Traditional food consumed by rural communities contain nutrients that are lacking in high- and middle-income countries

Unprecedented levels of chronic non-communicable diseases are prompting calls to revert to the diets of our ancestors to regain lost nutrients.

It is believed that such a shift would help to improve society's relationship with the Earth and restore human and environmental health.

"The rise of the industrial model of agriculture has contributed greatly to people being disconnected from the food on their plates," says Sarah Somian, a France-based nutritionist.

Many traditional and non-processed foods consumed by rural communities, such as millet and caribou, are nutrient-dense and offer healthy fatty acids, micronutrients and cleansing properties widely lacking in diets popular in high- and middle-income countries, say experts.

Indigenous diets worldwide – from forest foods such as roots and tubers in regions of eastern India to coldwater fish, caribou and seals in northern Canada – are varied, suited to local environments, and can counter malnutrition and disease.

"For many tribal and indigenous peoples, their food systems are complex, self-sufficient and deliver a very broad-based, nutritionally diverse diet," says Jo Woodman, a senior researcher and campaigner at Survival International, a UK-based indigenous advocacy organisation.

But the disruption of traditional lifestyles due to environmental degradation, and the introduction of processed foods, refined fats and oils, and simple carbohydrates, contributes to worsening health in indigenous populations, and a decline in the production of nutrient-rich foodstuffs that could benefit all communities.

"Traditional food systems need to be documented so that policymakers know what is at stake by ruining an ecosystem, not only for the indigenous peoples living there, but for everyone," Harriet Kuhnlein, founding director of the Centre of Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment at McGill University, Canada.

Since the early 1960s, economic growth, urbanisation and a global population increase to more than 7 billion have multiplied the consumption of animal-sourced foods – including meat, eggs and dairy products – which comprised 13% of the energy in the world's diet in 2013, according to the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, Kenya. Farm-raised livestock consumes up to a third of the world's grains, the institute notes.

Agricultural expansion, some of it to cultivate more grains, accounts for 80% of the world's deforestation, says the UN Environmental Programme.

With the global population expected to rise to some 9 billion by 2050, 50% more food must be produced to feed these people, depending on whether there is a healthy ecosystem. "When environments are destroyed or contaminated, this affects the food they can provide," Kuhnlein says.

Indigenous food systems Рgathering and preparing food to maximise the nutrients an environment can provide Рrange from nomadic hunter-gatherers such as the Ach̩ in eastern Paraguay, the Massai pastoralists in northern Kenya, and herding and fishing groups including the Inuit in northern Canada, to the Saami of Scandinavia and the millet-farming Kondh agriculturalists in eastern India.

But the trait these groups share is a keen knowledge of how to eat nutritiously without damaging the ecosystem. "Indigenous peoples' food systems contain treasures of knowledge from long-evolved cultures and patterns of living in local ecosystems," says an FAO-supported study on indigenous food systems, nutrition, and health co-authored by Kuhnlein in 2009.

In recent years, grains such as quinoa, fonio and millet – long harvested by indigenous and rural communities in developing countries but increasingly overlooked by a younger, richer generation that prefers imported foods – have instead grown in popularity in developed countries.

Research, marketing and donor-funded financing have helped raise awareness of the ability of these high-protein grains to reduce cholesterol, provide micronutrients and lower the risk of diabetes. "Because of the many health benefits of these forgotten, or until [recently] unknown foods, valuing the wisdom of indigenous cultures [and] earlier generations is vital for reducing disease and inflammation," Somian says.

Responses to "Indigenous diets can help fight modern illnesses, say health experts (Video)"

  1. Thanks for this great article. I linked to it from my blog - Enjoy!

  2. What are the nuts in the basket?...

  3. The native Americans used many wild greens,seeds,herbs and tubers in their diet...amoung the ones i have learned to identify is pigweed,polk salad,sumac, and many more right here on just 5 acres... I have learned to cook them and dry or freeze some for winter use especially the sumac which makes a delicious hot or cold tea and tastes like lemonaide..

  4. Narragansett Indian Acorn Bread is to Die For , yummmm

  5. Cocofawn says:

    The only feed of a glucose/sugar in the north American Indians was just from fruit? A body does need some glucose/sugar in the diet so how much was/is suppose to be consumed and from what source.?

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