right. This was announced around the time I had been reviewing The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz, wherein she misrepresented the traditional diets of just about everyone she discussed in her book. But most prominently, were the diets of those indigenous to North America whom she described as subsisting practically entirely on buffalo meat from sea to shining sea. I was also deep into researching the truth about Ancel Keys, prompted by the hatchet job done on him at the hands of Teicholz. Thus, the second two presentations caught my eye. They will be the focus of this post, but I'll include all four in summary, for reasons that should become clear. (Each heading to follow links directly to the YouTube video, the abstracts and bios are from the preceding AHS14 program link.)
For centuries coconut has been a staple in the diet of the Afro-descendant population of Esmeraldas, a province in the north western region of Ecuador. Based on ethnographic and historical analyses, I examine the sharp decline in coconut consumption among Esmeraldeños during recent decades in the context of shifting values among urban middle classes towards the food traditions of historically marginalized communities. I discuss how local and global trade flows and conflicting ideas about coconut and health, exacerbate economic and epistemic gaps that draw Esmeraldeños away from their native foods while simultaneously bringing them to major cities re-branded as healthy.
Track: Layperson ... Pilar Egüez Guevara, Anthropology Ph.D., is a native Ecuadorian, postdoctoral fellow in Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Currently she studies the relationships between nutrition and chronic disease among older adults in Ecuador using survey, ethnographic and historical analyses. Her work is part of an independent project documenting food and healing traditions in Latin America (comidasquecuran.com.ec). Her previous doctoral and consultancy work focused on a wide range of themes about the culture, history, health, economics, gender and race relations of Cuba, Ecuador, Argentina, and Brazil.
From friends in attendance etc. at AHS, I'm told this was pretty well attended and received. Firstly, I wonder why this was classified as a Layperson track talk. Guevara is an academic/researcher and not only that, this would appear to be a presentation related to her work. Given that a talk by "That Paleo Guy" was classified on the prestigious Academics & Researchers track, one is left to wonder what the powers that be at AHS are thinking anymore. But anyway ...
Guevara relates an all too common story of how the traditional foods of traditional peoples were replaced by foods of those cultures which infiltrated (my word) the region and marginalized its peoples. She brings up a concept we hear often in the IHC -- when these peoples' health began to suffer, it was the *inferior* nature of the foods they ate that was blamed. When so-called health authorities sought to remedy the situation, they did so by recommending the "standard diet" which includes lots of processed foods. Ahhhhh, but then the modern-day hippies have discovered that coconut is a miracle food after all. When this happened, the production of coconut products the cost of this traditional food rose in the land they were produced, making this traditional food economically inaccessible to the very people whose pictures and tales are used to laud the almighty coconut's powers to begin with! OK ... Guevara puts it in much more tactful terms ... but the point is the same.
I urge you to watch this one!
Pacific people in New Zealand are disproportionately represented in the health statistics with rapidly rising obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease rates that impact on both longevity and quality of life. Standard dietary recommendations to choose low fat, wholegrain carbohydrate foods and lean sources of animal protein are at odds with traditional Pacific food sources. I will present the results of a small feasibility trial that tested the efficacy of a low carbohydrate high fat (LCHF) whole food approach to diet (Primal Pacific) designed around culturally appropriate food choices, when compared to current ‘best practice' recommendations for healthy eating in a Pacific employee group.
Track: Academics or Researchers ... Mikki Williden Ph.D., is a senior lecturer and researcher in the Human Potential Centre at Auckland University of Technology. She is part of a research team who are conducting studies investigating the effects of diet on metabolic health outcomes within various population groups. She is also a practising registered nutritionist and a foundation member of the Ancestral Health Society of New Zealand.
So first off, Williden gets the prestigious Academics or Researchers track nod. But the title of this one was interesting from the get-go. What exactly does this "culturally appropriate" term mean? Apparently to the Primal Pacific gang, it means taking a culturally inappropriate diet (LCHF) and adding enough coconut fat to make it Pacific Island-ie.
Around the 6 minute mark Williden states that the health problems can almost assuredly NOT be blamed on their traditional diet centered on abundant fruit, vegetables (I note that the picture does not appear to be local fruit and veg), meat and seafood and starchy tubers like taro and plantains (not a tuber) and, of course coconut.
So the question becomes, why not devote time and resources to developing programs to help these peoples to re-adopt their traditional diets and eschew the so-called Western junk foods that have ravaged their health? Something like the Hawaiian Waianae Diet Program? Instead, they are using yet another culturally INappropriate and foreign dietary intervention based on some primal fairy tale of low carb superior nutrition. That the results were largely underwhelming aside, this talk, especially coming on the heels of Guevara's, epitomizes everything wrong with an organization that claims to be about "ancestral health". The level of tone deafness here is in and of itself rather deafening!
3. Native Paleo
Colonization by Europeans impacted Indigenous life-ways, dramatically shifting the health of pre-contact Natives towards the "diseases of lifestyle." Due to the Native healing and wellness movements beginning in the 1970's, much work has been done to empower Native people. Today, there is growing interest to once again embrace traditional lifestyle, hence the birth of Native Paleo- an emerging Pan-Native movement whose goal is to educate and support individuals, families and tribal communities in reclaiming their ancestral diets and activity levels. Participants will learn how diabetes, obesity and heart disease impact the Native population and how Native Paleo is one solution.
Track: Layperson ... Regina Aguilera, MS, LAc, FDN, CHEK, is the founder of Native Paleo~Functional Nutrition & Fitness. Regina is a Board Member of Native Wellness Institute, a national non-profit Native organization that focuses on wellness-related issues. Through the need of Native people to reclaim their health and fitness, Native Paleo was born. Regina utilizes the combined philosophies of Native and Eastern cultures to encourage holistic wellness and balance. She is widely sought after as a presenter, bringing her knowledge to Native communities across the United States. She works with groups and individuals of all ages promoting healthy lifestyles, exercise/relaxation techniques and mind/body fitness.
There's not really much to say about this presentation as it was more notable for what was not included than what was. It was more a discussion of her organization and not at all about the true dietS of Native Americans. When I first learned of this presentation, I looked on Factbook for the page and more information. By this point, it was obvious to me that not only is there no single Native American diet, but there are few if any ways that such a diet could be "paleo". I was curious as to what Aguilera herself ate and/or advocated eating as a return to ancestral ways. I came across this photo. There's that coconut -- oh and Asprey's coffee.
I wondered what tribe she hailed from, which we learn in the talk is the Yaqui of the Southwest. There is a smidgeon of a chance that the diets of some northern plains tribes could be cherry picked to paleo hunter-gatherer types, though even those would be a stretch. There is no way any of the southern tribes even come close. So Native Paleo is an oxymoron, plain and simple, and her movement is nothing but trying to dress up paleo in a tribal label or the other way around. It's worse, somehow, that she is an "authentic insider" rather than an outsider like Williden. Her Ancestral Food Wheel (directly linked image) truly inspires some head shaking. Where are the maize, squash and beans "three sisters" I've read so much about? Lemon-lime waters?? Broccoli??
Hrdlicka made several mentions of the Yaqui, among them:
Perhaps Aguilera is aware of the dark side of Hrdlicka's escapades with the Yaqui. However, while this may be reason not to promote his works, it is hardly reason to turn against the record such as it is of traditional diets. He is surely not the only one to have related traditions, and it seems highly doubtful that Aguilera's grandfather would have considered his diet paleo or shunned all grain and legumes.
So before I wander totally off the reservation here, I must share a recent post from the Native Paleo FB page as it was part of the impetus to dust this post off, fill it out and polish it off. This was a link to an NPR piece on a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe: The 'Sioux Chef' Is Putting Pre-Colonization Food Back On The Menu. The meal pictured in the article is shown at right. The walleye filet is made with maple sugar and complemented with a white bean and walleye croquette and toasted hominy.
When he tried to learn more about the wild game — and especially the plants — native to the Great Plains, he came up short. He says many Americans don't have a sense of the Lakota diet beyond bison or frybread. (Frybread is actually a fairly recent addition and has a complicated history.)
Surely Nina Teicholz is not helping matters in this regard!"There wasn't a lot of information out there, so I devised my own [research] plan," he says. "I spent years studying wild edibles and ethnobotany."
... he continued to try to piece together a picture of the traditional diet of the local Dakota and Ojibwe tribes. He also spent a lot of time traveling across the state, adding more staples to his growing list, including bison, venison, rabbit, river and lake fish, trout, duck, quail, maple sugar, sage, sumac, plums, timpsula or wild turnip, wild rice, purslane, amaranth, maize and various wildflowers.
Identifying the ingredients has only been half of the challenge, however. He has also had to figure out how to preserve everything. ... "The biggest part of the Native American cuisine is just that method of preserving foods. That's what people were doing during the whole summer season — preparing for the next long winter."
So if these northern tribes weren't just eating bison fat and kale, not to mention the even more carby/less meaty southern tribes, what exactly is Aguilera trying to pull here?
The title of the NPR piece reminded me of the last of the offerings in this quartet: Teaching Early US History in the Home of Ancel Keys — Gideon Mailer, Ph.D. I'm going to end Part I here after I note that the full title of this began with Decolonizing the Diet. Perhaps this explains somewhat my title of Derectumfying here. Mailer's presentation was nothing but a total disgrace to all parties and deserves a full on dissection of its own. Soon ...
A Thought Summary Thus Far ...
Another impetus for this post was a post written about paleo by my friend Antonio Valladares aka @UrbanAntonio on Twitter. The Paleo Problem with Racism and Sexism. While not all of that article is pertinent here, the issue of misrepresenting and misappropriating cultures most certainly is. That post built upon a theme that guest author Richard Garcia wrote for Antonio's blog: “Paleo Mexican”: Call This What It Is, and ties in with a recent post here at the Asylum regarding Loren Cordain and Mexican cuisine.
I am not quite sure why it is (likely many factors in addition to just diet), but I do think we can all agree that many of the formerly isolated traditional cultures have suffered disproportionate health consequences upon exposure to so-called Western culture, even the traditional fare of Europeans hundreds of years ago, but especially the modern diet. I think we can all probably agree that their real traditional diets were not the problem. If descendents of those cultures could return to the diets (and preferably lifestyles in general) of their ancestors, the health of their societies as a whole would improve.
This seems to be -- at least ostensibly -- the goal of Aguilera/Native Paleo. So what boggles the mind is that Native Paleo is a far cry from the traditional diet of any single Native American tribe, let alone the tribe of her ancestry, or let alone a representative diet for most Native Americans. So the question is why would someone advocate for not a return to their traditions, but a switch to yet another dietary pattern that is in many ways even more foreign? If Taco Bell is not Mexican, surely a bunch of recipes from Los Paleo is going to be less so. The "experts" rattle off a number of reasons with which to justify rejecting traditional foods. Grains and lectins and phytates and starch oh my! Legumes -- well, these aren't as nutrient dense a source of what they provide. There are *better* food sources.
What that translates to is that the traditional foods and cuisine of insert-culture-here are inferior to the white-man Euro-inspired fairy tale paleo diet. It is both surprising and disappointing to see someone from the "inside" engaged in such deception and denigration of her own ancestry.
In Williden's case in New Zealand, it's different but no better. As an outsider she laments the plight of indigenous peoples in the face of modern refined foods. She even goes so far as to say that their traditional foods cannot be to blame. But then what? Advocate for a return to those foods? Of course not! That would make too much sense I suppose, because we "know better"?? One subject interviewed even went so far as to express how she felt she was denying her heritage in abstaining from cultural staples. I'm not sure we need to attach moral tones to choosing not to eat one's traditional foods, but it would make so much more sense to embrace the culture full on traditional, than replace the modern diet with yet another dietary construct dreamt up by "the white man", no? You don't make any diet more "culturally appropriate" by adding a food or spice combination.
So Primal Pacific acknowledges the real traditional diet of Pacific Islanders, cherry picks coconut from the mix and advocates for a "culturally appropriate" extreme and untested, non-traditional LCHF diet to fix the health problems of a population. Oh I don't know ... because Atkins has really turned the tide in the last 40 years?! Meanwhile Native Paleo pays some lip service to their own ancestral diets and advocates for replacing it all with an unverifiable fantasy of what humans ate over 10,000 years ago. In both cases the more reasonable and simpler task would be reverting to the known ancestral diets. It seems rather ridiculous and kinda sleazy to instead use these folks as guinea pigs for your pet diet.
They are both engaged in different versions of exactly what Guevara was talking about in Equador. Is this REALLY what the Ancestral Health Symposium (Foundation) is all about??
The other videos embedded