o Preserve Their Health and Heritage, Arizona Indians Reclaim Ancient
> Desert's bounty cuts overweight and diabetes
> By Jane E. Brody
> Both fruits and pads of the prickly pear cactus are rich in slowly absorbed
> soluble fibers that help keep blood sugar stable.
> Going back to one's roots could soon take on a more literal meaning for the
> Indians of the American Southwest, as well as for peoples elsewhere in the
> world who are poorly adapted to rich, refined foods.
> For the sake of their health, as well as their cultural heritage, the Pima
> and Tohono O'odham tribes of Arizona are being urged to rediscover the desert
> foods their people traditionally consumed until as recently as the 1940's.
> Studies strongly indicate that people who evolved in these arid lands are
> metabolically best suited to the feast-and-famine cycles of their forebears who
> survived on the desert's unpredictable bounty, both wild and cultivated.
> By contrast, the modern North American diet is making them sick. With rich
> food perpetually available, weights in the high 200's and 300's are not
> uncommon among these once-lean people. As many as half the Pima and Tohono O'odham
> (formerly Papago) Indians now develop diabetes by the age of 35, an incidence
> 15 times higher than for Americans as a whole. Yet, before World War II,
> diabetes was rare in this population.
> Similar problems have been found among Australian aborigines, Pacific
> Islanders and other peoples whose survival historically depended on their ability
> to stash away calories in times of plenty to sustain them during droughts and
> crop failures. The Pima and Tohono O'odham Indians seem unusually efficient
> at turning calories to body fat; nutritionists say they gain weight readily on
> the kinds and amounts of foods people of European descent can eat with no
> One tablespoon of buds from the cholla cactus has as much calcium as eight
> ounces of milk. The buds are rich in soluble fiber that helps regulate blood
> Preliminary studies have indicated that a change in the Indian diet back to
> the beans, corn, grains, greens and other low-fat high-fiber plant foods that
> their ancestors depended upon can normalize blood sugar, suppress
> between-meal hunger and probably also foster weight loss.
> These findings may also prove valuable to non-Indians who are susceptible to
> overweight and diabetes, and perhaps also those prone to high blood pressure
> and heart disease. The benefits, which are also found in a few more familiar
> foods like oat bran and okra, stem from primarily two characteristics of
> native foods: their high content of soluble fibers that form edible gels, gums
> and mucilages, and a type of starch called amylose that is digested very
> slowly. The combined effect is to prevent wide swings in blood sugar, slow down
> the digestive process and delay the return of hunger.
> Peaks in blood sugar increase the body's need for insulin and dips in blood
> sugar can trigger feelings of hunger. In the form of diabetes that strikes
> these Indians the overweight body becomes insensitive to insulin weight loss
> increases the body's sensitivity to insulin and slow digestion diminishes the
> need for insulin.
> On the Arizona desert, the desirable food ingredients are found in edible
> parts of such indigenous plants as the mesquite (mes-KEET) tree, cholla
> (CHOY-a) and prickly pear cactus, as well as in tepary (TEP-a-ree) beans, choa
> (CHEE-a) seeds and acorns from live oaks. Tribal elders speak fondly of these
> one-time favorites, which in recent decades have been all but forgotten as hamburg
> ers, fries, soft drinks and other fatty, sugary, overly refined fast and
> packaged foods gained flavor.
> Acorns from live oaks are among the 10 best foods ever tested in terms of
> maintaining stable blood sugar levels. They can be eaten whole or ground into
> Even those Indians who still rely heavily on beans and corn are today
> consuming varieties that have little or none of the nutritive advantages found in
> the staples of their historic diet. For example, the sweet corn familiar to
> Americans contains rapidly digested starches and sugars, which raise sugar
> levels in the blood, while the hominy-type corn of the traditional Indian diet
> has little sugar and mostly starch that is slowly digested.
> Similarly, the pinto beans that the Federal Government now gives to the
> Indians (along with lard, refined wheat flour, sugar, coffee and processed
> cereals) are far more rapidly digested than the tepary beans the Tohono O'odham
> once depended upon. Indeed, their former tribal name is a distorted version of
> the Indian word meaning "the Bean People."
> When Earl Ray, a Pima Indian who lives near Phoenix, switched to a more
> traditional native diet of mesquite meal, tepary beans, cholla buds and chaparral
> tea, he dropped from 239 pounds to less than 150 and brought his severe
> diabetes under control without medication. In a federally financed study of 11
> Indian volunteers predisposed to diabetes, a diet of native food rich in
> fiber and complex carbohydrates kept blood sugar levels on an even keel and
> increased the effectiveness of insulin. When he switched back to a low-fiber
> "convenience- When Earl Ray, a Pima Indian who lives near Phoenix, switched to a
> traditional native diet of mesquite.
> Much Foliage, Few Beans
> In addition to the potential health benefits of traditional desert foods,
> agricultural and economic factors strongly favor their production. Marty
> Eberhardt the director of the Tucson Botanical Gardens, pointed out that the plants
> that produce these foods are naturally adapted to growing under conditions
> of high heat and little water.
> Government food programs replaced the tepary bean, which is rich in fiber,
> protein, iron, and calcium, with the pinto bean, which is far more quickly
> digested and also lower in protein.
> Martha Burgess, education director of Native Seeds/ Search, a seed bank and
> research and education organization here that studies and promotes the use of
> native desert plant foods, said, for example, that "If tepary bean plants
> are given lots of water, they produce tons of foliage and few beans," adding,
> "But if the plants are starved of water, they put their effort into flowers
> and seeds and produce beans that can have as much protein as soybeans."
> Under the direction of Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan, Native Seeds/Search, (the
> acronym stands for Southwestern Endangered Arid-lands Resource Clearing House) is
> studying the value of native desert foods for controlling diabetes among
> Indians and Hispanic Americans of the border region. Dr. Nabhan, an
> ethnobotanist, was recently named a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation
> grant to pursue his studies of the agronomic characteristics and health value of
> desert food plants.
> The group, which is housed on the grounds of the Tucson Botanical Gardens,
> teaches health professionals about native foods and promotes their use through
> school and community programs, seed distribution and cooking instruction.
> "We should be eating the foods that grow here naturally instead of spending
> so much to bring in packaged foods," Ms Eberhardt said. "People find
> themselves shin-deep in mesquite beans they don't know what to do with, and some of
> us feel guilty throwing them into the landfill."
> Although most Arizonans consider mesquite, which occupies 70 million acres
> in the American Southwest, a pesky weed, it is loaded with nutritious pods
> that have a natural caramel-like sweetness. Carolyn J. Niethammer, the author of
> "American Indian Food and Lore" and "The Tumbleweed Gourmet," a cookbook
> published by the University of Arizona Press that features desert plants, said
> that mesquite pods were good sources of calcium, manganese, iron, and zinc.
> The seeds within them are about 40 percent protein, almost double the protein
> content of common legumes. Even during a drought, mesquite is a prolific
> producer of seed-filled pods.
> Tribal elders speak fondly of one-time favorites that are highly nutritious.
> The Value of Mesquite
> Carlos Nagel, who heads Friends of Pronatura, an American affiliate of a
> Mexican conservation agency, remarked that " A healthy stand of mesquite
> produces as much food value through its pods as does a wheat field under
> cultivation, and the mesquite does it without capitalization, pesticides, fertilizer or
> irrigation and with minimal cultivation.
> Mesquite pods were once a treasured part of the Pima and Tohono O'odham
> diet. The sweet pods are a good source of calcium, manganese, iron, and zinc. The
> seeds within are 40 percent protein. Mesquite flour from grinding the whole
> pods produces fructose, which can be processed without insulin, and soluble
> fibers, which are slowly absorbed, without a rapid rise in blood sugar.
> Dr. Nabhan, who has participated in medical studies of mesquite and other
> desert foods, said that despite its sweetness, mesquite flour (made by grinding
> whole pods) "is extremely effective in controlling blood sugar levels" in
> people with diabetes. The sweetness comes from fructose, which the body can
> process without insulin. In addition, soluble fibers, such as galactomannin gum,
> in the seeds and pods slow absorbtion of nutrients, resulting in a flattened
> blood sugar curve, unlike the peaks that follow consumption of wheat flour,
> corn meal and other common staples.
> "The gel-forming fiber allows foods to be slowly digested and absorbed over
> a four- to six-hour period, rather than in one or two hours, which produces a
> rapid rise in blood sugar," Dr. Nabhan explained. He likened this
> "slow-release" New World food to two Old World legumes, guar and carob, that are being
> used in Europe to help control blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.
> Dr. Nabhan, who has scoured the Southwest for remnants of nutritious wild
> and once-cultivated plants, said, "Prior to World War II, mesquite was the
> single most important wild food staple for the native desert peoples and probably
> protected them from developing diabetes. However, such wild foods were
> discouraged by the force of civilization and they dropped out of native
> Mesquite pods and acorns from the Emory Oak, a nondeciduous oak of the arid
> Southwest, are among the 10 best foods ever tested in terms of maintaining
> stable blood sugar levels, Dr. Nabhan said. After falling from the trees, these
> small tasty oval nuts are naturally toasted by the hot desert sun. They can
> be shelled and eaten whole as a snack or ground into meal to make burgers
> and muffins.
> Also rich in health-promoting fiber are the drought-hearty tepary beans, the
> only cultivated beans with heat-resistant enzymes that can withstand the 100
> plus degrees of the Sonoran Desert, Mr. Burgess said. Teparies, rich in
> protein, iron and calcium, once sustained many Indians of the Southwest, as well
> as the famed Tarahumara Indian runners of Mexico. But when post-war
> government welfare programs began giving pintos to the Tohono O'odham and
> Pima Indians, they lost their incentive to grow teparies, which are better for
> them because they are digested more slowly.
> Seeds are rich in high-quality protein. Both greens and seeds have large
> amounts of calcium. Raw greens are high in vitamins A and C and iron. Today Mr.
> Nagel is trying to reverse the trend. In a cooperative program with Mexican
> farmers, he is fostering cultivation of a variety of tepary beans, which are
> already being grown commercially by Pima Indians in Sacaton, Arizona.
> Amaranth, known to some gardeners as pigweed, is another nutritious
> drought-tolerant plant that thrives in the desert, producing both greens and seeds
> that once nourished the Indians. The seeds are rich in high-quality protein,
> and both the seeds and greens are loaded with calcium. Mrs. Burgess said that
> amaranth is but one of many edible weeds commonly discarded by home gardeners,
> who fail to appreciate their nutritive and culinary value.
> Mrs. Burgess is also enthusiastic about protein-rich chia seeds from a
> salvia plant that produces two seed crops a year. When mixed with water, the fiber
> in chia forms a gel that lowers cholesterol and keeps blood sugar stable.
> She tells Native American children that chia is "the Jell-O of the desert."
> Cactus, the signature plants of the desert landscape, round out the
> nutritious native foods diet. Buds from the cholla are rich in calcium: One
> tablespoon has the calcium equivalent of eight ounces of milk. Cholla buds and the
> fruits and pads of the prickly pear are also rich in soluble fibers that help to
> normalize blood sugar.
> Dr. Nabhan said that 20 other native desert foods were now being analyzed
> for their fiber and starch content and he predicted the availability of an
> ever-widening menu of nutritious ingredients.
> Among the main remaining hurdles is the need to develop commercial sources
> of foods like mesquite meal and to convince diabetes-prone Indians that it is
> worth the trouble to prepare and consume their traditional foods. Native
> American interns are assisting in the effort, which is being pursued in school
> lunchrooms and classrooms and at reservation clinics and health fairs.