Got Seaweed? – Natural Native Foods Help Fight Diabetes

So what is diabetes? “Diabetes is a metabolic disorder in which the body does not produce enough insulin, known as Type 1 diabetes, or the body cannot respond normally to the insulin that is made, Type 2 diabetes.”  In a healthy, properly working body, we eat our food, the food is digested, and blood sugar (glucose) enters our system and is monitored by the pancreas. When there is too much glucose in our cells, insulin is produced by our bodies to help diffuse glucose levels. The amount of blood glucose levels is vital, too little can inhibit performance and too much can cause damage to major organs. In general, Type 1 diabetes is seen in younger populations whereas Type 2 diabetes is strongly associated with childhood and adult-onset obesity. The NASM states that “people who develop diabetes before the age of 30 are 20 times more likely to die by age 40 than those who do not have diabetes.”

The common question that arises is, what can be done? The common answer: eat healthier and exercise more often. Although eating healthy and exercising frequently seems to be common knowledge starting from about the time we enter kindergarten what does it really mean? What exactly should we be eating, and how should we be exercising?

Exercise is something that is beneficial to everybody – both physically and mentally. In the case of chronic diseases such as diabetes and obesity, exercise is essential. For people with Type 1 diabetes exercise increases the rate at which cells use glucose. For those with Type 2 diabetes, often associated with obesity, exercise enhances the uptake of circulating glucose. Exercise also improves tissue sensitivity, glucose tolerance, and decreases insulin requirements. Therefore the more weight we lose the more stable our sugar levels become. The underlying concept of all weight loss is that calories expended must be greater that calories consumed; something that is easy to understand yet very hard to practice. People who are obese or suffer from diabetes should focus their training on energy expenditure, balance, and proprioceptive training. Proprioception focuses on putting your body in unstable positions rather than focusing on lifting heavy weights. For example rather than doing a squat, try doing a squat on a bosu ball. The benefit of proprioception is that muscles are recruited to stabilize which is a very realistic and do-able exercise.

In addition to proprioception it is important to focus on sustained, long term, aerobic endurance activities such as walking a few miles or swimming. Some people might also be surprised to hear that weight training or resistance training is a great way to exercise. This does not mean loading up the bench press machine and maxing out but rather using light weights or resistance bands to do high repetition movements. Resistance training actually burns fat longer post-workout than cardio and builds more lean muscle mass, which results in a higher metabolic rate. Another important exercise is self-myofascial release, or foam rolling. This is a great start to flexibility training. With any exercise routine it is important to start slow, you never want to perform anything above your capabilities that could cause an injury. The idea is to slowly build up a program that gradually brings about a positive lifestyle change.

The “Diet” section of any bookstore will provide you with thousands of answers to the questions facing healthy eating, most of which are designed to prompt the latest diet craze and generate money. My answer to this question is this: our bodies were developed to digest the plants and animals that surround us. Therefore we are healthiest when we eat as natural as possible. I recently read some advice on a fitness blog that sums up what I consider the healthiest way to eat.

Eat real, unprocessed food, as close to nature as possible, and listen to your body. Pretend the modern supermarket doesn’t exist. Chose foods that could be grown, hunted, or gathered – limit packaged and processed foods and support local farms when possible! Eat animals, marine life, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fruits. Eat plenty of healthy fats from fish, coconut, avocado, and oils (Fiske June 27, 2012).

Many people would call this an extreme or Paleo diet, but I don’t believe in titles or extreme limitations. Should you spend the vast majority of your time eating as healthy as possible, yes. However I also believe it is ok to endulge every once in a while. Some would argue that it is good to spike your glycemic index from time to time.  I say the fact of the matter is that I am going to eat a cheeseburger and fries on occasion.

With that said, we are no longer Cavemen and Cavewomen. We live in a very technologically advanced society where cheap, fast food, and soda rules all.  The biggest and most important challenge facing dieters is to resist foods and drinks that we think taste good and rather focus on what makes our bodies feel good and work the best.

A recent article about the Potawot Health Village in Arcata, titled Tribal Clinic uses Native Foods to Fight Diabetes discusses practical ways to do just that, combat diabetes through foods such as acorns, salmon, and seaweed. The underlying concept of the clinic is that traditional native foods can be used as medicine. They say there is a parallel between the loss of ancestral native foods and the increase in diabetes, specifically in native communities. “From 1994 to 2004, there was a 68 percent increase in diabetes among native youth ages 15 to 19 across the country and a doubling of the diabetes rate among those 35 and younger.”

The Potawot Health Village opened in 2002 to serve Yurok, Tolowa, Wiyot, Hupa, and Karuk Indians. The centerpiece of the village is a “wellness garden” that is home to native medicinal plants. 20 acres of wetlands circle the outer region of the facility where native grasses grow and are used for basket weaving. Additionally a 3-acre organic garden provides produce for the local farmers market and native cooking demonstrations. The village is a true representation of the connection between food, community, and the environment. Paula Allen who is the clinic’s traditional resource specialist says that one of the main goals of the clinic is to re-establish the traditional ways we once thought about food explaining that cultural traditions are a route to healing. “We were forcibly disconnected from our food, just as we were with our language and our culture. People who are connected to community are more likely to take care of themselves” (Brown April 12, 2012). American Indians have endured devastating disease and tremendous stress due to the displacement of children into boarding schools and the abandonment of cultural practices. All of these stressors are huge contributors to higher blood sugar levels within native populations: diabetes.

One of the biggest contributing factors to chronic health diseases is poverty. When we think about the accessibility of foods in terms of proximity and cost, McDonalds, Taco Bell, and other fast food companies have control of the vast majority of the population. Why spend more money on veggies and fresh meat that you are going to have to cook when you could spend less and have your food immediately. This is a huge contributing factor to laziness and a sedentary life style. We must reconnect with our native roots in terms of enjoying food in every aspect: growing, hunting, enjoying, and sharing this process with a community of loved ones. Paula Allen points out that “making healthier decisions, including growing fruits and vegetables in the backyard, is an embrace of both culture and wellness. Food comes from people and places, we need to be eating food that represents our values” (Brown April 12, 2012).

Our elders can remember a time when they ate salmon, eel, seaweed, mussels, and acorns multiple times a day. Today because of things like dams, depleted salmon numbers, and timber harvesting, it is continually more difficult to sustain traditional native practices. We must remember that government rations of white flour, fatty meats, and sugar should never replace grass fed beef, fresh fish, and fruits and vegetables. Tribes all over the nation are joining the fight to combat obesity and diabetes through a native food movement. In Minnesota a group from the White Earth Land Recovery Project is delivering buffalo meat, hominy, and wild rice to isolated Ojibwe elders. The confederate tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon are seeking to protect and restore “first foods” including salmon, deer, and huckleberries. Lets honor our ancestors and our cultural heritage by participating in this fight. My question to you – got seaweed?


~By Scott Anderton




BROWN, PL. (April 12, 2012). Tribal Clinic Uses Native Foods to Fight Diabetes. California Watch. Accessed: May 6, 2012.

FISKE, R. (June 27, 2012). Nutrition in 100 Words. Madrona Nutrition and Fitness: Guide to Wellness through Holistic Diet and Lifestyle. Accessed: June 29, 2012.


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