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Want to Eat Less, Weigh Less? Reclaim Your ‘Food Roots’!

When Native American sculptress Roxanne Swentzell and thirteen other members of the Santa Clara Pueblo—a Native American tribe in New Mexico—returned to the indigenous foods their ancestors ate, they restored their health. Here’s how your health, too, can flourish with a return to your ‘food roots.’

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— By Deborah Kesten, VIP Contributor at Thrive Global

Sculpture artist Roxanne Swentzell—whose carvings are featured in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. and in her Tower Gallery in Pojoaque, New Mexico, among other venues—wanted to know if returning to her ancestral diet would help her and her Native American family and friends heal from a multitude of health problems. A descendant of the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico, Swentzell decided to find out by launching a study to see if consuming the original foods of her people would turn the tide of the chronic conditions that threatened both her health and many of her people. 

Swentzell’s journey back to her ancestral diet began in 2012 when she and her family and friends realized they were all facing a multitude of health problems. Swentzell was overweight and had high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and other diet-related health problems; her eight-year-old grandson was diagnosed with prediabetes; her son was obese with heart disease; and other ancestors had diabetes and were battling obesity, autoimmune diseases, chronic fatigue, and depression. Porter, Swentzell’s son, wondered if they would be healthier if they ate the way their ancestors did instead of eating today’s standard American diet (SAD) of fast, processed, denatured food.1-3

At the start of the study, Swentzell and thirteen members of the Santa Clara Pueblo group were weighed by a physician, and they had their blood tested for cholesterol, blood sugar levels and other biomarkers.  

Return to Health

Twelve weeks after eating their origins diet, all fourteen members of the Santa Clara Pueblo group had their blood tested again. The health status of all improved . . . a lot. Writes Grand Canyon Trust’s Native American Program Manager Deon Ben about Swentzell’s new health status: “After years of struggling with what her doctor had diagnosed as genetic high blood pressure . . . after just three months of eating Native foods, her condition was gone.”3 And it gets better. Swentzell had lost fifteen pounds, and her cholesterol levels had normalized too. All other participants had similar successes: Her son lost fifty pounds during this time (he has since attained and maintained a weight loss of ninety pounds). 

Overall, the group experienced an average weight loss of thirty-five to forty pounds; plus they all had lower cholesterol, triglyceride, blood sugar, and LDL (“bad” cholesterol) levels. They also felt healthier and had more energy.1-3,4 In other words, all lost weight, and they reported clearer thinking, more energy, and normalized biomarkers. All these healing mind-body benefits happened because Swentzell and her fellow ancestors returned to their food roots—to the foods their ancestors ate for centuries—to a dietary lifestyle they reclaimed as their own. 

Meet Inverse Eating

 “Inverse eating” is how I describe the way of eating that brought weight loss, health, and healing to Swentzell, her family, and tribe members. This is what I mean by “inverse eating”: The Native “origins diet” that brought health and healing consisted of mostly plant-based foods—fresh, whole fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds, with small servings of chemical-free animal-based foods (dairy, fish, fowl, meat). This is the “inverse” of the standard American diet (SAD), which is mostly animal foods, with ketchup, French fries, and white flour as the main plant-based foods.

As with Swentzell’s ancestral diet, the traditional diets of Mediterranean, Asian, South American, African, or Indiancultures all have one way of eating in common: meals are mostly plant-based foods with lesser amounts of animal-based foods. In other words, the diets of most cultures worldwide are—and have been for thousands of years—mostly plant-based foods as the centerpiece of the meal, and animal-based foods as a condiment or side dish. 

In other words, for millennia, inverse eating has reigned as humankind’s go-to way of eating for weight loss, health and healing. Here’s a sampling of inverse-eating wisdom in action worldwide: 

  • The typical Mediterranean diet—from Greece, let’s say—emphasizes fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes, with low to moderate intake of dairy foods, poultry, and fish. Small portions of red meat are eaten only occasionally, and much of the dietary fat and protein in this diet comes from fresh-pressed olive oil, feta cheese, and yogurt. 
  • The core of the Mexican diet is rice, beans, and corn, supplemented with meat, poultry, or fish. 
  • A typical meal in the Middle East is couscous, made with bulgur (cracked wheat) and bits and pieces of lamb.
  • Staples of the Japanese diet are rice and tofu (made from soybeans), often supplemented with fresh fish. 
  • For people throughout India, whole-wheat chapati bread and lentils or legumes, greens, and other vegetables are staples. Because many Indians are Hindu and believe in ahimsa—causing no harm to animals—many are lactovegetarians who supplement their plant-based diet with dairy foods, especially yogurt and milk. 

In support of inverse eating, National Geographic Fellow and author Dan Buettner identified regions called Blue Zones—areas across the globe with high concentrations of individuals who live to be over one hundred years old and who have low rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. What each Blue Zone diet has in common is that as much as 95 percent of daily food intake comes from vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes, while meat, dairy, sugary foods and beverages, and processed foods are avoided. (Note: Blue Zone individuals also have high levels of physical activity, low stress levels, strong social connections, and a sense of purpose.)

The Healing Power of Inverse Eating 

What is it about the inverse way of eating that promotes weight loss, health, and healing? The answer lies in a scientific stew of jargon that was unfamiliar to most of us only decades ago. For instance, words such as phytochemicals (natural “pharmacies” in plant-based food) and antioxidants (protective substances that keep cells healthy) now spice our food talk. And more and more, scientists are verifying the plethora of health benefits and protective power inherent in phytochemicals and antioxidants that are abundant in plant foods; not so with animal-based food, which may also contain hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides and herbicides from feed. 

David Katz, MD, P.H, Director of Yale University Prevention Research Center, and one of the top nutrition researchers in the US—if not the world—offers these insights into the healing nutrients of a mainly plant-based, fresh, whole-food, inverse-eating diet: “Good diets—all variations on the theme of wholesome foods, mostly plants, in sensible balanced combinations—are good in many ways. . . . They are low in added sugar, refined carbohydrates, and saturated fat. They are rich in fiber, many minerals, and vitamins—while low in sodium.”5 

The bottom line: Naturally occurring substances in plant-based foods are potentially powerful disease fighters. In the twenty-first century, we now know that along with consuming the nutrient-dense vitamins and minerals in plant-based food, consuming foods rich in fiber, phytochemicals, and antioxidants each day holds the potential to turn your refrigerator into the medicine cabinet of the future. 

The Takeaway: Reclaim Your ‘Food Roots’ to Eat Less, Weigh Less

FreshWholeInverse. These are the three what-to-eat guidelines of the science-backed Whole Person Integrative Eating (WPIE) program that leads to eating less and weighing less.6-8 In other words, as with Swentzell and her “ancestral family,” the WPIE dietary lifestyle verifies that returning to your food roots leads to weight loss and well-being. The takeaway: Inverse eating has been the perennial dietary wisdom not only cultures throughout the world that are healthier and thinner. The more a population deviates from its inverse-eating food origins, the more it is likely to be overweight and obese. 

Says Roxanne Swentzell, who reclaimed her health after returning to her Native American ‘food roots’ during what she now calls “The Pueblo Food Experience”: “This isn’t just another diet. It’s more about health within a cultural context [italics mine] with weight being only one piece of it . . . it’s about our connection to who we were [italics mine] .1 

References:

  1. Roxanne Swentzell and Patricia M. Perea, eds., The Pueblo Food Experience Cookbook: Whole Food of Our Ancestors (New Mexico: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2016). 
  2. Inez Russell Gomez, “Artist Reclaims Native Culture with Ancestral Foods,” The New Mexican, accessed August 30, 2018, http://www.santafenewmexican.com/news /community/artist-reclaims-native-culture-with-ancestral-foods/article_21a8e264 -1c29-5e25-b0f4-e384a643a2af.html. 
  3. DeonBen,“FoodasMedicine:TheHealingPowerofNativefoods,”GrandCanyonTrust, December 9, 2016, https://www.grandcanyontrust.org/blog/food-medicine-healing-power-native-foods.
  4. D. McLaughlin, “The Pueblo Food Experience,” Vimeo.com, December 29, 2013. 
  5. David Katz, “Sat-Fat Bait and Switch,” HuffingtonPost.com, May 5, 2017, https://www .huffingtonpost.com/entry/sat-fat-bait-switch_us_5901f184e4b00acb75f1852as.
  6. Deborah Kesten and Larry Scherwitz, “Whole Person Integrative Eating: A Program for Treating Overeating, Overweight, and Obesity,” Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal 14, no. 5 (October/November 2015): 42–50. 
  7. Larry Scherwitz and Deborah Kesten, “Seven Eating Styles Linked to Overeating, Overweight, and Obesity,” Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing 1, no. 5 (2005): 342–59. 
  8. Deborah Kesten and Larry Scherwitz, Whole Person Integrative Eating: A Breakthrough Dietary Lifestyle to Treat the Root Causes of Overeating, Overweight, and Obesity (Amherst, MA: White River Press, 2020).
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