Ancestral eating habits are leading back to the future

September 01, 1993|By Gail Forman | Gail Forman,Contributing Writer

For good health and longevity, eat what your ancestors ate. That's the lesson of the "Hawaiian Paradox." Though the general population in Hawaii lives longer than in any other state, native Hawaiians have the nation's highest rate of death from chronic diseases.

What's to blame? You guessed it -- our old scapegoat, the "typical American diet." For when native Hawaiians ate the traditional island diet as part of an experiment at the University of Hawaii School of Medicine, they not only felt better, they were better.

In one startling case study, an insulin-dependent diabetic woman was able to give up insulin after only four days on the traditional diet and has needed no diabetes drugs for more than two years.

The woman, who looked healthy and said she felt great, appeared at "Food Choices 2000: Sustainable Diets for the Next Century," a symposium held this summer at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Other study participants also showed improved blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. And while they ate more food, they lost weight.

Such improvements are significant in the face of native Hawaiians' high rates of obesity, diabetes (688 percent higher than the general population), heart disease (278 percent higher), stroke (245 percent higher) and cancer (226 percent higher), study director Terry Shintani said.

Food Choices 2000 was the third symposium on eating patterns for the next century organized by Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust as part of a continuing attempt to evaluate the health benefits of ancestral foodways of diverse cultures. Speakers also reported on the traditional Mediterranean, Japanese and Chinese diets as models for healthy eating choices and consequent low rates of chronic disease and high life expectancy.

Plant-based foods

Traditional diets have in common plant-based foods at the center of the plate -- with meat, poultry, fish and dairy foods as supplementary sources of flavor and nourishment.

"The message is more plant food, less animal food," said Cornell's T. Colin Campbell, American director of the China Diet and Health Study. His Chinese counterpart, Junshi Chen, reported that "even when consumption of animal foods is low, it correlates with increases in chronic diseases."

The University of Hawaii diet, for example, centered on taro, a starchy root vegetable, mashed into poi, the traditional staple food. Also included were breadfruit, sweet potatoes, greens, seaweed, bananas, small amounts of fish and, occasionally, poultry.

No dairy foods were allowed. And only 7 percent to 12 percent of calories came from fat.

For most Americans, the classic Mediterranean diet is probably the most adaptable model for healthy eating because it is most familiar, suggested K. Dun Gifford, Oldways president.

It places heart-healthy emphasis on grains and legumes, fruits and vegetables, olive oil, wine in moderation with meals and low consumption of red meat, poultry, fish and dairy foods, according to Antonia Trichopoulou, professor of nutrition and biochemistry at the Athens School of Public Health.

So if, as the Oldways symposium demonstrated, there is international consensus on the proper diet for good health, why do Americans continue to eat high-fat, low-fiber, meat-centered diets? And why do immigrants abandon their national diets when they move to the United States?

Maybe we just don't know any better. Studies show that only one in four adults knows that federal dietary guidelines recommend a maximum of 30 percent of calories from fat. And a 1993 Gallup survey conducted for the Wheat Foods Council showed that only 3 percent of adults surveyed claimed to be "very familiar" with the 1990 U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Guide Pyramid, which replaces the old "four food groups."

A majority (59 percent) still believes there are just four basic food groups.

The wrong ideas

The survey also revealed that 50 percent of respondents incorrectly think bread is fattening, only 33 percent consider bread a good source of fiber and 93 percent said they eat less than the federal guidelines minimum of six daily servings of bread and grain foods daily.

Further, many people get the health-diet message completely wrong.

"To let them know what the priorities should be," Rick Bayless, chef/owner of the Frontera Grill and Topolobampo restaurants in Chicago and a conference panelist, told of a prank he sometimes plays on "sauce-on-the-side" customers. He sends out the sauce on the large dinner plate and the meat on a small side dish. Sometimes diners get the point; sometimes they just get angry.

Jerianne Heimendinger, who runs the National Cancer Institute 5-A-Day for Better Health program, has studied consumer resistance to dietary change.

People are unwilling to sacrifice taste, she reported, and many have a "why-bother?" attitude. They mistrust scientific data, wonder whether change will make any real difference to their health and worry about how it might affect relationships with others.

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