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“Eating Healthy”: traditional foods are good medicine for both body and soul

​Oct 11, 2018

Dr-Evan-Adams-and-Dr-Sean-Wachtel.jpg 

A message from Dr. Sean Wachtel

New Message Series: Each month, medical officers from the Office of the Chief Medical Officer (OCMO) will be sharing personal stories aligned with one or more of the FNHA's 4 wellness streams: Being Active, Eating Healthy, Nurturing Spirit and Respecting Tobacco. In other words, sharing about what we are doing to walk the FNHA's talk and "live it."

Our first contributor was Dr. Nel Wieman, on the importance of "Nurturing Spirit" in her life.

Today's contribution, from Dr. Sean Wachtel, is on why we all need to "Eat Healthy." 

Everyone needs to eat to live – the functioning of the human body is as simple as that.  An extension of this biological fact is that good, real, "healthy" food can maintain and enhance our health, while bad, man-made, "unhealthy" food can damage and diminish it.  So, food has the power to be simultaneously fuel, medicine or poison.

Indigenous people's historical relationship with food

For Indigenous people, who have traditionally had a close relationship with their food, harvested from their lands and territories since time immemorial, food is even more powerful.

As FNHA Knowledge Keeper Syexwaliya / Ann Whonnock of Squamish First Nation says, "It is our connection to the earth and all of creation, which was given to all of us by the Creator to share. It is not just for our physical body, but for our mind and spirit. Through harvesting, social gatherings, and ceremony, food brings family and community/social cohesion and facilitates the passing down of cultural traditions."

Healthy foods, lands and environments, then, are critical to the health and wellness of Indigenous individuals, families, and communities. Historically, Indigenous people from diverse nations enjoyed diverse diets reflecting their environments, their traditions and their cultures. Protein sources such as meat, fish and seafood were hunted and gathered, berries and fruits harvested, and vegetables, herbs and other crops cultivated. The foods were prepared without chemicals, intense processing, or artificial flavourings / colourings. 

When hunting, Indigenous people took only what they needed; animals were killed with much respect for their sacrifice, and, in the case of some First Nations in BC, tobacco was laid down and prayers of thanksgiving offered up to the Creator for the sustenance. As stewards of the land and natural environment, Indigenous people cared for the land and for everything that lived on and moved through it. They prospered as a result and enjoyed good health and wellness. The processes of hunting, farming and preparing traditional foods were physically demanding; the Indigenous way of life historically involved physical activity whether travelling by foot, kayak or horse or playing traditional games such as lacrosse. As a result of this lifestyle, obesity and diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer were far less common than now, and Indigenous people were lean and fit. Their bodies and spirits were healthier, happier, freer. 

Colonization changed everything. Dispossessed of their traditional lands and confined to remote reserves, Indigenous people were forced to adopt the modern diets of refined grains, sugar, farmed meat and highly processed foods they were provided by each reserve's Indian agent. As the culture was oppressed, so were traditional foods and activities. Alcohol was deliberately introduced to make profits for settlers and to keep Indigenous people compliant. Illegal drugs such as fentanyl followed. The result has been a tragic increase in modern diseases including heart disease, diabetes and cancer, drug addiction, mental illness and early death.

Reclaim traditional foods and ways for improved health

There is emerging evidence that eating the right kind of foods – many of which are traditional foods – is not only essential to good health but even more importantly, is as effective as powerful medicines. We are finding that eating the right kinds of foods in the right quantities can actually reverse some diseases, and that these results are even more powerful when combined with lifestyle choices such as being active, respecting tobacco, not overconsuming alcohol or sugar, and avoiding street drugs.  For example, we know that reducing sugar and refined grains in the diet reduces the risk of obesity and diabetes, and that the effect is much stronger when combined with increasing physical activity. I do my best to take advantage of this knowledge by incorporating it into my daily life; I avoid sugar as much as possible, watch for hidden sugars, and am active on a regular basis. And as we are also finding that certain foods have specific effects – for example, blueberries have been found to improve the function of blood vessels, fish oil reduces the risk of heart disease, and lentils help stabilize blood sugar levels – I do my best to eat the right foods, knowing that good foods are good medicine.

The importance of water should not be overlooked; water is essential to life and in many cultures, including Indigenous cultures, it is sacred. We should ensure we drink enough clean, pure water every day (three litres per day is a good target). Clean water, clean air, the right food, and the right kind of lifestyle all play powerful and synergistic (complementary and additive) roles in keeping us healthy and healing us when we are sick.  In the same way that some natural substances (e.g., lead or arsenic) can be poisonous, some foods are essentially toxic, albeit acting over longer time periods, and some foods are therapeutic, gently healing the body.

As with every aspect of life, balance is key with food. While a plant-based diet is known to enhance health and reduce the risk of many diseases, eating vegetables alone could lead to imbalance in the form of several nutritional deficiencies. Thus, we need to eat the right kinds of foods in the right amounts to maximize the benefits of a healthy diet. ​The traditional diet of Indigenous people provided that balance; foods were hunted and gathered locally, in season, and prepared naturally. Eating like this was a central part of a lifestyle that was altogether healthier than the modern one.

Many have returned or are returning to these traditional ways of hunting and gathering, with its many benefits including hormone-free game and a better quality of life for the animals, who live in the wilderness until their death rather than in deplorable mass-production conditions. I would encourage all of us to look to these traditional ways and consider what and how we eat as well as the central part food plays in a healthy lifestyle that could help free us from disease. Let food be our medicine, as it was intended to be.

For more information about traditional foods and healthy eating, see:

http://www.fnha.ca/wellness/wellness-for-first-nations/traditional-wellness

And check out this great video:

https://www.cdc.gov/cdctv/lifestagesandpopulations/our-cultures.html

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