Thursday, May 15, 2008

Lessons From the Pima Indians

At 38% and climbing in 2006, the Pima indians (Akimel O'odham) of Arizona have the highest rate of diabetes of any population in the world. They also have staggering rates of obesity (~70%) and hypertension.

Things were very different for them before 1539, when the Spanish first made contact. They lived on an agricultural diet of beans, corn and squash, with wild fish, game meat and plants. As with most native people, they were thin and healthy while on their traditional diet.

In 1859, the Pima were restricted to a small fraction of their original land along the Gila river, the Pima Reservation. In 1866, settlers began arriving in the region and diverting the Gila river upstream of the reservation for their own agriculture. In 1869, the river went dry for the first time. 1886 was the last year any water flowed to the Pima Reservation in the Gila river.

The Pima had no way to obtain water, and no way to grow crops. Their once productive subsistence economy ground to a halt. Famine ensued for 40 desperate years. The Pima cut down their extensive mesquite forests to sell for food and water. Eventually, after public outcry, uncle Sam stepped in.

The government provided the Pima with subsidized "food": white flour, sugar, partially hydrogenated lard, and canned goods. They promptly became diabetic and overweight, and have remained that way ever since.

The Pima are poster children for mainstream nutrition researchers in the US for several reasons. First of all, their pre-contact diet was probably fairly low in fat, and researchers love to point out that they now eat more fat (comparable to the average American diet). Another reason is that there's another group of Pima in Mexico who still live on a relatively traditional diet and are much healthier. They are genetically very similar, supporting the idea that it's the lifestyle of the American Pima that's causing their problems. The third reason is that the Mexican Pima exercise more than the Arizona Pima and eat a bit less.

I of course agree with the conclusion that their lifestyle is behind their problems; that's pretty obvious. I think most Pima know it too. If they got their water back, maybe things would be different for them.

However, the focus on macronutrients sometimes obscures the fact that the modern Pima diet is pure crap. It's mostly processed food with a low nutrient density. It also contains the two biggest destroyers of indigenous health: white flour and sugar. There are numerous examples of cultures going from a high-fat diet to a lower-fat "reservation food" diet and suffering the same fate: the Inuit of Alaska, the Maasai and Samburu of Kenya, tribes in the Pacific Northwestern US and Canada, certain Aboriginal groups, and more. What do they all have in common? White flour, sugar and other processed food.

The exercise thing is somewhat questionable as well. True, Mexican Pima exercise 2.5 times more than Arizona Pima, but the Arizona Pima still exercise much more than the average American! Women clock in at 3.1 hours a week, while men come in at a whopping 12.1 hours a week! I am a bike commuter and weight lifter, and even I don't exercise that much. So forgive me if I'm a little skeptical of the idea that they aren't exercising enough to keep the weight off. 

The history of the Pima is a heart-wrenching story that has been repeated hundreds, perhaps thousands of times all over the world. Europeans bring in white flour, sugar and other processed food, it destroys a native populations' health, and then researchers either act like they don't understand why it happened, or give unsatisfying explanations for it.

The Pima are canaries in the coal mine, and we can learn a lot from them. Their health problems resemble those of other poor Americans (and wealthier ones also, to a lesser extent). This is because they are both eating similar types of things. The problem is creeping into society at large, however, as we rely more and more on processed wheat, corn, soy and sugar, and less on wholesome food. Obesity in the US has doubled in the past 30 years, and childhood obesity has tripled. Diabetes is following suit. Life expectancy has begun to diminish in some (poor) parts of the country. Meanwhile, our diet is looking increasingly like Pima reservation food. It's time to learn a lesson from their tragedy.

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