Today, most Native Americans have the same diet that the majority of non-Native Americans do. That can be good and bad. The good news is that fruits and vegetables that are not indigenous to the Americas are now available to Native people, but the bad news is that in losing the Native American diet we are getting farther away from a healthy lifestyle that sustained indigenous Americans for thousands of years. Recognizing this, many tribes have called for their members to make a renewed commitment to the Native American Diet.
Historically, Native people were constantly active. As hunters, gatherers, and subsistence farmers, their lives depended on long hours of strenuous activity. Different tribes depended on completely different diets, which were in turn dependent on their environment. For example, recent studies have found that Natives living in cold, Northern climates such as Alaska regularly ate foods that are very high in saturated fat. This was healthy for them in part because of their constant exercise and in part due to genetic adaptation, but today these same communities are seeing increased rates of diabetes since turning to processed foods.
What this goes to show is that a “Native American Diet” on its own does not exist: Native Americans make up more than 500 tribes, and historically their diets were very much a reflection of their diverse surroundings. A traditional Inupiaq diet may include whale and seal (as much as 65% saturated fat), while a traditional Cherokee diet may include deer (with far fewer calories than beef). If you’re Native American, keeping to a Native American diet means researching the foods that were traditionally enjoyed by your particular tribe.
And if you’re not, you may want to define “Native American Diet” to mean making a point of eating foods that are indigenous to the Americas as a whole. You may also try living a “clean” lifestyle: no refined or overly processed foods, no deep-fat frying, no cigarettes, drinking alcohol moderately, and exercising daily. By reducing your intake of processed foods, exercising twenty minutes a day for three days a week, and taking in more fruits and vegetables, you’ll reduce your risk of developing diabetes and keep your energy levels high.
What Foods are Indigenous to the Americas?
The first step to eating indigenously is learning which foods are actually indigenous to the Americas. Here’s a list to get you started:
- Corn: Historically, natural corn of all colors served as a diet staple, a drink, and the main ingredient in Native recipes such as sweet corn soup, cornbread, and popcorn. Corn contains phytochemicals, B vitamins, vitamins C and K, and fiber. According to one study, cryptoxanthin (one of corn’s phytochemicals) offered a 27% reduction in the risk of lung cancer.
- Berries: Blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries grow wild in many regions of the United States, offering fiber, vitamins, and minerals that can lower the risk of stroke and heart disease. Blackberries and raspberries are best for fiber, while one cup (144 g) of strawberries exceeds your daily recommended amount of vitamin C. All four varieties have some phenolic acid phytochemicals, which serve as antioxidants, and may lower the risk of cancer. Traditionally, berries appeared in Native recipes for soups, teas, and puddings.
- Pumpkin: Historically, pumpkins were commonly served roasted on their own, or in recipes for soup and stews. Pumpkins offer plenty of fiber and potassium, and can meet more than 300% of your daily recommended amount of vitamin A. According to the American Dietetic Association, the antioxidant beta-carotene (found in pumpkins) can slow aging and reduce symptoms of type-2 diabetes.
- Mushrooms: Mushrooms aren’t known for having many nutrients, but there’s still plenty of value in them. The antioxidants in mushrooms play a role in reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer, and the glucans found in white button mushrooms can help to lower cholesterol. Grilled Portobello mushrooms are a good place to start if you’re looking to reduce your meat intake, and you can use any mushroom variety in soups, spreads, and sauces.
- Beans: Black, red, and pinto beans are rich in fiber, potassium, folic acid, B vitamins, and protein. They don’t have any cholesterol, and can be enjoyed in salads, chilies, burritos, soups, and tacos.
How Beneficial is the Native American Diet?
Because the Native American Diet is so hard to define, and the interest in it is so new, there are no large-scale studies behind it. What we have is anecdotal, but it’s certainly encouraging.
Take Dr. Martin Reinhardt. He started the Decolonizing Diet Project at Northern Michigan University, encouraging participants to spend an entire year eating only foods that would have been available before the 17th century. As a participant himself, Dr. Reinhardt lost almost 30 pounds. His cholesterol and triglycerides went down to where they need to be, and his health generally improved.
Another example is Roxanne Swetzell of Santa Clara Pueblo. She and a team researched traditional foods such as squash, beans, and chilies. They ate only these foods for three months, and all reported weight loss and improved cholesterol and blood-sugar levels.
One study, carried out by Virginia Tech and the US Department of Agriculture, analyzed the nutritional information of ten wild food plants native to three reservations in North Dakota. These plants, including chokecherries, beaked hazelnuts, plains prickly pear, singing nettles, raspberries, wild plums, rose hips, lamb’s-quarters, cattail broad leaf shoots, and prairie turnips, were found to be capable of preventing disease in and improving nutrition of regional tribal members.
Prickly pears, hazelnuts, and prairie turnips were found to have high levels of calcium and magnesium, but the most impressive wild plant found in the region was lamb’s-quarters. A single serving of steamed lamb’s-quarters was found to have more than 40 percent of the vitamin B6, 60 percent of the calcium, 60 percent of the thiamin, and 70 percent of the magnesium that make up your daily recommended amounts. While it’s possible to work through these recommendations using a daily multivitamin, by incorporating indigenous superfoods you are not only taking in nutrients but replacing potentially unhealthy alternate snack foods and helping to preserve the tradition of healthy foods in this part of the world.
It’s still a great idea to join a shared agriculture community (known as a CSA group) or visit a local farmer’s market, but additionally you may want to consider adding wild plants to your diet. For example, compare dandelions to spinach. Dandelions have twice as much calcium, three times more vitamin A, five times more vitamin K and vitamin E, and eight times more antioxidants than spinach has.
If you’re looking into the Native American Diet, chances are you’ve already spent some time committing yourself to a healthier lifestyle overall. If that’s the case, why not go even farther? Now that you’ve replaced processed potato chips with spinach, consider making the jump from spinach to dandelions. An all-wild diet is too extreme for most people (you’d have to devote a lot of time to making sure you find, gather, and meet all your needs), there’s no reason not to choose indigenous whenever you can.
How Can I Get Started?
The Native American Diet starts the way any smart diet does: with a simple, healthy diet. The first part is always the hardest: giving up the things that are bad for you. That means letting go of or limiting refined and overly processed foods, giving up smoking, limiting your alcohol intake, and lowering the amount of sugar you take in every day. (Giving up processed foods will help tremendously with that, as you’d be surprised how much sugar is packed into processed foods that aren’t even sweet).
The next step is to focus. In this case, that means taking a healthy diet, and adding in foods from traditional Native diets whenever possible. Native people historically ate foods that were close to wherever they lived, shaping their lives to hunt, gather, and farm these naturally nutrient-rich foods. By incorporating these foods, you may lower your risk of heart disease and weight gain.
If you’re looking for more structure, start with this list of foods that were historically a part of Native American diets:
- Vegetables: pumpkin, squash, yams, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers.
- Fruits: specifically, berries. (Blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, and strawberries).
- Nuts: peanuts, cashews, pine nuts, acorns, and hickory nuts.
- Seeds: pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds.
- Wild game: deer, turkey, goose, bison, fish, rabbit, and duck
- Other: Beans, greens, eggs, honey, wild rice, mesquite.
The foods that make up the Native American Diet are full of antioxidants, protein, carotenoids, and omega-3 fatty acids. This diet is great for boosting the immune system and improving heart health, but it also does something important outside of your own experience.
Eating indigenously protects the environment, providing an alternative to the great distances much foreign produce travels to American grocery stores. As you improve your own health and protect yourself from disease in the long-term, you’re also protecting the memory of America’s first, healthiest, foods.
American Indian Health and Diet Project. In: Change Your Diet. Web.ku.edu. Retrieved 2015 Dec 18.
Barclay, E. Native Americans Have Superfoods Right Under Their Feet. In: The Salt. Npr.org. 2014 Jun 2. Retrieved 2015 Dec 18.
Collins, D. Project Decolonization: How the Native American Diet Can Reverse Heart Disease. Undergroundhealthreporter.com. Retrieved 2015 Dec 18.
Fries, W. 5 Super-Healthy Native American Foods. In: Food & Recipes. Webmd.com. 2006 Oct 6. Retrieved 2015 Dec 18.
Taylor, K. Eating Indigenously Changes Diets and Lives of Native Americans. In: Culture. America.aljazeera.com. 2013 Oct 24. Retrieved 2015 Dec 18.