Posted by on Feb 10, 2012 in Uncategorized

White Ain’t Right

By  :  Linda Tioleu

Scared you, didn’t I?  This is not an article about race.  Instead, it is a mantra for those of us wishing to counteract the diabetes epidemic among Native peoples everywhere.  It refers, not to the insanity and single-mindedness of a race of people, but to the dangers of a type of food:  “white” foods.  White foods, (literally, the color white) are implicated in not only diabetes, but also obesity and heart disease among Indigenous peoples all over the world.

White foods are sometimes referred to as “bad carbs” and come in the form of white sugar, white rice, white pasta, white flour (and anything made from white flour), white potatoes and sweet corn (ok, ok, sweet corn isn’t really “white,” but bear with me).  Unfortunately, we have become widely addicted to these foods and consider them a vital part of our everyday diet.  We feel unsatisfied if we don’t have a heaping pile of potatoes on our plate.  We feel deprived without frybread and have even convinced ourselves that it is a “traditional” food.  We have replaced our most delicious, healthy, and sacred foods with mass-produced junk grown on corporate farms that pollute our food, soil, air, water and our bodies.

Traditionally, most Native American diets consisted of a large amount of protein in the form of lean meats, beans and nuts.  This was supplemented with animal fats, berries, roots, tubers, and seasonal vegetables.  If we return to eating these healthy foods (proteins, fats, complex carbohydrates, and vegetables), we can very quickly reverse the damage that so-called “white foods” have caused.  However, I understand that it is really difficult to give up our favorite foods (give me bacon, or give me death!).  Also, many of us live in areas with little or no access to fresh fruits, veggies and lean meats, let alone traditional foods such as bison and wild turnips, and when we do have access to these foods, they are often prohibitively expensive or in quantities way too small to make a difference in our diets.  That is why I would like to propose some simple ideas to slowly and, hopefully, painlessly, eliminate (or limit) these items from our diets.

WHITE sugar

A friend of mine – a nutritionist who specializes in treating diabetics – once told me that, if refined sugar were “invented” today, we would have to have a prescription to get it.  It is terribly addictive, potentially harmful, and has multiple side effects- but, we love sugar, or perhaps more accurately, we love sweet.  In his book The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan suggests that “sweetness [may be] the prototype for all desire” and that “the word sweetness denote(s) a reality commensurate with human desire:  it [stands] for fulfillment.”  Therefore, you may be relieved to hear that you don’t have to give up “sweet,” but you probably do need to give up white, refined sugar.  One of the worst culprits on the rez, are the premade rolls and Danishes that are sold cheaply and readily in any corner grocery store or gas station.  These foods – although they can hardly be called that – are high in trans saturated and saturated fats, sodium, sugar and carbohydrates.  They have almost no positive nutritional value and should be avoided at all costs. Additionally, we must avoid soda.  Try delicious mint tea with a bit of honey or Navajo Tea with Stevia.  There are also beverages being sold (Lifewater and Crystal Light, for example) that are sweetened with the Stevia plant.  Stevia is a much healthier alternative to Aspartame, which the literature shows to be a potentially toxic poison.  The philosophy of change is simple:  avoid white sugar most of the time, and when you must have some, eat it in sincere moderation.  For example, if you want a blueberry muffin for breakfast, eat half a cup of frozen blueberries with two tablespoons of a slightly buttery, graham cracker topping.  The idea is to try to satisfy your sweet tooth with fresh, frozen, or dried fruit and natural sweeteners rather than with anything with processed white sugar.  Studies have actually shown that 1/2 cup of berries or pitted/stone fruits (peaches, plums, cherries, etc.) may actually lower blood sugar in the long term (John Murtagh, Patient Education, 4th edition – McGraw Hill, Australia).

WHITE rice

My children love the “reservation version” of Spanish Rice.  It’s basically rice, canned tomatoes, and ground meat.  White rice is a staple of the diets of many nations across the globe.  Basically, it consists of a rice grain with the husk, germ, and bran removed…and along with that – most of the nutritive value.  Typical white rice provides little more than carbohydrate, which as most of us know, is converted into sugar in our bodies.  Therefore it is detrimental to the healthy diet of diabetics in particular.  Instead, try brown rice, wild rice, lentils, quinoa, kamut or amaranth.  These grains and legumes taste WAY better, provide incredible nutrition, are widely available, and don’t cause the blood sugar spikes found with white rice.  Besides that, most of them have been used by Natives in North America for thousands of years!

WHITE pasta

I have seen rez kids eating uncooked ramen noodles right out of a package – no lie.  (Did you know that each pack of ramen noodles contains roughly 1600mg of sodium!?  That’s roughly 2/3 of the RDA for non-Natives… but I digress.)  White pasta such as spaghetti, macaroni and ramen are simple carbohydrates (a.k.a. starches) and the American Diabetes Association recommends strictly limiting these items due to the fact that they cause blood sugar spikes.  What are the alternatives?  Well, I’m not going to lie to you:  I despise most whole grain pastas.  However, they are coming out with less cardboard-like versions, and these are by far a better choice than commods.  I have also tried spaghetti squash, and while it is delicious, it does not “fool” one into thinking they are eating heaps of sticky, al dente noodles.  Solution?  If you don’t like whole grain pasta, limit yourself to ½ cup of pasta per day.  All of that said, isn’t it really the sauce that we love?  Well, if that is the case, there are lots of vegetables that serve as yummy vehicles for your favorite sauce.  Zucchini “noodles”, cauliflower “rice”, shredded cabbage all work fairly well.  If you must have pasta, please try Shirataki Noodles.  (Hey, if I can find them in Bismarck, you can find them anywhere.)  These Asian noodles are made from a vegetable and are practically carbohydrate free!

WHITE flour

Where do you get most of the white flour in your diet?  Is it from frybread?  Baked goods?  White bread?  Now, I would not be so bold as to tell you to give up our beloved frybread, which is so universal and omnipresent that it is practically considered a traditional food.  I wouldn’t dream of calling frybread the “food of the oppressor” or tell you about how frybread was not a choice, but a survival technique employed by our ancestors who were given little more than white flour and lard to survive upon.  I would blush if I had to tell you that, according to the USDA, a plate-sized piece of frybread has 700 calories and 27 grams of fat. Ok… let the hate mail begin.  The bear claws at funerals, the doughnuts at board meetings, loaves of white bread, and – yes – the frybread is killing us.  It’s time to quit pulling punches.  There are fantastic alternatives.  Whole grain flours are actually very good and now they sell flours made from nuts like walnut.  However, I propose that we start using traditional ingredients to make the bread that we hold so dear.  The Lakota, for example, made delicious bread from ground “Indian” corn, acorns, cattail rhizomes, and wild turnips.  Not only are these plants all appropriate for diabetics, but they don’t promote the mono cropping and herbicide use that is so prevalent in the production of wheat.

WHITE potatoes

All species of potatoes raise your blood sugar, but few are consumed as widely or prepared as unhealthily as white potatoes.  Research indicates that sweet potatoes and heirloom or “Indigenous” varieties of potatoes – such as those that have been grown by the Inca in Peru for millennia – are actually lower glycemic index and healthier for diabetics than the standard white potatoes.  It is possible to make white potatoes, in small amounts, a healthy part of your diet, but you can’t eat them as French fries, which are high in fat, cholesterol, and sodium.  A better and FREE alternative are the roots and tubers eaten by Native Americans before the white potato was introduced to our people.  Here on the Great Plains, we still consume large amounts of wild turnip (Pediomelum esculentum).  Also available at various times of the year are cattail stalks and rhizomes, bulrush roots, biscuitroot, and a wild potato also known as “groundnut” (Apios americana).  These alternatives are delicious and vastly more nutritious than the pigmentally-challenged white potato.

WHITE corn

As I alluded to earlier, the canned corn that we eat in copious quantities today (and the many products made with this sweet, industrial corn) is more yellow than “white.”  However, these foods are converted to sugar just like the above-listed white carbohydrates.  Yes, fresh corn in its pure form can be a nutritious part of our diets, but it is the canned (and salted) corn and corn syrup (which is almost universally a part of processed foods) is contributing to the destruction of our health.  Now, the mono-cropping, corn-industrial-complex, which is responsible for the prevalence of corn syrup, would have you believe that sweet corn and corn syrup are a diabetic’s saving grace.  Don’t be fooled.  Corn is a traditional and sacred food for most Indigenous groups in North and South America.  Yet the corn that we eat today and the forms in which we consume it – would be almost unrecognizable by our ancestors.  If you have never tried “heirloom” or traditional varieties of corn such as Mandan Bride Corn, Tuscarora Flint Corn, or Seneca Red Stalker Corn – you are missing out.  This is the corn of our ancestors – the corn that sustained our people and inspired songs, ceremonies, art, and family.  I urge you to start growing these varieties in your gardens and return them to the diets of our children and grandchildren.

There is little doubt that WHITE KILLS.  Obviously, I am referring to white foods, but I am also referring to a way of thinking.  The UDSA food pyramid has failed Native peoples.  We need to stop letting the current industrialized food system manipulate us into thinking that they are concerned for our welfare.  They are not.  We have let them poison us and then we have listened as they defend the poison by saying that “These foods can be a healthy part of your diet in moderation.”  Yet they proceed to advertise their poison to us in a way that makes them seem like necessities.  The return to a more traditional diet is not only POSSIBLE, but NECESSARY… and we can start by making small changes.