blog / Indigenous foods for a Healthy Pacific

Thu, 21 January, 2016

Indigenous foods for a Healthy Pacific

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nine Pacific Island nations are among the 10 most obese countries or territories in the world. In this post, we look at the problem of obesity and diet-linked diseases - and how embracing indigenous foods, food preparation and food cultivation practices might help ease the health crisis.



In the bluntest of terms, CNN reported in May of last year that the Pacific is “the fattest region in the world”. That report followed the publication of a paper - by Emmanuela Gakidou, professor of Global Health at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation - which analysed data from countries across the world to identify which regions are most heavily afflicted with obesity.

And in 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) found that the Cook Islands had the highest percentage of obese citizens in the world. Cook Islands were followed by Palau, Nauru, Samoa, Tonga, Niue, and Marshall Islanders; Kiribati and Tuvalu came in at 9th and 10th place. Qatar, in 8th place, was the only non-Pacific nation in the top 10. 

Contributing to the obesity crisis in the Pacific are poor diets, comprised of cheap highly processed imported foods and beverages, and reduced exercise; both of these are contributing factors to major public health concerns such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Diabetes is known to have a genetic basis amongst indigenous Pacific Islanders.

Fijian native and WHO program officer Temo Waqanivalu told CNN that traditional lifestyles required a lot of physical activity; Jonathan Shaw, associate director of Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, Australia, said that increased urbanization and sedentary office cultures have helped to create the startling numbers of obese people in the Pacific.

Most concerning about the figures pertaining to obesity in the Pacific are the rates of obesity amongst children. Emmanuela Gakidou stated that about one in five children are afflicted. The repercussions of this in the long term are dire, and include an even worse diabetes health services burden. Early onset of diabetes in children is already a serious issue.



In 2014, The Telegraph reported that an Oxford study, published in the journal ‘Public Health Nutrition’, had found British colonisers affected changes in the lifestyles and diets of Pacific Islanders that may have laid the foundation for the obesity and lifestyle disease crisis in our region. 

Anthropologists Dr Amy McLennan and Professor Stanley Ulijaszek discovered what Pacific Islanders (and other indigenous peoples) already knew: that many Pacific Islanders lost our traditional food cultivation, preparation and preserving skills as a consequence of being compelled by European settlers to learn western ways of eating and cooking.

In addition, Lead author Dr McLennan said: “Under colonial rule, much changed in how food was sourced, grown and prepared and the social change was swift [...] What happened to the land also changed as colonial agriculture and mining industries expanded. There was an increase in family size meaning food was increasingly imported.”

The researchers, who examined existing academic literature and archive documents about the islands from libraries in Australia, Nauru and the UK, found colonial letters which describe how the settlers taught ‘proper’ food habits as part of the colonial project to ‘civilise’ Pacific Islanders. These apparently included frying fish, rather than eating it raw.

In some places the activities of colonial settlers (e.g. mining, shipping, etc) also changed the geographical environment and soil quality to such a degree that the traditional food gathering activities of many Pacific Islanders - both on land and in the sea - became untenable. 

The researchers also interviewed people on Nauru and the Cook Islands, and themselves lived for a short time there to observe daily life, diets and food rituals. Professor Ulijaszek said that “Interventions that tap into the naturally occurring social networks on the islands provide a new, and we believe more effective, way of tackling obesity.”



In 2014 The Guardian published this great piece, ‘Indigenous diets can help fight modern illnesses, say health experts’, which highlights the link between a move away from organic indigenous diets, and the bevy of dietary and lifestyle related diseases that now plague indigenous peoples - including Pacific Islanders - globally.

It asserts: “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.”

Sarah Somian, a France-based nutritionist, is quoted as saying that the global “rise of the industrial model of agriculture has contributed greatly to people being disconnected from the food on their plates”. Dr Martin Reinhardt, assistant professor of Native American studies at Northern Michigan University, said "We have lost our primary relationship with our world around us.”

This industrial model of agriculture has of course produced another by-product: environmental destruction. In 2010-12, Dr Reinhardt co-ordinated a project called ‘Decolonise Your Diet’, aimed at teaching people the link between food, culture, health and the environment.

The article suggests that turning back to indigenous food systems - gathering and preparing food to maximise the nutrients an environment can provide - could ease the “unprecedented levels” of chronic non-communicable diseases that health agencies and communities are fighting against today - as well as eliminate many forms of environmental destruction. 

This FAO-supported study on indigenous food systems, nutrition, and health co-authored by Harriet Kuhnlein (founding director of the Centre of Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment at Canada’s McGill University) asserts that "Indigenous peoples' food systems contain treasures of knowledge from long-evolved cultures and patterns of living in local ecosystems”.

However, there are serious environmental and economic challenges now stifling the ability of indigenous populations globally to cultivate indigenous food systems, make a living off those systems, and afford these vital foods to consume themselves. In upcoming posts, we will explore those environmental, climate-induced and economic challenges. 



Despite the challenges Pacific Islanders face, there are choices we can make as individuals everyday to nurture our own bodies and the wellbeing of our families. Here is one website aiming to advise Pacific Islanders on healthy eating and lifestyle choices!  ‘The Healthy Islander’ has information on assessing the current health of your life, nutritional information, guiding principles for a healthy lifestyle, how to save money with a healthy lifestyle, and more. Check it out here.


WORDS by Pauline Vetuna.

Image Credit: 

'Colocasia esculenta' by David Monniaux.


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